Can a 1960s-like Counterculture Emerge?

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tags: American History, 1960s, counterculture, Protest

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University a Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of his recent books and online publications click here. His most recent book is In the Face of Fear: Laughing All the Way to Wisdom (2019), which treats humor from a historical perspective.


In the 1960s, if you opposed racism or American killing in Vietnam, there was a counterculture to support you. Music, films, TV, clothing, hairstyles, social thinking, speech—a whole web of interrelated phenomena existed to help you oppose the dominant culture, “the system,” or the “establishment.”


Today we have just as much reason to protest as did the 1960’s dissidents. The Trump presidency, our climate crisis, and our senseless gun violence are alone enough to fuel a whole counterculture of outrage. But where are our balladeers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, our concerts like Woodstock, our plays and films like Hair and The Graduate?


We are social creatures, and most of us are followers rather than leaders. Like fish in water, we need a sustaining element to surround us. We need a counterculture, or an opposing culture or way of life, to embolden our emotions and imaginations. 


The counterculture of the 1960s was not perfect. It had its unthinking followers, its biases, its over-generalizations—like “Don’t Trust Anyone over 30”—yet it provided a strong alternative to the dominant consumer culture. Why did it disappear and where today is any new counterculture?


Mainly, that of the 1960s died because it lacked deep and sustaining roots. It was fueled by college students, civil rights activities, and opposition to the war in Vietnam. But students graduated and were absorbed into the “system,” into the tentacles of corporate America, where countercultural values and “hippie” styles were unwelcome. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) was killed in 1968, depriving the civil rights cause of its most powerful leader. (That year also produced the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon.) Finally, American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and the military draft ended in the early 1970s.  


What followed in the 1970s and 1980s was the disappearance of the 1960s counterculture and the absorption of many of its former adherents into the “system.” In his Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000), conservative columnist David Brooks wrote: “We’re by now all familiar with modern-day executives who have moved from S.D.S. [a radical student organization that flourished in the 1960s] to C.E.O. . . . Indeed, sometimes you get the impression the Free Speech Movement [begun 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley] produced more corporate executives than Harvard Business School.” 


In his The Culture of Narcissim (1978) historian Christopher Lasch identified a new type of culture that had arisen. It stressed self-awareness. But, unlike the counterculture of the 1960s, it did not oppose the capitalist consumer culture of its day, but rather meshed with it, goading “the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment.”


Many of the former youth protesters of the 1960s participated in this “mass consumption,” as the growing consumer culture sold mass entertainment in new formats (including for music, films, and books) to young adults. 


The last quarter century have brought little relief from our culture of consumption and narcissism. One of the period’s most notable changes has been the expansion of the Internet and social media. In her highly acclaimed These Truths: A History of the United States, historian Jill Lepore stated that “blogging, posting, and tweeting, artifacts of a new culture of narcissism,” became commonplace. 


Although some have argued that the Internet has promoted a greater sense of community, Lepore is far from alone in emphasizing its encouragement of narcissism. In 2017, for example Newsweek stressed it in a piece entitled “Is Rampant Narcissism Undermining American Democracy?” Moreover, the previous year Americans chose for their president perhaps the most narcissistic and materialistic man to ever hold the office—Donald Trump.


Many Americans, however, oppose Trump. What prevents the emergence among them of a new counterculture to oppose him and the crass materialism he represents? 


For one thing, the college students of today are vastly different than those of the 1960s, and so too is higher education. It is much more expensive; more students incur large debts to pay for it; and a much lower percentage of students major in the humanities. Meanwhile, our consumer culture continues to prompt aspirations to earn a “good salary,” and there are scant ways of doing so outside of our dominant corporate culture. We need money not only for food, cars, and houses, but also for things many younger people want like computers, Internet services, cell phones, and an increasing variety of leisure activities. 


Moreover, stimulants like the 1960s civil rights struggles and opposition to the Vietnam War (and the draft) are gone. They can no longer galvanize young people. Yet, there remains one great hope, one phenomenon that could help a new counterculture burst forth—our present environmental crisis. Regardless of 2020 political results, this new birth could occur. 


Such a counterculture could develop out of seeds planted by individuals like the German/English economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher and Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, plus two more recent seed-planters, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and Pope Francis. Moreover, now in 2019 there are signs that such seeds are beginning to sprout. 


Schumacher was a hero to many of those influenced by the original protest movement of the 1960s. Indeed one of them, Theodore Roszak, who wrote The Making of a Counter Culture (1969), also authored the Introduction to Schumacher’s popular 1973 work Small Is Beautiful.  


In it and other works of the 1970s, Schumacher criticized modern industrial societies for “incessantly stimulating greed, envy, and avarice,” for preparing people to become “efficient servants, machines, ‘systems,’ and bureaucracies,” and for driving the world toward an environmental crisis. Instead of focusing education on career preparation in such societies, he believed it should help us answer questions like “What is our purpose in life?” and “What are our ethical obligations?” 


Four years after Schumacher’s death in 1977, Wendell Berry gave the first Annual E. F. Schumacher lecture. In it he praised Schumacher’s adherence to spiritual values. In 1983, in his essay “Two Economies,” Berry quoted Schumacher’s belief expressed in  “Buddhist Economics” that the aim of such an economics should be “to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” In his 2012 Jefferson LectureBerry suggested that our corporate capitalist consumer culture remained dominant and heavily implicated in our present climate crisis.


The 2009 Schumacher lecture was delivered by Bill McKibben, one of the USA’s “most important environmental activists.” That same year, along with Berry, he  protested at a coal-fired power plant near Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. The previous December, the two men had sent out a letter noting the global-warming danger of continuing reliance on coal—the “only hope of getting our atmosphere back to a safe levels . . . lies in stopping the use of coal to generate electricity.” In September 2019, McKibben’s 350.org co-organized a massive global climate strike involving 4 million people in 163 countries.  


In 2015, McKibben lavishly praised Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical and ended his essay writing, “This marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognized the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent necessary rethinking of what it means to be human.”


In the encyclical itself, the pope stated, “the problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis,” and there is an “urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution.” And like other critics of modern narcissism, he bemoaned “today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification,” and of “extreme consumerism.”


Thus, Schumacher, Berry, McKibben, and Pope Francis all share the essential view that today’s consumer culture needs to be replaced by one featuring, in the pope’s words, a “spirituality [that] can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world.”


The cultural critic Raymond Williams once wrote that “a culture, while it is being lived, is always in part unknown, in part unrealized.” Hence, we may not yet realize that the four individuals mentioned above have been seed-sowers for an emerging new countercultural movement. But there are some promising signs.


Regarding music, one recent article notes: “2019 has been a year of youth climate strikes and record-setting heatwaves, and—probably not coincidentally—it’s also the year that pop music stars started speaking about climate change en masse. . . . Now we’re seeing actual, quality pop music talking about the climate crisis from artists like Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, and (he claims) Lil Nas X.”  


In film, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) was a first rate exploration of the effects of climate change on an environmental activist and his minister (Ethan Hawke). 


Literature has produced more numerous examples of climate concern. Berry, author of novels, poems, and essays, has long written about the health of the earth and planet, and in recent decades about climate change (see, e.g., here and here). It is difficult to think of any other major American cultural figure who for so long has championed the type of values needed for a countercultural challenge to today’s consumer culture.  


In 2000, prolific fiction writer T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth depicts the world in 2025-26: “Global warming. I remember the time when people debated not only the fact of it but the consequence. . . . [Now] it’s like leaving your car in the parking lot in the sun all day with the windows rolled up and then climbing in and discovering they’ve been sealed shut—and the doors too. . . . That’s how it is.”


In 2018, Amazon published a collection of seven climate-fiction (cli-fi) storiesby major writers. The series was entitled “Warmer.” In 2019, Amitav Ghosh came out with his new novel Gun Island, the plot of which centers on global warming and its foolish denial. In September 2019 another well-known novelist, Jonathan Franzen, wrote about the coming of a “climate apocalypse.” 


Among poets, already in 1985 Carl Dennis wrote the amazingly perceptive “The Greenhouse Effect.” More recently, the influential Poetry Foundation has gathered together “environmental poetry [that] explores the complicated connections between people and nature, often written by poets who . . . are serving as witnesses to climate change while bringing attention to important environmental issues and advocating for preservation and conservation.” The Foundation collection also includes essays on ecopoetry, an important new trend dealing with climate change and other environmental topics. 


In the early 1960s, Bob Dylan (Nobel Prize for Poetry winner in 2016) composed and sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It began: 


Come gather 'round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown . . . .

In light of the rising sea levels produced by global warming, the lines remain relevant  today. So too do his words


Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall.


A new counterculture could help lessen such blockage. As Schumacher, Berry, McKibben, and Pope Francis have all indicated it can embrace many traditional values while still being progressive and forward looking. But, as Francis, indicates it must reject our unsustainable “throwaway” consumer culture.

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