661: Counter-culture


”People really could imagine a different way for society to be organized,” said Gustin Reichbach, 56, who marched with Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia in 1968 and is now a New York State Supreme Court justice. ”Nobody’s talking about alternative social systems today.”

Start talking about counterculture and almost inevitably, a discussion of the 1960s and the highly visible counter-culture movement of the era is likely to come up. After all, in many ways, that era is the very template of an American counter-cultural movement. As the New York Times, put it, continuing the quote we started with:

Justice Reichbach attributed the change in part to the fall of socialism, which once represented an alternative model of society. And to an extent, he said, the very success of the 60’s counterculture in making America a more permissive society works against any campaign for another radical change in values or lifestyle. ”The counterculture of 30 years ago is the mainstream today,” he said. ”Our success shifted the parameters of what constitutes a counterculture.”The idea of a counterculture is made trickier by the diversity of 21st-century America. A counterculture, after all, presumes that there is a culture to counter.

Is that really true, though? It partially depends on how you decide to break out what counts as a culture. The Khan Academy describes a counter culture in comparison with subcultures and microcultures. Microcultures are groups like girl scout troops or sports teams that have norms and expectations that, in many ways, sit on top of dominant cultural expectations. Subcultures have some values that differ from dominant society, but generally co-exist within culture. Counter-culture is a full-scale rejection of dominant norms, deciding to sit entirely outside of what expectations may be.

Which means that Justice Reichbach may have a good point. The counter-culture movements of the 60s had a big hand in defining what is quote-unquote normal today, and combined with the internet, counter-culture has a very different meaning.

Eaon Prichard of the University of Melbourne argues that counter-culture as a cohesive movement follows this path and doesn’t really exist any longer. Quote:

The final nail in the coffin for the counter-culture – given that pop music of some shape or form has always been central to these movements – can then probably (and not without some significant irony), be traced to sometime around the turn of the century with the advent of the iPod, file sharing and streaming music services such as Spotify.

Music began to lose its signalling and galvanising power because it became an individualised ‘pleasure’ commodity product consumed (for free) by individuals in private within their earbuds.

Yet even with this argument that counter-culture has shifted to a combination of subcultures, I would argue that as long as there is a dominant norm, there is a way to sit outside of it. And it may not be your entire life, but even small steps outside of the norm can have a big impact on your life. So where in your life have you outright rejected the norms around you?