I was lucky.
I was born in the nineteen-sixties.
I grew from babe to child in the second half of that decade, and matured into a teenager during the colourful and spectacular nineteen-seventies. I consider this timing to be fortunate because it seemed to me then – and still does – to be a time in which the populace were not afraid to experiment. My impression is that the middle years of the twentieth century were alive with new ideas as well as the motivation to live them. Most importantly (and especially so from the perspective of today), denizens of that time seemed prepared, if the ideas they wished to live required it, to go against the accepted grain.
My existentialist nature (although I didn’t recognise it as such back then) was in tune with the authenticity that surrounded me in my childhood and youth, and I often wondered where it came from. Why, I asked myself, did people live in that way at that particular point in history. I theorised that perhaps the cause was the contemporaneous social constructions; for example the post-war generation behaved as they did because they believed that individual actions could and did make a difference. I postulated beyond the level of the individual – that society as a whole was somehow more accepting of the traversing of its grain. That is, general attitudes might not have been quite so locked-down as they are now. If this surprises it might be because we assume that the twenty-first century is the apogee of individual freedom, while the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties were the era of stifling conservatism.
I hate to shatter the smug self-congratulation that epitomises modern life, but I’m about to argue that in terms of freedoms of the existential kind, it may well be the other way around.
The position I feel most comfortable with in relation to mid-twentieth century social liberalism, is that the freedoms which blossomed during this period were most likely due to the fallout of the two world wars. These conflicts would have been fresh in the collective memory throughout the period in question, and the seismic reverberations of death, displacement and destruction will still have been reconfiguring old ways of thinking. Society had been shaken up and remained in a chaotic state. Perhaps this choppy and unpredictable wave of bifurcation was that which the youth of the nineteen-fifties, sixties and seventies surfed upon.
Let us imagine this wave of change as a social tsunami (for it was of such magnitude). It could then be said to have broken through the sea defences of the old order, and that it washed the potential for new liberties onto the beach. These included the freedom to love as – and who – one wished, the democratic freedom to party, and a general latitude of attitude which allowed one to exist in the particular configuration that seemed most natural and right. The world was awash with “rights” movements during this time, and compiling an off-the-cuff list of some of the most prominent campaigns presents no challenge at all.
I clearly recall the sense of black identity that was emerging globally – from the civil rights and black panther movements in the United States, through to the rasta consciousness in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Neither should we forget the African independence uprisings occurring at around about the same time. My teenage years coincided with the popularity of disco music which brought with it some awareness of the issues that the homosexual community faced. The reactions of my more strait-laced peers to Village People and Sylvester was a case in point.
Looming especially large during this era was feminism. Of course, the struggle for women’s rights had been around long before the second wave and what was then referred to as women’s lib. However, the flaring up of activity during this particular time frame, represented a further example of the striving for freedoms which were symptomatic of the era. The feminism which I remember consisted not only of women fighting for rights, but also for the freedom to be free of the template of womanhood defined by previous social constructions. They wanted to be free to engineers, lesbians, hairy, shaved, feminine, sweet, rough or whatever appealed to each individual. It was heartening to observe, from my male existentialist perspective. I was never mad keen on traditional gender politics.
Thus somewhere in the early to mid-nineteen-seventies, society was at an interesting juncture. Those fighting for such freedoms appeared to be in the ascendancy. Of course, the west was still rife with racism, misogyny and homophobia, but it felt as if the arguments had been won by the radicals and authenticity-seekers. They found popular champions in the shape of such as David Bowie (androgyny and all) and Marvin Gaye (taking the old accepted identity of the minstrel/soul singer in new and more serious political directions). There was also James Brown, who disseminated a truly radical and authentic message in his “Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud” lyric. Feminists and homosexuals were also publicly strutting their collective stuff in ways in which they wanted to, not in which society ordained.
It could be argued then that society had found itself in possession of a powerful new strand of freedom. A freedom which could be used to achieve that which Kierkegaard and the existentialists had argued for. In other words, on offer to those alive to the possibilities at that time was the freedom to be authentic, to break out from the conventions of the crowd; and for each person to work out the ethics unique their own character – and not to contort themselves to fit the pre-prepared mould which society had waiting for them. Note that even then, authenticity was not an easy path to take. One would still be subject to ridicule and scorn. Nevertheless the route was available and visible – perhaps more so than it has ever been, before or since.
Some of these existential struggles might be summarised in short dialogue form as follows:
The feminists burned their bras and the conservatives looked on in disbelief.
“How can they refute their femininity? They’re women – their femininity is the larger part of who they are”
Bowie, dressed himself as an intergalactic man/woman and the traditionalists found it difficult to fathom.
“Why would a man want to be a woman? To be a man is wonderful, powerful. Giving that up is like an abdication!”
James Brown sang “Say it loud I’m black and I’m proud” and those stuck in an old discourse about race were utterly confused
“How can this be?” They thought. “Black is nothing to be proud of. The man’s mad!”
High profile individuals such as these could be argued to have been existing in a manner that was authentic and true. For the rest of us, their slipstream became the easier road to our own existential truth. Nevertheless, it is worth reiterating that, at that point, society certainly did not approve of these radical behaviours. The point is that perhaps – even in its disapproval – it had come to accept such odd authenticity as being an inevitable feature of the age.
Looking back, to have been an adult existentialist at that time must have been exhilarating. Society had become a canvas upon which citizens were painting their authentic choices. Importantly, the brushstrokes were not the same as those which we create in the twenty-first century (today our freedoms largely follow the pattern of consumer choice). The goal of that earlier post-war creativity was something less material and more profound. In the language of Kierkegaard, it was to self-actualise beyond the accepted ethics of society, and according to one’s own truths, no matter how difficult that might have been for others to comprehend. Or, in the simpler language of the Sartre, not to live in bad faith. By ‘bad faith’ he meant glossing over difficult life decisions. This often occurs via a refusal to make the self-defining choice, and/or dissolving one’s authentic identity in the herd. We hear it every day in language such as “other people are not doing it, so I don’t have to”, or “I’ll get around to it when I’m earning (insert large number here) thousand a year” or “I can’t do that because I’m not made that way” (genetically/psychologically/physiologically).
When I recall the young Bowie expressing his androgyny or the unbowed feminists marching for a better world, I am always awed by their refusal to play this game of bad faith. The existentialists argued that authenticity was the key to a life lived well, and although such a life wouldn’t be without difficulty, it would be gratifying at the deepest levels of being. If the goal is to, say, live the Christian ideal, or to achieve the moksha or Nirvana of eastern thought then such authenticity is necessary. In truth, for human social and individual progress to continue, bad faith needs to be resisted by everyone. These mid-twentieth century movements should have made it easier for all of us to live authentically. Society would of course still have disapproved of action which deviated from the norm, but the real tragedy is that the world was perhaps becoming used to such deviation. With every Marc Bolan, Germaine Greer or George Clinton; every Quentin Crisp, Malcolm X or Marge Piercy, the person in the street should have been a little more encouraged to live out their own individual truth.
The above is my view of where we were poised somewhere in the mid-nineteen seventies. I would also argue that in the time between then and now, those hard-won freedoms (won, often by people who had suffered greatly), were co-opted by the capitalist materialist machine. To take but one example, consider the black experience – be that the civil rights campaigners in the United States, or the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica. These were born trailing high ideals: the liberation of an oppressed minority and the freedom to live well, in collective and highly ethical societies. The lofty ideals of these movements were reflected in the music that accompanied them. Fifty years later, what did black society do with the freedoms that it fought so hard for? It created a culture of consumerist-materialist worship. The booty and the Rolex are objects of great reverence. Hardly the existentialist dream, this is more – at best – Kierkegaard’s aesthete.
I describe the story thus: we – that is western society – had won these freedoms, via the actions of the brave: via every Bowie, every Brown and every bra-burner. Then, in the nineteen seventies we asked ourselves – what do we want to do with these freedoms? While we prevaricated, afraid to be authentic, the forces of global capitalism provided a clear, loud and consistent answer – “consume”. Their message was: “you can still express who you are and who you want to be, but you can do this through consumerism. Use brands and products and goods to show the world your true selves”. We liked that message. It was less dangerous than the risky and lonely existentialism of Kierkegaard and Bowie. It was easier too – the brands provided a ready-made template for our “individuality” and “authenticity”.
We took the message up. A first flowering of the fruits of this shift soon became apparent in the nineteen-eighties – the new romantics, Gordon Gecko, sloane rangers. At that point it was difficult to tell the difference between real existential choice and consumerism, so we just somehow drifted along with it. Few were fighting against the change, and the number of those able to see just what it was that we were losing was infinitesimal. There was no voice shouting as loudly for existentialism as the capitalists were for consumerism. There was no nineteen-eighties Kierkegaard or Sartre. In terms of the existentialist message it may have been that no one was saying it or that no one was playing it. Regardless, the battle was almost lost then.
In this the second decade of the new century, the freedoms that we had won in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen seventies are all but lost. The life that we live today is a grainy facsimile of a great potential wasted. Despite the shiny happy marketing façades, our actions today are measured and manipulated in order to further the capitalist-consumerist-materialist agenda. All channels for subversions and difference and opinion are being locked down. Even the internet – once a near-pluralist forum for information exchange – was quickly turned into a massive marketing channel. Education now primarily serves as vocational training. The fact that in the UK it costs £27,000 to gain a degree means that students will always be focused on the money. They days of debating identity and authenticity in dingy halls are mainly fond memories of the baby-boomer generation. Young people in education today seem to be largely all about the job at the end of it. Unemployment and benefits, once a training ground for radical thinkers is now being shut down to the discourse of scroungers and benefit cheats.
Teachers are being worked too hard to be radical. Sartre wrote some of his finest work while a teacher. Unions are being squeezed to the point of irrelevance. Money is all that matters.
There’s no message in the music any more. We do not have a superstar David Bowie or feminists writ large or a James-Brown-as-community-leader. The soundtrack to our twenty first century lives is largely a consumerist dirge. Too many modern bands are concerned with “making it” and not being inspirational in an existential sense. Indeed the music industry – society even – seems concerned only with showing us the ways in which we can use our purchasing power to convey an image of who we think we are and who they want us to think we want to be.
I weep for freedoms lost