Dennis Altman



Did you write the book of love?

And do you have faith in God above?

If the Bible tells you so

Do you believe in rock-n-roll?

Can music save your mortal soul?

And can you teach me how to dance real slow?


So bye bye Miss American Pie 

Drove my chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

Them good old boys were drinking whisky and rye

Singing this'll be the day that I die

(Verses from Don McLean's song, American Pie)


Don McLean's song can be taken as an account of the death of Buddy Holly and/or John Kennedy; as a discussion of the collapse of traditional values; as a lament for the collapse of those counter values that make up what is loosely termed the counter culture. Whichever it is taken to mean the song does seem to illustrate the growing disjuncture between politics and culture that is so marked a feature of contemporary America.


By and large American culture until the fifties could be seen as supporting the liberal capitalist state, by which I mean that it tended to uphold, or at least acquiesce in, the values that are necessary to maintain liberal capitalism. This relationship between culture and politics was of course never clear-cut, nor did it prevent a radical critique emerging among intellectuals (which is the theme of Christopher Lasch's The New Radicalism inAmerica). But what is new about cultural radicalism from the late fifties on is that it became a popular movement affecting a large section of American youth who were exposed to a critique of acquisitive, competitive and sexually repressive society through the mediation of rock music and popular culture generally.


In saying this I do not wish to argue for the sore of simplistic view of cultural radicalism that seems to underlie works such as Charles Reich's Greening of America. For it is precisely the areas that he singles out for discussion rock music, new styles of hair and dress, pot smoking—where it seems easiest to portray the new consciousness as no more than capitalist consumerism in a new and more advanced stage. Rock music has been taken over by huge corporations who market it in exactly the same way as more traditional popular music (on this see Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City); long hair and jeans became the new fashion, as much de rigeur in Madison Avenue as suits are on Wall Street; and the film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice showed very clearly how far marijuana has become an after dinner habit for affluent swingers.


But if Reich's vision of the new consciousness is over-superficial, it does seem true that there is a new consciousness emerging in the United States, and to a lesser extent other western and affluent societies, one that quite clearly repudiates the cultural basis that supports our contemporary social forms. Everything today is in a state of flux; institutions seem at the one time both very rigid and very fragile. Increasing numbers of academics and students, to take one example only, feel a sense of futility about the traditional assumptions of academic life, so that it becomes more and more difficult to know exactly what it is' we ought to be doing.


Despite obvious historical precursors among both romantics and anarchists, the counter culture of today seems to have originated in the late fifties, and the hippies of the sixties are fairly obvious successors to the Beats of the preceding decade. (Here Ginsberg, who is central to both movements, is important.) In the sixties the counter culture became a central preoccupation of journalists and academics, both of whom saw in the hippy movement indications of large scale social change. As Roszak wrote in the preface of his The Making of a Counter Culture: 'It strikes me as obvious beyond dispute that the interest of our college age and adolescent young in the psychology of alienation, oriental mysticism, psychedelic drugs and communitarian experiments comprise a cultural constellation that radically diverges from values and assumptions that have been in the mainstream of our society at least since the scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century.'


Roszak here goes further than does Reich in his view of what constitutes a counter culture; one might legitimately ask whether he goes far enough. What he is concerned with are questions of rationalism and scientism, which he sees as the basic underlying values of contemporary western society. Yet the optimism with which he saw these values being assailed in 1968-69 may require considerable reassessment in the light of developments since.


For it seems quite probable that many of the attempts to break out of the existing consciousness in order to create the cultural basis of a new order have foundered on the very problems that new consciousness is aimed at avoiding. Two events stand in recent American history as symbols of this failure: the Manson murders and the deaths at the Altamont rock festival. The former was the basis of one of the most interesting recent American plays, Commune, which was evolved by Richard Schechner's Performing Group in New York in the winter of 1970-71. Commune centered on the basic problem of whether a qualitative breakthrough out of the restraints of the old consciousness is, in fact, possible or whether, as the Manson 'family' might suggest, those who seek to escape the old are doomed to become victims of it. One could, of course, dismiss Manson as a pathological exception; more disturbing, but far more common, are the very numerous examples of those in the counter culture who have turned to hard drugs as an escape that ultimately destroys them.


Thus the new culture may seem (as McLean's song suggests) to have soured, to have passed already its first enthusiasms before Charles Reich's euphoria appeared. (As Peter Mann wrote of Reich in the New York Times, 'the first wave of exhilaration is over, and the young have moved on to something lonelier and far more real, a kind of mythic struggle in the darkness more profound than any Reich recognizes or has chosen to enter.') Yet if this is true it seems likely that it is true because the original vision of the counter culture was inadequate and failed to understand how far traditional society was based upon assumptions about sexuality and sex roles.


The new consciousness in its Reich/Roszak formulation, was strangely unaware of sexuality, and although in reality sex was a far greater component of changing awareness than the chroniclers note, it is true that by and large the counter culture of the sixties adopted fairly uncritically the larger society's views of sexuality and sex roles. (The women in Manson 's family, for example, may have fucked a lot—but they were expected to accept female subordination, as Ed Sanders' study The Family makes clear.) The complicated interaction between sex and aggression was not really faced up to by the counter culture, which by and large reinforced societal norms of heterosexual male supremacy.


Yet if one is to adopt the position argued by theorists, such as Wilhelm Reich and Marcuse, who see oppressive society as being based upon sexual repression, then this hiatus in the analysis of the counter culture becomes serious. As long as that culture remained rooted in the traditional norms of sex roles and sexuality, however much these appeared to have changed on the surface, it was unable to make the quantum leap out of the existing culture, as Robin Morgan's comment about women rejecting Betty Crocker meals in Scarsdale in order to cook brown rice in the East Village suggests.


This view would imply then that in as far as the counter culture gave rise of the sexual liberation

movements of the late sixties and seventies it developed the critique most likely to cause the basic transformation of consciousness it sought. Jill Johnston has written that: 'The counter culture has produced its most important bastard and is itself being exposed as an integral part of the system challenged by the gay revolution. In this sense the true counter culture may now be defined as the gay revolution '. I would cheerfully concede that Ms. Johnson, as much as I, has a vested interest in arguing thus, but it seems to me nonetheless a point worth consideration: women's and gay liberation, in their interconnected assault on the dominant forms of organising sex roles and sexuality, are posing a fundamental challenge to existing society.


There is not room here to discuss the ideologies of the sexual liberation movements; to generalise we might note that they perceive the oppression of women and homosexuals as part of a more generalised social repression, and argue that there is a mutual reinforcement between large social institutions and the basic form of personal relationship in contemporary western society, the heterosexual nuclear family.1 As Carl Boggs wrote in a very relevant article entitled 'Toward A New Consciousness' (Liberation XVI.8):

'The family is the primary agency of socialisation, of the inculcation of established norms and ways of thinking, which makes it a vital connecting link between the individual and society. Hierarchy of authority (man-woman-child), the ethic of possessive individualism which extends to parental "ownership" of children), and the male power psychology, though tied closely to capitalism, are ultimately transmitted through the nuclear family. Because it is small and often serves as a haven of comfort and stability in a world characterised by struggle and uncertainty, the family also becomes a source of isolation, fragmentation, and privatisation that strongly counters a sense of community that is needed to build a collective political movement. The effectiveness of the family as an instrument of hegemony is reinforced by the fact that it, more than any other social creation, appears to be a 'natural' rather than man-made institution.'


The real problem that faces those who would bring about radical change in modern western society is to explain why it is that a system they see as oppressive, dehumanising and exploitative has the loyal support of the great majority of those it allegedly oppresses, dehumanises and exploits. To explain this requires some concept of 'false consciousness', and here Wilhelm Reich's assertion in The Sexual Revolution is important: 'Sexual suppression and repression… form a mass-psychological basis for a certain culture, namely the patriarchal authoritarian one.' Reich's arguments have been taken up, often unknowingly, by todays sexual liberationists and the extent of their success in undermining values of aggression, dominance and materialism will be the ultimate test of wo/man's ability to re-make her/himself and alter what is often regarded as immutable human nature.


This article was first published in Southern Review.


1. On women's liberation see Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York, 1970), Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York. 1970), Juliet Mitchell, Women's Estate (Hammondsworth, 1971): on gay see Dennis Altmann, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (New York, 1971), K. Jay and A. Young, Out of the Closets (New York, 1972).

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