developing brain

Culture of Resistance: The Failure of Individualism

This excerpt from Chapter 4 of the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet was written by Lierre Keith. Click the link above to purchase the book or read online for free. This is part 2 of this chapter. Part 1 is here.

This is the history woven through the contemporary alternative culture. It takes strands of the Romantics, the Wandervogel, and the Lebensreform, winds through the Beatniks and the hippies, and splits into a series of subcultures with different emphases, from self-help and twelve-step believers to New Age spiritual shoppers. There is a set of accumulated ideas and behavioral norms that are barely articulated and yet hold sway across the left. It is my goal here to fully examine these currents so we may collectively decide which are useful and which are detrimental to the culture of resistance.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve set “alternative culture” against “oppositional culture,” knowing full well that real life is rarely lived in such stark terms. Many of these norms and behaviors form a continuum along which participants move with relative ease.

In my own experience, these conflicting currents have at times merged into a train wreck of the absurd and the brave, often in the same evening. The righteous vegan dinner of even more righteously shoplifted ingredients, followed by a daring attack on the fence at the military base, which included both spray painting and fervent Wicca-esque chanting—in case our energy really could bring it down—rounded out with a debrief by Talking Stick which became a foray into that happy land where polyamory meets untreated bipolar disorder (medication being a tool of The Man), a group meltdown of such operatic proportions that the neighbors called the police.

Ah, youth.

I was socialized into some of these cultural concepts and practices as a teenager. I know my way around a mosh pit, a womyn’s circle, and a chakra cleansing. I embraced much of the alternative culture for reasons that are understandable. At sixteen, fighting authority felt like life and death survival, and all hierarchy was self-evidently domination. Meanwhile, all around me, in quite varied venues, people said that personal change was political change—or even insisted that it was the only sphere where change was possible. I knew there was something wrong with that, but arguing with the New Age branch led to defeat by spiritual smugness and Gandhian clichés. The fact that I have a degenerative disease was always used as evidence against me by these people. Arguing with the militant, political branch (Did it really matter if someone ate her pizza with “liquid meat,” aka cheese? Was I really a sell-out if I saw my family on Christmas?) led to accusations of a lack of true commitment. With very little cross generational guidance and the absence of a real culture of resistance, I was left accepting some of these arguments despite internal misgivings.

Way too many potential activists, lacking neither courage nor commitment, are lost in the same confusion. It’s in the hope that we are collectively capable of something better that I offer these criticisms.

This focus on individual change is a hallmark of liberalism. It comes in a few different flavors, different enough that their proponents don’t recognize that they are all in the same category. But underneath the surface differences, the commonality of individualism puts all of these subgroups on a continuum. It starts with the virulently antipolitical dwellers in workshop culture; only individuals (i.e., themselves) are a worthy project and only individuals can change. The continuum moves toward more social consciousness to include people who identify oppression as real but still earnestly believe in liberal solutions, mainly education, psychological change, and “personal example.” It ends at the far extreme where personal lifestyle becomes personal purity and identity itself is declared a political act. These people often have a compelling radical analysis of oppression, hard won and fiercely defended. This would include such divergent groups as vegans, lesbian separatists, and anarchist rewilders. They would all feel deeply insulted to be called liberals. But if the only solutions proposed encompass nothing larger than personal action—and indeed political resistance is rejected as “participation” in an oppressive system—then the program is ultimately liberal, and doomed to fail, despite the clarity of the analysis and the dedication of its adherents.

The defining characteristic of an oppositional culture, on the other hand, is that it consciously claims to be the cradle of resistance. Where the alternative culture exists to create personal change, the oppositional culture exists to nurture a serious movement for political transformation of the institutions that control society. It understands that concrete systems of power have to be dismantled, and that such a project will require tremendous courage, commitment, risk, and potential loss of life. In the words of Andrea Dworkin,

Now, when I talk about a resistance, I am talking about an organized political resistance. I’m not just talking about something that comes and something that goes. I’m not talking about a feeling. I’m not talking about having in your heart the way things should be and going through a regular day having good, decent, wonderful ideas in your heart. I’m talking about when you put your body and your mind on the line and commit yourself to years of struggle in order to change the society in which you live. This does not mean just changing the men whom you know so that their manners will get better—although that wouldn’t be bad either. . . . But that’s not what a political resistance is. A political resistance goes on day and night, under cover and over ground, where people can see it and where people can’t. It is passed from generation to generation. It is taught. It is encouraged. It is celebrated. It is smart. It is savvy. It is committed. And someday it will win. It will win.27

As you can see there is a split to the root between the Romantics and the resistance, a split that’s been present for centuries. They both start with a rejection of some part of the established social order, but they identify their enemy differently, and from that difference they head in opposite directions. Again, this difference often forms a continuum in many people’s lived experience, as they move from yoga class to the food co-op to a meeting about shutting down the local nuclear power plant. But we need to understand the differences between the two poles of the continuum, even if the middle is often murky. Those differences have been obscured by two victories of liberalism: the conflation of personal change with political change, and the broad rejection of real resistance. But a merely alternative culture is not a culture of resistance, and we need clarity about how they are different.

For the alternative culture—the inheritors of the Romantic movement—the enemy is a constraining set of values and conventions, usually cast as bourgeois. Their solution is to “create an alternative world within Western society” based on “exaggerated individualism.”28 The Bohemians, for instance, were direct descendants of the Romantic movement. The Bohemian ethos has been defined by “transgression, excess, sexual outrage, eccentric behavior, outrageous appearance, nostalgia and poverty.”29 They emphasized the artist as rebel, a concept that would have been incomprehensible in the premodern era when both artists and artisans had an accepted place in the social hierarchy. The industrial age upset that order, and the displaced artist was recast as a rebel. But this rebellion was organized around an internal feeling state. Stephen Spender wrote in his appropriately titled memoir World Within World, “I pitied the unemployed, deplored social injustice, wished for peace, and held socialist views. These views were emotional.”30 Elizabeth Wilson correctly names Bohemia as “a retreat from politics.”31 She writes, “In 1838, Delphine de Girardin commented on the way in which the best-known writers and artists were free to spend their time at balls and dances because they had taken up a stance of ‘internal migration.’ They had turned their back on politics, a strategy similar to the ‘internal exile’ of East European dissidents after 1945.”32

The heroization of the individual, in whatever admixture of suffering and alienation, forms the basis of the Romantic hostility to the political sphere. The other two tendencies follow in different trajectories from that individualism. First is a valuing of emotional intensity that rejects self-reflection, rationality, and investigation. For instance, Rosseau wrote, “For us, to exist is to feel; and our sensibility is incontestably more important than reason.”33 Second is a belief that the polis, the political life of society, is yet another stultifying system for the romantic hero to reject:

Romantics . . . rejected the possibility of effecting change through politics. The Romantics were skeptical about merely organizational reform, about the effects of simply rearranging a society’s institutions. . . . The Romantics revolted not in the name of equality or to effect economic change but to enable the development of the ‘inner man.’ In this sense, they were opposed to the bourgeoisie and the radicals. Bourgeois conventions were rejected because they were shallow and artificial, and the radical’s program of social and economic change was rejected because it did nothing to free the human spirit.34

The Beatniks were inheritors of this tradition. Their main project was to “reject . . . the conformity and materialism of the middle class,” mostly through experimentation with drugs and sex, and to lay claim to both emotion and art as unmediated and transcendent.35 But the Beatniks were a small social phenomenon. They didn’t blossom into the hippies until the demographics of both the baby boom and the middle class provided the necessary alienated youth in the 1960s.

The youth origin of the alternative culture is crucial to understanding it. As previously discussed, the Wandervogel was a youth movement. In fact, in 1911, “there were more Germans in their late teens than there would ever be again in the twentieth century.”36 The seeds of that original youth culture were transplanted to the US, where they lay dormant until a similar critical mass of young people reached adolescence. The alternative culture as we know it is largely a product of the adolescent brain.

Because the brain of an adolescent is the same size as an adult brain, scientists once concluded that it was fully developed sometime around puberty. But with new technology like MRI and PET scans, we can literally see that the adolescent brain is very much “a work in progress.”37

To begin with, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) isn’t utilized in an adolescent brain to the extent that it will be in an adult brain. David Walsh, in his book on the adolescent brain, Why Do They Act That Way?, calls the PFC “the brain’s conscience.” According to Walsh, it is “responsible for planning ahead, considering consequences, and managing emotional states.”38 As well, a person’s ability to judge time is not fully developed until age twenty-one. Adolescents literally cannot understand cause and effect or long-term consequences the way an adult can.

The PFC is the “executive center of the brain.”39 When impulses fire from other areas of the brain, the PFC’s job is to control them. But because this region is still under construction for adolescents, they lack impulse control. Delayed gratification is not exactly the gift of that age group, who are also routinely associated with rudeness, irresponsibility, and laziness. All of this is a function of an underactive PFC. The “laziness” is compounded by a few other brain development processes. The ventral striatal circuit is responsible for motivation and it goes inactive during adolescence. As well, the adolescent brain undergoes a huge shift in sleep patterns. The amount of sleep and the timing of the sleep cycle are both affected. Much of the process is complicated and still under scrutiny. Fifty different neurotransmitters and hormones may be involved.40 Two things are certain: teens need more sleep, and they often can’t fall asleep at night. Forced to conform to an industrial regimentation of time, they’re often dead tired during the day, a tiredness based on their biology, not their moral failings.

Myelination is crucial to brain development. Myelin is a form of fat that protects and insulates our axons, which are the cablelike structures in the neurons. Myelination is the process whereby the neurons build up that protective fat. Without it, the electrical impulses are impeded in their travel along their axons—by a factor of a hundred. Unprotected axons are also vulnerable to electrical interference from nearby axons. A generation ago, scientists thought that myelination was complete by age seven, but nothing could be further from the truth. The myelination process is not only incomplete for adolescents, in some areas of the brain it “increases by 100 percent.”41 One of the areas responsible for emotional regulation undergoes myelination during adolescence, which, according to David Walsh, “accounts for the lightening quick flashes of anger” that are the hallmark of youth.42

Hormonal fluctuations are another factor that can create an amplification of emotional intensity, leading to the risk taking, impulsive behavior, anger, and overall emotionality of the teen years.

Walsh is clear that while “it is not the teen’s fault that his brain isn’t fully under his control, it’s his responsibility to get it under his control.”43 It’s the role of parents and their stand-ins in the larger culture to provide the guidance, support, and structure to help young people toward adulthood. Without adults to supply expectations and consequences, the developing brain will never connect the neurons that need to be permanently linked at this stage of life. This has been an important task of functioning communities for thousands of years: to raise the next crop of adults.

There is a window of opportunity for every period of development in the brain. Walsh reports that neurologists have a saying: the neurons that fire together, wire together. This is true from infancy—where basic neurological patterns for functions like hearing and sight are laid down—on through adolescence, where our capacity for self-regulation, assessing consequences, and relational bonding are either cultivated into lifelong strengths or ignored to wither away.

Beyond the biology of the teen brain is the psychology of adolescence. Psychologist Erik Erikson says that the biggest task of those years is identity formation. It is the time when the question of Who I Am takes on an intensity and importance that will likely never be matched again.

And thank goodness. I remember my relationship with my high school best friend. We would see each other before first period, at lunch, and for shared classes. When we got home, we’d talk on the phone immediately—having been separated for all of forty-five minutes, there were crucial things to say. Then after dinner, we’d have to talk again. The next morning, it started all over in the five minutes at her locker before homeroom. Looking back I wonder: what in the world were we talking about? But that’s the project of adolescence, self-revelation and exploration. It was all so new, so intense, so compelling. We talked about our feelings and then our feelings about our feelings and then our feelings about our . . . By the time I was twenty, it wasn’t half so interesting. By the time I was thirty, it was boring. And past thirty-five, you couldn’t pay me enough to have those kinds of conversations.

But this is where the counterculture—a product of adolescent biology and psychology—has been permanently stuck. The concerns of adolescence—its gifts and its shortcomings—are the framework for the alternative culture, and these community norms and habits have become accepted across the left in what Theodore Roszak calls a “progressive ‘adolescentization’ of dissenting thought and culture.”44 Its main project is the self, its exploration, and its expression, to the point where many adherents are actively hostile to political engagement. One common version of this is a concession that some kind of social change is necessary, but that the only thing we can change is ourselves. Thus injustice becomes an excuse for narcissism. As one former activist explained to sociologist Keith Melville,

“I had done the political trip for awhile, but I got to the point where I couldn’t just advocate social change, I had to live it. Change isn’t something up there, out there, and it isn’t a power trip. It’s in here,” he thumped his chest, and little puffs of dust exploded from his coveralls. “This is where I have to start if I want to change the whole fucking system.”45

Timothy Leary, the high priest of Psychedelia, continuously urged the youth movement to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” He believed that the activists and the “psychedelic religious movement” were “completely incompatible.”46 John Lennon and John Hoyland debated the conflict between individual and social change in a public exchange of letters in 1968. Lennon argued by defending the lyrics to “Revolution.”

You say you’ll change the constitution

well, you know

we all want to change your head.

You tell me it’s the institution,

well, you know,

you better free your mind instead.

    To which Hoyland replied, “What makes you so sure that a lot of us haven’t changed our heads in something like the way you recommend—and then found out it wasn’t enough, because you simply cannot be turned on and happy when you know kids are being roasted to death in Vietnam?”47

The endless project of the self is fine for people who are fifteen, as long as they are surrounded by a larger community of adults who can provide the structure for the physical and psychological developments that need to happen to produce a mature individual. But anyone past adolescence should be assuming her or his role as an adult: to provide for the young and the vulnerable, and to sustain and guide the community as a whole. For a culture of resistance, these jobs are done with the understanding that resistance is primary in whatever tasks our talents call us to undertake. We are never delinked from the larger goal of creating a movement to fight for justice.

The legacy of the Romantics is especially prominent in the politics of emotion embraced by many different strands of the alternative culture. Emotions are understood as pure, unmediated by society, a society whose main offense is seen to be the suppression of these always-authentic feelings. The paramount emotional state varies—for the hippies and New Agers, it’s love; for the punks, it’s rage; and for the Goths, it’s exquisite suffering—but the ultimate goal is to achieve the selected emotion and maintain it. Emotional states are not always clearly defined as a goal in these subcultures, but these efforts are accepted as the unexamined norms.

Under the influence of therapy and “personal growth” workshops, the expression of all emotions has achieved a status that approaches a human right. To tell someone you refuse to “process” or to suggest that a group stay focused on discussion and decision making is to provoke outrage. All appropriate sense of boundaries and discernment are considered not the hallmark of adults but conditioning that must be overcome. We must be willing and able to reveal the most intimate details of our personal histories with strangers, and the more intense and performative that sharing, the better.

This individualist stance was taken up as politics across the counterculture in the ’60s. It found its zenith in Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. The title of Hoffman’s book, Revolution for the Hell of It, is just an update on “Our lack of purpose is our strength” and is about as useful for a political movement. Set aside the misogyny (Hoffman molesting flight attendants), homophobia (“the peace movement is fags”), and the excruciating right-on racism. It’s the self-centered idiocy of this book that’s unbearable. Yet it inspired a counterculture that still plagues the left today.

It’s also hard to critique this book knowing that Hoffman was bipolar and committed suicide. The mental illness shrieks from the page.

The Diggers left after we had talked the whole night. The SDS’ers slept all night very soundly. They had nothing to talk about in those wee morning hours when you rap on and on and a dialogue of non-verbal vibrations begins. You Relate!! You Plan!! You Think!! You Get Stoned!! You Feel!!48

You need lithium and a caring support system.

The book is a scattershot of antiauthoritarian rants that claim intense emotion—usually brought on by staged drama—as the ultimate goal. Hoffman urged actions like this:

Stand on a street corner with 500 leaflets and explode. . . . Recruit a person to read the leaflet aloud while all this distribution is going on. Run around tearing the leaflets, selling them, trading them. Rip one in half and give half to one person and half to another and tell them to make love. Do it all fast. Like slapstick movies. Make sure everyone has a good time. People love to laugh—it’s a riot. Riot—that’s an interesting word-game if you want to play it.49

This self-conscious display stands in stark contrast to a serious resistance movement. Comparing this behavior to the courage, spiritual depth, and personal dignity of Erich Mühsam or the rank and file in the civil rights movement, it’s hard not to cringe.

The continuum between bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain is apparent in Hoffman: the lack of judgment, the runaway emotional intensity, the knee-jerk reaction against all constraint, the entitlement, even the sleeplessness, all tragically magnified by the manic states of his illness. A culture of youth without the guidance of adults will produce exactly what Hoffman envisioned. It will also be unable to recognize frank mental illness when it’s costumed by a radical stance, or to help the people consumed by such illness. That help can only come from a stable, committed community. Ironically, building and maintaining such a community requires that some people embody the values that Hoffman and the youth culture rejected out of hand: responsibility, commitment, respect.

Beyond the personal tragedy lies the political tragedy that befell the left, as the drop-out culture diverted disaffected youth from building a serious resistance movement against real systems of oppression—racism, capitalism, patriarchy—and a culture of resistance that could support that movement. Instead, with the enemy identified as “middle-class hang-ups”—as anything that got in the way of any impulse—and liberation defined as an internal emotional state, the idealism and hard-won gains of the ’60s collapsed into the “me” generation of the ’70s.50 And now all that’s left is a vaguely liberal alterna-culture, identifiable by its meditation classes and under-cooked legumes, its obsession with its own psychology, and its New Age spiritual platitudes. Nothing bad will ever happen if you keep your mind, colon, and/or aura pure, which leaves believers in a very awkward position of having to blame the victim when disease, heartbreak, or smart bombs fall. This is in no way to erase those stalwart individuals who have never lost their commitment to a just world and continued to fight. It is to mourn with them a generational moment of promise that was squandered and has yet to come again.

Part III will be published next week. For references, visit this link to read the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet online or to purchase a copy.

8 thoughts on “Culture of Resistance: The Failure of Individualism”

  1. Serious environmentalists, radical or not, must NEVER neglect class analysis. Without it, environmental movements become at best innocuous and new-agey, and at worst a fertile ground for reactionary ideas and practices. Yes, also when they engage in direct action.

    Class struggle is not a “distraction” from the environmental struggle. Like feminism, class and race analysis are *essential* for a proper understanding of the roots of civilization (which DGR correctly identifies as the root of environmental destruction). Like Chico Mendes said, “ecology without class struggle is gardening.”

  2. @I.
    You are not an environmentalist and have no business telling us to distract ourselves from environmental issues with class issues. “Class” as you think of it did not exist before civilization. The problems are agriculture, overpopulation, and civilization in that chronological order, not class or any other social issues.

  3. While I totally agree that we need large societal changes, including dismantling of the “institutions that control society,” we need major personal change also. The false dichotomy that some people present is that it’s either/or, when it’s clearly not. Personal change and large societal/political change are not in any way mutually exclusive, and if we don’t get both, we’ll get neither. And I’m not talking about a few radical individuals making personal changes to the way they feel about the natural world and how they live their lives, I’m talking about everyone or at least virtually everyone making those individual changes.

    Leftists, at least in the U.S., have a big problem with personal responsibility. They have some immature idea that no one except for the rich is to blame for anything, and that the “poor workers” are not responsible for how they live their lives and decisions that they make. While the rich & powerful certainly have MORE responsibility for the state of the world than regular people, regular people have some responsibility also. For example, no one is forced to own and drive a car or to eat beef, both very destructive activities. If individuals refuse to give up destructive activities, and in fact demand the right to engage in them, there will be no political or societal change.

    I’m not sure what Lierre’s point is here: Is she saying that we should ignore personal change and just focus on politics and the society at large? Or is she saying that we need both? The latter I fully support, but the former I totally disagree with.

    One thing I can say is that people who are overly intellectual miss a large part of life. Some things can ONLY be felt, they can’t be known, which is why science can’t tell you everything about life. If you only relate to the portion of life experienced by the intellect, you are clueless about everything else. Unfortunately, modern society, which DGR opposes, is steeped in worship of the intellect to the exclusion of all else, rendering basic things like feelings meaningless or at least relegating them to unimportant distractions. This is no way to experience life and I could not reject it more strongly. Talk to any traditional indigenous person and you’ll soon realize that they consider how they feel at least as important as what they think, if not more so.

    What Lierre seems to have done here is go to the opposite extreme from those she rails against. Of course life isn’t all about personal feelings, but neither is it all about politics. Based on what I saw and lived in the ’60s and early ’70s, the hippies had both a personal & party element and a political element; some hippies were one or the other, but most were some of each. Again, this false dichotomy produces false ideas. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. Perhaps Lierre could do with some studying of eastern thought to understand the false duality that she is portraying here.

    A couple of thoughts about language: 1) it’s “beat,” NOT “beatnik.” The latter was a derogatory term coined by right wing jerks like the FBI in an attempt to link the beats and their movement with communism and the Soviet Union (horrors!); and 2) Lierre didn’t say as much, but if she’s referring to punk rock, there’s no such thing as a “mosh pit.” We call it a “pit,” period. If anyone uses the word “mosh” we know they’re not a punk,

    And BTW, Lierre totally left out the punk scene and movement, which followed the hippies and still survives. Punks started the DIY (do it yourself) movement in opposition to having to use corporate scum to get things done, like putting out records or publishing fanzines. We have punk coop houses and are generally socialist/communist in our punk communities, which exist on multiple continents.

  4. @I.
    My conclusion that you’re not an environmentalist is based on your many comments here, NONE OF WHICH prioritizes the natural environment or even advocates for it. I stand by my comment.

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