Friday, March 4, 2016

Looking at Hippies (1969)

From the November 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

For the sociologists, psychologists, criminologists and indeed anyone else who is on the mighty bandwagon called the Behavioural Sciences, obsessions come and go. The latest is the probe for reasons behind the hippies, to ask why they should want to drop out of this great, beneficient society we live in. This is an interesting, and by no means simple, question. Another, less fashionable but with more value, is, what are the reasons behind the people who have not, in one way or another, dropped out?

By this we do not necessarily mean people like Reginald Ethelbert Seaton, who retired from the chair of the Inner London Sessions in September and who told the Daily Telegraph before he went: “Show the birch to a hippie or a Skinhead and you have shown him the light and the way back to respect for himself and the law.” We really mean the millions who applaud that sort of statement and whose reaction to the hippies, whether they are occupying empty houses or just flopping on the ground around Eros, includes a perceptible element of hysteria.

We have seen this kind of ugly mood before, and seen it turned against other non-conforming minorities, and watched it being titillated by what are called the organs of public opinion. For example, the joyful press reports of the court attendant at Folkestone who sprayed the courtroom while the hippies were there. That proved they were all dirty and verminous. Then there was the newsreel commentator who sounded on the verge of an apoplectic fit when they showed the board outside 144, Piccadilly asking for, among other things, a colour television set. That proved the hippies were all shameless scroungers—or at least it did to anyone who refused to recognise that the request was obviously meant as a joke.

This kind of malice is aimed not just at the squatters. Another of its targets was the crowd outside the house; it was meant to reassure them that the values of property society are eternal, that they are respectable in a good cause, that their degrading docility makes sense. It is only a short step from this to reject—angrily, even violently—the minority who do not accept property values, and who do not want to be respectable or docile.

There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. A hippy spokesman (accepting that there can be such a thing) at 144, Piccadilly said that they were standing against the routine degradations of work (by which he meant employment) and the straight society. Perhaps the resentment against this would not be so pronounced if these opinions could be nicely pigeon-holed into one of the usual explanations for deviant behaviour. But the hippies, or most of them, come from families which one of them called in New Society (9/10/69) “White collar workers: anything from badly paid office staff to teachers, scientists and lower executives.”

Now by rights the hippies should think and act like impoverished clerks and teachers. When they refuse to do this, when they begin to perceive some of the unpleasant facts about capitalist society, they appear to be traitors and let-downs and, because the facts they perceive are so uncomfortable, they are also a challenge. They challenge the automatic acceptance of wage-slavery— the rush-hour backwards and forwards the forelock-touching, the scheming and grovelling for an extra few shillings on the salary cheque—and the gratitude for it all.

They challenge, too, all those values of what they call (and it is not a bad term) the straight society. They do not regard the law as an eternal morality, they do not worship manliness and organised, military brutality. “Get your hair cut and get to Vietnam” snarled one of the spectators at 144, Piccadilly. He was frustrated at the hippies’ preference for love before war. What greater treachery could there be ?

What the hippies are up against, whether they realise it or not, is the support which the working class give to capitalism. This support need not be a directly conscious business expressed in the language of the politico; it is more of a general, almost a conditioned, acceptance of whatever capitalism demands— poverty, disease, war. Those who so bitterly criticise the hippies would do well to look at what they themselves support.

At this year’s Labour Party conference, for example, Harold Wilson was speaking for the straight society. What did he make of it? We have, he said, a two-fold task :
. . .  to remove the scars of nineteenth-century capitalism — the derelict mills, the spoil heaps, the back-to-back houses that still disfigure so large a part of our land.
   At the same time we have to make sure that the second industrial revolution through which we are passing does not bequeath a similar legacy to future generations. We must solve the problems of pollution —of the air, of the sea, of our rivers and beaches. We must also solve the uniquely twentieth century problems of noise and congestion . . .
It did not seem to strike anyone in the hall that, typical of a capitalist politician, Wilson was promising to solve the problems of capitalism today at the same time as he was admitting that the problems of capitalism last century are still with us. But there was more to come, as Wilson wound up with these words:
We go forward today into the year ahead, into the Seventies. We have the faith. We have the vision. We have the means to make that faith, that vision, a reality. We cannot fail.
Now, even those who are hardened to the regular debasement of words by a politician must have thought that this was going a bit far. It might just have happened that the Labour delegates, remembering all that has passed these last five years, would have wanted something more from their leader than stale platitudes. One or two of them might with reason have laughed, or fainted with surprise, or been sick. But they did none of these things. They stood up and applauded. For a minute and a half.

Such is the straight society. If the hippies are revolting against the spectacle of workers asking for more from the men who cheat them, lie to them, exploit them and even kill them, then clearly they have a point.

Should we, then, all rush off to join the nearest squat? The weakness in the hippy case is that, assuming they are consciously rejecting the values and priorities of capitalism, they have no notion of how to deal with the system. Capitalism is rotten but it is here — kept here by the working class who, although they are a conforming, politically ignorant mass, cannot be ignored. The hippies could be turned out of their squats because behind the police who got them out were all those millions of people who support capitalism and who stand for the values, disciplines and degradations of the straight society.

This is one fact which it is impossible to opt out of. One of the hippies’ much publicised plans, for example, was to buy St. Patrick’s island off the Irish coast and there establish a community of love and harmony. This is the sort of dream many of us have had at some time or other but the hard, sad fact is that on St. Patrick’s the hippies would have been no more insulated than they were at 144, Piccadilly.

On their island the hippies would have had no choice but to deal with capitalism outside. They seem to recognise this at the moment; Frank Harris, one of their leaders, told a local meeting that they would buy produce and contract their construction work at the nearby resort of Skerries (which pleased the local tradesmen) and later talked about methods of financing the venture. (The Guardian 7/10/69). But to deal with capitalism means that the relationships the priorities and the values of the system would, sooner or later, be admitted to the island paradise.

Capitalism does not exist by accident. It has exhausted its usefulness to human society but it lives on and the simple reason for this is that the majority of people want it to. Indeed, when we get down to it, even the hippies eventually end up on that side. They are not the first group to hate the effects of capitalism at the same time as they misunderstand the basics of social change. The hippies deny the need for political action, for a conscious majority in favour of a revolution. Their theory that it is possible to insulate ourselves against the effects of capitalism denies the need for a revolution and in that very fact supports capitalism’s continuing.

And so, paradoxical though it may be, the hippies are on the same side as the men with the bowler hats and rolled umbrellas. There is not, yet, a revolutionary situation and until there is we shall never have a fuzz-free London and there will continue to be the theft of property.
Ivan

See also:
Socialist Standard December 1969: Hippies: An Abortion of Socialist Understanding


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