The Sixties

Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk that we will die of boredom?

— Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, 1967

This year is the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love”, the summer of 1967, when the hippie movement captured the hearts and minds of the young. The summer of love was a cultural tipping point. It was the point at which Western culture tipped from modernity to post-modernity.

The sixties were the coming of age of the baby boomers. They had grown up in a period of relative peace and prosperity. The post-war years were a time of technological and economic progress. The US had defeated Germany and Japan in WWII. It was now the dominant military and industrial power in the world. Mankind was reaching into space. Diseases had been conquered. Food was abundant and cheap. People in the US, and the West in general, enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. The population was migrating from both the farms and the inner cities into the suburbs.

Suburban life was idyllic compared to the crime and poverty of the inner cities, or the endless hard labor of farming. The stereotype of the fifties family was the ideal of suburban life. The father would drive into work in the morning, down a gleaming parkway into the bustling city. Whether his job was white-collar or blue-collar, he made enough money to support a family in comfort. The two or three kids ate a hearty breakfast, and then went to school. The mother would stay home and do the housework with the help of modern conveniences. In the afternoon, she could watch a daytime TV show, or have coffee with her friends. The kids came home after school, had a snack that Mother prepared, and then went out to play. The mother would make dinner, the father would come home, and the family would eat together and talk about the news of the day. In the evening, they would sit in the living room and watch a TV show together.

Of course, that is a stereotype, but it does reflect something about the time. It was an ideal that many people aspired to, and many attained. Not every baby boomer grew up in a stereotypical fifties family, but many did. They would go on to college and shape the culture of the late 20th century.

The culture of the late fifties and early sixties revolved around the middle-class lifestyle that emerged after the war, a lifestyle based on prosperity and technology. It was only natural that the baby boomers who grew up in this Eden would rebel against it. The counter-culture of the sixties was a rebellion against modernity itself. It was a rejection of suburban, middle-class life and its economic, technological and philosophical foundations.

Don’t be a square, man.

In retrospect, sixties counter-culture is easy to parody and ridicule, but there was something serious about it. It was an attempt to deal with a really important question.

What is the meaning of life?

Philosophical questions aren’t important when you are starving, or staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. The meaning of life doesn’t matter if you are dead. So, when people have immediate problems of food, shelter or safety, they tend not to worry about the meaning of life. It is only when your existence has been secured, at least for a while, that you start thinking about what to do with it.

Modernity created conditions of abundance and personal freedom, and that made people wonder what, if anything, was the point of life itself? I’m not saying that a majority of people in the affluent West suddenly started questioning the meaning of life. Instead, there was a general sense that something was missing, that there was something wrong with the way things were.

And of course there was something missing: the struggle to exist. It had been suspended by modernity — by material abundance and birth control. Without the struggle to exist, people were looking for other problems to solve. The big question became: what should I do with my life?

Previously, that question was almost never asked, because people didn’t have a lot of options. Most people were locked into a certain way of life, such as farming, from an early age. Most girls were married and pregnant by their late teens or early twenties. Most men were married and fathers by their mid-twenties. They didn’t have the problem of what to do with their lives. They had the problem of how to survive and support a family. They were busy working and taking care of children.

The middle-class, suburban baby boomers grew up taking survival for granted, so they didn’t appreciate the means of survival. They enjoyed using modern technologies, such as the automobile, the record player and the TV set, but they denigrated industrial civilization as mechanical and alienating. It was square, man. Modern civilization gave them security and comfort, and that allowed them to take it for granted. Their parents and grandparents could not have dismissed industrial civilization so easily, because their lives were much harder.

During the sixties, the relative importance of many things changed. Sex became more important than wealth. Youth became more important than age. Instead of celebrating the accumulated wisdom and wealth of age, the sixties counter-culture celebrated the innocence, energy and beauty of youth. The old were entrenched in their ways, stuck in the past, prejudiced, etc. The youth would show the way toward a better future, precisely because they didn’t have the baggage of the past. And they would look good while doing it.

The personal became political, and the political became personal. That was also a side-effect of abundance. In hard times, people focus on their immediate needs for food, shelter and safety. If they organize politically, it is usually in pursuit of those needs, not toward some abstract ideal. In good times, people take up more abstract political questions as a substitute for personal problems, as a way to give meaning to their lives. There was an explosion of political ideologies and movements that promised to transform society in fundamental ways.

There was also an explosion of alternative religions, cults and mystical practices. Baby boomers looked for the meaning of life in Satanism, Scientology, Freudian psychology, Transcendental Meditation, Zen Buddhism, etc. Some adopted a watered-down version of Christianity: the hippie ethos of “love and peace”. It was the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius”. Instead of transforming society, alternative religions promised to transform the individual from within.

This was all part of a search for meaning in life.

Of course, there were drugs: marijuana, LSD, PCP, mushrooms, mescaline, heroin, amphetamines, etc. Taking drugs was an easy way to transcend mundane ordinary life, and the effects could be mistaken for enlightenment.

Expand your mind, man. Tune in, turn on and drop out.

Thinking has never been a popular pastime, and probably never will be, but there were a few people in the sixties who tried to expand their minds intellectually instead of chemically.

Sixties intellectuals rejected the analytic philosophy of the anglosphere, because it didn’t seem capable of getting at the fundamental problem of life’s meaning. Instead, they turned to the more literary philosophy of the French existentialists, such as Sartre and Camus. They turned to people who were writing about subjective experience and the struggle to find or create meaning. Some rejected rationality as a failed project, and experimented with other forms of thought and expression, such as free association and abstract art. Rationality seemed incapable of solving the fundamental problem that they faced.

They also experimented with alternative lifestyles. You could drop out of regular society and do something else. You could live on the beach and surf. You could join a commune and work the land. You could live on the road, hitch-hiking from place to place, begging for food along the way. Having a regular job, let alone a career, was square.

Alternative lifestyles were often an attempt to return to (or simulate) a premodern way of life. The children of suburbia wanted grittier, more “authentic” experiences. They romanticized more primitive or harder ways of life. Hardship made life seem more real and authentic. Having grown up in abundance, they experimented with artificial scarcity.

Of course, music was a big part of the sixties counter-culture, and again, the theme was experimentation. New styles of music were explored, and music became a medium of expression for a broader range of feelings and ideas, not just teenage puppy love or cowboy depression. Some musicians, such as Bob Dylan, were viewed as prophets by their fans. They were the voice of a new generation.

Last but not least, there was sex. When people are safe, comfortable and well fed, sex becomes their main concern, especially if they are young. Effective birth control enabled promiscuity and extended youth indefinitely. Sex feels meaningful, even if the birth-control pill makes it little more than mutual masturbation. The sixties counter-culture promoted sexual experimentation and play — “free love” — and it rejected the constraints of traditional sexual morality. The mass media promoted uninhibited sexuality as a way of selling products. Men were sold a fantasy of unlimited sexual conquests. Women were sold a fantasy of sexual liberation: freedom from the chains of marriage and motherhood. Of course, the reality did not live up to the fantasies. It never does. But the negative consequences of the sexual revolution were still in the future.

So, in many different ways, the sixties counter-culture was an exploration and celebration of alternatives (to squareness). It was a rejection of the society and culture that had given it birth and raised it to adulthood.

Why did the baby boomers rebel against their parent’s world? Because it was square. It was boring. It solved the problems of survival too well, and by doing so, it left people in search of something to do and something to believe in.

There were still some important problems of survival, such as the threat of nuclear war, environmental degradation, and the global population explosion. There was also the Vietnam war, which posed an immediate threat to the safety and comfort of the baby boomers. Those problems became more important in the popular consciousness during the sixties. But they were not personal problems of survival. They were large-scale political problems. Some people turned to “saving the world” as a substitute for the personal problems of survival that their ancestors faced.

The sixties counter-culture has to be understood as a reaction to the peace and prosperity of the modern world. Our brains evolved in conditions of scarcity, not abundance. We evolved to overcome challenges, to push against resistance. By solving the problems of scarcity, modernity created new problems of abundance. When survival is in doubt, one’s main focus is on surviving. When survival is secured, however, the question of what to do with it assumes paramount importance. The sixties was a pivotal decade in the history of the West, because it was the tipping point at which the focus of culture and society shifted from problems of scarcity to problems of abundance.

The solutions to the old problems of scarcity could not solve the new problems of abundance, and they were often viewed as the sources of the problems, which in a sense they were. Industrial civilization created prosperity, but it alienated people from the problems that their brains evolved to solve. Science and technology could save us from hunger and disease, but could they tell us the meaning of life? Existential angst, which had once been a problem only for privileged elites and a few bohemian artists and thinkers, now became a general problem for an entire generation of young people.

The rejection of everything “square” was a rejection of modernity itself, not because it had failed, but because by succeeding it had made itself irrelevant. The systems that create peace and prosperity seem unnecessary when they work. The problems that they exist to solve disappear, and new problems emerge that they cannot solve: boredom, alienation, and the confusion of an organism removed from its natural environment. Paradoxically, the more we improve our environment, the less well we are adapted to it. Remove the struggle from life, and life thrashes around wildly, looking for a struggle.

The crisis of meaning was reflected in post-modernism, which emerged in academia during the sixties. Jacques Derrida’s 1967 book Of Grammatology introduced the concept of “deconstruction”. Instead of solving problems, post-modernism was concerned with deconstructing existing systems. It rejected rationality in favor of “rhizomatic” thinking and embracing contradictions. It proposed to turn philosophy into art or play, rather than analysis and problem-solving. Post-modernism offered freedom instead of direction, chaos instead of order.

The sixties counter-culture was not entirely a new thing. Something similar happened in the twenties, but on a smaller scale. The twenties were a period of relative peace and prosperity sandwiched between the Great War (as it was called) and the Great Depression (as it is still called). In that era, the young experimented with new ways of life, including extended adolescence, sexual promiscuity, jazz and drugs (mostly alcohol). Even crime became somewhat popular, as a form of existential rebellion. Like the sixties, the twenties was a period of decadence and degeneracy, but it was quickly ended by the Great Depression, which brought hardship back into people’s lives.

There was no similar ending to the sixties. The sixties counter-culture faded away gradually, and was replaced by consumerism and “producerism” (careerism). The result of the baby boomers’ search for meaning was deeply ironic, but not surprising. They found meaning in economic production and consumption: in careers and wealth. The accepted path to fulfillment became a “meaningful career” in which one could advance in status and wealth, but also “make a difference” in the world. CEOs were the equivalent of rock stars to the aging baby boomers of the nineties. The big problems of existence were relegated to obscurity again, handed back to the philosophers and the poets, and people went on with their lives.