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Reclaiming the 1960s

The counter-culture of the 1960s is sometimes dismissed as an individualist phenomenon – but it was in its essence a collective movement, and one the Left should try to learn from again.

Whatever happened to the 60s? To ‘the widely shared feeling that in the sixties, for a time, everything was possible: that this period was a moment of a universal liberation, a global un-binding of energies’? No-one talks about the 60s like this anymore; indeed, Fredric Jameson punctures his own utopian statement sentences later.

Somehow the 60s survived being co-opted (menswear’s ‘Peacock Revolution‘), commercialised (‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke‘), caricatured (The Young Ones; Forrest Gump; 90s sitcom Hippies), condemned by conservatives (Allan Bloom, Robert Bork, Newt Gingrich), and it survived the contempt of punk. What it has not survived was its championing by baby boomers in the 1990s. Blair and Clinton’s celebration of the 60s was a poisoned chalice, because their poison of choice was neoliberalism. Their legacy is not just Britpop’s 60s cosplay but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s hippyphobia. Accordingly, we need to take the 1960s back from centrists.

For the conservatives of the 1970s, the 60s represented the trashing of the 50s capitalist utopia, as they constructed myths like the ‘welfare mother’ and ‘political correctness’. In the 80s, Thatcher declared, ‘We are reaping what was sown in the sixties. The fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint were denigrated.’ Yet Thatcher and Reagan’s social conservatism was at best contradictory (preaching thrift while unleashing credit); at worst hypocrisy. For when Reagan derided ‘the do-your-own-thing-in-your-own-time-baby sixties’, he could have been describing the society he and Thatcher created: ‘individualism’ being the guiding ethos of the free market capitalism they revived.

This contradiction between social conservatism and economic liberalism was ‘solved’ by Thatcher and Reagan’s heirs, Blair and Clinton. ‘Third Way’ neoliberalism reframed the 60s’ ‘libertarian gains‘—legislatively enshrined in Civil Rights; the pill; abortion; divorce; legalisation of homosexuality—as the cultural corollary of an individualist, libertarian economics. Yet this was a hostile takeover of the 60s idea of collective liberation: the 60s’ anti-capitalist ‘spectre of a world that could be free‘.

Marcuse was the philosopher of the counterculture, and his spectre is Marx’s spectre. In Marcuse, the individual and society are co-dependent: there was to be ‘no revolution without individual liberation, but also no individual liberation without the liberation of society’. The people who really won those gains in the 60s—the Civil Rights marchers, the Freedom Riders, Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, the protestors at Grosvenor Square and in Chicago, occupiers of Berkeley’s People’s Park, the Second Wave feminists and Gay Liberation Front activists—were seeking the transformation of society, not merely the pursuit of self-interest. The counterculture wasn’t just talk and toking, dropping out and dropping acid, free love and freeloading; it put boots on the ground in a lived, material rejection of consensus authority – of bosses, politicians, police, the military, the judiciary.

As the brutal recapture of People’s Park by Reagan, then the Governor of California, revealed, these movements spooked the hell out of the elites, precisely because they were collective. Such actions offered an alternative approach to existence, a genuine counter culture. As such, Thatcher’s 80s declaration that ‘there’s no such thing as society‘ was the ideological logic behind the empire’s strike back. Historian Arthur Marwick’s 90s insistence that ‘there never was any possibility of a revolution; there was never any possibility of a ‘counter-culture’ replacing ‘bourgeois’ culture’ was a statement of relief from the liberal centre.

What today’s centrist triumphalism about the 1990s misses is that the Third Way was a defeatist response to the losses of the 60s and early 70s by those who’d lived through it. You can see that defeatism developing in Regis Debray’s tenth anniversary ‘commemoration’ of May 68 (and as Kristin Ross notes, all subsequent commentary); in Christopher Lasch’s bestselling The Culture of Narcissism (1979), among many disavowals and retreats. Yet in the actual 1960s, neoliberalism decisively failed to gain political traction. Barry Goldwater’s Reagan-endorsed presidential bid in 1964 on a ‘free market’ ticket was defeated by the social democratic left. The era’s legislative liberalisation was not the result of the ‘measured judgement’ of elites (as Marwick claims) but of the ground-up pressure of ordinary people’s struggles in the streets and institutions. That is what ‘the counterculture’ was.

So the Left should be celebrating and taking inspiration from the unique cultural and political space the 60s opened up, rather than tutting at hippies’ indulgent ingratitude at ‘having grown up in luxury unimaginable to their forebears’, as Jeremy Gilbert characterises the contemporary line. Nor should we go along with the liberal-left consensus that the counterculture either anticipated neoliberalism (from Ian MacDonald to Adam Curtis) or even caused it (as argued by figures from Debray to John Harris). These accounts all view the 60s from what Benjamin Noys calls capitalism’s ‘untranscendable horizon‘, making neoliberalism inevitable, even natural – a Hegelian telos of history. In this framing even 60s anti-capitalism becomes ‘the cunning of capitalist reason’, as Noys wryly notes.

Thomas Frank argued that ‘what changed in the sixties… were the strategies of consumerism, the ideology by which business explained its domination of national life’. This sounds familiar: strike a vaguely leftist attitude, maybe quote Gramsci, but attribute all power to the capitalists. In fact, Frank can’t substantiate his claim that capitalism led where counterculture followed, and Boltanski and Chiapello demonstrate the opposite: that capitalism’s late 60s/early 70s reorganisation was a response to anti-capitalist organisation, particularly strikes, workplace disruptions, and the revolt of May 68. Co-option is what capitalism does, but to attribute omnipotence to it is theology.

By the 2000s, neoliberal triumphalism reigned, so that in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of the 60s ‘individualism’ is so entrenched and univalent it’s not worth discussing; Sandbrook dismisses the counterculture in 25 pages as a middle-class, minority pursuit. Yet as we know, a vanguard can achieve a great deal, and the counterculture and unions united in France in May 68, and again in Britain in the early 70s, when the 60s reached its real-world saturation, as Andy Beckett and Mark Fisher have pointed out: ‘In that period from the late Sixties into the early Seventies, we were as close as we were going to be to postcapitalism.’ Beckett and Fisher’s work has started to take the 70s back from the centrist narrative of out-of-control unions and failing welfarism. Now we need to do the same with the 60s.