WHAT COUNTER CULTURE?
The existence of a counter culture is one of the dominant myths of our time. Thanks to Theodore Roszak, Charles Reich and half a hundred other writers nobody seems to doubt that a counter culture, or alternative society, actually exists. Myself, I am skeptical that there is such a single, identifiable culture. It seems more likely to me that there are a number of alternative cultures and that these are sometimes more opposed to each other than to the established culture. As individuals we have to decide which of these cultures we support, and which we oppose. And if we are involved in any of them, we have to decide, still further, which of that culture's values we support and which we oppose. It is meaningless, therefore, to say we are part of, or support, the counter culture, because there isn't any such thing.
For some decades now the Western world has been spawning groups which begin as rebels against straight society, but soon become embroiled in conflicts with other groups which are equally opposed to that society. Hence mods v. rockers, teds v. sharpies, bikies v. surfies, skinheads v. hippies. The bloody warfare which broke out at the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont, California between Hells Angels and 'peace creeps', as the Angels called them— it was supposed to be a love-in to rival Woodstock, and ended in death, despair, and the murder of one of the few black guys to attend the concert —ought to destroy, once and for all, the idea that there is a single culture outside straight society which includes such disparate is groups. As I wrote in Up Against The Wall, America:
‘The rock culture's long-standing flirtation with the Angels is just another facet of the we-are-one-myth, the secular monism which preaches that everyone who is outside straight culture is the same. If Gimme Shelter demonstrates anything it is that at Altamont there were two different and explosively opposed cultures — a fact which is dramatised in those climactic sequences in which Jagger, the arse wiggling unisexual hero of newfound liberation, prances around the stage with his little tail feathers quivering in cockerel invitation ("I think Mick's a joke, with all that fag dancing, I always did": John Lennon) while a few inches away Hells Angels in insignia-splattered leather jackets and Herakles lionskins stare at him with disgust and contempt. The Angels are outsiders, sure, but their alienation is the only thing they have in common with the peace creeps who trod on their precious bikes ("Something which is your whole life," says Sonny Barger) or with the brave new wave of sexual freedmen which Flash Mick represents. Jagger's right to do his thing: every gain in liberty, personal or social, is precious. But the Angels belong to a more brutal and repressive culture…’.1
Altamont is only a symbol of the conflicts I am talking about, but it is an important one, because when people talk about the counter culture they often have the Woodstock/Altamont/San Francisco movement in mind. Even when they don't, they make the same mistake of lumping different groups together under the one label. Surfies, bikies, commune dwellers, pacifists, revolutionaries, vegetarians, mystics, rock musicians, media freaks, anarchists – what do they have in common except opposition to the established system? At Nimbin Hare Krishna devotees clashed with anarchists who erected their own parodistic icon, Hare Gumboot. Even Richard Neville writes about 'a multitude of movements pitted against the status quo', and admits 'the counter culture has its hawks and doves'. Opposition to a common enemy doesn’t necessarily encourage unity; if anything, it can heighten and emphasise the differences between the groups in opposition.
It seems to me we ought to recognise and defend these differences, instead of trying to gloss them over. There's a richness there, a diversity and plurality, that we ought to be grateful for. The main achievement of the new cultures has been to expand the options and choices open to people, making them free to choose whatever life style they opt for instead of being forced to conform to the short-back-and-sides, Alf-and-Anzac, booze-and-pokies syndrome of the past. In what has been, in Australia, an oppressively conformist community, people suddenly have the chance to live as they want to instead of as they have to. But people are infinitely various, with different demands, needs, satisfactions and concepts of what being free means. For one man, freedom may mean the right to live a hermit-like, mystical, organic life on the Barrier Reef; for another, joining a group with its own strict, ritualistic code of behaviour, such as a bike gang; for another, pushing oneself to the limit of self-discovery through drugs, art, sexual experiment. It's the groups which evolve from these disparate demands, and which evolve their own subcultures separate from both the mainstream and each other, which are the tangible embodiments of what it is like to be truly free in McLuhan's shrinking global village. It is no accident that from these groups have come most of the 'freedom' movements we are familiar with today: gay lib, women's lib, black power, communes, free schools, radical politics. Groups are the cyclotrons of an energetic democracy; they charge the spark that leaps from soul to soul. Freedom is catching.
Okay, say the skeptics. So you get an enrichment of possibilities. But have people taken advantage of them? Has there been a real change? Or are the new values just disguised versions of the old ones?
It's easy to be pessimistic. You look at the rock culture, which not so long ago some commentators at New York University were holding up as 'the core' of what's happening, and you see a mirror image of the society it's supposed to be opposing. The same sexism (groupies), the same racism (Jim Crow still rides the record rip-off), the same capitalist exploitation (of the bands, by the bands, for the bands), the same obsession with wealth (read any issue of Rolling Stone, or Bill Graham's account of why he abandoned the Fillmores), the same manipulation of power. Even those who held out longest against the tide, like Dylan, have finally succumbed to the lust for heroes. The current corruption of the rock scene is not, as some critics maintain, an aberration; it is the fulfillment of the past’s imperatives, and predictable.
And yet there has been a change, a significant movement forward. I still feel optimistic about the counter cultures and what they may attain. They have already changed the consciousness of millions of people in quite radical ways, and have achieved concrete social results as well. Women's liberation is an obvious example: it has changed the way innumerable women think about themselves (and about men) and has begun to free them in quite specific ways: abortion reform, social allowances, preschools, legal reform, the beginning of the end to discrimination and inequality with men in schools, homes, careers, lives. The same is true of gay liberation: one of these days even South Australia might stop murdering homosexuals. Those who write these changes off as marginal ought to realise that for repressed, marginal people even marginal gains are triumphs.
What we should do is examine each of the counter cultures and work out, empirically, whether it is an advance upon the established culture. There is nothing intrinsically preferable about a counter culture to a culture; it may, in fact, represent a regression from hard won ground, and be truly reactionary. This is certainly true of some of today's counter cultural movements. The vogue for astrology, I Ching, gurus, The New Jesus and other varieties of transcendentalism is a retreat from the rational, secular freedom which it took Western man centuries of struggle and persecution to achieve; it is a fearful rush back in to superstition. Alternative medicine can come close to lethal quackery, depending on what brand is being practised. Alternative fashions (beads, insignia, bare feet) can be as meretricious as straight fashion. A new found sympathy for the Devil can disguise an old fashioned liking for sexism, sadism, ritual murder (Manson). And a belief in Oneness runs counter to the plurality which is one of the great virtues of the counter cultures (participatory democracy, for all its faults, has at least recognised this and formalised it into a political system):
'All one? That's another of the myths which the main stream counterculture has been assiduously propagating these last few years, what with George Harrison going on a treat about "Within You Without You" and the Maharishi preaching a sort of transcendental Oneness with the Unity. We are not One, we never have been One, there is conflict Within Us and Without Us, and the lesson the counterculture(s), hopefully, will learn is that deluding ourselves into believing we are One is a surrogate for working out how to deal with the fact that we are not.'
This said, it's still true that the, emergence of energetic, self-renewing counter cultures in Western society is an extraordinarily hopeful phenomenon. Counter cultures are agents of change in contemporary society; they represent the directions it may take. A society which has not grown rigid and stagnant typically throws up groups and ethics which challenge the dominant ethos and which, if they are powerful and appealing enough, eventually replace it. If we want to look at the shape of the straight future we should examine the un-straight present. The counter cultures are, in fact, a crucial part of conventional society; and eventually they will be judged on how successfully they transform it.
It's not enough, even if it were possible, to simply drop out of conventional society though that may be the essential first stage in a critique of it. (Hells Angels know there is something wrong with the straight world, but they don't really know what it is; and not many people like the alternative they've evolved). As even Timothy Leary has come to recognise, you can never drop out utterly. Sooner or later the System gets you, or your children, and may even kill you (conscription). The only sure way to escape the draft is to make sure there is no draft; it's the pacifists, conscientious objectors and radicals, those who are involved, who have almost achieved that. Man, especially Twentieth century man, is condemned to living as a social being. We have to face up to that.
Even if it were possible to save ourselves, it would be at the cost of leaving millions of people trapped in the ghetto of modern industrial society. I grant the exemplary role of the new cultures, their demonstration of alternative styles and possibilities. That's one of the most important things they do. But it can't stop there. If we care about other people, we should be involved in helping to change their lives as well, not just our own. One of the things that worries me about the whole counter culture debate is that it seems to funk the problem of power; and like it or not, Twentieth century technocratic cultures revolve around power relationships. Even the most deliberately anarchic communes set up in New Mexico found it necessary to evolve structures and organisational patterns to cope with their own existence; how much more necessary is that in highly sophisticated, urbanised, industrialised societies of 13,000,000 people (Australia), or 214,000,000 (United States)—or agrarian/industrial societies of 700,000,000 (China)? Power is a problem that won't just wither away. At least the revolutionaries-with-a-gun who have confronted the power elite of the United States with violence have identified the central issue. Their methods may be wrong, but their analysis is right on. They aren't content to just stay on the fringe. Neither should we; and if what I've been arguing is correct, we can't anyhow. We have no choice.
It's not enough to change people's heads – though that's important. You have to change structures as well. Structures endure. They are the formal embodiments of the informal principles by which we live. They both reflect and affect the character of our day-to-day existence. And if we take ourselves, and our lives, and our culture, and our counter cultures seriously, we have to take those structures seriously as well. We have to inform, reform, control and revolutionise them. That's a political task. Some people argue that the counter culture(s) and radical action are antipathetic, that they spring from different ethics. In fact, each needs the other: they are the humanist and political correlatives of what is called, optimistically, the revolution.
As Europe learned, politics without love leads straight to the concentration camp; as the Woodstock nation learned, love without politics leads to Nixon and Reagan repression and police helicopters hunting down desert commune dwellers in Arizona. Like most impure elements, freedom is a mixture of disparates: love/politics, person/community, heart/head, young/old.
The final achievement of the counter cultures will come, paradoxically, when they are no longer easily distinguishable from the culture itself, because they will have transformed it, and made us all free.
1. Craig McGregor, Up Against The Wall, America.