The New Communalists and the New Left

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.

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