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Counterculture is a sociopolitical term indicating a point of dissent between dominant or mainstream ideologies and alternative value systems, so creating a collective voice that can be considered a significant minority.

Counterculture is a sociopolitical term indicating a point of dissent between dominant or mainstream ideologies and alternative value systems, so creating a collective voice that can be considered a significant minority. This article explores the origins of the 1960s, counterculture in the 1950s Beats, and the emergence of youth cultures. With music recognized as integral to hippie culture, protest, and environmentalism, attention is focused on key artists, global communication, and festivals. Liminal aspects of the counterculture are examined, and the continuing relevance of the term as symbolizing the hegemonic struggles that continue to inform everyday life in societies and cultures worldwide.

‘The’ Counterculture

The counterculture emerged in the mid-1960s as a self appellation among young people within the middle-class youth movement as politics merged with cultural issues. The issues of racism, collusion of higher education institutions with the military and corporate worlds in support of the Vietnam War, and en loco parentis regulations in colleges and universities fused with struggles over hair length, communal living, musical tastes, drug use, gender roles, and sexuality (Foss, 1972). At the height of the middle-class youth movement, there emerged a new social type, self-designated as the ‘freak radical,’ whose opposition to the dominant institutions was as much cultural as it was political, and whose critique of state-supported corporate capitalism was total. Political radical Abbie Hoffman (1968) under the pseudonym ‘Free’ offered social revolution as the meaningful alternative to the structure and ethos of the dominant society that emphasized hierarchy, bureaucracy, competition, upward mobility, the work ethic, and drugs of consciousness constriction (e.g., alcohol and barbiturates).

Countercultural radicals maintained a ‘postscarcity’ mentality (Bookchin, 1971) based upon their own experiences in an expanding and increasingly prosperous middle class. They perceived that society had reached a point at which the production of material goods was no longer an issue; inequitable distribution was. There was no need for humans to devote the majority of their waking hours obtaining the necessities of existence. Life was to be lived in loving communities that coalesced in a common cause of bringing down a corrupt social system. From the outside, capitalism in its contemporary form was a system that made no sense. Production had been liberated from the satisfaction of basic human needs and had become an end in itself. Humans had become harnessed to an increasingly frenetic system of production, distribution, and consumption of commodities that they had to be convinced they needed. This system of waste production for waste consumption alienated human beings from meaningful social participation, demanded participation in labor that had little redeeming social value, was ecologically destructive, required sexual repression, and drained life of its ecstatic and joyful dimension (Foss, 1972).

By the end of the summer of 1969, after the apocryphal countercultural event, the Woodstock Music Festival, the middle-class youth movement was showing clear signs of its demise (Foss and Larkin, 1976). At this point, the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM), which began as a response to the sexism of male movement participants (Morgan, 1970), was entering its most radical phase. Patriarchy was being diagnosed as the enemy of the liberation of women. The WLM gave a fresh new edge to the counterculture by emphasizing gender equality and promoting feminism. Women's values were offered as an alternative to the competitive, warlike, hierarchical, and patriarchal values of the hypermasculine dominant society. Radical feminists engaged in numerous activities designed to delegitimate patriarchy. They demanded equal pay for equal work; they disrupted the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968. They supported feminist candidates for political office. Feminists formed ‘consciousness-raising groups,’ analyzing sexist aspects of domestic relations and the sexual bias of the English language.


Countercultures are often described as radical groups of people who reject established social values and practices and who embrace a mode of life opposed to the mainstream. Countercultures emerge in the wake of dramatic economic and social developments. They are reactions to social dislocation and alienation from society. Countercultures share many similarities with subcultures, but rather than modifying dominant values and norms, they seek to reconstruct an alternative social order that rejects or subverts those values and norms. Some historical examples include the Bohemians (19th century European artists, writers, and disenchanted people of all sorts who wished to live a nontraditional lifestyle), or the Beatniks (a group of young artists and writers in New York City who espoused nonconformity and existentialism during the 1950s). Currently the term has its strongest historical associations with those who advocated a communal or nomadic lifestyle, renounced corporate nationalism and the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s, and embraced aspects of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism (i.e., the hippies). The late 1960s also spawned a number of radical political movements committed to the eradication of institutionalized racism and government oppression in the United States (the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, and the Symbionese Liberation Army). The punks in Britain and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s could be classified as a counterculture, although this term is not usually applied to them. Many punks rejected consumerism, espoused anarchy, and lived illegally in squats or abandoned buildings.

There have been few examples of movements that could be classified as countercultures in the 1990s and 2000s. One is the anticorporate globalization movement that organizes protests (e.g. Seattle, 1999; Genoa, 2001) against transnational corporations and trade liberalization institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the G8. By some estimates well over one million people attended anticorporate globalization protests between the 1999 protest in Seattle and the Genoa action in 2001, excluding the millions participating in the anti-IMF general strike in Argentina in May of 2000 (George et al., 2001). But as is characteristic of postmodern subcultures, these groups are very fluid, difficult to define, and lacking in an identifiable organizational structure.

Countercultural markers such as tattoos, body piercing, drug use, and unconventional clothing have become so much a part of mainstream, commodified youth culture that they have lost much of their subversive value. The increasingly sophisticated marketing industry is ever more quick to identify, label, and package nonconformist lifestyle trends, quickly rendering them part of the mainstream. One way that a counterculture can express its disaffection with mainstream norms is through the adoption of an antilanguage involving the conscious distortion of conventional language via metathesis (altering the order of sounds or syllables), mixing, borrowing, or by changing the meaning of words. Some examples include ‘verlan,’ a youth language in France involving the reversal of syllables, and the language of urban youngsters (‘wahuni’) in Dar Es Salaam consisting of arcane instances of linguistic mixing, borrowing, and relexification in Swahili, English, and other languages (Blommaert, 2003).