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"The Decline" (1999) by NOFX




I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.
- HD Thoreau


The great thing about bein' a human: the ability to reason;
But reasoning don't work when no-one cares:
two parts apathy, one part despair
.
- NOFX


Going on and on about Decline has been the pastime of conservatives. But then 'The Decline' - a lurid eighteen minute portrait of Imperial America by punk's once-reigning left-statists - is remarkably similar to the Tory-prog dystopias of, say, Rush; they share gross length, scifi gloom, and self-aggrandising individuality.

Where 'The Decline' is a cartoon version of Chomskyan politics, Rush were cartoons of the novels of Ayn Rand (herself a cartoon Nietzsche). Rush are (or were) the pop embodiment of giving in to romantic individualism. Now, we know this as the basis of right-wing life - but even the most Left leftist has to have some: at minimum,they glory in their ability to see through the neoliberal individualist script of our times. Since NOFX care about said oppressive script, we arrive at a contradiction which is also the principal contradiction in punk: how can the desire for social justice coexist with the love of doin' what the fuck you want? Do you want Chomsky or do you want Kant?

(Not that Kant was a permissive hedonist, but he is a handy symbol for individual conscience and self-creation. Wordsworth would also work, for the totally personal projects that make up at least half of the meaning of life.) Decline is notable for other reasons - it is long-punk and it is concept-punk and is still, somehow, good - but as usual I fixate on the ideological.
Context: NOFX are a tolerant bunch. Consider 'Happy Guy' (a song about leaving Christians alone), 'Vanilla Sex' and 'Cool and Unusual Punishment' (about consenting adults), 'Clams Have Feelings Too' (the argument from marginal cases), 'The Brews' (subverting Jewish stereotypes), 'Lori Meyers' (a stab at the sex-work question), or 'She's Nubs' (which has a go at affirming disabled people's sexuality...). Despite the comedy schtick, the band do act out a kind of Enlightenment egalitarianism. What unites the political stuff with the fart jokes is that each involves the embrace of losers; failure, or marginalisation, as lifestyle.


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What exactly is said to be declining? America? Democracy? Morals? The economy? Punk? The song is, of course, vague. But it has drunk of the diluted Frankfurt School, in particular their idée fixe on capitalism's irresistible mind control powers. ("Hegemony".) So:


  • Reading #1: "Civil society has declined. Capitalism infected everyone with malign individualism, and now we are numb, solipsistic and stupid. It's over; we lost." An adolescent political economy, sure - but that's all you need to get started. Through this clumsy song, I learned the phrase "laissez faire" (LAY-ZY FAIR) aged 12 and correctly associated it with vast institutionalised suffering. That's not nothing.


So: demand both 'radical freedom' and 'social justice'. Thing is, social justice often requires sacrifice on someone's part (even if that sacrifice is only undoing an existing inequity, as with progressive taxation, or minding your tongue): you can't have it and 'radical' negative liberty. I don't think there can be any such thing as Left-libertarianism. This isn't a particular failing of punk; the philosopher Richard Rorty calls the tension between public and private virtues the most intractable question in all ethics and politics.

Is there really a contradiction? In some cases you can get both - e.g. encouraging women to opt out of traditional submissive social crap invariably boosts both individual women and their society - or as regards decriminalising drugs - which is warranted by the awful consequences of prohibition alone (cf. creation of an under-underclass out of the reach of public services; toxic adulteration; vast police expansion; the destructive prison cycle). But not always, or often.

More generally, we just want individualism which doesn't drag down the collective. This is not as easy as you might think. Maybe you can salvage freedom-talk by saying "we want freedom for everyone, not just rich white men - which is what 'freedom' has tended to mean in practice". But that requires heavy intervention, and some people understandably insist on seeing (government) intervention as the opposite of freedom. (I don't see how this can stand up to basic knowledge of what societies do to certain unlucky groups.) The contradiction is real - and philosophy's perennial failure to cope with it means we have to navigate between its horns by ear. This actually works ok, provided you are at least minimally compassionate, and don't mind losing ideological purity.

A bypass: in the political climate of much of the world, to argue for this kind of justice - via positive discrimination, progressive taxation, strong welfare, active diversity education - is already to be nonconformist - and so to begin to be individual. But even though I recognise the large-scale suffering, and agree with the project goals, I'm not militarising. This is because I think they (the New Left) are wrong about the decline of civil society, compassion, and free thought. Also because we're too clumsy en masse for revolution to have much hope of serving up anything but cool speeches, disappointment, and blood. I'm with Rorty, bizarre wet pragmatist though he is. The core claim of Chomskyans is that "the United States [et al] are run by a corrupt elite which aims at enriching itself by immiserating the Third World." The sometime global bully, sometime quasi-fascist. For some reason, this clear-sighted attention to the crimes of empire is usually tied to rejection of the Enlightenment (impartiality, individualism, technology, all that good stuff). Suspicion is always warranted, things have been bad indeed; but they would have been worse without Enlightenment ideas. We are "willing to grant that [the West] could slide into fascism at any time, but proud of its past and guardedly hopeful about its future."

Shall we get on to the actual song?


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If you’re not a conspiracy theorist some of the time, you’re a sucker.
- John Emerson

Fellow members, Club 'We've Got Ours'
I'd like to introduce you to our host;
He's got his, I've got mine: meet the decline
.
- NOFX


First off: The Decline is really an EP of many 30 second songs stitched together. Its narrative is choppy: "BOO! Issues! Greed's bad, nationalism's bad, guns are bad, stupidity is bad, cultural hegemony is bad, drug laws are bad, powerful Christian right are bad, egoism's bad, apathy's bad. facelessly unfair economics, governmental murder." Broad sections:

1. Boo! Guns, irrationality, religion! (0:00 to 3:46)
2. Boo! war on drugs! prison! (3:46 to 6:15)
3. Boo! (Musical exposition) (6:15 to 7:17)
4. Boo sadness! (Call it anomie to be charitable) (7:17 to 9:42)
5. Boo! (Recap) (9:42 to 11:03)
6. Boo sadness! (11:03 to 13:57)
7. Boo everything! (The end of the world sounds like epic quietLOUD skate punk) (13:57 to end).

I find it helpful to write out the themes. The main epic one at 6:15, 10:34, call it "[The Decline]":

This ^ is Chomsky as trombone. The end of the radical world.
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A second reading of The Decline's decline involves wheeling in another bulky philosophical engine:

NOFX, super-rich band of Chomskyans, extremely permissive boys of the rationalist strain in punk are also, obviously, a dumbass band. Immature trolls full of puns, scat and innuendo. Even so, their Decline is about rejecting immaturity, in the special moral sense that Kant used the word. (This immaturity is just refusing to think for yourself, whether out of fear or learned incapacity.) The song's first disdain is reserved for asking "Where are all the stupid people from?" (Nationalism is supposedly to blame. Also commerce: "The man who used to speak performs a cute routine.")

This is what's thought to justify strong individualism: maybe it's only by standing alone you can attain certain heights - of originality, impartiality, hardness, spirituality. Problem for Left "libertarians" like NOFX: there's absolutely nothing to say that thinking for yourself will lead to rejecting capitalism. Plenty speaks against it, in fact. So:

  • Reading #2: "Kantian maturity has declined fatally, in America, in the C20th." In the absence of NOFX giving extended historical arguments about the relative consciousness of Americans: meh. It was always low, and there are more tools to increase it now than ever before. (NOFX are immature in the common sense, but at least a little mature in this elevated sense.)

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Appendix 1. Paradoxes in the received idea of punk

  • Punk tried to have both romantic individualism and social activism at the same time. (Good for it!)

  • Punk despised the hippies while adopting lots of their practices - e.g. hedonism, bohemianism, basement gigs, aesthetic experiment (in certain prescribed dimensions) - as well as their social role as the West's young internal Other.

  • Punk did everything it could to be provocative - mostly in order to mock the resulting outrage. This universal irreverence conflicted with its po-faced element. The Punk held nothing sacred but punk (and sometimes Marx).

  • Punk tried to politicise nihilism!

  • Punk painted itself as utterly revolutionary, anti-tradition, with 1975 being its Year Zero - but it actually sprang directly, without variation, from 60s US garage rock and 'trash culture'. (And that music was a conservative masculinist reaction to the hippies.)

  • Punk was anti-art in a very theatrical way. (In New York, it was all anti-art art-school kids.)

  • Punk, generally associated with anti-racist right-ons, was an almost wholly unfunky 4/4 music played almost wholly by whites - and this aesthetic segregation was representative of social segregation. (In the form of the overwhelmingly white 'Alternative' music, it perhaps still does represent that.) I concede that Bad Brains are canonised in Punk, and that Ska and Dub's crossover into punk was both rapid and lasting.


I wrote about punk as a political ideology; that piece can explain why there are so many of these: only some of these elements are of the essence of Punk, with the rest resulting from the customising incoherent whims of various individual punks.


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2. CONTEMPORARY CONCEPT PUNK*


Punk concept albums are rare, probably owing to their general suspicion of ambition. There's Zen Arcade, of course; The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks; maybe Group Sex. And it surprises no-one if Mike Watt is subversive: his Contemplating the Engine Room is expansive proletarian psychedelic punk. I also recently came across the lurid and authentically paranoid Only Lovers Left Alive, a biazrre, catchy affirmation of every anticommunist conspiracy theory going. There's been a few released recently, some actually worth your time. Metafiction is in:

Remarkable stuff. Love story for anarchists gets blown apart halfway through by open discussion of literary theory, socialisation, and the very idea of the grand narrative. Four narrators, not many more chords, lots of fodder without tasting of Pink Floyd.


  • Titus Andronicus' The Monitor (2010)
This seems to be about the American Civil War... and also the life of Billy Bragg. No, really.

  • Cursive's The Ugly Organ (2003)
Tuneful straight metafiction. "INTROSPECTING SO HARD IT HURTS. Don't mock me. I AM SAD ABOUT BEING SAD." Takes ordinary emo navel-gazing and, I dunno, looks at videos of it.


  • Thermals' The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006)
Brief (36mins) and dirty. Seems to be The Handmaid's Tale retold for teenage skaters. It's the now-standard antitheist cartoon: all Christians are of the conservative right, all Gods are the Old Testament bastard, everything fun is getting banned. Still.

(I omit the two most famous examples - American Idiot and The Black Parade - because they both appeared just as mainstream punk, in the form of emo, finally sank into the undifferentiated gumbo called "alternative" "rock" music. Also because they're deeply uninteresting.)


* When I say 'punk' I mean "that derivative post-post-punk or pop-hardcore which favours simple scuzzy guitars and unpleasant lyrics". There. Drop the pitchforks please.


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3. THE LONG PUNK GOODBYE


Long punk songs are interesting because they break with punk's original protestantism: Bündigkeit uber alles, against the interminable Indulgences of prog. Unfortunately this is often the only interesting thing about them, since they're jam sessions by people who espouse amateurism. The clearest precursors to The Decline are the boring 'From the Cradle to the Grave' by Subhumans and Crass' furious elaborate analysis of the entire Cold War world, 'Yes Sir I Will'. Here is a playlist of others, listen here if you have nothing better to do tonight:
  1. "Another World" by Richard Hell & the Voidoids (8:12)
  2. "Shut Down" by The Germs (9:41)
  3. "...And Now Back To Our Programming" by Aus Rotten (15:52)
  4. "(I Saw You) Shine" (8:32) by Flipper. ("Sex Bomb" is shorter but actually good.)
  5. "Kids of the Black Hole" by the Adolescents (5:28).
  6. "Glazed" by Rocket from the Crypt (8:20).
  7. "Pay the Man" by The Offspring (10:22). Surprising! low on lyrics though.
  8. "No Big Surprise" by Nomeansno (11:07).
  9. "The Bristol Road Leads To Dachau" by The Prefects (10:09)
  10. "Clear Your Head" - Pennywise (15:42)
  11. "Believe In Yourself" - Stalag 13 (15:33)
  12. "Die Letzte Sau (Live)" - WIZO (14:02)
  13. Lots of late Black Flag, e.g. "Nothing Left Inside", "Scream" and "Three Nights".

  14. ("Heaven Sent" by Half Japanese is apparently 60mins, but isn't online, thankfully.)



Finally, an earnest and loveable 8 minute concept suite by NY's best oldest semi-pro pop-punk band, the Putrid Flowers: it's the last eight tracks here.

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