This event is part of CIDRAL's Work, Leisure, Culture strand. This event is co-sponsored by the Raymond Williams Society.
David Wilkinson (Manchester Metropolitan University) will deliver a public lecture entitled 'The Drop Outs Are Anticipating Future Economic Policy: Work, Class and Countercultural Legacies'.
‘The drop-outs are anticipating future economic policy’, wrote Richard Neville in his 1970 countercultural classic Playpower. In a passage reminiscent of contemporary debates over the impact of automation, Neville views the potential consequences of such technologies with guarded optimism - ‘we had better learn how to use the leisure bonus’ – advocating the hippie revival of play as ‘the best revolution around’ under these circumstances.
In recent years, such countercultural hedonism has often coloured the left’s rediscovery of a technologically inspired anti-work ethic in the wake of socialist resurgence across the UK, Europe and the States. Its pranksterish provocation underpins the meme culture of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, along with Novara Media lynchpin Aaaron Bastani’s recent book of the same name. Meanwhile the late Mark Fisher had begun work on a project entitled ‘Acid Communism’ shortly before his passing, which displayed an uncharacteristically sunny assessment of the possibilities of the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet Neville’s analysis also haunts the present in ways that complicate socialist claims on countercultural inheritance. At times Playpower sounds less like a utopian manifesto and more like a giddy anticipation of the vast expansion of the cultural industries in the neoliberal era: ‘Non-workers include artists, craftsmen and media men…today, media is substitute play…that is why the Underground is obsessed with media’. As in neoliberal ideology, culture as panacea goes hand-in-hand with contempt for the supposed philistinism and puritanism of the working class. In turn this class becomes a scapegoat for conservative ills (‘authoritarian xenophobic hard hats who fear black men’s cocks’) in ways that echo current divisions over Brexit.
As early as 1975, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies characterised the counterculture as a ‘profoundly adaptive’ middle class response to postwar shifts in the capitalist productive base. CCCS thinkers acknowledged the contested nature of countercultural revolt, noting its dissident utopian energies. Yet they remained ambiguous about the politics of an ‘unfinished’ cultural trajectory.
Exploring a range of cultural production, from the underground press to the 1968 film Charlie Bubbles, this lecture returns to that unfinished trajectory, beginning to explore whether the legacy of the counterculture may still play a role in contemporary left imaginaries of a post-work society, or if it is more likely to animate paralysing hostilities between class fractions otherwise united by their precarious and exploited status.
David Wilkinson is Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University.