The fortieth anniversary of Woodstock is a time to reflect on the awesome power of the market. Its ability to colonise, corrupt and suck the life out of all that is good and noble and inspirational is unbounded.

The story of the market’s total victory can be told by comparing the original Woodstock festival in 1969 with “Woodstock 99”, an attempted reprise of the famous love-fest where the ideals of youth rebellion and the counter-culture reached their apotheosis.

The original Woodstock festival was imbued with a sense of harmony and tolerance and was everywhere seen as a “victory of peace and love”. When the number of young people turning up exceeded expectations, the organisers threw open the gates to make it a free concert.

The only reporter to attend the entire event, Barnard Collier of The New York Times, had to resist his editors’ demands to put a negative spin on the festival: they wanted “a social catastrophe in the making”, he later said. He wrote instead of the “fascinating cooperation, caring and politeness among so many people” and of an “amazing and beautiful accident”.

Thirty years later Woodstock 99 was an unapologetically corporate venture, with sponsors, vendor malls and ATMs. It was widely criticised for gouging patrons with “grossly overpriced water, beer, and food”. Ticket holders were frisked on the way in to ensure they carried no contraband bottles of water.

The concert had an impregnable perimeter fence, and 500 private security guards were employed to keep out those who had not paid. But security inside the enclosure was inadequate, and the concert was marred by arson, looting, violence and several allegations of r-pe. In sharp contrast with the harmony, peace and love of Woodstock 69, Woodstock 99 was noted for its exploitation, fights and “palpable mood of anger”.

So what happened? How did the baby boomers whose rebellion shook the foundations of conservatism in the sixties and seventies end up supervising the most materialistic, egocentric and decadent societies the world has ever seen?

It wasn’t all bad, of course. The victories of the social movements of the sixties and seventies were necessary and inevitable. The sexual revolution blew away strictures that caused so much misery — the shame of pre-marital s-x, imprisonment in unhappy marriages and the neuroses that stood in the way of s-xual pleasure.

The demand was to replace a society of oppressive rules and conventions with a society of autonomous individuals committed to the welfare of all and discriminating against none. For the first time we would be free to control our own destinies.

Yet today, despite the advances, we have never experienced more pressure to define ourselves in accord with images created by others.

We wanted to be free, but ended up making a gilded cage in which to live. The door is open, but we are too afraid to exit. For decades psychologists have collected data on a personality trait called the “locus of control”, a measure of the extent to which we believe we control our own lives rather than being subject to outside forces.

The research shows that since the 1960s young people in the West have become more inclined to believe external forces control their lives.

Remarkably, declining scores on locus of control tests are greater among young women, despite the opportunities for women delivered by feminism. Perhaps we should expect no more of an era in which for many the desirable life is the one lived out of control — binge drinking, indiscriminate s-x, and capitulation to every desire.

Equality came to mean freeing girls to behave as badly as boys and created a new gender — “girls with balls” as one writer put it — where once we imagined perhaps something closer to boys with ovaries.

The objectives were noble, but the demand for individual rights in the sixties and seventies released a self-centredness that has grown into full-blown narcissism. In the fifties only 12 per cent of US teenagers agreed with the statement “I am an important person”; by the late 1980s, 80 per cent described themselves this way.

In our pursuit of tolerant pluralism we created a society of radical individualism, a phenomenon dubbed “boomeritis” by author Ken Wilber. Appeals to the principles of equality and freedom often allowed egocentric demands to flourish. Slogans such as “Let it all hang out” and “Do your own thing” were soon interpreted as “No one can tell me what to do”.

Self-worth became self-worship.

The marketing language used today mirrors this development precisely. Narcissistic interpretations of liberation are the bread and butter of modern advertising. Consider these tag lines from magazine ads:

“Just do it.”

“Go on, you deserve it.”

“Just for you.”

“If it makes you happy, it’s a bargain.”

“I don’t care what it is, I want it.”

It is now apparent that the radical demands of the liberation movements dovetailed perfectly with the logic of hyper-consumerism. The self-creating individual was ideally suited to the needs of the market, and it is now apparent that the social conservatism of the fifties that was the source of so much oppression also held the market in check.

It’s little wonder that Gen Xers and Gen Ys take a jaundiced view of Woodstock nostalgia. Sure they have been the beneficiaries of the social movements of the Woodstock era, but they know that the balding boomers, after taking time out for a bit of wistfulness, will soon get back to fucking up the world.

Peter Fray

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