“Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a main era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
A few days ago I was reminded of this quiet moment of reflection at the centre of the chaotic maelstrom that is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). One can’t help but feel pity for the washed up victims of the hippy movement’s failures. This is not to say it achieved nothing, the 1960s were a keystone period of social change but, ultimately, it was a moment that passed and we live in a society that the hardcore of the movement would have naively despised (which is not a negative thing, by my lights; the kind of moon-faced psychedelic global commune they would have approved of would be a moronic existence for a thinking person). It soon lost momentum and deteriorated into a parody of itself; as Danny the drug-dealer says towards the end of Withnail & I, another masterpiece about the death of sixties idealism, “they’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths man”.
Ultimately, social movements based on a certain self-applied identity or tribe tend to encounter these kinds of problems. Notice when Thompson speaks of “our energy” and “momentum”; where was this coming from? No doubt mind expansion through the proliferation of psychedelic drugs were seen as a big part of this and drugs can be a powerful tool of self-discovery, but experiences of expanding consciousness are only as positive and worthwhile as what you are able to put into them. If you know anything about the first and second laws of thermodynamics in fundamental physics you will know that energy cannot be created or perfectly preserved, the law of entropy states that all systems move from order to disorder as energy equalises; this is the reason the concept of a perpetual motion machine is unworkable. There are many theories that attempt to apply physical laws at the level of society (most notably, Philip Ball’s Critical Mass) and I believe they are on to something at least in that the social sciences can learn a lot from the natural sciences (or actual science depending on your definition).
Another film that, very movingly, showed the visceral death rattle of the movement was Forrest Gump (1994). Beginning as a fresh-faced idealistic young hippy, we see the female lead, Jenny, spiral into a miserable world of drug addiction and abusive relationships. It shows how many of the individuals involved in the movement suffered greatly from its demise, becoming perennial victims or, indeed, abusive bullies themselves. And when they fell, despite all their hope and idealism, nobody was there to catch them.
To me, what Thompson and others who have chronicled the movement’s demise are describing is a group of people who attempted to create their own perpetual motion machine, to escape into utopian world of their own creation which ultimately proved entropic. When you look at it in this way you begin to see similar patterns in practically every utopian movement throughout history.
Even today we can follow the threads of this. In contrast to the idealistic “end of history” moment of the 1990s, the current strand of liberal progressivism which is now increasingly referred to as “regressive” liberalism is undergoing its own descent into self-parody at this moment; the radical feminist who wants to “peel off” her white skin, the transgender woman who can no-longer work as a diversity officer at a university because she is now technically classed as a white man, the repetitive re-characterisation of free speech as a culturally imperialist canard on university campuses of all places – my friends, the shelves are buckling under the weight of proverbial hippy wigs.
But those of us who can look beyond utopianism may take comfort in the fact that history moves in cycles. This does not mean that long-term progress is not possible, but an end to history under the guise of a “movement” is. For those who embraced that fallacy, all that remains is to find a safe and comfortable vantage point from which to watch it come to an end.
“We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fuelled the 60’s. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”
- Hunter S. Thompson
Featured Image Credit: No.1 by Jackson Pollock (1948) Source