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How the counter-culture shaped the culture of unfreedom

Neil Davenport

Platypus Review 109 | September 2018

“THE WORD 'CONSERVATIVE' IS USED by the BBC as a portmanteau word of abuse for anyone whose views differ from the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naïve, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of the third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the nineteen-sixties.”[1] Writing for the Independent back in 1990, former Conservative cabinet minister, Norman Tebbitt, demonstrated how the 1960s counter-culture still enraged traditionalists. Hard to believe today, but for conservatives the impact of the 1960s was as problematic as trade unions and flying pickets. Fifty years on from the counter-culture moment, and 27 years on from Tebbitt’s highly memorable attack, it’s hard to imagine any Conservative minister today launching such a bitter tirade. Conservative ministers now are likelier to be berated for not endorsing key counter-cultural values. Tebbitt’s attack on the BBC itself was also noteworthy, an awareness that British institutions were seemingly succumbing to a new orthodoxy. Despite remarkable electoral success throughout that period, it sheds an insight on how conservatives were on the defensive. They could not halt what May 1968 had unleashed.

The counter-culture both in America and the UK encompassed many causes and social issues. One was a nonviolent movement in the United States seeking to end racial segregation and ongoing racial discrimination in jobs, housing and access to public spaces. The same applied to addressing the extension of rights for women, lesbians, and gays. An increasing number of younger people rejected the constraints of 1950s orthodoxy and aimed to create a more inclusive and tolerant social landscape. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, Green politics also flourished during this period and, with it, a further questioning of western notions of economic progress and development. Finally, the counter-culture was associated with the sexual revolution, the promotion of recreational sex outside of marriage and for sexual experimentation. From challenging respectable racism to questioning traditional religious values and sexuality, a relatively small but influential group of artists and intellectuals began to influence the wider public mood in the West. For traditionalists, it represented a full-on assault on their belief system and values. That it was agitated by relatively privileged youth, rather than the disaffected poor and working class, made the counter-culture appear a looming existential threat. Consequently, their inability to inspire their own children into the Establishment’s values and beliefs shattered the confidence of elite traditionalists.

Nevertheless, if conservatives have played up the threat of counter-culture norms, others have questioned its potency. Historians point out how more people were right-wing and conservative than left and radical, a point that Richard Nixon’s ‘the silent majority’ alluded to. Others are quick to demonstrate how counter-cultural norms were not really far out. “The liberated sexual style of the Sixties was typically contrasted with the Fifties,” wrote Tony Judt in Postwar, “it depicted (somewhat unfairly) as an age of moral rectitude and constipated emotional restraint. But when compared with the 1920s or the European fin-de-siecle, or the demi-monde of 1860s Paris, the ‘Swinging Sixties’ were quite tame.”[2] For Judt, in the end the counter-culture just didn’t add up to much. “The solipsistic conceit of the age—that the young would change the world by ‘doing their own thing’, ‘letting it all hang out’, and ‘making love, not war’—was always an illusion and it has not worn well.”[3] Such observations are undoubtedly true, but this doesn’t explain why so many traditionalists were disturbed by the revolt of youth against their own society, their own values.

In his 1992 book Mythical Past, Elusive Future, the sociologist Frank Furedi argues that the “real 1960s took place between the wars. This was when the conservative and liberal intelligentsia were too much on the defensive to push for a verdict…The conservative campaign against the 1960s signified a belated attempt to limit the ideological damage caused by this compromise.”[4] Furedi more recently argues that it is the reaction of the ruling elites that has been overlooked when re-examining the counter-culture. Accordingly, it was the defensive behavior of the West’s political and cultural establishments that created the conditions for the counter-culture to flourish. “During the 1960s, the ruling elites frequently adopted a defensive tone, were hesitant in affirming their way of life, and they even expressed doubts about their right to exercise authority.”[5] This is why by the time the conservative New Right took up the ideological battle in the 1980s, it was too late. The ground had already decisively shifted. It was increasingly becoming difficult for traditionalists to exercise moral judgments on behavior. Both John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign and Republican president George Bush Sr.’s views on abortion would quickly unravel and flounder. The age of moral relativism had become too entrenched for conservatives to ‘get back in the saddle’ and reclaim their moral authority.

From a left standpoint, all this should be welcomed. The demise of rigid, conservative codes on behavior and morality, the freeing up of greater lifestyle choices, should be celebrated as an emphatic victory (and one with surprisingly flimsy opponents). Indeed, there are key changes here to celebrate which will be drawn on later. But equally, the counter-culture also represented transcendence, not just of traditional conservatism, but of politics oriented around the working class, too. Even at the time, some Leftists would dismiss the counter-culture as mere petit bourgeois radicals, students acting out revolutionary politics before being absorbed into a new, liberal Establishment. Again no doubt true, but even this underestimates how influential and destructive many of the counter-culture values would become. There was more going on here than well-to-do youth acting up.

A key component of the counter-culture was to be marginal to the mainstream of society, to run ‘counter’ to the ‘rat race’, work and adult responsibility. Counter-culture activists lacked faith in how society was, but they also doubted whether it could be changed for the better. Herbet Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man provided the text and justification for politics that was not oriented around the working masses. The belief that the working classes were too entrenched within capitalist consumer values provided the pretext for developing an elitist disdain for mass society. This is why counter-culture activists devoted so much energy to issues on lifestyle, aesthetics, and sexuality. The retreat into ‘personal is political’ amounted to a rejection of political organization and leadership. All this was presented as a radical rejection of ‘authority’, but it was simply a cover for rejecting politics, and political responsibility, altogether.

The rejection of any authority by the counter-culturalists also had important and destructive ramifications for Western society. Hostility to adult authority, and adulthood in general, contributed enormously to the unraveling of important boundaries in British society. Taking on personal responsibility to play a part in wider society, through work, politics, or raising a family, were dismissed as ‘grown up’ and thus ‘selling out’. Instead, a life lived through marginal pop culture, wherein youth culture ends up becoming national culture, became values that dominated mainstream society and shaped a New Establishment. That the BBC now devotes more coverage to Glastonbury Festival, the gigantic playpen of the counter-culture era, than minor Royal weddings shows how complete this process has been.

Hostility to both upper-class conservatism and working-class politics, or a rejection of both Right and Left, found its clearest expression in New Labour’s Third Way. Even at its peak, the counter-culture was notably a depoliticized affair and this development found its moment in the post-ideological 1990s. Since then, many of its core ideas surrounding identity politics, ‘the personal is political’, nature worship, therapeutic ideas on vulnerability, have become the conformist standard. And as with any conformist standard, it can be as unforgiving and damning as the values it sought to replace. In the same way lifestyles outside of western conservatism were deemed heretic and unacceptable, now it is traditional values and lifestyles that attract hostility. A sense of greater freedom and choice, ideas that were once an attractive feature of the counter-culture, are no longer part of society’s vocabulary. So much so that even radicals don’t view the 1960s as positively as they once did.

For all its adolescent indulgences, their mocking disdain for ordinary people and their aspirations, the counter-culture contributed to the liberalization of British and American society. Permissiveness, as in permission for greater individual freedoms, had a positive impact on the working classes and especially for women. There is always a danger of reading history backwards when re-assessing the counterculture and ignoring the gains made. The 1960s was an unprecedented period in which ordinary people (and not just public-school radicals) could reinvent themselves. The wider counter-culture moment gave even comprehensive-school kids a sense of possibility, gave them ideas about their station. That liberalizing moment gave many people a sense that, even without a private-school education or a place at Oxford, anything was possible, great things could be done. Back then, British society created a kind of free space in which young people who were willing to take the unpredictable route of cultural experimentation could do so.

Over fifty years later, it can be argued that Western societies are gripped by a culture of unfreedom, a belief that unchecked individuals are a potential source of trouble and harm. Consequently, the meaning of ‘freedom’ has become re-cast to simply mean the ‘freedom to be racist and homophobic’, as once argued by the Labour MP David Lammy. There is currently a bitter conflict as to whether free speech is being restricted on campus or whether it is an overblown panic, promoted by right-wingers who indeed want the freedom to be racist and homophobic. The irony here hasn’t been lost on social commentators. Whereas the original counter-culturalists argued that free speech was a liberal-left cause, now greater energy is devoted in showing how free speech issues are, in fact, right-wing and therefore ‘wrong’.

It seems traditionalists are not the only ones viewing the 1960s with unease. No doubt for millennials the 1960s seems utterly far removed, but even for those who lived through or were influenced by it, the decade is increasingly seen as ‘problematic’. A BBC 4 documentary in 2003 exploding the ‘myths’ of the 1960s argued that era’s greater affluence only ‘harmed the planet’. More recently it has been argued that the 60s sexual revolution facilitated sexual harassment and ‘rape culture’. The confident, free individual simply led to the bullying and abuse of others, while racism was still a respectable feature of British society. Whereas it was once traditionalists who argued that too much freedom creates social instability and then harm, it is now likelier to be argued by radical activists. Although such developments seem a betrayal of counter-culture values, of permissiveness and of freedom, they are in fact a continuum of other counter-culture themes—the vulnerable individual.

The idea of the ‘anti-hero’, the ‘beautiful loser’ has played a large part in popular culture. From J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Marlon Brando in the The Wild One to Kurt Cobain, the ‘damaged’ individual has greater cache than the self-confident go-getter. It became a mode of behavior in direct opposition to having direction and purpose. In an age which looks to anti-heroes rather than heroes, vulnerability rather than ambition has become the key feature in the cultural personality of our times.[6] But there’s more going on here than adolescent affectation. It has re-defined how state agencies relate to other individuals and how we relate to each other. Vast swathes of social policy are now couched in the language of vulnerability. The protection of ‘vulnerable individuals’ has become the justification for restraints on individual freedoms. One person’s individual freedom of expression is another person’s sense of hurt or damage. Freedom is no longer the facilitator of experimentation and possibilities, but of damage to others or damage to the planet. The cultivation of vulnerability that dominated the counter-culture sensibility led to the same pessimistic conclusions of personal freedom as the traditionalists they overturned.

Fifty years on since the counter-culture, its core norms and values have long become the mainstream. This was less to do with the dynamism of radical activists and more with the collapse in confidence of traditional conservatives. Haunted by the inter-war depression and engulfed by a crisis of legitimacy, traditionalists couldn’t put up a fight to preserve their values, beliefs and way of life. The liberalizing of Western societies was undoubtedly a valuable development, but this has proved brief and illusory. British society in particular has become less free, over-regulated, and increasingly a stagnant society. A dynamic civic life has been steadily replaced by a hemmed in private existence for most people. Ultimately the loss of a key Western value, that of the free and purposeful individual shaping the world, has been a retrograde misstep for both the individual and Western society. You don’t have to be Norman Tebbitt to look back with anguish at the 1960s counter-culture. |P


[1] The Independent, February 24, 1990.

[2] Tony Judt, Postwar, (Vintage, 2005), 845.

[3] Judt, 846.

[4] Frank Furedi, Mythical Past, Elusive Future, (Pluto, 1992), 162.

[5] Frank Furedi, “1968: the Birth of a New Conformism,” spiked-online, published May 30, 2018, <http://www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/1968-the-birth-of-the-new-conformism>.

[6] See Andrew Calcutt, Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, (Caswell, 1998), for the exploration of the counter culture and cultural infantilism.

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