Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Legacy Of 1968

In my last blog post I mentioned that I was preparing to present at a conference organised by the University of East London called ‘The Legacy of 1968’ (which went ahead with great success). When preparing my contribution I looked around for material and recalled that with my late co-author David Robins I'd once written an article for the journal New Formations (Issue 39, Winter 1999-2000), which compressed the arguments of our about-to-be published book Cool Rules, into eight pages. That book, full title 'Cool Rules: Anatomy of An Attitude' was entirely devoted to analysing the attitudes of the 1968 counterculture.

I dug out that article and was pleasantly surprised by how well it still stands up. In fact there’s nothing in it that I would want to retract 19 years later, though there is one huge thing that I would wish to insert were I writing it now. That is the unexpected economic crash of 2007-8 and its profound effects throughout the world. Our argument in Cool Rules was that the attitude of Cool was becoming dominant in affluent Western societies, to a point where it was displacing that Protestant Work Ethic, which Max Weber had identified as the psychic motor of capitalism. What we didn’t tackle was the way in which Cool was perceived by those sections of the population who didn’t share this attitude, which was precisely what 2008 made very visible indeed.

The crash of 2008 resurrected class consciousness in a reaction that quickly dispelled the illusory fog of classlessness surrounding Cool culture (remember Blair and Cool Britannia?) Silicon Valley, the media industries, fashion, music, TV, film, the liberal professions, and most of all affluent youth, were the beneficiaries of this new, looser, more fun Cool Capitalism. The socially conservative, the religious, and the most precarious sectors of the working class were the losers by it – ‘left behind’ by globalisation, outsourcing, the gig economy, their family values threatened by sex, drugs and rock & roll. They made their displeasure unmistakably felt in the UK’s Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump in the USA.

You can think of those two electoral upsets as experimental evidence for the balance between cool and uncool in Western societies: in the UK the answer is 52: 48, in the US it's slightly complicated by their Electoral college but still somewhere near 50:50. I’d venture to guess similar ratios prevail in most of Europe, and perhaps further. A seemingly unbridgeable social-psychological rift runs through most of the formerly liberal democracies which threatens them with ugly transformation.

If you haven’t read Cool Rules but would like some idea of what we were talking about, I’m attaching our New Formations précis here:   Download PDF of Cool Rules


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