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Aldous Huxley

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 politics of transcendence and the war on drugs

Aldous Huxley thought western societies needed to become more open to ego-transcendence. We need to find ways to be less stuck in our egos, less stuck in consumerism and materialism, and more conscious, loving and open to other beings. We need to wake up to our potential and our power.

I am on board with that. I think that’s a good goal for individuals and for society. To discover the incredible resources within ourselves, and to find joy in that rather than restlessly mining and exhausting the Earth’s resources.

One of the main challenges, according to Huxley, was we have lost tools, maps and guides for the exploration of our inner lives. The birth of the modern era, from the 16th to the 18th century, saw the dissolution of the monasteries and their replacement by academies. The western gaze turned from the exploration of the inner world to the exploitation of the natural world. As we shifted from an enchanted to a materialist worldview, we marginalized and pathologized the idea of mystical transcendence. It was just seen as bonkers.

But we still need ways to get out of our heads. As Huxley insisted so brilliantly, humans have a basic urge to self-transcendence. It is boring, depressing and claustrophobic to be stuck in ordinary ego-consciousness. So we seek occasional holidays from the self, and western culture must offer those holidays, or we would all rapidly go mad and kill ourselves.

Modern western culture junked mysticism but offers alternative forms of ego-transcendence. Often, Huxley warned, they are toxic. He warned particularly of nationalism, which he called the great religion of the 19th and 20th centuries. It gives the crowd a form of intoxication in which they forget their separate egos in their worship of the Leader and their hatred of ‘enemies of the people’ (as Trump called the New York Times this week). Today, we see that ugly nationalism and tribalism on the rise again, particularly thanks to Twitter.

Huxley also warned of the false worship of gadgets and technology. And of course, the main way we get out of our heads is booze. We spend $1.3 trillion on booze each year. Our societies and collective sanity depend on it. But it comes at a cost – according to the World Health Organisation, about four million deaths a year are a direct result of alcohol, not to mention the crimes, violent incidents and accidents related to it.

Huxley wanted to help us find healthier forms of transcendence, healthier ways beyond the ego. He was an early adopter of meditation and yoga, he encouraged re-finding a sense of our spiritual place in the ecosystem of nature, he thought various forms of therapy could help us beyond our ego-shell, he championed the idea of the careful use of psychedelics as a spiritual technology, and he thought universities could help young people find healthier forms of transcendence (as opposed to the soulless wasteland of the modern university).

All forms of transcendence, he warned, are in danger of becoming false idols, ends in themselves rather than means to ultimate mystical transcendence. Aesthetic ecstasy could be a false god, for example, so could psychedelics. And all the supposedly toxic forms of transcendence could actually be helpful – technology, properly used, could help us to healthy transcendence. So could collective politics.

I have been wondering: how practical is Huxley’s politics of transcendence? What policy changes would follow from it? I will consider other policy areas in coming weeks, but this week I want to look at drugs policy, and how central it is to modern society.

Huxley was writing just at the beginning of America’s war on drugs, which started around 1920 and which has shaped the last century of drug policy around the world. There’s a hypocrisy at the centre of this policy. Some forms of chemical transcendence are to be allowed and even celebrated. Others are to be condemned as utterly evil and demonic.

I read a book this week about the 100-year-old war on drugs, and why it may finally be ending. It’s called Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. The British among you may remember that Hari was caught making up quotes as a journalist. But nonetheless, he is a brilliant writer, and this is a brilliant book.

He charts how the war on drugs was hatched by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Drugs like marijuana and heroin, Anslinger said, made people addicted, crazy, and prone to crime – especially Mexicans and African-Americans. The way to fight drugs was to criminalize them and lock up the dealers and users. That would eradicate the plague of drug use, he said. The US then forced this policy onto other countries all over the world.

A century on, we see the results. The war on drugs has empowered and enriched criminal gangs to the extent that they can take over whole countries. In western countries, the war on drugs has been a sort of holocaust for black people. While drug use is slightly more common among white people, imprisonment for drug use is far more common for black people in the US and the UK:

The 1993 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 19 percent of drug dealers were African American, but they made up 64 percent of the arrests for it. Largely as a result of this disparity, there was an outcome that was more startling still. In 1993, in the death throes of apartheid, South Africa imprisoned 853 black men per hundred thousand in the population. The United States imprisons 4,919 black men per hundred thousand (versus only 943 white men).

The criminalization of drugs fosters gang violence – the economist Milton Friedman estimated it causes 10,000 homicides a year in the US; it increases the chances of overdoses and poisoning from impurities; it increases the likelihood addicts will resort to crime to feed their addiction; and it makes it more likely that teenagers have access to dangerous drugs. And it doesn’t stop people buying and taking drugs, as we’ve seen.

As Huxley said, humans have always sought holidays from themselves, and humans have always used psycho-active drugs for that purpose. Ronald Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the University of California, has suggested the urge to intoxication is a basic urge, found in humans and many other animals.

And the vast majority of humans don’t get addicted, and manage their use of intoxicants relatively well. That’s true even of dangerous drugs like heroin and crack – during the Vietnam War, a huge number of American soldiers used heroin to cope with the war. Almost all of them quit when they returned to their normal lives in America.

There is, according to Hari, around 10% of users of heroin, crack, meth etc who do get addicted. But their addiction is less a result of the chemical, and more a consequence of trauma and isolation in their own lives. They cannot face their own pain, and they need something to help them avoid it, if only briefly. Criminalizing drugs won’t stop them seeking that holiday from their suffering. It just makes their incarceration and eventual death much more likely. That’s one of the problems with the pain-killer crisis in the US, by the way – as soon as a physician thinks you may be addicted to Oxycontin or other opiate pain-killers, they are obliged to cut you off, forcing people to turn to illegal heroin and making it likely they overdose.

Hari explores how drugs policies around the world are changing, and how the war on drugs may finally be ending. He looks at the de-criminalization of drugs and the provision of state support for addicts in Portugal, where this apparently radical policy is now supported by all political parties and has led to steep drops in problematic drug use and drug-related deaths. He examines how a group called VANDU – Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users – helped to transform the public perception of addicts from criminal deviants who deserved to die to human beings who deserved to be listened to, and included in the formulation of drugs policies. He looks at the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay, and in Colorado and Washington State. It’s now legal or decriminalized in the majority of US states.

Mexico decriminalized drugs in 1940, leading to a sharp drop in drugs-related crime. But the Mexican government was forced to drop the reform within six months, because of pressure from Harry Anslinger. Eighty years later, Mexico’s cartels have destroyed the country. Now, finally, Mexico is considering changing its drugs policy. It’s finally allowed to, now American states have changed their laws.

Hari’s book is not arguing that we should all pop pills for a better life. Drugs are often a way of avoiding pain, avoiding intimacy, hiding in a fake sense of security and community. But humans have always used them and always will. Criminalizing them empowers violent gangs, weakens regulation and treatment, and destroys lives, neighbourhoods and whole countries. Legalizing them improves treatment, reduces incarceration, and increases the public budget. It also, by the by, enables the use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic and spiritual purposes. Drugs aren’t all bad. Properly used, they can help us to relax, celebrate, flourish and heal. But only when properly and very sparingly used.