Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK

The song “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols gives us some alternative accounts of a couple of the main arguments that are made in Allegra McLeod’s article “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”. On the one hand, parts of the song’s lyrics are in line with certain arguments of the article, but on the other hand it also formulates some reservations about how McLeod envisions an abolitionist democracy.

McLeod defines the concept of abolition as abolishing the kind of society that could have institutions or practices such as prisons, police, or slavery. Abolition does not mean to eliminate anything, but to create a new kind of society. Justice in the context of abolition means taking effort to prevent violence, to intervene in violence, to achieve reparations, and to reconstruct the conditions that people live in. To achieve this, we need to expose the illegitimacy of many acts that have been criminalised and identify meaningful forms of accountability and prevention with which we can respond to violence and wrongdoing. While doing so, we can work to the abolishment of the current punitive institutions. The reconstruction of living conditions can be done by addressing the economic practices that perpetrate violent theft on a daily basis. We can prevent the unequal distribution of recourses and chances in life by democratising political and economic institutions. The abolitionist view of justice is, all in all, holistic: it involves an exhaustive alteration of our social, economic, and political lives. Achieving an abolitionist democracy means to dismantle current institutions of justice and working towards new ways of relating to each other and living together.[15]  

What the McLeod describes as ‘abolitionist democracy’ could also be seen as a form of anarchy, because in an abolitionist democracy there will be less of a central governing or government body that decides on the fate of ‘wrongdoers’. What the advocate of an abolitionist democracy essentially seems to want is an equitable and just society, and the way they want to achieve this is through what some will see as a form of anarchy. This corresponds with what seems to be an important message of the Sex Pistols’ song, for example in the lines, “How many ways to get what you want […]; I use anarchy”.[16]

What we can learn from the song is that sometimes it makes no sense to explain someone’s behaviour from their past, their upbringing or their context and place in society. The line at the end of the song, “I get pissed, destroy” tells us that people will still get drunk or have bad days, even in an equitable society and abolitionist democracy.[17] Not everyone will always be ready to deal in a constructive way with potentially violent situations, and this cannot always be explained from societal structures that individuals are situated in. Social behaviour cannot always be explained from the ‘habitus’, or from structuralist and situationist approaches. This is also probably why, as McLeod admits, not all interpersonal harm can be prevented in a system of abolitionist democracy, just like it cannot be prevented in the punitive systems we now live in.[18] As the song goes “Your future dream is a shopping scheme”, it reminds us of the possibility that some objectives in the holistic theory of abolitionist democrats may be unavailable.[19]

The song all in all seems to agree with abolitionist democracy as described by McLeod in the way that it suggests a change in the systems that we live in. The song also teaches us that not all social behaviour is necessarily subject to societal structures, and thus that some ambitions of abolitionist democracy might be unfeasible, at least for now.

Doortje Kok

[15] Allegra McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”, Harvard Law Review 132 (2019), pp. 1613-1649, pp. 1615-1619.
[16] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”, album: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977).
[17] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”.
[18] McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”, p. 1630.
[19] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”.

Violence and Nonviolence

Damian Marley, NAS: Road to Zion

The song “Road to Zion” by Damian Marley and NAS illustrates arguments from both Judith Butler’s text “The Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence” and of Elsa Dorlin’s text “What a body can do”, and it transcends both texts by providing a glimpse into a feeling of alienation towards the world that can be evoked in an individual when a group they identify with is ‘phantasmised’.

In their song “Road to Zion” Damian Marley and NAS sing and rap about how “We should keep on walking; On the road to Zion”, and how we “need some charity, […] love and prosperity”. These are the phrases that are repeated most throughout the song and can therefore be regarded as an important to the message of the song. “Zion”, here, can be taken to mean as a utopia.[7] Marley thus seems to sing about how we should keep moving in the direction of a nonviolent and equal world if we put the song in the context of Butler’s argument, which holds that nonviolence is not a question of not killing each other, but of how we should preserve life.[8]

However, Marley also sings about how the “Road to Zion” towards charity, love and prosperity should be walked and approached “By any plan and any means and strategy”.[9] Here, his message is different from that of Butler, who is an advocate of nonviolent resistance against inequality and discrimination.[10] Marley’s message here resonates more with Dorlin’s argument, especially since he expresses that he sometimes “can’t help but feel helpless”.[11] Dorlin writes about how people can enter a paradox of self-defence: the more one defends themselves, the more violence they will experience. We can assume that this would evoke a feeling of defencelessness and helplessness in most people. Also, Dorlin argues in favour of a “martial ethics of the self”, which means that violent self-defence is the only way for oppressed people to survive and create sustainable living conditions.[12] This view on resistance seems closer to Marley’s “By any plan and means and strategy” than Butler’s nonviolent approach of resistance, because it does leave room for committing violence.

Marley also addresses how reality with all its inequality sometimes feels like a bad dream when he sings “I’m havin’ daymares in daytime; Wide awake try to relate; This can’t be happenin’ like I’m in a dream while I’m walkin’”.[13] This resonates with the racial phantasms that Butler addresses, which are not only violent in the wat that they bolster the ‘ungrievability’ of black people and generate inequality that has violence against black people as a consequence.[14] These phantasms are also violent in the way that many black people are forced to relate to these phantasms in their daily experience of life. Black people are racially ‘phantasmised’, which means that part of their identity is ‘phantasmised’. Even though racism is an everyday reality for black people, the ‘phantasmisation’ of part of their identity can have an alienating effect on how they experience the world, because the illusions that are put on them do have many violent real-life consequences. The “daymares in daytime” that Marley sings about can be interpreted as referring to such feeling of alienation regarding the world around him.  

So, the song “Road to Zion” moves beyond both Butler’s and Dorlin’s texts in the way that it contains arguments of both of them, and in the way that it provides the listener with a glimpse into, or the recognition of, a feeling of alienation towards the world that can be evoked in an individual when a group they identify with is ‘phantasmised’.

Doortje Kok

[7] Damian Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”, album: Welcome to Jamrock (2005).
[8] Judith Butler “Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence”, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020), pp. 103-150, p. 104.
[9] Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”.
[10] Butler, “Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence”, p. 128.
[11] Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”.
[12] Elsa Dorlin, “What a body can do”, translated by Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 2.05 (Autumn, 2019), pp. 3-9, p. 7-8.
[13] Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”.
[14] Butler, “Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence”, pp. 131-132.

Racial Violence and Representation

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come

The song “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke illustrates parts of Saidya Hartman’s interpretation of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave as she sets out in the introduction of her book Terror, Slavery, and the Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. In the introduction, she explains difficulties in representing black suffering and the violence that comes with it. Cooke’s song shows us how black suffering can be represented in a musical context.

The first chapter of Fredrick Douglass’ book immediately made me think of Sam Cooke’s song. I was already very familiar with the song, so when I read the sentence “I was born […]” in Douglass’ book, Cooke’s voice took over the sound of the narrative in my mind.[1] Hartman interprets this sentence as an establishment of the central place of violence in the making of a slave. The making of a slave and “I was born” should both be seen as ‘original generative acts’.[2] The same can be stated about Cooke’s song: he directly sets the tone for a discussion of the immediateness of racism by starting with “I was born by the river, in a little tent”.[3] Just like in Douglass’ book the sentence represents the immediate state of being a slave. Both Cooke and Douglass were born into violence because they were black. The difference here is that Douglass was born as a slave in the Nineteenth century, and Cooke was born in a society that forbids slavery but is still segregated.

However, Cooke’s and Douglass’ representations of black suffering also differ a lot from each other, especially when we consider Hartman’s argument about the ethics of representing black suffering: she states that the line between witness and spectator is vague in the case of representations of black suffering. By ‘witnesses’ she means those who “confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts”. By ‘spectators’ she means “voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance”. She argues that we should therefore refrain from representing black suffering.[4]  

While describing forms of violence that are perpetrated against black people, Cooke keeps repeating that “a change is gonna come”. With this he points towards a current state of affairs in society that is violent towards black people, and this should and will change. He does not give a description of bodily harm inflicted on black people, but rather gives examples of other types of aggression, such as segregation. For example, he does not sing about police violence, but about doing the same activities as a white man but being treated as less when he sings “I go to the movie; And I go downtown; Somebody keep telling me; Don’t hang around”.[5] With this, Cooke also addresses the discrepancy of the captive being both property and a person that Hartman is interested in without explicitly describing bodily harm.[6] Cooke had the right of going to the movies, but his experience of it would still be violent and not equal to a white man’s experience. He may have briefly felt like a person with full rights when going to the movies, but he was still captive in a racist society. Cooke’s account of violence towards black people is thus less of a ‘spectacle’ than Douglass’ account, and he shows us how black suffering can be represented without spectacularising it.

It would be far-fetched to conclude from this that Cooke’s song makes a witness out of the listener, but since much of the songs power lies in its subtlety, it would be safe to state that listeners of Cooke’s song cannot be qualified as Hartman’s notion of spectators. This is also because the song is more activist and future-oriented than descriptive: the listener can imagine what needs to be changed. Cooke apparently did not feel the need to extensively describe black suffering, he merely observes a situation that needs to change, and in doing so he exposes the violence and suffering without providing a spectacular violent image that Hartman disapproves of so much.          

Doortje Kok

[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Chapter 1 (Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 15-20, p. 15.
[2] Saidiya Hartman, “Introduction”, Scenes of Subjection. Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 3-14, pp. 3-4.
[3] Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”, album: Ain’t That Good News (1964).
[4] Hartman, “Introduction”, pp. 3-5.
[5] Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”.
[6] Hartman, “Introduction”, p. 5.

Gendered Violence

Nicole Willis & UMO Jazz Orchestra: Still Got A Way To Fall

The song “Still Got a Way to Fall” by Nicole Willis and the UMO Jazz Orchestra contains some striking parallels with the chapter “Neoliberal Violence” in Françoise Vergès’ book A Feminist Theory of Violence. Especially Vergès extensiveness in addressing and describing problems brought about by neoliberal societies reminded me of Willis’ song. Both works address implications and consequences of living in a neoliberal or neocapitalist society, and both Willis and Vergès formulate a critique on the neoliberal society, but in different ways.

In the first paragraph of the chapter, Vergès addresses the rise of neoliberalism and some of its implications, such as the privatisation of public goods and services, the deregulation of finance, high short-term profit margins for shareholders, and applications of technical solutions to social problems.[1] This corresponds with Willis singing “Who’s to gain, Nobody gonna save you” in the first verse of her song. “Who’s to gain” then, would be owners and investors of these privatised services and the shareholders who generally benefit from high short-term profit margins. The ones who are not gaining are the “Avalanche of the men and women; Buried beneath the frozen sea of pain”, since this line is more likely a reference to the ones who are, for example, suffering the technical solutions to social problems.[2]

Also, Willis’ line, “And indulging in the popular dreams that the supersized lives will make us believe” has a striking parallel with Vergès paragraph on the violence of the market and precarity.[3] In this paragraph Vergès describes how neocapitalism and neoliberalism sustain themselves. The supposed freedom that neoliberalism gives to the individual implies that many things in life can be made, because there are many possibilities for the individual to shape their life the way they want. However, this also means that if the individual fails, it’s their own fault or they did not have the sincere will to achieve their goal.[4] This is also what makes neoliberalism profitable: many people hope they can ‘make it’, many people work hard, and in the end only a few people have to be paid for this in large numbers. Neoliberalism makes us ‘indulge in the popular dreams’, because there are a few people who do thrive in the neoliberalist system, and they are who Willis’ refers to as ‘supersized lives’.  

Both Vergès and Willis address major problems put forward by neoliberal societies, and both try to appeal and include all people or groups of people. However, Willis does not name people or point out groups in society people identify with. Vergès, on the other hand, addresses many groups of people in society and the wide variety of problems they experience in a neoliberal society. So, both texts are very inclusive to suppressed groups in society, but Willis seems to appeal more to any individual listener by not being as explicit as Vergès. Vergès explains how neoliberalism sustains especially sexism and racism, whereas Willis does not highlight any specific form of suppression. Willis does, however, make a brief reference to how black people often get the worst of it in these struggles. This is made clear in the lines “Defencelessness; We figh’, you figh’; you die brother”, and “it’s really enough brother, believe me”.[5] The word ‘brother’ in these lines is probably a reference to black people, as it is fairly common for black people in the United States to address another black person with ‘brother’, especially with men.[6]  Also, the line “Defencelessness; We figh’, you figh’; you die brother” can be regarded as a reference to black people, because the number of black people that get shot and killed every year in the US exceeds that of any other group of people.  

Throughout the song Willis describes dynamics and implications caused by our neoliberalist system that resonate with the article, but the refrain of her song moves beyond Vergès’ article by making a prediction for the future. The lines “We still got a way to fall, Before we are forgiven” can be interpreted as Willis predicting that the implications and consequences of our neoliberalist system are going to cause more inequity before a more equitable way of living together becomes possible. Vergès describes how the neoliberal system sustains itself, but what Willis adds is how this is going to affect our future: if we do not regulate our neoliberal way of living, the climate crisis will put an end to it. Vergès does shortly address the climate crisis, but only what it has caused up until now.

Doortje Kok


[1] Françoise Vergès, “Neoliberal Violence”, A Feminist Theory of Violence (London, 2022; Pluto), pp. 10-34, pp. 10-13.
[2]  Nicole Willis & UMO Jazz Orchestra, “Still Got a Way to Fall”, album: My Name is Nicole Willis (Ronet Records, 2017), first verse/chorus.
[3] Willis, “Still Got a Way to Fall”, second verse/chorus.
[4] Vergès, “Neoliberal Violence”, pp. 19-20.
[5] Willis, “Still Got a Way to Fall”, second verse/chorus.
[6] For example, The Urban Dictionary assigns, among others, the following meanings to the word “brother”: “Comrade. Companion. Friend. Typically used by and to individuals of African American heritage.”; “black guy”; “black male, does not matter if he is related, as long as he is black”. Westley Morris, “’Bro’-liferation”, The New York Times Magazine (March 15th, 2016).

Border Violence

Bob Dylan: A Drifter’s Escape

Bob Dylan’s song “The Drifter’s Escape” strikingly fits the course and content of Harshia Walia’s chapter “Fortress Europe” in her book Border and Rule. Of course, a refugee and a drifter are not the same thing. However, the physical and psychological warfare that the EU is waging against any person of colour that illegally tries to cross the Schengen borders from the global South can force many refugees to involuntarily take on some drifter’s characteristics, such as aimlessly moving around without a fixed home or job.  

The second verse of Dylan’s song goes as follows:

“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time, it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong”[1]

Many refugees probably know that crossing a border without valid papers is a crime, but the essence of their actions is a quest for a safe or a better life. From this perspective and in this context, we can assume most people would plead ignorance when they are asked what they have done wrong. This verse corresponds with Walia’s text because her text explains routes refugees take and violence they meet on the way.[2]

Especially black refugees travelling through the Sahara Desert deal with a lot of racism towards them on their way north, aside from physical violence. Political and public debates about their stories of survival and about deaths at the EU’s borders often generate victim-blaming responses of politicians and the public.[3] This resonates with the comments that the judge makes towards the drifter during the court session in the third verse of Dylan’s song:

“Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You’d fail to understand”, he said
“Why must you even try?””[4]

Especially the line “Why must you even try?” is striking here. The judge seems to say that if the drifter had not been a drifter or an outsider, he would not have had to sentence him. The song does not explain why the drifter is a drifter, or what the drifter may have done wrong. The drifter does not even know what he has done wrong. The judge seems to blame the drifter for what his way of life has become, even though his life may have become this way involuntarily.[5] This resonates with blaming a victim of violence for having undergone that violence against their will. Even though refugees know they may have to undergo violence, they still choose to leave their homes. This can be seen as an act of such desperation, that it indeed can become hard to recognise what one might have done ‘wrong’, something which also and again refers to the second verse of the song.  

The fourth and fifth verses of Dylan’s song mention that “the jury cried for more”, and about how their crying is “ten times worse” than the trial itself. This can be interpreted as Dylan referring to the Jury as ignorant, because the cheerful melody of the song combined with the loud but sad tone of Dylan’s voice produce a cynical sound.[6] This corresponds with Walia’s description of the EU’s ignorance and indifference in their condonation of Turkish President Erdoğan’s violent regime by making a deal on ‘regulating’ the number of refugees that come into the Schengen zone.[7]

The last verse of Dylan’s song, in which a bolt of lightning strikes the courthouse and the drifter escapes, resonates with the last pages of Walia’s article, where she describes how border policies divide the EU and Schengen’s politics.[8] Only, in Dylan’s song, the drifter escapes, whereas Walia’s article ends with the lack of freedom refugees suffer.[9]

When we use Dylan’s song to interpret the EU’s border regime, he does provide us with a small optimistic insight that Walia bypasses. Dylan sings about how “a tear came to” the judge’s “eye” when he is about to pass judgement. With this Dylan teaches us that even though the European border regime is racist and carries out violent practices, this does not mean that not necessarily every individual working for the regime has intrinsic motivations for carrying out the practical implications of the regime.  

Doortje Kok

[1] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, album: John Wesley Harding (Columbia Records, Nashville, 1967), second verse in the lyrics.  

[2] Harsha Walia, “Fortress Europe: Imperial Containment Routes of Securitization and Externalization Disrupting Liberal “Welcome” Black Mediterranean”, Border & Rule. Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism (Haymarket: Chicago, 2021), pp. 105-130; pp. 105-106, 109-116.

[3] Walia, “Fortress Europe: Imperial Containment Routes of Securitization and Externalization Disrupting Liberal “Welcome” Black Mediterranean”, pp. 107-108.

[4] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, third verse.

[5] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, third verse.

[6] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, fourth and fifth verse.

[7] Walia, “Fortress Europe”, pp. 122-123.

[8] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, last verse.

[9] Walia, “Fortress Europe”, 136-137.