Back to the 60s

These essays correspond to the six chapters of the film. They foreground the key ideas of each chapter and flesh out additional themes.
We offer the essays as commentary on the film, and hope they provide a springboard for further discussion and debate.

Back to the 60s

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop therefore I am), 1987
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop therefore I am), 1987.

Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (I shop therefore I am) is a work of art masquerading as graphic design. This work speaks to us today. It offers a stunning insight into the nature of contemporary post-industrial capitalism.

Human beings have always derived an important part of their self-identity from the way that their tribe or community produces and exchanges goods and resources. In industrial societies, people derived their sense of identity from the machinations of industrial labour and the social class system that was built upon it. With the rise of post-industrial societies at the end of the twentieth century, the economic system changed. Today, people construct their self-identity and sense of personal well-being through the products that they buy and consume.

“I shop therefore I am” is the mantra of twenty-first century consumer culture.

Shopping, today, is more than just a way of life. Shopping has become a means of personal self-creation. The discerning consumer knows that what’s important is not simply that you buy, it’s what you buy. We associate ourselves with brands that reflect our personal lifestyle choices: Virgin, Apple, The Body Shop, Harley Davidson, and so on. We kit ourselves out in tribal colours: Gucci, Converse, Adidas, Paul Smith, Yves Saint Laurent. Products are how post-industrial consumers express their personal style and identity. Products are how we tell the world who we are, or aspire to be, at least.

Studies show that brand consciousness is increasingly driving the way that people purchase and consume in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere in the developing world. This reflects a culture shift from traditionally-oriented collectivist societies to capitalist societies based in values of self-actualization and individual expression. A similar shift took place in the West in the nineteen sixties at the twilight of the industrial age. The sixties countercultural revolutionaries rejected the mass-market society of their parents’ generation for a new ethos of individual self-expression. From the beats to the hippies, young people insisted on their right to determine their own identities and to freely decide their styles of life.

Thomas Frank and others have described how, in the final decades of the twentieth century, capitalism tuned into the sixties social movements and commodified the spirit of counterculture dissent, weaving it into a new post-industrial consensus. By the time the nineteen nineties rolled around, with MTV culture and “chaos management,” the spirit of the sixties counterculture had become mainstream, even conservative. The revolutionary spirit of the sixties is now the official aesthetic of consumer society: “go on, break the rules, define who you are – with our sneakers!” No one seriously challenges the system anymore by expressing a personal style. One literally buys into the system to express one’s “radical” style (with the help of Converse, Adidas, Harley Davidson, whatever).

Radical individualism is a spent force. Its revolutionary impetus has been branded and sold.

For us, what capitalism took from the sixties counterculture is less important than what it left behind. We tend to miss, in our reflections on the sixties, the joy that the countercultural revolutionaries took in collective action. Perhaps we assume that this was a juvenile affair – the irreverent thrill of “bucking the system.” But to see things this way completely passes over the creative dimension of the counterculture itself. The countercultural revolutionaries were against the world that they had inherited from the generation past, but they were for a world to come. The struggles that defined the sixties, from civil rights to the peace and anti-war movements, sought the creation of whole new worlds, new ways of life and being.

This goes to the heart of what the sixties adventure was all about. To a generation weaned on rock ‘n roll, the portfolio of lives presented by fifties mass-market society presented a definite lack of options: suit, job, marriage, mortgage, and ulcer if you were a boy; husband, house, children, and entropic oblivion if you were a girl. The baby boomers wanted more from life. Normality was trap – but how could they avoid it? The new social movements that emerged as the sixties got into gear provided them with a way out. Participating in the counterculture was a creative act for a generation. Marching for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, for woman’s liberation, drug reform and sexual freedom – these were more than just collective acts of resistance. They were acts of collective creation. People were exploring new ways of living, loving, and being. Individual expression was the visible face of whole new cultures and worlds emerging in this period.

This is the adventure that we need to rediscover today. We need to go back to the sixties. We need to rediscover the collective charge that comes from taking part in a culture shift to change the world. We need to make joy in collective creation the key to a new revolution and take a flying leap into the future.

Don’t let anyone tell you that there is nothing to be done. The only limits on what human beings are capable of doing and achieving are imposed by their imaginations.

Tim Rayner

About the authorTimothy Rayner is a writer and philosopher based in Sydney, Australia. His consultancy, Philosophy for Change, teaches practical philosophical skills for everyday life. Tim has taught philosophy at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, Australia. He recently completed 'Philosophy for Change' the book, and is writing a book on innovation.

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