First the Boomers sought to take control of our political institutions; then in the frustration of this dream, awakened by state troopers’ and sheriffs’ batons, they tried the commune; true freedom, no politics, a group of equals. Finally, as the communes collapsed, the ultimate consumer called the Individual was born and the Boomers began to fold into their easy chairs of Imperial credit-booms, spirituality and inheritance.
Where then do we find the dreamers?
Today, the wealthy and ascendant who carefully tended the garden of their credit worthiness have, in our post-war, Wall Street reverie, bid up the prices of homes and property in West Marin, and the Bay Area generally. They have forced out the “hippies” and other remnants of the counter-culture. But let’s not mourn them only.
Let’s tell a story about them, a selective version of events to be sure, but not a wholly false one. It is a story about how the “counterculture” abandoned politics in favor of communal living. And, in the disappointment of the communes, they abandoned society to live as individuals. A narrow history and memory of failed idealism. This is the story of why we don’t believe the world can change.
Many people born in the 30’s and 40’s decided at various points in the 50’s and 60’s that they lived in a corrupt society. The government conducted unconstitutional and criminal wars. And it repressed the poor, women and minorities. America in the 50’s and 60’s was uniquely rich and powerful. Yet many did not share in this prosperity, or rather the rights and status of the weak had not grown equally in the sun of our golden empire. So, many a righteous Boomer (born 1945- ~1960) and pre-boomers (born in the 30’s), let’s call them Bloomers – either for the first to flower or old fashioned underwear, your choice – decided to engage in direct political action to change the government. Not just university administrations, but to change the federal government, to end repression, poverty, discrimination, and to end war.
They had a powerful opponent: the men already running the government. It was a terrible contradiction, the wealth that allowed so many the education and leisure to discover all of these beautiful ideas about equality and peace, was incubated within an Empire which was moving in an opposite direction – to remake the world in its image, through exploitation and violence. The Boomers’ and Bloomers’ parents were in charge – and did not want to give up power. So the government used repression, subversion and force to thwart the desire of their wayward children, and the minorities, to change the country.
The murder of four students at Kent State is, across generations, the most easily remembered example of the state declaring its intention not to be overthrown, but there are old forgotten words like cointelpro or the FBI’s “counter-intelligence program.” Already by the late 1960’s the FBI had been spying on and attacking dissident movements in the United States for decades. One grotesque example is the case of Fred Hamilton. J. Edgar Hoover wanted this black activist dead. If you don’t know the story, look Fred up. Find out, readers, if the FBI got their man!
Attacks on the left movements in America were extreme – including dozens of police riots on college campuses carried out by sheriffs and the National Guard (Alameda County Sheriff emeritus Edwin Meese gets special mention here). Universities were gassed by helicopters and planes, and not just with teargas. At UC Berkeley, it is claimed nerve gas was sprayed on students. and anyone else around that day as a testing ground for external enemies of the State.
One Boomer I spoke to recently at Nick’s Cove told me his childhood ideas about the goodness of our society ended when state troopers arrived at his university. On exiting the bus that had brought them – their opening engagement with these student protestors – one officer took out his baton, and in one swipe, smashed out the teeth of the girl standing next to him. This man told me, “She was so beautiful… I couldn’t believe the amount of blood….”
What did that fellow do? The dream of taking over America’s political institutions thus shattered, he went back to the land. In a mass rejection of society, 500,000 or more Boomers moved to the country side in an effort to create a more just and pure life – a life impossible in the brutality of industrial society – and crucially – away from politics, away from the failure of democracy and the Enlightenment.
I am referencing the work of documentarian Adam Curtis, who tracked down members of back-to-the-land communes. He wanted to know what happened there, in the eclipse of their activist ideals – the dream of using politics to change the world. He found, in many cases, a desire for radical egalitarianism – no leaders, no followers. This was expressed in the words used to rebuke group members who stood up for others, “Travel in your own country, man.” It was a complete rejection of organized politics. Alliances between commune members were forbidden.
The purpose of politics is the weak being able to organize and negotiate with the powerful. In the structureless communes, strong individual male and some female, personalities came to dominate, and crucially, no-one was allowed, by their ideology of radical freedom, to organize and resist the tyrants. Back in the city, you get the brutal oppression of the elite who controlled the government. If you stay in the commune, maybe an example is made of you by self-appointed leaders; maybe they turn your children or spouse against you; maybe you get raped. It turned out that escaping politics was no escape at all.
The Individual: Why I learned to stop worrying and love the 80’s
Consumer capitalism had prepared a perfect re-entry for the back-to-the-landers. The old politics were impossible, the communes were corrupt, and everyone was having kids – but now, ironically, you could be an Individual™. We forget that the 70’s-80’s self-help gurus came up with the “society doesn’t exist” line that the corrupt leaders like Margaret Thatcher brought to the mainstream.
There is no society – Maggie posited – only an economy. Lonely individuals seeking to maximize advantage for themselves, at the expense of all others – how close is that to lonely individuals seeking personal spiritual breakthroughs here in West Marin today?
The new mindset believes that the best you can do for others is to produce wealth, and thereby increase the wealth available to all and set an example of success. That is how you help the poor. And it matches perfectly with the spiritual and religious types who sell us the following; you must find your own internal peace, your own enlightenment, which will help you and set an example for others….
It was a lot clearer in the 80’s: Jerry Rubin, the Yippie capitalist, a voice for the once disaffected, selling the song of himself. Get to work! Don’t wait for the revolution; get that money, and buy the real you! Become credit worthy. Buy that house, perhaps a second house, in which your abandoned ideals can rest and wait for you, for your sentimental holidays, when you remember what you hoped for or what you resisted.
The Surprisingly Bearable, Unbearable Lightness of Being
To understand our fear of politics and why we aren’t making meaningful progress on the poverty and climate crises, let’s take the example, related to me by Paul Fenn, of Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera.
Kundera has a broad popularity in the West, particularly his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. His worldview instructs in two connected ways. For Kundera the ultimate wisdom is to see the myriad possibilities of experience and pleasure in the course of one’s life as a guide to true wisdom. For him, the ultimate vanity of man is to believe that he has an effect upon history. History is an uncontrollable and unknowable phenomenon, a volcano that erupts, and the fools believe that tossing a virgin into the caldera is going to prevent its capricious and devastating action. It was an ideal philosophy for the Boomer refugees who fled politics and communes for the beautiful private houses in West Marin.
Then there was Havel, who, to begin the story at the ending, was the first democratically elected President of a free Czechoslovakia. As a young man, Havel was a member of a relatively privileged elite in Czech society. Havel realized that he and his friends were sitting atop a repressive and corrupt society, enforced by the violence of the Soviet Union. And he decided to organize to oppose this corruption. He said that when he first knew his privileged relationship to his culture, in American terms, how he was rich and so many were poor, he was humiliated. And that is crucial. When we see ourselves, our own power, in relation to the suffering of the world, we are humiliated. We retreat from that emotion. It hurts us. We are tempted to turn away from the hurt and embrace the surprisingly bearable Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Vaclav Havel transcended the shame of inherited power, thus converted to responsibility, and led a movement that freed his country. Milan Kundera is popular amongst aging literate swingers. Most of us, if we peer out through the scrim of West Marin’s pageant of culture, have an enduring awareness of the suffering of the weak and are depressed at the apparent impossibility of doing anything about it. The way forward lies in politics and history, the story of what happened, what went wrong, and what to do about it. The further we descend into our inverted communities of solipsism and spiritualism, of fantastic and toxic individuality, the farther wisdom retreats from us.
Published June 26, 2014