We recently discussed the Boers as an example of reactionary exit gone wrong. I posit that motorcycle clubs area uniquely American form of reactionary exit, tribalism, and spontaneous social organization.
I became interested in biker culture shortly after the shootout in Waco that left 9 people dead, 20 injured, 239 detained, and 177 arrested and charged with engaging in organized crime. The bikers who weighed in on the stories had a very different opinion of the day’s events than the official story reported on the news. Many were absolutely convinced that the WACO police, perhaps operating from nearby rooftops, had shot the bikers themselves and then arrested everyone on site. Furthermore, they asserted, the Waco police were targeting any biker who rode through the city for arrest. “It’s open season on bikers.”
Everyone I happened to chat with who wasn’t a biker seemed overjoyed at the opportunity to tweet about hundreds of white criminal gang members killing each other and getting arrested.
After months of protests and arguments over whether the police murdered an innocent black guy or killed a criminal in self-defense, the difference in attitudes toward a possible case of the police murdering nine people who happened to be white was striking.
So what’s up with bikers? Who are they? What makes them tick? Why do they join clubs? And why do they love Harley Davidsons so much?
I’ve discovered that there are not a lot of good ethnographies of biker culture, and those that are out there focus on the 1%s, or Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs (often referred to as OMGs or Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in law enforcement publications.) The focus of my research has not been on Outlaw clubs, because I don’t think it’s very sensible to try to understand 100% of something by only reading about 1% of it, but rather the average Harley-riding motorcycle enthusiast.
Since I don’t have the spare time necessary for real fieldwork in a biker club, I have merely been talking talking with bikers about their experiences and researching them via the internet, rather than taking the immersive approach. I hope that I have not gotten anything terribly wrong, but if I have, feel free to let me know.
First, though, a little terminology:
- Organizations for motorcycle enthusiasts are called clubs, not gangs. Even the Hells Angels is officially the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
- “Outlaw” motorcycle clubs are a real thing that really exist, and yes, some of them engage in some form of illegal activity. However, Outlaws are a small % of people who like motorcycles. Most motorcyclists are not outlaws.
- Some bikers ride things that are not Harleys, but in biker culture, Harleys are the bike.
So. Who are bikers?
While bikers come in all shapes and sizes, from girls just riding their Vespas to work in Tokyo to rich guys puttering around on the weekend, biker culture in the US is solidly working class, white, and male.
In fact, I strongly suspect that the vast majority of bikers are ethnically mostly Borderland Scots + Scots-Irish + Cavaliers from south-eastern England (and Wales?,) but mot of their ancestors have been in this country for a couple hundred years, if not longer. In other words, they are old stock Southerners and Appalachians, and quite ethnically distinct both from the Puritans of the North and from the more recent immigrants, like the Catholic Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, etc. Many of them have ancestors or great- uncles who fought for the Confederacy or at least lived through the war. (Heck, I have sill-living relatives who are old enough that they heard first-hand stories from their relatives about the Civil War.)
Personality-wise, this is a group that is strongly ethno-nationalist and committed to the warrior ethos. I cannot help but see the Scottish reiver, no longer able to ride across the English border to steal cattle or women but still driven by that basic instinct, hopping aboard his Harley and roaring down the open road.
The most common occupation among bikers is military. Some huge percentage of them are vets or even current military; I’m not sure how many, but it’s a correlation that’s impossible to miss.
I don’t think this is just a coincidence; either something about both motorcycles and military employment attract the same group of people, or something about being in the military makes people ride Harleys.
I suspect it’s a little of each.
Many of the famous clubs were founded by vets; the Hells Angels, for example, are named after the WWII flying squadron Hells Angels:
The useful thing about this is that the attitudes of bikers are therefore likely to be similar to the attitudes of army grunts I’ve been sorta-studying, since there’s a huge overlap between the two groups.
The other thing motorcyclists are really into is religion, chiefly Protestant Christianity. I know the Southern Baptists are big in the South, but I don’t get the impression that Bikers are particularly Baptist–rather, I get the impression that they prefer more independent churches that cater more to the working/lower class (probably a lot of Charismatics), while Baptists lean more middle class.
In other words, Guns, God, and Glory.
To summarize, bikers are primarily working class, white, Southern men whose ancestors hailed from parts of Britain outside the Hajnal Line; they’re veterans, deeply religious, and strongly nationalist.
This is a group that, in every day life, is treated by the rest of society as low-status in pretty much every way. Elites look down on devout Christians and equate their beliefs with actual mental illness; Southerners and their symbols are despised; nationalistic whites have no place in polite society; and it is really harder to get lower in any social ladder than being screamed at by your superior officers in the army and then shot at by the enemy.
Being a biker, I theorize, not only satisfies a variety of instinctual/mental desires, like the enjoyment of riding down the open road, but also serves as a way to create an alternate society (exit) in which they are on top, rather than on the bottom. At work, you might just be an average Joe who lays carpet or digs ditches all day for crappy pay, but hop on your Harley and you are the king of the road and no one fucks with you.
What makes bikers tick?
Bikers are generally anarcho-tribalists who would die to defend their family or nation, but view the Federal Government as a hostile, occupying force that would march them into a mushroom cloud to save a few dollars on animal subjects for radiation testing. Most don’t use the term “Cathedral,” but they understand the concept intuitively.
Back in the 60s and 70s, I suspect that many clubs were explicitly whites-only, but in my all of my conversations with bikers, I have not heard a single racist word. Even if a lot of the symbolism dates back to the Confederacy or has white power undertones, today the symbols seem to function more as a “fuck you” to society and represent in-group solidarity more than out-group dislike.
In-group solidarity and loyalty are vitally important in the biker world. “Band of Brothers” doesn’t just refer to guys in the army; it’s also a motorcycle club. Motorcycle clubs–and biker culture more generally–provide a sense of fierce tribal identity in a society that is otherwise anonymous, anomized, indifferent and huge.
The shared experience of being military veterans, as mentioned before, is an inseperable part of the biker experience. For many of these guys, war–be it WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq–was a traumatic experience, and they received little to no support upon returning to civilian life. The adrenaline rush of the motorcycle, fuck all attitude, and brotherhood of riders appealed to the returning war veteran’s psyche and provided the status and support society lacked.
Why Motorcycle Clubs?
One of the most interesting things about biker clubs is that they exist at all. Why do guys whose whole mystique is “fuck the system” form their own organizational structures with rules?
The obvious reason is that it’s safer to ride in groups than alone; cars have this nasty habit of accidentally running over bikers. Riding in packs makes bikers more visible and thus safer:
The other reason is that the club is a thede, an ethny, a tribe. People who are only a few centuries removed from a actual tribal clan system still have an instinctual desire to belong to a tight-knit group that has each other’s backs against the world.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of bikers, you’ve probably noticed that the pictures hardly ever show their faces. Rather, they show the backs of their jackets, where their club patches are displayed:
As far as I know, every club has its own, unique patches, but they all seem to have the same basic structure–a large central patch, with two more patches directly above and below it. EG:
1) Top rocker – used for club name
2) Club logo plus MC (Motorcycle club) patch
3) Bottom rocker – used for territory
4) 1% signifying “outlaw” intent (Note that the vast majority of bikers do not belong to Outlaw clubs)
5) Club name or location
6) Office or rank held within club
7) Side patch
The basic structure is remarkably similar across clubs–so whether you ride with an anti-child abuse club, a religious club, a charity club, a “we just like bikes” club, or even a housewives club, chances are your patches will still have the same basic layout as even the most outlaw of Outlaw clubs.
The patches are big so they can be easily read at a distance, and loudly proclaim each wearer’s tribal identity. (In fact, many clubs’ names even include words like “tribe,” “pagan,” or otherwise evoke a tribal identity.)
This should go without saying, but don’t wear a patch you haven’t earned.
While there are probably some clubs you can join just by filling out a form and paying some dues, most clubs appear to have pretty strict rules about who can and can’t join, and some clubs are harder to get into than Harvard. Like all goods, that which is obtained cheaply is not worth much. Brotherhood is not given easily; you don’t promise to have someone’s back without first making sure their back is worth having.
Practically speaking, if you’re going to be publicly associating yourself with a group of people, it makes sense to be careful about who you take into that group. If one of your club members makes a big stink at a bar, the owners might not let your club back into the bar. If one of your club members gets into a fight with another club, retribution could come down on you.
Since the available ethnographies all focus on Outlaw clubs, (and they’re quite old,) I only know about their procedures, and long story short, you have to know a guy. A prospective club member gradually meets and gets to know everyone in the club. He hangs out with them for a year or so, and then they vote on whether or not to accept him into the club. If anyone votes “no,” that’s a no.
One of the useful things about basing one’s tribal identity around motorcycle ownership is that it is a very difficult identity to fake. Motorcycles are expensive, joining a club is difficult and members are often well-known to each other, and the patches function like very large ID cards.
If you are extending brotherhood and solidarity to others in your tribe, it is best to make sure your thedic symbols are difficult to counterfeit.
Motorcycle clubs are a form of spontaneous human organization and ethnic symbolism. No one sat down and said, “Hey, know what will make motorcycle riding way more awesome? A government to make a bunch laws about it!” but that is precisely what they’ve done. They have made their own society.
If you want to make a better world, go out and make it.
Why Harley Davidsons?
While many people ride things that are not Harleys, for many bikers, the Harley is the only bike.
This is a Harley:
These are not Harleys:
Don’t ride a Vespa to Sturgis.
Harley riders have an intense level of brand loyalty and a passion for their machines that we mere car drivers rarely match. Honestly, I don’t consider it unusual to see a half-assembled motorcycle sitting in biker’s living room.
There are two, possibly three main reasons for this loyalty:
- Harley Davidson is an American brand, and bikers are strongly nationalistic. Why would a red-blooded American send his money to anyone other than a fellow American worker, making a fellow American motorcycle?
- The Harley looks more like a bad-ass working class bike, whereas the BMW and Kawasaki bikes look like futuristic designs for rich people. The aesthetics are totally different. (And obviously the Vespa is right out.)
- Price and modifiability? Working on the bike is a biker past time; guys with limited incomes would prefer to be able to fix their own bikes.
This is also a Harley:
Women and Motorcycles
The motorcycle world is mostly male but obviously some bikers are female, and if Google image search is anything to go by, they are all very well-endowed and scantily clad.
Most of the women who are into motorcycles are probably married to or dating men who are into motorcycles, and like doing fun things with their partners. Some are also really into the bikes; the world is vast; it contains multitudes.
The female bikers I have talked to have not had much appreciation for feminism as a political or practical philosophy. As one of the anthropologists who has studied bikers noted, Women’s Lib hasn’t really reached the biker world, at least as of when they were still calling it Women’s Lib. Nevertheless, biker chicks are not wilting damsels keen on wearing pretty pink shoes and shopping. In fact, I strongly recommend against insulting them or pissing them off, as getting punched really hurts.
Do biker lives matter?
I certainly hope so.
Bikers represent one form of exit, the creation of a parallel society with its own tribes, institutions, and rules, within which bikes are high-status and enjoy the benefits of tribalism. They are anarchists who spontaneously made governments in order to advance their own freedom. Their thedic symbols (principally motorcycles and patches) are difficult to fake and therefore high-value. The motorcycle itself provides a great deal of enjoyment, perhaps assuaging some primal, instinctual need to ride fast on the open road.
And the bikers I know are good folks whose company I enjoy.