Back to the 60s: the power of collective imagination

Human beings have always forged their self-identities from the way that their tribe or community produces and exchanges goods. In industrial societies, people derived their sense of self-identity from their relationship to industrial labour and the social class system that was built upon it. With the rise of post-industrial societies at the end of the twentieth century, the economic system changed, and our way of creating ourselves changed too. Today, people forge their sense of self-identity and personal well-being from the products that they buy and consume. ‘I shop therefore I am’ is the mantra of twenty-first century consumer culture.

Shopping, today, is more than just a way of life. Shopping has become a means of self-creation. The discerning consumer knows that what’s important is not simply that you buy, it’s what you buy. We define ourselves with brands that reflect our personal lifestyle choices: Apple, Virgin, G-Star, Harley Davidson, etc. We kit ourselves out in tribal colours: Gucci, Converse, Adidas, Paul Smith, Yves Saint Laurent. Products are how post-industrial consumers express their personal style and identity. Products are how we tell the world who we are, or aspire to be, at least.

Studies show that brand consciousness is increasingly driving the way that people purchase and consume in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere in the developing world. This reflects a culture shift from traditionally-oriented collectivist societies to capitalist societies based in the values of self-actualization and individual expression. A similar shift took place in Western societies in the nineteen sixties at the twilight of the industrial age. The sixties countercultural revolutionaries rejected the mass-market society of their parents’ generation for a new ethos of individual self-expression. From the beats to the hippies, young people insisted on their right to determine their own identities and to freely decide their styles of life.

Thomas Frank and others have described how, in the closing decades of the twentieth century, capitalism tuned into the sixties movements and commodified the spirit of dissent, weaving it into a new post-industrial consensus. By the time the nineteen nineties rolled around, with MTV culture and ‘chaos management’, the spirit of the sixties counterculture had become mainstream, even conservative. The revolutionary spirit of the sixties is now the official aesthetic of consumer society: ‘go on, break the rules, define who you are – with our sneakers!’ No one seriously challenges the system anymore by expressing a personal style. One literally buys into the system to express one’s ‘radical’ style (with the help of Converse, Adidas, Harley Davidson, whatever).

Radical individualism is a spent force. Its revolutionary impetus has been branded and sold.

For us, what capitalism took from the sixties counterculture is less important than what it left behind. We tend to miss, in our reflections on the sixties, the joy that the countercultural revolutionaries took in collective action. Perhaps we assume that this was a juvenile affair – the irreverent thrill of bucking the system. But to see things this way completely passes over the creative dimension of the counterculture itself. The countercultural revolutionaries were against the world that they had inherited from the generation past, but they were for a world to come. The struggles that defined the sixties, from civil rights to the peace and anti-war movements, sought the creation of new worlds – new ways of life and being that were often radically different to the mainstream life of the present day.

This goes to the heart of what the sixties adventure was all about. To a generation weaned on rock ‘n roll, the portfolio of lives presented by fifties mass-market society presented a definite lack of options: suit, job, marriage, mortgage, and ulcer for boys; husband, house, children, and a lifetime of entropic oblivion for girls. The sixties generation wanted more from life. Normality was trap – but how could they escape it? The new social movements that emerged as the decade got into gear provided a way out. Participating in the counterculture was a creative act for a generation. Marching for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, for woman’s liberation, drug reform and sexual freedom – these were more than just collective acts of resistance. They were acts of collective creation. People were exploring new ways of living, loving, and being. Individual expression was the visible face of whole new cultures and worlds emerging in this period.

This is the adventure that we need to rediscover today. We need to go back to the sixties. We need to make joy in collective creation the key to a new revolution and take a flying leap into the future.

Don’t let anyone tell you that there is nothing to be done. The only limits on what human beings are capable of doing and achieving are imposed by the imagination.

Comments

  1. The same conditions that were around in the sixties however aren’t around today. The sixties was the period of youth and self definition for the baby boomers, and the size and scale of that generation allowed them to pivot whole societies and ask them to dream for more.

    Any countercultural movement of today has to be run differently, we do not have the advantages of an abnormally large generation creating change through their relationships and their the democratic power. Instead we have to be more conciliatory with the world how it is and take a broader perspective for change. I’m not saying that the countercultural kids of the sixties generation were destructive to society how it was… just that they were able to move it faster than what can be expected of our current times.

    If you want to see a real cultural movement, pitch it to the parents. Even if it fails it succeeds because the seeds of truth will follow the next generation, and oversights would have been given greater to fall away.

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