Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Counterculture, What is it Good For?

"Unfortunately, the idea of counterculture has become so deeply embedded in our understanding of society that it influences every aspect of social and political life. Most importantly, it has become the conceptual template for all contemporary leftist politics. Counterculture has almost completely replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought. So if counterculture is a myth, then it is one that has misled an enormous number of people, with untold political consequences."

There may be no better feeling than, having had an initial positive impression in the bookstore, discovering in the first ten or twenty pages of a book that you have indeed made an inspired choice and have several hundred pages of great reading ahead of you. But I'm aging myself by conceding that.

I am speaking, of course, of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's book "Nation of Rebels". I actually have a good deal of residual affection for socialism, especially in areas like education and health care, where I think a firm safety net serves to knit society together in ways I don't think the free market can imitate. It is the counterculture I have no use for at all. What ever happened to the days when the left was about improving the lot of working people? A lot has been made of the "What's the Matter With Kansas?" phenomenon, whereby working people in middle America vote against their own economics interests, and prefer to vote Republican on social issues. Less has been said about the fact that the Democratic Party and the Left have turned their backs on these people and effectively left them with nowhere to go. The counterculture is more concerned with taking an aesthetic stance that's pleasing to the poseur than in affecting real change. It is the difference between the American and French revolutions: the entire rotten edifice must be indiscriminately destroyed, or the enterprise is not worth the doing. And since the edifice has proven quite resilient in the years since the sixties, all that is left is an ineffectual, dramatic pose:

"It is important to see what a profound reorientation of radical politics this critique presents. Traditional leftist concerns, such as poverty, living standards and access to medical care, come to be seen as "superficial," in that they aim only at institutional reform. The counterculture, by contrast, is interested in what Roszak calls "the psychic liberation of the oppressed." Thus, the hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, comes to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than the civil rights activist working to enlist voters or the feminist politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment."

People forget that Martin Luther King, after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, sought to refashion the movement as a movement for economic justice. When he was killed, characteristically for that time in his career, he was marching on behalf of the garbage collectors of Memphis, Tennessee. What a quaint idea. Can you imagine any national leader of any kind of stature spending time on a project like that today?