Is Counterculture Still Alive?

We talk to Jordi Costa and Germán Labrador about the historical roots of counterculture and its current situation.

People playing music in Griffith Park. Los Angeles, 1967

People playing music in Griffith Park. Los Angeles, 1967 | Kent Kanouse | CC BY-NC

Over the course of history, we can find many movements, of uneven fortune, that challenged the established norms, that broke with the moral of their time, that offered a creative explosion and had revolutionary potential. Such movements form part of the slippery entity that is counterculture: whenever the powers that be manage to capture it, it has already mutated into another form. But it always keeps going further, mixing culture and life, challenging the boundaries of the idea of culture. In this interview we talk with two experts in this area: Jordi Costa and Germán Labrador. Costa, head of exhibitions of the CCCB and writer, has published the book Cómo acabar con la contracultura (Taurus: Barcelona, 2018). Labrador, an associate professor at the University of Princeton, has published Culpables por la literatura (Akal: Madrid, 2017).

To start: How could we define counterculture? It’s a word that it is very difficult to classify…

Jordi: The term can identify a specific point in history. In the American context, this would coincide with the late 1960s and early 1970s. Meanwhile, in Spain, it would be more or less delimited between 1968 and 1978, although its ramifications would extend up to La Movida in the 1980s. However, it is also a term that can define a phenomenon that has occurred in all Western societies at different times in their history: the convergence of a series of responses to hegemonic discourses through a revolutionary impulse that does not exactly coincide with any political militancy, but prefers to express itself through art or the transformation of the vital, of the private and the personal.

Germán: Counterculture is an elastic term. Firstly, it serves to denote the responses of a generation against the cultural crisis of the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s, on both sides of the iron curtain, young people were faced with imperialism, racism, authoritarianism, a lack of freedoms. That was a political crisis but also a cultural one, affecting lifestyles. There was a questioning of the organisation of work, time, family, sexuality, the city, etc. Counterculture within that context was an aesthetic and an ethic. The concept included the hippy movement, protest songs, urban art and independent theatre. Key questions today such as environmentalism and civil rights all kicked off in that era, even if they had older roots. It was the time of struggles for anti-colonial emancipation. Also born in the same place were the digital revolution and so-called creative capitalism.

Your books talk mainly about the 1970s. It seems that the parameters of the counterculture of those years are impossible to re-edit. The case of Ajoblanco is clear in this sense. Does every historical period have its own underground? Or are we living at a time in which capitalism has killed off any possibility of such a movement?

J: Mark Fisher, talking about his capitalist realism theory, used to say that these days it is easier for everyone to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Despite the fact that I disagree with some aspects of it, the essay The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank tackles a relevant moment: the point at which the utopia becomes merchandise. A mutation that could find other reflections, such as the passage from yippie to yuppie experienced by Jerry Rubin or, closer to home, the liberal drift of a figure such as that of Escohotado. The time of counterculture has passed, but its memory still remains, breathing life into other countercultures that we often do not even know how to see, due to an issue of generational wearing down of contemplation and hope.

G: By definition, any one historical process is different to any other. It is said that history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. However, the circumstances in which each countercultural movement expresses itself vary considerably. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a tremendous conflict that coincided with the start of a profound transition in Western capitalism. In those years, the transformation began of the Fordist mode of production in neoliberalism. The factories went to Asia, there was an end to the culture of rights, stable jobs and competitive salaries, and a creative capitalism emerged, of desires and services, based on marketing, no longer of products but of images of products. This advanced capitalism re-works and co-opts the countercultures of the time but it  also destroys and rejects others.

There are moments in history in which counterculture emerges from the underground. When does that emergence occur?

J: It occurs when it is urgent to consummate a process of disaffiliation, a clear and direct breaking away from what we could call the “culture of the parents”. And it starts to die when that culture of the parents notices the potential for counterculture as merchandise and assimilates it and exploits it.

G: As Jordi says, the generational rupture in the 1960s was brutal, and it adopted clearly repressive, even penitentiary and psychiatric forms. In Spain, the passing of the Law on Dangerousness and Social Rehabilitation in 1970 is a textbook example. It pursues lifestyles and not crimes: hippies, gays, “the mentally ill”, the unemployed, drugs consumers and pornography users were all people likely to be persecuted. The patriarchal values of pro-Franco culture were reacting rigorously against the alternative youth. Repression and co-option are compatible strategies: on the one hand, countercultural practices are repressed, but on the other, they also gradually change the hegemonic culture.

Hairy Hippies at the White Panther Party house, Michigan

Hairy Hippies at the White Panther Party house, Michigan | Wystan | CC BY-SA

It is curious how it adapts in very creative and different ways in each country. Jordi, in your book you provide examples of symbiosis, encounters and coincidences that are very bizarre for people unfamiliar with the subject. Did the underground penetrate in Spain in a special way?

J: Yes, the interesting thing about each counterculture are the very forms that it adopts in each context. Pau Malvido, one of the great chroniclers of Spanish counterculture – and also one of its martyrs – said that the fact that the Spain of the 1960s was so isolated meant that our counterculture was not mimetic. Of course, there were messages that came from abroad and that inspired it and activated it, such as the psychedelic rock that was introduced by soldiers at the American bases, or underground comics, but the fact that this psychedelia interacted with the most anti-academic margins of flamenco or that our cartoonists decided to portray the local lumpen created our own unique and singular forms.

There are expressions of counterculture, the 1970s wave specifically, that are ending. What were the factors that put an end to the counterculture of the 1970s?

G: Firstly, there was a change of global cycle in early 1981, with the new Reagan presidency, and the start of the conservative counterrevolution. That was the year of the riots against Thatcher in the UK. The year of the Spain of the “false” coup of 23 of February, which would mark a before and an after in the climate of demands. Ideologists from today’s extreme right wing, such as Bannon, situate the origins of the neocon movement right there. Today all the alt rights want to put an end to the inheritances of the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s. We could say that it is also commonplace among a determined part of the left.

J: It is important also not to disdain a process that I talked about at the start of the interview: the transformation of utopia into merchandise by the mechanisms of assimilation of the hegemonic culture. That is a process in which all the transformative potential is excised from the countercultural inheritance in order to leave it on the surface, as an image, an aesthetic; in short, a simulation.

And in Spain specifically?

G: In the early 1980s, the capital was preparing its countercultural offensive. But in Spain this occurred while a new culture of state was being promoted, a democratic culture that was going to permit the incorporation of important sections of young people. In this context, the support received by rock music was key. The years 1981 and 1982 were years of mass concert tours. Expressions previously repressed started to become massive. There was then – and not only in Spain – a complex convergence between counterculture, propaganda, performing arts, mass society, popular culture and benefits. It was a strange world in which heroin addicts, old revolutionaries, pop divas, cultural managers and young petty delinquents all coexisted together. That social porosity and that mixture are the typical fermented product of countercultures.

J: But at the same time, the model of culture that was enthroned and encouraged by the state ended up configuring what Guillem Martínez called in its day the Culture of the Transition which, on a purely aesthetic level, was closely associated with what we could call Social-democratic Taste, which is none other than the celebration of the midpoint, of the non-problematic, the negation of the most unacceptable extremes of the countercultural to give form to a model of consumption (not of experience) understood as a balsam that, moreover, granted the spectator a certain patina of prestige or cultural distinction. There was a move from an anti-hierarchical utopia to a hierarchisation of cultural values. The fact that, for example, the cartoon strip has given rise to the graphic novel or that television has ultimately embraced the concept of new televised fiction  are some recent symptoms that illustrate how that operation continues enjoying good health.

¿Te acuerdas? Contracultura a la española | RTVE

Let’s talk about the present. Do you think, Germán, that forms of underground, of counterculture, exist around us?

G: Yes of course. There is graffiti, music, association networks, cooperatives, all of them typically countercultural. The 15M wave was countercultural and had a global dimension. The movements of 2011 can also be thought of as cultural revolutions. Radical solidarity networks, clandestine dining rooms, hacktivists, movements such as 15MpaRato, the green and white tides. In the global boom of feminism today we also see tensions typical of a counterculture that is becoming hegemonic. Vegans, animal rights defenders, degrowthers, extinctionists, Fridays for Future, etc. Also, those that are concerned with global diasporas. Today they are, and are going to be, the countercultural revolution that is pending.

Are trap and new urban music, with the success of Rosalía, new forms of counterculture? Or the latest fashion at the service of the market?

G: Trap and other similar sounds do not originate from this activist universe. But they do come from a nearby territory. This is the music of the children of the crisis of 2012. Of that 20% of children at risk of social exclusion. They were invisible and they made themselves visible with their music. Neighbourhood kids, condemned to contemporary forms of poverty, in a precarised and rarefied environment. But they are coming armed, they have immense cultural riches. They are the children of immigration, of multiculturalism, of access to Internet and to do-it-yourself. Self-taught, they learned to be disk jockeys, to rap, to compose, to promote themselves, to organise their own concerts, their own brands…

J: Trap is one of those territories that the view of some children of counterculture underestimates due to purely generational prejudices. Music critics who disqualify trap for its technical execution and excellence follow Social-democratic Taste. I think it is important to underline that it’s not strictly necessary to come from activism in order to have countercultural potential: it’s sufficient to formulate the discourse from the elements, from the life force… In the Spain of the 1970s, counterculture and political resistance walked together under the Franco regime: once democracy arrived, counterculture turned into that chaotic dirtiness that the left needed to either tame or hide under the carpet. The case of Rosalía is different: she is an artiste who seems to have understood to perfection the mechanics of the market in order to infiltrate them and manage to articulate her own discourse, which is perfectly legitimate but not necessarily countercultural. Moreover, without any desire to share out countercultural membership cards, a writer such as Cristina Morales, with a fierce discourse against the hegemonic and made of countercultural mettle, is taking advantage of the cash award of the National Literature Prize in order to continue creating in freedom.

What relationship should institutional cultural management have with counterculture? Does collaboration with cultural institutions weaken the latter’s disruptive potential?

G: From my perspective, counterculture always emerges at intersections. There is no purity there, rather displacements of energies, people and knowledge which can be creatively interconnected in a space of lesser social gravity. In that sense, today cultural institutions are potentially venues very likely to play host to such intersections and exchanges. Especially within a context of radical precarisation. Here they can function as shelters for a critical or experimental culture. Thirty years ago, counterculture and precarious economy were opposite poles, because counterculture was also conceived as the rejection of proletarianization, of being slaves to a salary, and as the defence of a fuller and freer life. Today they are almost synonymous. Thirty years ago, the middle-class institutions were enemies to be beaten, today they almost seem to be life buoys.

J: I think that here we could apply some of what I said about Cristina Morales. As long as the institution sticks to hosting rather than taming, as long as the institution allows itself to be infected and destabilised by the discourse of the free creator, I think that there can always be a fertile intersection for both sides.

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Is Counterculture Still Alive?