Show Hide image

How the Baby Boomers sold out

Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture bet the future on a generation of Sixties radicals. Fifty years later, it’s painfully obvious the gamble didn’t pay off.

In 1969, when Theodore Roszak wrote The Making of a Counter Culture, it was at least as difficult to be an optimist as it is half a century later. The United States had spent most of the Sixties locked in a bloody, pointless war. At home, its cities had suffered the biggest spike in violent crime since the Great Depression.

In the face of all this, Roszak, then aged 37, conducted a survey of populism among younger generations that was critical in places but recklessly hopeful at its core. “It is the young”, he wrote, “arriving with eyes that can see the obvious, who must remake the lethal culture of their elders, and who must remake it in desperate haste”.

Today, inured to a very different set of stereotypes about the young, one reads passages like this with envy for Roszak’s optimism. In hindsight, few prominent public intellectuals of his generation were so wrong about so many things. Even fewer were so right on the main points.

****

Roszak is hardly remembered as a great thinker. When he died in 2011, obituaries described him as the wonk whose greatest achievement was to coin the term “counter culture” to describe the liberal anti-institutionalism of Sixties radicals.

In 1969, there were hundreds of radical or quasi-radical groups with vaguely overlapping sensibilities: Krishnas, Black Panthers, doves, stoners, acidheads, hippies, Yippies, Weathermen. Recognising, as many did, that these groups had something in common was much simpler than spelling out where their commonality lay.

By Roszak’s reckoning, the one thing these groups shared was an enemy. What hippies called the Man or the System or the Establishment, he called “technocracy”: the scientific managerial approach that sustained a hyper-organised industrial society. For many of Roszak’s generation, the consummate technocrat was Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary Robert McNamara, former president of the Ford Motor Company. Mcnamara had tried to run the Vietnam War effort in much the same bloodless manner he’d brought to the factory lines at Ford, with disastrous results.

Technocracy was not left wing (McNamara himself was a Republican), but it wasn’t right wing, either. It was, to be sure, a political ideology—the elevation of bureaucracy above freedom and dignity—but voting Democratic or Republican wouldn’t defeat it.  Nor, Roszak argued, would the tactics that the left had been using for the last few decades:

“If the melancholy history of revolution over the past half-century teaches us anything, it is the futility of a politics which concentrates itself single-mindedly on the overthrowing of governments, or ruling classes, or economic systems. This brand of politics finishes with merely redesigning the turrets and towers of the technocratic citadel.”

Roszak’s words were the quintessential battle cry of the new left, tinged with Marxism but sceptical of the political bureaucracies that had consumed the attention of many old-school activists. Despite their pamphleteering and industrial striking, political revolutionaries of the 1930s and 1940s hadn’t been able to slow the growth of the largest military apparatus the world had ever seen, or the creeping homogeneity of Western society.

The only appropriate response to a dehumanising political culture, Roszak argued, was a form of resistance that rejected technocracy at every level, starting with the self. The resulting counter culture was more intuitive, even Romantic, than its predecessor. (Percy Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” Roszak insisted, “could still stand muster as a counter cultural manifesto.”)

The counter culture sneered at the “organisation man” who populated Madison Avenue and Wall Street, but also the old left striker who was willing to kill or be killed for socialism’s sake. Ideological rigor of any kind was treated with suspicion. One sees this in its music, literature and colloquialisms; the Sixties vernacular of likes and squares and vibes was easy to mock, but technocratic it certainly wasn’t.

With the arrival of the new left in America came a new breed of intellectual. Reading The Making of a Counter Culture today, however, one is struck by how many key architects of Sixties radicalism are now either passé or largely forgotten. Few students now encounter encounter Timothy Leary or Allen Ginsberg; barely any read Norman O. Brown, Paul Goodman, or, for that matter, Roszak.

The most plausible explanation for the waning influence of counter culture figures comes courtesy of Roszak himself: they contradict each other, and, at times, they contradict themselves. Yet Roszak doesn’t just acknowledge the holes in these thinkers’ ideas; he celebrates them. Nebulous and circular reasoning are, after all, alternatives to the strictures of a square, scientific, technocratic society. At times, this refusal to tell his readers what to think or do seems less like a noble attempt to nurture the counter culture and more like a sly way of passing the buck.

At his best, Roszak seems to be trying to encourage a generation of young radicals to find their own answers and trust their own moral instincts. “The project of building a sophisticated framework of thought atop those instincts,” he writes, “is rather like trying to graft an oak tree upon a wildflower. How to sustain the oak tree? More important, how to avoid crushing the wildflower?”

Abdicate responsibility and somebody else will seize it. The history of the counter culture in the 50 years since Roszak named it is, in large part, a history of colonisation and co-optation: centre-left politicians, swept into office by young, idealistic voters, who pave the way for corporate domination; a never-ending procession of movies and TV shows and commercials selling ever-shallower approximations of the path to enlightenment; a new breed of tech companies that dress megalomania in utopian, hippie-ish lingo and promise not to be evil.

None of this is Roszak’s fault. And yet the wrinkles in The Making of a Counter Culture are, in hindsight, the problems with the counter culture itself. No matter how appealing they seem, fluidity and ambiguity are rickety foundations on which to build a radical politics—and this is apparent on almost every page of Roszak’s book.

****

Yet despite its flaws, Roszak’s analysis of technocracy is still illuminating. The 50 years since the publication of The Making of a Counter Culture have been good for technocrats and bad for everyone else, particularly the young. The major hardships people under 40 now face are nightmarish versions of those Roszak identified: wandering aimlessly in a technocratic economy, subjected to algorithmic surveillance and dependent for food, recreation and pretty much everything else on corporations that view people as data points.

And yet nobody on the left seems to be talking about technocracy enough. In the US., the radical left is divided, instead, between Sanders-style socialists and single-issue politicians who can’t decide whether capitalism, race, gender, or some intersectional combination of them all is the proper lens for analysing society. If any public discourse about technocracy exists today, it is the bigoted version proffered by right-wing pitchmen — from Steve Bannon, with his rants about the Deep State, to Michael Gove, smugly confident that Brexiteers are sick of McNamara-ish experts.

Surely one key reason for the left’s sheepishness about technocracy is that, by and large, it was left-wing people working in places like Silicon Valley who reshaped technocracy into the enormous, charming monster it is today. Thanks to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others, today’s technocrats have mounds of digitally-reaped data at their disposal, which they use to guide their subjects’ thoughts and behaviours more precisely than ever.

Most ingeniously, these technology giants have enlisted their subjects’ participation in their own online imprisonment by making the process of data collection addictively fun. It is now easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of dating apps.

Roszak didn’t comment on these changes, though he lived just long enough to see them come about. His research into radicalism did continue, but longitudinally—The Making of an Elder Culture, published in 2009, revisits the radical Sixties generation as it entered retirement age.

What comes across in this work, even more than in the 1969 bestseller its title riffs on, is Roszak’s faith in people; his confidence that hippies—who, in the annals of pop history, “sold out” long ago—are not finished with their mission. “It would be remarkable, indeed,” he wrote, “if the true destiny of radical dissent in our time lies not in the dawn of this peculiar generation, but in its twilight years still waiting to be realised.” He died in July 2011, two months before Occupy Wall Street, two years before Black Lives Matter and five years before his beloved generation of radical dissenters elected Donald Trump by nine points.

It was risky, in 1969, to bet the future of the left on the actions of a single generation. Fifty years later, it’s painfully obvious the gamble didn’t pay off. But younger radicals should take another shot at technocracy, both the government bureaucracy that Roszak railed against in The Making of a Counter Culture and the glamorous private sector iteration that has emerged since his book was first published. Roszak may not have known how to fight technocracy, but he saw the dangers of inaction all too clearly. 

Some of the young people who marched at Zuccotti Park or in Ferguson, Missouri are still fighting. A hypocritical few probably work for hedge funds. But many more have gone on to jobs in marketing, public relations, advertising, app design, human resources, consulting, and other fields of institutionalised power and dubious ethics. Since Roszak named it 50 years ago, the technocratic citadel has gained some beautiful new turrets.

Jackson Arn is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Wall Street Journal and Apollo.