The Trouble with Counter-Culture

Originally published on Garageland Reviews on 6th August 2013.

ICA Counter Culture from The Derek Jarman Lab on Vimeo.

The trouble with counter-culture is that it’s difficult to define. Any attempts to pigeonhole and demarcate could arguably be the first step in the mainstreaming process that neuters and assimilates it. The trouble with counter-culture is its hegemonic cultural counterpart is not monolithic but fluid and diffuse. Counter-culture must constantly change and adapt to remain effective. The trouble with counter-culture is it is such a complex and diverse concept that a one and a half hour talk could never satisfyingly address it.

These realisations can be taken away from ICA-hosted talk The Trouble with Counter-Culture, featuring chair Lucy Robinson and speakers Simon Warner and Dan Hancox, though none of these points were made explicitly by the panel.

Warner opened by posing the question ‘Does counter culture still exist?’ To me, the very suggestion that it no longer exists smacks of Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist ‘end of history’ rhetoric. For Warner the lack of identifiable subculture of the type he specialises in: the beat poets, hippies, mods and rockers of the 21st century is detrimental to wider counter-culture. The process of mixing and matching various subcultural practices has eroded the ‘tribal glue’ that, he argues, means there are now fewer avenues for youthful rebellion to express itself.

Critical of this nostalgic harking back to the counter-culture of the past, Hancox disparages this line of thought as part of an annoying trend in the liberal media of late to lionise past political movements and the counter-culture that accompanied them: ‘cut to a car on fire in Brixton and play Ghost Town or The Clash; cut to a video of a miners’ picket and play Bragg; you know the rest’. Hancox argues that this is the result of the editors gaining positions of relative power and wanting to reminisce about their youth. In other words, they have become part of the hegemonic culture but don’t realise.

This observation by Hancox has a theoretical precedent in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. According to Gramsci a feature of the hegemonic culture is that it absorbs and assimilates dissident elements. One way in which it does this is to co-opt leading figures of the counter-hegemony into its ranks by offering them positions of power and privilege.

As Hancox identifies, there is nothing wrong with this nostalgia per se, but when those same cultural critics then go on to bemoan the lack of an equivalent to Red Wedge as symptomatic of youthful apathy, it becomes problematic. Too often contemporary debates engage in a sort of post-internet relativism that lazily dismisses anything pre-internet because ‘the internet changed everything’.

It is undeniable that society is a very different place than it was during the miners’ strikes due to the hyper-individuality of neoliberalism, technological advances and the increasing centrism of left-wing political parties.

There is no credible party of the left for today’s counter-culture to throw its weight behind, and since the 1980s the hegemonic culture has proliferated exponentially and become more diffuse. As such, to remain relevant, to survive and to thrive, counter-cultures have had to undergo radical changes. They have had to respond and adapt to the constant assimilation of seditious elements by the hegemonic culture. Therefore it is no wonder, and certainly no tragedy, that the counter-culture of today doesn’t resemble that of the 60s or even the 80s.

Progressive politics and culture are increasingly decentralised and diverse with their agents being a product of multiple overlapping political and cultural identities. Gone is the card-carrying socialist; today’s counter-cultural proponents might be a feminist with anarchistic tendencies who enjoys avant-garde dance but is partial to a bit of dubstep, or an inner-city kid who is into grime and doesn’t engage with ‘politics’ but hates the police and is mired by poverty.

The real problem with counter-culture today is not the quality or variety of its cultural products, which are more vibrant than ever, but its lack of coherency. This is the ‘tribal glue’ of Warner’s earlier statement. The infinite diversity of contemporary counter-culture is a great strength but there is a limit to what can be achieved by isolated individuals and small collectives.

The challenge for counter-culture is both practical and theoretical. In theoretical terms, the counter-culture is involved in a dialectic and co-dependent relationship with the hegemonic culture; with the former always being defined in relation to the latter and deriving its privilege and its edge from its position on the margins. The theoretical challenge then, is how the counter-culture harnesses its strength on the margins without being assimilated into the mainstream.

In practical terms, counter-cultures must learn how to connect the disparate dots in order to mount a more collective challenge to the status quo. This was achieved by the Occupy movement, though it is rarely given such credit; a political space where everyone is different but united in their opposition to neoliberal hegemony.

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