Adam Curtis

This Thursday Londoners will vote to elect a new city mayor, and I thought it would be a good moment to put up a great documentary about how Norman Mailer stood for Mayor of New York in 1969.

It is a lovely film - directed by a brilliant documentary maker called Dick Fontaine, and beautifully shot in the fluid way of cine-verite back then. But more than that it captures the rise of a phenomenon that has come to dominate (and possibly strangle) western metropolitan society today. It is the rise of the hipster. By this I don't mean the present cliche of the ironic moustaches that live in Hoxton and Hoboken - but a new cultural elite that was beginning to emerge at that time, the rebellious, stroppy bohemians who looked to culture rather than politics to define their identity - and above all their difference from others.

In the film you can see them peeking through in the backdrop of many of the scenes, for Mailer attracts them. In his perverse individualism and rebelliousness - one of his slogans is "We're no good, and we can prove it" - Mailer captured a new sensibility. This was because he combined a revulsion against a tired old culture together with a distrust of the political system, and the hipsters loved it.

But Mailer was a complicated man - and as well as embodying many of the hipster values he was also a perceptive and vocal critic of the new sensibility. Back in 1957 he had written an essay for Dissent magazine called The White Negro. In it he had described how fears of nuclear annihilation had begun to produce a new kind of young alienated being in America. These hyper-individualists trusted only their own feelings and desires and refused to be part of any group or organisation. And in black culture, Mailer said, they found their identity - the culture of the dangerous outsider.

This outsider culture had originally been created, Mailer wrote, by blacks in response to racial oppression and violence. But for the "white negroes" that culture was then co-opted in order to give a meaning and grandeur to their psychopathic narcissism:

"In such places as Greenwich Village a menage-a-trois was completed - the bohemian and the 'juvenile delinquent' came face to face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in the wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro."

Mailer also pointed out that this new breed of "psychic outlaw" could be equally a candidate for the most reactionary or the most radical of political movements. And in the film there is a fascinating scene where Mailer takes on the trades unions on one of the avenues in New York. He tells them that in the past they were a heroic movement - but that now they have become a repressive, stultifying force in society - in particular in the way they are refusing to allow blacks and hispanics to move up society. It is an odd moment because as you watch you realise that it was elements of this rebellious individualism that both Thatcher and Reagan would later harness. And that possibly, if the left had got hold of it earlier, then the history of the West might have been very different.

In the 1970s the phenomenon that Mailer had identified grew massively. And as it did the new cultural bohemians co-opted another outsider culture to give themselves further identity - the gay culture that had risen up in response to homosexual discrimination. Then in the 1980s that bohemian individualism became the driving force that permitted consumer capitalism to reinvent itself - because it offered the ever-multiplying hipsters the objects through which to express their rebellious difference.

Today it is possible to argue that we have all become gay white negroes. We all listen to "edgy urban" music, spend our time in the gym, go shopping and groom ourselves, take lots of drugs, have sex and then spend the rest of the time talking to our friends about the impossibility of finding real love and connection in the world.

Far from an expression of rebellion it has become the conformity of our age. And if Mailer was right - that it was a sensibility originally born out of the existential fears of nuclear holocaust - then it lost its real radical purpose when the cold war ended.

Instead the white negro hipster has actually become one of the central conservative pillars of our time - because their real function is now simply to prop up an increasingly shaky system of credit and rolling consumption.

And one wonders where are the real outsiders of out time? Who are the new "white negroes" of our age?

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  • Comment number 45. Posted by Villemar

    on 15 Jun 2012 08:55

    @loninappleton, I do not know what you were responding to in the deleted post (#32) so I'm not 100% sure of the context; but it struck me in your posts #33 and #43 something I and others have observed among many of those who have attempted to co-op the term "Progressive" here in the U.S; or the "New New Left" as sledgy above calls it, or the "Firebaggers" as they have been derivesively called (referencing Jane Hamsher's Firedoglake)...that is, a kind of anarcho-nihilist hipsterism whose primary focus is to anthromophise all of society's ills into one single persona, that being President Obama.

    Of course having been introduced to AC via The Power of Nightmares, it has become crystal clear to me that if you extrapolate the Straussian narrative of Greatest Evil America Must Oppose, our National Bête Noire, from 2004 to 2012, sure enough it would look like: Communism ---> Bill Clinton ---> Islam ---> Barack Obama. My God the treatment of PBO by the right; the levels of purest bile, hatred, rage and venom (not to mention the sublte and not-so-subtle levels of racism via Birther conspiracies etc.) must outclass President Clinton a thousandfold, not to mention the availability of 24/7 right-wing media echo chambers like Fox News and AM talk radio doing essentially nothing but ingraining how Evil President Obama on every issue under the sun, both real and imagined.

    What vexes me to no end is why individuals like Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald and others including this guy Glen Ford (who goes all in with calling PBO Evil with a capital "E") have completely and utterly adopted the Straussian narrative hook line and sinker.

    Is this just a hipster, cool kids thing? Or classic mirroring (in the Hofstader sense) of the extreme far right? Or just good old fashioned "some people just want to watch the world burn" anarcho-nihilism with the singular goal of destroying the Obama Presidency as the last obstacle that must be removed so as to that goal? Because tactically it makes no sense to cede all 3 branches of government to the GOP forevermore as envisioned by Karl Rove. I just don't get it.

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  • Comment number 44. Posted by Geoff

    on 7 Jun 2012 19:56

    Look, using the shapeshifting term 'hipster' as a byword for 'individualism' of any kind is absurd. Yes, Norman Mailer was a colossal egotist and all-round rotter. But Thatcher, Reagan and their supporters wouldn't have had a clue who he was, and he wouldn't have endorsed their policies or cultural outlooks either. There just isn't a connection. This well-worn idea that 'the 60s people' got into consumerist individualism and identity politics in the 70s, and produced Thatcherism and Reaganism: it's utter nonsense. Thatcher's popular support came from bitter Daily Mail types, not former leftists who'd been to university. The strain visible in these conspiracy theories always undercuts the fascinating historical subjects and footage you dredge up Adam.

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  • Comment number 43. Posted by loninappleton

    on 17 May 2012 16:10

    Sexualism metro or any other aside (and now we are in American politics with both feet,) I again urge international readers to see post #33 -- the one below the one deleted.

    A recent speech by Van Jones to a gathering on the West Coast in Berkeley had VJ loosen up a bit about the trials of being in the Obama administration. I am paraphrasing Jones who said that 'unlike [here] on the West Coast, in DC they think Obama is a Socialist. Obama is no Socialist, he's a Republican.' These are all big laugh lines in the speech. The point is that it has become clear (as it was to Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report years ago and before the election) that the POTUS never had in mind to do anything but standard promise making during campaigns and thus was never a representative of his base.

    Here is the recorded speech for those who have interest: It's from a real time radio broadcast last week:

    http://soundcloud.com/flashpoints/flashpoints-daily-newsmag-05-4

    Texans have a phrase for this (and I think I heard it by Molly Ivins) :

    "All hat and no cattle."

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  • Comment number 42. Posted by Agent 00Soul

    on 17 May 2012 15:36

    The Republicans must be reading this blog and, perhaps, agreeing with Adam and some of the commenters. A conservative Super PAC plans on attacking Obama by calling him a metrosexual.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/17/us/politics/gop-super-pac-weighs-hard-line-attack-on-obama.html?pagewanted=all

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  • Comment number 41. Posted by loninappleton

    on 16 May 2012 22:31

    Consistently the ILWU in US has supported social causes. But in the main, the writers here are correct: despite the union turnout for the Wisconsin uprising a year ago March, little has changed in spirit or in fact. For this reason and for the fact that the educational establishment has turned over none of the Governor of Wisconsin's plans for them, unions have to be considered socially conservative in the US.

    With this in mind what Wisconsin did do was mobilize 30,000 canvassers for a recall election of the Governor which garnered over a million signatures: enough to quash any significant questioning of the total number required. For anyone interested, that election will take place June 5th.

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  • Comment number 40. Posted by NausikaDalazBlindaz

    on 15 May 2012 22:43

    @ Agent00Soul: Trade unions reflect the values of their dominant member groups that founded them. Since most trade unions here in Australia were founded by white working class men, it follows that their stand on most political, social and economic issues has tended to be conservative. In the past, the unions refused to admit women as members and were early supporters of the White Australia policy (which restricted non-white immigration) as far back as the 1890s.

    As in the US, union membership in Australia has fallen due in part to the negative blanket stereotyping unions receive in the media as hives of socialist activity (when the majority of them are actually politically conservative) and to general economic changes and restructuring which has meant the collapse of manufacturing in both countries and a greater dependence on resources and service industries.

    The only really militant left-wing union we had here that fit the popular stereotype was the Builders Labourers Federation which supported rights for indigenous peoples, opposed Australian participation in the Vietnam war and conducted green bans around inner-city Sydney to preserve heritage and environmentally sensitive areas that are now major tourist attractions. The BLF was deregistered in the 1980s due to corruption charges and now only exists in Queensland. Currently the most militant union in Australia is the Electrical Trades Union of Australia whose Victorian branch left the Australian Labor Party in 2010.

    I believe that most if not all unions in the US including the Teamsters (who used to support Reagan and George H W Bush) now support the Democrats so they have changed over the years since the Hard Hat Riot.

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  • Comment number 39. Posted by G

    on 15 May 2012 19:52

    " At five minutes to noon, about 200 construction workers
    converged on the student rally at Federal Hall from four directions.
    Nearly all the construction workers carried American flags
    and signs that read "All the way, USA," and
    "America, Love it or Leave it." "

    Oh dear...

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  • Comment number 38. Posted by Agent 00Soul

    on 15 May 2012 17:21

    I meant shock troops AGAINST any kind of socially progressive movement. Wishful thinking meets Freudian slip.

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  • Comment number 37. Posted by Agent 00Soul

    on 15 May 2012 17:19

    New York unions are most definitely not socialists. The only tolerance and minority interests they have ever empahsasised with are those of the white male working class. They are atomised self-regarding clans, who have little interest in social justice for anyone but their families. That has prevented them from being taken seriously in their own backyard. Remember the Hard Hat Riot: during a Vietnam war protest in NYC's financial sector in 1970, it was the crew doing construction on the World Trade Center attacked the protestors. It was no spur of the moment act (although I could easily see how it could be), but was deliberately planned by union leaders. And that's 42 years ago - I suspect they are even more socially conservative now. They certainly were Reagan's biggest fans.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_Hat_Riot

    Seriously, I've seen these groups up close and they are the shock troops for any kind of socially progressive movement. Nobody in the urban left trusts them one bit. God help one of their kids if he turns out Metrosexual!

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by G

    on 14 May 2012 21:21

    @Agent00Soul:

    Yeah a lot of unionists are still socialists who like steel toecapped boots and The Clash and dislike anything effete, and they chafe against those who want to emphasise tolerance and minority interests. This antipathy is not all for obviously wrong reasons though: the metrosexuals really do tend to be atomised self-regarding individualists and the socialists really do have a vision of something greater than themselves. The socialist unionists think that the socialist utopia is a goal that subsumes this or that group wanting its own practices fully accepted.

    It's interesting how you summarise their view as 'backwards macho social issues' - are you referring to a strong manufacturing base under worker control? Is that macho? What macho views do unions support?

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