Politics and The New Counter-Culture Part 1: The Outraged Establishment
By Greg Scorzo –
The Times They Are a Changin’
When we think of counter-culture, we often think of the counter-culture of the 20th century. We think of beatniks beating ferociously on bongos while reading poetry about the soul crushing effects of consumerism. We think of Kerouac’s unwieldy paragraphs on the merits of hitch hiking, and Ginsberg’s confrontational lines about the dangers of atomic warfare.
We think of hippies at Woodstock in the late 1960s, Jimi Hendrix defiling the US national anthem, young feminists burning their bras, and millions of teenagers staring at kaleidoscopic flower patterns. We think of free love, the first stirrings of environmentalism, rampant drug use, and the strange joys of vulgarity.
Counter-culture has a rich history. All counter-cultures are social movements where a way of life or set of ideas is at odds with prevailing cultural norms. Counter-cultures are typically characterised by groups of angry young people fighting for particular political causes. Sometimes counter-culture is interpreted as an inherently elitist force, because it seems to have such an antagonistic relationship with what the majority of people do and believe. I think there is some truth in this critique. However, the situation is ironic, because counter-culture often winds up becoming something the majority assimilates into normalcy. This tendency is why counter-culture is framed as a long term benefit to the majority, rather than a threat to it.
Counter-cultures often have aesthetic components. These include fashion, the arts, film and television, music, and recreational persuits, all filtered through a particular ideology and its activism. Counter-cultures also get associated with particular generations. In the last five years or so, the modern west has spawned a political counter culture which is unique for being so strange, relative to previous western counter-cultures. The new counter-culture is about social media, memes, and music which is distributed through Facebook, soundcloud, itunes, and Spotify. However, its noisy rock anthem is not a piece of music, but instead a homemade political short film that looks good enough to be on television, even though it was made cheaply on an iphone. This new counter-culture isn’t really a youth culture, even though it contains many young figures. In fact, it mostly lampoons angry young left-wing activists, portraying them as entitled, pampered, and censorious bigots. What is perhaps most shocking about this counter-culture is its lampooning is largely justified. The modern left, at least on cultural issues, has become angry and reactionary. It feels more like a new kind of religious right.
The new counter-culture has thus picked up on something difficult for many to admit: the 2010s are like an evil doppelganger of the 1960s. Young progressives passionate about extending equality have become deluded, ban-happy, hypocritical, and vindictive. Their arch nemesis is the right-wing racist who superficially appears to be a dangerous backlash against the progressive. However, this appearance is misleading. The right-wing racist helps the progressive, by making ordinary people so terrified, that they accept progressive politics by default. This is why opposing the white nationalists in Charlottesville is as controversial as agreeing with the age of consent. Opposing progressivism actually takes courage. This is partly because there’s nothing progressive about progressivism.
Progresssives are the establishment of the early 21st century, even though they claim to be society’s underdogs. Our truly liberating figures are bizarrely those thinkers and activists who take a liberal stand against progressivism. These are the people who, at great risk to themselves, stand for a politics which is clear headed, passionate about free speech, and appreciative of the dispassionate parts of democratic institutions. Theirs is a politics which favours individualism over group identity, and as such, is often marginalised by progressives who see it as being no different to right-wing racism. But this new liberal politics is actually something progressives would never expect in a million years: It’s both the 21st century’s first vibrant counter-culture, and the modern analogue of punk’s rejoinder to a similiarly self-important set of progressives.
Unlike modern progressives, the new counter culture values due process, equal treatment under the law, and it doesn’t automatically equate gendered social roles with oppression. Its leery of the concept of systemic racism, and it accuses progressives of undervaluing both social cohesion and the complexity of responsibility. At its best, the new counter-culture is a rebuke to black and white thinking; the kind of thinking that puts people into simple binaries of victim and victimiser. It’s also frequently suspicious of utopianism, and skeptical of crusades meant to radically change the world.
Unlike previous counter-cultures, you won’t be able to buy most of its cultural artefacts in local shops. Most of its stars are on the internet, doing things in a decidedly DIY manner. That means you probably won’t see them on the news, MTV, political panel discussions, mainstream chats about arts and culture, or the new music shows for kids. The stars of the new counter-culture don’t (as of yet) have any iconic media moments that most people have an opinion about. There is no equivalent of that time in 1967 when the decidedly uncool teens on the Dick Clark show watched the weirdness of Strawberry Fields. There’s also nothing like that moment in 1976 when the Sex Pistols went swearing like adolescent schoolboys on the Bill Grundy show. Nor is there anything like that time in 1994 when Madonna humiliated David Letterman for poking fun at her abrasive sexuality.
The new stars of today’s counter-culture will rarely be on Question Time. Nor will they be on early morning family programs, irritating Holly Willoughby and Phillip Scofield. They won’t ever be pissed on late night sofas, giggling alongside Alan Carr and Graham Norton. I’m guessing most of the aforementioned television presenters wouldn’t want to be associated with this counter-culture. They would instead think Russell Brand represents today’s counter-culture. They would think, like most members of the establishment, that counter-culture must be tied to sex, drugs, and progressive mass media. They never suspect that the modern equivalent of Haight-Ashbury might actually be youtube.
The new counter-culture starts from the assumption that progressive politics have become not just the mainstream, but something illiberal, devoid of nuance, and periodically hysterical. The counter-culture’s ideological rubuke to progressivism is to creatively defend classical liberal ideas: ideas like autonomy, liberty, responsibility, tolerance, and the overcoming of adversity. The new counter-culture gives us a fascinating political alternative to the more common forms of activism which are driven by sanctimonious resentment, or a need to classify people into identities which are tribal and de-individuating. The counter-culture is also cheeky, mischievous, and surprisingly open to unorthodox lifestyles and subversions of typical expectations. It upsets people most not when its being right wing, but when it’s simply asserting common sense.
Counter-Culture Needs a Mainstream to Rebel Against
In today’s mainstream, counter-culture is generally still associated with Mohawks, Mick Jagger, BDSM, and gay activists collaborating with miners to protest the policies of Margaret Thatcher. It still has connotations of blue hair, weird clothes, surrealism, post-modernism, gender-bending, David Bowie, and Rick from the Young Ones.
Perhaps most importantly, the public continues to associate counter-culture with the left side of the political spectrum. This is because we remember a left which rebelled against straight society, against corporate greed, against the expectation to live in the suburbs, against keeping up with the Joneses, or expressing oneself in ways that were respectable and bland. We remember not just the small mindedness of the 20th century’s idyllic nuclear family, but its racism, sexism, and homophobia. We remember a time when challenging bigotry was far more offensive than calling it out.
In other words, we remember a time completely unlike our own, a time when people had less compassion for minorities, and less pressure to constantly throw away their own common sense. We remember a very different counter-culture to the present one, because the time in which it existed had an equally different mainstream. Today’s mainstream culture doesn’t want to be racist, sexist, or homophobic. It doesn’t want to discriminate against people, it doesn’t want to be narrow minded and provincial, and it especially doesn’t want to be insensitive. This, in essence, is why the counter-culture of the 20th century is dead.
Individuals are still racist, sexist, and homophobic today. But if they are racist against people of colour or sexist against women, they are now at odds with social norms. Not expressing them. With today’s new norms, you actually get far more disapproval for being homophobic than for being gay.
What also explains why 20th century counter-culture is dead is the fact that so many of the social freedoms and trends of that counter-culture are now mainstream. They are so mainstream that they reach far beyond what is even considered left-wing. Conservatives periodically acknowledge global warming, centrists practice Yoga and Veganism, while even the most straight laced parents rarely bat an eyelash at brightly coloured hair. Mainstream rock is now as daring as Perry Cuomo was in the 70s. Meanwhile, pop stars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé regurgitate political messages that would have been edgy in the 60s.
The counter-culture of the 20th century has thus morphed into an ideology that focusses on emancipating women and minorities by taking power away from the privileged (who in this ideology, are exemplified by men in the majority demographics of the western population). Just like their hippie predecessors, contemporary progressives believe themselves to be deeply radical. They justify this belief, simply by noting that not everyone in society agrees with them. When society contains anyone who isn’t a progressive, their existence is interpreted as a social norm its important to crusade against.
Progressives are Not the Same as Lefties
Progressives are often derided by the counter-culture with terms like “social justice warrior”, “cultural marxist”, and “identity politics.” The problem with these terms is progressives themselves largely reject them, interpreting them as derogatory rather than factual descriptions of what progressivism is. In fact, many cultural marxists want to distance themselves from the aspects of progressivism which get hammered most by counter-culture critics. Even the term “identity politics” is often resisted by progressives, because it has connotations of relentless in-fighting amongst activists. But the one term progressives are happy to self-apply is “progressive.” And this is the one term their counter-culture opponents do not typically use to describe themselves.
Although progressives are children of 20th century counter-culture, a progressive is not simply a left-wing person. A progressive is a specific kind of left-wing person, a left-wing person who impatiently wants to change the culture in a very specific way. A progressive angrily demands society be more inclusive, more respectful of unorthodox identities and lifestyles, more accommodating of various psychic vulnerabilities (for women and minorities), more environmentally friendly, and most importantly, more equal in social (rather than economic) power. They focus on these aspects of social change, far more than they focus on policies that redistribute money, stop wars, curb surveillance programs, or put funds into social programs that need such funding. The people who focus on the latter issues are lefties (and sometimes libertarians). Of course, lefties are often simultaneously progressives, while progressives needn’t themselves be lefties. But what’s important is you can be a lefty and feel uncomfortable with progressivism.
In fact, many lefties are uncomfortable with the BBC, in part, because its more progressive than it is standardly left-wing. It’s far less cynical about Laurie Penny than it is Jeremy Corbyn.
One fascinating aspect of progressivism is the extent to which it politicises anti-social behaviour. If a group of men on the internet are cruel to feminists (for whatever reason) this is always interpreted as a reflection of society as a whole. Even if it’s a small group of nerds who get their giggles from antagonising stereotypically man-hating misandrists, the progressive always interprets this as a reflection of misogyny in society. Because misogyny has such terrible connotations, the progressive puts their opponent at a psychological disadvantage: if the opponent deplores the harassment but doesn’t want to regulate internet speech, the opponent is perceived as a collaborator in the misogyny.
The progressive lets it be known that they are disturbed by the fact that they even have an opponent, as if progressive politics are simply the politics any non-homicidal person would take for granted. This is one of the reasons why progressives can easily associate their opponents with either the alt right, or some nebulous group of violent maniacs that exist somewhere between dark alleyways and 4chan.
Another interesting tendency among progressives is to never characterise the bullying of anti-feminists as evidence of cultural misandry. The target of opposition must always be the anti-social behaviour of people who have political views the progressive disapproves of. It’s those people who are always interpreted as expressing a social norm the progressive wants to challenge.
If a progressive is cruel or vicious, it says nothing about society, and needn’t be discussed. What’s also conveniently ignored is the fact that progressives don’t hold themselves to the same standards as their opponents, when making a judgement as to which speech is cruel and which speech is merely passionate.
These double standards are not accidental forms of unnoticed hypocrisy. Rather, they are a deliberate outcome of the fact that progressive ideology aims to redistribute social power. When you aim to redistribute social power, you necessarily have to judge the same social acts using a different set of standards, depending on who the actors are. If a person who comes from a demographic that supposedly lacks power is aggressive or even abusive, it’s never as aggressive or abusive as the same behavior coming from a member of a privileged group. Although these double standards are undoubtedly left-wing, a more traditionally left-wing politics would have a universalist orientation. Power would be redistributed along economic lines, but equality would be seen as something which arises partially from treating the same social acts the same way, regardless of who the actors are.
In terms of real life social power, the main difference between lefties and progressives is just how mainstream progressivism has become in the last fifty years. It influences the laws of institutions, it dominates higher education, and largely creates the political aspects of our social etiquette. There are no social penalties for not being a lefty, but there are social penalties for not being progressive. If you ever take too hard a stance against progressivism, you can get called stupid and hateful, be sacked, or destroy an otherwise thriving business. You can be abandoned by your friends, alienated from your family, twitterstormed, no-platformed, picketed, slandered in the press, and even given death threats. This happens not so much because the public agrees with progressives, but because progressives effectively campaign to marginalise perspectives other than their own.
Yet today’s progressives underplay the extent to which they are the establishment, by lamenting the fact that they still have dissenters, some of whom are in positions of power. Their aim (qua being progressive) is to rid the world of these dissenters, via social stigma. That’s why today’s progressivism, even though its on the left, is also authoritarian. Rather than make the world more open and free, it aims to make the world safer for women and minorities. This emphasis on safety for women and minorities often gives progressive politics an apocalyptic feel, as if the world outside of progressivism is so dangerous as to need this politics to survive.
The safety campaigned for by progressives requires that the public be far less rude, much more frugal, conscientious, and perversely eager to accept responsibilities that involve the burdens of collective guilt. Progressivism makes sure the public meets its requirements, largely through collective shaming, public sanctions, and threatening people with various emotional (and financial) rejections. Progressives typically hate their adversaries, while ironically using the word “hate” to describe the politics of those adversaries.
Progressivism is stridently 4th wave feminist, heavily influenced by critical race theory, and uses the oppression axis of intersectionality. It’s stridently 4th wave feminist, in that it believes western society is still a deeply rooted patriarchy that privileges men and belittles women at nearly every level of culture. It’s influenced by critical race theory, in that it believes that western culture privileges whites and persecutes people of colour. And it uses the oppression axis of intersectionality to rank various groups in terms of power and privilege.
The rankings wind up describing whites and men as the top of the power hierarchy, a hierarchy sustained by western cultural norms that progressives want to take down by force. Or if not force, extreme psychological pressure. For the progressive, free speech is not free speech, unless all demographics have equal power. Hence, speech which produces inequality is speech the progressive is happy to try and find some way to prohibit. Even if the speech is Halloween costumes that have been recently judged as racially insensitive. Watch what happens when an official left-wing authority figure at Yale tries to defend Halloween costumes in the name of both free speech, and a view of race not disimilar to Martin Luther King. Hear we can see the clearest difference between traditional lefties and progressives.
For the progressive, a sufficient condition of free speech is the absence of offically approved government censorship. But non-official calls for censorship, boycotting, no platforming, or cancelled events, are one of the progressive’s main tools for creating social equality. On their thinking, social equality demands not just equal opportunities for disadvantaged groups, but also an environment in which opinions (and even words) that harm them are no longer socially acceptable. In order to quickly create the social stigmas they want, progressive activists frequently do things which psychologically unnerve their opponents. This is often unnoticed, because progressives spend such a large part of their activism complaining about similiar tactics from their opponents.
Pluralism Strikes Back
The reason the modern progressive is so effective at controlling culture is they are simply intensifying a social norm liberal democratic societies have already internalised. We might call this norm “inconsistent pluralism.” Pluralism is the idea that, roughly speaking, a liberal democratic society should be an environment where people who have quite passionate commitments to certain political views can encounter and debate those who disagree with them. Political discourse, via the instrument of free speech, becomes the testing ground for controversial ideas. Within this testing ground, political decision making becomes a negotiation process where people with a plurality of incompatible views argue and persuade each other. Through these discussions, people are influenced by each other’s wildly divergent points of view. Sometimes they change their mind. Sometimes they modify their positions to accommodate objections which are given to them by their opponents. And sometimes they don’t change their views so much as develop a deeper understanding as to why they are so committed to them.
In order for pluralism to thrive in a liberal democratic society, people need to be open to hearing, discussing, and debating with others who have views they find dangerous, or morally repugnant. This is because nearly every view we take for granted as a positive achievement within human history, was once a view many found dangerous and morally repugnant. Moreover, the scope of what is considered dangerous and morally repugnant is constantly shifting. Today, many people find adverts that contain women in bikinis both dangerous and morally repugnant. Fifty years ago, the same bikini advert might be championed as an example of women’s sexual liberation.
In order for these changes to happen democratically, they have to be discussed and debated under conditions where most psychologically normal people won’t have massive incentives not to say what they think. This means its useful for citizens to differentiate between the rightness of their own political commitments, and the reasons they are willing to write off their fellow citizens as unpleasant bastards.
It’s good to start with a presumption that perfectly decent people can disagree with each other about most of their deepest political commitments. In the absence of this assumption, people don’t talk to each other. When they don’t talk to each other, they don’t influence or persuade each other.
The reason why the pluralism of the contemporary west is inconsistent is that the west is pluralistic about some issues, but very much not others. We are certainly pluralistic about the economy, crime, and foreign policy. We are far less pluralistic about sexism and racism. In other words, you can take a variety of different political positions regarding the former issues without being stigmatised in some fashion. Yet if you take positions on gender and race that progressives don’t approve of, you risk various social penalties. This threat of social penalties is what is often referred to as “PC” or political correctness.
This is both the legacy of progressivism and the key to understanding the political dimension of western counter-culture in the 21st century.
Progressives are looking to protect and extend the social gains they see themselves as having won since the 60s. In response to this, today’s counter-culture is directly challenging progressive ideology. Not only does the counter-culture want a consistent pluralism about all political positions. It challenges the very positions the modern progressive wants penalties for challenging. Thus, the social media wing of today’s counter-culture are those activists and commentators who take the greatest risks in saying what they think. Sometimes they come up with ingenious arguments, and sometimes they simply take the piss out of progressive activists and campaigns.
But make no mistake. This is a philosophical counter-culture. It’s philosophical, because most of its positions have less to do with empirical disputes than with philosophical interpretations of empirical facts. Today’s counter-culture rejects the progressive interpretations of race and gender, as well as progressive solutions for dealing with inequality. From the perspective of today’s counter-culture, the progressive is actually more of a regressive; a stodgy Mary Whitehouse style conservative who pretends to be a force of liberation. From the perspective of today’s progressive, the new counter-culture isn’t merely conservative. Its the extreme right, and as such, there is a progressive tendency to try and simply destroy it, rather than argue against it.
Of course, there are figures on the extreme right who the counter-culture is willing to interact with, both because of its pluralism and openness to discussing taboo, anti-progressive ideas.1 But on the other hand, this observation is the main progressive tactic for discrediting the counter-culture as a symptom of dangerous reactionaries. This tactic ignores another obvious fact: the counter-culture’s political diversity. The counter-culture includes left voices that range from Bernie Sanders supporting figures like comedian Bill Burr, to liberal youtube vloggers such as The Amazing Atheist and ShoeOnHead. It contains figures like conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, libertarian columnist Brendan O’Neill, the late Marxist writer Mark Fisher, and anti-Feminist Democrat Christina Hoff Sommers. This is a spectrum of ideology that can’t easily be pigeon holed as left or right. But it’s closer to Trump than it is to Hillary Clinton. But paradoxically, its also closer to Bernie Sanders than Barrack Obama.
Although it’s sometimes described as “culturally libertarian” this label only suggests its positions on pluralism and free speech. It doesn’t say much about the counter-culture’s stances on equality. Yet the counter-culture’s equality politics can be seen in everything from their views on transgenderism to Islam, immigration, hate speech laws, mental health, and even Nato. The counter-culture largely rejects the progressive demand for both equalities of opportunity and outcome. Some of its more extreme figures reject any demands for equality whatsoever.2 But for most members of the counter-culture, the desired social equality is equality of treatment for different demographic groups.
The reason it prefers equal treatment to equalities of opportunity and outcome, is that in order to realise the latter equalities in the future, one must practice unequal treatment of different demographics in the present. With this strategy, everything becomes predictably awash in double standards. Prohibitions against stereotyping women and minorities are coupled with almost cartoonish stereotypes of whites, men, straight people, cisgenders, and even the able-bodied. For the new counter-culture, all of this defeats the purpose of trying to create social equality.
There’s no point in creating an equal society in the future, if the price paid is a present society which describes people as stereotypical representatives of their demographics, where everyone has to play the binary roles of self-flagellating oppressor, or aggrieved victim.
For the counter-culture, there is a distinction between a person who is genuinely victimised and a person who explains themselves as a kind of social victim. A person who is genuinely victimised is someone who has had something bad done to them by someone else. Perhaps they’ve been robbed or assaulted. Perhaps they’ve been unfairly discriminated against. But a person who explains themselves as a victim is someone who, no matter what happens, will always see the situation in terms of society not giving them a fair shake. The latter outlook stops them from taking positive opportunities that can improve their lives. It stops them from being self-reflective about the ways in which they mistreat others. And it makes their political activism less one where they try and persuade their adversaries, and more of an intimidation exercise. With such an exercise, victimisation ironically happens to the opponents of the self-identified victim.
There is perhaps nothing more dangerous than a political movement which self-identifies with being a victim for an indefinite amount of time. The perpetual victim, when they gain power, is almost always an authoritarian figure, whether it’s Stalin, Hitler, or Lena Dunham.
The politics of the perpetual victim, rather than create equality, tends to permanently deepen divisions between people. Sometimes it winds up normalising the mistreatment of individuals who happen to be in groups it designates as “the powerful.” And often, it perpetuates a culture where people gain social status for putting themselves down, or being submissive to those they describe as less powerful than themselves.
In this way, progressivism ironically patronises women and minorities. Yet it is never so angry as when women and minorities reject their status as perpetual victims. In this situation, the progressive has to argue that women and minorities are deluded in ways the progressive is not. That winds up undercutting the psychological satisfaction that comes from being a progressive. Without that satisfaction, progressivism stops being fun.
It feels more like lecturing people than helping them. It feels more like oppression than liberation.
- Such figures include Richard Spencer, Stefan Molyneux, Jered Taylor, Lana Lokteff, Tara McCarthy, Mike Cernovich, Laura Loomer, and vloggers Roosh V and Black Pigeon Speaks.
- An archtypical example of such a counter-culture thinker is Matthew Battaglioli, whose book, Consequences of Equality(Arktos Media Limited, 2016) rejects egalitarianism, arguing against all forms of equality. Libertarians and conservatives, in contrast, only argue against economic equality. In that regard, they are not, qua being conservative or libertarian, part of the contemporary counter-culture.
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