Sifting Through the Sixties

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I have discovered recently that the word collectivism is being applied to any law or social activity that is designed to promote the common good—you know, things like environmental protection regulations that prevent people from polluting public waterways, or laws that forbid making false claims about the health effects of food products. It appears that collectivism, like communism and socialism, has become an all-purpose accusation against anything that the country’s far right does not like. While this tendency toward semantic creativity comes in part from the libertarian vogue of figures like Ayn Rand (whom the Republican National Convention has brought back into the national conversation), it is mainly comes from ignorance of what collectivism and socialism really are. To keep this blog within the limits of its usual topic area, I will examine the cultural significance of collectivism by looking at a social experiment that flourished, briefly, on America’s popular cultural stage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was the communal movement that saw thousands of young Americans banding together in urban apartments and rural farms (some of which, like Black Bear Ranch in California and The Farm in Tennessee, still exist) in an attempt to explore a truly collectivist experience. A group of people who emerged from the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco—who called themselves the Diggers and later changed their name to the Free Families—were pioneers and leaders in this widespread pursuit of authentic communalism. In spite of the fact that the vast majority of the collectivist experiments of the Diggers failed, many of the surviving Diggers, like movie actor Peter Coyote, insist that in the end their revolution was successful. Personally, I wish that that were true, but in the years since the early seventies, America, rather than becoming a more communal society, has instead become ever more individualistic, to the extent that libertarianism thrives not only within the Tea Party but among many college students as well. Indeed, so individualistic has America become that the entire legacy of the Roosevelt era is in peril. What is puzzling to a cultural historian is why, given the Baby Boomers’ high profile embrace of collectivism in the sixties, this abrupt turnabout happened. As always, the answer to such questions is overdetermined: that is, there is no single explanation. In fact, in this case the explanation is massively overdetermined, and would require a book-length treatment to cover adequately. Complicating the matter is the fact that those nations that did pursue collectivist policies in the post-war era (countries like England and Sweden that were exemplars of democratic socialism for a time, and like the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states that once modeled themselves on communist lines) have voluntarily abandoned the collectivist ethos as well. Heck, even China, while claiming to be a communist society, is capitalist in everything but name these days. Thus, the question would probably require an entire theory of history to address it adequately, and I am both unable to offer such a theory and disinclined to think that any particular theoretical explanation would be adequate—certainly not one within the Hegelian tradition anyway. But I would like to tease out one facet of the American turnabout to see what it tells us about ourselves as Americans. It comes down to a matter of conflicting mythologies—those guiding worldviews or value systems that in the American instance are often contradictory and contentious. On the one hand is our much-vaunted individualism, our belief in the primacy of individual experience and personal rights. On the other hand is our tradition—visible in everything from the congregationalism of the Puritan founders of New England, to the populist and progressive movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—of communal action for the common good. American history presents us with the often teeter-tottering spectacle of these two impulses coexisting in an uneasy balance, with individualism on top at one time (the 1920s is an example of one such era) and communalism prevailing at another (e.g., the 1930s through the mid-1940s, when Americans collectively battled both economic depression and fascism). Then again, in the 1960s many baby boomers embraced communalism in reaction against what they perceived as selfish materialism, while in the decades since, individualistic consumerism (for most baby boomers as well as for succeeding generations) has held sway. In short, the ingredients for both individualism and communalism are built into the American character, ever contesting each other. And while, in the opinion of this baby boomer at least, it would be nice to arrive at some sort of productive synthesis, the experience of history suggests otherwise. Just read the news, or watch some presidential campaign advertisements. America exists in conflict with itself, and whether the current popularity of virtually anarchistic individualism will give way to a resurgence of genuine collectivism is anyone’s guess.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.