WhatEver Happened To The Counter Culture?
written by Adam De Gree
For a few short years at the end of the 1960’s, the hippie counterculture movement brought millions of people into the streets, fields, and forests in a carnival of primal revolt. It’s been over 50 years since the Summer of Love, when colorful youths tripped and trampled on social norms with flowers in their hair and a psychedelic soundtrack. Then, almost as quickly as they came, they faded away, leaving a host of unanswered questions and unrealized potentialities for all Americans. It’s almost as if rather than leaving its political mark on society, this counterculture left behind nothing more than an inescapable aesthetic.
Why did certain Baby Boomers, in the prime of their youth, turn their backs on post war America’s sitcom-esque material prosperity in their search for the man behind the curtain? Was there anything to their complaints about modern civilization? It turns out that many of them joined these movements and rebelled for a lot of the same reasons that led Soviet dissidents to protest against the USSR, and the same issues continue to inspire anti-establishment movements around the world today.
When the first round of counterculture leaders spoke out against the system in the 1950’s, revolt was a primal affair. Theorists such as Gary Snyder, Timothy Leary, and Stewart Brand spoke of the corruption of American culture, the dreary void of consumerism, and the disenfranchisement of the common person. In a 1957 diary entry, Brand wrote:
"If there's a fight, then, I will fight. And fight with a purpose. I will not fight for America, nor for home, nor for the president, nor for capitalism, nor even for democracy. I will fight for individualism and personal liberty. If I must be a fool, I want to be my own particular brand of fool—utterly unlike other fools. I will fight to avoid becoming a number—to others and to myself.”
One peculiarity is how these counterculture movements always borrowed from Native American culture. The youths of the counterculture movement borrowed Native American dressings and lived in teepees on communes for a reason – they saw in Native American culture an authentic basis for resistance to the mainstream. The end goal of all this Primitivism was supposed to be the simple life, and many young people abandoned jobs and possessions to answer the call. Yet, it seems like somewhere down the line the principles were lost while the aesthetics remained. It’s important to note that there is a difference between nurturing and living off the land and glamping at Woodstock, or Coachella for that matter. It seems as if the counterculture movement took the peyote and forgot the purpose.
While headdresses, long hair, and smoking pipes were the aesthetic components, there are also other associations that the counterculture borrowed from Native Americans – what they perceived to be their freedom. In 1773, the first organized act of American resistance was to taxation without representation in the colonies, which saw the Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawk warriors sending tea plummeting into Boston’s harbor – there was simply no better symbol of liberty than the stereotypical Native American. The nearly two hundred years separating the Boston Tea Party and Woodstock only serve as evidence of how cemented this association is in the American imagination.
When it comes to making sense of the counterculture, one name to remember is: Theodore Roszak. Roszak coined the term ‘counterculture’ in his 1969 book. He thought that the hippies were revolting against technocratic society, which he defined as “that social form in which an industrial society reaches the peak of its organizational integration.” The fulfillment of the technocratic ideal comes when all of society is just as expertly organized as a factory. We can imagine that in this world, big government and big business are practically the same thing. Of course, this level of administrative integration is so complex that it can’t be understood by the average person. That’s where the ‘technocrats’ come in.
According to Roszak, technocrats are highly trained professionals skilled in manipulating the levers of bureaucracy. They’re the sort of people who move in shadowy halls and decide the future of society without any input from the public or voters. Instead of individuals, they see and speak in numbers, structures, and systems. Allied to no place, they worship at the altar of power. Sound familiar? The counterculture movements thought technocratic societies were worth fighting against because they reduce the world to a machine. People are then just components of the system, valued only for their role in perpetuating the structure. It goes without saying that this automatism offers no source of deeper meaning or purpose to its subjects: it is entirely dehumanizing. In a technocratic society, there is no scope for genuine individuality or for authentic, purposeful action. It is precisely this opposition that inspired all of these groups to rebel against the system.
The late 20th century counterculture movements had their roots. Chief among them were the Beat Generation, a group of writers, artists, and profound minds who declaimed the soulless landscape of America during the 1950’s. Reading the Beats, it’s easy to see that they had an issue with the technocracy as well. ‘Moloch,’ a character in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, may be the greatest personification of a technocratic civilization:
“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”
The publisher of Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a Beat Generation poet, and the founder of City Lights Books, spoke about what a groundbreaking piece it was. After Ferlinghetti’s arrest for indecency, he said, “It took until the 1950’s for there to be a cultural cohesion, and we needed a catalyst to bring things together. Publishing Howl was that catalyst. Allen Ginsberg was never arrested for writing Howl, we got busted for publishing it.”
The curious thing about the technocracy that Ginsberg and other counterculture leaders, like Mario Savio, Huey P. Newton, and Bettie Friedan, railed against is that it’s not confined to America or other Western “capitalist” countries. The writings of dissidents in the USSR reveal an identical concern with the dark sides of the progress of civilization.
For example, Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, writing in the 1970’s, observed that Soviet totalitarianism, far from being a unique evil, was only an extreme manifestation of problems present in all modern societies. Havel was particularly concerned with what he saw as the inability of ordinary people living in technologically advanced nations to take charge of their own lives. Instead, they were subject to a dehumanizing system of bureaucratic controls that treated them like cogs in a machine. Values such as love, truth, and mercy had no place in this picture, in Communist Czechoslovakia or in the USA. To make matters worse, Havel saw no indication that Western democracies could do anything to prevent further inroads by the technocracy.
Perhaps that’s why, after being invited to give Harvard’s commencement lecture in 1978, the Soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn faced the crowds and said, “I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours.” America, he declared, after spending 11 years in the Gulag, was spiritually barren; Americans hopelessly obsessed with pleasure and material wealth. The enticements of big business and the comforts of the welfare state had reduced them into animals who eagerly traded their liberty to satisfy their most base desires. And those desires have now been transformed into the desire for clicks and likes – a poor use of the freedom so long denied to those suffering behind the Iron Curtain.
The clarity gained through imprisonment in the USSR enabled Havel and Solzhenitsyn to come to the same realization that experience and artistic inspiration had revealed to Allen Ginsberg: America faced a crisis of meaning at the peak of its fever for materialism. Just as they decried their own socialist technocracy Soviet dissidents called for a return to human values, to the primacy of the human individual, who alone can discover and create meaning.
And what of our precious Western values, our sense of freedom? What could be more antithetical to a free society than a system that treats human beings like algorithms, data, gerrymandered voting blocs, daily active users, and infographics? And why, fifty years after the revolution, do we still live in this system? Why is it stronger than ever? Why is the technocracy still here?
Perhaps Solzhenitsyn and Havel would say that the thought leaders of the counterculture lacked the personal responsibility needed in any battle against the automatism of modern civilization. This would explain the destruction of countless lives by drugs, which promised cosmic connection but led to dependency and delusion. When long-haired rebels crowded the urban poor out of San Francisco’s soup kitchens and settled into Silicon Valley, did any of them stop to think about the future of their revolution?
It’s been 50 years since 1968 brought the masses into the streets of Prague and Paris, Baltimore and Kansas City. Today, social division, anger, and violence are again on our doorstep. As Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan loom on the horizon like another Vietnam, recent political events highlight the frustration of ordinary people who feel completely unrepresented by the system. As Brexiters would have it, they want to “take back control.” And at the same time ordinary Americans are coming out of their shells in red hats dreaming of Making America Great Again. We’ve heard this all before.
For all their efforts, the counterculture movement failed to curtail the scope of centralized control over the concerns of daily life. In fact, the popularity of the neo-Marxist writings of Herbert Marcuse, a professor of psychology, within the counterculture suggest that many young people were so eager to oppose the American system that they were ready to trade one form of control for another. Much of their protest proved politically useful to entrenched interests, just as it proved profitable to the host of businesses that now cash in on the sort of meditation workshops, music festivals, Ayahuasca retreats, and superfood “alternative lifestyles” that we can’t seem to get enough of.
Yet wearing a flower crown or fringed vest is no way to change society – it is exactly the sort of meaningless consumerism that technocrats profit from. So long as ordinary people feel as though they have no authority over their lives, they will be in search of something to fill that void, at least until a real countercultural movement emerges.