Thursday, June 29, 2023

Lost Counterculture

Henry Madison, just some random dude on twitter, wrote an interesting bit on concerts and the enmeshment of generations. I disagree with several of his claims below:

"Imagine a 77-year old favourite of the boomers’ parents, playing at Woodstock in the 1960s. The oldest performer at Woodstock was Ravi Shankar, who was 49. (He didn’t like hippies and never did it again.) There’s a serious point here. A 77-year old artist playing at Woodstock would have been born in 1892. That would be the equivalent of Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton playing there. We have artists at Glastonbury this week approaching 80 years of age. None of this is ageism, I should add. If people want to keep playing into their 80s, good luck to them. But we’re talking about headlining music festivals, festivals predominantly (like Woodstock) designed for the young. To me this means unhealthy things.

What’s said about the counterculture movement of the 1960s was that it was profoundly anti-establishment. Today the closest beliefs are labelled neoliberalism. It’s strange the bedfellows beliefs keep. And who invented neoliberalism? The same boomers. That was the same movement, as it morphed into a highly profitable middle and old age. The richest generation in all of history, by a mile. Anti-establishment beliefs were great business: the boomers dismantled many of society’s institutions, and then privatised them. Most of the corporate behemoths that now dominate our lives in our ‘neoliberal’ societies were set up by boomers, who also profited the most from them. They monetised the wreckage of their earlier anti-establishment assault. 

I don’t think people see this clearly at all. 

Cat Stevens
The wealthiest demographic in our societies, again by a staggering margin, are the boomers, now retiring or retired. That’s a social obscenity, which would have been seen as that by previous generations. If your working, child-raising generation isn’t your highest earning generation, your society is toast.  We’re all living that perversion now, with young working people not even able to afford (or find) rental accommodation, let alone owning a roof over their own heads. And their wages and savings have been in free fall for decades. 

So when I see near-80 year olds take the stage at Glastonbury, pardon me for feeling disgust that this particular generation won’t make way for those who came after them. The Peter Pan generation, desperately clinging to their adolescent lives. An eternal lifestyle culture. It’s the clearest way to see the total collapse of a previous progression from child to adult life. Everything has been stalled at adolescence for decades. Society is a high school; it’s not an analogy. This is what we’re seeing, right now. This is the generation who did it, still trying to dominate all the adolescent things that they’d have been horrified at their own parents doing. High school was the culture they knew, and they remade the world in its image. They won’t accept ageing and succession.They vacuumed up nearly all of society’s wealth, and intend to live their adolescent lives to the glorious end, gorging themselves on it. 

Boomer musicians have been touring the world for the past 10-20 years, vacuuming up tens of millions for a luxurious retirement. This is a social and cultural fact we’re seeing, not my personal gripe or opinion. Elderly people, easily grandparent or great-grandparent age, are headlining music festivals. Stop and think how perverse that is, historically. The total lack of adult stepping aside in play. This topic also elicits howls of protest from boomers and others about them being good people, who’ve done good things. All true, but then that’s true for every generation. But it’s not about how nice they are personally, it’s about intergenerational equity. I think I’m a nice person, but I’m very happy to admit that my comfortable life is also bought at the expense of generations of imperial colonisation and oppression. I can hold those two facts in my head at the same time. I don’t personally oppress anybody. But the culture I live in did, and I benefited hugely from it. So I support everything sensible that culture now does in reparation. 

Do I see boomers lining up to address the unprecedented intergenerational inequities we see right now? No. This is the cultural bit. This is what the high school culture I talk about looks like, in real time. Adolescent framing of life itself. Living your best life, an eternal lifestyle-based present, denial of ageing and succession. A politics of libertarian obsession, with freedom (teenagers, anybody?). You can watch Glastonbury (stage and crowd) and see the collapse of the distinction between different age groups, right there. I’m sure some will celebrate it as some fight against ageism. I don’t think it’s anything of the sort. There comes a time when you must stand aside. That’s what the circle of life means. 

Each stage of life is a necessary phase, making way for what comes after. But it’s not the world we live in now. That circle has been completely flattened in favour of Peter Pan eternal adolescence. It's why we won’t fight emergencies either. Climate change and Covid action upsets these adolescent living your best life lives. It can’t be tolerated. We must get back to gigs, to travel, to eating out. To lifestyles. It would take just one prominent boomer musician to say ‘fuck Glastonbury, what about the virus?’ You won’t hear it. Those masses of people can all be infected, so the boomers can soak up the adoration and cash one more time. No leadership, no grown ups."

I went to Hillside Festival almost every year for a couple decades, and I love the cross-generational aspect of it. I also grew up on mum and dad bringing us to watch bands in bars in the summers, and every Monday night we watched The Pig and Whistle, a sort of variety show with a few singers, mostly older, singing in a pub to a mixed audience. My parents loved the show, and they came well before the boomers, born in the 1920s, officially part of the "Greatest Generation." So I'm not sure how new multigenerational shows are, or how unhealthy they might be. 

It's also possible that some of the best music in the world came from some of these old timers. I mean, RevolverBlonde on Blonde, and Pet Sounds all came out within three months of each other. The music of the 60s and 70s, (and a bit of the 80s) were like the Italian Renaissance, and that era created the music festivals we know today. Did the older generation actually "step aside" to let the young'ns have a turn, or were they blown away by what they had to offer?? Were the youth of the 60s just better? Have we peaked?

I agree that boomers were a different lot from previous generations, though, raised at a time of previously unimaginable peace and prosperity. In Canada, by the mid-1950s, most of us had clean water in our homes and vaccinations to protect us from diseases like polio. We didn't experience the big wars on our own land, but we had lost many overseas. After a horrible depression with people starving to death and many dying of the flu, and then another war, we ushered in the social programs and economic growth that enabled the next generation, the boomers, to want for nothing! It was so new and exciting to be able to afford all the things! That's bound to have an effect on children, for sure. The boomers were raised under the New Deal - under Keynesian economic policy. More on how incredibly well that worked from Robert Reich. Gen X got the tail end of that, the scraps, and then the Millennials got the brunt of austerity measures, privatization, and deregulation of industries.  

The most glaring error in Madison's comment, though, is his claim that the boomers invented neoliberalism. The boomers didn't develop the neoliberal policies that ruined everything. If we want to pin the problems of the world on anyone, I completely agree with blaming those guys, but they were all born before my parents. Reagan was born in 1911, and most of the designers of the movement (Hayek, von Mises...) were born in the 1800s, part of the Lost Generation! Do we blame the boomers for not growing up, or blame the previous generations for teaching them that they can have everything they set their eyes on?? Should we blame Roosevelt for creating a self-serving generation that won't stop taking everything they can get? 

We can complain, however, that the boomers perpetuated these policies as they discovered how to reap the rewards. Absolutely. I've know many people in that bracket that travel extensively, a few trips each year, and then make sure they recycle. The seminars for retiring teachers focus extensively on travel, further normalizing those choices. It would be nice if they could wake up and see the folly of their upbringing, or maybe even have a hint of remorse, but it's a little late for that now. And the really complicated bit is that, from what I've seen in my classes, every generation now wants - and expects - that same lifestyle. The Millennials and GenZ students I've had also perpetuate these policies in their quest for the good live. People, in general, when they're making choices for themselves, aren't disgusted by excess; they're jealous of it, so there isn't the same level of counterculture. People don't have the energy for that. Those with lots of money are taking trips or shopping online, those with little, are shopping for deals, and those without are struggling to get some. We can't create a working class solidarity when we all believe we're middle class despite stagnant wages and that we'll become upper class if we just work a little harder. 

And how do we identify as counterculture when so many have got streaks of purple in their hair, ripped clothes, and tats?? The costume of the working class rebellion of the 60-80s was co-opted by the middle class to the point of rendering it meaningless. 

We definitely need to raise the minimum wage and implement rent controls. I agree that the workforce should be making at least as much as retired professionals. We need another dramatic shift towards another New Deal - maybe this time the Green New Deal, created by a bunch of Gen X-ers and Boomers. It focuses on the need for affordable living as well as limitations that protect the environment. A lot of climate activists are Boomers, and the marches and talks I go to in order to try to change policy are full of people with grey hair.

So Madison has a point about rebellion and youth. Kids today don't know how to take to the streets in the same way they did nearer the beginning and up to the middle of my teaching career.  I've watched that change happen before my eyes, but I blame old neoliberal propaganda mixed with new technology for that profound insular shift, not Blondie.   

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