America, as like the Roman empire our post-modern superpower, leads us all in terms of what it adopts as civilization technology, we adopt. By civilization technology it is meant methods for keeping society together. When we look at America, we see a history that is positive on the outside but disturbing after prolonged thought: a constant internal battle over agreed-upon ideals, resulting in many reforms but no basic changes. If one were to design an ideal government based on the idea of stability through sponsored dissidence and not controlled but not oppositional reform, that would be it. Many inconsequential small revolutions and no change.
In this process, we see philosophy in action, because philosophy if nothing else can be construed as a pursuit of the root causes of phenomena (things that happen in reality) and the finding of realistic ways to adapt to them without creating instability. It is for this reason that philosophy occurs before a civilization is founded, and then disappears to show up again only after stability is founded. People look at their way of life, analyze, and come up with a suggested alternative, that they then test by putting into action; this is why philosophy and the scientific method are one and the same, but unlike science, philosophy deals with the organization of reality (ideals) and not solely its material, x=y, push-this-to-get-that form of material thought.
A philosopher will look at the ideas in a society and arrange them in a virtual pyramid, with the broadest at the base being daily methods and their effects, and the highest being the founding principles of that society. The pattern resembles a pyramid because while there are many things at its base, there are just a handful if not a single one at the top. In this process philosophy goes beyond other sciences. Sociology, psychology, science, and most of all, politics, stop somewhere in the middle. They are effective so long as they do not need to rise above their position. When they attempt to become more than what they are, we witness the hilarity of people attempting to regulate cause through effect.
In the pyramid of ideas that founds America -- well, let's be honest and say instead that America is the archetype of the modern liberal democracy, with two modifying characteristics: (1) vast natural resources and geographic isolation (2) as a created nation, a 60% German-English population and the rest a smattering of Europeans and later Eurasians, Armenids, Middle Easters and later still Congoids, Mongoloids and Australoids -- the top of the pyramid remains elusive except to those who have learned enough philosophy to recognize that America can be described as a motivational factor instead of a regulatory one. Let us leave that for now and return to it, and instead look at some past reform movements.
Hippies, or the divisive generations of the 1960s and 1970s, represent so far the furthest extreme in American protest movements, mostly because theirs was so widespread. What defines hippies? They are the children of the postwar middle class, which thanks to social reorganization in the great depression a decade before the war, included many newly-enfranchised groups like Italians, Greeks, the Irish, Poles, etc., which were groups traditionally shunned by the German-English/Northern European American foundational society, as it recognized that each group had become mixed by outside forces: Italians (Persians), Greeks (Turks), the Irish (Phoenicians/Spanish), Poles (Eurasian). As a result, they had traditionally been viewed as an entirely different population. Consequently, for the first time in American history, we saw a divided middle class that could no longer claim a single inheritance of culture. It had to invent its own.
It did this by returning to the formalized statements of America's incorporation, namely the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in part because these are the grandest-sounding proclamations of American identity, but also because they are the last complete theory of America as a society that it has articulated. Since then, we have labored in their shadow (and chipped away at them in various directions diligently). When the hippie generation arrived, they saw an America that had given up on ideology in favor of money and power, and so they very logically returned to the last clear statements of American belief. Naturally, a few wondered if this would bring about change or simply restart the cycle.
The disagreement was simple: hippies took one look at "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and saw the reality -- wage slavery, bored suburbanites, impoverished city African-Americans, an old-boy network in the businesses -- and commented rather accurately that our stated ideals did not match the reality (no questioning of whether those ideals were realistic was attempted, however). Fired up by this injustice, they created a protest movement based on the Jesus model: we, the saviors, will descend and bring justice to all, and our new enlightened society will become a shining beacon -- a city upon a hill! -- to those worldwide who are suffering. Shades of the Communist revolution? Heck, shades of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity) and the American revolution, but even before that of the Mongol Empire and the early Christians.
While the hippies were canting against The Establishment, its response seemed to vary, which can easily be explained when one escapes paranoia and realizes The Establishment is not a cadre but a way of thinking; it's a philosophy in response to our social philosophy as a whole, and it constantly recruits new members, because once one assimilates its values and acts on them one is automatically part (easier, even, than joining Fight Club). As it was, various members of The Establishment grumbled and even acted hastily against the hippies, perceiving correctly that this was a "soft" or unarmed revolution, but in doing so they stumbled upon the tired failure of conservatism, which is that reactionary behavior against a passive movement portrays one as the aggressor and thus loses popular support. Millions of Americans who hated everything the hippies stood for became more inclined to support them after four unarmed students were shot at Kent State University; while the hippies were spoiled brats, they reasoned, shooting those little more than children is not conducive to anything. Naturally, those in power stumbled further by staggering into a costly foreign police action (a police action is a war where a guerrilla army offsets an occupation attempt) and slaughtering more kids of both Caucasian and Asian persuasions in an attempt to "stop Communism" errr or maintain American hegemony in Asia.
Yet the Establishment drones did not fully balk. While their middle managers -- expendable desk jockeys -- and pundits gapped and whined, the more sage minds in the system looked at the hippie revolution as simply another business opportunity.
Hippies: We want the individual rights upon which America was founded! Equality, freedom of speech and action, and goodwill toward all humans. We want equality for women, gays and Negroes. We want an open society.
And so what happened? The hippies had their day of protests; token changes were made; government got stronger and business got stronger, and after another ten years, almost all of the hippies figured they were up against a force stronger than they and bowed their heads and joined. Now they run ethical coffee shops and pay their workers $8/hour, own stock portfolios, drive SUVs and pay for the fourth wife with salaries padded by corporate excess.
And their record? "Free love" became an excuse to use the body as a commodity, and now the sex industry dwarfs both movies and book publishing in revenues. Even more, it's acceptable to treat your sexual partners like disposable lighters. Is this "freedom"? Freedom to enjoy the ruins, but not the castle! "Equal rights" became a great way to bring more people into the workforce and, by requiring endless government civil rights legislation, providing oodles of profit for anyone who cared to get in on the game. "Legal drugs"? Well, we can't do that because someone will die and sue us, but instead, we'll lay off you suburban drug users (drug enforcement is nonexistent in suburban communities). You can have your bangs and whistles but you're going to need a job, because in part thanks to all this divisiveness, rents are now up... utilities are more expensive... competition is fierce because everyone is a worker... And that brings us to "women's rights." They're equal now, too, which means they get thrown into the worker pool and have a very reduced chance of finding a husband to raise a child. Solution? Don't have children. Of course, one does miss out on the joys of life beyond 30 that way, but hell, there's television to keep them distracted... The 1960s and 1970s did produce a flowering of music, but that too became a commodity, and now there's a gigantic industry which relies on prying dollars from children for an interchangeable series of boring rock bands. We have Slipknot and Cradle of Filth because of this spoiled, captive audience.
Business loves nothing more than dissent, because it creates new markets. The hippies barrelled through and created new markets because really, their own goal was their own pleasure; they wanted to feel like Jesus by saving the Negroes, women, gays from inequality, and they wanted to find "the good life" in the pursuit of pleasure through sex, drugs, and boring music. They didn't realize that they were essentially restating the principle which mates liberal democracy to capitalism, which is that the individual by acting in her own best interests creates an economy of vicious competition which, with no cultural goal to guide it (because culture is a higher value that the pursuit of individual pleasure) turns the entire society into one giant economy. Every object on the planet suddenly has a price tag on it, and all of our time is ranked by what we're worth... you can have whatever freedom you desire, if you can pay for it, but since in the absence of culture and social accord, business takes over with its simpler agenda, you will now serve your new masters. The hippies in effect broke up what was left of the old America and, in the name of some very abstract ideas taken to their simplest extremes, made it so divisive that the corporations can take over.
You'll find many ex-hippies now sipping $8 lattes and complaining loudly about corporate culture -- in Starbucks. Like most people in the city and the suburbs with political opinions, they are not quite serious about what they say, because their political opinions are a vehicle toward their own satisfaction through pleasant self-image and physical comfort and convenience. The hippies never differed with The Establishment at all except in method, and since The Establishment is a process of deconstructing, breaking everything down into resources and goods and services to be sold, it gladly accepted more divisiveness and breakdown... good for business... opportunity for some bright young guy. And we've now got women, gays and blacks in positions of power, but they think exactly like the Old Establishment guys. Could it be that sharing an ideology defines behavior, and not participation in some blues-tinged underdog former slave group? Eh.
Since the time of the hippies, our social decay has continued. Oh, we did hand over some rights, and have free love and women's liberation and quasi-legal drugs and equal rights, but that did not stop the overall progress from being a culture with goals higher than money to being a marketplace with no goal except profit. Such is the nature of individualism, or putting individual pleasure and freedom and desires before all else; in fact, individualism is another word for utilitarianism, which holds that if most people are happy with a proposed idea (translation: it appeals to their sense of pleasure and personal wealth), it's a good idea. Utilitarianism, capitalism, liberal democracy... one and the same idea, as Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle noted. You cannot escape that plague by re-adopting its ideas, as the hippies did, because you only add to the cycle and like reactionary conservatives, by lashing out and creating discord, you in fact make things worse. It's for this reason that only clueless suburban kids buy the thousands of different hippie-themed products in stores today; it's like Mickey Mouse, but it implies these grand-sounding ideals like freedom for all of us, free love, et cetera, et cetera.
Why has our society produced nothing great in recent years -- no great literature, no great music, no great art? Too much internal friction, and not enough focus placed on the creation of great things outside of the individual. Why is that? Too busy making our own piles of cash, enjoying our own "freedom" (lisp it). The hippies failed miserably not because they sold out later, but because they had no different idea at the top of the pyramid from the beginning. They were following in the footsteps of those who created The Establishment by indulging the oldest error in the world, one that's opposed to a recognition of reality and through that transcendence of the "negative" parts of reality, and that is selfishness. Capitalism is selfishness. Democracy is selfishness. Utilitarian is selfishness. And hippieism happily joins that pantheon.
This cycle happens again and again. Andrew Jackson railing against banks and robber barons; grunge kids whining about the emptiness of it all; hackers declaring that the way to get over squabbles regarding the ownership of computing resources is individual "freedom" (which of course must be enforced with ownership, including of computational resources, but trust a geek to miss long-term implications); pot legalization people realizing that to make it legal would be to make it a product, or a value-added service, with increasing costs and sickening corporate behavior -- witness what happened to California.
You cannot fix a broken system through division, because whatever value is a step up on the pyramid from where you are assimilates you. You have to invent a different kind of society, and that may mean giving up comforting concepts like economy as defining your place, pleasure and personal happiness as the goal, or even that equality is possible. These concepts are the basis of the American (liberal democratic, capitalist) system and if assumed in any form, will become the top of the pyramid and over years of conflict and debate, will return as a default. Every society which has embarked on individualism as the top of its pyramid has followed this course and while it may take some years, as the hippies found out, ultimately there is no deviation within it.
If there is hope, and by that is not meant hope in an external sense like "maybe the unicorns/blues musicians/hobbits/technology will save us" but the idea of hope as trust in the power of our minds and hands, it is in the generations spawned of the dysfunctional hippie relationships. We've seen how our parents pursuing pleasure led to divorce, greed, bitterness and most of all, neglect of environment and family and culture and self in the haze of confusion brought on by the pursuit of pleasure through individualistic wealth, rights and freedoms. We need a better paradigm. Increasingly, among today's generations there is a desire to find a social system that does what is right first, and fits us into it, because we are no longer as concerned with pleasure and wealth as we are about the future. This, if done correctly, might constitute actual change instead of a covert restatement of the errors of our forebears.
May 23, 2006