Renegotiating self and society

Christians against greed: protest rally
Image courtesy Ben Cumming

The failure of social and psychological systems propelled the 1960s-80s countercultures. Societies had required selves to conform to modern, unnatural systems of employment, government, and religion. These arrangements were invented and imposed with little regard for individuals or local communities.

They were founded on economic, political, and theological theories that were mainly abstract and rationalistic. They ignored innate human needs, desires, and proclivities. It’s a wonder they worked for as long as they did.

These obsolete modern ideologies included, for example, Taylorism, the Westphalian nation-state, and the Victorian family.

The crisis of the self showed that organizing one’s psychology to systematic requirements, with a hard public/private boundary, was unworkable for many people. The fragmentation and isolation of communities and individuals was intolerable. After spending the 1950s whistling past the graveyard of systematicity, renegotiating the relationship between self and society became obviously urgent in the mid-1960s.

The previous half-century had developed two alternatives, totalitarianism and existentialism, which were pathological extremes of collectivism and individualism. The countercultures attempted new, less absolutist renegotiations of the self/society relationship, which blurred the hard line between the two. However, both countercultures also drew on both totalitarianism and existentialism, and affirmed the values of both individualism and collectivism in ways that were incoherent and still extreme. This tended to heighten the self/society conflict, even while attempting to defuse it.

The countercultures failed because they retained systematic constraints—especially, universalism. They assumed that there must be one right way for individuals to be, and one right model for society, and the two must fit together harmoniously. Rather than challenging systematicity as such, they proposed new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational systems. That is, countercultures, as I have defined them.

Reforming self and reforming society

Free speech protest rally
Image courtesy Jason

Both countercultures wrestled with the self/society conflict at both ends: at the self end through psychology and religion, and at the society end through “values-based” political action.

On the whole, the monist (“hippie”) counterculture wanted to reform the public sphere to better match private proclivities; the dualist (“Moral Majority”) counterculture wanted to reform private souls to better match public morality. So the monist counterculture was more influenced by existentialism, and the dualist one by totalitarianism, although both drew on both (as we shall see).

In both countercultures, some activists argued that individual spiritual transformation was a prerequisite to social change, and others argued that social reform was a necessary support to constructing better selves. Despite internal conflict between these wings, both movements adopted the Romantic idea that personal change can quasi-magically fix society by the propagation of good vibrations. Both also adopted the Romantic idea that if only society were properly organized, everyone would live together in happy harmony.

The next two pages, “Rejecting rationality, reinventing religion, reconfiguring the self” and “The personal is political,” describe both countercultures’ reform efforts at these two ends. Inevitably, they overlap to some extent, because both movements’ program was to merge them.

The remainder of this page is an overview of these programs, in terms of particular problems in the self/society interface and their attempted solutions. Some worked reasonably well, and were adopted as stable policy by governments; others were harmful or just obviously impractical. I will sketch the vicissitudes of these innovations in later modes: subcultural, atomized, and fluid.

Overall strategy

Overall, both countercultures sought to replace the artificial, seemingly-arbitrary social and personal requirements of the systematic mode with ones they considered natural. Unfortunately, their ideas about what would be natural were, in both cases, completely crazy. (In my opinion; but also this was widely acknowledged once the countercultural era ended.) Because both countercultures were eternalist, they took their insane ideologies as absolute and universal, and so tended toward harmful totalitarianism.

Replacing artificial systematic requirements with natural ones remains a popular goal. It’s a decent impulse, but unfortunately there is currently no alternative to artificial social systems capable of supporting a global population of billions. The future, fluid mode must find ways to simulate natural (choiceless) roles while keeping artificial systems running—at least until we develop some other alternative.

As I mentioned, both countercultures tried to blur the public/private boundary as a way of addressing alienation and isolation. This was a step in the right direction, but I will suggest that one reason the countercultures failed is that they offered no structural change in the self/society relationship. The development of subsocieties—structures intermediate in scale between family and state—was a major contribution of the subcultural mode.

Both countercultures considered rationality and objectivity the source of modern meaninglessness, materialism, and the loss of the sacred. Both rejected rationality, embraced subjectivism, and tried to evert subjective meanings to re-enchant the world; to restore its inherent sacred meaning. This was extremely harmful, I think. I hope the fluid mode can recognize meaning as real but neither objective nor subjective; and rationality as a valuable tool, but not an absolute principle to be worshipped.

Technologies of the self

Acting according to formal roles, as demanded by systematic societies, is unnatural. If you develop a systematic self, it can be comfortable and empowering, but for most people formal roles feel alienating. Why should artificial, systematic demands take precedence over your personal feelings and your relationships? Your public self feels false: mere play-acting of an arbitrary, often humiliating or incomprehensible script.

Both countercultures adopted the Romantic conception of a true self. That is an idealization of the private self, freed from arbitrary public conventions. Not the private self as it is, because that is neurotic and sinful and false, but the self reformed and perfected. You should find your true self, and then you should be true to it. You should speak and act from that self, regardless of social judgement, because it would comport naturally with the correct social organization. This is “sincerity” and “authenticity”—key values of both countercultures.

There is no true self, so this approach was mainly harmful. The atomized mode effectively abandoned “authenticity,” because it is obviously impossible to be “true” to an atomized self.

Modern employment is dehumanizing. (Deliberately so, under Taylorism.) The countercultures developed personal and small-group practices for personal emotional fulfillment, self expression, and “finding yourself.” These seem to me on the right track, but had limited success, mainly due to universalism—the denial of diversity. The subcultures made their greatest contribution here: expressive communal practices for “DIY” exploration of psychologies, aesthetic culture, and social models.

In complex, modern societies, most people have multiple formal roles, in additional to natural (biological) ones. The contrasts between roles cause internal fragmentation; you internalize external ways of being as “multiple selves.” Conflicts among them are disruptive and painful in both the communal and systematic modes, which expect internal coherence.

The countercultures promised new technologies for re-unifying the self. These didn’t work. The subcultural mode began to develop ways of managing a fragmented self; for reconciling and switching among selves. The fluid mode finds internal diversity comfortable and empowering.

Many counterculturalists tried to make membership in one of the countercultures the unifying theme of their identity. They considered themselves first and foremost conservative Christians or liberal New Agers; and only after that insurance claims managers, Iowans, or softball players. Their community was not their town, church, or company, but the brotherhood of all participants in their counterculture. This resonated with universalism: both countercultures treated all their members as equivalent. Countercultural identity didn’t work well, because a nation-scaled group is too large a group to provide functional community; and because each counterculture merely suppressed and denied its internal diversity.

Ecstatic experience is the natural antidote to rigid social requirements. That was banned in the systematic era. Modernized, rationalized Christianity had mostly also eliminated experience of the sacred and transcendent, emphasizing this-worldly humanistic ethics. Both countercultures produced new religions and quasi-religions emphasizing ecstatic practices, “direct experience,” and the supernatural. I think this was an important step forward, although the details were mostly wrong.

Social reform

Both countercultures tried to reorient society away from formal, systematic roles toward natural ones: family, unstructured friendships, and local communities. This was the obvious response to the painful gap between the private and public selves. However, it represents a partial reversion toward the choiceless mode, which isn’t capable of sustaining contemporary civilization. That could eventually become disastrous.

Both countercultures sought to revise systematic social norms to make them more natural. The monist counterculture thought humanistic, egalitarian norms would be more natural. The dualist counterculture thought godly, hierarchical norms would be more natural. This divergence led to the destructive and unwinnable culture war.

In the face of mid-century anomie—the breakdown in public morality—both countercultures tried to strengthen social norms as well as revising them. Their reforms emphasized “ethics” and “values,” which fused with, or even replaced, politics. Notoriously, the two countercultures disagreed violently about military and reproductive “values,” which also fed the culture war.

“Family values” were—and are—the central culture war issue, actually. Both countercultures agreed that “traditional” families weren’t working as they should. The monist response was to dissolve or replace the model; the dualist counterculture tried to strengthen, support, and universalize it. During the subcultural era, American society reluctantly accepted a compromise allowing diverse sexual and family models, but upholding the “traditional” one as ideal.

Both countercultures recognized the value of local communities, which the systematic mode had eroded. Both invented new local community models: monist communes and dualist megachurches. Communes failed quickly; megachurches remain vigorous. The subcultural mode developed subsocieties as another new model for community, which unfortunately did not survive atomization. The atomized mode provides virtual but limited community through internet social networks. Overall, the problem of community is still mainly unsolved.