Yes, Clive, “all that is solid melts into air”, you just don’t get it…

People coming here in response to David’s article in the Australian today (Green Wowser is no Leftie), may also be interested in an article about Hamilton that I wrote for Spiked last year : “Liberal Tyranny on the World Wide Web

Also,   few months ago it was the 40th anniversary of Woodstock so the media was full of articles about it.   Hamilton wrote one which he entitled  “From Free Love to Narcicissm”.  I began drafting a response to it, but as is fairly usual for me, I became  distracted by other stuff before I finished it.   However it seems appropriate to publish what I had written up to the time I stopped, rather than leave it languishing on my hard drive.  It’s not really finished, and should really be edited a bit …. but better to just put it here than wait till I  have the time and inclination to do any more work on it .   So here it is:


The recent anniversary of Woodstock has prompted various public intellectuals to whip up  media pieces on the legacy of the ’60’s era. I was particularly irritated by Clive Hamilton’s piece “From Free Love to Narcissism“, published in Crikey. But I’ve since noticed the similarity between his and several other articles. On some levels they could have been woven from the same cloth.

It’s especially irritating that these people are so ready to describe  Woodstock as a (or even the) defining event of the worldwide upsurge of the  1960s. It clearly wasn’t. Throughout this period, young people around the world fought real battles which actually changed things. The counter-culture which emerged alongside these struggles most certainly had its rebellious side, but it was also heavily influenced by  the ‘turn off, tune in, drop out… ‘all you need is love’  mentality. And that aspect of it was struggled against by the leadership of those groups fighting for serious change. The idea that a mass stone-in at a rock n roll concert could be a world-changing event was not one that was widely embraced.  At best, Woodstock reflected (rather than drove) the general rebellious spirit of the times. It may have been a demonstration that the youth were no longer prepared to accept the old social conventions, but it was not a centre-piece of any particular struggle.

However, 40 years later, it suits both the overt Right and the pseudo-left to look back  on Woodstock as some sort of pivotal event.   The pseudo-left is quite comfortable redefining  the ’60s era as having been all about  peace, love, harmony, tolerance,  while  the Right has fun lampooning the idea that a muddy gathering of half a million drug addled, group-thinky, tie-dyed, incense burning kids, should be viewed as having been of positive significance.

Ayn Rand wrote:

“The hippies are the living demonstration of what it means to give up reason and to rely on one’s primeval “instincts,” “urges,” “intuitions” – and whims. With such tools, they are unable to grasp even what is needed to satisfy their wishes – for example, the wish to have a festival. Where would they be without the charity of the local “squares” who fed them? Where would they be without the fifty doctors, rushed from New York to save their lives – without the automobiles that brought them to the festival – without the soda pop and beer they substituted for water – without the helicopter that brought the entertainers – without all the achievements of the technological civilization they denounce? Left to their own devices, they literally didn’t know enough to come in out of the rain. “

I actually have some sympathy with Rand’s view, although her contempt is far too extreme for me.

Poor old Clive Hamilton wants to have it both ways. In his Crikey article he wrote: “The original  Woodstock festival was imbued with a sense of harmony and  tolerance and was everywhere seen as a ‘victory of peace and love’ “. The rest of his article is a sermon about  the sixties movement more generally in which he explains that it’s time we woke up and realised that in reality  the “rebellion [which] shook the foundations of conservatism in the sixties and seventies  [ has resulted in]  the most materialistic, egocentric and decadent societies the world has ever seen”.

Apparently we were conned, instead of winning we really lost because the main impact of winning more freedom and greater personal autonomy was the unleashing of … da Market Monster!!

“It is now apparent that the radical demands of the liberation movements dovetailed perfectly with the logic of hyper-consumerism. The self-creating individual was ideally suited to the needs of the market, and it is now apparent that the social conservatism of the fifties that was the source of so much oppression also held the market in check.”

“In our pursuit of tolerant pluralism we created a society of radical individualism, a phenomenon dubbed “boomeritis” by author Ken Wilber. Appeals to the principles of equality and freedom often allowed egocentric demands to flourish. Slogans such as “Let it all hang out” and “Do your own thing” were soon interpreted as “No one can tell me what to do”.

And rather hilariously, he laments that we’ve ended up creating “girls with balls” where once “we imagined perhaps something closer to boys with ovaries”.

Hamilton has been saying stuff like this for ages of course.  His Crikey piece was just a summary of views expressed in longer papers such as “Can Porn Set Us Free?”.  His Woodstock article is something  which probably took him about five minutes to cobble  together for Crikey.   “Public intellectuals” like Hamilton can spew out this stuff at a moment’s notice, and their social role is to keep up an endless supply of it.  They are particularly adept at using their writing skills and “higher education” (generally in the liberal arts, and characterised by lots of reading without thinking) to make their shallow ideas appear deep.

An example is Hamilton’s ignorant quoting from Marx in  “Can Porn Set us Free?”.

Here he tells us that:

“…the counter culture, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement have served to reinvigorate capitalism. Post-war rebellions against oppression have worked in the interests of consumer capitalism because they have swept away long-standing cultural and religious barriers o the most insidious form of oppression. This is the oppression implicit in sublimation of the self in pursuit of wealth, fame and social success, a form of oppression that is readily embraced”

He then quotes Marx:

“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and relations with his kind.”

Clearly despite his apparent erudtion, Hamilton has clearly failed to grasp that Marx  was in favour of all that is solid melting into air. Marx and Engels did not lament the speeding up of history,  and the ceaseless change that was characteristic of capitalism. Indeed they viewed this as the process would create people who could liberate themselves from capitalism and become their own masters.  This was something which separated Marx  from the utopian socialists who objected to capitalism on the basis of abstract  principle and wanted to institute a top-down sort of socialism in which people would be ‘brought up better”.

Hamilton missed the point however. And this is perhaps because of his fundamental disbelief in the capacity of ordinary people to decide what they want.  (As we know, Hamilton has been one of the prime drivers in the campaign to censor the internet in order to protect us from ourselves).

Everyone knows  the cliche “money can’t buy happiness” (that’s why it’s a cliche…).  But Hamilton seems to think that he’s saying something incredibly profound when he decries the emptiness of consumerism for its own sake – or for the sake of “image”)

a pair of designer jeans cannot satisfy the deeper urge to make sense of life” (very original, Clive!)

In an odd leap of logic, however,  Hamilton thinks that it somehow follows that if money can’t buy happiness then we can logically conclude that depriving people of it (and of “stuff”)  would increase happiness levels.   In his book “The Growth Fetish”, he argues that we don’t  need plasma televisions, swimming pools, overseas holidays, it’s just The Market which makes us think we do.  There should be high taxes on consumer goods, a compulsory limitation on working hours, a reduction in television broadcasting hours, most advertising should be banned in order to reduce the lust after things that we don’t really need …and so on. (Add internet censorship to that list).

No special insight is required to see the shallowness and absurdity of  market driven campaigns to get us to buy particular products, or to prefer one brand over another. It’s already  widely understood (in the economically developed world, anyway)  that there is crap everywhere, that people take on images, seek status , value idiotic things, and that as Marx said,  relationships between people themselves are commodified.   In fact bourgeois ideology itself (contradictory, and self-undermining,  as it is) ,  pushes various themes about the superficiality of “keeping up appearances”, the importance of “being yourself” .  I think this is  happenning more not less,  and that mindless conformity, although widespread,   is  far less of a problem than it used to be.

(However we need more analysis of these cultural matters, and of how people are changing and becoming more capable of “being individuals” , more capable of caring about things which don’t affect them directly, more capable of doing without bosses).

Hamilton’s view that everything is so much worse and that the solution is to rein in capitalism is both nonsensical (it couldn’t happen to any large extent over the long term) and reactionary (because its impact is to distract people, hold them back  and encourage them to acquiese in policies which reduce living standards ).

But before finishing, I need to say something briefly about those who may agree with a lot of what I’ve said, but from a libertarian right wing perspective.

These people take a semi-progressive view (they like progress, change… they get excited about innovation, dynamism, are generally internationalist, pro-globalization etc etc)

But they are a strange mix of conservative and utopian. That is, they don’t think we can do better than capitalism,  and they base this on sheer utopianism about  how well capitalism could work (if governments/bureuacrats and their economic advisors didn’t keep interfering and fucking it up).

Do we really have “free enterprise” under capitalism…… or do we have an economy in which the vast majority of people “only work here” and quite naturally have very little innovative, enterprising, entrepeuneurial spirit.

Chattel slavery is a thing of the past (almost), not merely because people decided it was morally wrong, but because it outlived its time and became a very inefficient way to produce things.  People are less productive when subservient to a master who literally owns them. Their almost non-existent stake in what they produce and in the social system overall, eventually outweighs the savings from having such a cheap source of labour.  Serfdom is also historically limited and eventually becomes an economic fetter.

The utopian capitalists are fully aware of all this, and wax lyrical about the benefits of the “free laborer” being more productive. And they are correct.  But why stop there?  A work force of wage slaves is hugely productive relative to a work force of (chattel) slaves or bonded labor.  But anyone with a sense of history should regard it as extraordinarily unlikely (I’d say impossible)  that they’ve been born into the historical epoch in which we’ve finally hit on the best, and most ‘natural’ form of economic organisation.


(As I said above, this is an unfinished draft from a few months ago.  I’d intended to address various other issues, in particular the fact that Hamilton is correct when he talks of capitalism being “bad for the soul” , but quite off the planet when he suggests that the solution is a static,  “sustainable” ,  less productive  form of capitalism. …. a system in which people like him tell us what is good for us in order to protect us from ourselves.  Perhaps these issues can be taken up in the comments.)

15 Responses to “Yes, Clive, “all that is solid melts into air”, you just don’t get it…”

  1. 1 Barry

    Whenever ‘Woodstock’ is mentioned, I immediately recall an interview with Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who, which was recorded as part of a documentary screened many years ago. Daltrey who, like many of the rock bands back then, had solid working class origins, and worked as a sheet metal worker by day in order to play music by night in the early years, was completely contemptible toward the ‘hippies’ rolling around in the mud at the festival in 1969. He said he and the band members looked down from the stage and couldn’t understand why people would behave like that or enjoy such a situation. He remained flabbergasted all those years later.

    Highlights of the festival were Country Joe and the Fish, who had a few really left-wing songs inb their repertoire. The group named themselves ‘The Fish’ after a quotation from Mao about integration among the mases like fish in the sea, or some such. They had recorded a song called “We love Chairman Mao”, which was a real up-tempo rollicker played at many a post-demo party. Last I heard, Joe McDonald was still performing but also saving the whales, if you get my drift.

    Jimi Hendrix played his version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock, which was seen at the time as some kind of protest but was really seeking an inclusive national anthem. It makes it no less a knock-out version, though! (“Rock on, Jimi”, my eyes look upwards).

    There was some very good music there – such as Richie Havens incredible guitar rhythms.

    But the politics? It was really quite reactionary, being predicated on the assumption that the world’s problems were caused by bad vibes within individuals and that all the problems could be solved by people adopting good vibes and feeling love for one another. If you got enough people together with those good vibes, then reality would somehow change.

    I know that in Melbourne, Australia, leftists tried to influence people at such gatherings – after all, they were large crowds and in being ‘counter-cultural’ ostensibly, there was a basis for influence. In my personal experience, it wasn’t effective, as people were there for the music primarily (duh).

    Woodstock is a convenient way for the powers-that-be to undermine all the overtly political stuff that was going on at the time. The late 1960s were as much about large-scale rebellion and soldiartiy with the Vietnamese and south Africans as they were about big pop concerts. Mind you, there was occasional overlap. It was great – to me, back then – to have The Beatles on side, when they publicly opposed the Vietnam war. Of course, they didn’t express solidarity with the Vietnamese but, hey, they were just a pop rock band.

    It must be disillusioning for those who believed in it all back then – in the Woodstock approach, I mean – to find that (a) it could never succeed in changing things, (b) that businessmen were behind it (albeit of the pony-tail type) and (c) that much of the ‘radical pretense’ was fabricated in order to make money. I must admit that (c) did shock me a little when I read, for instance, in a biography about Hendrix that his manager, Chas Chandler (bass player in the Animals), had fabricated a press statement on behalf of the American Women’s League (or some such non-existent group) condemning Hendrix’s radical sexual performance. This received a lot of coverage and I remember reading about it, as an 18 year old, in Melbourne. I thought “Rock on, Jimi!” but, alas, years later it was revealed as all a fraud. Hendrix’s music and performance style only threatened a remnant puritanical culture that had more or less been displaced by permissive consumerism anyway.

    To make it worse, Eric Burdon recalls in his autobiography how he and Hendrix were up in a hotel room in London in 1967 and there was a huge Vietnam protest march in the street below. Burdon made a sympathetic remark about the protest only to have Hendrix admonish him with the advice that ‘unless we stop ’em there, they’ll take us over’. Hendrix actually supported the war.

    On another occasion, again in London, Mick Jagger marched at the front of a Vietnam demo. It was a morale-booster for those involved in such demonstrations but in the next edition of ‘Red Mole’, Tariq Ali ran the headline: “Marx, Lenin, Jagger!” (I kid you not).

    Anyway: ’nuff said.

  2. 2 BB

    With impeccable timing I finished listening to the audio version of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr, a few weeks before the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Woodstock makes much more sense from that perspective- the year after his assassination.

    The USA was in need of a great catharsis from the ills of the Civil Rights abuses of the African underclass, as well as Viet Nam, and well, Nixon. The assassination of MLK Jr brought the poison to a head, Woodstock was one way for lovers of justice and equality to express the need for catharsis, and move forward they did.

    I think it’s hard for Australians to understand the full zeitgeist of the USA including civil rights struggle, this autobiography does that well, and makes it clear there was a huge support for King from the liberal elements of the Euro population.

    By King’s death, it was already too late to turn back the tide. King’s impetus has led inexorably to the day of Obama’s election as president. The reactionary fascists had been thwarted by this disciple of Gandhi. His death was a pointless, last ditch error, but it was too late. “You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come” Hugo.

    When the body kills the staphylococci, it celebrates by erecting a furuncle and spurting forth the flotsam of dead bacteria and fallen leucocytes. A grand catharsis. Was there some of this in Woodstock? A victory dance over the body of the fallen KING, victorious but pyrrhically taken????

  3. 3 tom

    I don’t know BB, rejoicing in squeezing pimples may not be everyones ‘thing’. Our memory can be very deceptive and in ways that can tend to reflect our position now rather than what it was way back when. You may be right re your pimple analogy but Keza’s point still stands. The bourgeoisie’s memory, or presentation of the 60’s now is a convenient one. Much better to present the tenor of the times as one of hippiedom and counter culture than of intense political struggle and social upheaval. The former aspect represented no threat and was easy to co-opt. There was no Woodstock here (some wannabes in the early 70’s though and the music was good) but there was no shortage of political and social struggle. The point of all this though is that if we don’t struggle to keep alive this latter aspect alive – and the best way of that is to struggle for a re-emergence of a genuine left today – we can hardly justify feeling aggrieved if the bourgeois propogandists want to kill it.

  4. 4 tom

    I should have included this above but the thought has only popped into my head. Counting for the by election in which Clive Hamilton is standing as the Greens Candidate against a Liberal scion and a representative of the Sex Party has been going on for a couple of hours. Here is my dilemma. If I were in the electorate (and for the sake of this exercise let us assume I am and that I’m making a formal vote which is not an assumption I’d be promoting normally) who would I vote for – the Liberal candidate or the Sex Party candidate. Please note that the dilemma is not in putting Hamilton last – as the most reactionary candidate where else would I put him?

  5. 5 Arthur

    Higgins results with 36 of 38 polling places returned are low 61% turnout, Hamilton got 35% of first preferences 42.4% two party preferred.

    Not as much as Greens were hoping for, but enough to project Hamilton as a Green leader.

    Kerry’s targetting of him as the ideal hate figure for people getting sick of pseudoleftism is certainly spot on. I think he is pretty competent and will become more prominent and no less sincerely Green and sincerely reactionary.

  6. 6 patrickm

    ‘but better to just put it here than wait till I have the time and inclination to do any more work on it . So here it is:’

    Yes I like that aproach that you are taking, for yourself.

  7. 7 jad

    I didn’t read Hamilton’s piece as lamenting that “all that is solid melts into air” so much as that the vacant territory thereby created was colonised by marketers, merchants and other vultures.

    Their is much I don’t agree with in Hamilton’s politics but I think he has a point about the cult of work (although of course it is technology and not going “back to nature” which will free people from overwork).

    On the subject of work, I’ve enjoyed reading “The Right to Be Lazy” by Marx’s son in law Paul Lafargue. It has some nice passages. eg:

    ….Aristotle foresaw: “that if every tool could by itself execute its proper function, as the masterpieces of Daedalus moved themselves or as the tripods of Vulcan set themselves spontaneously at their sacred work; if for example the shuttles of the weavers did their own weaving, the foreman of the workshop would have no more need of helpers, nor the master of slaves.”

    Aristotle’s dream is our reality. Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness, wonderful inexhaustible, accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labor. And nevertheless the genius of the great philosophers of capitalism remains dominated by the prejudice of the wage system, worst of slaveries. They do not yet understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the god who shall redeem man from the sordidae artes and from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty.

  8. 8 Arthur

    Hi Jad, thanks for the link to Lafargue’s “The Right to be Lazy” – it was an interesting read. Some of it dated in view of subsequent proletarian gains and shrinking bourgeoisie with corresponding shrinkage of domestic servants, and some of it romanticized (see Veblen on “Theory of Leisure Class” for less romantic view of ruling class contempt for work as slavery). But the fundamental point against the bizarre “left” demands for a “right to work” and “jobs” instead of abolition of wage labor remains both fundamental and delightfully expressed.

    Especially relevant today with so little decline in hours and increase in leisure despite further massive increases in productivity and new forms of unproductive work and consumption (bureaucracy etc) surpassing the old forms.

    I just read Hamilton’s piece in the light of your comments and still see him very much as one of the priests etc Lafargue was lampooning – complaining about the “narcissism” of youth who want to enjoy life more and work less and consequently feel more and more that they are not in control of their lives (because they have higher expectations and greater self regard as “important” compared with the past rather than because society is actually getting worse). Hamilton definately wants them more docile – especially telling is preference for feminizing men ie making them more docile as opposed to “girls with balls”.

    On the other hand a lot of the support for green “simple living” etc among people who one would want and expect to become radical leftists instead does seem to be related to yearning for something more meaningful than the “lifestyle” offered by corporate marketing vultures. Key issue is how to reclaim that yearning for progressive rather than reactionary ends.

  9. 9 jad

    Yes I think in part the “back to nature” yearning reflects a yearning for a state of primitive communism free of alienation, commodification and wage slavery (eg the Avatar movie, about which much has been said over at Kasama). Though the anti-human tendencies of green thinking are more than just anti- the social relations of capitalism, and also have some deeply atavistic and reactionary aspects.

  10. 10 Arthur

    I really liked Avatar, despite the strong green theme, because it was primarily about people rising up against oppression and winning. Even the living planet stuff didn’t bother me since the planet was in fact alive (unlike ours) – a feature of many scifi stories.

    Hard to tell how much of the popular appeal relates to the rebellion and how much to the “back to nature”. There’s certainly a very deep current confusion between the two.

    A lot of the reviews praised the 3D effects but dismissed the story as trite and predictable because “sophisticated” films don’t have “simplistic” victorious rebels but instead “deep” themes of cynicism and despair. Critiques at Kasama were pretty weird with other comments seizing the opportunity to prove to themselves that at least they weren’t quite as off the planet as the weirdo critics (so can remain comfortably smug while unable to engage with people here).

  11. 11 steve owens

    I didn’t like Avatar because to me it was a story about America and Indians. It had to be pitched into the future because there was no Indian happy ending in the past. I think Americans must be troubled by genocide towards Indians so its a bit soothing for good Americans to defeat bad Americans (gee doesn’t Hollywood do a good bad American)
    I also didn’t like the idea of the incompetent American joining the Indians and then in a short period mastering all their skills and becomes the super Indian.
    PG O’Rourke in an old TV programme noted that the Indians had to go to make way for progress so guys like him could drive Ferraris. The good part of his crass statement was that it made the point for America to develop the Indians had to go. Jefferson tried to trick them out of their land but failed. We had to wait for Grant to unleash genocide. Now that would make a good movie how the heroes of the civil war Grant, Sherman and Sheridan unleash genocide but I still don’t see how we can get a happy ending unless there are Ferrari’s for every one. There’s the conundrum it was progressive to develop America but to develop meant genocide. There’s no way around it those Indians of America just like those of Pandora weren’t going away without a fight.
    On the up side my kids liked the movie.

  12. 12 Arthur

    The kasama discussions was full of weird stuff like Steve’s too. Glad to hear his kids haven’t got all twisted too.

  13. 13 steve owens

    Arthur I went to that Kasama site and read 17 entries about Avatar, none of them said anything like what I thought of Avatar, your not making stuff up are you?
    All I thought the movie needed to make it interesting was to give the miners a reason other than greed.
    If the miners had said that the trillion people on earth needed unobtanium or they would have to go back to burning coal and billions would die then that would be interesting.
    For me movies are interesting if there’s a moral conflict rather than just good guys versus bad guys that maybe enough for my nine year old sons and it may be enough for you.

  14. 14 barry

    “Good guys versus bad guys” – sounds like “moral conflict” to me. (But, hey, I enjoy the wrestling).

  15. 15 steve owens

    Yes Barry you are correct, to be clearer I should have said moral dilemma rather than moral conflict. Wrestling presents many moral conflicts but few moral dilemmas.

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