The Comfort of A Countercultural Mindset

Earlier today, a casual acquaintance made a remark to me which, although I’ve heard repeated often in past conversations, I can’t fully agree with.  The remark in question was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Cultural change is born amongst the downtrodden more than any other class.  This is because counterculture rises from the bottom-up, starting with the have-nots, rather than the haves.”  I take issue with this sort of broad-sweeping analysis.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would look great on a poster or banner somewhere, but within the scope of modern history it really has little-to-no credible validity as a trusted byline.

To illustrate my point, I’ll refer to one of the most well-known examples of counterculture in recent history: the generation-wide shift in focus and values that came to categorize American youths in the 1960s.

The modes of thinking and doing in 1960s culture reflected the evermore growing generational gap which emerged as a consequence of the baby boomers maturing/reaching adolescence, and the great prosperity that many Americans enjoyed in the economic growth of the time.  Unlike what is implied by the remark stated above, the counterculture of the 1960s was not driven by the downtrodden or the have-nots of the socioeconomic ladder, but the very individuals who benefited most from the economic prosperity that arose throughout middle-class America following the Second World War.

Plainly put, the 1960s ranks as being amongst the richest of times in American history.  This rise in affluence made commercialism and consumerism a wide-scale business (in other words, people all over bought big and they spent big).  All of this reflected in the growing emergence of popular culture, which was essentially a byproduct of the increasing number of teenagers (growing out of the post-War baby boom) who were coming of age, and eager to establish an identity for themselves.  And fortunately there were just as many businesses and corporations eager to sell them the products (music, movies, fashion, etc.) needed to define such a thirst for identity.

Ironically, all this affluence also created a sense of resentment amongst idealistic youths, who sought to reject the commercialism and consumerism of the era.  The Beatniks, for example, began as a small group of idealistic young wanderers (usually middle-class, white, and financially comfortable), who idolized the lifestyle of social outsiders of the 1950s.  This group of wanderers (e.g. Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, etc.), and tales of their Bohemian travels throughout exotic segments of American society, served as inspiration to many of the countercultural offshoots that emerged amongst the youths of the 1960s (the most famous example being the Hippie subculture).

The image of the countercultures of this era are usually portrayed as abrasive (i.e. anti-war protests) or dynamic (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement).  Although these were definite reflections of the cultural divide which had become prominent at the time, the true countercultural thoughts and actions cannot be generalized or defined by a single movement or event, because it wasn’t a single movement or event.  Rather, it was a change in mindset caused by the way a new–larger than ever–generation was reacting to their environment on a day-to-day basis.  But, more than anything, it did not develop bottom-up, and was not inspired out of its participants economic hardship or scarcity in opportunity (statistically speaking, these young people had the most comfortable and hopeful lives out of any of the generations that preceded them).

The reason for this is that in order for countercultural thought to develop, a person must have the leisure time to reflect on their surrounding, in addition to enjoying the economic stability of their social era to make an alternative lifestyle even remotely plausible.  It is a luxury the downtrodden and truly impoverished simply don’t have, because those who don’t have the time or energy to philosophize about social change–who are often entirely dependent on the current social order to maintain even the little that its given them–will have the least interest in setting up a counter-anything (which is why people who reside in the lower-income bracket tend to exhibit the slowest rate of cultural change out of any other economic group).

I think the misconception partly stems from the popular conflation of countercultures with social revolutions.  At first this is an understandable mistake, but upon any close inspection the distinction between the two couldn’t be starker.  The fact is, whereas revolutions seek to overturn, dispose of, and/or usurp the sociocultural order that happens to be dominating in the particular society and time, countercultures alone are not as ambitious; usually willing to be perfectly content with simply carving out a niche for themselves parallel to the existing order, thereby still existing within the greater framework of society, while preserving a distinct identity from it (even if only superficially so).