What makes a counterculture?

Galleon wreck on beach
Artwork courtesy Cesar Sampedro

I defined the two countercultures as “new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational systems.” This page expands that definition, explaining the characteristics shared by the two. It also begins to contrast them with subculturalism—the following mode of meaningness.

Recall that the two countercultures are the monist “radical” 1960s-70s youth movement and the dualist “conservative” movement of the 1970s-80s. The next page explains how these relate to monism and dualism. It also explains why I call the “Moral Majority” conservative movement a counterculture—but that should start to become clear already in this page.

The discussion here is America-centric, because that’s what I know best. Much of it applies to other countries, but details differ.


After the nightmare of WWII, everyone was exhausted, and just wanted everything to go back to normal for a while. “Normal” would mean the systematic mode functioning smoothly; and the 1950s were dedicated to making that happen. But none of the problems of meaningness from the first half of the century had gone away. Beneath the veneer of normality, the cracks in the systems were still widening.

Both countercultures were motivated by disgust at the hypocrisy of the mainstream. The mainstream’s relatively smooth functioning was based on eternalistic pretending. In fact, mainstream society, culture, and self now failed to provide meaning. They had been rotted from within by nihilism, leaving a brittle shell of eternalistic forms that concealed fundamental corruption. Shell-shocked, these systems were going through the motions with a business-as-usual attitude, but without authentic commitment.

Both countercultures perceived a pervasive moral breakdown in the mainstream, caused by loss of meaning, although they disagreed about specific values.


The countercultures considered tinkering around the edges inadequate. They proposed wholesale replacement of mainstream society, culture, and self with alternative systems. They defined themselves point-by-point in contrast with the mainstream; that opposition was the counter in counterculture.

In the 1970s, “alternative” was a synonym for “monist counterculture,” in fact. An “alternative bookstore” sold New Age books; an “alternative grocer” sold alfalfa sprouts and tofu. Both were organized as anarchist collectives. The dualist counterculture positioned itself as the alternative to a society whose institutions had been captured by degenerate liberalism. It particularly opposed decisions by the American Supreme Court such as Roe v. Wade (abortion), Engel v. Vitale (school prayer) and Bob Jones University (racial discrimination). Both countercultures used the rhetoric of romantic rebellion against illegitimate authority to motivate followers.

The subcultures, by contrast, were not interested in replacing the mainstream; they just wanted to be left alone to do their own thing. In fact, during most of the subcultural era, there was no mainstream. The many subcultures were different from each other, but they were not “alternative.”


Universalism—the claim that what is right, is right for everyone, everywhere, eternally—is a key feature of the systematic mode. The countercultures retained it: both proposed universalist alternatives. The monist counterculture said that everyone should recycle, get over their sexual hangups, and expand their consciousness. The dualist counterculture said that everyone should go to church, save it for marriage, and pledge allegiance to the flag.

Universalism proved to be the countercultures’ undoing. It became apparent in the 1980s that neither counterculture could command a majority. People are unfixably diverse, and different people want all sorts of different social, cultural, and personal arrangements.

The subcultural mode abandoned universalism; that was its foremost difference from the countercultural mode.


Both countercultures tried to rescue systematic eternalism from creeping nihilism. Both had optimistic, positive visions, to make everything authentically meaningful—in contrast to the make-believe mainstream.

The subcultures, on the other hand, were often explicitly nihilist. Punk was the first subculture; the Sex Pistols’ “I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist / I don’t know what I want / But I know how to get it / I want to destroy the passerby” blew counterculturalism to bits.


Both countercultures explicitly rejected rationality, which had been a foundation of the systematic mode. All possible rational bases for systems had been tried, and had failed. Rationality had shown that meaning was neither objective nor subjective, which was misunderstood as implying nihilism: that meaning did not exist at all. Rationality, counterculturalists thought, was probably to blame for all the Twentieth Century horrors: the World Wars, loss of Christian faith, rampant materialism, ecological devastation, abortion, and nuclear weapons.

New anti-rational religious movements organized meanings for both countercultures. The hippie counterculture ransacked history to find and revive monist spiritual systems. They adopted “Eastern religions,” plus vintage-1800 German Romantic Idealism, which was repackaged as “the New Age” to disguise its unsavory origins. The dualist counterculture replaced rationalized mainline Christianity with wacky fundamentalist, charismatic, and dispensationalist innovations.

On both sides, these new religions promoted supernatural practices and transformative inner experiences (“enlightenment” and “being born again”). They deemphasized or dropped codes of conduct and doctrine.

Subcultures, having set aside the failed quest for ultimacy and universality, did not need to take any particular position on rationality. With the countercultures having passed, there is room for the fluid mode to reclaim a relativized, non-foundational, pragmatic rationality.


The monist counterculture claimed to offer revolutionary new ideas, and both it and the dualist one made some genuine innovations, but neither broke away from the fundamental paradigm of systematicity. At their best, they offered new, different systems. However, it was systematicity itself that was fatally flawed; and so the countercultures sank.

Subculturalism stepped away from systematicity—or what many historians call “modernity.” The countercultural era was modernity’s last gasp, and the subcultures the first breath of postmodernity.