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Aug 14, 2009

From free love to narcissism

It's forty years since Woodstock and the Summer of Love of '69. It’s little wonder that Gen Xers and Gen Ys take a jaundiced view of Woodstock nostalgia.

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.

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18 comments

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18 thoughts on “From free love to narcissism

  1. Bruno Bouchet

    To add insult to injury, the ‘old strip’ on Vegas this year has a theme to lure people to part with their cash in the slot machines, it’s celebrating the Summer of Love with hippy themed banners and live bands, so the radical movement is now just another marketing theme for the gaming industry.

  2. stephen henry

    Clive it’s a shame everyone has their heads up their own b#cks^des and can’t be bothered with your observations. It’s a shame because it’s all so relevant to just about everything that is going wrong.
    Oh well as Keating once said,” you can always back self interest, because you know it’s trying”.

  3. MichaelT

    Yes, this is a very good analysis.

    At the same time, while we all agree on the diagnosis, the harder question is what is the solution going to be?

  4. Richard Wilson

    Woodstock ’69 was the zenith of the culture of love and hope.
    Woodstock ’99 its nadir.

    Woodstock 2009 can be the time for Baby Boomers to wake up from their somnolent existence. To regroup and remember what they were standing against! Against an androidal approximation of existence and for humanity. Against serfdom and for liberty. Against endless no win wars and for the defence of our right to exist as free thinking people.

    Forget about the hush money. Babylon is paying out big time and she’s shaken.. Don’t bow down to false gods. Don’t be seduced by bread and circuses. Don’t fall for the greater good line and never deny your humanity.

    Don’t watch TV and don’t seek refuge in malls. Don’t buy industrial food or the crude oil derived products of supermarkets .

    Don’t do as thou wilt and the end never justifies the means.

    Afghanistan and Iraq are every bit as outrageous as Viet Nam. Killing innocent women and children is never defensible!

    Say no to globalism and end this horrific game of monopoly, a game only one can win in the end..

    Build communities not monuments. Believe in love and truth – not outcomes based solutions. See people as human beings not human capital. Educate for enlightenment and freedom of choice – not for designed for purpose jobs. Challenge people to reach their potential not pigeon hole them from kindergarten.

    But be prepared for the fight of your life. Be prepared to face Stormtroopers and an army of shills paid to protect the status quo. Don’t expect to face frightened and bemused constables. These Black knights mean business and don’t understand love and peace. Propaganda driven Fascism is close at hand.

    Remember the words of the last two real US Presidents:

    “Throughout America’s adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology — global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle — with liberty the stake”. (Abridged: Dwight D Eisenhower, January 17, 1961)

    And in an address to the American Publishers Association:
    “The very word secrecy is repugnant, in a free and open society… we decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweigh the dangers which are cited to justify it.
    Even today there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating it’s arbitrary restrictions….there is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation, if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious who wish to expand it’s meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.

    For we are opposed, around the world, by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy, that relies primarily on covet means for expanding its fear of influence,
    on infiltration instead of invasion,
    on subversion instead of elections,
    on intimidation, instead of free choice,
    on guerrillas by night, instead of armies by day,
    It is a system which has conscripted, vast material and human resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific, and political operations.

    Its preparations are concealed, not published.
    It’s mistakes are buried, not headlined.
    Its dissenters silenced, not praised.
    No expenditure is questioned. No rumour is printed. No secret is revealed.
    I am not asking your newspaper to support an administration.. But I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and the dedication of our citizens when they are fully informed.
    I not only could not stifle controversy from your readers I welcome it. This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said, “an error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it”.
    We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors and we expect you to point them out when we miss them. Without debate without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed. And no republic can survive.
    That is why the Athenian law decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the first amendment, the only business in America specifically protected by the constitution,
    not primarily to amuse or entertain,
    not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental,
    not to simply give the public what it wants,
    but to inform, to arouse, and to reflect
    to state our dangers and our opportunities,
    to indicate our crises and our choices,
    to lead, mould, and educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
    This means greater coverage and analysis of international news, for it is no longer far away and foreign, but close at hand and local.. it means greater attention to improved attention to greater understanding of the news, as well as improved transmission, and it means finally, the government at all levels, must meet its obligation, to provide you with it’s possible information, outside the narrowest limits of national security.
    And so it is to the printing press, to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the carrier of his news, that we look for strength, and his assistance, confident that with your help, Man will be what he was born to be..
    Free and independent.”
    Abridged: John F Kennedy, April 27, 1961.

  5. pwnerous

    Nahh just kidding, I did read it, but couldn’t resist.

    Another good article Clive.

    You could add Loreal’s “Because you’re worth it” to the narcissistic jingles.

  6. Michael Butler

    Oh please. The baby boomers may well have been idealistic back in the day, but now they’re to busy running ad agencies, marketing organisations and giant corporations (thanks for the financial meltdown, by the way) to care.
    I’m not saying that the generations that followed are any better; far from it. But all these foggy-eyed reminiscences for the days when you could wear flowers in your hair (etc) are really starting to bug me.
    The baby boomers benefited from an enormous economic boom. As a generation, they have cashed in mightily, embracing all the values – corporate greed, conformity, selfishness – they claimed to fight against.
    And they’ve kicked the ladder out from underneath them, winding back many of the programmes and structures that allowed them to climb so high. Thanks for that.
    At least the generations that followed admit our cynicism and ironical detachment; it’s hard not to, becuase when we look at our baby boomer forebears, the self-love and hyocrisy makes us gag.

    PS Yes, there may have been free love but there was also r_pe, drug abuse and every other crime young people with too much time and too much money can get up to. Wake up.

  7. sean bedlam

    So, everything’s rooted?

  8. Clive Hamilton

    Sean. It depends on your mood. I am enjoying the perspectives and added examples of my argument, so please keep them coming.

  9. AR

    I thought, at the time, that it was the ultimate capitulation to what the freeks had railled against, it was the ultimate in consumerism. Loathe as I am to agree with anything PJ O’Rourke (the original Repug Reptile) sez, it was a quarter pf a million over aged infants sitting in the mud, waiting (nay, demanding) to be fed, watered and, worst of all ENTERTAINED.
    The 60s wasn’t about rejecting rules but testing them. No-one said it would be easy but it WAS essential if a new paradign was to be created.
    To quote the ultimate sell-out, R. Zimmerman, “to live outside the Law you must be honest” and, when the vast majority found how hard it was to adhere to self evaluated standards, they copped out and became the breadheads who gave us Raygun, Thatcher and, lagging a decade as usual, the Rodent.