Fred Turner does a great deal to disambiguate the often monolithic idea of “the counterculture” we’re presented with in latter day retellings of the 1960s. He draws sharp distinctions, in particular, between the political movement that was the New Left and the lifestyle movement that characterized the New Communalists. Where the New Left believed that organizing political parties, staging direct actions and creating an alternative political structure as a means of achieving social democracy, for the New Communalists, institutionalism was itself inherently flawed and the goal was not so much to subvert it as to opt out of it altogether. The New Left largely emerged as a bloc of white college educated students who borrowed from philosophical and political critiques of capitalism to frame a critique of the encroaching blend of military and industry. They decried the blend of man and machine as ultimately destructive and likely to bring about rationalist subjugation if not total annihilation. New Communalists, conversely, were less dismayed by the blend of military and industry per se than they were by the notion of hierarchical structures in general. They blended esoteric philosophies with a form of libertarianism that sought a society that was generally flatter and more internally focused. The inward journey toward an elevation of consciousness as the principals means of liberation from society as it was naturally dovetailed with the early promises of cyberneticists, who theorized that the merger of man and tool, or, more specifically, man and machine, could upend social relationships and alter our understanding of what it meant to be human. The systems theory that resulted out of the interdisciplinary atmosphere from which the cyberneticists hailed easily appealed to the New Communalists, according to Turner. Systems theory’s lionization of non-bureaucratic interrelations coincided neatly with the New Communalists ideas of autonomous networked communities working outside the mainstream. Turner argues that neither the New Left nor the New Communalists were operating outside the mainstream in any authentic way and neither were subverted by capitalism as much as simply as simply an outgrowth of it. This aligns with several of the Scholz readings, most notably Terranova, who argues that both digital culture and economy are deeply linked to capitalism and not operating outside as a new social order, having descended from the miraculous digital ether. The New Communalists as cultural antecedents to the modern internet certainly explains a lot of the modern optimism within the industry and even the emergence of the notion of Technological Singularity in the popular consciousness (an idea, perhaps not coincidentally, reported on at length in the Whole Earth Review and written about extensively by both Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly).
Most of my understanding of Communalism comes from Murray Bookchin and seems somewhat different from the New Communalist movement Turner is here describing as Bookchin’s version is a clear outgrowth of the politics of the New Left. As such, I’m left to wonder if he may be making the same error of generalization about communalism that he criticizes historians for making when conflating the counterculture as an amorphous mass.
Digital Media and Society
November 10, 2015
The New Left and the New Communalists
In the chapter titled “The shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor” Turner explores how branches within countercultures have differing relationships to information technologies. More specifically, he explains how the emergence of the New Left and the New Communalists has its roots in the war and post-war environment of the 1950s and 1960s where free speech movements started proposing the idea that the knowledge taking place in universities was inherently entangled with the military-industrial complex. In this way, free speech movement supporters were concerned that knowledge and information were being fragmented to fit the necessities of the political environment of the time and that students were then being deems as part of the machine. Turner writes “the university generated new knowledge and new workers for an emerging ‘information society’. In that sense…the university was an information machine.” (p. 12). This implied then, that university was underpinned by a hierarchy system, and the students opposed to being used as parts to a machine or bits of information. They refused to be compared to the two-dimensional dullness of an IBM card. “The transformation of the self into data on an IBM card marked the height of dehumanization.” (p.16)
However, Tuner alludes that there was an openness in this seemingly closed world that has been forgotten by historians. He highlights that the war environment provided a platform for new technologies to be produced, and allowed for multiple disciplines in universities to work together in a system of collaboration rather than in a hierarchy system. “The laboratories within which the research and development too place witnessed a flourishing of nonhierarchical, interdisciplinary collaboration.” (p. 18). This environment of collaboration seemed to be obscured when it resulted in the production of the atomic bomb, exposing to many, that decisions made in in the higher tiers of the hierarchy affected the everyday lives of individuals. “Some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon… and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women” (p.29) From here stemmed the ideologies that forged the New Left. Having understood that a new kind of social structure would have to take place, the New Left “took activism to be the fundamental mission of the movement” (p. 35), Turner’s argument is that they did so while still using the traditional political tactics. New Communalists however, while also pushing for a new kind of social structure considered that “political activism was at best beside the point and at worst part of the problem.” (p.35). The New Communalists considered a change of consciousness as the answer to significant social change and if they were to focus on changing the mind first, it was logical to them that this cannot be separated from information. “Information would have to become a key part of countercultural politics.” (p.38) viewing cybernetics and systems theory as a viable alternative to overthrow hierarchies and promote a system of collaboration through which the flow of information could reach and change consciousness.
In “The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor” chapter, Fred Turner explained how the New Left and the New Communalists are two different social movements but have some common characteristics. According to Turner, the New Left was primarily formed as a political movement “out of the struggles for civil rights in the Deep South and the Free Speech Movement” (p. 31). Members form political parties and protested against the Vietnam War, “industrial activities, and bureaucratic organization of the universities” (p. 34).
Similar to the New Left movement, the New Communalists also sought to challenge the bureaucracy and the cold war social order. However, unlike the New Left, they did not see politics as the solution to this. The mind was their alternative to politics. They turned away from politics as a solution for social change.
Turner also added that:
“For the New Left, movement politics offered a way to tear down that bureaucracy and simultaneously to experience the intimacy of shared commitment and the possibility of an emotionally committed adulthood. For the New Communalists, in contrast, and for much of the broader counter-culture, cybernetics and systems theory offered an ideological alternative. Like Norbert Wiener two decades earlier, many in the counterculture saw in cybernetics a vision of a world built not around vertical hierarchies and top-down flows of power, but around looping circuits of energy and information. These circuits presented the possibility of a stable social order based not on the psychologically distressing chains of command that characterized military and corporate life, but on the ebb and flow of communication” (p. 38).
My understanding of this is that the New Left wanted to get rid of the bureaucracy and hierarchy of power, and the way the saw this was possible was through political activism. The New Communalists, on the other hand, believed not only in the mind and the transformation of consciousness as sources of the social order reform, but also in cybernetics.
Hybrid Assignment 9
In chapter one, Turner distinguishes the New Left from the New Communalists through the affinities of latter by a cybernetic vision of the world by looking at the two opposite perspectives and how it will shape our society.
From my understanding of this chapter, the New Left activists represented as being against war, as it takes the view from the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, yet wanted to change the politics. They believed that the key was to use politics as their source. In contrast, New Communalists, wanted to avoid party politics, bureaucracy, as well as other organized social worlds. Their motive was to build a new community which did not focus on politics, it was the mind. They believed that if people shared the same ideas as others, then politics altogether would not be needed because they will be unified as one group. Power did not belong to anyone; it belonged to all, by building a community. In addition, technology was now used as a tool and taken advantage of due to the convenience to become part of a society, which the New Left activists would not have agreed on.
In Chapter 1 of From Cyberculture to Counterculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Turner speaks of “two somewhat overlapping but ultimately distinct social movements” (31) that formed as a response to the threat of technological bureaucracy felt by the youth of the 1960s. The anxieties over the peril of nuclear warfare, coupled with the uncertainties of their own professional futures, gave young people –mostly college students – the incentive to break away from mainstream society into these two groups. The first group, known as the “New Left,” grew out of the fight for civil rights and was committed to social change through protests, sit-ins, civil disobedience and the forming of political parties. Protesting the Vietnam War became their biggest cause. While this group turned toward political action, the second group Turner discusses turned toward Zen Buddhism, Beat poetry and eventually psychedelic drugs and music to enhance their consciousness. While the first group was more concerned with the betterment of society for all, the second group often referred to as “counterculture” was more concerned with their personal selves.
The counterculture was a threat to both the Right and the New Left. The Right saw their drug use and open sexual mores as a challenge to conservative American values. The New Left saw them as a threat to their political struggles and a temptation to their members to abandon their righteous fight for the more alluring hippie culture. Turner differentiates between the New Left and the Counterculture by calling our attention to what he calls the “New Communalists. “The New Communalists include the tens of thousands of counterculture members who between 1967 and 1970, broke away to form communes across the country. In forming communes they were turning away from the middle class cold war America and toward a vision of “a new nation, a land of small egalitarian communities linked to one another by a network of shared beliefs.” (33) Unlike the New Left, the new Communalists saw the value of a “free” culture in which the Internet could be expereinced as a social movement. Their movement was a movement of the mind and by turning toward consciousness they “opened new doors to mainstream culture, and particularly to high-technology research culture.” (38) They embraced cybernetics as a way to increase peer-to-peer channels of information and a vision for a better future as made evident in the 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan that Turner uses to close the chapter.
Fred Turner focuses on the New Left and the New Communalists during the Cold War era. There are many differences between the two groups that Turner makes known, however they all worked for one thing, social change. The New Left wanted to change things using politics while the New Communalist wanted to change things with a more peaceful approach; instead of politics they wanted to use the mind.
The New Left group used mainstream political tactics to try and bring on a new world of social change. It seems as though they were not trying to get rid of the power system in place but rather make it better. They involved themselves a lot with political activism so that their social movements of the time could triumph. Unlike the New Communalists, the New Left wasn’t particularly fond of the idea of cybernetics.
The New Communalists were seen as hippies because they wanted the social change by bringing out a “new, less violent, and more psychologically authentic world.” They wanted to get rid of the hierarchy of power and not focus so much on the politics that the New Left was worried about. This in turn worked in their favor as it allowed for “circles-within-circles of information and systems theory might somehow make sense not only as ideas about information, but also as evidence from the natural world for the rightness of collective polity.”
My understanding on this complex reading is as following. In the chapter “ The shifting politics of the computational metaphor” Turner introduces the idea of how technology was utilized as a source for the use of military platform. Also, he mentions how the end of the world war II triggered a transformation in American science and society as well. He mentions how before scientist and science did not interfered with other areas such as politics, military among others. this changed later on different perception as is referred in the as the ” the computational metaphor”. Moreover, he refers to the New communalist, as those who helped reform the American social structure; where the evolution of personal computer was essential away from the political spectrum . For the new communalist information, or personal knowledge, is the key to the countercultural politics. Meanwhile for the new left seeks to work with established structured trying to seek social change through the political and military forms.
In Fred Turners book, he discusses the differences between the two groups, The New left and The Communalists. They saw the Internet as flexible working systems. Material world as an information system. The computer was used for military purposes during the war. A world free of bureaucracy. The New Left sought to bring to light the issues of social rights such as Free Speech. The movement was a breakdown of a power structure that arose from the doings of protests of University students. They insisted on being heard by these means and expected to seek change in society this way. By the 1950s more people grew increasingly fearful of military’s industrial institutions and their influences. The Left saw society as “ a society dominated by pyramidal organizations” and demonstrated their distaste through rejecting and was viewed as a political movement who had activist for their cause.
The New Communalists on the other hand, seemed more liberal in their thoughts and approach to digital association and contribution to the people. They embraced the technologies that governed cyberspace innovations. They were not set on political arguments and looked towards a peaceful order within society. They were according to Turner the ones who “turned toward technology and mind as foundations of a new society”. It was more of a rebirth of a new counterculture. They felt the mind was the key to being released from their current social conditions. Rather than use politics, or activism, they rejected “industrial-era technocratic bureaucracy”.
Turner distinguishes the New Left from the New Communalists through the affinities of latter to a cybernetic vision of the world built “built not around vertical hierarchies and top down flow of power, but around looping circuits of energy and information. In his book, Turner talks about the rise of cybernetics and how it was initially used in the military during the war. He makes the point that this technology was exclusive to military personnel, thus, the top-down flow of power. Turner gives examples of how the rise of cybernetics during wartime gave rise to the New Left and the New Communalists movements. Although both movements may appear similar because it was born out of fear that the people who lived during this time possessed, Turner observes that there were differences between the two movements.
The New Left was mainly a political movement birthed by students in Port Huron, Michigan. Their driving force was the rise of the civil rights movement and the cold war which brought the threat of nuclear annihilation. The New Left believed that if bigotry ended and the world survived, a new social structure would have to be built. They believed “the goal of man and society should be to find meaning in life that is personally authentic.” To the New Left, a life that was personally authentic meant demonstrating on behalf of Free Speech rights and Black Power. They also protested industrial activities and bureaucratic organization of the universities, and against the Vietnam War. These New Lefts attempted to bring about a less violent and more psychologically satisfying society.
The New Communalists believed that the key to social change was the mind. They argued that the “myth of objective consciousness” was the problem and not the rationalized bureaucracy of the cold war. The objective of this counter culture was to “proclaim a new heaven and a new earth so vast, so marvelous that the inordinate claims of technical expertise must of necessity withdraw in the presence of such splendor to subordinate and marginal status in the lives of men.” In other words, they believed that a person’s mindset could revolutionize the world. By turning to consciousness as a means of social change, the New Communalists turned away from the political struggles that preoccupied the New Left. In doing so, they opened new doors to mainstream culture and high technology research culture. Thus, the New Communalists came to embrace the “circles within circles” of information which they believed systems theory presented. While the New Left believed in tearing down bureaucracy, New Communalists believed in the possibility of a stable social order based on the ebb and flow of communication.