In popular mythography London is portrayed as the epicentre of the ‘swinging sixties’. As the cosmopolitan heartland of fashion, music, media, arts and entertainment, and what was coming to be known as the creative industries, the metropolis is widely credited for having been the launch pad of a youth led cultural revolution that swept away the last vestiges of post-war austerity Britain, and inaugurated a ‘permissive society’ associated with personal liberation from the repressive, authoritarian constraints of a rigid, patriarchal and class bound ‘ancien regime ‘ [i]. The emergence of what Theodore Roszak dubbed a ‘counter culture’ amongst sections of middle class youth [ii], dedicated to the pursuit of alternative life style, coupled with the advent of political ferment in the universities and on the streets against the Vietnam war led by a student movement inspired by Marxist and anarchist ideas was a matter of mounting concern amongst traditional elites who saw their own sons and daughters abandoning their values, if not always their privileges.
Most commentators, both in the media and the Academy, then and since, have focused on the ‘spectacle’ of youth revolt, seeing it as symptomatic of a wider social alienation or an intensive form of generational conflict[iii]. On the Left the 1960’s counter culture tends to be seen as prefigurative of much of what was to come. In fact it is still a tacit reference point, both negative and positive, for much contemporary political debate on the Left. For some, mainly Marxists, it is a cautionary tale[iv]. It marks a historical turning point in which the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial working class auto-destructs, the onward march of labour is permanently halted well this side of the new Jerusalem and capitalism goes cultural as well as global, and becomes hip. The so called youth revolution, creates a platform for disseminating the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism and makes possessive individualism – doing your own thing – sexy, addictive and above all cool. Sex and drugs and rock n roll may not exactly be the devils work, but they promote the dispositions of creative self invention, underpinned by a whole culture of narcissism that post fordism, and the just- in- time production of the self requires. Playing it cool becomes the motto of a whole ‘post’generation, post modernist, post Marxist, post feminist, post human [v].
The other reading, which is mainly from anarchists and the libertarian left sees 60’s counter culture as a great disseminator of a popular anti-authoritarian politics, a youthful generational revolt against the patriarchal structures of the family and the bureaucratic structures of the state, and as such embarked on the quest for new and more direct democratic forms of self organisation[vi] . It is also about an aesthetic revolt against the dead weight of elite bourgeois literary and artistic canons and tastes. A rejection then of party politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new feminism, gay liberation, anti racism, the environmentalist movement, community activism and do it yourself urbanism: the so called rainbow coalition. It prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti capitalist movements of more recent years.
All these accounts rest on large generalisations. They treat counter culture, and indeed youth, as a unitary phenomenon. In fact `‘60’s counter culture’ is made up of many different strands, and is not homogeneous either ideologically or sociologically. The ‘alternative society’ mirrored the stratification of so called ’straight’ society. It had its aristocracy, some of them the children of actual aristocrats, but mostly wealthy rock musicians and entrepreneurs who bankrolled its projects. It had its professional middle class who ran its organisations, (like BIT, Release and the underground press), and then it had its foot soldiers, the young people who flocked to its psychedelic colours and lived on the economic margins. In so far as accounts are at all evidence based, they rely heavily on memoirs written by leading protagonists, organisational archives and media coverage rather than depth interviews with rank and file participants. As a result the role of the student movement and of avant garde arts movements tends to be privileged at the expense of , for example, the street commune and hippy squatting movements[vii].
A further limitation is that accounts are rarely site specific. The ‘London underground’ had a complicated social and cultural geography which was glossed by common references to the ‘scene’,a highly mobile term which, like its less hip synonym ‘milieu’ , includes floating signifiers of a diffuse sense of belonging, indicating a critical mass of counter-cultural activity shifting between different locations over time. These locations included the older bohemian areas of Soho, Fitzrovia , Bloomsbury and Chelsea, as well as emergent inner city areas like Notting Hill, Camden Town ,Whitechapel and Brixton. In central London the ‘dilly’ street culture was a stronghold of the rank and file where homeless young people, rent boys, beats and hippies interfaced , and which gave birth to the street commune movement. There were also suburban outposts like Muswell Hill and Richmond that constituted transient hubs of activity.
The rudimentary maps of the sixties counter-culture which have been drawn so far tend to be genealogical and focus on ideological affiliations – how one group evolved, fused, or subsumed another; such maps lack the granularity needed to grasp the micro-histories of particular sites : coffee bars, pubs, clubs, bookshops , streets and other public spaces, arts centres, colleges, hostels, and a host of other ‘hang outs’, all of which served as meeting places and foci of counter-cultural activity, from drug dealing to ‘happenings’.
A final limitation of existing studies is that they make large assumptions about the societal impact of the counter culture but do not trace through the effect that different types of involvement actually had on the subsequent lives, values and attitudes of those caught up in the various ‘scenes’. There is a widespread notion of a ‘sixties generation’ i.e young people who were turned on to radical politics or alternative life styles and who variously sustained these choices or abandoned them in the face of Thatcherism and the neo-liberal counter-revolution. However ‘generation’ is always a retrospective, and not a demographic construct, an invented tradition through which members of an age cohort become invested in an imagined community of shared experience and value. As such, it is a self fulfilling prophecy, with little heuristic purchase on the vicissitudes of cultural affiliation or political socialisation. These can only be registered through an approach which maps life journeys and embeds participant accounts of particular site specific contexts and conjunctures within a narrative of longer duration and wider scope. In this way the creation of a multi-dimensional cartography of the counter culture can also address a range of contemporary issues: generation rent and the new precariat, the privatisation of public space, the limits and conditions of cultural action , the youth revolt against austerity politics etc. That, at least, is my ambition for the research project on which I am about to embark.[viii]
Illustration: Claire Palmer
Phil Cohen is research director of the LivingMaps network (www.livingmaps.org). He played an active role in London’s counter culture in the sixties and seventies, especially as ‘Dr John’ in the London Street Commune’s occupation of 144 Piccadilly and other mass squats in central London.
[i] See Frank Mort ‘London and the Permissive Society’ 2013
[ii] Theodore Roszak ‘The Making of a Counter Culture’ 1995
[iii] See Phil Cohen ‘Rethinking the Youth Question’ 1998
[iv] See Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello ‘The New Spirit of Capitalism’ 2005
[v] See Thomas Frank ‘The Conquest of the Cool’ 1997 and Dick Pountain and Dave Robins ‘Cool Rules’2000
[vi] See, for example Iain Boal’s ‘ West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in North California’ 2012
[vii] This is discussed in Phil Cohen ‘Reading Room Only: memoir of a radical Bibliophile’ 2013
[viii] For the purposes of constructing an online counter- cultural map of London 1965 – 78 I would be interested in hearing from anyone who played a part in its various scenes. Further information from www.philcohenworks.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org