Catharsis: We Need More Art That is Grounded in Real Struggles

The current state of affairs in hardcore punk and how to intensify the fight for a better world wherever we stand

Brian D., known for his enigmatic presence in the hardcore scene, is not just a musician but a catalyst for change. As the singer of the metallic hardcore band Catharsis, formed in the mid-1990s, Brian played a crucial role in reintroducing anarchist principles into the hardcore genre. His journey, however, extends beyond the stage.

In his dual role as the editor of the hardcore punk zine Inside Front, Brian transformed this publication into a beacon for political activism and community organizing. This evolution marked the birth of CrimethInc., a decentralized anarchist collective, championing autonomy, self-determination, and the creation of self-governing spaces.

Our conversation today is particularly timely. Brian has just completed a tour of Scandinavia with the reunited Catharsis and has spent time in Central Europe and the Balkans. Here, he engaged with individuals and collectives, discussing the evolution and potential futures of social movements. Let’s explore his urgent perspectives and experiences about the state of the world today and our beloved DIY hardcore punk scene.

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So you’re back in Europe after the Catharsis reunion tour last year. Why did you come back and how do you see Europe this time?

The reason for coming back this time was to play Scandinavia, which we didn’t get to the last time we came to Europe. There are other parts of Europe that we haven’t been to yet. Once we started playing again it felt really good and I don’t think that much has changed for us since we played 13 years ago. So we wanted to keep playing. As far as the scene goes, I feel like the hardcore scene in general is less politicized than it was 13 years ago, at least in most parts of the world. That’s too bad, but of course all our old friends and other comrades come to the shows, so the shows are really good environments.

When we played in Stockholm, two of our friends were there with their children, very small children, and one of the children, I think he was maybe 12 years old, did a stage-dive. I think the kids had a really good time and it felt really good to be in a multi-generational space with some people that we have been close to for 15 or almost 20 years altogether. That was one of the best things.

It’s strange that with the economic crisis, austerity measures and the popularity of the Occupy movement, people are becoming more political, while the hardcore scene is becoming less politically motivated.

One of the reasons I think that happened is that in the 1990s, DIY was a radical idea. The kind of media that was dominated by corporations was unidirectional, like television or movies that came at you and you just received it. And DIY in that context meant doing something interactive and participatory, which was a very radical idea. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think the corporate media models have absorbed that, you now have Facebook and these internet video games that are participatory, although the participation is shaped by the computer programming company. In that context, the mere act of wanting to be involved in something participatory isn’t as political, and I think it’s taken some of the power out of hardcore as a space for political action.

Also, at least in the US, the anti-globalization movement got really strong with Seattle in 1999, and suddenly there was an anarchist movement that was distinct from any subculture, and I think the consequence of that was that some people who had been in hardcore and punk for political reasons sort of withdrew their energy from the subculture and left it to the least political people. So I agree that it’s unfortunate, and I really miss having punk as an explicitly political, radical space, which has always been my home in a way.

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The far-right and neo-Nazi scene is on the rise all over Europe, with Golden Dawn in Greece and other extreme nationalist formations getting big, what are your impressions of the situation in Scandinavia when you played shows there? We’ve heard about hardcore punk kids being repressed for taking action against fascism.

The day before we get to Stockholm I was told that for the first time tear gas was used against demonstrators, in Stockholm, at an antifascist protest. So it’s not only the question of the fascists, it’s also the question of the police who always work together with the fascists to defend them. The police and the fascists achieve the same goal, just by different means. We were also told that many people have organized together against the fascists, and also people in Sweden were very interested in the events in Ferguson, in the United States. It seems to me that things are pulverizing and the people who understand the police as their enemies are taking terrible actions against them and against fascists. And of course fascists, extreme right-wing groups and the state itself are forced to take more extreme actions.

I think in a place like Scandinavia, where everyone, including anarchists, has for a long time assumed that the point of their organizing is to force the state to give people more privileges and rights. This creates a very dangerous situation, because when the deepening crisis of capitalism makes it impossible to continue to provide the social safety net for people, fascists can say that they have an answer to the problem, while anarchists of course understand that there’s no egalitarian and liberating solution that the state can really offer, especially since capitalism produces this crisis. So in places like Scandinavia, if you’re looking to the government to solve your problems, and you’re legitimizing governments, the kind of activism you’ve been doing actually makes it easier for fascists to organize in the long run. I think it’s really dangerous, I think the most important thing in Europe right now is to argue that there is no solution to the crisis of capitalism.

Even if people close all the borders and try to create these kinds of nationalist gated communities, as long as capitalism is functioning it will continue to inflict misery on everyone, so we really have to advance an explicitly anarchist, anti-border, anti-nationalist critique of the problems that capitalism is causing for everyone.

You’re actually the first person from the United States that I’ve been able to talk to face to face about what happened in Ferguson. So what’s your feedback on what happened there, and is it possible to connect it to the broader social and political struggles, to compare it to the situation here in Europe and the CrimethInc. series After The Crest about the life cycle of movements?

That’s an interesting question. The first thing I want to say about Ferguson is that Michael Brown, the teenager who was killed there, is not an unusual case. The police kill a black or brown person every few days in the US and there were many demonstrations and even riots in Oakland in early 2009 after the killing of Oscar Grant by the Oakland police. In the city where I come from, there were protests last November… well, in Durham, NC, the city next to mine, where the teenager Jesus Huerta was killed, and in the time between then and now there have been many other cities in the United States where people have protested against police killings, most recently in Denver. So Ferguson is important not because something unusual happened there, but because something very typical, very common happened there.

To answer your question about After The Crest… After The Crest was our investigation into what we can learn from the way movements die. Occupy ended because it wasn’t willing to confront the police, and one of the reasons it wasn’t willing to confront the police was because it was never really a movement that made space for poor and predominantly black and brown people. That’s one of the limits that it reached, it couldn’t address the problems that our society faces as long as it was a movement that was predominantly middle class and homeless people, without the vast majority of the population in between those two elections.

I think what’s happening in Ferguson is pointing the way to what the new social movements in the US are going to look like. A movement that starts with the police as a force that forces us all into the inequalities of capitalism. Without the police it would be impossible to have these huge disparities between rich and poor, it would be impossible to maintain the kind of white supremacist conditions that the prisons and the court system create. And the police are really the front line of capitalism. They impose it on all of us. So the movement in Ferguson showed us a little bit of what it looks like for people to fight back against that.

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Here in Europe we have the same things happening, most popular cases being with Berkin Elvan in Turkey and Alexis Grigoropoulous murder in Greece that still resonate very strong and ignite new waves of anticapitalist resistance.

In Egypt, the 25 January Revolution of 2011 was started by the Anti-Police Brutality group. In fact, anti-police struggles are common around the world and have been for decades in the U.S., if you remember the Rodney King riots of 1992. Policing is as universal and global as capitalism, and the resistance to it will also be from Egypt to the United States to Sweden (or as the slogan goes, “From Oakland to Greece, Fuck the Police”).

As a singer in a hardcore punk band, how do you think we can build communities of resistance and real horizontalism within the scene? You know, most hardcore singers can talk about political stuff between songs and shout “fuck the police,” but they usually don’t propose any kind of alternatives. How can we change that? It’s obvious that just singing songs and writing zines is not going to work.

I think that hardcore and punk have always been predominantly youth movements and one of the things that you do when you are young is to speak about what you would like to become. You speak about your life you’d like to be. This is appropriate and then you spend the rest of your life trying to live up by your words.

I think often many young hardcore punk singers sing about what they would like to do and the challenge is can you live up with that in your life. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of a community in which we are together involved in struggles against police, against prisons, against capitalism, against white supremacy or patriarchy, that’s not something that I can do by myself.

By myself I can write some lyrics, I can scream, I can write a zine, but I have to be part of a larger community, to participate in a meaningful struggle against these things. So I think if we want to have more political hardcore or more political art in that sense, we need more art that is really grounded in real struggles, one of the answers is that we just need to build these real struggles together, multigenerationally.

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So how do you see the connection between DIY and political struggle today?

Well, the principle of self-organization, which is basically identical to do-it-yourself, the DIY ethic, is still essential to everything beautiful about humanity, right? The liberation, it is the anarchist ideal that we should take our lives into our own hands to make the most of our potential. That’s everything.

I think that one of the ways that we have seen a backlash against the way that the DIY community has moved forward is in these new corporate products that are “participatory”. As I was talking about earlier, the video games that you play together against each other, the way that the whole social media networks work so that people feel like they have the experience of doing it themselves, just by using their iPhone to shoot a video that they upload to YouTube. Now, the problem in these circumstances is that we are “doing it ourselves,” but we are not setting the terms of our activity.

The ideal is not just that we participate in the making of media, but that we participate in the making of the conditions of our lives. And that’s what no corporation can give us. I think the challenge we face today is to show what the difference is between these kinds of fake do-it-yourself opportunities that force us to use corporate products and the real make-your-own-life ethic that has always been at the root of the DIY punk subculture and is still at the heart of anarchist struggles.

Can you elaborate on the example of “participatory” video games? Do you mean corporations like the creators of the game “Half-Life”, who are like a big cooperative of hundreds of co-creators, who seem to be participatory and direct democratic in their own circle, but to the outside world are just as predatory and greedy corporations as anyone else?

I don’t really see hardcore punk as an agent of change. It’s one of the places where we can come together… we can come together as human beings and talk about our dreams and pursue them, but it has to be connected to the other things, to the meaningful things. What you described about “Half-Life” is a gated community, it’s like ancient democracies where a minority of men could vote but everyone else was like slaves or women who were forbidden to participate in the political process. I think we’re going to see more and more of these gated communities that are egalitarian inside but exclude other people outside. This is actually not the same as liberation, because you have to exclude any part of yourself that is based on other people. The people who are part of Google may be working in a digital utopia, you know, but they basically have to do the work over the bodies of all the people who are impoverished by the work they do.

So how that relates to hardcore punk… hardcore was a space where people could come together and imagine something potentially revolutionary. I still love the ritual of being physically together, crashing into each other, screaming, doing these things that are outside of our usual experience in this culture, these are things that have saved me throughout my life. It seems that the spaces where we will be most able to connect with people to embark on the project of creating new revolutionary possibilities for our lives will not be the hardcore scenes of the future, but I would bring that hardcore energy to everything I do.

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Many people criticize CrimethInc. for selling out the revolution or Catharsis as a band for putting a price on books, records or whatever. Even if hardcore punk labels and radical publishers present revolutionary ideas, they still rely on capitalist ways of promoting and selling things on the market. It’s also a particularly interesting moment with vinyl records, which are high-priced collectibles.

Well, it shouldn’t be hard to find the Catharsis songs for free on the internet, and if you’re reading this interview and you haven’t been able to, you should just send me an email and I’ll send them to you personally. If people want to own records that cost an enormous amount of money, I don’t know…. We’ve worked with Robert from Refuse Records to make them available to those who want them for cheap, but records are like art objects at this point. I don’t own many records.

As for the prices of CrimethInc. books, CrimethInc. books cost less than half of what almost every other anarchist book publisher in the United States charges for books, and significantly less than any other mainstream publisher. And that’s because we ONLY charge what it costs to produce them. We make no money at all on the books. If we make any money beyond the cost of production in any way, we use it to produce free stuff, so I think people are always going to complain about something, especially if they haven’t done something themselves.

As a zine and book publisher, you know it’s not easy to do that, and I’ve spent a lot of my life stealing photocopies and giving them away. So if people think what they’re doing isn’t enough, I’d love to see them do better than we have. Because somebody should.

So how do you think that people who are involved in activism, but who are usually financially broke, can actually manage to pay rent, publish books and literature, play in a band, put out records, or whatever in that sense?

One of the things I learned from the punk subculture is how to live on very little money. This has been very useful to me, and I’ve dedicated my whole life to revolutionary projects. If I had to make as much money to survive as most people do, I wouldn’t have the time to do all the things I’ve done. Of course, dumpster diving, shoplifting, and the like are not the solution for everyone. The abolition of capitalism is the solution, but we have to devote as much personal energy as possible to fighting for that if we want to see it happen.

That’s one of the reasons why I try to minimize my expenses, and you know, in terms of access to resources, it’s very difficult. At various points in our lives, people who have been involved in CrimethInc. projects have worked when they had to or have done other dangerous things to get money to put into the projects that we do.

Basically, we don’t see a way for our lives to go on without everything changing. That means we have to make our revolutionary projects our first priority. I don’t have any good suggestions for other people who want to do similar things, except to put everything you have into your work.

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Yes, if you live your life based on constantly being involved in revolutionary projects, you gain autonomy, even if you imagine direct democracy and participatory society as a philosophical concept of how to see the world, it’s only when you build your own life and extend it into communities around you that we really build an autonomous society with autonomous individuals. So my question is, have you seen some great examples of autonomous projects and how things work when you were in Europe during your trip that you would like to implement on a local scale when you go back home?

Well, I have been in Europe only for few weeks on this visit. Definitely in coming to Europe on previous tours I’ve learned a lot that has influence on the kind of organizing that I do in the US and what I think is possible.

On this particular trip the main thing that I think is very useful is getting the chance to talk with people in Bosnia about the uprising they had there in February. Speaking of autonomy, one of the tragedies of the uprising in Bosnia is that it began with burning of government buildings and ended, it died in these plenums (direct democracy people’s assemblies) that basically emptied out and slowly disappeared because they have become separated from the militant side of the movement.

For me, the really educational side of this is that we can’t make the distinction between direct action against the government, against the authorities, and the participatory construction of the world we want to see or something… The reason to have assemblies is not to make demands on the government, it’s to figure out how to self-organize the world we want to see. That’s where autonomy becomes really important, because these assemblies can’t be decision-making bodies in the same way that the government is.

Any government based on monopolizing decision-making, any system where there is only one legitimate way to make decisions, is going to impoverish the rest of life. So these assemblies that I’m sure will come up in future struggles have to be spaces of encounter where we exchange ideas, where we come together, where we figure out how to struggle together, but they can’t be new forms of government, they shouldn’t be replacements for existing governments.

This interview will be published online where most of the traffic comes from Facebook. People tend not to read long articles or interviews online, they are mostly attracted to pictures on social media and very short text bites, is there a way to counteract this tendency?

Well, this is definitely… the problem of our age is that information is subject to inflation in the same way that financial currency is: the more information, the less it is worth.

Now Facebook actually means that even the horizontal networks through which information spreads are polluted by control mechanisms. As for alternatives to that, I would say form real communities where you talk about it in person, where you read books and zines together in reading groups, where you develop passions, where you really want to learn about things and you don’t have to spend so much time with the media.

If you just take in soundbites of different news clips, ultimately you have nothing to do with it outside of your own power, your own agency, you determine what your life is going to be. We don’t need more information, we need ways to connect our thoughts and information to learn what we can do in action.

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