Completing the countercultures

Galleon Goteborg reconstruction sailing by London Bridge
Galleon courtesy George Owens

The countercultures of the 1960s-80s took attitudes to boundaries as their central themes. The monist counterculture—the 1960s youth movement—wanted to eliminate all boundaries and level all distinctions; the dualist counterculture, or religious right, wanted to make them absolute.

Meaningness suggests that oppositions between such mirror-image pairs of confused stances can be resolved by complete stances that correct their metaphysical errors. Specifically, monism and dualism share the mistaken idea that boundaries must be perfectly crisp. Participation, the complete stance regarding boundaries, recognizes that they are always both nebulous and patterned. (I’ll explain all this jargon shortly.)

Below, I apply that conceptual framework to two illustrative countercultural battlegrounds: gender and national borders. These are clear, easy, and important examples because:

  • it’s obvious that they are about boundaries
  • it’s obvious that these boundaries are both nebulous and patterned, so everyone already understands and accepts the complete stance
  • except that, even still now, ideologues sway many people by claiming otherwise
  • gender was perhaps the most important cultural issue in countercultural politics1
  • war was perhaps the most important social issue.

Wreckage: the culture war

Wreckage in a sea battle

Both sides of the culture war now believe they are losing.

Both sides are wrong: they lost decades ago.

We all lost.

You don’t need me to tell you that politics has become dysfunctional. That it is polarized by a culture war. That too many people are turning to extremism because their governments can’t get anything done.

Both American countercultures have been dead for more than a quarter century. However, they are still locked in combat as decaying kaiju zombies: the culture war. Their trail of collateral damage scars our social landscape.

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:

  • failed to find new foundations for their universalist systems
  • … and so were revealed as idealistically impractical
  • failed to address the differences in people’s interests, values, purposes, and needs
  • failed to hold together their coalitions, and so broke up into subcultures
  • failed to provide strong social bonds—only membership in a nation-sized counterculture
  • failed to cope with their partial success
  • failed to transcend their oppositional (counter-cultural) attitude

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.

Rotating politics ninety degrees clockwise

Galleon tilting on giant wave
Galleon courtesy George Grie

I write this during the 2016 American presidential election campaign, which portends a massive political realignment. The two countercultures of the 1960s-80s created stable party coalitions that persisted for decades. This year, they are breaking up.

Understanding where these coalitions came from may help understand how they have functioned, why American politics is so polarized, and what may happen next.

The countercultures redefined the American “left” and “right” from economic to “values” ideologies. Politics shifted from arguments about pragmatic policy questions to fights over meaningness itself. The Democratic and Republican Parties repositioned themselves as champions of monist and dualist countercultural values, respectively. This polarizes American politics irresolvably.

The countercultures’ political realignment created a new, two-track social class system. It’s personally useful to understand social class better, because it motivates so much of what we all do; but it is also always funny, because we work so hard to hide that from ourselves.

The personal is political

Protester drops a bra in the trash at the 1968 Miss America Pageant
Protesting the 1968 Miss America Pageant

The slogan “the personal is political,” originating in 1960s feminism, encapsulates both countercultures’ political agenda. Society had to change to accommodate the self; and political action was the way to reform the social structure.

Between them, the two countercultures shoved aside existing power dynamics and created reorganized coalitions which have dominated American politics ever since. Though both movements expired long ago, the struggle between them left a culture war that refuses to die.

Rejecting rationality, reinventing religion, reconfiguring the self

Pentecostal snake handlers
Pentecostal snake handlers (Mark 16:17-18)

Rejecting rationality was the central conceptual move of both countercultures. Rationality was a foundation of the systematic mode. When the systematic mode conclusively failed, rationality got the blame.

Both countercultures explicitly abandoned rationality and adopted anti-rational religions: “Eastern” and “New Age” on the monist side; fundamentalist and charismatic on the dualist one. All these new religious movements discarded traditional social norms in favor of inner transformations supposedly wrought by “spiritual” practices.

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.

Hippies and Evangelicals: monist and dualist countercultures

Francis Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer, hippie guru and architect of the modern Religious Right

“The counterculture” generally refers to the youth movement of the 1960s-70s: rock and roll, anti-war protests, psychedelics, the New Left, hippies, and the sexual revolution. While puzzling out how these elements cohered—to understand the counterculture functionally and structurally—I had a peculiar realization.

A second movement shared “the” counterculture’s abstract features—its structure and function. Based in Christian Fundamentalism, it might be called “the Moral Majority,” after one of its main organizations. It too offered “a new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational system.” This was the same mode of relating to meaningness, even though its content was deliberately opposed to most of what the hippie counterculture stood for.

This page explains how these two countercultures adopted the stances of monism and dualism, respectively. This is key to understanding their workings, as detailed in later pages.

Both countercultures had broken up by 1990, but the current American culture war is fought from floating fragments of their wreckage. I believe that a better understanding of how the two countercultures related to each other, and how both relate to subsequent modes of meaningness, may help resolve unnecessary contemporary conflicts.

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.



General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays, not part the book.

Subscribe to new content by email. Click on terms with dotted underlining to read a definition. The book is a work in progress; pages marked ⚒︎ are under construction.