A Revolution That Never Was

To what extent could the counter-culture in Britain, 1968-74, be seen as challenging the dominant cultural values of the time?

It could be said that there are two narratives about the sixties, the story of how the sixties saw a challenge to the dominant culture and in opposition to the capitalist order, the other account, an analysis of culture, capital and co-optation.  Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool asserts that “consumer capitalism did not demand conformity or homogeneity; rather, it thrived on the doctrine of liberation” (1) Both accounts point to a disaffected middle class youth, determined to challenge the dominant culture, but the first leaves aside the extent to which changes within advertising and the corporate sphere facilitated, encouraged and ultimately drove the dominant culture to subsume elements of the counter-culture. Although the counter-culture challenged the dominant cultural values of the masses, the creation of difference, the quest for the new, the disaffection with conformity and the striving for individuality and self expression leads to market segmentation and a renewal of capitalism. “Rebel youth remains the cultural mode of the corporate moment” (2) and this co-optation of youth culture and its positioning within the cultural hegemony prohibits further challenges to dominant culture.  This new homogeneity of culture posits the niche consumable as identity affirming, where all subjects are not just interpellated through ideology but constituted by their consumer choices.

Theodore Roszak postulated that youth was “the only viable revolutionary force” (3) but Middleton and Muncie warn

“we should be careful in our use of the concept ‘counterculture’, particularly if it leads us to emphasize the more radical elements to the detriment of analyzing how many of its ‘radical’ notions have been incorporated into the values of dominant culture or…owe their existence to those very dominant values to which they are supposedly counter” (4)

The extent to which a periphery of non-radical, non-political elements took up some of the slogans, enjoyed the music and opted to follow the fashions of the sixties, is often overlooked in our quest to designate the ‘counter culture’ as potentially revolutionary. Marcuse took Marx and subordinated economic determinism to cultural idealism, making culture the plain on which the revolution was to be fought. The middle-class youth having benefited from the rising prosperity of the post war years and access to higher education were hostile to what they perceived as technocracy, bureaucracy and standardization. The culture of dissent had its roots in what Kerouac termed the Beat Generation, a youth sub-culture who chose poverty over submission to the protestant work ethic and disengagement over conformity. The Hippies of the sixties like the Beats challenged dominant cultural values through lifestyle, dress, music and the arts, an idealist, moralist vision that lacked  materialist socialist politics “Turn on, tune in, drop out” a phrase coined by Timothy Leary, to encourage the notion that freedom was to be found in individual self expression and a discovery of one’s own singularity was anathema to challenging a culture that whilst enforcing conformity over production needed creativity and segmented markets.

 

Nina Power in One Dimensional Woman suggests that “Emancipation starts to look like something wholly interchangeable with the desire simply to buy more things” (5) Whilst Power is talking about the way in which feminism has been co-opted into the mainstream, this insight can equally be applied to the way in which the counterculture was co-opted, repackaged and marketised rendering it functional to capitalist expansion and cultural hegemony. As John Fiske makes clear Althusser’s theory of ideology “is not a static set of ideas imposed upon the subordinate by the dominant classes but rather a dynamic process constantly reproduced and reconstituted in practice” (6) Althusser’s over determination model allows for a clearer analysis of how culture influences the economic sphere and makes clear the reciprocal relation between the base and superstructure. However this creates a closed system from which it would seem there is no escape. If there is no way in which any person or group of persons can be said to be acting outside ideology, then it must follow that the counterculture was a crisis within the dominant culture precipitated by a particular cultural or economic conjuncture. Gramsci set out the relations between the base and superstructure, and the conjuncture by drawing upon historical materialist theory. In The Modern Prince Gramsci proposes that

  • no society sets itself tasks for whose accomplishment the necessary and sufficient conditions do not already exist or are not at least beginning to emerge
  • that no society breaks down and can be replaced until it has first developed all the forms of life which are implicit in its internal relations (7)

In conclusion, if there is a reciprocal relation between culture and the relations of production, and no social order will die before all the productive forces that it can realize have been expropriated then the counter-culture can be said to have; laid the foundations for the next phase of capitalist expansion whilst undermining defunct forms of culture, created new differences which are not explicitly based upon economic class relations and paved the way for a new cultural hegemony that further shrouded the class relations on which it is built. More than that, the counter-culture’s demands for individual self-actualization fragments society not just into sites of inter-sectional oppression but gives way what Franco Beradi called semio-capitalism, where human emotions and communication are central to production and consumption patterns. The need for self valorization in post-industrial society posits each atomized individual as a product of labour, not just living labour. Antonio Negri makes the case that after 1968 the state was forced to become “a consumer of crisis – as a means of governing” (8) forcing the reconstruction of society and re-establishing its domination, I would argue that in doing so, the subjectivity of individuals is further reconstituted by neo-liberal ideology.

____________________________

  • Frank, T. The Conquest of Cool ( The University of Chicago Press 1997), 20.
  • Frank, T. The Conquest of Cool ( The University of Chicago Press 1997), 4.
  • Middleton, R and Muncie, J. “Pop Culture, Pop Music and Post War Youth: Countercultures” (course reader)
  • Middleton, R and Muncie, J. “Pop Culture, Pop Music and Post War Youth: Countercultures” (course reader)
  • Power, N. One Dimensional Woman (John Hunt Publishing 2009), 27.
  • Fiske, J. Interpellation (course reader)
  • Gramsci, A. Selections from Prison Notebooks (Camelot Press LTD 1978),177.
  • Negri, A. The Politics of Subversion (Polity Press1989), 131.

 

 

 

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