Thursday, April 22, 2021

counter-cultures then and now

I've been thinking a lot recently about the counter-culture of the 60s and its relevance today.

The first thing that needs to be stated is that the counter-culture was not actually a phenomenon of the 1960s and it was not the Baby Boomers who started it. The counter-culture began in the mid-1950s. It was the creation of the Silent Generation and in particular the “war babies” (born between 1935 and 1945) and in fact many of the founders of the counter-culture were even older.

The counter-culture really started with the Beats. The Beat sub-culture was well established by the late 50s. The Flower Children and the hippies of the 60s were a later manifestation of the counter-culture but they were for the most part merely picking up on ideas that the Beats had propounded.

The counter-culture represented a conscious rejection of many of the social attitudes and social norms of the 1950s. And it has to be said that some of the criticisms made by the Beats had some validity - that society had become too materialistic and status-obsessed, that war was a bad thing, that nuclear armageddon was not an inviting prospect, that 50s sexual mores were too restrictive, that censorship was a bad thing and free speech was a good thing, and that personal freedom was important.

The 1950s/60s counter-culturalists were of course wrong about many things, but it has to be admitted that they weren’t wrong about everything. The counter-culture of that era was an understandable reaction to many of the negative aspects of 50s society.

It needs to be stated emphatically that the Wokeism and Social Justice cults of today are not just logical extensions of the 50s/60s counter-culture. They differ in many important respects. The 50s/60s counter-culture was a consciously oppositional movement. They were the enemies of the Establishment of their time. The Wokeists and SJWs of today serve the Establishment. They are on the side of the status quo. They may not see it that way, some of them may delude themselves into thinking that they’re brave fighters against the Establishment, but they are in reality servants of the current political/economic Establishment.

To be honest the dissident right of today has more claims to being a genuine counter-culture than the Wokeists do. It is at least a consciously oppositional movement. Like the 50s/60s counter-culturalists the dissident right is correct on some issues and wrong on others. Like the 50s/60s counter-culture it looks like it is going to fail.

The counter-culture of the late 50s, 60s and 70s achieved some of its short-term objectives but it ultimately failed. They did not succeed in smashing the system. Society is just as materialistic today as it was in the 50s. Wars go on. Interventionism remains the basis of foreign policy. Large corporations have more power than they had in the 50s. Any genuine criticism of capitalism is stifled. There was a cultural revolution of sorts but there was no social revolution and no political revolution.

One of the reasons the counter-culture of the late 50s, 60s and 70s failed is that the "Establishment" proved to be very good at co-opting its enemies.

If you were a young student radical of that era then once you left university you were forced to abandon many of your principles if you wanted to get ahead. At university you could be opposed to capitalism but if you wanted to get a job in the corporate sector after university you suddenly had to learn to love capitalism.

As a young student radical you could be opposed to America's interventionist (or imperialist, depending on your perspective) foreign policy but if you wanted to have a long-term political career you had to accept the reality that there immensely powerful vested interests that were determined to continue that interventionist foreign policy. So you had to switch from opposing interventionist wars to supporting them.

Counter-cultures are worth studying, both for their successes and failures.

This post was more or less inspired (or at least I was inspired to actually sit down and write it) by the recent post Will Wokeness Win? at the Upon Hope blog.