Shaping the Counterculture

by John Devlin

A Decade Under The Influence?

The 1950s had the beatniks. The 1960s had the hippie movement and the Vietnam war protests. In Third Reich-era Hamburg and Berlin, jazz and swing- loving youngsters of the Swingjugend movement held clandestine dance parties, followed British and American fashion trends, and defined themselves in opposition to the Hitler Youth.

Countercultures have always been home to a stubborn non-conformity, whether in the face of bland societal mores or of genuine terror. They offer a unifying sanctuary for the disillusioned, the disobedient and the restless.

And yet, while much countercultural art is steeped in a radical individualist spirit, it doesn’t seem to have much kinship with the sphere of radical individualist politics.

Significant movements for grassroots social change are often led by both artists and intellectuals. On the whole, the liberty movement is pretty strong on economists, policy analysts, and academics. We also have a decent roster in terms of Youtubers, podcast hosts, and bloggers. As far as artists go, however, we’re pretty thin on the ground. The basement punk shows, graffitied walls and DIY spaces of the world are not exactly hotbeds of pro-market sentiment. And this could mean we’re missing out on something crucial: an influential, countercultural groundswell with mass appeal and an appetite for a freer world.

Below, we’ll take a look back on a small but overlooked example of radical libertarianism rubbing shoulders with a transgressive counterculture. Is there value in fostering these types of alliances again? Alternatively, can we shape our own counterculture, one that is simultaneously influential, artistic, subversive, and individualist?

Will the 2020s be the time to make this happen?

Rothbard and the Swinging Sixties

In the 1960s, disillusioned with the hawkishness of the conservative movement and its figureheads such as William F. Buckley Jr, the economist and political theorist Murray Rothbard decided to form an alliance with the New Left. While this might seem bizarre by today’s standards (imagine modern ancaps teaming up with Extinction Rebellion) it made much more sense at the time. 

Although anti-war sentiment was the unifying issue between the libertarians and the New Left, it wasn’t the only one. During this period, Rothbard and his ilk were propounding an Austrian critique of corporate state-capitalism that would have been valuable to many who opposed the military industrial complex. The more culturally radical libertarians found affinity with some of the more transgressive elements of the counterculture – in fact, the Free Love movement associated with the hippies has its roots in the individualist anarchist movements of the 19th century. And of course, this was a period when college students protested in favour of free speech; notably at Berkeley, where student groups who were associated with the civil rights and anti-war movements demanded the rights to free expression and academic freedom on campus.

The decentralised, voluntary market society advocated by the likes of Rothbard and Karl Hess was in tune with more hippie ideals than one might think. It prescribed an idyllic alternative to the apparent menaces of the age: totalitarian state-communism in the East and monopoly state-corporatism in the West.

In many ways, Rothbardian ideas could have had the potential to find value even among modern anti-capitalists, and offer them an alternative solution to their grievances. Take, for example, the Occupy movement – many individuals involved in those demonstrations had legitimate anxieties about artificial inequalities and the cartels of state and corporate power. And who knows, in another timeline, maybe they could have found solace in the ideas of decentralised voluntaryism rather than in the ideas of collectivist populism?

Return of the Primitive?

Any Objectivists reading this might disapprove of the way I have romanticized the 1960s counterculture. In her essay collection The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, Ayn Rand denounces such movements as irrational, anti-progress and anti-human. In one notable essay, she compares two key events of 1969 – the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Woodstock music festival – associating the former with the Greek god Apollo (heroic, rational, triumphant) and the latter with the god Dionysus (decadent, nihilistic, emotional). 

It’s certainly true that to achieve any meaningful protest counterculture, we need to cast aside the anti-human elements that such movements tend to attract. A libertarian counterculture should advocate decentralisation without being anti-civilisation. It should support the right to alternative living without being anti-innovation; a right to artistic expression without being anti-reason.

But there is value in Dionysus as well as Apollo. The hippies taught that we are not here to simply work for a boss and then die, but that personal liberation has so much more to offer. For me, it might mean living on a canal boat, making a living by busking at music festivals. For you, it might mean becoming a private aerospace manufacturer and travelling to the stars. For some it might mean a nuclear family, a caring spouse and beloved children. For others, it might mean nomadic living, free love, and drug-induced bacchanal revelry under the night sky. We can howl at the moon, but we can also marvel at the Starlink satellites.

Imagine All The People

But the 1960s, and all the others, are decades of dead dreams. What about the 2020s? What will its cultural landscape look like, set against all its inevitable horrors and triumphs?

John Lennon once sang ‘imagine no possessions’ – a nightmarish vision, I’m sure you will agree. So let’s imagine something else. 

Imagine a unified collective of artists and innovators, musicians and engineers, each committed to peace, love and personal liberation. Imagine that we can nurture a libertarian counterculture that is consistently pro-human, pro-progress, and pro-enrichment in terms of growth and human flourishing.

Imagine underground concerts packed out like prohibition-era speakeasies, where crowds clamour together to sing about the values of individual freedom.

Imagine future art historians, looking back on the revolutionary art of a transgressive decade with radical individualism as its core value.

Imagine autonomous neighbourhoods and voluntary communes sitting peacefully next to skyscrapers and factories.

Imagine epic poems about free private cities and new frontiers in outer space.

Imagine an entire lost generation finding something real and irreplaceable in each other; a spirit, a zeitgeist; a freeing, visceral reaction to the tyrannies, aggressions, and abuses of power that still shape the world. 

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