Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ellul on Hippies

Jacques Ellul has a wonderfully insightful comment on hippies in Violence. I commend it to you.

"…there is also a pacifist idealism, and this is especially suspect. I can hardly omit mentioning the hippies in this connection. They, too, have been generous minded. There is, of course, the matter of drugs and sexual freedom, but this has not been the most important thing about the hippies. They have been opposed to society as a whole, and with good reason. They repudiate society because of its conformism, its moral emptiness, its loss of soul. They proclaim Flower Power—perhaps in opposition to Black Power, certainly in opposition to all forms of violence. They predict the end of the West—and they are at least partly right, for the only ideal the West cherishes is economic growth. Their appeal to love, their partial adoption of the thought of Krishna, their repudiation of nationalism in favor of a sense of common humanity and universal understanding, are all laudable. And their appeal to the individual experience his initiative so that he may discover what "his thing" is and help to shape a new nonmoralistic ethic suggests what true ethical Christian might be. All this is truly valid and profoundly serious, however debatable the external aspects of hippiedom may be. We ought to join in their insistence on non-violence as the absolute principle, in their condemnation of all forms of violence.

Unfortunately, all this splendid elan seems doomed from the start, because the hippies have no understanding of what their real place in society is. What I censure in them is not their vice or their contentiousness, but their complete lack of realism. (Of course, as we all know, they will say that they do not want to be realists, for to be so would mean acquiescing in the very things they reject in our rationalistic civilization.) They do not know that the reality of this society—a violent society, devoted to technology and to production—consumption—is the basis of their own existence. They are a supplement to this same society—the flower on its hat, its song, its garland, its firework display, its champagne cork. They reject and indict it—so they think. In reality, they are only the product of its luxuriousness. They cannot exist materially unless this society functions fully. For insofar as they work little or not at all, ye consume a not inconsiderable amount of goods (even if they refuse to use machines), they are an unproductive load on that society. Only a society that has reached a certain level of production and consumption can support a few of its members in idleness. The hippies are in fact a product of the luxury that a highly productive society can afford. Obviously, the hippie movement could not exist in a poorer society or in one experiencing a period of limited growth, simply because, in such societies, all the young people would be regimented and forced to work hard or perhaps they would starve to death. But if they live in a rich society, they depend in fact on the existence of those economic mechanisms, technical rigors, and open or hidden violences that form the warp of that society. Were it not for that society's morality of high returns, exploitation, competition, and "progress" (though "progress," the hippies rightly object, is a misnomer), they simply could not exist.

Yet, on the other hand, the hippies seem to be the answer to a deep need experienced by that same society. Such a society is subject to boredom. Unconsciously, it senses its own lack of youth and enjoyment. Gloomy, dull, and joyless, it thinks of itself neither as representing the utmost in good living nor as a paradise. It is always on the prowl, trying to discover what it is that is wanting. Such a society provides leisure and distractions, but these are not enough; you have to know how to use them! The members of such a society provide leisure and distractions, but these are not enough; you have to known how to use them! The members of such a society are not happy, do not feel that they are free or better than others. They need a supplement (in addition to what they have, of course!); and suddenly, there is the hippie, the perfect answer to their need. Need finds a way. The hippies introduce color, youth, pleasure. To be sure, they are a bit shocking, but a society held together by boredom is more or less proof against shock. The important point in all this is that the hippie phenomenon, far from attacking this society, meets its need, gives it what it lacked, what it must have if it is to remain what it is. For the hippies bring the complement of joy to this rationalized, producing society, and so it can go on to even better developments. The hippies mistake is that they think they are outside that society, when in fact they are its origin and its product." (pages 119-121)

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