Of countercultures and temper tantrums: “What’s Left?” August 2015, MRR #387

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?

Marlon Brando and Peggy Maley, “The Wild One”

They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.

John Lichfield (writing of the 60s generation)
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968”
The Independent, 9/23/08

If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: “Libertarianism now, fascism later.”

J.P. Nash

She was a child of Beatniks who came of age in the mid-1960s and lived in San Francisco. There, she was a part of the hippie counterculture, danced with Sufi Sam’s dervish troupe in Precita Park, attended the 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of the Tribes in Golden Gate Park, and belonged to the Diggers. After the “Death of Hippie” event in the Haight-Ashbury, as well as a series of high-profile drug busts, she moved to a commune in Olema in 1969.

He was a red diaper baby born of Communist Party members and lived in Berkeley. There, he participated in the burgeoning New Left, attended UC Berkeley on a Vietnam War student deferment, helped organize the takeover of Provo Park, and was a member of Students for a Democratic Society. After the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the “Bloody Thursday” riot in Berkeley’s Peoples Park, he joined the Weatherman faction in 1969.

They met, fell in love, and married sometime at the end of 1970, beginning of 1971. Maybe it was at Vortex I, or during the Chicano Moratorium, or doing gestalt therapy at Esalen. Or perhaps it was at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, or during the trial of the Chicago 8, or sitting in on classes at Black Mountain College. The exact date and place were never clear as she was hitchhiking around the country and he had gone underground after the Greenwich Village townhouse debacle. Besides, it was the 60s, or the second half of that decade anyway. If you remembered the 60s, you weren’t there. They stayed together a couple of years, even had a couple of kids. But they couldn’t make it work. She was indelibly eccentric and individualistic, New Agey spiritual and profoundly anti-political. He was rabidly political and atheistic, consensus-prone and surprisingly conventional. They got together on and off over the next decade or two, had a couple more kids, but finally decided to call it quits and finalize their divorce at the end of the twentieth century. True to form, they couldn’t agree when to do that, she insisting that it be at the end of 1999 and he at the end of 2000.

As the 1970s dragged into the 1980s, and then the 1990s, they lived their separate lives. She watched as most of what she believed in during her counterculture days entered the mainstream. Not only had sex, drugs, and rocknroll become commonplace, but so had a quirky entrepreneurial individualism and appreciation for alternative lifestyles. She eventually moved to Portland as an apprentice pastry chef, where she now owns a regional mini-chain of successful artisanal bio-organic paleo-grained brick oven bakeries, writes a popular food blog, and lives comfortably in the Pearl District. He watched as the Left he fought for retreated from the streets, ultimately to retrench in its final academic bastion. Not only had revolutionary politics and Marxism given way to identity politics and French postmodernism, but the Left’s scant successes had quickly dead-ended in political correctness. He eventually resurfaced with a teaching career in New York City, where he is now a tenured Sociology professor at NYU, lectures and writes on social movements, and lives comfortably in Park Slope.

And here’s where I walk away from my all-to-obvious analogy. My initial point is that pundits who proclaim that those who fomented the 1960s “lost politically, but won culturally” commit the most basic error of constructing a straw man out of the notion that there was one, unitary “60s generation.” There were two main currents to the 60s—the hippie counterculture and the Left/social movements—that share the coincidence of their proximate births and participant demographics, but little else. These two currents frequently interacted and occasionally merged, but ultimately they remained discrete, and experienced different fates. The hippies won culturally, and the New Leftists lost politically.

The conflation of different aspects of the 1960s is often not just an error of punditry, its a tactic of conservative Kulturkampf. Conservatives have long attempted to fabricate an imaginary, monolithic enemy-from-within, responsible for the decline of America and the corruption of its moral fiber since the 60s. The hedonistic hippie counterculture was in complete cahoots with a New Left become New Communist Movement, which was secretly in league with the Great Society welfare state, Democratic Party permissive liberalism, a mainstream media monopoly, corrupt socialistic unions, ad nauseam; thus inventing one sweeping, victorious anti-American juggernaut that every right-minded, freedom-loving, patriotic citizen needed to oppose by any means necessary. Culture wars have been the party line ever since the Reagan presidency. During that time conservatives moved American politics steadily, inexorably, to the right under an ideological variation known as neoliberalism, itself a supposed revival of 19th century classical Manchester liberalism. Because let’s make no mistake here, whether the counterculture won and the Left lost in the short run, capitalism wins out in the long run. The individualistic “do your own thing” hippies fit in perfectly with America’s self-reliant pioneer individualism and besides, everybody wanted to make money after the 60s.

I decided not to get cute and extend my original analogy to follow the children of my fantasy hippie/New Left couple by describing which one became a Wall Street broker versus which one became a punk rocker and so on. Most who went through the 60s as active participants, as well as their offspring, got jobs and became productive members of society, so what I’m interested in are those who rebelled against all that, even against the 60s, even for rebellion’s sake, oftentimes forming their own countercultures in the process. Rarely did such counter countercultural rebellions lump both “parents” into a single target however. Heavy Metal as a counterculture maintains a direct line of descent from the 60s counterculture, which makes its rebelliousness all rather conventional, even traditional. Punk rock rebellion was against “all that hippie shit” and created its own counterculture based on “do it yourself” and “fuck shit up.” But because punk was basically apolitical, it was easily swayed by politics, left or right, ultimately to descend into peace punks vs skinheads by the 80s.

There were those who had nothing against sex, drugs, and rocknroll, but who thought all that hippie “peace and love” was naïve bullshit. What chafed them unduly were the demands for political correctness which originated in academia, echoed around government and the media, and were blithely parroted by Gen X kids. These young white dudes, and they were mostly young white males, were angry about the influence of the PC Left in America. Inspired by the zine Answer Me! produced by Jim and Debbie Goad from 1991 to 1994, they created a rabid if limited anti-PC counterculture which, according to Spin Magazine, quickly transcended pissed off, working class whiteboy Jim Goad and his “fuck you and your feelings too” zine. There was the Unpop art movement, various publishing companies like Feral House, even an Angry White Male tour which featured Jim Goad, Mike Diana, Shane Bugbee, the Boone Bros., Skitzo, and King Velveeda. Lots of young angry white boys were plenty pissed that they now had to consider the perspectives of women, blacks, gays, and other minorities, and they believed their misogynist, racist, homophobic, frequently humorous invective was not “punching down” but rather “punching up” because, you know, liberalism and the Left were really in control.

Aside from Goad, the usual suspects in this post-60s contrarian counterculture included Boyd Rice, Brian Clark, Shaun Partridge, Adam Parfrey, Lorin Partridge, Nick Bougas/A. Wyatt Mann, Michael Moynihan, Larry Wessel, et al. As is invariably the case, antagonisms and rifts eventually split up these anti-PC counter countercultural bad boys, since they had really little in common other than their hatred of the Left, liberalism, and PC politics. Some drifted off into business-as-usual conservatism, others became neofascists, but most just wanted to make a buck. Their immediate heir was Vice Media, which at its inception as a magazine combined muckraking journalism with frat boy humor and soft porn skin mag aesthetics. What Lizzie Widdicombe described in “The Bad-Boy Brand” for the New Yorker as Vice’s early combination of “investigative reporting with a sensibility that is adolescent, male, and proudly boorish” has since been moderated for the sake of maximizing profit and moving into the mainstream. That leaves folks like Gavin McInnes—big Goad fan and ex-Vice cofounder fired for being unwilling to go along with the program—to continue the good fight ranting against the Left, liberals, and political correctness today.

One thing I find interesting is that right-wing libertarianism seems to be the default politics for those individuals intent on winning the culture wars while still snorting coke and watching porn. Goad might best be described as paleo-libertarian, while both Vice and McInnes are self-proclaimed libertarian. I think that claiming an absolute right to freedom of expression, aside from triggering such knee-jerk libertarianism, is invariably used as an excuse for their juvenile, rude, malicious, thuggish behavior. Once past hating on the Left, without their libertarian label of convenience, and no longer young, these angry white male morons would just be your run-of-the-mill GOP conservative good ol’ boys, maybe with a smidgen of neo-Nazi wingnut thrown in to keep things interesting. Said another way, scratch a Vice-like libertarian and you might just uncover a fascist.

Ethan A. Russell wrote: “In retrospect people often seem embarrassed by that time—the late sixties into the seventies—as if suddenly confronted with some lunatic member of your family, once revered, now disgraced.” (Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade: Our Time and Rock and Roll) Having experienced much of the 60s as a late hippie and New Leftist, I’m neither embarrassed by my life then nor do I revere that complicated decade now. I do think that efforts to frame things in terms of a singular “60s generation” are misinformed and flawed at best, and at worst help to construct a demonic hollow man out of the 60s as a conservative culture wars ploy. The Angry White Male shtick—with Goad for real and with McInnes as pose—will be around as long as political correctness persists. But that’s so, so boring.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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Radicalism in the age of Neoliberalism: “What’s Left?” June 2011, MRR #337

They are valid questions.

If I’m such a rad, hardcore ultra-commie, why haven’t I spoken out in solidarity with workers’ struggles recently raging in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states? Why haven’t I voiced opposition to the US instigating yet another war with the bombing of Libya?

I guess I’m just tired with how much of an uphill battle progressive politics has become. I’m reminded of an article by Calvin Woodward and Sam Hananel on the Huffington Post about organized labor beyond Wisconsin entitled “Labor Movement Roars Again, But It’s A Wounded Sound,” that went on to detail exactly how it got that way. And it’s not like bombing the shit out of the third Muslim country within a decade has resulted in massive protests in America’s streets. It doesn’t help that leftist organizations like ANSWER openly laud madman Muammar Gaddafi as a premier anti-imperialist, or that Wisconsin’s labor leaders proclaimed their willingness to give away wages, safety standards, and health care and pension benefits, all to preserve the right for union bureaucrats to collectively bargain for their rank-and-file. The sad, uninspiring level of such struggles doesn’t make it easy to write about them, let alone participate in them.

But, hold on, haven’t most of the political struggles I’ve engaged in ever since the ‘60s been uphill, made more onerous by self-important, self-serving political organizations pretending to advance those struggles? At least in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it felt like I was on the winning side of history. These days, even overwhelmingly positive actions feel like mere holding actions against a rising tide of rightwing reaction. I’ve spent several past columns bemoaning that the various uprisings of the 1960s never managed to go further, seeking reasons why those movements petered out due to internal failings. There is another way to approach this subject. There seems to have been a decisive turn that occurred between 1975 and 1980, the emergence of some external factor which worked to defeat the ‘60s upsurge. Whether it’s Timothy Brennan (Wars of Position) who postulated that the rise of postmodernism in academia after 1975 disarmed the Hegelian Left and a generation of student activists, or Franco Berardi (The Soul at Work) who dates the rise of semiocapitalism’s digital panlogism and a willingly subservient cognitariat from 1977, or David Harvey (A Brief History of Neoliberalism) who sees in neoliberalism’s rise in the 1970s a reconsolidated ruling class force sufficient to defeat the strength of insurgent workers and rebellious peoples around the world, there is a consensus that something happened in the mid to late 1970s that tipped the scales decisively toward resurgent capital.

Personally, I place the blame on neoliberalism, but I don’t accept Harvey’s analysis that neoliberalism is merely a passing historical phase, soon to be superceded. Instead, I’m with the Aufheben folks who contend that, because of the close economic relationship between China and the US, neoliberalism is an expression of capitalism’s longterm, steady growth, and is bound to last for decades. As such, I don’t think we’re going to see a revitalized labor movement challenge the power of capital, or a revived antiwar movement take on the American empire, anytime soon. No matter how much I would wish otherwise.

But isn’t that when support and solidarity is most important, when such movements are at their most beleaguered? Shouldn’t I be willing to do political work and make personal sacrifices, given the level of assault working people and people around the world are under at the hands of the US government?

I’m no fan of the Leftist politics of discipline and sacrifice. Instead of boring you with a long explanation as to the why and wherefore of this however, consider this story as illustration. Abbie Hoffman, along with Jerry Ruben and Paul Krassner, founded the Youth International Party (YIPpie!) in 1967, which celebrated sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and an anarchic politics best summarized by the slogan “Revolution for the hell of it!” Amidst the rebellion of youth and students during the 1960s, Abbie participated in a number of creative political actions, like tossing money onto the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, which produced a mad scrabble of stockbrokers to possess it. He was a member of the Chicago Eight, a group of activists tried for conspiracy to foment riot during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. And he wrote perhaps the essential text for mischief, mayhem and anarchy within industrial capitalism, entitled Steal This Book.

Hoffman claimed to have been set up for a cocaine bust by the Feds because of his politics in 1973, at which time he went underground. He continued to be involved in political activism while on the run, and said that he became a communist as a result of his experiences. When he resurfaced in 1980 he immediately jumped back into politics, specifically, anti-CIA protests. But the political climate had changed considerably in the intervening years, leading Abbie to flip a 60s adage “never trust anybody under 30,” and to quip that American campuses had become “hotbeds of rest.” So depressed was Abbie Hoffman by the lack of rebellion and protest among students and youth during the 1980s that he swallowed 150 Phenobarbital pills in 1989, committing suicide at the age of 52.

I’m sad enough having to grow old in a hyper capitalist America without inviting suicidal depression by fighting for the Left’s numerous already lost causes.

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