I’ve read about 70 pages of Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. I started the book wanting to like it. The high-level premise is something I agree with. It’s a bad thing that this happened to leftism:
Available on iTunes.
The book opens up with the stupidity of Adbusters fighting Nike by coming out with a different brand of sneaker, kind of like Reebok. The authors are interested in why the left went from being a populist movement focused on workers to a rejection of “mainstream society.” The history of the phenomenon is traced from Rousseau through Freud, through Marcuse and Milgram and the Situationists, leading up to culture jamming:
He even talks about the history of Medieval European table manners, for insight into the increasing repressiveness of society. While they say that Foucault is a “master of evasion” when it comes to proposing anything we should concretely do, they don’t mention Foucault’s rejection of the “repressive hypothesis”:
I saw the Seattle WTO protests on the local news, because I lived 2 hours away. I was in high school debate, and I was outraged that CNN wouldn’t air commercials for Buy Nothing Day even though the activists were giving money to CNN.
The book is from 2004, the depths of despair after the largest protests ever failed to stop the Iraq war, when it was horrifying that Bush seemed re-electable. I went to a party on Election Night 2004, and it was depressing as all hell. I’m essentially the audience for this book. It’s important that the authors are Canadian academics.
Fundamentally, they’re right that it’s wrong to conflate nonconformity with doing anything constructive. In some ways, it’s like The Culture of Narcissism, except that it’s anti-Freudian while complaining about the same cultural trends. I wholeheartedly recommend the first 70 pages, which is all I can speak to at this time.
As someone who says society is psychologically harming us, and the answer to all the problems is psychotherapy and psychedelics for everybody, with free marijuana, I’m the target of a lot of their criticism. They don’t like this turn inward, disdain for institutions stuff. They rightly criticize people for using protests as self-therapy rather than thinking tactically about them. To them, the idea of co-optation is self-evidently stupid, because decades of supposedly subversive criticism hasn’t accomplished much. To this I would say: that’s because they’re very good at co-opting things. Consider that this might actually be true, and that what I’m saying is falsifiable. The authors essentially disagree that there could be such a diabolical conspiracy to brainwash the masses, and it works.
It’s an empirical claim, documented in another post.
I’ll now proceed to a psychoanalytic reading of their anti-psychoanalysis book. Their book is actually a great demonstration of how insidious co-optation, “lack of diversity,” etc. really are. Their book is an attack on critics of conformity. Speaking from experience, academia is incredibly conformist. Groupthink is rampant. Anyone rebellious is supposed to have been weeded out before they even got to grad school. Libraries have been written about the neoliberal takeover of academia, which was already evident in 2004. There’s a pair of previous posts about The Atlantic Monthly, which is similar to academia in that respect. They’re rejecting ideas about internalized oppression and false consciousness, after having endured the hazing of graduate school. Universities are very white, and of course their blind spot is race. The word doesn’t appea in the index, and neither does slavery. But we’re talking about capitalism…
They’re making an argument for reform over revolution, because of unexamined cultural assumptions. They’re illustrating why the people they’re criticizing are right a lot of the time. If capitalism is spiritually harmful in itself, if it can’t be separated from racist exploitation, it cannot be reformed. If you only consider white middle-class people like the authors, it seems reformable, because those people have always been included.
Thus the critique of consumerism comes perilously close to criticizing capitalism for satisfying the workers too much. They’re so stuffed, they can’t be bothered to go out and overthrow the system anymore. But this poses the question: why would they want to?
This video best captures the paradoxes:
The argument is that the white people and the Uncle Toms are too comfortable to care about anybody else. The authors are correct that they aren’t being oppressed so much, in the grand scheme of things. We’re talking about Other people’s pain, though.
Exactly as intended, the authors don’t see the drug war as a racial issue, so they sneer at the drug culture. This is great at illustrating how insidious and effective it is. This is someone who engages seriously with Adbusters talking, after all.
Nowadays, this preoccupation with individual consciousness usually takes the form of self-help. But in the ’60s, the primary consequence was a massive diversion of utopian energies into the drug culture. It seems hard to believe now, but people at the time actually thought that widespread use of marijuana and LSD would solve all of society’s problems: that it could affect geopolitics, eliminate war, cure poverty, and create a world of “peace, love, and understanding.” Many of Timothy Leary’s experiments were aimed at “expanding consciousness” by undoing the effects of socialization, scrambling the “imprints” that individuals received when they were young.
Soma in Brave New World is discussed, but no mention is made of Island, the Aldous Huxley book about the utopia where people use a psychedelic “moksha medicine.” It’s now documented that psychedelics increase the “openness” of people’s personalities, even after long periods of time, and it’s for psychodynamic reasons. The “completeness of the mystical experience” predicts the beneficial effects of psilocybin. Way back then, there were people advocating “psycholytic,” low-dose therapy with hallucinogens. Peyote is known to be good for people in the Native American Church, and psychedelics are associated with better mental health, epidemiologically.
These things were all readily apparent from the personal experience of large numbers of people. Legal and institutional barriers deliberately made it impossible to document these things rigorously, for many years. It’s almost like Michel Foucault was right, and institutions produce discourse to facilitate the exercise of power, and the politics of who decides what’s true are decisive. Foucault is criticized for not having a definite program.
The countercultural critique, on the other hand, is so vast and all-encompassing that it is difficult to imagine what could possibly count as “fixing things.”
What’s disturbing about thinkers like Foucault and the psychoanalysts is the underlying tragic view of life. There’s no escape from these issues. It’s a constant battle to stay mindful, work through trauma, stop the repetition compulsion, question your motives, challenge assumptions, etc. It never ends. It’s a process-driven view of life. Their needs for closure and definite rules are exactly what’s being criticized.
Yet it wasn’t just self-styled gurus like Leary who bought into these ideas. Even a critical observer like Roszak was tempted by the following argument: “The ‘psychedelic revolution’ then comes down to the simple syllogism: change the prevailing mode of consciousness and you change the world; the use of dope ex opera operato changes the prevailing mode of consciousness; therefore, universalize the use of dope and you change the world.”
The idea that taking drugs might be revolutionary was of course reinforced by the existence of punitive drug laws…These drugs encourage nonconformity, and therefore pose too great a threat to the established order. That’s why The Man sends round the fuzz to bust your stash. Or, later, it’s why Ronald Reagan felt the need to declare a “war on drugs.”
What if racism was the reason Reagan declared a war on drugs? Would that change anything?
Another post gives a historical example of a culture being radically changed by the introduction of cannabis. The war on drugs has successfully undermined the credibility of people saying things that turn out to be true when investigated scientifically. Another subject that libraries are written about is the impact of “corrective emotional experiences” within psychotherapy. When everything is going well, drugs produce those experiences. Even Timothy Leary heavily emphasized the importance of “set and setting” in producing psychologically beneficial experiences, stressing that expectations and the environment strongly impact subjective experience, and psychedelics intensify subjective experience. Elaborate guides were published emphasizing the importance of trip sitters and suggesting themes for reflection based on Tibetan Buddhism.
Modern psychotherapy likes Buddhism a lot, too. Many Westerners who convert to Buddhism do so because of psychedelic experiences. There’s a book about it called Zig Zag Zen, which I haven’t read. This is a good read, though.
5. Freeing deeply occluded areas. The practice of Buddhism in general, as I understand it, is not necessarily therapeutically oriented. There is much advice in older texts to resolve personal problems with focused attention and application of intention to change behavior. The result is that much unconscious material never gets resolved despite the ability of the mind to achieve high levels of awareness. For a discussion of the difference between meditative realization and the uncovering process achieved through psychotherapy, see Wilber (1993, pp. 196-198). Psychedelics facilitate reaching these deeper, often highly defended levels and clearing them out, thus permitting greater liberation and dropping of undesirable personality and behavior patterns. Some powerfully repressed areas, such as the very painful birth experience I underwent in my first LSD session (Stolaroff, 1994), might never be resolved without the help of psychedelics…
Regarding the comments about equanimity, concentration, and enlightenment, I find that appropriate use of psychedelics helps develop all of these qualities. I never realized what equanimity was until I began taking psychedelics. One of the great gifts of psychedelics is permitting one to learn real concentration. Of course, if there is much repressed material in the unconscious and one takes a significant dose of a psychedelic, it is neither possible nor desirable to try to concentrate. It is best to simply surrender to the experience and to let the flow of imagery and feelings proceed undisturbed. In this flow, unconscious material is released. The meditation equivalent is focusing on the breath or on an object and simply letting thoughts and feelings flow without getting involved. When the high-pressure feelings in the unconscious demanding release begin to abate, then it becomes possible to concentrate on the desired object. The practice of holding one’s attention steadily on an image, concept, or object under the influence of a good psychedelic permits many aspects of the object of attention to unfold, so that one may learn a great deal of new information about the object as well as discover unsuspected beauty and meaning and experience appreciation. Eventually, one develops concentration sufficient to hold the mind quite still, which permits other aspects of reality to manifest. I often feel that this is creating the empty space to permit God to enter, which I consider a major factor of enlightenment. In practicing holding the mind steady under a low dose or a psychedelic, one becomes much more aware of the subtle distractions and urges that affect concentration. Some distractions are more intense, so one can practice maintaining stability in spite of them. Such practice under the influence helps strengthen the faculty that maintains steady attention. A great deal can be accomplished in learning to effectively maintain stability, learning which is immediately applicable in subsequent practice.
This is politically revolutionary if we assume that capitalism and compassion are incompatible. The capitalists understand this, and therefore suppress drug culture. When the authors dispute this obvious fact, they sound like Christians talking about how clever Satan was for putting all those dinosaur bones in the ground to trick people out of their faith.
And, of course, when repression fails there is always co-optation. Thus, pharmaceutical companies get in on the act, selling sanitized versions of the same drugs but without the subversive, mind-expanding properties.
Actually, yeah, non-psychoactive opioids and cannabinoids are goals of pharmaceutical companies. Mainstream acceptance of medical marijuana was increased by CNN segments about CBD.
The effect of the drug war is to make people emotionally incapable of processing important facts that undermine the justification for racist policies. It turns otherwise radical leftists into something that sounds like a belligerent Tea Partier.
The idea that marijuana liberates the mind is something that only someone who is stoned could believe. Anyone who isn’t knows that marijuana users are about the most boring people on earth to talk to.
Carl Sagan, yeah…What’s interesting is that personal subjective experience not shared by the authors disqualifies people from having an opinion about what liberates the mind. Indians and black people who use cannabis religiously are automatically dumb and boring people you wouldn’t want to talk to. They have nothing useful to say about dealing with human suffering.
This is why the struggle is so hard. It’s like Hitler said about the Big Lie:
All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
Hitler himself had a rather psychoanalytic view of things. It seems like a good thing to me that people are paying attention to the same level of analysis that Hitler put to such pragmatic use. At least people’s emotional lives have correctly been identified as the battlefield.