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Much Ado About Nothing? - Ole Riis

or: Whatever Happened to the Youth Rebellion ?

This article is an essay on the connections between the youth rebellion,the new marxist movement, the new religious movements.. .and the deafening silence from the established Christian churches about all this. The article is in three parts of which the first and second are based on the manuscript for a lecture at the Ecumenical Youth Camp at Ebeltoft, Denmark 1978.

Estuans interius          
seething inside

ira vehementi  
with boiling rage

in anaritudine 
in bitterness

loquor me menti;        
I talk to myself.

factus de materia,       
Made of matter

cinis elementi 
risen from dust

similis sun folio,         
I am like a leaf

de quo ludunt venti.   
tossed in play by the winds.


      Carmina Burana, prob. appx. 1300


Come gather 'round people where-ever you roam
and admit that the waters around you have grown
and accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
if your time to you is worth saving
then you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone
for the times they are a-changing

     Dylan appx. 1963
Part 1: What Happened in 68 ?

Did the "youth rebellion cone as a surprise, or was it just the logical continuation of a trend? Let us first concentrate on the young people involved. The young people of 68 were brought up in the post-war period. If we allowdiscussion to concentrate initially on the middle-class youth in Western Europe and USA, we can say that the educational ideology of their upbringing was "liberal education" in opposition to "authoritarian education". The young people were allowed quite a degree of self-determination. They were as regards material things living in a historically unique period of abundance. And the ideological setting of their lives was cold-war anti-communism and the defence of democratic values. These young people were generally characterized by an upward mobility in formal education. And higher education was ideologically identical with neo-positivism in most sciences and in some areas of the humanities also. Lundberg's optimistic idealism was representative of the view-point such young people met at college: "Science can save us...". Science, technology, The American Way, Nato.

And then something cracked.
The Happy 60s ?

But wait a little: the picture is not complete yet. The young were the obvious role-players in the rebellion. But every opera hns not only heroes and heroines. It has a chorus, orchestra, workers and managers, not in the spotlight,but just as important for the play. In the happy 60s the "old middle class" in C.W. Mill's terms was crushed by competition. Small shops closed, and big supermarkets and corporations took over. There were many who were not so happy in "the happy 60s". Nevertheless the small tragedies did not add up to a rebellion from the old middle class, (o r only to a small degree, i.e. French poujadism).That was because there was a corresponding expansion of job-positions for the new middle-class open to the formerly self-employed. The workers were both better off and worse off in the late 60s than in the 50s. Unemployment was far lower, and payment in real terms was better. But the GOs was also the period where the thumb-screws were given another twist: Rationalization, time-studies, automation, etc. The 60s was a time, where much was written by social scientists about the problems of "mass society", i.e. automation, mass media, megalopolis, bureaucracy ect. - hut nothing was done, as these phenomena were identified as belonging to man's historic destiny. There was no longer any question of ideology. The US and the USSR would converge little by little because of the demands of technical progress. Bell became famous when he talked about the end of ideology.... but behind the seeming lack of some conscious goal or guide-lines for society amongst politicians, there lurked a purpose and goal, so obvious that no-one discussed it: Goods, market-values, money, living-standard, status symbols...
Rebellion against the affluent society

In the 60s affluence was enjoyed by the middle-class, discussed, and sometime problematised, for example by Galbraith, to name the most famous. An important part of the economy changed its focus from the production of goods in obvious demand, to the small luxuries, i.e. the gimmick for the man who has everything. Salesmanship and marketing be-came really important sectors of economic life. Consumer ideology became more openly hedonistic. The pornutopian trend was simply the logical conclusion to general consumerism. When it is legal and even positively valued to roam around in flashy cars, devour expense liquor, inhale polluted air from burning dried leaves wound up in white paper.. why should not the devouring of sex also be legitimate ? In the progress of capitalism, all sectors of life tend to be split up into a private sphere, and a commodity-sphere; and all persons and things are treated as commodities. Man even becomes a consumer of religion. He chooses his religion in the supermarket of life-styles. And, as a further, logical step, salvation is offered as a graded commodity in some of the new religious movements, as in the times of Tetzel: The more you can buy, the more you get.

The heroes of the age of consumerism were the young, energetic, potent, affluent, beautiful... hence the shock when the pampered young rebelled. But were the young really the heroes - or were they just puppets, held in strings of advertisement, media... who suddenly cut their strings and turned against the puppet-masters, and bit the hands who fed them with Donald Duck, Coca Cola… mascara, blue jeans, rock records and all those indispensable items of modern youth culture ?

Many tiny streams flowed together and formed the historical flood that broke the dam. One factor was the Weber-Fechner law, which in popular terms runs as follows: One glass of beer is fine, a glass of whisky on top is super, a double of Glenfiddich on top of that is good... but in the long run, you will end up vomiting, if you continue. And, in a way, the middle-class youngsters ended vomiting all those material goods that their parents had pursued during their whole life. As if this pursuit of goods was the very meaning of life - a new holy grail. Another factor was the confrontation of democratic ideals with historical realities. Many of the young never quite understood the political double-talk. They made the mistake of taking the speeches serious. All the greater was their shock as a result, when the mask fell. In Algiers, for the French, in the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam for the Americans - above all in Vietnam, because so many, in the US and in Europe, for long held on to the naive hope that the leathernecks and GIs were sent to defend truth and democracy.. and not United Fruit, ITT and Rockefeller.

Another factor again was the accumulation of questions, important but unanswerable within the framework: "science = positivism". Questions about pollution, resources, waste etc. were raised. Most important of all was the question about "the quality of life". Yet, because the quality-problem could only be answered by "the system" in quantitative terms, in marketable commodities, at the same time as that kind of answer was being refuted, the basic presupposition of buy-and-throw-away-consumerism was undermined and the "system" inevitably shaken to its foundation. The sky-scraper was built upon sand.

Many factors contributed, but the only one of those I will mention here is the vastly extended output of international information created in the 60s, when the "telly" became standard equipment in most families in the industrial world. Clippings from the Vietnam-war were cut in between Perry Mason and Laredo. And politicians without Tv-flair were as outdated as silent-movie actors in the 30s. A new kind of contact was experienced. Superficial, giving only an illusion of being "real" and "close" - but nevertheless significant. No discussion of the youthrebellion would be complete without mentioning the pop culture. We have earlier in human history seen cultures with age cohorts set free from the general standards, living as sub-cultures with their own norms. But there is probably no precedence for an age-cohort with such a specific new creative content. The jazz-generation was in a way a predecessor. But the cultural traits of the jazz-generation did not to a comparable degree find expression in such specific crazes and fads. More important, however, is the fact that most of the cultural traits of the jazz-generation were created FOR it by members of older age-cohorts, while the beat-generation succeeded in creating something for itself, by itself. Some of the more obvious cultural traits were a hair-do and clothing that defied the standards of the bourgeosie. The scorn vented on long hair and unisex-dresses is hardly comprehensible today. The young somehow broke with the standards of the middle-class in relation to bebavior and sex-roles. But these traits were only part of the general undermining of a functionalistic culture We can point to the youth-revival as a break away from liniar-rational forms, and pop-art as an effort to create a re-evaluation of cartoons, ad-posters etc…