Jenny Diski’s slim contribution to the series BIG IDEAS // small books (Macmillan Press) is a historically-minded memoir of The Sixties, that period of social foment between, as she dates it, the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. Between “the rise of popular culture” and “all the open-ended possibilities … began to narrow” (3). Diski is English, so her Sixties were the British Sixties, kicking off with the Beatles and the fashions of Swinging Sixties London (picture Emma Peel in the Avengers) and ending with the rise of Tory, Thatcher-ite politics. In six brief chapters, she surveys consumer culture, drug culture, sexual liberation, and movements for social change: principally the feminist movement and the free school movement.
I’m not particularly sure what Diski was going for in this book. Granted I read it very quickly in a single sitting one night when I couldn’t fall asleep. But still. On the one hand, it attempts to survey cultural trends in an overview sort of fashion, to speak for more than just herself — she uses “we” throughout to speak of her cohort of youthful enthusiasts. Yet at the same time, Diski’s experience is a very personal one. An unhappy adolescent, she was kicked out of school for using ether in her early teens and soon thereafter left her parents’ care for good. She was heavily involved in the drug scene in London, checked herself in and out of mental health institutions throughout the 60s and 70s, had a lot of very unhappy sex, was involved in starting an alternative school, went back to rehab … despite the way her words cue nostalgia and a continued commitement to the values of her youth, the book manages to convey very little sense constructive joy.
Diski seems to have settled on wistful nostalgia lost opportunity — though opportunity for what exactly remains fairly nebulous — woven together a rather pessimistic interpretation of these countercultures as ultimately paving the way for the conservative revolution. Rather than interpreting the rise of neoliberal conservatism (Reagan on this side of the pond, Thatcher on that) as a backlash against the chaos of the Sixties, Diski sees it as a natural outgrowth: hard-right concepts of privitization and individualism dovetailing neatly with left-wing desires for decentralization and exploration of the self. “I’d resist the claim that the Sixties generation were responsible for the Tatcher years, as I would resist the notion that the Jewish community in Germany were responsible for the advent of the Nazis,” she writes (should her argument automatically lose according to Godwin’s law?). “But sometimes I can’t help but see how unwittingly we might have been sweeping the path in readiness for the radical Right, preparing, with the best of good intentions, the road to hell for paving” (110).
While as an historian of this period I am inclined to agree that the argument has merit — the radical Right employed and benefited from the theoretical frameworks developed on the radical Left much more than either side likely wants to admit — I am unsure what Diski wants us to do with this observation. She implies, though never develops the argument fully, that the desire for democratization, decentralization, diversity, and exploration of the self-in-relation-to-others somehow fits in with the far Right agenda. And that therefore the very foundations of the Sixties counterculture are suspect, tainted.
I’d argue this is a confusion of external appearances with deeper values. It is akin, in my book, to arguing that because the Religious Right has utilized Christian scriptures for power-hungry, poisonous ends, that the Bible is worthless as a spiritual text, and all Christians are somehow in (perhaps unwitting, yet still substantive) collusion with those forces inimical to life. I realize there are a lot of folks — particularly on the secular left these days — who do indeed argue the very perspective. Perhaps Diski is one of them, although I know nothing about her personal religious values. I find such wholesale dismissal of complex philosophies and traditions to be disheartening; imaginative “third way” options are often sacrificed as a result.
Which is kind of what I felt when I read Diski’s chapter on free schools. She focuses specifically — aside from recounting her own experience helping to found and run an experimental community school — on the pedagogical writings of Ivan Illich. Illich is known best for his influential critique of institutional schools, Deschooling Society (1971), which argued that institutional schools — designed to support the modern corporate and state interests — are antithetical to authentic learning. Illich argued that a much more human-centered, constructive approach to teaching and learning would be to establish community-based learning centers that would serve as a general clearing house for those with skills willing to teach and those with the desire to learn. As the title of his book indicates, Illich was interested in a whole-sale revisioning of society, as a re-tooling of learning would entail a re-tooling of the rest of the economic and socio-political culture in order to accommodate peoples’ freedom as individuals to learn according to their own design. Diski classifies him as a libertarian, which is perhaps fair, but also suggests that he would have found a home in Margaret Thatcher’s government, as one of her “theoretical advisors” (110). While I don’t know enough about Illich’s overall political views to argue what he would or would not have done if given the chance. However, as a radical Catholic priest who — as far as I’ve been given to understand — was deeply suspicious of institutions across the board — it is difficult to see him participating at such a high level in government. Let alone a government that was so heavily invested in maintaining the power of big business, the military, and so forth.
As Diski herself writes, the point was “to dispense completely with structure, to undercut the authority of hierarchy and the hierarchy of authority” (110). This, for some reason, appears to have surprised Diski when she revisited Illich in preparation for writing this book. She is appalled at the idea that no centralized system would be in place to advocate for certain bodies of knowledge, and sees in such a centralized, non-authoritarian vision the spectre of violent anarchy and increasing inequality. Of privatized interests and a voracious economic dominance. In short, Diski is conflating a vision of human liberation from cultural conformity, institutional tyranny, and systems of oppression, with a right-wing political liberatarianism that ignores (of, often, actively supports) the way in which power is used and abused by human beings to marginalize and control the vulnerable. She does not acknowledge the sister-discourse within the educational alternatives movement concerning common responsibility, reciprocity, social justice, and peace.
Which is, in the end, where I feel her analysis of “the Sixties” as a period of cultural and political foment falters. To say that the upheaval of the postwar era lay the foundations for the rise of conservatism in the late 1970s is a valid argument, but her failure to explore fully the way in which left-leaning calls for personal liberation were twinned (in both philosophy and practice) with collective responsibility for the well-being of humanity and the planet as an ecological whole. It is also to ignore the individuals and groups that have continued to advocate this vision, even as the conservative agenda has come do dominate mainstream discourse. Perhaps in a lengthier work Diski could have convinced me, but given that she offered her thesis with such brevity, I found myself still unconvinced.