What happened to the counter-culture?

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 » [Il y a un] paradoxical link between modernism and the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, which was trivialized and integrated into the dominant culture, leading to the hegemony of « cultural leftism », to a mass individualistic conformism presenting itself under the guise of anti-conformism, festivity and rebellion, which lives sheltered from the test of reality and history while tending to take itself for the center of the world(1).  »

Jean-Pierre Le Goff 

We did not have to wait for the politico-sanitary event of the covid to notice that we live a period of great ideological uncertainty, which was first qualified of « postmodernity » (Jean-François Lyotard, 1979), then of « overmodernity » (Marc Augé), of « hypermodernity » (Nicole Aubert), of « late modernity » (Hartmut Rosa) or even of « liquid society » (Zygmunt Bauman), each one of these appellations having its interest. But what has become of the counter-culture in our time? The term had been outdated and disappeared from the debate for ages, until two American philosophers, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, revisited it in a book published in 2004(2), Revolt consumed. The myth of the counter-cultureis now available from L’Échappée. We will come back to this. In my turn, and mainly inspired by the latter, I would like to smell here an already old wine drawn some fifty years ago in the West, which was to shape quite profoundly all dimensions of social existence (politics, pacifism, ecology, spirituality, poetry, music, cinema, etc.), without however changing its fundamentally modern nature. Philosopher Theodore Roszak (1933–2011) popularized the term counterculture in 1969 in his essay The Making of a Counter Culture, written in direct response to the effervescence of the baby-boom generation, soon to be known as hippies. Its demonstrations ranged from opposition to the Vietnam War in impressive marches to poetry readings (such as those by beatniks Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg) to the Woodstock festival in July 1969.  » The counter-culture is also the alternative life of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, its Diggers, the colorful aesthetics of Flower Power, the emergence of the first environmental movements, such as Greenpeace and Public Citizens, the vitality of encounters with the spiritual cultures of Japan, India or the Amerindians, without forgetting the inevitable « psychedelic revolution ».(3) « . It is also umbilically connected to leftism and anarchism. Above all, Roszak criticized the excessiveness and gigantism of technocracy, which is anti-democratic in essence, whether it emanates from the capitalist market or the communist bureaucracy. However, as North American as he was, he defined himself primarily as an anti-capitalist and wished that an ecological society would replace the technicist society, following a spiritual revolution inspired by romanticism. Of the psychedelism and of its apology of the drugs supposed to awaken the consciences, he was not fooled, not more than of the capacity of the system to recover these societal innovations. Other famous heralds from across the Atlantic included Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, John Lilly, Gregory Bateson, and Herbert Marcuse, author of a noted essay, One-Dimensional Man (1964). According to Mohammed Taleb, the death of the counter-culture symbolically coincided with that of John Lennon, assassinated in December 1980, at a time when the  » counter-culture « (4) of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) was asserting itself, and the election of Ronald Reagan the following year confirmed this. The neoliberal counter-revolution was beginning. So much for the quick historical picture. 

Before we even discuss the counterculture, let’s ask ourselves the following questions about culture: does it still represent an oppositional force in 2020? Is it still the  » seat of meaning « , as Nicanor Perlas claims(5)? On the contrary, hasn’t it been totally integrated into the show and the merchandise? Doesn’t propaganda have the power to degrade it into mere passing fads, and therefore unworthy of interest? If we add to this the current institutional set-up that makes cultural actors dependent on public subsidies to live and work, then it is not surprising that almost none of them(6)in Belgium and France, has not taken up the cause against the disproportionate and liberticidal anti-covid measures of their respective governments, which are not very favorable to their sector(7). But we don’t dare bite the political hand that feeds… by rationing more and more doses. 


Let us return to our counter-cultural sheep and note that, on the one hand,  » the ruling class knows very well how to accommodate « subversion », as long as it does not leave the cultural field(8) « on the other hand, that the counterculture has not lacked contemptuous people: it is a  » ideology of apolitism  » (Jules Duchastel), the  » fundamental research of the cultural industry  » (Pièces et Main d’œuvre) or « a feigned dissent, as harmless to the dominant system as it is ostensibly subversive  » (Louis Janover). Heath and Potter put a critical layer back on with their own conception of the notion, which they equate with a certain aesthetic of rebellion(9). Let’s examine it. 

Heir to the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s, the current rebellion is part of a  » cultural scramble  » which, by perverse effect, reinforces the system. At the same time as Marxism has declined, it has abandoned the social for the societal, exalting the positive values of benevolence, tolerance, respect, solidarity with all living things, etc., while defying collective norms with universal pretensions. She holds that  » every act that contravenes the dominant norms is politically radical  » (p. 79). It has come to attack the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction, science, grammar, linguistics and even to idealize crime and mental illness, with the anti-psychiatry movement. It is an all-encompassing movement, expressed through musical currents such as grunge (1990s) and hiphop (especially since the 2000s), civic, citizen and environmental movements such as zads, anti-pub, fair trade, ethical marketing, alternative pedagogies, legalization of cannabis, veganism, natural medicines, intersectionality, etc, cultural habits such as the desire to escape from the West for the purpose of initiation and « self-discovery » (with India as the preferred destination), or more marginal phenomena such as poly-love and cyclonudista. Right-wing petty-bourgeois conformism is to be destroyed, mass consumption is the new opium of the people, culture is an ideological system of instinctual repression, as Wilhelm Reich maintained. In order to emancipate oneself, it is necessary to abolish all social norms and to focus on psychological oppression, rather than on the exploitation of labor. The desire for social justice — carried by the famous Social Justice Warriors in the United States — shifts the terrain of labor struggles to that of multiple identities. The symbolic resistance is the weapon of the counter-cultural, supposed to reach the individuals in what they have of more deeply anchored, their imaginary institutions(cf. Cornélius Castoriadis). The misfortune resulting from internal and not external conditions, it bets on the metamorphosis of the consciences. Thus, covering billboards with political messages was the main tactic of the Cacheurs de pub, Brussels activists of which I was a member from 2009 to 2011. Our playful and non-violent actions, which only aroused a mixed interest from passers-by, amused us but did not sway the advertising order which, in the meantime, has fallen back on the Web to become even more persuasive and intrusive thanks to algorithms. 

The role of consumption in the counter-culture is crucial (in both senses of the term). Against common sense, the authors note that  » it is rebellion, not conformity, that has fueled the market for decades  » (p. 114), with its distinctive consumption that is linked to the middle classes, forgetting that the working class also participates. With material scarcity gone, the income of the average consumer is mostly spent on positional goods. Cool has become the central ideology of consumerism. The surge in cool rebellion was first reflected in the 1960s/70s by extravagant clothing and long hair for men and women. With the punk in 1977 appeared the piercings, always more invading. In the 1980s and 90s, the ponytail was all the rage among men. The 2010’s have seen the explosion of tattoos, also more or less invasive on the body. This obsession of the appearance, present as much in the punk as in the CEO, fits perfectly with the capitalist market, if it is not that the second will not claim, him, to belong to the counter-culture (although…). This consumption is also found in the quest for extra-Western spiritualities: worship of Mother Earth by the aborigines, yoga courses in ashrams, Buddhism(10) and  » the metaphysical individualism of Zen  » (p. 262), etc. In order to « discover » all these trends, to imbibe them and to grow spiritually, some people are ready to burn kerosene around the planet. 


Heath & Potter note the perverse effects of counter-cultural consumption, conclude that « the the inability of the countercultural movement to produce a coherent vision of a free society  » (p. 90) and close the question by affirming that  » the rebellion is not a threat to the system, it is the system « . The trial is therefore totally incriminating. The two philosophers appear as Anglo-Saxon progressives, defenders of the political model that emerged from the victory against Nazism, that of the Trente Glorieuses with its fair redistribution of wealth between employers and workers. Sociologically, their credo seems quite simple: to reintroduce a little more uniformity in our lives, to dare to be similar to others, to get rid of all radicalism in favor of pragmatism. 

This conformism as a remedy to counter-cultural errors becomes in turn criticizable when the authors come to relativize the influence of the empire of advertising on lifestyles, or even show themselves to be complacent with the brands:  » We also like to shop in foreign chains like Ikea, Zara, The body shop, Benetton or H& M » (p. 246), or worse, with economic globalization:  » Although there are, within these countries [Editor’s note : developing countries], vigorous debates about how to integrate into the global economy, almost no one questions the wisdom of this ultimate goal  » (p. 249).  » Almost nobody « ? We’re fine! While they do not object to the capitalist model spreading to the four corners of the world, they do not approve of counter-cultural tourism in search of « authenticity » which then paves the way for mass tourism. But doesn’t one — the globalized capitalist model — go hand in hand with the other — globalized tourism? The authors have a tendency to fall easily into ethnocentrism. They also have a fondness for industrial medicine and its vaccines, and are generally technoptimistic. At several points, they are not far from postulating the « neutrality » of technologies:  » It wasnot a matter of being against technology; it was a matter of organizing to be able to control the machines, not the other way around  » (p. 292);  » It isoften wrong to say that the way people use technology is determined by the nature of that technology  » (p. 297). However, they « redeem » themselves by torpedoing « cyberlibertarianism » a few pages later. Ecologism — especially in its deep ecology version — does not find much favor in their eyes, also identified with counter-cultural obsessions. Moreover, they admit that to live well,  » everyone probably needs a car  » (p. 320) while acknowledging a few lines later that  » the population is growing all the time . So, what about it? They clear international economic competition:  » [Enfin] there is no evidence that environmental protection laws are being weakened by pressures from global competition  » (p. 334) and even celebrate it: « […] we do not believe that buying local is better than buying foreign … » (p. 340);  » [De plus] one of the main issues in development efforts is to reduce agricultural subsidies, so as to encourage the import of food from Africa and Asia  » (p. 340). Then again, the reader catches them defending greenwashing:  » Buying a hybrid vehicle is socially responsible […] » (p. 338). Can do better! 

Heath & Potter have rightly pointed out the drifts and contradictions of the counter-culture, but their practical reasoning, as we have seen above, poses some problems: they certainly call for the return of civism and individual responsibility, but they do not abandon techno-progressism, liberalism (political and economic), pragmatism (blind), globalism (illusory)(11) and (harmless) reformism(12), all of which we at Kairos have always questioned, if not fought. Returning to our good old world, we prefer to close with Natacha Polony:  » Untie the feeling of reason, favor a letter without spirit, rights without morals ,

a democracy without a people, a state without a nation, this part of soft totalitarianism is the daughter of the European construction which, moreover, perfectly embodies the convergence of cultural leftism and liberalism(13)(14) « . And of the counter-culture. 

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1. Jean-Pierre Le Goff, Malaise dans la démocratie, Stock, 2016, pp. 13 & 14.
  2. The Rebel Sell, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.
  3. Mohammed Taleb, Theodore Roszak. Vers une écopsychologie libératrice, Le passager clandestin, 2015, p. 14.
  4. Ibidem, p. 28.
  5. Cf. La société civile. Le troisième pouvoir, Yves Michel, 2003.
  6. À l’exception notoire du guitariste désobéisseur Quentin Dujardin, dont le concert dans une église, en février 2021, a été interrompu par la police. Saluons aussi Francis Lalanne, qui sauve l’honneur des artistes en appelant à la démission d’Emmanuel Macron : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBMC43OQ1iI&feature=emb_logo
  7. Certains lieux culturels ont même surenchéri dans lesdites mesures. Par exemple, les responsables de l’asbl « Les Grignoux » — qui gère 4 complexes de cinéma en Wallonie (Liège, Namur) — avaient décidé de leur propre initiative, dès le déconfinement du printemps 2020, de ne plus accepter les paiements en argent liquide ; malgré la distanciation physique possible dans les salles, ils avaient imposé le masque pendant toute la durée du film, au motif que cela éviterait une « deuxième vague »… qui est finalement arrivée (du moins officiellement). On remarquera aussi à quel point les librairies, ces temples de la connaissance et de la culture, sont motivées à faire respecter strictement les mesures anti-covid. Elles voudraient rabattre leurs rares clients vers les plateformes de vente en ligne qu’elles ne s’y prendraient pas autrement. L’art de se tirer une balle dans le pied, Schopenhauer aurait pu l’écrire !
  8. Jean-Pierre Garnier, Une violence éminemment contemporaine. Essai sur la ville, la petite-bourgeoisie intellectuelle et l’effacement des classes populaires, Agone, 2010, p. 69.
  9. Une analyse similaire se rencontre chez Luc Boltansky & Eve Chiapello, Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Gallimard, 1999.
  10. Il s’agit cependant de contraster le bouddhisme originel avec sa version amoindrie à destination des Occidentaux. Cf. Marion Dapsance, Qu’ont-ils fait du bouddhisme ? Une analyse sans concession du bouddhisme à l’occidentale, Folio, 2018.
  11. « Nous n’avons pas besoin d’une politique étrangère locale, mais d’une politique intérieure mondiale sur les émissions de gaz à effet de serre » (p. 333).
  12. « Ce n’est pas le système qui est en cause, mais ses failles. La meilleure solution consiste à colmater les brèches, plutôt qu’à abolir le système » (p. 328).
  13. Natacha Polony & le Comité Orwell, Bienvenue dans le pire des mondes. Le triomphe du soft totalitarisme, Plon, 2017, p. 168.
  14. Cette dernière citation ouvrant le débat sur la problématique européenne, je renvoie à Bruno Poncelet, Europe, une biographie non autorisée. De la « paix américaine » à la « civilisation poubelle », Aden, 2014.
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