We look back – perhaps forward – to the counterculture of the 1960s to try to understand optimism, or possibility, or hope. The abolition of the future over the course of the decades between then and now creates a clean, blank break, an insurmountable barrier in the collective (un)consciousness, that renders many of the ideas for radically new, collective styles of living, doing and being incomprehensible to us, the generations born after the ‘end of history’. The impossibility, to our 21st century minds, of alternative modes of social reproduction, for example, is the result, and process, of what cultural theorist Mark Fisher (1968-2017) called capitalist realism – the doctrine we are all subjected to which claims that the way things are is the only way that they can be, and that any attempt to do anything else is doomed to failure. There Is No Alternative.
At the time of his death, Fisher had begun to work on an antidote to capitalist realism, a book that was to be entitled Acid Communism, of which we only have the incomplete introduction. At the very beginning, he inverts the dominant leftist thought of the 2010s, finally extricating us from the confused mire of the Occupy movement of the beginning of the decade:
Instead of seeking to overcome capital, we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy. We on the left have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops, its teargas, and all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block the emergence of this Red Plenty.
The counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, then, becomes not an anomaly, a surprising deviation from the norm, but rather a short-lived unfolding of life as it would exist temporarily released by the slackened grip of capital. The political and financial priesthood of capital learned more, and more quickly, from this period than the left – even today, a generation and a half later, we are still catching up.
There’s a lot to be gained from reading Fisher’s introduction to Acid Communism, and from the transcripts of his Postcapitalist Desire seminars at Goldsmiths from around the same time, published under that title by Repeater Books this year. It makes a great deal of sense to base this counter-hegemonic framing, wherein capitalism is positioned as the ‘anti-’, in the counterculture of the ‘60s as the most recent glimpse of the possibility of life unrestrained by capital and its individualism. But if it is true that what Fisher calls ‘Red Plenty’ is suppressed to the benefit of the richest and most powerful, surely we can follow it back further than a half-century – perhaps further back than the emergence of capitalism.
When I read about the radical political implications of the 1960s’ countercultural experiments in different ways of living – and living together – it makes me think of nothing so much as the Beguines and the heretical religious movement known as the Heresy of the Free Spirit. Almost 800 years ago, religious nonconformists in Western Europe lived a sometimes-nomadic communal lifestyle in which they sought unmediated mystical union with God. Much was made by Church authorities of alleged sexual ‘depravity’ amongst adherents of the Free Spirit, much as the sexual practises and drug use within the 1960s counterculture has been foregrounded to the detriment of the seriousness of the political ideals of the movement.
The Beguines, and their male counterparts, the Beghards, are sometimes associated with the Heresy of the Free Spirit, though it is unclear the extent to which these two religious (and political) stances were intertwined – it is even unclear the extent to which the Heresy of the Free Spirit was a coherent countercultural movement and how much it was invented by the Church in order to malign any deviation from officially acceptable ways of living. This too, is similar to the way conformist media reported on ‘hippies’ during the ‘60s and ‘70s, eliding the huge scope of disparate thought and belief within the movement, imposing, as conformists, a fabricated conformity onto nonconformity.
But within the Beguines, at least, there was serious thought, deep religious contemplation with radical political implications. The extant text that best encapsulates this is The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls and Who Remain Only in Wanting and Desire of Love by Marguerite Porete (c.13thC – 1310). I do not understand the title, much less the stages by which the adherent is led down through ego-death into the mystical light of union with the Godhead. Today we would perhaps understand the text as psychedelic.
It is perhaps that these sects who sought to destroy the ego (annihilate the soul), which they saw as a barrier to experiencing in its fullness the grace of God, were considered heretical that South and East Asian religious traditions – Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism – were plundered by the ‘60s counterculture in Western Europe and America, in the search for non-individualistic frameworks of belief. European texts of this kind were suppressed and destroyed for centuries – many copies of The Mirror, for example, were burnt by the Inquisition, as was Marguerite Porete herself. In my understanding, the political implications of the text and others like it, which incline toward the equality of all, the equal sharing of resources and egalitarian communal living, were at least as much the reason for the violent backlash as any disagreements of a more theological or spiritual kind.
A repeat of the 1960s now is inconceivable and even undesirable – few long term changes were achieved, and those concessions that were made have been clawed back by the capitalist centre and right over the intervening decades. Even less so can we imagine the Beguines of Porete’s day transposed onto the 21st century. But, as Fisher argues, it would be wrong to write off the whole of the counterculture as a political dead-end, learning nothing from it. Most of all, our contemporary melancholy must be blown apart by an optimism akin to that of the ‘60s.
It cannot be forced, nor can we predict where it will come from, but our political optimism must surely begin with the knowledge that there is an alternative, and there always has been; that in the past it has emerged as the heretical movement of the Free Spirit, as the Diggers in the 17th century, in the ‘Going to the People’ movement of the Narodniks in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, and most recently in the experiments in nomadic and communal living in the counterculture of the ‘60s. There are alternatives, and those who benefit from the status quo have always had to work very hard to keep them suppressed.
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