|Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot|
“The success of the Sixties, therefore, was the success of Sisyphus. Like Camus’ character, condemned to push a rock over and over again to the top of a hill, Sixties activists succeeded in maintaining their commitments despite the futility of their activism.”
--James J. Farrell “The Spirit of the Sixties” 1997
Former activist and Sixties historian Todd Gitlin has written, “The outcome and meaning of the movements of the Sixties are not treasures to be unearthed with an exultant Aha! but sand paintings, something provisional, both created and revised in historical time.” It isn’t that the Sixties aren’t over. But like the protesters in a teargas haze also with nowhere to hide, the era hasn’t stopped moving. Despite sometimes harsh consignments to history’s dustbin, communion with the Sixties continues through the many derivative influences that extend indelibly into the post-millennial world.
What sets the Sixties apart from other eras of political and cultural upheaval is what scholar James J. Farrell calls the era’s “political personalism.” Farrell defines personalism as a combination of “Catholic social thought, communitarian anarchism, radical pacifism, and humanistic psychology. It was a way of looking at, and looking out for, the world.” Political action had to be evaluated in terms of its personal impacts and what was more personal than family, education, sexuality, male-female relations, love or the meaning of life? Unlike labor struggles earlier in the century that focused almost exclusively on the redistribution of wealth and employment security, personalists rallied against war, nuclear weapons, institutional racism, discrimination against women, and the abuse of human rights. The personalist conscience also tackled the nation’s political impact on the personal in other countries, notably the developing world where poverty and hunger were rampant threats. Personalist concerns informed the environmental movement with their emphasis on the individual’s relationship to the planet.
The Sixties were successful in producing enormous cultural changes in all these areas. What made the success “Sisyphean,” according to Farrell, was the “futility” of the era’s activism. As much as progressive change infiltrated the culture, it left Western economies and political systems almost untouched. Large personalist anti-war rallies or protests failed to translate into political masses large enough to change governments. As well, the Counterculture’s political arm, The New Left, was obsessed with Marxist revolutionary models that pitted a working class proletariat against an affluent, capitalist aristocracy. It was an arcane model, in whatever transmogrification, that simply did not comply with the remarkably egalitarian, and unprecedented, spread of wealth that took place among American and Western European workers during the great economic boom of 1945-1973.
A less political form of personalism found an even wider appeal in the so-called “human potential movement” that grew out of the Sixties with what Gitlin describes as:
“a melange of encounter groups, therapies, and mystical disciplines promising to uncover authentic selves, to help people ‘live in the present,’ ‘go with the flow,’ ‘give themselves permission,’ ‘free themselves of shoulds,’ ‘get in touch with their feelings,’ ‘get in touch with their bodies’—promises of relief for besieged individuals burdened by obligations; promises of intimate personal relations for those who had lost the hope of God or full community; promises of self-expression for the inhibited and cramped, the bored and spoiled.”
For Gitlin’s burned-out New Leftists, “bone-weary as Sisyphus,” human potential was the Counterculture’s Ghost Dance that, like the one performed by dying and displaced Sioux Indians in 1890, replaced the discouraging political reality with spiritual fantasies that “not only stabilized shaky selves, they had the side value of channeling devotees back to conventional middle-class existence…” Gitlin disparages the movement as faux Counterculture, judging it a self-absorbed diversion from the relentless failure to produce a political revolution.
Human potential activities sometimes smacked of snake oil remedies, but many were rooted in the same humanistic psychology movement that motivated Sixties personalism. Tools like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue and magazines like Mother Earth News were instrumental in popularizing alternative lifestyles to audiences well beyond the Counterculture’s core. The Esalen Institute in California’s Big Sur became a hub for therapies, New Age spiritual liturgies, and body work practices that did as much as rock n roll to spread the personalist and tolerant values of the Sixties into the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who wouldn’t dream of marching against the war. “Human potential” also introduced an apolitical middle class to the personal politics of marriage, sexual relations, parenting, and domestic partnership in ways that softened into eventual acceptance of feminist values and egalitarian approaches to housework and employment.
As historian Arthur Marwick notes, all that happened in the Sixties wasn’t new, but what was new was that so many things happened at once.