Why The Hippies Failed: The Futility of Cultural Rebellion in the 60’s and the 70’s

The years of rebellion.  Of challenging authority.  Of unrest and desire for change.

All these copious energies didn’t succeed in pushing their society towards change.  In fact, they dutifully pushed the pendulum one way for a little while and then let it go.

This period is seen in retrospect as a time for new ideas, yet nearly every movement or faction was at most pseudo-intellectual.  ‘Original’ ‘ideologies’, were advertised with catchy slogans:  “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Then what!?

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

What happens when you turn 30 and have attachments to established ideas?

Many period organizations flaunted their activism, their ‘deep’ and radical thinking, their protests, their new styles of dress or public nudity.

There was constant display and drama, but the failure of the many rebellion cultures was their almost unanimous lack of a complete and compelling ideology.  Seemingly every group was wrapped up merely in the thrill of breaking rules.

No one seems to have really honestly thought about a world where the rules were broken for good.  Beyond fuzzy notions of a final triumph of love, peace, and freedom there was utter vacuum.  To the extent that there was any thought at all, they seemed to believe that world and its problems would be solved with new hairstyles and hip catchphrases.

The aversion expressed towards persons over 30 was indicative of the mood.  No coherent idea of a future existed.  A group of young people embraced a widespread fantasy that they could be rebels living forever in the first glamorous party days after the revolution.

No one was seriously asking:

-What happens after our revolution has succeeded?

-What happens after our rules become the new establishment?

-Are we the first people to live in small groups of co-dependent members?  If not, why would it result in a society of pure love this time if it didn’t succeed before?

-When societies go through a change in leadership, existing hierarchies re-establish themselves. Why would the final triumph of our movement be any different?

-Doesn’t it take more than drugs and slogans to hold together a society for any length of time?  Does our vision produce a society better than the previous one?  If so, why?

From thinkers such as Aldous Huxley came the idea of using hallucinatory drugs used by tribal shamans around the world to achieve personal enlightenment.  The counterculture embraced these ideas in theory, but the reality was one of far less thought and imagination.  The drugs were much more a means of self-indulgence and social defiance than self discovery.  They were another way of fitting in with the counterculture along with the costumes and the music.  They had shock value in the orthodox culture and therefore the ability to get much desired attention.  Ultimately, the sacred drugs of the shamans joined the canon of party drugs.

The hippies are a prime example of the shallowness and banality of social defiance for its own sake.  If one fails to move beyond breaking the existing rules they are still very much a part of the system they denounce.  It is the rules of their society that define them and give them meaning.  They need the accepted order to give them recognition as outsiders and make them into celebrities.  Success in overthrowing the orthodoxy would destroy them.  So they are limited to making loud noises before they eventually retire to a life of obedience.  Having vented their youthful passions in futility, they are ultimately more docile than previous generations.

The shallow thought, the lack of a concept of future, the absence of a coherent grounding ideology meant the 60s and 70s counterculture more resembled a child running away from home for a few days rather than a serious attempt to leave home and start anew.

The case of the hippies teaches us that undertaking social protest with a mob mentality is a way to become a mere cyclical fluctuation of the quotidian.  A blip on the graph of society.  A simple swing of the pendulum.  A force soon nullified by exhausting itself and by instigating an opposite reaction.  Indeed, the hippies in their recklessness did much to discredit criticism of the orthodoxy for decades to come.

Someone who would really bring change has a responsibility to move beyond platitudes and demagoguery.  To create a true philosophical foundation for a new order.  To study past upheavals and plan for all the setbacks, excesses, and downfalls.  To figure out why predecessors failed.  To know why their system is better after the revolution.

A shallow ‘rebel’ lives in the present and dies after the day of revolution.  A true rebel thinks first of the world after rebellion and constantly asks, “Is this world truly better than the one we have now?”

10 responses to “Why The Hippies Failed: The Futility of Cultural Rebellion in the 60’s and the 70’s

  1. Somewhere around 30-35 I think we go into a second puberty. We start to develop some unique talents and really mature into uniqueness. It’s telling that they would pick everyone above that age to rebel against. Though you can take this with a grain of salt, I’m 22 so I haven’t experienced it yet 😛

    • I hear lots of people criticizing the current protests saying stuff like, “These guys are nothing compared to the 60s and 70s protesters.”

      They really don’t get it. People of any age group or walk of life are welcomed by the current dissenters. They are far more savvy and effective than the reckless, directionless, strident, violent 60s organizers.

      The full time hippies and dedicated revolutionaries were actually a very tiny and exclusive subculture of young people.
      What tiny communes and settlements they had collapsed into chaos in short order.
      They were the ultimate in impotent dissent.
      Once the Vietnam war was over, their group became an anachronism.
      Washed up burned out from psychedelic drugs, the fact that they never truly cared about or planned for a meaningful future was painfully evident. Their party was over.

      The present protesters have much more promise and vision than the original hippies did.
      They already have a wider appeal and greater influence than the old-school hippies ever had and they’re still growing.

      To get an idea of the damage done by the recklessness and pointlessness of the original hippies look at one of the most popular criticisms of anyone who protests: “They’re dirty hippies.”

      And as I’ve pointed out, the current protests are a manifestation of the internet age, they cannot really be compared to older actions of public dissent. They’re a whole new thing and most people still haven’t caught on.

  2. The Hippy enlightenment movement was rubbish, The Hippies were just Blind Followers and As their ICON BOB Dylan himself said don’t Follow Leaders just Watch the Parking Meters…
    The Real Deals were the Existentialists, The Beat Generations etc… Searching for truth. They were not just Trying to have a ‘Good Time’ And ‘Peace and Love Bro’
    They were grappling with things…

  3. Giovanni,
    I have to write a paper about the hippies for my Core Humanities class. I stumbled upon this article and it had me cracking up! I think your analysis is SPOT ON. I love your borderline-cynical perspective of this issue. I completely agree with your assessment, I plan to write my essay using similar ideas and will cite a few of your arguments, if you don’t mind. Yours is the first essay I’ve ever come across that exposes the hippies for the “all-talk-no-action-burn-out-group” they were. I am fascinated by anything and everything 60s and 70s, so I really appreciate your article here.
    -Kat L.

  4. This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in a very, very long time. “The case of the hippies teaches us that undertaking social protest with a mob mentality is a way to become a mere cyclical fluctuation of the quotidian.” Really? If you write that sentence in plain English, it should become quite clear to anyone that it’s actually meaningless. Thanks for nothing.

    • Granted, that passage is wordier than it needs to be, I was having some fun with the English language, but my meaning should be quite clear since I make an analogy with the swaying of a pendulum: an action that is futile because all it does is instigate the opposite reaction.

      So in this article, I ask: When it comes to mass social movements, how do you break that cycle?

      You could envision someone who’s never driven before trying to drive a car.
      They overcompensate each time they steer, going all over the road.
      A new driver learns quickly, but since mass societies aren’t individuals capable of individual action…they can never learn…

  5. All the hippies really wanted was hedonism. There only interest was gratification through sex and drugs. They just labeled it peace and love to sugar coat it. Of course they were destined to fail.

  6. The hippies were hedonistic egoists, as other people have commented, they were destined to fail because they were clueless as to how to truly enact change. What they did enact however was a feeling in the youth of their era that social change peaked in the sixties, and that all future generations will have failed prior to even being born. This is not true, but the effect was to create a sense of disdain toward Gen X, Y, and mellinnials in spite of the fact that we are far more egalitarian, have indeed started a new culture and have been the epicenter of the largest protests in history.
    The hippies not only distrusted people over thirty at the time, they also distrusted their unborn children and their grandchildren. Still willing to bastardize us as though we are to blame for all social ills, their effect will be felt until they are dead. It is that simple. Luckily humans dont live forever, or else we would be in real trouble.

    • Sorry to necro this thread but Dan’s statement is awesome. The boomers got to live the middle-class dream with little effort and a high school education and left us with a corporate dystopian nightmare where college grads work two part-time jobs with no benefits to live in a shitbox apartment in their 40’s. Thanks a lot!

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