Chris Lawton

Chris Lawton

Proper adults, concerned with weekend suit jackets and real estate value, would label us idiots for obsessing over sub-cultural minutiae.  In establishment eyes, skateboarders are supreme examples of modern fecklessness. Rather than engaging with the problems of the world, we consume and play, narcissistically broadcasting every banal thought or action to millions of other awful dickheads.  As identity is as much formed by how others see us, or how we think they see us, critiques of modern skateboarding tend to open with self-effacing reference to how small or silly our little world is and how we will all, at some point, need to grow up and move on – handing over our sense of adventure to some miserable cosmic desk clerk.  This is, of course, nonsense.  Skateboarding fucking matters just as much as anything else.  It gives us a frame of reference to view the real world along with a little bit of agency to do something positive about it.  Think SkatePal and Skateistan, Long Live Southbank and the range of small community projects Jenkem have shined a light on, from Detroit to Christchurch, to a thousand little DIY builds and micro-companies.   We may be permanently adolescent in the eyes of the sharp-suited alpha males of neoliberalism, but their views are increasingly unfit for purpose.  The philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us that Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant saw adulthood in very different terms.  A life well lived requires one to travel extensively, curate a sense of child-like wonder and accept the world as it is without ever giving up on the world as it should be.  Which sounds a lot like the life of the average skateboarder.

Photo by Pat Galloway

Photo by Pat Galloway

This is just as well, as the world as it is sucks.  Over half my British countrymen and women freely voted to leave the world’s biggest single market, wrecking our currency, international reputation and a vision, dreamed when the ash of World War II still hung in the air, of tolerance, trade and cooperation.  Across the Atlantic, a space-time rift threatens to release President Trump from a dimension of shared liberal and conservative nightmares - like a bankruptcy-prone Freddy Krueger.

Skateboarding, apart from being the thing that gets me through the day, is turning out to be a fine little petri dish to view both the unraveling of late capitalism and some nuggets of hope for the future.  Two interviews, cast out to the internet over the last couple of months, signify almost everything one needs to know about the states of ‘is’ and ‘should be’.  In his Jenkem interview, Girl Skateboards co-founder Mike Carroll broke a niche of the internet for a whole night.  Uncharacteristically fiery of temper for the quietly spoken cool guy, he overrode the entente cordiale between the bigger core brands and the sportswear giants and publicly sacked Marc Johnson, whose jump to Adidas was announced before his previous shoe sponsors, Lakai, had time to implement the agreed exit strategy.

No one, without hypocrisy, can judge MJ harshly for donning the three stripes at this stage in his career.  Nor should one harshly judge another for wearing Adidas or Nike. The reality we have accepted, through our votes and our purchasing behaviour, is the untrammelled free market.   The business of skateboarding is still a business.  The textbooks tell us that competition is good.  It pushes down prices and pushes up quality and innovation.  I’m old enough to remember the 1990s, when one would pay double normal retail price for a brand t-shirt or pair of sneakers that would fall apart in seconds.   Markets should be diverse ecosystems of small, medium and large brands.  By competing with Lakai, DC, Vans, Huf or Sole Tech, the sportswear giants constantly have to up their game, as do the core brands.   In the imaginary world of mainstream economics, monopolies eventually calcify, collapsing like the walls of Rome when the next Schumpeterian young buck ‘disrupts’ the market with a new, cheaper and better product.  So it is in Nike or Adidas’ long-term interests to exist in permanent non-lethal combat with the core brands, neither side ever having too much power – like some hokey 1980s fantasy where the dark and light exist in cosmic balance, otherwise we get red-eyed skeletons and shit.

It now seems that prophecies of skeletons are more realistic than MBA students’ demand and supply diagrams.  Adam Smith’s benign invisible hand has given way to ‘shareholder capitalism'.  Flight-prone investors want rapid returns, either through cutting costs (jobs, R&D investment) or aggressively expanding into new markets. An Exec who pitches a strategy of modest long term growth and gentle competition would rapidly exchange condo and Lexus for a divorcee’s apartment.  The advanced Western economies face a future of low growth interspersed with crisis.  Wages have stagnated, inequality has widened and insecure ‘bullshit jobs’ await the young, condemning a generation to be the new, unloved ‘precariat’ alongside the forgotten miners and steelworkers of yesteryear.  At the micro level, Carroll’s words say it all: “There’s so many different companies and they make skateboarding, and these other companies that want to take out companies… It’s like dude, you exist already, you don’t need to take these companies down. You don’t need every single skater.”   

The culture and market of skateboarding gets less diverse, beloved brands go bust, everything looks a bit more vanilla, and the giants leave for the next newest new thing their ‘cool hunters’ post on mood boards.   I like skating in Lakai.  I also like skating in Nikes.  And, when wanting to channel either Magenta or Kalis and the Sabotage dudes, I may revert to Adidas and then DC, and back again.  This is reflected in the honest purchasing behaviour of most skateboarders, and screaming ‘sell out’ will not save the world.  

The Northern Co

The Northern Co

What may save the world lies in the second of our two interviews, one on this very site with Long Islanders the Northern Co.  In this and an interview with The Palomino, founders Mike Gigante and Steve Fletschinger set out their reasons for starting their cool little brand, which have little to do with market domination or nurturing elite careers.  Dudes with kids and full-time jobs felt their local scene needed a kick in the arse whilst seeing little that appealed to their tastes.  Rather than chasing the lucrative youth market (that any industry insider would say accounts for the vast majority of sales) with weed motifs or faux-gangster video skits, they opt instead for the imagery of early North American frontiersmen.  Their web edits are bluegrass odes to childhood adventure and the classic Stereo videos, simple, warm and bitter-sweet.  This business model is not dissimilar to Bordeaux’s Magenta skateboards, whose founders, marquee professionals and creative masterminds Soy Panday and Vivien Feil also have day jobs.  

All of these describe their companies more as art projects or social enterprises, prioritising connections with other scenes, the joy gained from producing aesthetically appealing products, and ensuring skating with friends remains a weekly fixture in adult life.   Marx predicted that we would become ever more ‘alienated’ from the products we make, the customers delighted by them, and the satisfaction we experience.  At its core, our ‘species essence’ is the wish to create art and meaning: “Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.”  Companies like the Northern Co, Magenta, Scumco & Sons and many of the Theories brands offer a new middle way, that contribute to both the richness of the culture of skateboarding but also the quality of life for those running them.

But why does this have wider significance?  Contemporary thinkers, such as the British journalist Paul Mason (author of ‘Post capitalism: A guide to our Future’), believe that the abundance of information (when traditional economic models assume scarcity), has led to the slow, sputtering death of the current model – not least in dissolving the relationship between work and wages that once made it rational for us to give up creative pursuits for the 9 to 5.  Mason is an optimist.  He sees the sort of things the bros at the Northern Co get up to as both a lifeline for wellbeing in the here and now and a precursor to a future way of doing things:  “pulling your energy and time out of the mainstream economic and financial system, to put more of yourself into non-economic things you really care about… Things that make the world a better place – positive projects whose benefits can’t be measured by economists in monetary terms or GDP figures…  So you play the game, you do what’s necessary. You do the ten per cent extra that meets all the emotional labour requirements... But you take another percentage of yourself and you put it into the emerging post-capitalist world.”  

As a keen surfer himself, Mason sees the social, identity and health enhancement of ‘just doing stuff’.  Magenta talk about ‘worldwide connections’, and put their VXs where their mouths are by collaborating on projects all over the world and hooking bros up from Florida to the Channel Islands to Tokyo and Osaka.  This stuff has value already, but it will increase as the phenomena of the open source, sharing and cooperative economies come of age (as it already has in the case of Uber, Airbnb, etc., which exploit neoliberalism’s failure to make full use of resources, including individuals’ skills and ideas as well as cars and homes).   This is not yet a currency that will make many of us materially wealthy, but it has intense, lasting meaning.  In an era where we have allegedly reached ‘peak stuff’, such things will sooner or later gain more tangible value.

Mason’s ideas aren’t without challenge, from both the mainstream and from other radical thinkers (for example, cooperative networks are all well and good, but don't put food on the table, cover  the rent, or pay for the vast servers powering the internet).  But what the critics do accept is we can’t go on like this.  The world as it is has failed to give the younger generation sufficient incentive to engage in the zero sum deal of the traditional, passive and resigned model of adulthood.   Perhaps for the first time in skateboarding’s short life, us bunch of losers and awkward socializers are starting to map out the parameters of what may come next.  

Written By Chris Lawton.