Heretics of the 1980′s

on September 11, 2010

There’s much more going on during a romantic break, of course, than simply a new “shadow” vision popping up to reject the dominant partnership. The same spirit of opposition also infuses the emergent visions, provoking them to bring forth dreams of utopian alternatives to the existing order of things.

It seems as though every dominant partnership makes its most significant contributions during its initial phase, when it is focused on basic problem-solving. But as it shifts from innovation to consolidation, a kind of ruthless pragmatism takes over. That shift is what provokes the distinctive mixture of cynicism and frustrated idealism that marks the romantic break.

The science-and-democracy partnership, for example, was at its best during the New Deal years of the middle and late 1930’s — but with the onset of World War II, this period of social reform came to an end. Democratic freedoms became the stuff of wartime propaganda even as they were being suspended for the duration. By the end of the war, the United States and its allies had adopted policies, such as the bombing of civilians, that would have to be considered war crimes by any objective standard.

The equivalent moral breakdown for the democracy-and-chaos partnership occurred between about 1984 and 1987. It was marked by the Reagan administration’s illegal arming of the Contras, the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-86, the savings and loan scandal, and the “greed is good” mentality skewered in the 1987 film Wall Street.

Two ground-breaking graphic novels of 1986-87 can be taken as epitomizing the loss of faith in democracy-and-chaos. Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is summarized by Wikipedia as being “set in a dystopian near-future version of Gotham City. … The current American President appears to be Ronald Reagan or someone using his image, and the Cold War is still ongoing.”

Alan Moore’s even darker and more ambivalent Watchmen takes place in a world where morally compromised superheroes have brought America to a position of unchallenged global dominance and Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as president. Moore himself described the story as “anti-Reaganism.”

This kind of darkness and alienation — often combined with a studied rejection of consumerism — characterized much music, art, and fashion of the middle 80’s. But there were also more positive manifestations whose idealism was based in the emerging holism and multiculturalism visions.

One of the most striking of these was the unique subculture which developed around the Grateful Dead. The Dead were one of the few offshoots of the original 60’s counterculture to have survived the 70’s with their idealism intact — perhaps because they were more closely affiliated with holism than with chaos — and this attracted a cohort of devoted fans.

In the 80’s, those fans began to form a permanent community, following the band around, creating Dead-related merchandise, and exchanging concert tapes. These activities were strongly encouraged by the band itself, which adopted a relaxed attitudes towards copyright that closely paralleled Stallman’s Hacker Ethic.

The most broadly-based dissident movement of the 80’s, however, was environmentalism.

Ecological attitudes had gone mainstream in the 1970’s, as indicated by the environmental sympathies of the Carter administration and the founding of the first Green Party in Germany in 1980. But a growing sense among environmentalists that nature deserved to take priority over both society and individuals meant that “deep ecology” could never be fully compatible with democracy-and-chaos.

In the course of the 80’s, the undisguised hostility of the Reagan administration both marginalized environmentalists and forced them to define their beliefs more exactly. By the middle of the decade, the scattered insights of the 70’s had been synthesized into a utopian image of alternate possibility — one that brought together a holistic view of nature, a dedication to non-hierarchical forms of organization, and a deep affinity for eco-spirituality.

This development can be clearly seen in a sequence of drawings by underground cartoon artist R. Crumb, which were first published in 1979 in CoEvolution Quarterly, a magazine that had spun off from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. The dozen black-and-white images offered a series of snapshots of a single location, changing from uninhabited landscape, to farmland, to small town crossroads, and finally to concreted-over urban intersection. The sequence concluded with the ominous question, “What Next?”

The drawings were reprinted in 1982 as a colored poster — but when the poster was reissued in 1988, three more had been added at the bottom. In them, Crumb offered a choice of possible answers to his own question: Ecological Disaster, Techno-Fix on the March (featuring aircars and futuristic architecture), and The Ecotopian Solution.

That ecotopian alternative was clearly the closest to Crumb’s heart. The landscape has become wooded again, but it also appears to support a substantial human population. Small residential domes — straight out of John W. Campbell’s “Forgetfulness” — nestle among the trees, and inhabitants of varied ages, ethnicities, and cultural styles interact in a relaxed and harmonious manner.

After 1988, however, the cultural mood shifted again, in much the same way as it had after World War II. The democracy-and-chaos partnership was getting its mojo back, and it was prepared to eradicate anything that might stand in its way.

The onset of this phase might be dated to January 1989, when George H.W. Bush stated flatly in his inaugural address, “We know what works: Freedom works. We know what’s right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.”

Over the course of the next year, the collapse of Soviet-style communism appeared to confirm Bush’s dogmatic assertions. That June, Francis Fukuyama published an essay — “The End of of History?” — which proclaimed that the twentieth century was ending with “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” and offered as evidence “the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture.”

Alhough the period did not spark anything as virulent as the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 40’s and early 50’s, there was a definite political crackdown, focusing on what appeared to be the two most serious threats to property rights.

One of these was the environmental group Earth First!, which had been formed in 1980 but entered a more radical phase in 1985, when it adopted the tactic of tree-sitting as a desperate expedient to prevent the logging of old-growth forest. Additional forms of direct action followed, leading to the sabotage of an Arizona ski lift in 1987 — and that in turn provoked a large-scale FBI infiltration of the group, climaxing in 1989 with a number of arrests for alleged eco-terrorism.

A more surprising target for federal intervention, however, was the loose brotherhood of computer hackers whose attempts to break into government and corporate systems and spy on their secrets became the focus of a investigation by the US Attorney’s office in Phoenix in 1990.

As recounted by Bruce Sterling in The Hacker Crackdown, one of the odder by-products of the affair was a Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games of Austin, Texas, publisher of the role-playing game “Illuminati.” The government agents not only carried off all the company’s computers but refused to give them back on the grounds that the forthcoming user’s guide for the “Cyberpunk” game was really “a manual for computer crime.”

That might have been the end of the matter, except that the various heresies of the 80’s were already starting to converge. Around the same time as the Steve Jackson raid, the FBI was paying visits to attendees at the annual Hackers Conference in hopes of finding clues to the theft of some Apple software — and by doing so, they managed to stir up a group of particularly capable and assertive individuals.

Stewart Brand’s Point Foundation, which had established the Hackers Conference in 1984, was by then deeply enmeshed in the computer subculture. In that same year, according to Sterling, it ditched CoEvolution Quarterly and replaced it with the Whole Earth Software Catalog. And in 1985, it set up the WELL, a pioneering bulletin board which — not surprisingly, given Brand’s own history with the Merry Pranksters — “was crammed with fans of the Grateful Dead.”

As a result, when Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow found himself on the receiving end of a visit from the FBI, he naturally wrote up his experience for the WELL, where he was something of a superstar. Several days later, he and high-level programmer Mitch Kapor got together and announced the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to “raise and disburse funds for education, lobbying, and litigation in the areas relating to digital speech and the extension of the Constitution into Cyberspace.”

At the same time, Barlow brought the Steve Jackson incident to public notice, and the newly-formed organization, in which Brand also played a role, sponsored the case of Steve Jackson Games, Inc. v. United States Secret Service — which concluded in 1993 with a largely favorable verdict and $50,000 in damages.

I’m finding a strange kind of synchronicity in all of this. When I started writing about Stewart Brand last April, it was because I’d tagged him as being a particularly early devotee of the holism vision. I had no idea that his name would keep coming up the way it has — and even when I started this latest entry a week ago, I didn’t expect to run into Brand yet again.

But that’s the way it is with emerging visions. They’re not just about abstract philosophical ideas. They also act as organizing principles, magnetic centers based on affinity which draw their most passionate followers into ever more tightly-wound patterns.

It’s only in a vision’s final days, when it is maintained not by visionaries but by institutions, that it loses that magnetic quality and becomes sick and hollow and dependent on coercive force — as was becoming true of the democracy vision by 1990.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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