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This is the history woven through the contemporary alternative culture. It takes strands of the Romantics, the Wandervogel, and the Lebensreform, winds through the Beatniks and the hippies, and splits into a series of subcultures with different emphases, from self-help and twelve-step believers to New Age spiritual shoppers. There is a set of accumulated ideas and behavioral norms that are barely articulated and yet hold sway across the left. It is my goal here to fully examine these currents so we may collectively decide which are useful and which are detrimental to the culture of resistance.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve set “alternative culture” against “oppositional culture,” knowing full well that real life is rarely lived in such stark terms. Many of these norms and behaviors form a continuum along which participants move with relative ease.

In my own experience, these conflicting currents have at times merged into a train wreck of the absurd and the brave, often in the same evening. The righteous vegan dinner of even more righteously shoplifted ingredients, followed by a daring attack on the fence at the military base, which included both spray painting and fervent Wicca-esque chanting—in case our energy really could bring it down—rounded out with a debrief by Talking Stick which became a foray into that happy land where polyamory meets untreated bipolar disorder (medication being a tool of The Man), a group meltdown of such operatic proportions that the neighbors called the police.

Ah, youth.

I was socialized into some of these cultural concepts and practices as a teenager. I know my way around a mosh pit, a womyn’s circle, and a chakra cleansing. I embraced much of the alternative culture for reasons that are understandable. At sixteen, fighting authority felt like life and death survival, and all hierarchy was self-evidently domination. Meanwhile, all around me, in quite varied venues, people said that personal change was political change—or even insisted that it was the only sphere where change was possible. I knew there was something wrong with that, but arguing with the New Age branch led to defeat by spiritual smugness and Gandhian clichés. The fact that I have a degenerative disease was always used as evidence against me by these people. Arguing with the militant, political branch (Did it really matter if someone ate her pizza with “liquid meat,” aka cheese? Was I really a sell-out if I saw my family on Christmas?) led to accusations of a lack of true commitment. With very little cross generational guidance and the absence of a real culture of resistance, I was left accepting some of these arguments despite internal misgivings.

Way too many potential activists, lacking neither courage nor commitment, are lost in the same confusion. It’s in the hope that we are collectively capable of something better that I offer these criticisms.

This focus on individual change is a hallmark of liberalism. It comes in a few different flavors, different enough that their proponents don’t recognize that they are all in the same category. But underneath the surface differences, the commonality of individualism puts all of these subgroups on a continuum. It starts with the virulently antipolitical dwellers in workshop culture; only individuals (i.e., themselves) are a worthy project and only individuals can change. The continuum moves toward more social consciousness to include people who identify oppression as real but still earnestly believe in liberal solutions, mainly education, psychological change, and “personal example.” It ends at the far extreme where personal lifestyle becomes personal purity and identity itself is declared a political act. These people often have a compelling radical analysis of oppression, hard won and fiercely defended. This would include such divergent groups as vegans, lesbian separatists, and anarchist rewilders. They would all feel deeply insulted to be called liberals. But if the only solutions proposed encompass nothing larger than personal action—and indeed political resistance is rejected as “participation” in an oppressive system—then the program is ultimately liberal, and doomed to fail, despite the clarity of the analysis and the dedication of its adherents.

Alternative vs. Oppositional Culture

Apathetic-to-hostile to concept of political engagement Consciously embraces resistance

Change seen in psychological and cultural terms Change seen in economic and political terms

Individual consciousness is the target Concrete institutions are targeted

Adolescent values of youth movement Adult values of discernment, responsibility

All authority is rejected out of hand Legitimate authority is accepted and cultivated

Rejection of moral judgment Strong moral code based on universal human rights

Attacks on conventions
all boundaries fair game
shock value
Attacks on power structures

Alienated individual valorized Loyalty and solidarity valued

Goal is to feel intense, “authentic,” unmediated emotions Goals are adult concerns: guide the community, socialize the young, enforce norms, participate in larger project of righting the world

A politics of emotion in which feeling states outweigh effective strategy or tactics A politics of community that values responsibility, mutual aid, work ethic—dependent on self-regulation of mature adults

Politics is who you are Politics is what you do

Human relations are corrupted in the act of political resistance; only right consciousness can prevail Human relations are corrupted by systems of power and oppression; justice must prevail even if it takes generations

Generalized withdrawal as strategy Withdraw loyalty from systems of oppression and the oppressors but active engagement to stop injustice

Moral vigor of youth cut off from action
horizontal hostility
questions of in-group/out-group
Idealism tempered by experience

Cultural appropriation Cultural reclamation and protection (oppressed group)
Cultural respect, political solidarity (allies)

The defining characteristic of an oppositional culture, on the other hand, is that it consciously claims to be the cradle of resistance. Where the alternative culture exists to create personal change, the oppositional culture exists to nurture a serious movement for political transformation of the institutions that control society. It understands that concrete systems of power have to be dismantled, and that such a project will require tremendous courage, commitment, risk, and potential loss of life. In the words of Andrea Dworkin,

As you can see there is a split to the root between the Romantics and the resistance, a split that’s been present for centuries. They both start with a rejection of some part of the established social order, but they identify their enemy differently, and from that difference they head in opposite directions. Again, this difference often forms a continuum in many people’s lived experience, as they move from yoga class to the food co-op to a meeting about shutting down the local nuclear power plant. But we need to understand the differences between the two poles of the continuum, even if the middle is often murky. Those differences have been obscured by two victories of liberalism: the conflation of personal change with political change, and the broad rejection of real resistance. But a merely alternative culture is not a culture of resistance, and we need clarity about how they are different.

For the alternative culture—the inheritors of the Romantic movement—the enemy is a constraining set of values and conventions, usually cast as bourgeois. Their solution is to “create an alternative world within Western society” based on “exaggerated individualism.”28 The Bohemians, for instance, were direct descendants of the Romantic movement. The Bohemian ethos has been defined by “transgression, excess, sexual outrage, eccentric behavior, outrageous appearance, nostalgia and poverty.”29 They emphasized the artist as rebel, a concept that would have been incomprehensible in the premodern era when both artists and artisans had an accepted place in the social hierarchy. The industrial age upset that order, and the displaced artist was recast as a rebel. But this rebellion was organized around an internal feeling state. Stephen Spender wrote in his appropriately titled memoir World Within World, “I pitied the unemployed, deplored social injustice, wished for peace, and held socialist views. These views were emotional.”30 Elizabeth Wilson correctly names Bohemia as “a retreat from politics.”31 She writes, “In 1838, Delphine de Girardin commented on the way in which the best-known writers and artists were free to spend their time at balls and dances because they had taken up a stance of ‘internal migration.’ They had turned their back on politics, a strategy similar to the ‘internal exile’ of East European dissidents after 1945.”32

The heroization of the individual, in whatever admixture of suffering and alienation, forms the basis of the Romantic hostility to the political sphere. The other two tendencies follow in different trajectories from that individualism. First is a valuing of emotional intensity that rejects self-reflection, rationality, and investigation. For instance, Rosseau wrote, “For us, to exist is to feel; and our sensibility is incontestably more important than reason.”33 Second is a belief that the polis, the political life of society, is yet another stultifying system for the romantic hero to reject:

The Beatniks were inheritors of this tradition. Their main project was to “reject … the conformity and materialism of the middle class,” mostly through experimentation with drugs and sex, and to lay claim to both emotion and art as unmediated and transcendent.35 But the Beatniks were a small social phenomenon. They didn’t blossom into the hippies until the demographics of both the baby boom and the middle class provided the necessary alienated youth in the 1960s.