In Defense of Hipsters

This article is a response to “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization” (Adbusters #79, Cover Story).

At a bar a few months ago, I overheard a conversation between two women who, to my mind, were the very epitome of hipsterdom.  Their asymmetrical haircuts, tight jeans, vintage T-shirts, fashionable jewelry, Parliament cigarettes and bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon formed one seamless ensemble of hipster aesthetic so perfect that I knew that one of them had to have a Vespa parked outside.  They were engaged in a vigorous debate, striking charismatic poses as they gestured to underline points.  I turned my ear to them and strained to decipher their words through the thundering sound of a Journey song somebody had chosen, no doubt in a moment of ironic inspiration, to call forth from the jukebox.

“No, no, Beth, you are definitely not a hipster!” one of them was assuring her friend.  She then proceeded to provide a list reasons why this friend, who was clearly writhing in the thorns of self-doubt, simply did not meet the criteria of the dreaded category.

It went something like this.  Though the friend, Beth, was an artist, she produced sculptures which displayed a seriousness utterly lacking from hipster art.  The latter tended to be characterized by incessant pop-culture reference, comic-book style drawings, and a penchant for shocking violence and sexuality for its own sake.  Further, Beth was a political activist, devoting considerable time outside her job to anti-war and environmentalist causes.  And finally, though Beth had a MySpace page, she had made it reluctantly and only because it happens to be a good place to market her sculptures.

This seemed to convince Beth.

These arguments, though they may be laughable, are indicative of a phenomenon pointed out by Douglass Haddow in his recent essay “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization” (Adbusters #79, Cover Story).  That is, there are very few, if any, self-avowed hipsters.  The term hipster is, in fact, almost universally a term of derision.  But despite what Vice Magazine founder Gavin McInnes insists in Haddow’s article, the epithet is not most commonly used by “chubby bloggers who aren’t getting laid anymore”.  The term is more commonly than not used by people who are themselves quite open to the charge from others.

In fact, ask just about any white urban twenty-something in a hoodie what a hipster is, and he will proceed to give you an elaborate definition full of backtrackings, qualifications, and equivocations.  And the goal of this tortuous definition will be to specifically exclude himself and his closest friends, but still to preserve the category for use against others.

I have decided that hipsters, who are nothing less than the four horsemen – or fixed-gear bike riders – of the apocalypse in Haddow’s paranoid hallucinations, are in need of an advocate.  Or if not an advocate, at least of a little demystification.

Haddow’s article, taking the genre form of a lurid journey into the heart of stylish darkness, derides hipsters for many reasons.  They dance self-consciously.  They ape working-class fashion.  They photograph each other constantly at parties and then view the photographs the next day on Flickr-streams.  They blog about their inane exploits.  They are shallow and superficial and they appropriate the fashion tastes and musical styles of previous ages.  But in general, all of Haddow’s kvetching can be boiled down to a single complaint: hipsters don’t really believe in anything.

This, according to Haddow, sets hipsters apart from all of the youth subcultures that preceded them.  The hipster’s antecedents – punk, hip-hop, hippie culture – were movements that “energetically challenged the status quo,” that existed to “smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society”.  In contrast, hipsters are merely “an appropriation of different styles from different eras… a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society”.

Haddow believes that what he has found is a youth subculture of nihilism.  And not the self-conscious nihilism of late-70’s punk rockers, but an unconscious nihilism that is all the more dangerous for not understanding what it is.  Hipsters, for Haddow, embody the nihilism that reeks deep in the core of capitalist consumer society.  Just as capitalist market commodifies all, reducing everything, regardless of its nature, to the level of object for sale, hipsters will consume and assimilate material culture without distinction, without regard for its history or meaning.

But is Haddow right to be so concerned?  His writing seethes contempt for hipster art-parties, their drinking, dancing, late-night carousing and drug use (stopping short of commenting on loose sexual morals, though this is absolutely central to the hipster lifestyle).  But none of this is new.  In generation after generation, segments of the youth population have drifted through their twenties indulging one desire after another, finding creativity and sensual gratification to be as important if not more important than imbuing life with meaning through self-sacrificing political struggle or individual achievement.  Haddow simply does not know what to label to give this phenomenon.  It is not nihilism, but old-fashioned youthful bohemianism.

The bohemian lifestyle has a long history, originating in 1840’s Paris among young artists and socialites of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, and winding its way down to us through the ages.  There was a bohemian aspect to nearly every important youth subculture from then until now, from the leftist intellectuals of Greenwich Village in the 1910’s to the flappers and swingers of the Prohibition era, from the Beatniks to the “free love” radicals of the 1960’s.  Note that many of these youth subcultures are viewed by Haddow wistfully, and are held up to the youth of today as examples of what they ought to be.

Not only is bohemianism not new, but hysterical condemnation of bohemianism – in the vein of the article in question – is likewise nothing new.  The very first appearance of the original Bohemians in 1840’s Paris was accompanied by proclamations that Bohemianism represented nothing less than the beginning of the downfall of society.  This derision of youthful hedonism and irresponsibility has reappeared in various forms throughout history, typically annunciated from the viewpoint of moral conservatism.    For Bohemians were known to disdain traditional monogamous sexual relations, to have greater tolerance for homosexuality, to fritter away time partying and creating art rather than leading respectable lives.  Until the 1970’s, it can be said that bohemianism was a direct challenge to a status quo that required sexual repression and delayed gratification to power the engines of capitalist growth, and thus was frequently married to movements for more fundamental social change.  This convergence was clearly expressed in infamous slogans of the 1960’s such as “Make love, not war”, and “Drop acid, not bombs”.  Quite frequently, Bohemian lifestyles and anti-capitalist ideology walked hand-in-hand.

This was, however, certainly not always the case.  Many previous youthful hedonists – such as the swingers of the 1920’s, and to a lesser extent, the Beats – were largely apolitical.  And of course many a humorless communist or anarchist disdained art, drug use and free sexuality as so many bourgeois indulgences or opiates of the people.  Only occasionally throughout history did strands of leftist philosophy advocate sensual indulgence as “liberation”.  And cultural developments since the mid-1970’s have definitively disentangled leftist politics from such hedonism, showing this marriage of private vice and public virtue to be one of convenience – the result of historical contingencies – and not of necessity.

Economic, cultural, and political changes since 1970 have brought about a dramatic realignment in the relationship between the economy and desire.  Whereas prior to about 1970 the US economy was primarily powered by production, since this time we have seen a shift towards an economy in which consumption is central (at least in the First World, as production moved to the Third).  In order to encourage and endlessly expand consumption, capitalism, through advertising and media, stokes the flames of desire for sensual gratification.  As a result, desires that were once transgressive – for multiple sex partners, for nights of drinking and drug use at psychedelic dance clubs – are now harnessed in service of the consumer economy.

This in turn has resulted in an odd but perhaps unavoidable puritanical turn in anti-capitalist critique of which Haddow’s essay is typical.  Beginning with Marcuse and Adorno, who in the 1960’s theorized the increasingly intimate relationship between desire and consumption as “repressive (or mechanical) desublimation”, a segment of Leftist cultural criticism has reversed its sometime stance of calling for the full liberation of desire to critiquing manifestations of such liberation as co-opted and manipulated.

And so it is not so much that the hipster is the manifestation of a new trend.  It is rather that the hipster is simply the bohemian in a world in which bohemianism among the young is not only tolerated but encouraged.  Hipsters cannot really be blamed for this, and there isn’t anything inherently progressive in bohemianism’s opposite, sensual renunciation.  In behaving hedonistically, hipsters are simply taking advantage of the freedom of youth in the same manner as generations of young people before them.

So hipsters, in all their pettiness and vice, are not really breaking any new ground.  But isn’t something different still going on here?  Didn’t past generations of youth still have goals and values; didn’t they still believe in something?  Isn’t the uniqueness of hipsters that all they have left is the hedonism?  And so, even if it is acknowledged that partying and screwing are neither new nor objectionable in themselves, can’t we still condemn modern youth – hipsters – for being concerned with these things to the exclusion of all else?

The answer is no, for reasons that will become clear later.  But first we need to listen to what exactly is going on when people contrast the youth of today – hipsters, hip-hop urban kids, and other groups – to the youth of previous generations.  For often when this is done – and Haddow’s article is a prime example of this – the previous generations are painted in an overly charitable light.

Youth movements of the past were far from simple phenomena; they were as varied and multifaceted as youth culture is today.  Punk-rockers were not uniformly revolutionary; punk-rock articulated a wide spectrum of political ideologies, from anarchism to nihilism to (in its close cousins) anti-immigrant racism.  The “counterculture” of the sixties included not just SDS activists and Black Panthers but apolitical “drop-out” hippies, reactionary Hell’s Angels, and New Age spiritualists.  Young people in the 1950’s were more famous for car races and rock-and-roll than for progressive political commitment.

When these complexities are pasted over in the interest of a negative characterization of the present, what is going on is nostalgia.  Nostalgia, a longing for the lost past, reconstructs an ideal past that never existed in order to flee from the unavoidably complex present.  It occurs on both sides of the political spectrum, though left-wing and right-wing nostalgia differ slightly in form and function.  Right-wing nostalgia tends to long for an earlier historical epoch as a whole or its dominant culture, a time when “things made sense” and a more traditional morality prevailed.  As such, it generally expresses a desire to recreate the dominant power relations of the past – between men and women, whites and minorities, middle-class and working-class – and hides inconvenient aspects (racism, oppression of women) of the time in which these relations prevailed in order to make the time appear in ideal form.

Leftist nostalgia, by contrast, does not long for a former time, being all too aware of the oppression that characterized any given moment of the past.  Instead, leftist nostalgia longs for the return to a given social movement and its historical context of vital and authentic struggle (the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, the 1960’s anti-war and black liberation movements, etc.).  It looks not to an era but to a given historical moment, and longs not for the past but for the possibilities that a moment in the past contained.  Thus it longs for a moment when a radically different future seemed possible, more possible than it does now.  In order to do this, it idealizes the past movement and moment, repressing inconvenient aspects (racism among past labor leaders, naiveté among youthful activists, poor leadership decisions, fundamentally unrealizable visions).  Leftist nostalgia tends to create saints and martyrs, and in its light past failures will appear as the result of nefarious actions from those in power and not of mistakes made by leftists movements themselves.

This sort of nostalgia is unhelpful to modern leftists for two reasons.  First, it allows us to absolve, through deliberate forgetfulness, our ancestors in struggle of their grievous mistakes in order that we may retain their visions and strategies intact.  That is, we forget their errors in order that we may repeat them ad nauseum.  But more importantly, nostalgia is fundamentally a flight from the present, a refusal to live fully in the here and now, because of an unwillingness to reckon with its irreducible complexity and difficulty.  It leads us, as it has led Douglass Haddow, to look upon the present with undue despair and to reject the world around us in toto.  We owe it to ourselves and to our present moment, the only one we have a choice of living in, to do better.

Let us finally turn to the reason why hipsters do not believe in anything (and they don’t), and why this is actually not a problem.  In doing so, we will have to approach doing the impossible – actually providing a definition for what exactly a hipster is.

The fundamental mistake made when one compares “hipsters” to 1970’s punks or 1960’s radicals lies in the elementary insight that while punk-rockers called themselves such and radicals loudly proclaimed their revolutionary identities, nobody claims to be a hipster.  Hipsters are always labeled as such by others, never themselves.  And yet they exist, as a definite social subgroup, clearly distinct from non-hipsters within the general population (though who exactly they are is up for debate).  This is because while punks and radicals were countercultures, hipsters are merely a subculture.

To make a provisional distinction between these two terms, consider the distinction Marx made (using Hegelian terminology) between a class in-itself and a class for-itself.  For Marx, the proletariat’s existence was a matter of clear social fact, undeniable and unavoidable.  But the proletariat did not necessarily know that it was a class, and it definitely did not typically understand what (according to Marx) its interests were.  As unaware, it was a class-in-itself, an object of sociological knowledge.  Not until it became self-aware would it become a class for-itself, a fighting force capable of articulating its desires and interests and carrying on conscious political action.

A counterculture is a social group for-itself, conscious of themselves as different, as distinct from “mainstream society”, as promoting a competing vision of how to live.  Hipsters are simply not this.  They are a subculture, a social group only in-itself, labeled and described by others, differing from the mainstream only haphazardly or unconsciously, because a large number of its individual members as individuals happen to choose to differ from the mainstream in the same way.

As such, as a group that does not consider itself a group, whose members continuously loudly disaffiliate themselves from it, hipsters are by nature incapable of having consciously shared beliefs.  And this is why a critique of hipsters as “not believing in anything” is utterly disingenuous.  What they are being faulted with here is not having an ideology, a set of beliefs that bind them together as a group and allow them to express common goals and aims.  Hipsters, as a subgroup ashamed of their own existence, cannot have an ideology.  In this sense it is true – in fact, axiomatic – that hipsters as hipsters don’t believe in anything.  This is also why this fact simply does not matter.

What Haddow seems to fault today’s youth with is not forging a genuine youth-based movement for radical change.  Perhaps he wishes such a movement were happening right now so he could participate in it.  But asking “Why don’t the youth rise up?” is really no different than asking “Why don’t the workers rise up?”.  There is no shortage of social problems for a movement of youth, workers or whomever to address.  But the existence of social problems does not in itself occasion social movements.  Social movements are historical singularities, produced through a complicated convergence of historical contingencies, unpredictable and utterly impossible to recreate.  But for our intents and purposes, as people residing in the here and now and who see the need for such a movement, the essential element, the only one with which we need concern ourselves, is conscious organizing.  Mass-movements are made, not born, brought about by long and hard work by committed activists (who happen to be lucky enough to live during a particular set of historical circumstances).

And so in this context, let us figure out who these hipsters are and whether they are potential material for progressive political organizing.

What is the hipster?  In most general terms, she is a college educated, (generally) white urbanite in her early 20’s to mid-30’s, who works in a somewhat non-corporate environment and has not yet had children. That is really all you can say without muddying the water, and there are exceptions even to these few general rules.  But some cultural and ideological corollaries flow directly from this brief description.

First, the hipster is in the demographic most likely to be politically progressive: college educated, young, and living in major urban areas.  This means more tolerant toward homosexuals, more likely to favor green policies, more questioning of traditional authorities such as police, big business people and the Republican Party.

Second, since the hipster lives in cities, and particularly in the most desirable cities, she pays high rents, especially considering her non-corporate income.  This means she seeks places to live in more affordable, traditionally working class neighborhoods, often crowding into a small, run-down apartment with a number of other adult residents.  This makes the hipster both more likely to favor progressive housing-rights legislation and the ideal shock-troop of gentrification.

Third, the hipster will seek means to reduce expenditures on many items.  Thus hipsters’ fixation with used items via craigslist, their patronizing of used and vintage clothing stores, and preference for bicycling over cars, and buying the cheapest beer and food available.  From this is derived the tendency of hipster culture toward pastiche, which is not primarily cultural cannibalism but rather making the best of a bad situation.  It also accounts for the adoption of working-class styles (Pabst, burritos, v-neck T-shirts), because they initially tend to represent cheap options.

In both cases – the pastiche of hipster dress and the adoption of working-class symbols – the adaptations take on a life of their own and become fetishes, so that certain “looks” and items become desirable in and of themselves and not because they are a cheap way of looking good or getting drunk, for example.  At this point, the hipster is susceptible to manipulation by advertisers.  After all, hipsters are young, childless and tend to be employed, and so have disposable income.  They are, like all subgroups before them, a niche-market in the eyes of the capitalism, and so are, like everybody else, constantly prey for the forces of commodification.  It can be said of hipsters, though, that they offer more resistance than is the societal average to these forces.

Finally, hipsters, like ages of bohemians before them, have generally chosen to postpone marriage and family indefinitely.  This results in more openness to sexual experimentation, more sexual promiscuity, and more of a tendency to question to traditionally prescribed life-paths.  Further, this allows more time for hipsters to focus on themselves, their interests, their artistic projects, and to develop their desire for self-creation.  They will tend to be better read and informed than the population as a whole, will know more about obscure cultural artifacts (art films, old music, etc).  This latter tendency can often devolve into the use of cultural knowledge as snobbery, to exclude others who are less “in the know”.  But is can also result in hipsters discovering more creative or inspired music, film and books, works that allow for a reframing and re-conceptualization of the world outside the prescriptions of commercial mass-culture.

So, in the end, I ask, what is so bad about hipsters?  Sure, they are ridiculous, but no more so than anybody else.  Sure, they dress similar, but actually less so than most people.  They like irony more than is healthy, and there are some among their ranks who are the worst kind of self-serving, politically apathetic, vapid, pleasure-seeking, pretentious wastoids imaginable.  But there are also many “hipsters”, though they would shrink from the term in horror, who are deeply engaged political activists on every important progressive front, who are genuinely good musicians and artists, who think deeply about social and philosophical issues, and who – dare we say it – have subscriptions to or even write for Adbusters magazine.  They also like to party and have a good time, to dress so that they look good, to be as sexually liberated as their parents’ generation, to listen to music that makes them happy.  Why hate them for this?

Yes, of course, young mostly white college educated people are massively privileged by world standards.  And no, the hipster lifestyle is not revolutionary, and it does not consist of renouncing privilege in order to bring about justice.  But in a fight for a better world, these people are some of our most likely allies.  In many ways, if we get over our hang-ups, we will realize that they simply are us.  It is time to get over it and to get over our generation’s interminable and counterproductive self-hatred.  Take a look in the mirror and say the following with me: “The kids are alright”.


Dave Monaghan is a full-time social worker from San Francisco, CA.  In his official capacity, he works with formerly homeless adults to try to maintain their housing and to move them towards reaching their goals.  He is also an activist and (aspiring) writer in his spare time.  Image by Kurt Christensen