Critic Curtis White: Capitalism needs workers who are "stupid-smart"

In his new book, cultural critic Curtis White argues that a reinvigorated counterculture could save the world

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published December 23, 2019 6:00PM (EST)

Diptych of a fan flashing the peace sign during the concert marking the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, and Curtis white author of "Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed" (Author photo provided by publicist/Mario Tama/Getty Images/Salon)
Diptych of a fan flashing the peace sign during the concert marking the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, and Curtis white author of "Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed" (Author photo provided by publicist/Mario Tama/Getty Images/Salon)

Though I was born about 30 years too late to have been a Flower Child, the Hippie era always loomed large in my life. Much of my family identified as Hippies (or Hippie-adjacent), and spoke lovingly of the Flower Power days. Unusually, my grandparents, born in the 1920s, were fairly bohemian in their inclinations, and thus enamored of the counterculture generation that assimilated their children. My grandmother — a fervent atheist more libertine than most Millennials — bemoaned the evangelical direction of the country during the Bush years. “In the '60s, we never thought people would still be religious by the year 2000,” she lamented in 2004, just after Bush’s reelection. “We thought we’d all get more enlightened.” As a young progressive coming into his political conscience during Bush, her statement was as heartbreaking as it was unfathomable.

As a child I was inspired by the utopian faith in science and creativity that had been instilled in my family by the Hippies. Yet as I grew up, it became harder to see the Hippie movement as anything other than a failure, particularly in its ability to actually foment social change. Indeed, many of the cultural byproducts of the 1960s counterculture, however distorted by capital, seemed to have made the world a worse place. Notably, Silicon Valley — its corporate culture thoroughly infused with a degree of techno-utopianism learned from the Hippies — was viewed, until recently, as innately good. Hence, for far too long, the public and politicians gave the tech industry carte blanche to algorithmically destroy journalistic institutions and manipulate human thought on a mass scale with social media. All this in the name of a false utopian “progress,” as though technology and progress were synonymous — something that, as I’ve written before, Silicon Valley's Hippie progenitors believed.

After reading Curtis White’s just-released book, “Living in a World That Can’t Be Fixed: Reimagining Counterculture Today,” I’ve started to wonder if my lack of faith in the Hippies was misplaced. White — a novelist, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Illinois State and Salon contributor — argues convincingly that the only way to save Earth, and to halt capitalism's relentless scourge on life and the planet, is through a reinvigoration of the counterculture. His book made me think perhaps my idea of what the counterculture movement even was was slightly wrong, by virtue of never having lived it. As he writes in the book's coda, being a part of the counterculture means "[setting] [our]selves counter to things that demand our loyalty: the nation, perhaps our own families . . . " Maybe hearing stories from my family wasn’t enough for me to actually understand the era, and what it was like to live through it; particularly, understanding the connection between counterculture and the Romantics, something that White threads together quite nicely.

White was kind enough to explain his new book and his line of thinking in detail in an email interview. As usual, our words have been lightly edited for clarity.

I have the sense that the biggest objection that one might level at the proposal that the counterculture is the necessary salve for a dying capitalist empire is to point to the American 1960s counterculture as a counterexample. Though individually some Hippies were clearly radical in the leftist sense of the word, overall, the Hippies of the 1960s had an incomplete critique of society and economy, as evidenced by the fact that the spirit of the 1960s was folded into Silicon Valley's worldview without the techies having any sense of contradiction. The "fun" workplaces of Silicon Valley and the sort of socially libertarian spirit that pervades their idea of what they do was a direct result of the Hippie relationship to computing. 

I'm wondering, do you see the 1960s counterculture — particularly the American version — as having failed in its mission? How does a proposal of a revival of counterculture square with the cooptation of 1960s counterculture by capitalism? Feel free to disagree with any of my assumptions.

Curtis White: My attempt to “reimagine” counterculture begins with an insistence that the ‘60s counterculture was not about some self-contained bubble of cultural resistance that came, lived its short and unsuccessful life, and then disappeared. Instead, I remind the reader that the counterculture we are familiar with is part of a long tradition with its origin in English Romanticism.

Before the Romantics, you were born into a “station” — nobility, merchant class, or labor, people who “worked with their hands.” But beginning in the late 18th century with philosopher/artists like Friedrich Schiller, in Germany, and William Blake, the possibility of resistance to rigid class divisions took form. This resistance joined art and revolt, most critically in the essays of Friedrich Schiller, especially "On the Aesthetic Education of Man."

Marx was deeply influenced by German Romanticism, as his early essays, like “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” reveal. This is often referred to as “Marxist Humanism,” but it would be more revealing to say it was Marxist Romanticism. Marx’s version of romanticism is most recognizable now in his famous declaration that in a communist society “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but people can … hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner.” How far is this from the Hippie call to “get back to the land”?

The idea that the counterculture of the ‘60s failed is the principle ideological conclusion of the corporate media. I think that the ‘60s — uneven though it was, flawed though it was in instances — was the triumph of Romanticism. The progressive social issues of the present were to a great degree made possible by that most recent flowering of counterculture. I mean, just count the ways. Ecological consciousness, the rebirth of “nature,” all of that was pushed radically forward by Stuart Brand’s "Whole Earth Catalogue" and Earth Day, and reinforced by musicians and artists (as Joni Mitchell sang, “Pave Paradise, put up a parking lot.”) Agriculture? The ‘60s radically pushed forward the idea of self-sustaining, local, organic farming, something that is now taken for granted in every town with a Farmer’s Market or a whole foods grocery. Food? Whole grain, plant-based food was given to us by the ‘60s and, as you will know, it is growing larger every year. Feminism? The origin of modern feminism is in Romantics like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the first great beacon of modern feminism.

The ‘60s radically pushed feminism in the direction that the Romantics desired: gender equality generally but women’s sexuality particularly. You know, “Women of the world, stop shaving your legs!” Gay rights? The Castro district in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York found opportunity in counterculture and pushed it hard and effectively, leading to the more recent achievements of the LGBTQ+ community. Religion? Western Buddhism is the counterculture’s great spiritual gift to the West. Buddhist communities, or sanghas, are thriving and enlarging still. War resistance? That goes without saying. The ‘60s forwarded a general skepticism of federal and state government because of the fact that those powers seemed only to lie and create victims. That skepticism, powered by the Yippies and magazines like Ramparts, continues to this day. We learned that lesson well. When government speaks, we assume that they’re lying, or I do, witness the current president of the United States and his shameless Republican Party but also witness Joe Biden and his ilk.

So, you know, tell me that the ‘60s were a failure. It radically forwarded the Romantic politics of non-participation in mainstream ideologies and orthodoxies, especially that slough of despond we call patriotism.

As for the cooptation of the counterculture by bad actors like Steve Jobs and Apple, I wrote on that subject with Andrew Cooper in the March 9, 2014 edition of Salon. The essay, “Apple and Amazon’s Big Lie: The rebel hacker and hipster nerd is a capitalist stooge,” argues that corporate mindfulness projects like Google’s Search Inside Yourself Institute betray the resistant nature of Buddhism. Co-opting is the primary way in which the dominant culture restrains resistant culture. Capitalism knows that it will have enemies, but if it must have enemies it will create them itself and in its own image. Thomas Frank wrote a good book about it, "The Conquest of Cool."

You mention "socialist survivalism" as what countercultures have been about historically and will be about in the future. How would you describe this to a layperson? 

Well, the phrase is a bit of a joke because it joins two very unlike things—socialism and the whack jobs in the hills hoarding arms in readiness for some ultimate reckoning. But one of the more powerful reasons that I think we need to start thinking again in countercultural terms doesn’t have only to do with hoping that counterculture will provide a more human way to live compared with the alienated, consumerist life we live under late capitalism. The survivalist part of the phrase has to do with the likelihood that the doomsday survivalists are not entirely wrong — there may very well be a reckoning approaching, namely global climate disaster. Can nation-states and state governance survive the massive losses coming to insurance markets? Insurance companies are already trying to get the hell out of California because they don’t want to get stuck paying for the next couple decades of “fire tornados.” What’s left of home insurance if it no longer protects against fire?

Can the financial system survive mass migrations of climate refugees all over the world including the United States? As you know, coastal regions are densely populated, and yet those areas of the country are in denial about what are simply the laws of physics applied to climate. I mean, the financial system worldwide almost collapsed in 2008 from sheer stupidity and greed. What happens when there are actual reasons for the collapse? Of course, whatever the reason for collapse, we can safely assume that the champions of greed and stupidity will be there to amplify its effects.

So, we may not need socialism, but we will need social bonds in neighborhoods, cities, and regions. I don’t think the nation state has any interest in providing those bonds. But it is already clear that social bonds are a life-and-death matter, we just don’t choose to recognize that fact. Here in the Seattle area we take emergency preparedness very seriously, mostly because of the threat of earthquakes but also more and more because of rising ocean levels. Only last week I was sitting in a meeting of local climate activists, here in Port Townsend, as we considered just how long it would take until the downtown was deluged regularly by high tides. 2050 was the informed guess. Which would mean that the downtown area and its shops and restaurants, the port, and the paper mill would be gone or non-functional, ending most of the economic activity in town. As one person put it, “We should be busy moving businesses up hill now, not when the catastrophe arrives.” Of course, there is no moving a port or a paper mill up the hill.

We need, in short, to start reconsidering what the communalists of the ‘60s and ‘70s aspired to: small “d” democratic social organizations working for the mutual benefit of all its members. These organizations can provide the benefit not only of survival but also of a kind of happiness that we don’t experience under hi-tech, neoliberal capitalism. Tech workers won’t be housed in human abstraction in condo warehouses, Seattle’s version of Soviet “brutalist” architecture done in pastels. (I invite you to take a walking tour of Microsoft City in Redmond, Washington. I rode my bicycle through it recently, and it felt like I was in a colony on a distant planet. Data might be happy there, but it was difficult to imagine humans liking it.)

The good news is that we’re already working in the direction of new forms of social relations. The utter dysfunction of the federal government, the social paralysis caused by urban/rural polarization, our disgust with two centuries of civil war both hot and cold, all that has led us to “act locally.” In small towns of the midcontinent, this has become a requirement as supermarkets abandon depopulated areas and the people who remain have to create their own grocery stores. These towns are becoming countercultures of necessity. Perhaps they’d be relieved to see the supermarkets return, but they are also experiencing the happy realization that it is rewarding to be independent of corporations and newly dependent on neighbors. So, shouldn’t we on the city side of the urban/rural division also make virtue of necessity and try to create communities that are richly human? It’s not all about survival, it’s also about happiness.

I mean, wouldn’t it be better to work on these things now instead of mainlining Rachel Maddow and wondering, “Is it Joe? Elizabeth? Ahhh! Maybe Bernie?”

I'm thinking about historical leftist revolutions, say, in Cuba, China or the Soviet Union. Would you say that the presence and activity of a counterculture in either of these places was integral to their success? 

Counterculture is not a revolution. It is an insurrection in the name of life. Counterculture is not interested in creating a new perfected nation state. It is not going to recognize the state’s unlimited authority. There are other things that counterculture does not recognize. It does not recognize the idea that the repayment of debts is a morality. In reality, debt has always been a form of social control as we are seeing in spades now with criminal levels of student debt. People in debt tend not to abandon their employment even if that employment makes them miserable. They “can’t afford to quit.” So, Bernie Sanders’s call to forgive student debt is also a call for the elimination of the morality of debt, or I hope it is. That morality has always been a scam.

The nation state question is: how do we learn to love something that does nothing but lie to us and put our lives at risk, put life itself at risk, in ways large, small, and innumerable. But to think that our patriotism is self-evident (“of course I love America!”), or to think that debt is a moral obligation, these things make us stupid. Capitalism has always needed workers who are “stupid-smart”: smart enough to do the chores that industry calls for, but stupid enough not to resent the deadly limits it imposes. Vietnam, Iraq, police violence, incarceration, poverty, epidemics of drugs, alcohol, mass loneliness, and suicide. Where is America’s “founding idea” in this mess? Where is its promise? I’m not going to defend it. It’s bad enough that I have to live in it. I’m not into self-mockery. Instead, I say let’s make civil disobedience a way of life.

Towards the end, you write that it is wrong to provide solutions, and rather it's your duty to give the reader an opening to find their own possibilities. In the Coda Coda, for instance, you say that you encourage us to "set [our]selves counter to things that demand our loyalty: the nation, perhaps our own families..." and so on. If you don't mind talking about your own life, I'm curious if you feel that you've been able to live up to these ideals.

For me, counterculture is a set of open possibilities led mostly by intuitions about what makes humans — and the natural world they live in — thrive. Counterculture is not interested in wasting life working futilely toward a socialism that promises but never delivers a perfected socialist state. In other words, counterculture does not believe in “fixing” the horrors of the nation state, or curing painful antagonisms between regions (our ongoing civil wars).

So, I don’t claim to know how we should live or where our intuitions should lead us. There are no rules for countercultural living that I know of and I don’t offer any here. It is all to be determined socially as it evolves and enlarges. The only crucial thing is that counterculture is a rejection of the reigning social order of corporate destructiveness and de-humanization. Happily, there is a rich archive of guides for us in the artist-anarchs of the last two-and-a-half centuries—including truculent rebels like Beethoven—and in the work of social critics like Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, Paul Goodman, George W. S. Trow, and the architect Christopher Alexander. How we take that archive up and live it is not something that I have any interest in dictating.

For myself, anyone’s cultural resistance is compromised by the fact that we live in the belly of the beast. So, we have no choice except to live in compromise. We have no choice except to live in what Antonio Negri called the “sociality of money.” So, unless we are willing to live in the “mean streets,” homeless, we have to find ways to attach ourselves to the money circuit, you know, and get some of it to flow through our little nodes on the circuit, otherwise known as a bank account. When I was teaching I had a sign on my office door reading, “Refuse Work,” but I had a job, right? Whatever I taught in classes was always in conflict with the fact that I was also performing the task of sorting human beings into categories useful to the state and to future employers: these are the A students, these the B, and those over there are the failures. Use them accordingly. I certainly taught against the grain of the dominant culture, but I was always also complicit with that culture even if it was complicity under duress.

So, all of those inevitable limitations duly noted, I have lived the best I can in good faith with my own experience, an experience that for sure includes growing up in San Francisco in the ‘60s and feeling the warm and liberating flow of both psychedelia and the radical critique of the capitalist life-world. I was a student radical, draft counselor, war resistor, living in the Haight, but spending most of my time studying literature and writing fiction and taking the 5 McAllister bus to the Fillmore to hear, say, Albert King wail on “Born Under a Bad Sign.” I am still loyal to that experience. I am grateful that it saved me from whatever the East Bay suburb I grew up in had in mind for me.

Beyond that, I published my first book of stories not with a commercial house but with an authors collective called the Fiction Collective, which I eventually became responsible for, with Ronald Sukenick, under the logo “FC2.” FC2 is still around and very lively and I still read manuscripts for them and give them money from my ill-gotten gains as a retired professor with a pension. I was also very active in the larger small press movements of the ‘90s, mostly with Dalkey Archive Press. Beyond that, I have written books that I hope others have found useful and encouraging. In general, my purpose has been to provide self-understanding for kindred spirits.

You locate the larger social and civic problem of American life as lying in "civic narcissism," meaning the various factions who want their politics to become universal do not realize the violence required to enact their vision. But what is the alternative? It's hard for me to think of political factions that don't possess this kind of narcissism among their constituents. (Besides, I suppose, mainstream Democrats' liberalism, which is de facto compromising and bloodless.) Historically, isn't it factionalists that helped build movements and ensure their success, from suffrage to the labor movement to civil rights? 

Narcissism of whatever kind is undesirable, as Donald Trump shows us minute-by-minute 24/7. To say, “I think so highly of my political conclusions that I would have them imposed on everyone,” guarantees civil strife. Imposition, especially when enforced by the National Guard, is always a reason for resentment. Witness our ongoing Civil War with the South’s bigotry and its love for guns and its deformed Christianity. We can’t “fix” the South.

Similarly, trying to impose our sense of the good on capitalism will be bloody, and it will be mostly our blood since capitalism currently owns centralized government and its monopoly of legal violence. If Texas has its way, protesting at oil pipelines will soon be a felony with hard time, confiscation of property, making our prisons political gulags. Recognizing this and strategizing from these understandings is, for me, simply realism, and, people, we need to “get real.”

At the same time, I don’t exclude the pragmatism of issue specific resistance. At those rare times when Democrats have the presidency and both chambers, issues like health care can be addressed, just as Obama’s Affordable Care Act demonstrated. Political factions—what we have come to call “identity politics” — working on specific issues like environmentalism, or feminism, or racism, or Occupy’s righteous objections to the 1% — are not trying to fix anything larger than their own issue. They are looking for progress. And I say that’s fine, so organize, donate, go to rallies, sign petitions, and take to the street when necessary. I always have.

Worse yet, as we know now, the advances of the New Deal and ‘60s activism are being pushed back, if not pushed down our throats. That progress is being taken apart, and quickly. Enforcement of voting rights act? Gone. Food stamps? Radically reduced. Abortion rights? Not in Ohio. Unions? Not in right to work states. The Great Compromise between government, business, and labor is in tatters. The social achievements of the ‘60s are in retreat.

An old leftist saying explains why: “Money always returns to its rightful owners.” The oligarchs are taking it all back. Economic inequality now is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. So factional incrementalism can have its victories, but those victories are always marked for future destruction by the oligarchs. Eventually their money and their power come back to them, if they have any say in the matter, and boy don’t they have a say, a vastly disproportionate say.

Nonetheless, centrists argue that progress made in increments is the best we can do for now, and maybe that’s right, but it’s not the only thing we can do now. There is no good argument for asking people to devote their lives to partial struggles. As Emma Goldman famously said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” This “dance” is not to be taken literally. It is a figure of speech, a synecdoche, where “dance” is part of a larger thing: life. She did not advocate devoting our lives to the great “struggle.” Endless struggle and self-sacrifice is no way to live.

So, I’m asking in this book, “Why isn’t counterculture part of the conversation? Why isn’t counterculture’s anarchic politics of non-participation, the politics of refusal, relevant?”

Okay, that’s a lot of carrying on, to which some part of your readership is probably saying, “OK, Boomer!”

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Curtis White's new book, "Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed: Reimagining Counterculture Today," is out now from Melville House.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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