July 17, 2014 by NowhereButPop
It’s June 19, 2014; I am sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car in Boulder Colorado, and I have just used the word “iconoclast” in a sentence for the first time. I have waited five years to use it in a sentence (because I apparently have nothing else to do with myself). After thinking about it for a little while, I realized that I in fact, hate iconoclasts-anyone who seeks the utter annihilation of a preexisting regime of belief. I am all for an establishment, maybe not the establishment, but I am about as anti-anti-establishment as one can be.
The problem with those who seek to become iconoclastic, and by association, all rebels, is that they usually have nothing new to offer. All they really want to do is destroy their predecessors, not create something new to take its place. All rebels really do are stand in direct opposition to something, and once that something has been taken down, the original rebellion movement either dissipates or turns on itself because of its lack of genuine idea. Once the opponent is done away with there is no reason to carry on.
Imagine the rebel alliance in Star Wars. We’re never really told what their agenda is, or what their plans for a government involves. Yeah, they say they want a republic, but they still refer to Leia as royalty. Just because they oppose the bad guys doesn’t mean that they’ll be any better. Hell, Admiral Ackbar could be the cephalopod Adolf Hitler for all we know. The only thing we know is that they exist in opposition to the Empire; besides toppling Darth Vader, never are we inundated with exactly what they want to do after the Empire crumbles. Do they even have any plans for political, social, and economic reconstruction? What do they want to do after they win, and how do we know that these rebels and farmers have any idea how to set up a fully functional democratic government. And if we can learn anything from 20th century South American politics, it’s that having no leader is worse than having a bad one.
The point is, it’s easy for iconoclasts to initially succeed because at first they exist within a clearly defined paradigm of “us vs. them”. It’s easy to rally people to a cause when there is a fully formed opponent or antagonist. The trouble arises after, because the very definition of iconoclastic movements doesn’t allow for the creation and formation of new and inventive ideas, it simply and solely calls for the destruction of old ones. It’s impossible to sustain a movement that is completely dependent on its stance as an opposition against a preexisting idea because once that existing dogma or structure is destroyed, the rebellion has no further purpose of being, as its actuality is rendered pointless and unnecessary. This is why communism will never work and why grunge only lasted for three years.
Even though I resent authority figures and hold them all in contempt, I actually hate rebels more. The two most important and iconoclastic pop cultural rebellions are communism and grunge. The iconoclast of each movement were Karl Marx and Kurt Cobain, respectively. Even though grunge took the world by storm from 1991-1994, and even though there are those out there who think communism can still work, both rebellions have actually failed; specifically because they were created in response to a preexisting paradigm, which they sought to destroy. Both communism and grunge won in the short term: Grunge, in that it asphyxiated hair metal, and communism, in that for a time 25% of the world’s population was under communistic rule. But in the long term, they failed because once they achieved the short term victory, the flaw of rebellion manifested itself, and both movements began to suffer under their own weight, inflated sense of self-worth, and lack of any real purpose or motive besides antagonism.
What Marx and Cobain share in common is that they both spearheaded an antagonistic movement which sought to debase and destroy a preexisting establishment. Both have become iconoclasts because they merely tore something down instead of building something new or better to replace what it was they were originally rebelling against. And despite their failures, they are still seen as champions and idols. What it really comes down to is that Marx and Cobain were rebelling against the perceived excess of their culture. For Marx, that excess was marked by profit, and for Cobain, it was guitar solos. Essentially, they made something cool at the expense of something else, but when anything becomes popularized this way it inevitable collapses because of its empty morals and hollow tenants.
What did grunge really accomplish? At its most simplistic grunge, as personified by Kurt Cobain and his feud with Axl Rose was merely an extension of the war between punk rock and hard rock, a war that has been raging on since 1969. First it was mods vs. rockers, then it was The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, then it was The Clash vs. Led Zeppelin, and by 1992 it became Nirvana vs. Guns N’ Roses. All Cobain was, was a 90s punk false messiah who wanted to make Guns N’ Roses seem as uncool as Winger. Not a very good musician, or innovator, Cobain’s lyrics are insipid and vapid where their value comes only from what we as a society put into them.
This is why grunge music died; it was no longer an oppositional idea when it became absorbed into the mainstream, but a full-fledged movement and way of life. Grunge could no longer succeed when there was no one for it to fight, and by the time In Utero came out, grunge had already won. Once people came to accept grunge as an idea instead of as a revolt, it was doomed to fail. Without heavy metal to oppose it, grunge music no longer had a purpose and eventually became saturated by and with pop culture, to the point of dissolution. But by committing suicide, right before the scales tipped, Cobain turned himself from iconoclast to icon. By 1994, Nirvana, and really all of grunge, had nowhere else to go; it had vanquished its foes, it had become the dominate form of music, and it was making the most money; in essence, it became everything that it once claimed to oppose. Inherently, grunge never stood for anything outside of what it said it wasn’t, and not even Kurt Cobain could have changed this irrefutable fact.
Besides grunge, no other idea or philosophy is defined by what it isn’t more so than communism. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx drones on and on about all the problems of capitalism. Once things get bad enough, the proletariat (working class) will unite and overthrow the upper class in a violent struggle wherein thereafter there will be a classless society of with no sense of snobbish superiority. It’s as much socio-economic commentary as much as it is flawed prophecy; but the biggest criticism of The Communist Manifesto is that it doesn’t other any solutions, it merely implies that once the working class is in power, everything will fix itself and all will be well. It fails to mention how, or better yet, the steps necessary to erect this perfect and classless state. I’ve always been a big believer in refraining from criticizing unless you have an actual solution. Communism is not a solution, it’s merely a deceptively worthless antithesis to capitalism. It literally is what capitalism is not. There is no profit, there are no classes based on economic earning, there is no private enterprise. Communism assumes that it, in its own entirety, is the solution to the problems brought about by capitalism, but in truth, it’s more like a laundry list of complaints. It assumes that everybody would choose communism over capitalism, an equality of education and skill, while disavowing discriminatory factors outside of economics, and the steps necessary to create a fully functional communist state.
Communism has failed in every single application because there is no rulebook or instruction manual for running a communist state. In the CCCP, communism failed because this antithetical idea became too big for its own sustainability, much in the same vain as grunge. China was considered a third world nation up until Deng Xiaoping managed to single handedly save the country…but introducing capitalistic values like free enterprise and laisse faire protocols. North Korea IS a third world country with at least 1/3 of the population suffering from famine. Venezuela hates the fact that it’s a communist nation, and Cuba didn’t even recognize HIV and AIDS as a real thing until the early 90s; over ten years after patient zero.
The truth in all of these examples reveals itself to be that in order to even attempt to destroy economic classes, control on a massive level has to be employed. Instead of being the economic slaves that Marx describes the working class to be, it soon becomes political tyranny that everybody is exposed to. The only way to enforce such a philosophy as communism, which by its own creator is an admittedly violent movement, is through force. It is literally impossible to impose an idea based on the rejection of a preexisting one, onto the masses.
Communism presents an end goal, a portrait of society after the dismemberment of capitalism with no mention of how to go about it. Inherently it’s an incomplete manifesto insofar as it fails to not only illustrate how to destroy what it claims to oppose, but also how to establish a classless and communism environment. The Communist Manifesto doesn’t talk about what communism is, it describes itself and finds meaning in what it is not, namely capitalism. Just because you aren’t one thing, doesn’t mean that you are something else, you are simply not that one thing. You can’t describe a color by listing all the colors that it is not. Nothing, not a person, idea, or inanimate object can be sufficiently described and ascribed to based solely by what it isn’t. It’s because we don’t really know who or what they actually stand for.
People like Cobain, Marx, Che Guevara, Sid Vicious and even Buster Douglas are all too often mistaken for icons because of the misconception that they actually created something. What separates an icon from an iconoclast is that an icon is one who creates, innovates or improves upon something; they are individuals who add. Iconoclasts, by comparison are people who tear things down and leave them broken. They might expose a flaw in something, but they won’t fix it. Nirvana defined itself by being what Guns N’ Roses wasn’t, and The Communist Manifesto simply details a utopia sans capitalism. George Washington is an icon, John Lennon is an icon, Madonna is an icon. All of these individuals had a core value of beliefs that existed beyond themselves. Grunge and communism, as with most rebellious movements, have no external set of values or constrictions to adhere to, they are merely responses to a preexisting form. Adam Smith essentially created capitalism as a more efficient economic policy; Karl Marx and Engels created communism in response to capitalism without which it would have no reason of being. Guns N’ Roses built upon the hard rock sound of Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones by expanding into new musical territory, but Nirvana wanted to cut down on that perceived excess. Without a big time rock band like Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana had no one to challenge or define itself against. Not only to succeed in the short term, but to even be conceived, grunge music needed heavy metal and communism needed capitalism.
How good, or more importantly, valid can something be if it can’t exist without something else? When something like grunge or communism exists only in response to a singular preexisting idea, it dooms itself for eventual failure because it relies entirely on its opposition, and its status as an adversary as a foundation. It’s an innately short term foundation that once it achieves initial success, begins to break apart since it no longer has any purpose. Purpose is the strongest motivator of sustainability, and the truth is that grunge and communism don’t hold any purpose, any real value outside of not being hard rock and capitalism. They are certainly new ideas, but they aren’t solutions. And it’s because most people don’t realize this that people like Kurt Cobain and Karl Marx have become iconic instead of iconoclastic.