From 1968 to 2018: the changing face of counterculture
The onset of 1960s radicalism offered a sense of energy, imagination and optimism in the face of the intellectual stasis and political impasse that gripped postwar consumer societies. The period encompassed generational uprisings of young against old, political agitations of campus radicals and civil-rights activists, and cultural rebellions around art, music and lifestyles. The result was an eclectic mix of future-oriented radical ideals and anti-modern romantic sentiments. The actual revolts of 1968 may have been short-lived, but their impact reverberated around the world, visible in the disintegration of the postwar settlement, liberalisation of laws, and in significant sections of Western societies who came to question traditional values and even their authority to rule.
Fast forward 50 years and what counts as counterculture today? Many people see the new feminism as the main countercultural force today, with its pussy-hat protests, slut walks and #MeToo driven red-carpet activism. Elsewhere, a plethora of queer collectives, decolonising campaigners, culture jammers, anti-fascist protesters and transgender activists bring ever more performative and aestheticised protests to the public square and online. But critics argue that as these groups are largely rooted in progressive liberalism and identity politics, they are better understood as part of the status quo – more in with establishment than a challenge to it. After all, even Meghan Markle is now a feminist, Barclays bank sponsors Pride and even the mainstream advertising world is keen on transgender aesthetics.
Into the breach has stepped a new generation keen to burnish their credentials as anti-establishment radicals, but not from the traditional left. There’s those dubbed alt-right, who often inhabit the online messageboards of cyberspace. These carefree anti-PC types drive a meme-fuelled mocking of ‘normies’ and disdain all manner of received wisdoms and societal norms. Increasing numbers of notoriously un-PC YouTube vloggers and comedians declare ‘populism is the new punk’ and ‘conservatism is the new counterculture’.
More recently, there’s emerged a seemingly more serious trend, labelled the Intellectual Dark Web, comprising provocative academics and commentators who express the most interesting and engaged (often but not exclusively) conservative reaction against the liberal egalitarian values of mainstream culture. Do the likes of Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin et al provide a political home for non-conformist impulses? Or do critics have a point that too often these new pop-philosophers are overflattered, their straight-talking long-form interviews somewhat self-indulgent, more self-help appraisals than genuine challenge to liberal orthodoxies?
Amid such claims and counter claims, on the fiftieth anniversary of 1968, what should we make of the counterculture today? Some cultural critics argue that both liberal and alt-right sides of the new culture wars are the product of the same postmodern zeitgeist. In which case, is countercultural radicalism now merely part of the relativist, anti-progress mainstream? Given conventional norms and values are widely derided today as irrelevant and pointless, is a countercultural opposition to them now meaningless? Or at a time when conforming and playing it safe is rife, do transgressive, countercultural acts remain valuable – a means of bringing a much-needed sense of rebellion to the public sphere?