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Adult education

The making and breaking of the counter culture

Last week I came across a small book called The Making of a Counter Culture, written in 1969 by an American historian called Theodore Roszak. I loved it. Roszak was the first to coin the phrase ‘the counterculture’. His book gives one a whiff of the heady atmosphere of San Francisco (and Paris, and London) in 1968-9, when imagination was liberated and all things seemed possible.

Roszak sensed something in the air. He sensed there was a cultural revolution happening among university students, and it was in many ways a religious revolt, a wave of Gnostic mysticism, a throwing-off of the iron cage of technocracy in favour of intimacy and ecstasy. It was a religious revival, but not as the evangelicals imagined it. Aldous Huxley was closer to the mark. Roszak writes:

in the 1950s, as Huxley detected the rising spirit of a new generation, his utopian image brightened to the forecast he offers us in Island, where a non-violent culture elaborated out of Buddhism and psychedelic drugs prevails. It was as if he had suddenly seen the possibility emerge: what lay beyond the Christian era and the ‘wasteland’ that was its immediate successor might be a new, eclectic religious revival. Which is precisely what confronts us now as one of the massive facts of the counter culture. The dissenting young have indeed got religion. Not the brand of religion Billy Graham or William Buckley would like to see the young crusading for – but religion nonetheless.

Just as Huxley predicted, the new religious landscape which appeared in the 1960s was eclectic, with young people trying out many different practices, from Zazen to the I-Ching, from indigenous psychedelic rituals to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Did they understand it all? Not entirely. Roszak wrote:

At the level of our youth, we begin to resemble nothing so much as the cultic hothouse of the Hellenistic period, where every manner of mystery and fakery, ritual and rite, intermingled with marvellous indiscrimination…No, the young do not by and large understand what these traditions are all about. One does not unearth the wisdom of the ages by shuffling about a few exotic catch phrases – nor does one learn anything about anybody’s lore or religion by donning a few talismans and dosing on LSD. The most that comes of such superficial muddling is something like Timothy Leary’s brand of easy-do syncretism: ‘somehow’ all is one – but never mind precisely how. Fifty years ago, when Swami Vivekananda first brought the teachings of Ramakrishna to America, he persuaded a clique of high-society dilettantes to believe as much. The results were often as ludicrous as they were ephemeral. Yet things are just beginning in our youth culture.

Huxley (like Blake before him) complained that rationalist western culture had marginalized mystical ecstasy in favour of instrumental technocracy. We have become estranged from the non-rational aspects of our consciousness. Roszak blames academia for this spiritual estrangement:

As the spell of scientific or quasi-scientific thought has spread in our culture from the physical to the so-called behavioural sciences, and finally to scholarship in the arts and letters, ,the marked tendency has been to consign whatever is not fully and articulately available in the waking consciousness for empirical or mathematical manipulation, to a purely negative catch-all category (in effect, the cultural garbage can) called the ‘unconscious’…or the ‘irrational’…or the ‘mystical’…or the ‘purely subjective’. To behave on the basis of such blurred states of consciousness is at best to be some species of amusing eccentric, at worst to be plain mad.

Hippy students rejected this and demanded an education for their whole selves. He wrote:

I think we can anticipate that in the coming generation, large numbers of students will begin to reject this reductive humanism, demanding a far deeper examination of that dark side of the human personality which has for so long been written off by our dominant culture as ‘mystical’.

It is quite impossible any longer to ignore the fact that our conception of intellect has been narrowed disastrously by the prevailing assumption, especially in the academies, that the life of the spirit is (1) a lunatic fringe best left to artists and marginal visionaries; (2) an historical boneyard for antiquarian scholarship; (3) a highly specialized adjunct of professional anthropology; (4) an antiquated vocabulary still used by the clergy, but intelligently soft-pedalled by its more enlightened members. Along none of these approaches can the living power of myth, ritual, and rite be expected to penetrate the intellectual establishment and have any existential (as opposed to merely academic) significance. If conventional scholarship does touch these areas of human experience, it is ordinarily with the intention of compiling knowledge, not with the hope of salvaging value.

He saw the counter culture as a marriage between New Left politics (the anti-war movement, the free speech movement, the principles laid out in the Port Huron statement of the Students for Democratic Society) and the bohemianism and spiritual eclecticism of the commune. He called it ‘the politics of consciousness’:

We grasp the underlying unity of the counter culture if we see beat-hip bohemianism as an effort to work out the personality structure and total life style that follow from New Left social criticism. At their best, the young bohemians are the would-be utopian pioneers of the world that lies beyond intellectual rejection of the Great Society.

He suggests one can see students’ appetite for spiritual experimentation and mystical experience in the free university movement. In the second half of the 1960s, students and teachers across the US started up alternative campuses offering free classes. At one of the most famous, the Mid Pensinsula Free University near Palo Alto, visiting teachers included Joan Baez, Stewart Brand, Herbert Marcuse and Richard Alpert / Ram Dass. It offered classes in everything from LSD to psychodrama, from Taoism to non-violent resistance. It was a manifestation of Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts’ dream of an integral education that included the mystical and connected it to the political and ecological. ‘The natural state of man is ecstatic wonder’, declares its syallabus. ‘Why settle for anything less?’ Why indeed! I’ve had to censor the images from their syllabus…

 

Their syllabuses look so wonderful from the perspective of 21st century technocratic academia, when even a course on happiness seems a bit out there. But we’ve seen the faint stirrings of a similar mystical wave in recent years. The Occupy Wall Street / Occupy London protests included free universities, and those movements have continued at Occupy KCL, Occupy LSE and other campuses, although these don’t strike me as very spiritual movements. We’ve also seen the growth of adult education organisations offering psycho-spiritual education (for a price). In London, you have places like The Psychedelic Society, Rebel Wisdom, The Weekend University, the London Philosophy Club, the House of Togetherness, Mantra and the Experimental Thought Company. Still pretty tame compared to MFU.And yet these spiritual stirrings still feel quite marginal to mainstream western culture. The capitalist technocracy was not overthrown, like Roszak predicted, nor was even university education much affected. Why didn’t the counter culture establish itself as the mainstream culture? Why did it fail?

One reason is that 1968 was the peak of a mystical wave, and those waves always pass. The flame of charisma requires the coal of institutions, with proper business plans, otherwise the flame soon burns out. The free universities didn’t have proper business plans (they were free). People need jobs.

A second issue, one identified very well by Roszak, was that the counter culture fetishized psychedelics as the only route to enlightenment. Huxley and Alan Watts said they were a route, one not to be taken without proper preparation. But Timothy Leary (who Huxley called an ass) tried to create a religion of LSD, insisting everyone should take it, even teenagers – his own teenage daughter took acid, went mad and later committed suicide. Most American teenagers simply didn’t have the cultural or emotional equipment to make sense of psychedelics. Roszak writes:

There is nothing whatever in common between a man of Huxley’s experience and intellectual discipline sampling mescaline, and a fifteen-year-old tripper whiffing airplane glue until his brain turns to oatmeal. In the one case, we have a gifted mind moving sophisticatedly towards cultural synthesis; in the other, we have a giddy child out to ‘blow his mind’ and bemused to see all the pretty balloons go up. But when all the balloons have gone up and gone pop, what is there left behind but the yearning to see more pretty balloons?

At the level of disaffiliated adolescence, the prospect held forth by psychedelic experience – that of consciousness expansion – is bound to prove abortive. The psychedelics, dropped into amorphous and alienated personalities, have precisely the reverse effect: they diminish consciousness by way of fixation…What is obvious….is that the psychedelics are a heavyweight obsession which too many of the young cannot get over or get around.

He quotes a ridiculous article in the Village Voice, which asks: ‘CAN the World Do Without LSD? Can a person be human without LSD?… The answer, as far as the writer of this article can see, is a highly qualified, cautiously rendered, but emphatic, definitely NOT. BUT the psychedelic experience is not exclusively tied to LSD. There are at least give other effective psychedelic drugs.’

Another reason, perhaps, that the counter culture fails is it was badly marketed as a revolt against all previous traditions and against one’s elders. As Michael Pollan points out, mystical initiations are usually embedded in a culture, with elders initiating the youth through ritual. In the psychedelic counter culture, the youth initiated themselves through a ritual their parents couldn’t understand. Usually, ritual binds society together, in the sixties, it tore it apart.

The counter culture was also, in Roszak’s telling, a revolt against science and reason. He writes that, to bring back ecstasy,
‘nothing less is required than the subversion of the scientific worldview, with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness. In its place, there must be a new culture in which the non-intellective capacities of the personality take fire’.

That’s a mistake. As Huxley said many times, you need the best of both worlds – the rational and the non-rational, the scientific and the aesthetic, the mystical and the practical. Roszak’s revolution sounds like mystical fascism, particularly when he calls for a collective assault on the ego:

[the counter culture] attacks men at the very core of their security by denying the validity of everything they mean when they utter the most precious word in their vocabulary: the word ‘I’. And yet this is what the counter culture undertakes when, by way of its mystical tendencies or the drug experience, it assaults the reality of the ego as an isolable, purely cerebral unit of identity.

I am all for building a culture dedicated to ego-transcendence. But the process both for the individual and for society needs to be gentle, slow, and voluntary, not some sort of Manson-esque revolt where you put LSD into the water.

When the 1968 mystical revolt failed, when it failed to overthrow capitalism, failed to stop the election of Richard Nixon, failed to stop the Vietnam War, then the counter culture turned nasty – Timothy Leary and many others embraced violent revolution and spiritual enlightenment through bombs. The MFU went Maoist. Most of the baby-boomer generation simply grew up, got a job, and conducted their spiritual and sexual experimentation in their private lives, at the weekend. Roszak writes sadly:

It would be one of the bleakest errors we could commit to believe that the occasional private excursions into some surviving remnant of the magical vision of life – something in the nature of a psychic holiday from the dominant mode of consciousness – can be sufficient to achieve a kind of suave cultural synthesis combining the best of both worlds. Such dilettantism would be a typically sleazy technocratic solution to the problem posed by our unfulfilled psychic needs, but it would be a deception from start to finish. We have either known the magical powers of the personality or we have not. And if we have felt them move within us, then we shall have no choice in the matter but to liberate them and live by the reality they illuminate.

Well, that’s exactly what happened. People wearily accepted five days of technocratic capitalism, and then a bit of cocaine at the disco on Saturday night, and maybe a car-key party for afters.

Maybe now the baby-boomers have grown old, the counter culture is finally becoming mainstream. Maybe ego-transcendence is becoming more accepted, even in academia, even in scientific research. It’s a bit late now, with the Earth hotting up in real time. But perhaps something will survive, and a better, more mystical-ecological culture will emerge out of the ashes.

For a great website all about the Mid Peninsula Free University, go here.

The death (and rebirth) of the author

Times are tough for creative professionals.

A survey by the UK Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ACLS) found that the average income for a professional author is £10,500. It’s fallen by 42% since 2005.

In the US, it’s slightly better: a whopping $16,800 a year, or £12,800.

That’s total earnings. It’s well below the poverty line. It’s five grand less than a street sweeper earns.

Our culture has never been hungrier for content. But somehow, professional writers are losing out in the modern economy.

Female writers are especially screwed – their earnings are 75% those of the average male professional writer.

Why the catastrophic decline in author income? Several possible reasons.

Amazon has cornered the marketplace, accounting for roughly 50% of all book sales. That enables them to pressure publishers into worse profit-sharing contracts.

Publishers have responded by passing on those tighter margins to authors, in lower royalties and smaller advances.

Publishers have also consolidated, with smaller teams putting out more titles, meaning the amount of time promoting each book has shrunk.

The marketplace is increasingly saturated, particularly by self-published books on Amazon.

In such a saturated market, a few titles break out and do exceedingly well – 5% of authors account for 42% of income.

The internet has trained us to expect content for free. Books are competing with all the free content you can munch through online, via articles, blogs, podcasts and video.

 

I published my first book in 2012, when I was 35, after 15 years working as a journalist.

It took a long time to get published. My first two book ideas never sold. I couldn’t even find an agent to represent my third book idea. I was turned down by 10 agents, sometimes so quickly I thought my email had bounced back.

Then I got lucky. I paid a professional reader at The Literacy Consultancy to read my manuscript. Her name was Sue Lascelles, and she also worked at Rider Books, an imprint of Random House. She secured me a deal there, and became my first editor.

My first book, Philosophy for Life, went on to be published in 19 countries, and has sold something like 40,000 copies to date.

That’s unusually good. But it has still only earned me something like £50,000 in total, after four years writing and a hell of a lot of work promoting it.

This was a best-selling book that helped a lot of people – I get emails saying it has saved people’s lives.

And, on an annual basis, it earned me less than if I was cleaning toilets.

I then spent four years researching and writing my next book, The Art of Losing Control.

That was not very bright. Authors can’t afford to spend that long researching a book now. And people don’t have the attention span for long books. Keep it short and quick.

It was published in 2017, with a generous advance, but based on the amount of time and money I spent researching that book, it still translates as a terrible way to make a living, in economic terms at least.

I turned 40 last year, and realized that, as things stood, I couldn’t afford a family. Nor did I have any savings or pension.

I realized something had to change. Either change profession, or change my game.

Where do authors go, in this very difficult time, for career advice?

Publishers are interested in your next book, and that’s about it.

Your agent is interested in your next book, and that’s about it.

I went to a ‘career coach’ who said she specializes in helping authors. It quickly became apparent she’d never heard of Patreon, and didn’t understand new media.

With so little advice, authors are left to figure it out on our own.

As a result, we get isolated and exploited.

Authors need to organize, strategize and assembalize (?) to survive.

 

I had the idea of setting up a club where authors could come and learn from each other and from industry experts.

I called it the Writers Survival Club, and launched it yesterday on Meetup, in London. I aim to organize one meeting a month.

I’ve also started a mutual coaching agreement with another writer. We agreed that, once a month, we would check in with each other and update how we’re getting on in meeting our financial goals.

I want to more than double my earnings in 18 months, so I reach a level which I think I deserve for my skill set.

I’m looking forward to experimenting how to raise my earnings, but here are three initial ideas.

 

  • Marketing is as important as content

 

This is totally anathema to most writers, certainly most British writers. We spend years lovingly researching and honing our content.

Then when it comes to promotion and publicity our noses wrinkle at the thought of having to sell ourselves.

In such a saturated market, we should be taking marketing as seriously as content.

We can’t leave it to our publishers. You need to have a strategy. That also means carving up your content into multiple different earning formats: books, podcasts, courses, events. It’s not just about the book.

My fellow Stoic Ryan Holiday is very good at this. Listen to his advice.

 

  • Experiment with formats

 

Market data suggests that  the authors doing best are those who use both traditional publishers and self-publishing. Use deals with traditional publishers to build your brand, and also self-publish to take a bigger scoop of royalties.

Authors who self-publish report greater satisfaction than authors who use traditional publishers. The latter often come away feeling aggrieved at the lack of promotion they got in return for giving away 85% of income.

I’m self-publishing my next book this year, and co-editing another book with an indie publisher.

 

  • Think beyond books.

 

Authors are way too focused on books as their main projects. We fetishize The Book.

Books are not necessarily the best way for authors to earn income.

We need to be much better at earning around books, through talks, blogs, podcasts, online and offline courses, and writing in other formats (journalism, TV, film).

Earning from talks may be easier for non-fiction writers than for fiction writers.

But there are examples of novelists and poets who have organized to create communities which put on great events (like Joe Dunthorne and his Homework events).

People are much more willing to pay for experiences than we are for online content.

Look at the demand for festivals: the UK has over 350 book festivals.

Look at the demand for adult education events like Intelligence Squared, TED, the School of Life, the How To Academy, 5 X 15, The Weekend University, or my own London Philosophy Club.

This is a big pie of ticket sales. But authors need to make sure they get a proper cut.

People will constantly try to get you to do talks for free, or for very little.

I once gave a talk at the Hay festival to around 250 people, each paying around £10 a ticket. I didn’t get a penny of that £2500.

Learn to say no to people. I said yes to everything when promoting my first book, and sometimes gave talks to just ten people or so, selling maybe one book at the end.

That would earn me about 40 pence for an evening’s work. Madness.

Event organizers will try and avoid paying you, either because they aren’t charging anything themselves (it’s their little passion project), or they are charging but want to keep most or all of the money.

If someone is earning from your content, you should get a good cut. I’d suggest 50% is fair, if they’re organizing and promoting the event.

Even better, take out the middle man and organize your own events. A big mailing list helps for this, but these days you can publicize events easily with Facebook.

I organized a London Philosophy Club talk on Aldous Huxley this week. I made it a Facebook event, and got 52,000 page views and 628 clicks. I sold 200 tickets for that, having spent £10 boosting the event on Facebook.

Online courses are another good way to earn – it means you can earn money from the same talks, without having to schlep around the world delivering it over and over.

I aim to launch my own online course, probably on Teachable, later this year, and to ramp up my YouTube content.

Earning from traditional journalism somewhat sucks. It’s a sinking ship, with declining readership, and arrogant editors who mess you around (if they answer at all). But there are still some good outlets, like Aeon for example.

You can earn from online writing, writing for Medium’s paid programme for example, where you get paid based on claps (please clap for this article!).

Patreon lets readers make a monthly donation to their favourite content creators. I’ve done OK from it, but it’s been slow – so far I have 150 Patreons out of 3000 newsletter subscribers and 1000 regular readers. I need to give less content away for free.

Finally, you can write for other formats, like TV, theatre and film. I’m shifting into this now, working on two treatments with two production companies.

You can also subsidise your research with other forms of funding: from academia (although funding applications are a lot of work) or from think-tanks (quicker applications but shorter time-scales).

And then there’s the money shot of corporate work, like corporate key-note talks. These earn a ridiculous amount: I’ve met keynote speakers who earn £10k-20k for an hour’s talk. But it’s a tough market to get into.

If this all sounds like hard work, it is. Writers are facing a struggle for survival and the dignity of making a living and supporting a family.

But it is doable. We just need to strategize, organize and adapt.

When in doubt, I say to myself: ‘What would Jon Ronson do?’

He’s a master of multiple formats: the books, the TV documentaries, the radio series, the podcast, the film scripts, the long-form articles, and the live events. And it’s all high-quality content.

It’s awe-inspiring, but that’s the high-water mark. That’s what’s possible.