Argument

Making Punk a Threat Again

Is Russia's Pussy Riot already the most politically influential punk rock group ever?

For a list of five other bands that have upended regimes and upset dictators, click here.

Pussy Riot is -- to borrow the Clash's mantle for a second -- the only band that matters. 

It almost doesn't matter what the court says. The three women of Pussy Riot -- an explosive, obnoxious cross between a band and an anonymous Russian dissidents' movement -- have, in an important sense, already won their farce of a trial in Moscow. Every day that their trial for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" continues, they call international attention to the paranoid repression of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Pussy Riot has skewered Putin on the horns of a dilemma: Either his government convicts the band and martyrs it even further, or it backs down and concedes that prosecuting the masked trio for a cacophonous musical protest at Christ the Savior Cathedral that called attention to the Russian church's alliance with the Putin regime was always a mistake. Three of the five band members now face the prospect of seven years in prison, which has prompted an unlikely international outcry. On Thursday, Aug. 2, ahead of a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin indicated he'd prefer to back down.

This is not supposed to happen. Dissidents do not fare well in Putinist Russia, for one; for another, punk rock -- rock 'n' roll's snottier, wittier, and more abrasive bastard child -- does not typically win. Punk has a long history of aspiring to disrupt corrupt and authoritarian governments, corporations, and other structures of international power. But it does not have a long history of success. Accordingly, punk rock has set more achievable, less globalized political goals: typically, localized protests and raising consciousness. Pussy Riot, obscure just months ago, is now an international phenomenon, with the three band members proclaimed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and the band the darling of long-suffering Russian intellectuals who have rallied to its defense. And while no one may be talking about the group for its music, a look back at the history of punk rock's earlier geopolitical achievements shows that Pussy Riot has already surpassed them -- and perhaps given punk rock a future as a global force for justice and freedom.

It didn't take long for punk to move from the no-future nihilism of the Sex Pistols, the legendary mid-1970s British band that basically started punk rock. The Clash quickly turned punk's attention to global struggles. Joe Strummer, the Clash's creative force, had punk rock singing about the Spanish Civil War, the Jamaican underclass, the martyrdom of Chilean leftist poet Víctor Jara, even, on a record titled Sandinista!, about the victims of Soviet and Chinese communism. In Northern Ireland, contemporary Stiff Little Fingers sang about creating a different kind of insurgency -- the band called it an "anti-security force," as the group opposed the local militias alongside the British -- on "Alternative Ulster." Punk fractured into endless obscure subgenres and spread worldwide, but a common theme persisted: resistance to arbitrary, brutal global power, something that can be heard in everything from the politicized crust punk of Britain's Discharge to the melodic hardcore of Canada's Propagandhi to the abrasive folk of Florida's Against Me!. Punk channeled youthful angst into an anti-war, anti-government, and anti-corporate catechism.

But those ambitions did not yield tangible geopolitical results. Perhaps the high-water mark of punk's geopolitical relevance came from a single British band that had outlived its peak late-1970s creative period. The pioneers of a particularly abrasive kind of punk -- you'll know it from the relentless, militant snare-drumming -- Crass stood for anarchism, pacifism, and humor (sometimes humorlessly so). But it took an actual war in the Falkland Islands for Crass, by then far past its prime, to spring into action. Their typically caustic single asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "How Does It Feel (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?" An improbable indie chart-topper, it prompted Tory parliamentarian Tim Eggar to attempt to have Crass prosecuted under an anti-obscenity law.

Escaping the authorities, Crass pulled off a prank that foreshadowed Pussy Riot's success. In 1983, the band secretly provided credulous journalists with a tape purporting to reveal a conversation between Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It seemingly confirmed left-wing paranoia about both conservative leaders: Reagan appeared to urge restraint on a bloodthirsty Thatcher when discussing the Falklands; Thatcher got Reagan to muse about sacrificing Europe in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. The tape quickly spiraled into an international incident. The U.S. State Department and the CIA claimed it was Soviet disinformation: "This type of activity fits the pattern of fabrications circulated by the Soviet K.G.B., although usually they involve fake documents rather than tapes," read an official State Department statement. The Sunday Times ran a story headlined "How the KGB Fools the West's Press." The point made and the governments embarrassed, Crass band members admitted to the Associated Press that they, not the Soviets, were the architects of the hoax.

Nearly 30 years later, the furor is forgotten. Crass is better remembered for its first two albums, The Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass, than for the so-called "Thatchergate Tapes." For people like me, who continue to take this music far too seriously, that unfortunately says a lot for the geopolitical relevance of punk rock.

Ever since, to the degree that punk has political objectives -- and there has always been a sizable contingent within the punk scene dissenting from that proposition -- they've manifested in two forms: protest and local challenge. Washington, D.C.'s legendary 1980s hardcore punk scene symbolizes the first. In the summer of 1985, a year punks nationwide remember as D.C.'s "Revolution Summer," local punks like Guy Picciotto of the band Rites of Spring brought drums to the South African Embassy to harass the representatives of the apartheid regime. "We thought we'd inject a little spontaneity into it," Picciotto, dissatisfied with the then-rote protests, recollected. Jeff Nelson, co-founder of the crucial D.C. hardcore label Dischord Records, plastered area walls on Christmas 1987 with a poster mocking Attorney General Ed Meese. The Justice Department called the public propaganda "obnoxious"; its origins stumped the Washington Post. Soon afterward, Picciotto's subsequent band Fugazi, Dischord's flagship act, would perform shows on the National Mall, denouncing the Gulf War.

The other option has been localized action -- either to change local communities or to change the way people exposed to punk rock see the world. In every American city that has a punk scene -- which is to say every American city -- you'll find its members in parks, usually on weekends, cooking vegetarian food to distribute free to all comers, served up with anti-war pamphlets, in a political ritual called Food Not Bombs. Alternatively, other bands have worked to desegregate punk itself, an overwhelmingly white, male, and straight subculture. One of the best bands of the 1990s, Chicago's Los Crudos, was an all-Latino band that sang almost exclusively in Spanish, provoking white youth to consider what it's like to be a cultural outsider; its singer, Martin Sorrondeguy, went on to start Limp Wrist, a rare out, gay hardcore band.

All these efforts have meant a tremendous amount to the millions of people whose lives have been enriched by punk, which, at its best, instills an ethic of personal responsibility and self-reliance that outsiders can find difficult to reconcile with punk's shambolic aesthetics. (When no large venues will book your band, you have to build a tour network of people's basements and couches yourself, after all.) But they haven't meant much for international affairs -- admittedly, a near-impossible goal for what remains a youth movement. Punk protest has become something of an end to itself -- "Protest and Survive," as Discharge ironically sang -- a merit badge to earn or a ritual for punks to uphold. Punk still confronts war and injustice in its lyrics -- Crudos' still-amazing "Asesinos" is about U.S. support for Central American despots -- but like most artists, its geopolitical impact is marginal. The motto of the venerable Minneapolis anarcho-punk label Profane Existence is -- revealingly and somewhat pathetically -- "Making Punk a Threat Again."

Pussy Riot may not reverse that trend. Punk remains primarily a Western phenomenon, which means, as Propagandhi sang, "I recognize the irony that the very system I oppose affords me the luxury of biting the hand that feeds." Punks who don't actually live under real authoritarian governments don't face the high stakes that the members of Pussy Riot do. But while punk rock mobilized heavily against the 2003 Iraq war, releasing fundraiser albums for activist organizations and throwing anti-war concerts on the National Mall, they didn't so much as attract George W. Bush's attention. Pussy Riot, however, clearly has Putin's.

But maybe it takes a punk visionary to truly recognize Pussy Riot's potential. The band's "method of protest hinges on anonymity. They have created a method of protest that is full of possibility and can be used globally, across international borders," Tobi Vail observed to the indie culture magazine Dazed & Confused on Aug. 2. "Putin can jail individual members of the collective, but how can he stop the potential for new members to join or keep the movement from spreading beyond Russia?"

If anyone knows about creating a method of protest that's full of possibility and applicable across international borders, it's Vail, one of the most inspiring figures punk rock ever produced. The bicoastal band she drummed for, Bikini Kill, transcended its punk roots to become arguably the most important feminist rock group of all time. The "riot grrrl" movement that Bikini Kill helped forge represented a watershed for women demanding representation in an overwhelmingly male underground culture, and it quickly went global. Bikini Kill's caustic performances were political events in miniature: They double-dared women to be who they will and demanded that men confront their privilege, rather than congratulate themselves for being enlightened enough to attend the show.

Indeed, consider what Vail recognized. Pussy Riot performed anonymously at the Moscow church, its members' faces covered in colorful balaclavas. They can be anyone and that might be the inspiration for the next Pussy Riot. It just so happens that as their trial began, punk's most influential chronicle, the fanzine Maximumrocknroll, published its 30th-anniversary issue. The only article about the impact punk continues to have internationally was about Pussy Riot -- an implicit recognition that three women haven't just shamed Putin and indicted his gangsterism, but have redeemed the aspirations of a global protest culture.

Igor Mukhin via wikiamedia.org

Democracy Lab

Smokeless Stoves, Girl-Friendly Schools, and the Bloc That Wasn’t

Academic economists usually air their new ideas first in working papers. Here, before the work gets dusty, a quick look at transition policy research in progress.

Smoking Break

Looking for a cheap way to save millions of lives each year in rural parts of poor countries -- and prevent soil erosion and slow global warming at the same time? For some years now, development specialists have been touting the virtues of simple, cheap, high-efficiency cooking stoves that can reduce indoor air pollution from open fires -- one of the most prominent causes of respiratory illness and premature death in parts of Africa and Asia. What's more, along with protecting householders (especially children) from smoke inhalation, they cut back the use of brushwood that otherwise protects fragile soils from erosion and reduce total greenhouse gas emissions. (This is one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton, among others, has become a passionate advocate of  "clean cookstoves.").

But there's a catch: To get any benefit from these stoves, they have to be used. According to a scientifically controlled study by Rema Hanna (Harvard), Esther Duflo (MIT), and Michael Greenstone (MIT) that was conducted in a poor village in India, introduction of the stoves did reduce smoke inhalation in the first year. But in the three years following, the stoves ceased to make a noticeable difference. "Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately," the economists report, and "did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly." The sobering lesson, of course, is that engineering studies back home have limited predictive value on how technology will be used in real-world development settings. Up in Smoke: The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves. MIT Economics Department Working Paper. Download free here.

Forged in Adversity

Non-specialists tend to assume that Eastern Bloc economies were one undifferentiated train wreck before the collapse of the Soviet empire. But in fact these newly freed economies had quite different characters in terms of social and human capital and traditions of entrepreneurship. And while none of them has had an easy time integrating with Europe, it shouldn't be surprising they've followed widely divergent paths in managing the transition. If you really want to understand what happened, you could spend a few months perusing the literature -- or you could cut a number of corners and read this splendid big-picture analysis of two decades of wrenching change written by Anders Aslund, who made his reputation predicting the economic implosion of the USSR long before it was fashionable.

Don't expect me to summarize the summary. But I can offer you a sneak preview: Those difficult decades left Eastern Europe in surprisingly good shape to recover from this last global recession. Indeed, Poland is now in a far better position to grow than the countries on the southern periphery of the Eurozone. Lessons from Reforms in Central and Eastern Europe in the Wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Peterson Institute Working Paper WP 12-7. Download free here.

Go Girl

There's now a virtual consensus among development specialists that reducing gender inequality is critical to jumpstarting economic growth in the poorest countries -- and that the surest route to greater equality lies in education. But western educators learned decades ago that the culture of inequality deterring female empowerment is all too often reinforced in school. Among other problems, girls are inclined to defer to boys and therefore get less out of the classroom experience.

A group of researchers (Harounan Kazianga, Dan Levy, Leigh Linden, and Matt Sloan) working under the auspices of the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Germany have confirmed that what's true in Europe and America applies to ultra-poor Burkina Faso as well. They compared traditional primary schools with "girl-friendly" schools created under the BRIGHT program, which is funded by the U.S. government. (BRIGHT schools, by the way, are apparently co-ed, but go out of their way to make themselves attractive to girls by adding more and better trained female teachers, setting up separate bathrooms for girls, etc.) The results have been pretty spectacular, increasing girls' enrollment rates and raising test scores for both boys and girls. The Effects of "Girl-Friendly" Schools: Evidence from the BRIGHT School Construction Program in Burkina Faso. IZA Discussion Paper No. 6574. Download free here.

Islamic Derivatives

For all the bad rap following the collapse of the financial bubble in 2008, financial derivatives remain indispensable in managing risk in modern economies (your economist-narrator said defiantly). But sharia law bars financial speculation just as it bans interest. And more often than not, the creation of a derivative -- say, a bet on the price of gold in six months -- requires that one party to the transaction have speculation in mind. Is there any way to make derivatives acceptable in financial systems governed by Islamic law?

According to Andreas Jobst (Bermuda Monetary Authority) and Juan Solé (Bank for International Settlements), the answer is a definite maybe. By their reading of the literature, sharia does offer significant wiggle room, allowing derivatives in a variety of circumstances. What's important now, the authors argue, is to codify acceptable practices in the relevant countries so that parties that do derivative contracts don't bear the risk that their agreements will be declared invalid when there are efforts to enforce them. Operative Principles of Islamic Derivatives -- Towards a Coherent Theory. IMF Working Paper WP/12/63. Download here free.

Spillovers from Microfinance

The idea that the introduction of formal ways to borrow and save can make a big difference in the poorest of places is now widely accepted. Indeed, tiny loans from both non-profits and profit-seeking businesses seem to be the fashion these days, financing everything from cell phones to farm equipment.

What's less clear, though, is their impact on the welfare of people other than the immediate beneficiaries. Jeffry Flory, an economist at the University of Chicago, examined one particular aspect of the question: The degree to which access to formal savings and credit served as a safety net in times of crop failures and other disasters. In a study of isolated villages in central Malawi, he found that a one percentage point increase in households with formal savings increased the number of households receiving inter-household gifts/loans by about three percentage points, along with the expected improvements in health outcomes.

A serendipitous finding, you say? Yes, but there is one catch: The obligation to support extended families and friends in hard time is, in a sense, a tax, and thus may well reduce the incentives to save and invest in just the sort of places that most desperately need it to grow.  Micro-Savings and Informal Insurance in Villages: How Financial Deepening Affects Safety Nets of the Poor, A Natural Field Experiment. Milton Friedman Institute Working Paper 2011-008. Download free here.

Trade and the Arab Spring

It's one thing to engineer a political revolution, and quite another to build a successful economy from the wreckage of autocracy and exploitation. Can the Arab Spring countries (Egypt and Tunisia for now, but who knows later on) find the means to become prosperous? Most relevant here, can the West make a difference in their fate?

Economists Thorvaldur Gylfason, Inmaculada Martínez-Zarzoso, and Per Magnus Wijkman explore one element: The potential for gains from greater economic integration, both within North Africa and between North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. They conclude that trade represents enormous untapped potential within the Arab Spring countries -- not an intuitive result, by the way -- and that Europe has the opportunity to use preferential access to its markets as a carrot to make economic reform easier. Solid potential. How Free Trade Can Help Convert the "ArabSpring" into Permanent Peace and Democracy. CESifo Working Paper 3882. Download free here.

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