Growing up in middle Amerika, punk rock made a huge impact on my teenage years. Like many who grew up on punk rock during its resurgence in the 90’s and early 2000s, the mostly irreverent 1994 Punk in Drublic was one of my favorite albums. Another NOFX album left a lasting impression on me.
‘The Decline,’ NOFX’s 1999 socio-political opus, shattered punk rock conventions. In a genre of under 4 minute songs with repetitive chord, rhythm, and lyrical progressions, ‘The Decline’ is a single 18 minute long song that is distinctly punk yet aesthetically unique, using allusion and allegory to paint a picture of a vaguely posited social and political ‘decline.’
The question of what psychologically sets First World revolutionaries (who are inherently traitors to their own class interest) apart from others has always intrigued me. For example, a friend and I could together sing the whole 18 minutes of ‘The Decline’ acapella, yet we turned out quite differently. While I have yet to understand what precisely lie behind this difference, it is obvious the song had a different impact and was likely interpreted differently.
Content-wise, ‘The Decline’ is a narrative description of social forces characteristic of a perceived decay of human progress. While the opening lines are ‘Where are all the stupid people from/And how’d they get to be so dumb,’ singers ‘Fat Mike’ and ‘Spike’ go on the mention specific features of US degeneracy. As is typical with punk rock, NOFX uses a lot of sarcasm, narrating at once from their own perspective while also parodying what they see as normative ideology: “Blame it on/human nature/man’s destiny/blame it on the greedy-ocracy…Don’t think/Stay home/Drink your wine/Watch the fire burn/His problem’s not mine/Just be that model citizen.” The song also deals with things like white gun culture, violence, empathy, prisons, psychiatry, drug abuse, suicide, Christian conservatism, war, and individual acquiescence.
‘The Decline’ is not perfect and has a few one-liners which reflect common liberal First Worldist assumptions (“America’s for sale/And we can get a good deal on it/And make a healthy profit”). Beyond vague lines about “A million people are smart/smarter than one,” the song doesn’t attempt to offer up broad or particular solutions.
The significance of the Decline, i.e., its meaning, is as a reflection of the decline of whatever progressive features remained of US-led imperialism: a reflection of its increasingly decadent economy and a culture characterized by vapid consumerism. At times, Fat Mike directly references and satirizes Amerika’s corporate hijacking of culture, in this case a Coca Cola commercial from the 1970s: “I’d like to teach/the world to sing/in perfect harmony/a symphonic blank stare.”
“The Decline” reflects the despair faced by resistant youth as they are acculturated on super-profits and reactionary culture. With far more words, it expresses the contradiction between the ‘inevitable’ sacrifice of one’s youthful and idealistic moralism on the altar of parasitic petty-bourgeois culture. Resonating mainstream culture, Fat Mike implores: “Make a wager on your greed, a wager on your pride/why try to beat them when a million others have tried.”
Blunt sarcasm is both a weakness and strength. While it allows NOFX to express ‘common ideology,’ it does so in a way that allows for literal agreement. More observant than judgmental, it is bluntly honestly with its appraisal of mass Amerikan culture:
“And so we go/On with our lives/We know the truth/But prefer lies/Lies are simple/Simple is bliss/Why go against tradition when we can/admit defeat/live in decline/be the victim of our own design.”
Nonetheless, Fat Mike, in something of a final summary, is quick to note in poignant yet nonchalant frankness that the typical attitude he is satirizing is conscious of its overriding negative role: “Fellow members/Club we’ve got ours/I’d like to introduce you to our host/He’s got his/And I’ve got mine/Meet the decline.”
“The Decline” is not a deep analysis of capitalist-imperialist parasitism and how it shapes culture and ideology. Instead, it is an honest reflection. Amerikans, on some level, know they are not simply complacent in the wake of injustice and degeneracy, but that their complacency is an injustice and degeneracy. Comfort, largely derived from the exploitation of Third World and oppressed peoples, has bought off Amerikans and First Worlders, shaping their attitudes into one of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) approval of extant social systems and its derivative social and cultural ills.
For some, such as my teenage cohort with whom I’d sing ‘The Decline’ with, the message was easily accepted literally: ‘it is easier to accept the world as it is and contribute to ongoing decadence than it is to take a stand with the long-interest of humanity, class struggle, and the exploited masses of the Third World.’
Though the struggle for Communism implies creating a new working socialist and communist morality, Communism is not a universal moral or value analysis. Rather, it analyzes the world form of the material interests of various groups. The First World mass petty-bourgeoisie has an immediate material interest in sustaining imperialist exploitation of the Third World along with its super-structural features. This is admitted in honest reflection in First World culture, ‘The Decline’ being one example.
Politically, Communism represents the long-term interests of humanity at large via revolutionary struggles to fulfill the immediate interests of the world’s exploited masses, the proletariat. US-led imperialism is certainly in a period of ‘decline,’ i.e., it is increasingly reactionary and parasitic. For humanity to escape being dragged down with it, the only viable solution is a rising tide of struggle for global new democratic and socialist revolution.