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.)