Modern Day Countercultures and the “Culture War”

Despite being coined the “long” sixties, the cultural phenomenon and the various movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s fizzled out and died just as rapidly as they sprung up. What exactly happened to the social and cultural revolutions that swept through the bay area and the rest of the United States during this period? How did it evolve and influence present day political, cultural, and social realities? Where did the Counterculture go?

Just as the biggest flames burn the brightest, they also burn the quickest. So too did the counterculture of the long sixties burn bright and short, seemingly disappearing into the night. As writer and punk historian V. “Vahalla” Vale put it simply, “the most exciting part of any movement is the beginning.” Countercultures are not meant to last forever. They either are consumed back into the hegemonic culture, or they reach a critical mass and simply become the norm. Just as the ideal of a utopia is one not meant for everyone, so too does this apply to the counterculture.

What ultimately led to the demise of the THE counterculture along with the various subcultures of this era was partially due a lack of overall organization in many alternative groups (along with problems that arose from rampant drug abuse); but it can be mainly attributed to a strong pushback by conservative, traditional Americans who saw these movements as potentially dangerous to their way of life. This is clearly represented through Ronald Reagan’s speech to supporters titled “The Morality Gap at Berkeley”, where he assumed his position as governor of California by pandering to people’s fears of radical hippies taking over their society. The end of the conflict in Vietnam and Southeast Asia and the termination of the mandatory military draft in 1973 were emblematic points that saw the end of the counterculture movement, instead being absorbed and replaced by “mainstream” culture. Through the following presidential administrations, the revolutionary ideas proposed by groups such as the diggers gave way to mass consumerism and the America as we know it today.

“Those Scary Berkeley Hippies” — Reagan

Many argue about the significance this era had on the following decades to the present day. Peter Coyote, perhaps one of the defining members of the counterculture, explained his belief that “the new left lost every political battle in the past 40 years, yet we won every cultural battle in that period.” While this is true in many regards — things like radical free speech, drug use, gay relationships, and free love are now normalized into mainstream culture, it is over simplistic and false to think of the counterculture as having no political significance. As made evident time and time again throughout this class, the personal is very much political. We see political battles over personal freedoms and mass culture intertwined at its very core. This has given rise to a relatively new concept of a so-called “cultural war” between an increasingly split nation. Often divided upon generational, socio-economic, political, and racial lines, these culture wars take place upon the platform of the 24 news cycle and our reliance on social media and the internet. Talking heads and talk-show hosts take jabs at various cultural institutions in order to establish and justify their ideologies. Especially relevant in today’s political atmosphere, we have witnessed political pundits and internet personalities such as Milo Yinnopoulos and Ann Coulter wage war on the campus culture of UC Berkeley and its surrounding areas, which has become symbolic of liberals and divergent culture. The resulting clashes, although over personal ideologies, have often resulted in physical violence and harm. What this “war” creates is a deepening divide among americans, one that seeks to vilify the opposition and establish their view as the dominant one. This is reflected in our political system and beyond.

Scenes from the Berkeley protests against Milo Yinnopoulos

In essence, the end of the sixties gave way and evolved into new subcultures and countercultures that sprung up in its place. Some notable examples of this include the punk and DIY scenes of the bay area and the emergence of grunge and other similar themes in the Pacific Northwest. In a way, counterculture is constantly evolving, there will always be creative-minded and passionate individuals creating their own images of utopia in ways that diverge or oppose the “mainstream”. However, there has arisen a phenomenon where the boundaries between mainstream and divergent cultures have been blurred. Recently, the idea of the counterculture has become increasingly fetishized and commercialized in our mainstream, neo-liberal, consumer culture. People dress up as “hippies” at music festivals that they pay hundreds of dollars to attend and are sponsored by big name media corporations. Hipster culture has taken over the mainstream, where it is no longer “cool” or “hip” to be basic and normal, rather commercialized individuality has taken over. We see million-dollar companies use hippies as advertisements for their products, clothing companies use the logos of bands like Nirvana (a group that was strictly anti-commercialism) on their t-shirts, and so-called “retro” forms of media take resurgence. Isn’t it counter-intuitive that vinyl record sales are at a historical all-time high in the year 2017?

The root cause of this corporate takeover of subcultures lie on our reliance of media advertising and on trends in our society as a whole. The actions of our generation is increasingly controlled by influencers on Facebook and Instagram with millions of followers. According to UC Berkeley Professor Michael Cohen, the explanation with this new form of culture rather than those of the sixties lie with increased income inequality and economics. Back then, it was much cheaper to go to college, buy a house, and raise a family, allowing for more individual thought due to economic assurances of success. Now, we are faced with increased insecurity and external pressures that force us to conform with the hegemonic culture in order to be successful. In order to reclaim our individuality we must first confront these pressures and reclaim the issues and ideals that matter to us: the environment, personal and creative freedoms, and the pursuit for success in the way we deem fit. The counterculture will never fully die, rather it is up to us to create our own identities as we see fit.