Sixties Counterculture

Fred and Svetlana Adams

Fred and Svetlana Adams, founders of the Neo-Pagan group Feraferia

By 1960, several of facts of American cultural life converged, creating the conditions for what came to be called “the Counterculture”. These included an unprecedented level of American affluence, the expansion of higher education with GI Bill, the spread of televisions in American homes, which brought the Vietnam War into people’s living rooms, and a rising anxiety in the general populace about the possibility of nuclear war. The Counterculture blossomed in the 1960s and faded away in the 1970s, but many Hippies continued to pursue their social and spiritual goals in the framework of Neo-Paganism.

In 1968, at the height of the Counterculture, Theodore Roszak published The Making of a Counter Culture, in which he defended the Counterculture as a reaction and a challenge to the rule “technocracy”, the so-called “experts” of science and technology, who rule not through coercion, but by means of our acquiescence to the “myth of objective consciousness.” Roszak explains:

“The Age of Affluence represents a daring experiment on the part of elites in maintaining their dominance not by starving and bludgeoning their opposition into submission, but by seducing it into compliance. Allowing just enough freedom to dampen and integrate discontent–but not enough to endanger the discipline necessary for a stable industrial order. In the case of the technocracy, totalitarianism is perfected because its techniques become progressively more subliminal. The distinctive feature pf the regime of experts lies in the fact that, while possessing ample power to coerce, it prefers to charm conformity from us by exploiting our deep-seated commitment to the scientific world-view and by manipulating the securities and creature comforts of the industrial affluence which science gives us. So subtle and so well rationalized have the arts of technocratic domination become in our advanced industrial societies that even those in the state and/or corporate structure who dominate our lives must find it impossible to conceive of themselves as the agents of totalitarian control. Rather, they easily see themselves as the conscientious managers of a munificent social system. The prime strategy of the technocracy is to level life down to a standard of so-called living that technical expertise can cope with–and then, on that false and exclusive basis, to claim an intimidating omnicompetence over us by its monopoly of the experts. The business of investing and flourishing treacherous parodies of freedom, joy, and fulfillment becomes an indispensable form of social control under the technocracy.”

The technocracy appropriates to itself “the whole meaning of Reason, Reality, Progress, and Knowledge”, rendering it “impossible for men to give any name to their bothersomely unfulfilled potentialities but that of madness. And for such madness, humanitarian therapies [are] generously provided.” For in the technocratic mind, “there exists a technological solution to every human problem” and “if a problem does not have a technical solution, it must not be a real problem.” Roszak saw the Counterculture as “all we have to hold against the final consolidation of a technocratic totalitarianism in which we shall find ourselves ingeniously adapted to an existence wholly estranged from anything that has ever made the life of man an interesting adventure.”

How then was the Counterculture a challenge to the technocracy? It does so by challenging the technocratic assumptions about the nature of man, society, and nature, and by attempting to effect a change in the consciousness of humankind. According to Roszak, “The building of a good society is not primarily a social, but a psychic task.” “The youthful disaffiliation of our time strikes beyond ideology to the level of consciousness, seeking to transform our deepest sense of the self, the other, and the environment.” “The real meaning of revolution is not a change in management … but a change in man.” Roszak summarizes: “Change the prevailing mode of consciousness and you change the world.”

“In order, then, to root out those distortive assumptions [which enable technocractic control], nothing less is required than the subversion of the scientific world view, with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness [what Roszak calls the “myth of objective consciousness”]. In its place, there must be a new culture in which the non-intellective capacities of the personality–those capacities that take fire from visionary splendor and the experience of human communion–become the arbiters of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

The “myth of objective consciousness” is the objectivity of the scientist. It enables us to subordinate nature to our command, but only by estranging ourselves more and more from that world. According to Roszak, “objective consciousness is alienated life”. Scientists “raise alienation to its apotheosis as our only means of achieving a valid relationship to reality.” As a consequence of our wholesale adoption of this myth, our culture is dying of alienation. We may gain the whole world, says Roszak, but lose our souls in the process.

Roszak posits that there is a reality which eludes the grasp of objective consciousness, one to which our entire human being reaches out for satisfaction. It is a dimension of mystery, a “non-human dimension of reality which was not to be tampered with but to be revered”, which serves to “enrich the lives of men by confronting them with a realm of inexhaustible wonder.” He refers to an alternative mode of consciousness which is “capable of embracing the vastness of those experiences which, though yielding no articulate, demonstrable propositions, nevertheless awake in us a sense of the world’s majesty”. “When we insist that reality is limited to what objective consciousness can turn into the stuff of science and technical manipulation”, then our existence is diminished.

Roszak argues that we must rather open ourselves to the world so as to allow what is Out-There to enter us and to shake us. This alternative form of consciousness, which Roszak relates to primitive magic and Martin Buber’s pansacramentalism, addresses the world, not as an “it”, but as a “Thou”. The pansacramentalist sees the world not as a dead object, but as a place alive. “Everything to is full of sacramental substance, everything. Each thing and each function is ever ready to light up into a sacrament for him.”

This transformation of consciousness is the goal of Neo-Paganism. When the Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds was organized in 1967, its goal was nothing less than the total transformation of Western society. Many Pagans today still hope that Neo-Paganism will save the world. It is the consciousness of what Ludwig Feuerback called  “the unity of religion and politics, of spirit and nature, of god and man” which Neo-Pagans seek. It is the resacralization of nature and the re-enchantment of the world. What Theodore Roszak wrote about the Sixties Counterculture decades ago might apply to Neo-Paganism today:

“I am at a loss to know where, besides among these dissenting young people and their heirs of the next generations,, the radical discontent and innovation can be found that might transform this disoriented civilization of ours into something a human being can identify as home. They are the matrix in which an alternative, but still excessively fragile future is taking shape. Granted that alternative comes dressed in a garish motley, its costume borrowed from many and exotic sources … Still it looks to me like all we have to hold against the final consolidation of a technocratic totalitarianism in which we shall find ourselves ingeniously adapted to an existence wholly estranged from everything that has ever made the life of man an interesting adventure.”

Updated 9/13/14

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