What’s the Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Last night I watched “Summer of Love” on PBS’s American Experience. If you have a login for PBS you can follow the link and watch it. Or try your Roku PBS app. I’ve seen this documentary before, it originally appeared in 2007, but I guess PBS wanted to capitalize on the Woodstock 50th anniversary.

Watching “Summer of Love” was a bummer, a bad trip this time around. I remember back in the 1960s how badly I wanted to run away to San Francisco and become part of the counterculture. I thought a revolution was going on and I was missing out.

Over the years when I’d watch these remembrances of 1960s counterculture it would be with nostalgia. This time around I realized my nostalgia was all gone. At 15 it would have been fun for a while, but you have to watch between-the-scenes. There’s only so much prancing in the park you can do before it gets boring, and you can’t stay high forever. And I’ve lived in communal situations a number of times in the 1970s and it wasn’t all peace and love.

This past week I also watched documentaries on Woodstock and Altamont. Between Monterey Pop Festival on June 16, 1967, and Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, the 1960s counterculture reached adolescence and then died a tragically early death. However, the dreams of what people wanted from the counterculture still persist. They have haunted us for fifty years.

We kept the long hair, beards, colorful clothes, free love, music, and dope, but we never found peace and harmony, we never freed ourselves from the 9-to-5 grind, we never escaped capitalism. We foolishly believed utopia was possible. We tried very hard to integrate and free ourselves of racism but we’ve never really succeeded. Both women and minorities have made great strides in society but we haven’t reached equality. In the 1960s the counterculture believed we could all transform ourselves. We thought we could clean up the environment, treat all life on Earth with love, and redesign capitalism to be kind and just.

It just didn’t work out. We can see the counterculture legacy in the 2020 candidates for the Democratic Party. We’ve convinced half the world to care about the environment but even the most idealistic of us can’t stop using plastics. Burger King might sell veggie burgers but we still have massive factory farms of animal torture. We know the use of fossil fuels will destroy us yet we still drive cars and electrify our homes with coal.

I think there have always been hippies with dreams of living kinder lives. Jesus and his disciples are one example of keeping a counterculture dream alive for two thousand years. Yesterday I listened to “Episode 38: The new anti-capitalist science fiction” of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. They just won the Hugo award for Best Fancast. Both are science fiction writers that are leaders in one of the many new countercultures. They assume, they dream a revolution will take place. It’s really the same revolution of 1967. They are full of hope. I still hope, but how much hope do I really have left?

For the 1960s legacy counterculture revolutionaries to succeed capitalism must be transformed. The extreme idealists have always wanted to do away with capitalism but I don’t think that’s possible. Capitalism is too basic to human nature, buying and selling are as natural as eating, even chimpanzees barter and trade. But can capitalism be tamed and civilized? Or will it always be Darwinian, the vicious survival of the fittest?

There is no doubt that society has drastically transformed since the Summer of Love in 1967. That’s proof we can change, but can we change everything about ourselves? If you study history change is constant. We never stay the same. We will never build a society or economic system and then rest with the satisfaction of achieving our goal. Human society is always boiling over with more wants.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: Can we stop being self-destructive? Conservatives want to cling to a dream of a stable past that never existed, while liberals dream of a stable future that’s a fantasy. There’s a type of insanity that grips us all — one where we believe if we all believed the same thing it will solve all our problems. In other words, we’re all revolutionaries. Christians think if everyone was Christian the world would be perfect. Conservatives think if everyone voted their party line we’d solve all our social problems. Counterculture thinkers believe we need to throw out the old for the new. The trouble is there are many counterculture revolutionaries out there now, some quite evil and nasty, and few revolutionaries share the same revolution. It’s chaos, but then isn’t it always chaos?

Read LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It chronicles all the revolutions that are going on right now on the internet. The amount of information in this book is staggering. It has 107 pages of notes on sources. I expect the Summer of 2020 to be more heated and dramatic than the Summers of 1967 and 1968 (and if you don’t remember, 1968 was nasty). The hippies of San Francisco were kids at play and even the fiery student activists in Chicago of 1968 were babes in the woods compared to the radical revolutionaries online today.

The real legacy of the 1960s counterculture is more counterculture. It was easy to spot the hippies on Haight-Ashbury, or Yippies of Chicago, or the Black Panthers, or the SDS, or the Weather Underground. The new countercultures are as visible as electricity in the wires of your home. Read LikeWar. Don’t wait 50 years to watch the historical documentary.

What Dylan said back then is still valid, “‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?”



5 thoughts on “What’s the Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution?”

  1. What you lament is human nature, i.e., focusing downstream of human nature is wasted energy. The counter/change-culture crusaders only hated Capitalism until they had the reins firmly in hand. People claim to want equality when they see themselves as less than equal, but quickly abandon it once they are on control. Human nature asserts itself no matter who holds the reins.

    As so often in your posts, you misunderstand Christianity. “Christians think if everyone was Christian the world would be perfect.” Certainly there are hypocrites, but Christians confess their imperfections every week, if not every day. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The Christian hope is that by acknowledging our common brokenness we might better be able to tolerate one another.

    1. Hey, keithakenny…
      I hope it remains true that “brevity is the soul of wit”….
      I’m old and retired. I crammed all my passions to “go” and to “do” and all the rest into fifty years of blue-collar labor. Or as Queen put the thing, “I’ve paid my dues, time after time….”
      So I am quite content to sit here in front of my computer and spend entirely too much time in front of “social media.” reading the comments left to “news” articles and YouTube videos.
      It has become almost a game to insert into the flow of comments the phrase that you mentioned, “Human nature”.
      So now, let me introduce you to Miss Ann Thomason, my 10th grade English teacher (1966). These were her “Three Laws”:
      01. Words mean things.
      02. Before defining what something is, first define what it is not.
      03. No reasonable or intelligent discussion is possible without first agreeing on the definition of terms.
      In other words, you are now the only other person I have encountered who understands the need to truly “begin at the beginning”. Unless and until people discuss “human nature” and either come to agree on exactly what is meant or agree to disagree, all further debate and discussion will always be meaningless. And if, as happens more often than not, there is no agreement, then it is indeed best to “…shake the dust from your feet…” and move on.

    2. I assume there are as many kinds of Christians as there are philosophies that are called Christian. In this case, I was thinking of Christians who believe we can make heaven on Earth. Sure, a lot of Christians accept the reality of a sinful world and pray for forgiveness. But I do believe there are some who think Jesus taught if we had love in our heart we could change the world. That is the idealism I was referring to as revolutionary.

      I believe the idea of salvation, resurrection, and immortal souls came after Jesus died. While he was alive I felt like he preached about how to live on Earth. I know some of his followers hoped he’d be a revolutionary that would overthrow the Romans, or challenge the Jewish authority, but I always felt he was a revolutionary philosopher preaching the power of compassion.

      I don’t think the counterculture ever thought things through, and existed only briefly. Even the long-term residents of Haight-Ashbury knew the Summer of Love was a colossal failure. Wanting everything to be free was childish. But there were deeper thinkers who imagined a better society, one that was more compassionate.

  2. Hey, James…
    Few people take the time to do what you did, which is ask the questions demanding to be asked. You wrote:
    “Capitalism is too basic to human nature, buying and selling are as natural as eating, even chimpanzees barter and trade. But can capitalism be tamed and civilized? Or will it always be Darwinian, the vicious survival of the fittest?”
    “Homo sapiens” by way of evolution, or simply “man” if creation explains it, share that one bit commonality: People love to argue and fight but if they’d stop, for just a moment, and think it through to those inevitable logical conclusions, they would arrive at…nothing but questions.
    A long time ago in yes, a galaxy far, far away, I put this on a blog I had at the time:

    Definition of Capitalism
    July 03, 2009
    Capitalism: A theory of economic activity that correctly warns people of the dangers of wanting more than they can afford but remains strangely silent regarding the dangers of wanting more than you need, a system which refuses to answer the question “How much is enough?” [end]

    So there are those “at the top” who the rest of us like to complain “have it all” and…and they always want more.
    Then there are those of “in the middle” who, in my experience, sure, would like to have “more” but not only are they truly content, hell, maybe even “happy” with what they do have, they sense, they have been watching, observing, and paying attention, and they are convinced that they would not like the “who” they would have to become to be one of those “at the top”.
    And I have never heard a sermon nor read a Biblical (more allusions to another me in another life) that didn’t explain “The love of money is the root of all evil” the same way, i.e., that it was indeed “the love of money” by those “at the top” that caused all the problems. With the creation of “entitlements,” that changed everything. Sure, those “at the top” might still want it all but now there are those “at the bottom” who want and demand something for nothing. I.E., I see no happy endings, ever.
    Or is it exactly what you wrote:
    “Human society is always boiling over with more wants.”
    And you summed it up perfectly with this:
    “The real question we must ask ourselves is: Can we stop being self-destructive? Conservatives want to cling to a dream of a stable past that never existed, while liberals dream of a stable future that’s a fantasy. ”
    And the answer to that is a resounding “No.”
    Some 5-6,000 of recorded human history and except for “technological advancements,” nothing, absolutely nothing has changed about the human animal. It remains the story of conflict, of those classic ways to say the thing, of “man’s inhumanity to man” and the stuff of “wars and rumors of wars”.
    And I’m adding this just for fun because out “there” somewhere, is a someone, who would find great delight in taking you to task when you wrote of “…Darwin, the survival of the fittest?”
    Herbert Spencer gave us that phrase but I’m betting you already knew that.
    James, a quick, true story if I may:
    Another boy in class and I debated two girls back in the fourth-and-a-half grade. That’s where you find yourself when you take grades 04, 05, and 06 in two years. No, I wasn’t that smart. School, at the time, was just easy for me.
    The topic of that debate was West Virginia coal production. It proceeded according to the rules of normal debate, “Robert’s Rules of Order,” I think it was called. And so one of the girls had said something and then completely contradicted herself in her “closing” remarks. Oh, it was my turn and I could not wait to get in front of the class of point out that contradiction. Well, I did and the class burst into laughter and…the look on that girl’s face said it all.
    And then I was immediately back in the third grade. I had made that girl feel the way I had felt when I asked the teacher one day, “Why does the woman change her name when she gets married but the man does not?” My classmates roared with laughter.
    So sure, I “won” that debate but why? Because I wanted to show everyone else what a buffoon she was and that I was right. So I won. But was it really worth the price that little girl paid?
    And here we are, in 2019, with diametrically opposed sides and want nothing else other than to “win the debate” and to be “right”.
    Like you, I’m one of those old baby-boomers and I’m willing to grant them a certain “innocence,” that they truly did want to make things better…for everyone. After them, I have seen nothing but, again, two diametrically opposed sides of the “political” debate who do not give a tinker’s damn about anyone or anything else…except winning.
    And now I think I’ll go have a listen to Mr. Lennon singing about “…watching the wheels go ’round and ’round….”
    James, stay safe and be well.

    1. Randy, you bring up so much to talk about. First, I agree that human nature hasn’t changed. Society and social structures have changed, which give the illusion we have changed, but we haven’t. No one person could invent, or even reinvent all the technology we have. Hell, I doubt many individuals could even fashion a usable bow and arrow or horse-drawn plow.

      There is a never-ending problem of what is enough. You’d think if you had mansions of four continents and jets to fly between them that would be enough. Like we agree on, human nature won’t change, but neither will the laws of reality. If we keep doing what we’re doing we will destroy ourselves with overpopulation and overconsumption.

      The value of laws is they regulate human nature. Society can control human nature — to a degree. Society invents technology that allows us to act differently. We need to create a version of capitalism that allows for people to be rich but not polluting. Personally, I believe if we rig the game to allow some people to be fantastically rich, the cost of that privilege should be we don’t allow anyone to be fantastically poor.

      However, I’m not sure we can design such an economy. I’m old, so I’m naturally tainted with pessimism. Who knows, we might come up with solutions.

      I don’t think there is a right answer. I think there are solutions to problems that work well or poorly. Nothing is 100%. We can’t make everyone happy. We have evolved into a political system where half are happy and half are unhappy. I think we should start aiming to make at least 60% happy, and when we get there, aim for 66%. If we learned to make compromising solutions I think we can eventually achieve a 75% agreement. Beyond that will be iffy because of people with extremist views who will never compromise.

      But even this might be a fantasy on my part.

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