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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When the mode of the music changes: “What’s Left?” August 2011, MRR #339

I learned about the death of Gil Scott-Heron the same day I went to a sold-out Tony Bennett concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. After listening to Tony do standards like “Smile,” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” I listened to Gil doing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey On The Moon,” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” thanks to YouTube. Whereas Tony was a spry, animated, and healthy 84, Gil died at 62 gaunt, HIV positive, and fighting a long crack cocaine addiction. I admire the former as a unique interpreter of the great American songbook, but I revere the latter as a revolutionary black poet, a powerful voice of the ‘60s, and a seminal influence on modern rap and hip hop.

In the HBO TV drama Treme, the character Delmond Lambreaux, a New Orleans modern jazz musician transplanted to New York, listens to traditional New Orleans jazz, Jelly Roll Morton to be exact, on vinyl in his apartment with his girlfriend, Jill. When Jill complains that the music sounds so old-fashioned, Delmond protests that classical music can be over 300 years old and still considered relevant, yet jazz that’s barely 40 years old is dismissed as out of date. The character is clearly frustrated as to why it’s not possible to appreciate both styles of jazz on their own merits.

I’m not trying to judge what type of music is going to stand the test of time. Nor am I arguing that musical genius requires immense suffering and a short lifespan, or even any particular originality. What I am saying is that music which is meaningful in any way must move us, must in some way inspire us, must raise the hair on the back of our necks. The music of the above mentioned performers did just that for me. So did my exposure to the Ramone’s first album, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Stiff Little Finger’s Inflammable Material, and the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bullocks. Classical music (Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovitch), bebop (Parker, Gillespie, Coltraine), acid rock (Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service), and country (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Dale Gilmore) also do it for me. In fact, there are only a few categories of music (soft rock, smooth jazz, disco) that I can’t really listen to.

Plato contended, in book four of the Republic, that: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake” (as paraphrased by Tuli Kupferberg). Certainly, music has been used historically, by religion and politics, to strip people of their individuality, create ecstatic experiences, and help to forge powerful social movements. And folks in the ‘60s viewed rock music as a revolutionary weapon. My point is much more mundane. Music should feed our souls, uplift us, make us whole. It shouldn’t be used to divide, to make us feel superior to others. I don’t give a shit if you have the same taste in music that I do. Just enjoy yourself, for fuck’s sake.

The universal language of music: “What’s Left?” April 2009, MRR #311

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly.

—Hank Williams

I hated country music.

I considered it the epitome of a reactionary, racist, redneck America I was doing everything in my power to rebel against in the ‘60s. The only parts of country music I had any respect for were those elements, like rockabilly, that owed a good deal of their success to black music. Even though I understood that rocknroll had emerged when rural blues and country music moved to the city, I argued that the only authentic basis for rock music was black music—the blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, early jazz, and swing. I tolerated folk music because, after all, it was the voice of my generation rooted in the working class struggles of the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I’ll admit to having had a love for Buffalo Springfield that became an unhealthy indulgence in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. At the same time, I despised country as that white, whiny, “I got drunk, beat up my girl, got thrown in jail” cracker type of sentiment that was to Negro blues what white gospel was to black gospel. A pale imitation. I hated when the Byrds released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” under the influence of Gram Parsons. The twang of a pedal steel guitar made me cringe.

Then, I heard Hank Williams do “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Admittedly, I was at an impressionable moment in my life. I’d been dumped by a girlfriend of seven years, who’d moved out just days before. I was a little drunk, and very stoned. Hank’s plaintive vocals, the song’s deceptive musical simplicity, the forlorn lyrics all combined to take me in. I felt that song down to my bones. I got country music, for the first time.

Now, Hank himself had been no stranger to black music, having learned how to sing and play the guitar from Rufus “Teetot” Payne. Maybe his blues sensibilities were what allowed me to experience the plain, unvarnished sincerity that, at its best, is what country music is known for. This was before I got into punk rock of course, and well before I moved up to the Bay Area to start volunteering for that bastion of punk rock purity, Maximum Rocknroll.

By the time I moved to Oakland, I had a modest appreciation for certain country musicians—Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson— as well as for the subgenres of western swing, honky tonk, and the above mentioned rockabilly. The fact is, I enjoyed a wide variety of music, though not without discrimination. In classical music, it had to be Beethoven and after, with a particular interest in composers like Bartok, Copland and the like who incorporated folk themes into their music. It was Parker, Coltraine, Gillespie and Monk, be-bop and straight ahead jazz. I liked the Juju hi-life music of King Sunny Ade, the rai music of Cheb Khaled, the desert blues of Hamza El Din. Blue Oyster Cult circa 1972-74, and Metallica circa 1982-84. As for punk rock, I had a predisposition towards hardcore, though I really dug some of punk’s edges like Operation Ivy’s ska punk and The Cramps psychobilly.

Which is why I couldn’t take Tim Yohannan’s punk purism too seriously. To be fair, Tim judged what was punk on at least three separate levels. The music is the most obvious, and the most fundamental. Tim considered only the most basic, raw, and primitive rocknroll to be truly punk. His opinion led to his decision to purge MRR of several types of punk music because they were no longer punk enough. I’ll return to the subject of music in just a moment.

Tim also had political and social/cultural criteria for punk. He was no anarchist, but he considered some form of leftwing class politics to be essential to punk, in addition to the youthful rebelliousness that said to the world “fuck off and die.” Combine the latter with a “DIY or die” sentiment and you have what Tim considered to be the social/cultural basis for punk.

Having had some experience with the previous period of youthful rebellion and independent activity known as the 1960s, I heartily agree that these are, indeed, the social and cultural foundations to punk, or to any dynamic counterculture. But even though I came out of the ‘60s a hardcore politico, I know full well that most of my fellow “rebellious youth” of that day were monumentally apolitical, or at most they considered getting high on pot to be a supreme political act. I spent a decade in the punk scene in San Diego, going on two in the Bay Area’s scene, and I’ve come to the same conclusion. Most punks get their politics out of a 40-ounce bottle of cheap malt liquor. So, while youthful rebellion, nihilism, DIY independence, and general obnoxiousness are essential to punk, politics, let alone leftist politics, isn’t.

Which brings us back to the music. It’s impossible to conceive of the ‘60s without rocknroll, and the same is true for punk. In my opinion, this fact should be descriptive, not prescriptive. There are a number of reasons why a whole lot of effort should not be spent in trying to define or enforce what is punk, musically speaking. The most obvious reason, of course, is that it’s impossible to do. Tim once did an all-black cover of the magazine, with “The Bible” printed in large white letters above smaller lettering that read “of punk rock.” But when he tried to lay down the correct line on punk rock music, he spawned a half dozen contrary magazines, among them HeartattaCk, Punk Planet, Shredding Paper, and Hit List, all with their own, quite different, understandings of what punk was all about.

That’s because punk rock itself has several different origins, a variety of influences, and progeny too numerous to mention. As such, punk reflects the reality of most music in this country, which is subject to a high degree of cross-pollination and amalgamation. Take country music, which has its roots in English, Scottish and Irish folk songs, with influences from the blues, rhythm and blues, Hawaiian slack key, and jazz. There’s just no way to have a pure type of music, even if it’s reduced to three-chord simplicity. The people who play, and compose, punk rock are themselves molded by influences outside of punk, which comes out in their music. Aside from the impossibility of boiling down punk rock to its essence, whatever that might be, the question becomes, why would anyone want to?

Music is a near universal source of enjoyment that frequently transcends culture and language. It’s absurd to limit one’s pleasure by insisting on listening to only one kind of music, and by insisting that that kind of music be further narrowed to a particular style. I look on all the years I disdained country music as outright foolishness. I could have kicked back, with a beer or a joint depending on what I was into at the time, and enjoyed some good tunes.

Lifesavers for a new life: “What’s Left?” March 2009, MRR #310

I moved to Oakland from San Diego in 1991. In my initial exploration of the Bay Area, I discovered two invaluable resources I relied on for many years to come. The first was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, printed both sides, in very small type, called the Bay Area Progressive Calendar. Produced by Ken Cheetham, it detailed every progressive event brought to its attention and offered, by mail, a directory of local progressive groups and organizations. Incredibly cool. I first encountered the Progressive Calendar in the free literature zone at the old Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, and I made a point of seeking out this valuable little ecumenical leftie calendar.

The second was The List. In the day, it was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, folded widthwise, printed in colorful, incredibly small type, as a smart little four pager produced by Steve Koepke listing all the punk, hardcore, ska, rocakabilly, yada, yada, yada shows in the immediate Bay Area. Incredibly cool. I came upon The List at MRR HQ on Clipper Street, as a shitworker typing, scanning, and laying out the magazine’s now extinct Classifieds Section. I regularly attended shows back then, so I kept a copy of The List handy.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, so I can’t recall if these were weekly or monthly publications, or something in between. Both the Progressive Calendar and The List augmented their street presence with mailed subscriptions and, when it became common, emailed information. And both eventually dropped their physical distribution altogether to bookstores, record shops, political events, shows, and other venues. The Bay Area Progressive Directory and adjunct Calendar are now entirely web based, and can be found at bapd.org. The List still can be had via snail mail by writing The List, P.O. Box 2451, Richmond, CA 94802. You can also get it through email by writing to skoepke@stevelist.com. This information is obtainable online at calweb.com/~skoepke/, and several www versions of The List are available, most notably at foopee.com/punk/the-list/ and kzsu.stanford.edu/~calendar/orig_list.html.

The Progressive Calendar and The List were my lifelines when I moved to Oakland. They helped me get established and oriented, meet people, find things to do, and make the Bay Area my home. They required that I make an effort to go out and about to initially find them, and to subsequently keep track of them. Hunting down a copy of the Progressive Calendar or The List got me out of my tiny apartment to experience the weather, other people, the Bay Area in all its disappointing glory, and the real world. Eventually, I subscribed to both by mail, and I still occasionally refer to them online. What I miss though is that street presence, their physicality, the ability to walk into my local bookshop or record store and find them in with all the other free literature.

It’s the disappearance of a physical geography implied by the evolution of the Progressive Calendar and The List that most upsets me. Now, it’s all about an amorphous digital geography, which I found troublesome. Those who champion cyberspace and tout the virtues of the virtual would call me old fashioned, and point out how much more accessible and available both the Progressive Calendar and The List are, now that they’re online. No doubt, these are some of the same folks who defend CDs over vinyl, and MP3s over CDs.

Personally, I never could tell much of a difference between music on vinyl versus CDs. But I can hear the difference between MP3s and these previous media. The digital revolution is turning the music I like to listen to into low quality crap, much as it’s converting physical community into that sorry-assed excuse for human interaction called the online community. Anyone who has attended a real, live record swap, book fair, concert, or farmers market and then dares to compare them to the shadowy, flame-ridden, cowardly and anonymous, so-called community of your average online chatroom or forum deserves the lobotomy that prolonged internet exposure all but guarantees.

On an unrelated note, I did a column awhile back on political syncretism in general, and the rise of national anarchism on the fascist right in particular. Spencer Sunshine has written a comprehensive article on the latter, called “Rebranding Fascism,” for The Public Eye Magazine, available at publiceye.org/magazine/v23n4/rebranding_fascism.html. A rather anemic debate on the article took place on infoshop.org (news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20081220225130728), which has only reinforced my disdain for modern anarchism. Anarchists no longer have the cajones to defend their politics from such vile interlopers, and thus anarchism fully deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

National anarchists have established a nominal presence in the Bay Area, and they’ve already publicly attended an all-too-conventional, ANSWER-sponsored anti-AIPAC protest in San Francisco on December 11, 2008. Presumably, they also participated clandestinely in the anti-authoritarian bloc called by UA of the Bay for the equally stodgy January 10, 2009 ANSWER demo protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least the national anarchists advertised the call on their website. No one can tell what kind of anarchist you are, whether anarchist at all, if you’re dressed all in black and wearing a black bandana over your face. Australian national anarchists who’ve jumped into Leftist demos explain that “we cover our faces to protect us from the persecution of the other political groups.” Meaning, they dress anarchist in order to avoid getting their asses kicked by Leftists, and other anarchists. And rumor has it that black bloc participants in the anti-globalization protests in Genoa, Italy on August 23, 2001 weren’t all anarchists or autonomists. Aside from the usual quota of police agent provocateurs, a number of young Italian fascists swelled the ranks of the black bloc, in the guise of national autonomists.

I’m looking forward to the day when a group of national anarchists openly try to join a regular local anarcho event, such as the ho-hum December 20, 2008 SF march in solidarity with Greek anarchists and the New School occupation. I bet that such an attempt will produce general consternation and confusion, not to mention much hand wringing. But in the end the regular anarchists will wimp out and let the national anarchists join in. Unchallenged. Any takers?

For someone who has just decried the pernicious effects of the digital over the real, I sure use a lot of internet sources.

UPDATE FOR 2014:

Most of the links mentioned in this column have held up quite well over the years. Can’t say the same for the postal addresses. Even more digital versions of The List can be found by simply googling.

Nostalgia for the 60s: “What’s Left?” September 2008, MRR #304

I was having flashbacks.

I laid out the columns for MRR #302 at the end of May. As I sat in front of a computer in the Mother Ship—MRR HQ—the soundtrack playing was ‘60s rock’n’roll, protopunk, garage, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it. The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Them, on vinyl of course. Yet, other than myself, no one listening had been born when that music was first produced.

Intellectually, I understand the impact that Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Van Morrison and their break-out bands had on the music that followed, up to the present day. Emotionally, however, I was asking myself, why the hell does anybody listen to this crap? That’s because the music threatened to invoke nostalgia. I’m no fan of nostalgia, even on the best of days.

For me, nostalgia is pitiable emotion conjured up by less than accurate memory. I’m particularly repelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s because, in my opinion having lived through the decade, very little was changed by the unrest and ferment of those years. Recently, I listened to a Brecht Forum panel discussion on Obama and the Left put on by the Nation Magazine and broadcast on NPR. I couldn’t help shaking my head, and chuckling out loud. For all our pipe dreams of revolution and overthrowing the Establishment in the ‘60s, in America today the Left is a joke. I recognize that we were delusional at the time, but it still makes me sad, and not a little angry, to realize how pathetically insignificant the Left, not to mention the left of the Left, is at present. And how out-and-out reactionary this society remains.

Which is weird because conservatives in this country believe exactly the opposite, that the Left won what they call the Culture Wars of the 1960s. For them, the remnants of LBJ’s Great Society welfare state and the much curtailed countercultural hedonism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are signs that the Antichrist triumphed some forty years ago, which conservatives have been assiduously fighting to overturn ever since. The Right has successfully used affirmative action, feminism, liberal media, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, et al, to distract people from the reality that corporate capitalism is fast reducing the United States to a Third World banana republic.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft summarized popular attitudes to that contentious decade in a Guardian Weekly opinion piece (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” 9/5/08) when he wrote:

[André Glucksmann] now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury,” which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.

Wheatcroft proceeds to systematically demolish the myths of 1968, beginning by comparing Paris 1968 to Europe in 1848, using the analogy of sexual orgasm followed by post-coital depression. “Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting.” He quotes the French Communist Party’s analysis of those events as “street party, not revolution,” and favorably mentions AJP Taylor’s comment about 1848: “it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.”

The list of ‘60s veterans who have become part of the establishment, even right-wingers, is disheartening, and not at all “amusing, if unkind” as Wheatcroft puts it. But he is particularly cogent when he discusses the political consequences of 1968:

The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years. Likewise, British youths jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.

Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy—not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism heralded the political and economic victory of the Right, as foreshadowed in 1968. Yet, with respect to the cultural (“or emotional or sexual”) victory of the Left, Wheatcroft contends that “even there, the story is ambiguous.” For, as he points out, the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” I consider myself a proxy soixante-huitard, yet I heartily agree with Wheatcroft’s rather bleak assessment of the legacy of 1968. I’m even inclined to second Eric Hobsbawm’s comment that “the revolution is puritan,” by which “[h]e meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.”

Damn, I’m getting old.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that the rebellions of the 1960s had two disparate sources; the hippie counterculture and the student New Left. Hippies were often proudly anti-political, whereas New Leftists frequently dismissed the counterculture as escapist. Wheatcroft is essentially saying that while the counterculture nominally won, the New Left was resoundingly defeated. Another way to look at this period is to see both counterculture and New Left going down to defeat, with the ruling elite of the day then selectively recuperating elements from each camp in order to stave off future rebellion. Had these two aspects of the ‘60s truly triumphed to any degree, we might have seen a creative fusion that could have shaped a stunningly libertarian socialism to shame Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. But this is the stuff of science fiction and alternative history, not of thoughtful analysis.

As I write this column the San Francisco Mime Troupe begins a new season of free theater in the city’s parks. The current production, called “Red State,” has as one of its themes that the US economy is becoming so bad that the Right can no longer bamboozle the American public with social and moral issues. The sleight-of-hand trickery that stirred up people with the red flags of gay marriage, teenage abortion, reverse discrimination against whites, and welfare mothers on crack so that they voted, and acted, against their economic interests, is no longer working. Economic issues are once more coming to the fore, and overshadowing the rabidly repressive social agenda of the conservative movement. We should comprehend and encourage this potential, instead of futilely pining for the “good old days” of the ‘60s.

  • MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL

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