The author of the influential book about the sixties, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Oppposition, has died.


July 14, 2011

The author of the influential book about the sixties, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Oppposition, has died.

The book came out in 1968 -- the heart of the heart of the Woodstock years -- and it sympathetically analyzed the attributes of what Roszak called the disaffiliated young, the dissenting sensibility, the people at warlike odds with the dominant culture.

The dominant culture was essentially the same smooth, affluent, high-tech America we continue to inhabit today. Roszak's term for it - the technocracy - conveyed above all the anti-humanist reduction of individuality, soulfulness, and aspiration to machine- or bureaucracy-enslaved nullity.

It's not that it's unpleasant to enslave yourself to a technocracy; on the contrary, via the process Herbert Marcuse called repressive desublimation, it can be quite pleasant to live amid video games and similar amusements. But it's joyless; it lacks intensity and meaning and dynamism. Bourgeois culture, in the eyes of sixties people, writes Roszak, is "obsessed by greed; its sex life is insipid and prudish; its family patterns are debased; its slavish conformities of dress and grooming are degrading; its mercenary routinization of existence is intolerable; its vision of life is drab and joyless; etc., etc." In the sixties, "disaffiliated youth bail[ed] out on everything industrial progress is supposed to value," and took up instead what Marcuse named the Great Refusal, because of "the need of the young for unrestricted joy."

Roszak argued that "the primary purpose of human existence is not to devise ways of piling up ever greater heaps of [technocratic] knowledge, but to discover ways to live from day to day that integrate the whole of our nature by way of yielding nobility of conduct, honest fellowship, and joy." Passion mattered. The pallid pleasures of comfortable technocratic life were contemptible, with its "good music stations and expensive reproductions of the old masters, with shelves of paperback classics and extension courses in comparative religions. Perhaps we go on to dabble in watercolors or the classical guitar, flower arranging or a bit of amateur yoga. Higher education, tamed and integrated into the needs of the technocracy, treats us to magisterial surveys of great art and thought in order that we might learn how not to be boors - as befits a society of imperial affluence."

Against this bourgeois-bohemian prototype, Roszak affirms "the white-hot experience of authentic vision that might transform our lives and, in so doing, set us at warlike odds with the dominant culture. To achieve such a shattering transformation of the personality one poem by Blake, one canvas by Rembrandt, one Buddhist sutra might be enough... were we but opened to the power of the word, the image, the presence before us. When such an upheaval of the personality happens our dissenting young show us the result. They drop out. The multiversity loses them... the society loses them. They go over to the counter culture."

And from there, they change, let us say, not merely themselves, but the culture of technocracy itself.


Roszak's unabashed defense of a robust Blakeian romanticism looks mighty naive, especially in light of the misdirection and enervation of countercultural energies. It's routine today for political theorists like Gilles Lipovetsky, writing about the French sixties, to dismiss the counter culture as, at its core, apolitical narcissism:

May '68... gave rise to a peculiar process of political disaffection through its 'revolutionary' legitimation of cultural deviance and alternate lifestyles. The revolution yielded to a euphoria of microscopic, minority subversions: communes, squats, living on the fringes of society, psychedelic drugs... May '68 had made people so wary of the politics of politicians and parties, of programs and ideologies, that militancy came to seem a kind of alienation, a means of avoiding intimacy. By miniaturizing the revolution this movement emptied it of content, rendering it nothing more than a fad subject to the demands of pure individuality.

My most 'sixties' friend recently wrote to me: "I'd be lying if I said a few decades of my life weren't pretty much hijacked by the pursuit of genital-erotic pleasures." Plus he took too many drugs. His disaffiliation ran out of steam.

Think of the Dude - the hopeless stoner in The Big Lebowski. He describes himself as one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement...

But Roszak wasn't as naive as all that. He anticipated, in his book, the possible betrayal of countercultural energies by the "euphoria" of release Lipovetsky describes. He knew that many sixties Americans had been spoiled kids who "grew up to believe that every finger painting they brought home from kindergarten ought to be admired and every problem of high-school life ought to be a family obsession." He knew many of them carried this narcissism into the political arena.

And as keen as Roszak was on personal as well as political experimentation, he totally disapproved of the whole psychedelics scene.

If the counterculture was about "probing the nightmare deeps, trying to get at the tangled roots of conduct and opinion," psychedelics were not the way to get there. Maybe "when rooted in the soil of a mature and cultivated mind," experimental drugging isn't such a bad idea; but most hippies had minds "too small and too young for such psychic adventures... The psychedelic line the disaffected young have chosen to fight on is a false one: there is nothing to be won or lost in the skirmish."

He noted, correctly, that "our society is well on its way toward becoming distressingly drug-dependent." Later, in the 1995 introduction to the reissue of his book, he pointed out that while in the sixties some "psychic disaffiliates took off in search of altered states of consciousness that might generate altered states of society... [t]oday, drugs have become so much the refuge from despair and the staple of organized criminality that it is difficult to appreciate a time when they were seen as an integral part of a political-cultural-spiritual agenda."

Roszak's essential commitment throughout his long writing life was to clear-eyed spiritual investigations into spontaneity, compassion, and authenticity. He liked Paul Goodman's "mystical psychology, whose conception of human nature sides aesthetically and ethically with the non-intellective spontaneity of children and primitives, artists and lovers, those who can lose themselves gracefully in the splendor of the moment." He wanted "a social order built to the human scale [that] permits the free play and variety out of which the unpredictable beauties of men emerge."



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