Why both countercultures failed

Breakup of the galleon Girona
Wreck of the Girona courtesy Notafly

The universalism of the countercultures was their fatal flaw.

No single system of meaning can work for everyone—or even for most people. Both countercultural visions failed to appeal to a majority. They were unable to encompass the diversity of views on meaningness found within societies after the collapse of the systematic mode. Because the countercultures were mass movements, they could not provide community.

When these failures became obvious, the countercultures disintegrated. They were replaced by the subcultural mode, which abandoned universalism, and so was able to address all these problems successfully.

This page explains how the countercultures:

The subcultural mode developed reasonably effective solutions for each of these problems. I foreshadow each solution briefly here, and describe them in detail in the subcultures section.

Failure to find new foundations

Systematic eternalism depends on a foundation: some eternal ordering principle. On that, it builds a structure of justification, which gives everything meaning. By the mid-twentieth-century, this had clearly failed. Nihilism seemed the only possible alternative.

Both countercultures recognized that the 1950s American mainstream was an empty shell, based on collective pretense, with mere materialism at its core. It might as well be outright nihilism, they thought.

But… there is a more generous way of interpreting the “hypocrisy” of the 1950s. Everyone understood, at some level, that the structure of justification no longer worked. However, everyone also understood, at some level, that just pretending was enough to keep the system working. This was actually right, because there never was a genuine foundation for systematic eternalism. In reality, it had always largely run on ritual: everyone acting as if the system was justified. This is a good thing! The ritual “as if” is the only way functional societies can work.

Unfortunately, by the 1950s, centuries of belief in the myth of ultimate grounding meant no one could admit there was no foundation, even as it became obvious. That meant extreme conformity had to be enforced, lest some child point out “the emperor has no throne” and the whole thing would come tumbling down. Which is exactly what hippie kids did; and so it did tumble down, startlingly rapidly. Belief in the system completely collapsed in the decade between the mid-60s and the mid-70s.

The kids imagined they could build a new eternalism on a new foundation, but they were wrong. They doubled down on eternalism, and lost again. “Everything is totally connected—peace, love, happiness!” didn’t work. Neither did “Jesus is my personal savior!” Both countercultures innovated, but these foundations were not new, and their inadequacy had already been understood a century earlier.

Monism and dualism provided easy-to-understand conceptual themes that temporarily unified the countercultures; but neither actually provided a convincing new system of meaning. Instead, it was this-worldly benefits that gave them mass appeal.

Mainly, the countercultures unintentionally underwrote a relieved regression of their followers into a comfortable pre-systematic mode, implicitly rejecting the new systems created by their leaders. On the monist side: happy greedy piglets sucking at the teats of consumer capitalism, willing to make only symbolic gestures (recycling) toward social/economic transformation. On the dualist side: happily amoral heathens committing adultery, having abortions, and taking drugs, willing to make only symbolic gestures (God talk) toward social/cultural transformation. Leaders of both movements saw these as catastrophic and incomprehensible failures of commitment and discipline.

Subcultures, having abandoned universalism, had freedom to innovate without attempting to justify meanings in terms of any foundation. Some began to abandon eternalism as well, and so to acknowledge nebulosity. Naturally, they ran on ritual and creative make-believe: for example, dressing in an elaborate, distinctive, set style to go to a club where a band played music from a genre specific to the subculture, and everyone danced in the ritually correct manner.

Idealistic, extreme, and impractical

The countercultures had to drop rationality to make their foundational claims seem plausible. This was massively unhelpful. Unmoored from reality, both proliferated idealistic fantasies that the 1950s mainstream would have laughed at. The true believers who tried hardest to put them into practice often ended up psychologically damaged.

Fortunately, the mythologies-you-were-supposed-to-believe weren’t believable. Counterculturalists tried, but eventually most found the contradictions with reality too obvious. By 1975, “if enough of us get high, we can end war” sounded frighteningly stupid, and so the monist counterculture was over. By 1990, “the Tribulation has begun—we must institute Biblical law to fight the Antichrist” sounded frighteningly stupid, and so the dualist counterculture was over.

The countercultures did profoundly transform American society and culture, but most people wound up adopting a pragmatic mixture of their views. On the issues they disagreed about most—for instance sex and gender—the majority compromised between their extremes. It became clear that “men and women are exactly the same by nature and should act that way” wasn’t going to work for most people; but neither would “a woman’s place is in the home.” Similarly, life-long monogamy and endless “free love” would both be nightmares for most people. The majority adopted sequential-mostly-monogamy as their sexual morality. That has no coherent ideological justification, but seems to work for most people.

Sociological surveys suggest that people’s moral judgements are much less divergent than ideologues want—and since discussion is dominated by ideologues, morality is also much less divergent than most people believe. The culture war is mostly for show. “Values” talk functions largely to signal tribal identity and class status.

Each of the extreme positions on sex and gender do work well for small minorities, which formed subcultures. In San Francisco, you should not be surprised to hear “we’re so excited—one of my wife’s female lovers is having a baby!” In New York, you should not be surprised to hear about marriages between teenagers who have had only one chaperoned meeting, arranged by families who have been in America for generations.

Broadly, subcultures abandoned the grand attempt to reform the entire nation to fit an ideological vision. They found solutions that were good enough for a subsociety.

Failure to address diversity

Universalism is necessarily illiberal: it forces a one-size-fits-all system on everyone. People have diverse desires and capabilities, and inevitably the system is wrong for some. Both countercultures aimed for inclusivity, to sweep as many people as possible into their coalition, and attempted to sweep under the rug those who didn’t fit. Both failed: their overarching themes of monism and dualism were not strong enough to hold together disparate populations.

Social inclusivity was a central theme of the monist counterculture. It championed the extension of legal and social equality to broad demographic groups, such as races and sexes. It united a coalition of identity movements (blacks, Chicanos, women, gays) with the claim that The Establishment was the single source of all oppression. Theory promised that all minorities would be liberated simultaneously when the system was overthrown. But, in fact, the interests of these groups often diverged, and leaders of the overall movement (mostly straight middle-class white men) were unable to keep them in line with the broad program.

Monist inclusivity also did not address differences within demographic groups. For example, some women wanted careers, and others wanted to stay home and care for their husband and children. “Equality” was not what homemakers wanted. Within the feminist left, some saw lesbians as the vanguard of liberation; others considered them predatory male-identified threats to women’s solidarity and safety from sexual harassment. This produced the first of many feminist fissions—one of the earliest manifestations of subculturalism. In the subcultural era, the left recognized the inclusive counterculture’s failure to address diversity. It advocated multiculturalism (in effect, separatism) instead.

The monist counterculture advocated “everyone doing their own thing”—a plea to allow diversity after the forced conformity of the 1950s monoculture. That did produce an explosion of cultural creativity; but cynics pointed out that everyone was “doing their own thing” in exactly the same way. The counterculture’s universalism meant you had to wear your hair long and smoke dope and worship Che Guevara to fit in. Punk—the first subculture—sneered at countercultural conformism.

Insofar as the monist counterculture did allow individualism, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. In the mid-1970s, it fragmented into diverse subcultures, which went their own ways. Some people cared more about politics, and continued that struggle—but often found themselves divided over the meaning of “equality” or how best to achieve it. Others cared more about inner transformation, and pursued their various new religious movements. Many felt burned out and disillusioned, and abandoned monist ideology for getting on with a normal life.

Meanwhile, dualist counterculture leaders also emphasized inclusivity as a consequence of universalism. All women should obey their husbands, regardless of their particular faith. That’s something dualists could all agree on, because men and women are unambiguously different, and so must have dual roles. (Denying the nebulosity of distinctions is the definition of dualism.)

Inclusivity was also dualists’ route to building a powerful political coalition. The main Religious Right organizations, such as the Moral Majority, promoted common cause among Fundamentalists, Charismatics, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. They also promoted a united front across a wide range of political issues, such as the rights of the unborn, school prayer, gaining military supremacy to defeat global communism, and opposition to pornography, homosexuality, and miscellaneous other sinful sexual deviance.

The dualist counterculture’s ecumenism was a lasting legacy, but the broad agenda was not. General-purpose conservative political action groups found themselves spread too thin to effect change. Different conservatives cared about different issues. They formed single-purpose organizations that proved more effective.

The founders of the Moral Majority genuinely believed they represented that—but in time discovered that they didn’t. Whether or not it was moral, the Moral Majority definitely did not command the allegiance of a majority. At most, about 40% of Americans aligned with their agenda. Likewise, at most about 40% of Americans aligned with the values of the monist counterculture. Of the rest, some were centrists who found some value and some fault in both. But many wished to be left alone, to pursue their own distinctive purposes, as individuals or as subcultures. They were unwilling to be dictated to by moralizing priests and political activists of either persuasion.

Recognizing diversity, and organizing around it, was the essence of subculturalism.

Failure to provide community

Both countercultures promised a brotherhood of all counterculture participants. That was not a workable basis for community, because there were too many participants, and they were too diverse.

Instead, the countercultures provided membership-based tribal identities. Unfortunately, identity is not community, although the countercultures often confused the two. These identities were mainly harmful, I think; they did not provide much commonality or social support within a counterculture, and they accentuated the differences between them. Still, for many participants, they persist to the present day. That energizes the culture war.

In “The personal is political” I explained how each counterculture also attempted to create a level of social organization larger than a family and smaller than a nation-state, to provide the intermediate-scale groups that humans naturally crave. So I won’t go into detail here, but briefly:

Failure to transcend the oppositional attitude and cope with success

You can’t be a counter-culture if you take over the mainstream. You can’t be romantic rebels if you control the most powerful government in the world. You can’t rail against the culture industry when you run it.

Because the ’50s systematic mainstream was a hollow shell, both countercultures rapidly gained unexpected, albeit partial, success. Unfortunately, they had no realistic plans for what to do when they won (as I explained in “Idealistic, extreme, and impractical” above). What does the dog do when it catches the car? Rebellion becomes ridiculous and dysfunctional.

The monist counterculture railed against capitalism, but its brilliant cultural creations—its music, its graphic design styles, its clothes, its films—were perfect consumer products. Hippies and the culture industry quickly coopted each other, fusing monist values with capitalist commodity fetishism. That diffused holistic peace-love-freedom-wow-man themes throughout American culture, but also distorted and trivialized the most serious achievements. The punk subculture was a reaction to mid-70s corporate rock: the hippies, punks said, had “sold out” to the music business.

Success was a mixed blessing for politics, too. As either movement achieved one of its aims, supporters for whom it was the critical issue—whether ending the draft, or defeating the Equal Rights Amendment—lost interest.

In 1989, Jerry Falwell, the co-founder and public face of the Moral Majority, disbanded the organization, declaring “Our goal has been achieved… The religious right is solidly in place and religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.” That seemed true. But it was also true that donations had decreased dramatically, as the golden Reagan years dissipated moral panic; and so the Moral Majority was no longer financially viable.

Paul Weyrich had co-founded and named the Moral Majority, and acted as its behind-the-scenes organizational strategist. In 1999, three years into Bill Clinton’s presidency, and ten years after Falwell’s declaration of success, he wrote a brilliant “Letter to Conservatives,” proposing conservative subculturalism:

We probably have lost the culture war. I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values. If there really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago.

[We must] look at ways to separate ourselves from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness, or by other enemies of our traditional culture. I would point out to you that the word “holy” means “set apart,” and that it is not against our tradition to be, in fact, “set apart.” We have to look at a whole series of possibilities for bypassing the institutions that are controlled by the enemy.

The promising thing about a strategy of separation is that it has more to do with who we are, and what we become, than it does with what the other side is doing and what we are going to do about it.

This is a perfect articulation of the subcultural mode, and of its political model: Archipelago. Subcultures are not opposed to each other. They separate from each other in order to pursue their own purposes, without attempting to impose them on anyone else.