But some of my friends are hippies!

I have had this sentence on the tip of my tongue this morning, and when that happens, I think it means it is time for some self-reflection.

Cultural hippies and the hippy movement

First of all, yes, hippies are a youth subculture, the mortal ennemies of skinheads who constituted themselves mainly in opposition to them although they now share the love of reggae. Cultural anti-hippyism is stupid and oppressive. It is as “political” as kids choosing between Oasis or Blur, DiCaprio or Brad Pitt (those examples are terribly outdated, but that was my childhood), and any kind of power relation or violence born from such rivalry is a terrible thing. No-one should be hurt for having the wrong haircut or the wrong clothes, that is obvious.

However, I hope that is not what I was implying or promoting in any way when I was referring to the Occupy crowd as “hippies”. I was implying that quite a few negative points that we can make against Occupy are points that Anarchists have already made against the hippy movement since the 60s (and maybe even the German utopian communes of the early 20th century, if you make the history of the hippy movement go back as far as that):

  • a discourse of sexual “liberation” of the “everyone should be having sex with me when and how I want, or they are not liberated” persuasion;
  • a tendency to disregard material concerns to consider the cosmic or spiritual levels, the real change needed in our own souls, etc.
  • a tendency to appropriate everyone’s culture, leading to exclusion of people from that culture, both “exotic” cultures and a certain form of “glamourized” poverty;
  • internal systems of informal hierarchies.

Note that I have not even considered the issue of non-violence which often obnubilates considerations about Occupy and the hippy tradition. I was not expecting these to be controversial, so I had not taken much interest in detailing them or why I thought that these traits found in Occupy were inherited from the hippy movement. The history and legacy of the hippy movement in the US and UK is however one of the reasons I use to explain why Occupy was so different from, say, the Spanish M15 mouvement, or even its French equivalent (which was still shunned in Toulouse by many Leftists as “full of hippies”, despite being mainly animated by then IWA members).

Hippies/Occupy and middle-class shaming

I do not think the problem about the hippy movement was that it was inherently more “middle-class” than anything else, although in the system of informal hierarchies, I would comprise some things which are related to a culture of class: gaining authority from spending time in India being the classic example from the 60s, today replaced by having done some volunteer work in the Third World, presumably. Many hippies however are authentically broke and I do not see why or how anyone would try to hide that fact.

And the same goes for Occupy. The truth is, I honestly do not know whether living in a tent is “fighting the working-class stigma on homelessness” or “middle-class kids playing poor for a while”. I only see it as a mode of action devoid of class appartenance. However, the informal hierarchies taken from middle-class values (maybe that is where the violence discussion could be put in?) were rarely effectively challenged. We should note though that given the number of hate-fuelled texts aiming to exclude, or otherwise contain, homeless people, Occupy did not do much in the way of fighting anyone’s stigma on homelessness but just reaffirmed generalizations, which leads us to our second point:

Generalizations or generalities?

As always, let’s state the obvious: none of the bullet-points above apply to all individuals or all situations in Occupy or in the hippy movement. None of them were meant as “Hippies are mostly like this” statements. And I do not claim to be an expert in the hippy movement, still, I know that part of it actively fought these tendencies, with varying degrees of succes.

However, the hippy movement is generally considered past its peak after many dropped out of it, criticizing communes which proved to be oppressive or, at best, useless, and many moved on to capitalist careers with added “new age” spirituality of some kind or another. With the necessary adjustments, the same happened to Occupy and the people who took part in it, yet the ideas live on…

Attacks on a political identity?

How were my considerations hurtful? Well, I do not pretend to understand it all, but as far as I can tell, it is because people identify as hippies, not especially as a political movement, but in the sense seen at the start of the text of “cultural hippyism”.

Anarchists identify as Anarchists because they see he world as Anarchists because they see the world as Anarchists. But, when people from a collective impose unrecallable delegates, or dabble in electoral politics, Anarchists are de facto excluded from that collective. However, they leave it because their politics cannot be reconciled with such decisions, not because their identity is not respected. To a smaller extent, they are identified and persecuted as Anarchists by others, see the origin of the term, and especially by the law, see the Anarchist Act of the early 20th century in the US. We do not like the state, and the state does not like us, but we are not up in arms because we are persecuted as Anarchists, it is very much “part of the job”. When Anarchist identity overflows into a real identification about Anarchism (when siding with the Kronstadt Soviet is no longer an issue of our politics but an issue of which team we support) it is largely seen as counter-productive and stupid.

For the self-identified hippies who felt personally insulted, any critique of the hippy movement was a personal slur against their identity, which is something quite different from endlessly arguing about why some branches or types of anarchism are more or less atrociously completely wrong, as Anarchists do.

As a conclusion, I think it is important not to conflate the hippy identity and the hippy movement, and make our criticisms of one not be perceived as criticisms of the other. However, I am still at a loss on how to do this, as I have failed and I am still not sure how.

Notes on identity: Is shifting the focus from the structures of oppression to invidual responsibility always bad?

In the best case scenario, it leads to a situation where everyone has the right to eat at McDonalds and to vote in elections, if not to have the right to be tortured by a police officer whose skin is the same colour, who is the same gender, and speaks the same language as their victim. One cannot escape from the structural constraints of the system by democratising access to its functions.

 Crédit à Mort, Anselm Jappe

Those are quite random thoughts about an online discussion I started by reacting to a statement about the IDF’s latest display of an army’s lack of humanity. A friend’s comment was “Jews were forced to hide in sewers during the holocaust. They, of all people, should know better.” It is a type of argument we often see, not only about Jewish people but any oppressed group (“how can a Black/gay person vote Tory?“). When it comes from a member of said group, of course we cannot, and should not, police how people identify themselves and how they feel about it. When they are not, the issue is a lot clearer.

In either case, it made me think of many cases in which the fact that an individual belongs to an oppressed group is deemed to give special moral qualities to said individual: “feminist” essentialism, for example, or the belief that women in positions of authority would be somehow fairer simply on account of being women. Which is really no different in nature than the orthodox Marxist belief that working-class people, when elevated to a position of power, will somehow behave better than bourgeois leaders (which come in Stalinist and Trotskyist versions). And of course, the use of the phrase ‘betray’ in sentences such as “Political parties/unions/ union leaders have betrayed the movement“, which many anarchists use without thinking about it, partakes in this worldview. How are they betraying anything when they are precisely filling their function? Unions and the police are not so dissimilar, and this type of discourse is no better than blaming the violence of police repression on individual police officers’ practices.

A lot of contemporary nationalist discourse (and almost all nationalist discourse on the Left) takes this form: In Britain, it is shameful that we let people die of exposure in the street. As French people, we should somehow have a special duty to observe the principles of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Sometimes, it gives the oppressed more moral license, on the contrary, instead of more of a moral duty, like in the Orientalist belief of a whole fringe of Marxist-Leninist groups that the Palestinian or other national liberation movements cannot be held to the same standard of morality we expect from everyone else, and that if they ‘choose’ Islamism as a mode of resistance, we should support it.

As far as I can tell, this kind of thinking only leads to unjustified feelings of guilt or to a suspension of moral judgment which spur little positive action. But are there any cases in which shifting the focus from the structures of oppression to invidual responsibility is useful or necessary?