THE BLOG
09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dissent Commodified

The 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival has certain pundits in a misty-eyed nostalgic funk for the days when youth culture came of age, challenging conformity, standing up for individuality, and making awesome music before it all got so commercialized.

The memory it brought back for me came from the late Trader Monthly magazine, a chronicler of the truculent way of the trading pits and possibly the definitive opposite of the Aquarian spirit. Leafing through an old issue a while ago, I happened across "Cash of the Titans," an accounting of the nation's most successful speculators, in which images of the billionaires were tastefully rendered by none other than Peter Max, the artist once beloved of the Now Generation for his psychedelic posters.

Perhaps this coming together of peace, love and accumulation brought a curse to the lips of Woodstock's earnest memorialists. For me, it was a reminder of how seamlessly counterculture and business culture have meshed; how neatly '60s cultural radicalism fit into structures it was supposedly against.

By this I do not mean to refer to the many rock stars who have been knighted, or the Cadillacs their music has been used to promote, or the maddening ubiquity of classic rock, which I am starting to suspect is required by some secret agreement to be played over the PA system of every hardware store in the nation until the day the last boomer takes his final toke.

I am not talking about "selling out." What I have in mind is something grander: that business embraced the carnival it saw in the muddy hills of upstate New York in 1969 not merely because it wanted to sell things to kids but because coolness, nonconformity and soulfulness expressed something deep and true about capitalism itself.

Consider the TV commercials with which Enron used to insist that we question authority, that we use "the chosen word of the nonconformist" and "ask why." Or the TV commercials in which Washington Mutual, before its collapse, told the world how it came up with its brilliant ideas: By running proposals by a captive panel of old-school snob bankers; when this country-club set disapproved, turning up its nose in a way you have learned to hate from a thousand iterations of the same cliché, the unpretentious people from WaMu knew they were on the right track.

Think of all the dying industrial cities that have sought to revive themselves by persuading Jennifer and Jason Hipster to relocate their transgressive selves to fake bohemias those towns have constructed. Or all the popular business books narrating this "revolution" or that, declaring the end of the "Organization Man" model, and instructing us to respect the outside-the-box thinker, the maverick with the creative spark.

And while the tuned-in and the well-heeled chew whole-grain foodstuffs produced by the hemp-wearing people of authenticityland, Interstate Bakeries Corporation, the maker of Wonder Bread and Twinkies--those symbols of what the counterculture disdained--emerged from bankruptcy earlier this year. As did Chrysler and General Motors, makers of the tailfinned monsters Woodstock Nation disdained in favor of Volkswagen vans.

We commemorate Woodstock as the symbolic moment when it began, when the youthful uprising against conformity and soullessness was supposedly pure and untainted. In truth, the counterculture critique was never all that shocking. The reason our advertising people and management theorists love it is because it was in many ways so utterly superficial.

After all, if the essential problem with our civilization is conformity, it is an easy problem to solve. It merely requires that new and more authentic products appear all the time and that old products to be showered with scorn, cultural operations that consumer society performs incredibly well. If the problem is a lack of respect for creativity, management theorists stand ready to plaster our cubicles with posters hailing entrepreneurship and risk-taking.

Then there are the interesting political byproducts of all this. When commercial culture started to work by laughing constantly at the squareness of Middle America, it brought lots of Middle Americans to a state of simmering rage. They have remained there ever since, a "silent majority" that has rebelled more or less constantly since the late '60s, although not in a way that will ever convince the makers of commercial culture to stop disrespecting their values.

As we remember those poignant early days when Boomers took on the establishment, let us also remember that any establishment is lucky to have an opposition like this one.

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Immigration Out of Sight
Why AT&T Killed Google Voice
The Death Book for Veterans