Note VII

Originally posted on Medium as a response to Will Franks post Notes on Counterculture

One potential pitfall I can see in making comparisons between present and 60’s counterculture is that not only are the mainstreams they react against very different, but the present mainstream is in many ways a product of the ideas of selfhood that emerged from the 60’s (or an appropriation of them, depending on where your allegiances lie). If the 60’s counterculture can be seen as reacting against the regimented blandness stereotyped in modern portrayals of the 50’s, then a modern day counterculture must surely be a reaction against the norms of neoliberal individualism and its promise of self-realisation in consumption.

If there is a common thread in these projects it is that they attempt to resist commodification, understood as an inertial force that stifles human potential. In the 60’s this took the form of an injunction to authenticity, accompanied by some fairly clear ideas about what that might involve: lose the suburban aspirations, don’t become the housewife in the home environment with its matrix of consumer objects — go take acid and run naked in fields instead, you’ll discover who you truly are. What’s different about the present situation is that the circuits of capital accumulation have long since diversified and learned to integrate these kind of experiences and practices. Taking acid and running around in a field can easily be packaged up as a commodity and sold as a form of neoliberal self-realisation. Surrealist techniques once thought to be revolutionary can now be effortlessly mobilised in advertising campaigns. Anti-consumerist messages are rendered consumable in the plot lines of Hollywood films. In many ways, the story of how the destabilising energies released in the original counterculture were neutralised is the story of how capital learned to appropriate its own subversions.

Rather than taking this as a pessimistic reading, I think we can use it to diagnose some of the more naïve aspects of the 60’s counterculture and strategically orient a new one. Regarding psychedelics, for example, there was often this idea that simply getting them into people’s nervous systems would be enough to stimulate social change. One lesson we should have learned since then is that this is wrong — while many of the new technologies or practices associated with the 60’s may have the potential to increase or create capacities, these capacities can and will be assimilated by the system through their conversion into exchange value (i.e. through commodification) if this process is not actively resisted. Any modern counterculture will have to be tightly meshed with an attempt to describe and resist the circuits of capital accumulation, not just focused on practices (public absurdism, creative exploration, guerrilla ontology, etc) and technologies (psychedelics, the internet, etc) themselves, but also — critically — on the social relations that situate them within various systems of value.

Burning Man illustrates many of these tensions. It has certainly been interesting to watch how the burner community has responded to criticisms of its privilege in recent years, and the shadow this has cast on its self-portrayal as radically inclusive. One outcome of this response has been what I’ve come to think of as “the utopian sandbox argument”: yes we are privileged, but we are using that privilege to explore new forms of life and culture whose fruits will ultimately benefit society at large. The problem with this argument, as I see it, is that it is basically trickle-down economics in a new hat, reworked for cultural rather than traditional capital. (In Hanzi Freinacht, for example, something like the utopian sandbox argument is made quite explicitly in terms of the production of cultural capital.) Unpacking this from a different direction, the concern is that Burning Man’s decommodified space is actually embedded within a larger commodity structure: the Burning Man experience itself understood as cultural capital. Decommodification has the highest exchange value of all, no wonder you have to pay through the teeth for it! If access to the sandbox is costly, then this represents a structural constraint on what can escape it — if the products of the sandbox inherit its high exchange value, this guarantees that they will only ever circulate in privileged circles, and cannot meaningfully contribute to social change.

It seems unlikely to me that new countercultural forms will foment through trickle-down processes. If the last decade of political life has proved anything at all, it is that forces of social change can and do come from the margins. Reactionary ideas have successfully bubbled up, while progressive ideas have often failed to trickle down. As far as bubble-up counterculture goes, a good place to start looking for fresh impetus could be grassroots subculture. Music subculture in particular has proved oddly resistant to commodification, and I think there’s something important to be learned from that. Big ones — like metal or psytrance — are international mycelial networks, existing in multiple mutually antagonistic configurations with their own internal communications platforms, public spheres, and logics of value. Counterculture is typically imagined to have a political agenda while subculture is considered apolitical, but I think the distinction is far less clear than that. Rave was a significant political event, and it is extremely peculiar that it rarely features in modern discussions about counterculture. In many ways the free party is a perfect embodiment of political challenge: typically unprivileged folks save up for years to buy (or build) a sound system then immediately risk losing it to the police to throw an illegal party they do not charge a penny for — an act in direct opposition to the system of universal exchange value, a gesture to a radical decommodification and inclusivity.

The main question for a new counterculture to ask is: how to attack a reality principle that has always already pre-empted and neutralised its attacks, that in fact feeds off them. My view is that the key is to realise that this ability is tied to the commodification of media spaces and communications channels, really the symbolic order as whole. The condition we’re in is, ultimately, still the postmodern condition, and it obeys the logic of the Kurt Cobain effect: nothing sells better on MTV than someone raging against MTV. Rage is not only rendered impotent, but can easily become complicit in sustaining the very thing that provoked it. The way to respond to this situation, I think, is to target the commodity form directly by redirecting energies into non-exchangeable forms of value. Not cultural capital, just culture. This is basically what legit subcultures do, it seems to me, and may even be their defining characteristic — these are the models we should be learning from.