The UK Acid House movement of the late 80s is synonymous with fevered hedonism. The peace and love experience – fuelled by copious amounts of Ecstasy – and day-glo painted illegal raves, where thousands of dancers congregated in fields and warehouses. However, this youth culture scene also had an element of serious and transgressive political content to it. The rave scene emerged at the end of the 1980s, which had been dominated by the right-wing and ultra-capitalist regime of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s ideological political vision was to remake Britain in the image of a yuppie utopia of conspicuous consumption, famously remarking that “there is ‘no such thing as society’, only lone individuals”. While the 80’s were a boom time for many, they also saw an escalation in youth unemployment, along with growing racial and class disparities.
As artist Jeremy Deller shows in his excellent documentary Everybody in the Place, the rave scene emerged from a decade where the British government had violently crushed oppositional movements. From striking miners to New Age travellers, the state threw its power against any collective gatherings which seemed to defy its aspirational, materialist consensus. Encouraged by tabloid hysteria around drugs, the police saw the rave scene as a new enemy from within. However, state repression coupled with the increased commercialisation of acid house parties, worked instead to radicalise some party goers and groups. The collective Spiral Tribe set up a legendary sound-system, throwing parties in the UK and around Europe. In May of 1992, they were involved with the Castlemorton Common Festival; a week long free rave which culminated in thirteen members of Spiral Tribe being arrested and charged- in a long running court case.
Other sound-systems, like Luton’s Exodus (motto: ’Peace, Love, Unity, Struggle’), aimed to connect rave with broader social issues in the community. They squatted buildings to set up community centres and housing co-operative and their just efforts were met with harassment from the local police. In an effort to crush the rave scene, the British government introduced the draconian 1994 Criminal Justice Act. Among its stipulations was a restriction on events playing “repetitive beats”. Partygoers didn’t take this attack on their civil liberties lying down, with over 50 000 people taking to the streets of London to march in protest. These tactics from the rave scene would continue to influence radical activism in the late 1990s. Anticapitalist groups like Reclaim The Streets, which protested against urban pollutions, organised demonstrations like raves thus encouraging people to come out and dance to pumping sound-systems in political protest. By embracing the carnival elements of acid house, protests like the 1999 Carnival Against Capitalism saw 10 000 people dancing radically in London’s financial district.
The explosion of creativity and collaboration which came out of acid house is an important reminder of the innovation that occurs when youth culture meets radical politics. This era may seem like a different world, but still it retains the power to inspire us in the present moments and those going forward.