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The Myth of Counterculturalism

Written by: on March 1, 2017

Why is it that after more than fifty years the political left has been unable to stop the conspicuous consumption that it deplores? In their brilliant, witty, and appealing book, The Rebel Sell: why the culture can’t be jammed, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter explain that the counterculture has failed to “change anything because the theory of society on which the countercultural idea rests is false.” (p. 8)

According to the authors, the “system” or “the culture” that the counterculture thinks they are in rebellion against does not exist. Heath and Potter advise them to “disentangle the concern over questions of social justice from the countercultural critique – and to jettison the latter, while continuing to pursue the former.” (p. 9)

Referencing great thinkers (political, economic, and theological), and using engaging stories and appropriate illustrations from the media including movies, Heath and Potter explain the background of the rise of today’s counterculture. In the 1960’s progressives decided that the ‘system’ was to blame. Rebellion began, taking many forms including ‘dropping out’, calling for the abolishing of all rules, returning to nature (Voluntary Simplicity), romanticizing crime, extreme, even violent rebellion, the desire for ‘otherness’, the ‘exotic’, ‘authenticity’, and suspicion of technology and globalism.

Why did these things come about? Heath and Potter explain that there was an attack on rationality leading to wrong solutions for the problem. It was part of the nature of the rebellion against the ‘evil system’. It fed the desires for individualism, coolness, distinctiveness, and the finding of the ‘authentic self’. These things make the individual feel better but they do nothing to convince the other millions of people who are happy to go to work, eat fast food, buy new things, and pay their taxes.

Also as the progressives sought to find solutions they committed the ‘cardinal sin’ of the counterculture — they rejected perfectly good solutions to problems of consumerism in favor of proposed solutions that not only cannot work, but that have demonstrably exacerbated the very problem they hope to solve. Countercultural thinking “muddies the water, causing the left to reject all sorts of pragmatic solutions to social problems on the grounds that they are not ‘deep’ enough or ’radical’ enough”. (page 345).

Throughout the book the authors explain what the perfectly good, pragmatic solutions could be:

– We must not deny the reality of ‘evil’. There will always be bad people doing bad things. We need more rules, not less.

– Eliminate the ‘race to the bottom’ by following the rules that promote general interest and conscientiously objecting to those that are unjust.

– Avoid the cardinal sin of rejecting institutional solutions to social problems.

– Individualism is ok as long as it doesn’t do harm to our neighbor.

– Find space in our lives to reintroduce the political apart from the cultural.

– Diversity is wonderful, but some price may have to be paid to maintain it especially in an increasingly global society. Find global solutions.

– Make peace with the masses. Learn to live with pluralism and differences of opinion.

– Stop making capitalism the bogeyman. It is here and the rest of the globe uses it. The problem is not with the market system; the problem is market failures.

Heath and Potter summarize: “In the end, civilization is built upon our willingness to accept rules and to curtail the pursuit of our individual interest out of deference to the needs and interests of others. It is deeply distressing to find that a misguided commitment to the ideals of the counterculture has led the political left to abandon its faith in this — the bedrock of civilization — just at a point in history when it has become more important then ever.” (page 336)

This book was so packed with information and illustrations that it is very difficult to select a portion with which to interact. I think that Heath and Potter made their case in a really entertaining and winsome way. After all, they state that they hold to diversity and pluralism. Let’s get everyone to the table, liberals and conservatives, and look for good solutions for social problems.

I grew up in the sixties as Heath and Potter did. I was a ‘goody two shoes’ however and not inclined to rebel. I never rolled up my skirt at the waistline before getting on the bus for school when miniskirts became the fashion. Just too uncomfortable for this stick in the mud.

But I found Star Trek very intriguing. What fascinated me was the way all of the crew on the ship cooperated (unless some alien made them evil somehow). To me it seemed like the dream world we are all looking for. Several points made by the authors are exemplified in Star Trek

– In a documentary, Leonard Nimoy was asked about the multi-ethnic crew . He said that it was all about diversity getting together to save the planet.

 

 

– The importance of the many, not just the one, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982).

 

 

-The respect for uniforms in a culture where everyone spends lots of money trying to be distinct. The authors point out that no one on the Star Trek set was embarrassed in their uniforms.

– The failure in a search for utopia.

 

There was a caveat from the book for me. What will make people work together like they did in Star Trek? Often it was a united fight against a common enemy or crisis. Heath and Potter said that there will always be bad people. We need more rules and a strong state to make them obey. Jesus said that there will always be poor people and Christians should follow His example in caring for them. But the apathy in our culture is pervasive.

Do we need a despotic enemy before we will get moving? In Cavanaugh’s book the Pinochet regime was the enemy. People had to help each other when they weren’t afraid to. During the depression Dorothy Day and many others worked hard to bring relief to the poor. It is much easier for us when there are seriously real needs that we can see. But most people in the United States and Canada are not under the horrible persecution like others under Pinochet, Hitler, Stalin, or Kim Jong Un. We actually have it pretty good here. What will make us stop being so selfish and act in a way that says we care about others?

Heath and Potter say we need to give more power to the State. We do live in a fallen world. Maybe we do need someone to apply pressure to us. But it scares me to think of giving the state control when we read about the situation in Chile as described by Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh’s solution of everyone joining in the Eucharist is more peaceful, but even there, who’s going to make fallen people go to church when they’d rather stay home and watch football?

How should we as Christians act? Everyone is called to serve in different areas, even politics, but politics is not enough. Putting together wisdom from Bevans, Garner, Anderson, Miller, and Cavanaugh it seems that we can be a tremendous influence as we are faithful in our practices. Garner pointed out that until Jesus comes again the Church should be actively involved in justice to the poor, the marginalized, the mourning, and the abused. Jesus and Paul lived under despotic regimes too, but that didn’t stop them from taking the Gospel to the needy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Mary Walker

6 responses to “The Myth of Counterculturalism”

  1. Star Trek is a great example Mary of different cultures and societies working together for the greater good of people. Yes, how do we achieve that in our societies and institutions today? That is the million dollar question. Improving upon our systems, expressing appreciation for other’s difference, and learning to major on the similarities seems to be a good start. This is a good task for Christians to tackle.

  2. Geoff Lee says:

    Great piece Mary.
    Of course, in Britain, all the children wear uniforms to school, and I am glad it is so! With two teenaged children, this is one less pressure on them to either conform or be distinctive with the latest brands! Uniforms prevent the race to the bottom.

  3. I love the example of uniforms, Mary. It is funny to me when people say that uniforms take away individual expression because, in schools where uniforms are required, students always find a way to make their individuality shine. The uniform just indicates that they belong at the school, it doesn’t take away their personhood.
    Unfortunately, the uniform of Christianity is love and many have rejected that identifier.
    I think the Christian right is just as guilty as anyone on the left for blaming all of society’s ills on consumerism while reveling in their own consumeristic culture. Rather than reforming systems and working for justice, we build Christian corporations and then ostracize those who disagree with our particular brand. Not our uniform of love, but our brand.

  4. Heath and Potter explain that there was an attack on rationality leading to wrong solutions for the problem.

    This statement is a journalist headline! We are experiencing this right now with all the executive orders. Our public servants on school boards, state governors, Church Leaders, etc. rewriting historical truth to make it not appear so cruel, hateful, painful, barbaric, etc.

  5. Mary great post! I find some of their discussion about law and order to be a bit much and presumptive. In addition, the idea that all those on the left are misguided is in and of itself a misguided lame blanket statement.

    However, I agree with the notion of uniquness in uniformity. We as Christians must clothe ourselves in love, mercy, grace and justice not only to be a reflection of Christ but to be active servant’s as bearers of the kingdom! ?

  6. mm Katy Lines says:

    Good reflections, Mary.
    What Heath & Potter are lacking is an understanding that faith in Christ and unity/identity in the Body of Christ is of some value. Like you, I believe God’s people, the Church, have an important role in the places we live. Like you, I’m not fully comfortable turning over everything to the state, but I do believe in a democracy we can work for regulations that support those at the margins of society. I do believe we as the Body of Christ can look for opportunities to be (truly) counter-cultural, including looking for creative ways to consume less.

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