New Boots & Contracts

Consider this a rough draft of an equally rough idea, barfing something out in words for later clean-up.

I was listening to The Clash’s “All The Young Punks” yesterday at the gym. Its full title is “All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)”. As I was listening (for what is probably like the 10kth time–Give ‘Em Enough Rope is one of my favorite Clash albums), I realized there’s a slippage between “boot” as in footwear, the footwear you can finally afford to buy once you get the advance from your record contract, and “boot” as in “getting the boot” as in getting fired from your factory job (Strummer sings: “some factory…I worked there for a week once but luckily got the boot”). And this slippage made me wonder: is there a way of interpreting this song as about the remaking of the social contract in post-Fordist, de-industrializing, neoliberalizing England?

In this interpretation, the “new boots” are the massive layoffs of factory workers as the UK deindustrializes in the late 1970s (the “boots” that lead to the situation in the beginning of The Full Monty, for example). These boots are new because they’re responses to structural shifts in the economy tied to a re-making of the “social contract” which will come to be known as Thatcherism (and Reaganism over here in the US). In other words: there’s a new social contract. The contract between labor and capitalism forged at the end of WWII is over; the broader “social contract” between individuals, corporations, and states that was forged in Enlightenment political philosophy, that’s over too. There’s a new non-contract contract, the neoliberal economization of everything. And this new “contract” requires “new boots”–that is, the “boot” of Fordism in general, deindustrialization, the shift to an entrepreneurial society, and the emergence of a new class of structurally un- and underemployed people…that is, to all the young punks.

The new boots lead to new “contracts,” biopolitical contracts about life and death. The lyrics equate the band’s record contract to a mob hit: “We got a manager/An though he ain’t the mafia/A contract is a contract when they get ‘em out on ‘ya.” The mob hit is literally a contract to take someone’s life. The song suggests that the new social contract is similarly a contract about someone’s life and undeath:

All the young punks, laugh your life cause there ain’t much to cry for/
All you young punks/cunts, living now cause there ain’t much to die for

The punks, the kids booted out of the new social contract, are neither really alive nor really dead either; the new social contract keeps them in a state of undeath, of precarity, of bare life. They’re alive without a life (which would be worth dying for). That’s the contract that’s out on them, the biopolitical contract of what will become Thatcher-style neoliberalism.

Notice another slippage in the lyrics, the slippage between “young punks” and “young cunts.” This happens at 3:43, and at 3:55 Strummer and Jones each say a different word, but on my laptop speakers I can’t tell who says “punk” and who says “cunt”. If you want to say the “Young-Girl” is the paragon of biopolitical life, the ‘gold standard’ of living currency, perhaps the “young punk” is, as this song suggests, the nadir to her apex, a “young cunt” rather than a “Young-Girl”? Young punks are the “lumps of coal” to the Young-Girl’s “piece of gold”? (“Face front you got the future/shining like a piece of gold/But I swear as we get closer/it looks more like a lump of coal.)

I wanted to get this in writing now because it may end up being a good example/illustration of something I’m writing up as part of a bigger project…