Bell-bottoms and incense, long hair, free love and psychedelic rock—the 1960s are commonly reduced to a set of easy-to-replicate images, phrases, and styles. Once branded as immoral, anarchistic, and revolutionary, the counterculture of the 1960s is now playfully imitated. Its sounds, styles, and slogans are the subject of high school spirit days and rally skits. No longer the harbinger of cultural meltdown, the “60s” have become a party theme.
Lost, of course, in this transformation is any deeper understanding of what the counterculture represented. For those most deeply invested in the movement, the counterculture was more about philosophy than style. American society, these claimed, had been corrupted by capitalism and the materialist culture it spawned. In pursuing “success,” people had lost sight of the more meaningful experiences life had to offer. “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” was less an invitation to party than a call to experience life more intimately and deeply.
America’s institutions were the targets of much of this cultural critique. Even those founded on lofty ideals, it was argued, had become props for a morally bankrupt society. America’s democratic government was corrupt—filled with dishonest, self-seeking politicians and corporate-serving lobbyists. Churches were less spiritual oases than repositories of self-righteousness and social complacency. Schools had long abandoned the more noble purposes of education; instead they merely churned out the technicians and middle managers needed by the corporate order. And marriage had become little more than a loveless prison, demanded by social convention but wholly incompatible with the more expansive human potential for love—and sex.
Within this totally jaded society the “individual” had little chance. In fact, his only hope was to escape in some fashion, perhaps into the woods where a person could rediscover the fundamental truths that nature revealed, or into hallucinogenic drugs that pushed the mind past the limitations drilled into it by education and upbringing, or into a completely different lifestyle grounded on more humane and authentic values.
These deeper philosophical aspects of the counterculture remind us that there was far more to it than clothes, hair and music. But they also reveal that it was not particularly revolutionary. Most of its themes had surfaced much earlier in American history.
In the 1840s, transcendentalists retreated to Brook Farm to look for the truth in nature and pursue lives far removed from the materialism, meaningless work, and corrupted values of mainstream society. Henry David Thoreau cultivated this ethic more privately and retreated to the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote the classic prescription for discovery of self and truth within nature. His observation that most “men live lives of quiet desperation” would aptly summarize the conclusions of cultural critics a century later. And the following phrase would provide 1960s counterculturalists with a slogan for individual self-realization: "if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."45
In the 1850s, advocates of “free love” blasted the hypocrisy of contemporary marriage and urged people to give their emotional and sexual feelings free rein. Inspired by Charles Fourier’s doctrine of “passional attraction” and Emanuel Swedenborg’s idea of “conjugal love,” these reformers argued that the passions were essentially good and ought to be indulged rather than denied. Both physical illness and psychic dissatisfaction stemmed from society’s demand that our instincts be repressed. The application of these ideas was far ranging–but the most notorious implication was that individuals were entitled, even obliged, to pursue their romantic and sexual passions to their natural ends. Divorce, polyandry, polygamy were all possible and legitimate outcomes.
Mary Gove and Thomas Low Nichols became the most prominent spokespersons for this philosophy. When they married in 1848, they pledged neither perpetual commitment nor absolute fidelity. As Gove emphasized, even in marriage “I resign no right of my soul.” Therefore, the only fidelity that could be pledged was to “the deepest love of my heart.” And should that love lead her to another, “I must go.”46
Fifty years later, a loosely connected group of authors, artists, and architects undertook the elaboration of more authentic forms of expression—ones that broke free from the stuffy conventions and material complacency of Victorian culture. They celebrated “real experience” and urged people to rediscover the primal essences lying buried beneath Victorian politeness. Victorian architecture was scorned as overly and soullessly ornate, and Victorian parlors were mocked as perfect expressions of a culture obsessed with material goods and physical comfort. Contemporary work, equated with the emerging legions of white-collar clerks, was described as emasculating and unfulfilling. As an alternative, these cultural critics celebrated the craftsman who worked with his hands, produced something real, and invested his entire being—his creative intellect, his physical labor, even his soul—into his work.
During the 1920s, a new batch of critics emerged to condemn the moral and cultural emptiness of American society. Sinclair Lewis mocked “Main Street” and lampooned the materialism and mania for success of America’s Babbitts, H.L Mencken attacked the moral smugness and intellectual shallowness of the “booboisie,” and a whole group of cultural critics fled to Europe where they claimed to find a less materialistic and intellectually sterile society. Another group stayed at home and toured working-class and minority communities where they hoped to find more authentic expressions of the human spirit. Most famously, they frequented Harlem where they drank, smoked, and snorted their way to what they believed were more vital, less repressed, forms of existence.
This quest was interrupted by the Depression and World War II. But during the 1950s, another group of cultural critics resumed the search for self-realization and deeper experience in San Francisco’s North Beach and New York’s Greenwich Village. The Beats, much like Thoreau a century earlier, ignored politics and shunned social activism. Instead, they placed the highest value on personal fulfillment and developed theories of art that emphasized expression over communication—what was important was that artists explore and express themselves, not that audiences understand, be moved or influenced by a work.
Placed within this history, the counterculture of the 1960s appears less revolutionary than cyclical—part of a tradition of cultural criticism that periodically revives similar themes and pursues similar alternatives. Still, there was something different about the 1960s. Earlier movements remained relatively small, esoteric expressions of a cultural elite. But the counterculture of the 1960s grew to be the dominant expression of an entire generation. In addition, at least its images and styles persisted much longer. A half century later its music is still performed, its styles are still imitated, and its slogans still draw a cheer.
But is there any depth to it all?
Some would argue that there is not, that the very success of the counterculture was its undoing, that the more broadly it was embraced, the more shallow it became. These folks might argue that the real legacy of the 1960s was the proof they provided of our consumer society’s amazing ability to dilute and absorb even the most revolutionary cultural expressions. What might have begun as a philosophically deep and radically ambitious assault on the very bases of American society was turned into a set of consumable products—a style of dress, a type of haircut, and a collection of record albums.
There is plenty of evidence to support this argument. The “commodification” of the counterculture may have begun as early as 1968 when President Richard Nixon, leader of the “silent majority,” went on the popular TV show Laugh-In and muttered “sock it to me.” The most painful moment may have come when Bob Dylan, the countercultural poet, appeared in Las Vegas, the city known for material excess and the empty replication of history and art. More substantively, those arguing that the counterculture proved ultimately ineffectual might note that Wall Street is still Wall Street and that American society is still riddled with inequities tied to race, class, and gender.
Others, however, might argue that there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the counterculture produced more and remains more than just a bundle of stereotyped images.
Americans are far more ecologically conscious than they were fifty years ago; virtually everyone acknowledges the imperative of respecting and preserving our natural environment. The workplace has been transformed—flex-time, job-sharing, and e-commuting contrast sharply with the button-down corporate culture of the 1950s. America’s sexual ethic has undergone revolutionary change. In 1963, the use of contraceptives was illegal; in 2009, condoms are distributed at school. A 2008 census report revealed that 6.4 million unmarried heterosexual couples live together; in 1980, there were fewer than one million.47 Even attitudes toward drug use have softened. In 1975, President Gerald Ford’s son Jack caused a public relations storm when he admitted using marijuana; in 2008, Barack Obama, one of the more popular presidential candidates in American history, openly acknowledged using cocaine as a teenager.
In other words, while countercultural purists might lament the degradation of their movement, while their last act of rebellion might lie in condemning the corruption or commodification of the very culture they created, others would argue that the ‘60s are still very much with us. Its principles may be diluted, America’s free market foundations may remain unshaken, but closer to home, profound changes have occurred in the way people work, think, and live.