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‘The Pursuit of Loneliness’: death of a dream

Written By: - Date published: 11:10 am, July 4th, 2013 - 33 comments
Categories: activism, class war, community democracy, Left, political alternatives, sustainability, us politics - Tags: ,

I came of age in the hippy era when Timothy Leary was telling all us young folks to “tune in and drop out” – that is to drop out of the pursuit of material gains and careerist ambitions.  And then from the women’s movement came to slogan that “the personal is political”.

At that time there seemed to be so much wrong with the American meritocratic and individualistic dream of the pursuit of happiness.  New Zealand youth, while strongly influenced by both US and UK popular culture, wasn’t so far down that route.  The welfare state was something to treasure, but all was not well in 60s New Zealand. And from the late 60s to the 70s, as in the US and Europe, many in NZ were on the streets protesting.

Anti-Apartheid protest: Te Ara

Anti-Apartheid protest: Te Ara, 1970

For those perpetuating the dominant rugby-based culture, the pursuit of happiness was a quarter acre section in a white, heterosexual, male-dominated, suburban wasteland. Not quite as individualistic as the US,  New Zealand’s dominant culture was focused on one’s own quarter acre and the acquisition of material things.  This somewhat removed middle New Zealand from a community focused, democratic society: one that could work for the good of all, and especially work to end the inequalities that damaged the lives of the least wealthy, the least powerful, and those with least cultural capital.

I am reminded of this, when I read the obits today, for someone I actually hadn’t heard about before: yet, the story of his life echoes many of the themes of US 60s-70s counter-culture as filtered through Aotearoa of that time.  The Headline in The Washington Post:

Philip E. Slater, sociologist and social critic, dies at 86

Emily Langer’s article begins:

Philip E. Slater, a prominent sociologist and lodestar of the countercultural movement who abandoned academia to escape the hollow existence he decried in his best-selling volume “The Pursuit of Loneliness,” died June 20 at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. He was 86.

philip-slater-smiling Washington Post 2 July 2013

Harvard educated Slater had renounced his successful academic life, as chairman of the sociology department of Brandeis University in his early 40s. Prior to this, in his successful book, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point (1970),

Dr. Slater examined the cherished American value of individualism. He argued that it was not an absolute virtue, but rather the cause of the emptiness afflicting so many in his generation. He essentially argued that, as Americans strove harder for achievements, they pulled farther away from community and the fulfillment it offered.

After giving up his academic career, he got rid of as many material possessions as possible, and focused on writing, acting and participating in his local community.  He wrote other books and plays, and endured some hardships, but overall, felt his alternative life was worth it.

Paul Vitello’s New York Times obituary, provides more details of Slater’s life and work.  It puts Slater’s book, The Pursuit of Loneliness, in the context of other works that I knew in the 70s (The Greening of America was a major influence on NZ’s Values Party, seen by many as the forerunner to today’s NZ Green Party):

 Though it was just one of a tidal wave of sociological blockbusters published in 1970, including Charles A. Reich’s “The Greening of America” and Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock,” “The Pursuit of Loneliness” earned Mr. Slater rave notices. In The New York Times Book Review, the Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston called it “a brilliant, sweeping and relevant critique of modern America.”

Like many of his later works, the book explored the tension between the Lone Ranger individualist who occupies center stage in American myth and the communal interdependence that defines democracy in reality. He was an optimist, predicting in “The Temporary Society,” written with Warren Bennis in 1968, that democracy would triumph worldwide within 50 years. But he worried that democracy in his own country was declining, and that a combination of self-absorption and distrust of their government made Americans vulnerable to the appeal of authoritarianism.

Slater’s central focus on democracy and community over individualism, careerism and the pursuit of material wealth has much to commend it. And, as reported by Monterey County The Herald, he certainly seems to have embedded himself well into the local community at Santa Cruz.  According to his daughter, Dashka,

“… He was very absorbed by the natural environment, and it was a creative community that was small enough for him to jump into anything.”

[…] much of his early writing focused on the confining emotional boxes created by traditional gender roles and he was as interested in the emotional liberation of men as he was the political liberation of women. In 2008, Slater was able to publish “The Chrysalis Effect,” what he considered his magnum opus, outlining his various ideas.

And yet, for all that I agree with his ideas on community, democracy and gender, his ideas and practice lack an essential political core.  They incorporate the failings of a middle-class US 1970s counter-culture divorced from political activism: an activism that many were committed to in NZ and elsewhere in the 60s and 70s. Far easier to give up materialism and career, if you still have middle-class cultural capital. And ultimately, Slater’s cooperative, democratic ideals were largely marginalised by the “neoliberal” revolution that swept the world in the late 20th century.

A lifestyle-based philosophy of acting personally, locally and communally, fails to challenge the massive, powerful reach of wealthy, corporate and political elites. An effective left-wing politics needs to connect the local with the global. Grass-roots, cooperative activities need to be organised so as to significantly challenge the long reach of anti-democratic, plutocratic, “neoliberal” networks of power.

Thus dies another part of the US hippy dream: admirable social values, but politically lacking.  We can learn from the local anti-materialistic, community-based co-operative practice.  But the left needs to be far more focused on political and economic strategies, to challenge the treacherous reach of plutocratic and internationally networked power.

33 comments on “‘The Pursuit of Loneliness’: death of a dream ”

  1. The Gormless Fool formerly known as Oleolebiscuitbarrell 1

    Shine your teeth till meaningless.

  2. fender 2

    Nice article Karol.

    Highlights how NZ got short-changed when it comes to the name Slater.

  3. Sosoo 3

    Joe Heath and Andrew Potter showed pretty convincingly that the values of the counterculture and contemporary capitalism are the same thing. If anything, the counterculture represents a purer form of capitalism than the one it replaced. Case in point: the organic food movement.

    Many people seem to have a mental block that prevents them from understanding this, and that is why the left get no traction any more.

    Fighting “the man” is not rebelling against the system: it is the system.

    • karol 3.1

      Well, I think the 60s and 70s US counter-culture was absorbed into the status quo when it was separated from political struggle. There were both going on at the time in the US, Europe, Aussie and here – not necessarily by the same people

      Many ended up focusing purely on culture wars: maybe because changing one’s own life seemed easier and more manageable than taking on the whole system; or maybe it was just capitulation to capitalism and it’s aligned political power. Others never gave up the political struggle.

      There needs to be both culture change and political change in a way that makes them inseparable. Focusing on culture wars only is damaging.

    • Populuxe1 3.2

      Heath and Potter are very good. It is also worth noting that so-called countercultures only really spring up in countries where capitalist materialism has made the middle classes rich enough to sustain them.

      • Rogue Trooper 3.2.1

        yes, it is an easier road in possession of desirable ‘cultural capital’.

      • Draco T Bastard 3.2.2

        You mean the middle classes that come about due to socialist values and policies? The middle class that is slowly disappearing now that we’ve gone more capitalist?

        • Populuxe1 3.2.2.1

          Actually I think you’ll find the middle class first arose among the Dutch mercantile classes of the 17th century – capitalism, balanced with good Protestant ethics. But anyway yes, the middle class is being killed off by capitalism, and counterculture with it. Counterculture, both genuine and affected, is largely the product of academic education and middle class security. It is no coincidence that some of the greatest flowerings of counterculture took place in the US and Europe at the apex of utopian consumerism – the 1950s, 60s and 70s. There were genuine movements arising from the working class in the form of Punk, but I wouldn’t exactly call them politically revolutionary – which is to say, they might have embraced anarchy but few of them would have understood what anarchism actually is.

          • Rogue Trooper 3.2.2.1.1

            ‘they’ certainly didn’t appear to at the time; ‘Punk’ may be more enmeshed in revolutionary politics now though, along with reggae, rap etc.

          • Draco T Bastard 3.2.2.1.2

            It is no coincidence that some of the greatest flowerings of counterculture took place in the US and Europe at the apex of utopian consumerism – the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

            Which only came about due to the New Deal. Without that we would not have seen such a massive expansion of the middle class in the US and similar policies did the same here. Yes, we saw a middle class before then but it was much, much smaller than it is even now:

            Another definition equated the middle class to the original meaning of capitalist: someone with so much capital that they could rival nobles. In fact, to be a capital-owning millionaire was the essential criterion of the middle class in the industrial revolution.

            It is, after all, a rather amorphous term 😛

          • karol 3.2.2.1.3

            I think you’ll find the UK didn’t recover from WWII austerity, and begin to get into consumerism til well into the 60s. It was in the US that consumerism took off earlier. The Apex of UK (and NZ) consumerism really was in the 80s and 90s.

            Post WWII in Britain, the rise in working class culture (angry young men, kitchen sink drama) etc, was more to do with the rise in state education and the welfare state. A lot more people from working class backgrounds began to get to higher education than previously, even though the middle and upper classes still dominated in terms of education and power.

            Punk came later in the late 70s.

    • felix 3.3

      “Fighting “the man” is not rebelling against the system: it is the system.”

      Weird thing to say. What about fighting racism? Or sexism?

      Is that “the system” too?

      • Populuxe1 3.3.1

        Yes it is – the system isn’t a monolith, it’s an ecosystem of competing orthodoxies. There is nothing new under the sun.

        • felix 3.3.1.1

          Understood, but what is the point being made by classifying legitimate struggles as “fighting the man” in such a way as to frame them as meaningless or trite?

          • Populuxe1 3.3.1.1.1

            I don’t think it was framing them in that way at all, I think it was just suggesting a re-evaluation of perspective – that struggles, legitimate or not, actually all take place within the body of the beast as a natural part of its evolution (or devolution for that matter) – not from outside it – or perhaps not entirely outside it.

            • felix 3.3.1.1.1.1

              A statement so obvious and uncontroversial as to be itself meaningless.

              • Populuxe1

                That isn’t even a logical statement. Whatever. Perhaps instead of being abusive you might consider reframing your question.

            • karol 3.3.1.1.1.2

              So, pop, are you saying that ultimately no revolution or rebellion will be successful?

              Or is it possible to use that knowledge to stage a successful revolution from within?

              My post was all about needing to develop successful strategies for the political left.

              • Populuxe1

                No rebellion or revolution is ever successful because all it does is impose a new hierarchy and ideological orthodoxy, which – as always seems to be the case – will become increasingly oppressive in its demand for conformity and cementing power until resentment builds enough to trigger the next coup. Revolution is just going in circles.
                As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon pointed out to Karl Marx, just because you replace the hierarchy doesn’t mean the new hierarchy is going to change things because they’ve just got the taste of power. I think we need to get out of this whole left-right thing and into a new paradigm that is less us-them and more consensual.

                • karol

                  Why then are you even bothering coming here, pop. Politics, especially left wing politics, must seem like a lost cause to you?

                  Oh, well, no wonder you see no value in conceptions of left wing politics. But why bother at all? According to your analysis, society will have its own momentum, and will take it’s own direction whatever any of us try to do. Might as well just get on with your life and leave us alone.

                  • Populuxe1

                    The point, karol, is that while most of the commentors here may fall under the loose rubric of “left wing”, there is a vast diversity in their views – some of which seem more relevant to me than others, and on a stochastic basis may bring about holistic improvements. It would be more accurate to say that 2/3 of the time I see little “value in your conceptions of left wing politics”, and about 1/3 of the time for Draco and CV, about half in half for QoT, and to a greater or lesser degree to others. I am open to ideas and analysis, I am not open to the imposition of whole cloth ideological orthodoxy. You may think you’re preaching grass roots, but it all sounds very much top down to me.

                    • karol

                      Interesting comment, pop. But can you answer my question, following from your idea that it’s not possible to deliberately bring about change.

                      You just, as usual, slid off in another direction. You rarely seem to produce to a logical and consistent stream of argument?

                      Oh, but you also say in your last comment some views can bring about change. Contradictions from you – no consistency.

                      Where are my views top down?

                      And do you then agree that change can be brought about from grass roots activities from below?

                      And show me some of my “while cloth ideological orthodoxy”.

                      Citations needed.

                    • Populuxe1

                      ” But can you answer my question, following from your idea that it’s not possible to deliberately bring about change.”

                      On reflection it would probably be more accurate to say that it is impossible to predict whether change will result or not, particularly without using some variety of coercion or force. Hence the horrors of any second phase of revolution with the exception of the Americans – French, Russian etc.

                      “You just, as usual, slid off in another direction. You rarely seem to produce to a logical and consistent stream of argument?”

                      Because I am not an idealogue – my musings may be ad hoc and inconsistant, but they reflect my stream of thought as best I can manage in this communal medium.

                      “Oh, but you also say in your last comment some views can bring about change. Contradictions from you – no consistency.”

                      Yes, but you seem to be relying on teleological historical determinism to ensure that the changes you favour are the ones that take place. You cannot predict the synergies that and that is why it is inherently dangerous to force big contextual changes. Better to influence by example – the Fabians for example.

                      “Where are my views top down?”

                      Because your arguments are always framed in terms of what people *should* do without stopping to ask what people actually *want* without immediately dismissing those wants as coming from ignorance or manipulation.

                      “And do you then agree that change can be brought about from grass roots activities from below?”

                      I think they can be brought about be personal example and gentle encouragement, not radicalism.

                      “And show me some of my “while cloth ideological orthodoxy”.”

                      A typo, “whole cloth” obviously, and do you or do you not reject capitalism outright?

                      “Citations needed.”

                      Any of your posts you like.

                    • karol

                      pop @ 7.07pm.

                      You need to be more specific. For instance here, when you say;
                      Yes, but you seem to be relying on teleological historical determinism to ensure that the changes you favour are the ones that take place. You cannot predict the synergies that and that is why it is inherently dangerous to force big contextual changes. Better to influence by example – the Fabians for example.

                      Say what? Please show me where I do that? I have actually been questioning the course of history, as multi-faceted and an on-going struggle between diverse sections of society and power blocks. And I am looking back at history and trying to learn from it.

                      Yes, I start from the assumption that society will be better if it is more egalitarian, cooperative and inclusive, and less individualistic, materialist and competitive. Your comments also indicate you are making assumptions about the kind of society you prefer, and how to achieve it.

                      On the charge against me of saying what people “should” do: how can anyone present a political argument without mentioning things that one considers need to be done? You certainly spend a lot of time telling some of us here, in pretty blunt terms, where you think we are wrong and what we should be doing/saying instead

                      At the end of my post above I conclude (on considering the times I have lived through and my knowledge of society and history), that there are some general principles that need to be followed (my final paragraph). However, I leave it open as to the specifics. I am looking for a new left direction and approach and putting it out for discussion

                      You said:

                      Because your arguments are always framed in terms of what people *should* do without stopping to ask what people actually *want* without immediately dismissing those wants as coming from ignorance or manipulation.

                      That is way too general. Seems to be pointing to some argument about “false consciousness”. Whose wants “should” (heh) I consider? The people of Parnell? Those of Glen Innes campaigning for state housing? I do spend a lot of time attending to what people have to say about their lives, and to the conditions in which the least well off live.

                      Is it that I am ignoring what YOU want?

                      You said:

                      I think they can be brought about be personal example and gentle encouragement, not radicalism.

                      Ah yes. Well, I’ve been there. That is exactly the sort of attitude that was around during the 60s and 70s. It’s the sort of attitude that is behind the lifestyle approach of Slater that I have criticised in my post. Because that sort of attitude was highly prevalent in the counter culture – part of the culture wars that was meant to change society for the better.

                      And it delivered neoliberalism and increasing inequalities and consumerist values, with Slater and his ilk relegated to the margins.

                      On my “whole cloth” ideology. I think you have missed that I am still forming my political framework, while I do have some strongly held ideas. Do I reject capitalism outright? Hmmm… Actually, I’m not certain. Sometimes I do. In the past I have been more into social democracy and the welfare state.

                      But if you’re citing my posts, you will see that it is mostly “neoliberalism” that I explicitly reject: ie the extreme form of (allegedly) “free-market”, individualistic, corporate-dominated, rampant consumerism that took hold in the 80s. But I wouldn’t call it part of some broad and rigid ideology.

                      As I have mentioned in some comments and posts in the past, I accept some neomarxist ideas, have been quite strongly influenced by Foucault, as well as both radical and socialist feminism and anti-racism/anti-imperialism – still trying to find a way of integrating them.

                      Because I am not an idealogue – my musings may be ad hoc and inconsistant, but they reflect my stream of thought as best I can manage in this communal medium.

                      And yet you say them with such conviction. How can we therefore take your constant attacks on some of us seriously? Basically that just seems like a pretty lame attempt to make a strength out of a weakness.

  4. Rogue Trooper 4

    Beautiful article karol; we were discussing communal living as a next possible stage over dinner last night.
    Anyway, this is the trite cliche they trot out at some ‘communities’ (so they tell me 😉 )

    “God grant me the serenity to Accept the things I cannot change
    the Courage to change the things I can
    and the Wisdom to know the difference.” or some similar waffle. 😀

    • Molly 4.1

      Have had this conversation recently as well. It seems though, that communal living and intentional communities seem to have a lot of difficulty sustaining original intent.

      However, the Danish cohousing model, encourages intended residents to design and act as their developers, where the only requirement is to agree to live together to create a community.

      After 4 decades, Denmark has hundreds of cohousing communities – both rural and urban, ecological and conventional. As the model includes similar aspects to marae and pasifika culture, those demographics might benefit from adopting it.

      Diversity of views and beliefs also seems to be typical for long term success. I guess because everyone enters into it already accepting that differences will be existing, where like-minded philosophies discover there differences over time.

      • Rogue Trooper 4.1.1

        Yes, it is an interesting stage of life processing and tolerating difference within the sameness of others; it is that, or all this comparative social isolation we see occur in atomised western society. Much easier to market to the individual. Still, sustainability is possible. Behaviour is the way into values.
        Surveying the tele, now that is despairing.
        “…. I hope this is going to be, like , the best house in London…it’s gonna be like, totally sick”
        “I can’t deal with the anxiety” hence off to charter super-yacht in south of France for 300,000 per month. (big enough that the two sisters can be on the same boat, different floors, and not meet).
        -Tamara Ecclestone.

  5. Rogue Trooper 5

    “The corporate take-over of Childhood”
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/marketing/news/article.cfm?c_id=14&objectid=10894601
    “mental health issues in young people stemming from social and cultural factors”

    Advert I zing
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10894658

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    The Pursuit of Loneliness:

    IMO, a perfect description of modern, neo liberal society.

  7. Rosetinted 7

    But he worried that democracy in his own country was declining, and that a combination of self-absorption and distrust of their government made Americans vulnerable to the appeal of authoritarianism.
    [Philip E. ] Slater’s central focus on democracy and community over individualism, careerism and the pursuit of material wealth has much to commend it.

    Really good to be inspired by this Karol. Thanks for post.

  8. democracy 8

    Since the ww2 basically work in a capitalist regime has been nothing more than paid sexism and all the job speak has been to deny the rights of

    The Pursuit of Loneliness is about where this Key Govt is driving us to, also with fresh taxation on the vehicle it would seem

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