The end of the counterculture?

In recent years, several critics have argued that, far from subverting dominant social and political values, the counter-culture actually prepared the ground for neo-liberalism. On this account, the counter-culture was not simply a failed revolution, but one whose effects were quite the opposite of those it believed it was promoting. For example, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their provocative book The Rebel Sell, and Jenny Diski in her memoir The Sixties detect a continuity between the hippy ethic of ‘doing your own thing’ and the rampant individualism that arguably took hold in the 1980s. According to Diski, Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society’ was merely an extension of the hippy ethic of individual liberation. While she rejects the idea that the hippies were primarily responsible for the greed and self-interest of Thatcherism, Diski does suggest that they were ‘unwittingly… sweeping the path for the radical Right, preparing, with the best of good intentions, the road to hell for paving’.

As I have suggested, the implication that the counter-culture was a singular, unified phenomenon is wide of the mark – and indeed, I would say the same about ‘neoliberalism’. As well as ‘doing your own thing’, the counter-culture also placed a strong and consistent emphasis on communal values, on sharing rather than accumulating possessions – of which the communes and co-operatives that flourished during the 1970s (and in some cases still survive) were the most obvious manifestation. While it was undoubtedly elitist in some respects, the counter-culture was also overtly opposed to competitiveness and hierarchy. While there is much in the hippy ethic that can justifiably be satirized, I think it would be unfair to dismiss these values as merely rhetorical or superficial.

Of course, the revolutionary claims of the counter-culture may have been vastly inflated, and many were just plain wrong. Fifty years on, it is hard to swallow some of the quasi-religious arguments about the spiritual benefits of drug-taking; and the spurious assertions about sexual liberation were correctly dismissed by second-wave feminism back in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea that rock music in itself offers some far-reaching challenge to dominant values seems entirely ludicrous, not least in light of the rampant commercialism that was apparent even at the time. Yet it’s too easy to say that this was simply a failed revolution. If sex, drugs and rock-n-roll may not have fulfilled the political promise that was claimed for them, other aspects of the hippy ethic have entered the mainstream in ways that have undeniably made a difference. Modern environmentalism has its roots in the counter-culture; ideas of community and of personal (and even spiritual) well-being have become much more mainstream; attitudes towards gender and sexuality have changed significantly, partly as a result of the counter-culture, and partly in reaction to it.

Yet what about childhood? While some elements of the children’s liberation movement (promoted, albeit somewhat indirectly, in Schoolkids Oz) had disappeared by the end of the 1970s, others have since been institutionalized. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, has been accepted by almost every country in the world (with the notable exception of the United States); and arguments about children’s rights have been enormously influential in the provision of children’s welfare services, although rather less so in education. Calls for children’s participation, and for children’s voices to be heard – while not necessarily unproblematic – are now entirely mainstream.

In some respects, Schoolkids Oz and the controversy it provoked appears like a relic from a forgotten time. Yet even though so much has changed, in other respects it still speaks to us, not least in relation to children’s rights. If the concern about sexual explicitness seems almost prehistoric, the critique of the school system is still remarkably pertinent – and in some respects, even more so than it was at the time.


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