Libertarians and the 60s Counterculture

There were two radical, anti-authoritarian movements of the 1960s which developed in very different ways yet compliment each other in ways which remain unappreciated. One is the newly formed Libertarian movement headed by people like Murray Rothbard and Leonard Read, both experts in economics who spent much of their time at the blackboard or the keyboard theorizing about the ideal voluntary market society. The other is what is commonly known as the Hippie movement, which is more accurately referred to as the counterculture of 1960s America. This was a movement informed by Leftist politics and a laid back ethic to life. This was not a movement primarily of intellectuals, but of artists or what were formerly referred to as beatniks.

It is my intention to show that these two cultures, while they evolved in many ways separately, have much to offer one another and may not have come about at the same time by mere historical accident. Both embraced similar political values, were opposed to the same things, conversed with the same people and advocated a similar society. The difference is much more a cultural one, and in that regard I’d argue both would benefit greatly from one another. I also intend to point out how a libertarian counterculture today is not only a possibility, but a process already occurring and which all libertarians ought to encourage, if not participate in.

What much of the history of the Left and Libertarianism in the 1960s focuses on is the interaction between Rothbardians and the New Left, specifically academics like Gabriel Kolko. What Marxists and Libertarians of the time had in common was an indictment of corporate liberalism and the military-industrial complex.

This New Left approach saw its pinnacle in the life and work of Karl Hess. Hess, a good friend to communists and Rothbardians alike, advocated the small-living that would come to define the counterculture way of life in the 60s. Hess represented the other side of the Left than that of Kolko, a young professional historian. This divide would come to define the story of the Left during the 60s. Libertarianism is often not so divided, but I believe there to be much interaction between the lifestyle and beliefs of hippies and libertarians.

Rothbard would eventually cite an infestation of the counterculture into the Libertarian mainstream as one reason for moving to a paleoconservative strategy in the 80s and 90s. Since then, there has been a rebirth of the libertarian left, but not of a connection with the values that fueled the radicals of the 60s. Libertarians both revolutionized such ideas and values and can learn much from them today. What follows is a short history of the some of the key figures involved in the anti-political left and their relationship with Libertarianism.

Kerry Thornley is known primarily as the co-founder of Discordianism and as a figure in the Kennedy assassination conspiracy files. Thornley was also a major figure in the arising 60s counterculture and a departure from the Beatniks of the 50s. He brought a sense of naturism and back-to-the-earth to the developing hippie scene. Thornley, along with many other Discordians and those influenced by it, were also Libertarian in attitude. Thornley himself created an early left-libertarian zine known as The Innovator. In it Thornley published radical theories on free love, seasteading and anarcho-communist sympathies with modern American Libertarians.

Thornley is very much the picture of what the non-academic, lifestyle libertarian of the 60s looked like. He was idiosyncratic, uncompromising in his worship of nature and free love and hated government – especially the United States. He partook in drugs, had a mystic sense of life and advocated radical self-liberation, both inwardly and in his advocacy of Libertarian homesteading based on communist ethics.

A similar, but one might say more well put together countercultural figure of the 60s to both libertarian nerds and hippies was Robert Anton Wilson. He also had a great hand in bringing Thornley’s Discordianism to the mainstream in The Illumanatus! Trilogy. Wilson was very much engaged with Libertarian ideas, responding to what he saw as the overly moralistic Libertarianism of the Rothbardians. Like Thornley, Wilson was an early left-libertarian who is often passed over as a luminary. He kept the egoism and mutualism of Tucker alive among the Libertarian underground community.

Wilson was also a fan of a particular compound that fueled much of the 60s counterculture – LSD. He went so far as to say in an interview in the 1970s that

“Rothbard is, like Marx and Pound, a brilliant closed mind: excellent for stimulation but anybody who gets dragged into a Rothbardian dogmatic trance should take LSD and try looking at the world through another grid.”

While the history of LSD and Libertarian culture is rarely explored, I think it ought to be, along with people like Wilson advocated its liberating effects. According to a speaker at a Texas LP convention in 1981, there was even a Libertarian who was advocating the use of LSD for elementary school children. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dredge up the identity of this person, but such thoughts were not rare among the counterculture of Libertarianism. Whether or not one agrees with such radical sentiments, they were a part of the Libertarian Zeitgeist and inspired by Dr. Timothy Leary, the face and voice of the LSD movement of the 60s and 70s.

Leary was himself a Libertarian, who in the late 70s began political activism for the LP. But more important than his Libertarian convictions were the actions he took and the philosophy he preached. Leary was a radical anti-authoritarian who saw himself as a sort of warrior for peoples’ minds. LSD, he thought, was the best way to shift an individual’s reality tunnel from a vicious one to one in line with Libertarianism. LSD was much more than a way to have a good time for the hippies, but a way to set people’s perspectives straight. Of course, the Hippies were not forcing squares to not participate in the acid craze. Like Libertarians, Hippies emphasized voluntary choice. There’s no such thing as someone who is freed without consent from himself.

The more distant relatives to the Libertarian movement include groups like the Yippies. Yippies constituted much of the radical anti-authoritarian left. To a large extent, Yippies represented a distinct break with the New Left that Rothbard had tried to align with around the same time. Yippies were rabidly opposed to conformity and in support of full individual expression. Like many modern volutnaryists, the Yippies were also radically anti-political. In 1968 during the infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago, Yippies met, led by Abbie Hoffman, to elect a pig by the name of Pegasus to the Yippie political party ticket. The Yippies came to many blows with policeman during openly hostile protests.

These were not the pacifist Hippies of old. These were Hippies that were realizing peace and love did not bring the troops home from slaughtering and being slaughtered in Vietnam. The message of the Yippies was to do away with the whole system, as opposed to the gradualism of many others on the New Left. Their strategy was very open and public. It was important to be openly contemptful to acts of oppression. Indeed, this was not always a good PR move. Abbie Hoffman was a beloved figure of the counterculture and no place else, but it did get attention and it did radicalize people.

Another famous group, known for its street antics and celebration of personal liberation were the Diggers. The Diggers encouraged sexual freedom and a world free of the work ethic, where people could come together in mutual play and enjoyment. They encouraged businessmen in NYC to abandon their work and join the Diggers’ openly hedonistic lifestyle.

The 60s were full of groups like this, dedicated to a-and-anti-political forms of cultural change. They did not see a need to point guns at people in order to get across the idea that their values were desirable. They only needed to act out their values in full view of the public. Freedom was enough.

The overall ethic of the Hippies was an immediatist one, but one which was in many ways more cynical than people give it credit. Many Libertarians were not your typical peace and love partier – at least not always. Hippies were looking for freedom in the now, because they saw no possibility for anything else. They were too busy to make plans for the future. They were very often not concerned with the intellectual.

Hunter S Thompson echoed these sentiments in an article of his,

“Most hippies are too drug oriented to feel any sense of urgency beyond the moment. Their slogan is ‘Now,’ and that means instantly. Unlike political activists of any stripe, hippies have no coherent vision of the future which might or might not exist. The hippies are afflicted by an enervating sort of fatalism that is, in fact, deplorable. And the New Left critics are heroic, in their fashion, for railing at it. But the awful possibility exists that the hippies may be right, that the future itself is deplorable and so why not live for Now? Why not reject the whole fabric of American society, with all its obligations, and make a separate peace?”

This outlines the central difference between the Libertarian culture and counterculture of the time. Is it better to struggle for a free society or to live at your most free right now. Thankfully another left libertarian thinker, Samuel Edward Konkin III aka SEK3, outlined the idea of counter-economies, a strategy fueled by the economic self-interest of those involved rather than the puritanical notion of giving up your earthly possessions.

This idea of a separate peace, while seemingly nihilistic to many moralist Libertarians remains a tantalizing force for agorist action. The Hippie ethic of living in communes is one started by Libertarians like Thornley who saw it not as a communistic duty to be part of an independent homestead, but as a matter of liberation from a Statist system. The Seasteading think tanks of the modern age can trace their visionary ideals back to Thornley and the Hippies.

I see a similar divide growing among Libertarians today. There are the young professionals at Students For Liberty and the lifestyle Libertarians who moved to New Hampshire to smoke weed naked in public parks. I think it’s uncontroversial to say that both are needed and will stick around, but I think the benefit of a radical Libertarian counterculture is underestimated. More than a political movement, Libertarians need a cultural movement. One that emphasizes the difference between current social values and alternative social values.

The true Libertarian underground luminaries of the day exist in entertainers like Doug Stanhope, who are waging a war not only against political norms but beliefs in what define normal social behavior. Activists in The Free State Project are open about drug use and many free staters decide to even walk around nude. While others dress up and play Robin Hood against meter maids. Like the Yippies, they’re into theatrics to get their message across rather than serious engagement. Activists like Adam Kokesh make a career out of shining a light on themselves. Many question such people’s motives. They are slandered as attention whores. And Hell, it might be true, but they get eyes on libertarian issues.

Much of the “back-to-the-land” ethic of the Hippies has been translated as deep-into-the-internet for  21st century Libertarian activists who trade in a crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. And just like the Hippies of the 60s, the main affect of the Libertarian counterculture has been to propagate the use of psychedelics. Bitcoin fueled the Silk Road and the agorist ideology fueled its now locked up alleged founder Ross Ulbricht.

Agorists, like the Hippies, want freedom now and on their own terms. They do not accept that freedom is impossible. They create it. Many see this as a detriment in the long-term, and the tragedy of much of the counterculture of the 60s is that they had no response to this claim of long-term detriment. Agorism offers that response.

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