Drop Out of the Privileged Middle Class and Make Trouble

Excerpt from the novel The Making of a Counter Culture icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by Theodore Roszak icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

Theodore Roszak's "The Making of a Counter Culture" book cover. [Formatted]


     In fact, it seems to me quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. And that this is the beginning of the rest of the future, and that from now on there will simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. And there will be nobody left almost to remind them that there was once a species called human being, with feelings and thoughts. And that history and memory are right now being erased, and that soon no one will really remember that life existed on the planet.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory,
My Dinner With Andre (1981)

     History is not sensibly measured out in decades. The period of upheaval we conventionally call “the sixties” is more appropriately seen within a broader setting that stretches from 1942 to 1972. These dates too are arbitrary, but they define with somewhat greater accuracy a remarkable period in American history. Let us call it the Age of Affluence.
     The year 1942 marks the point at which the United States finally emerged from the Great Depression. That transition was embodied in Franklin Roosevelt’s landmark announcement of the new wartime economic order. “Dr. New Deal has retired,” FDR proclaimed. “He has been replaced by Dr. Win the War.” In the brief three and a half years that followed, all the grim antagonisms and oppressive necessities of the depression rapidly melted from the scene. Corporate leaders who had spent the past dozen years vilifying FDR as a “traitor to his class” now flocked to Washington as “dollar-a-year men” in return for bulging, cost-plus military contracts. By the time the war was over, the entire industrial plant of the United States had been rebuilt from the ground up to become the world’s only state-of-the-art technological establishment. A new skilled workforce had been trained and booming new industries (electronics, chemicals, plastics, aerospace) had been born. Unscathed by the damage that other nations had suffered in the war, the United States had no economic rivals. It had emerged from the war as king of the world industrial mountain, so vastly wealthy that it could afford to export the capital needed to revive the European and Japanese economies that would one day become its major competitors.
     Move forward a generation to 1972 and we find ourselves in the midst of the oil shortages that hit America where it hurt the most—in the pocketbook via the gas tank. However it was engineered, the gasoline-pump crisis represented the first sighting by the general public of any advanced industrial society of a serious ecological constraint. An unsettling lesson was about to be learned: Things deplete. You can’t have it all. The sky is not the limit; the earth is.
     What I have called “the counter culture” took shape between these two points in time as a protest that was grounded paradoxically not in the failure, but in the success of a high industrial economy. It arose not out of misery but out of plenty; its role was to explore a new range of issues raised by an unprecedented increase in the standard of living. For a period of some twenty years the world’s most prosperous industrial society became an arena of raucous and challenging moral inquiry the likes of which we may never see again—at least not if those whose wealth, power, and authority are at stake have anything to say about it.
     During the mid to late sixties, I was living in England editing a small, radical pacifist journal. The publication was closely connected with the great Aldermaston disarmament marches that were calling for an end to the arms race, which most European protesters were prepared to blame primarily on the United States. The early sections of this book were written and sent home as articles for The Nation while I participated in a characteristic experiment of the period: the founding of a turbulent, short-lived “Antiuniversity of London” where transient students arrived with little more to their names than guitars, begging bowls, and a stash a magic mushrooms to study the teachings of Timothy Leary, anarchist politics, and Tantric sex. I mention this as a reminder that the upheaval of those years was more than an American phenomenon; it extended to western Europe. Living abroad in so intense and often anti-American a political ambience offered me an odd, distancing perspective on all I saw transpiring in my own country. I became aware of nuances between protest in America and abroad. I could not help but become more severely critical of the way the United States abused its prodigious power around the world, but at the same time I became more sympathetically appreciative of the strange new significance that the American protest movement had assumed in our time. Youthful insurgents in Europe tended to fall back on a long-established left-wing tradition that was all but nonexistent in this country. At first I was inclined to agree that this was a sign of America’s political immaturity. But before this book was completed, perhaps because I felt so stung by the somewhat smug remarks my European colleagues often made about the ideological naiveté of the United States, I had concluded that the very weakness of conventional ideological politics in the United States lent the counter culture its unique insight. Questions about the quality and purpose of life, about experience and consciousness, about the rationality and permanence of industrial growth, about our long-term relations with the natural environment arose more readily in America than in the older industrial societies. The United States was closer to the postindustrial horizon where issues of an unusual kind were coming into view.
     Oddly enough, many of those issues could be traced to pre-industrial origins. They stemmed from a dissenting sensibility as old as the lament that the Romantic poets had once raised against the Dark Satanic Mills. But as a factor in the political arena of the modern world, that cry of the heart was distinctly new—so new, in fact, that it was difficult to imagine it being successfully communicated to society at large. And, of course, it wasn’t. Little more than the sensational surface of the protest filtered through the mass media: gestures of irreverent disaffiliation that had to do with drugs and sex, jarring new styles of music and dress, obscene language and bizarre alternative lifestyles. Nevertheless, matters of remarkable philosophical substance did come to be hotly debated by a larger public than had ever participated in the serious political deliberations of any modern society. Members of a rising, college-educated generation—the “new class” as some commentators called them—were using their well-trained wits not to bolster the system in which they were meant to find their fortunes but to shake it to its foundations. Of course, most members of the new class were on the fast track into the technocratic elite, the regime of expertise that has since emerged in every advanced industrial society. More of them would become button-down junior executives at IBM and ITT than mangy hippies. But it was those who elected to drop out of the privileged middle class and make trouble who would stamp the era with its special character. The ingratitude of these malcontents could not help but attract concerned attention. Even the spectators who stood by bewildered before this thankless outburst could not fail to register this much of the message: Something isn’t right here. Something has gone desperately wrong. And those in charge cannot be trusted to fix it.
     Or words and music to that effect.