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    ‘The drop-outs are anticipating future economic policy’: work, class and countercultural legacies in Britain

    Wilkinson, David ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9036-577X (2022) ‘The drop-outs are anticipating future economic policy’: work, class and countercultural legacies in Britain. Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism (19). pp. 45-61. ISSN 1369-9725

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    Abstract

    ‘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, 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. 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. As in neoliberal ideology, culture as panacea goes hand-in-hand with contempt for the supposed philistinism of the working class, which becomes a scapegoat for conservative ills in ways that echo current divisions over Brexit. As early as 1975, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies drew on Raymond Williams’ theories of hegemony to characterise the counterculture as a ‘profoundly adaptive’ middle class response to postwar shifts in the capitalist productive base. The CCCS acknowledged the contested nature of countercultural revolt, noting that a ‘deeper disaffiliation’ was possible. Yet it remained ambiguous about the politics of an ‘unfinished’ cultural trajectory. This article returns to that unfinished trajectory. It begins by arguing for the counterculture as a formation composed of both the dissident middle class and the displaced, socially mobile working class, suggesting that such a characterisation is key to understanding the political tensions of the counterculture. From there I proceed to an analysis of countercultural media alongside the 1967 film Charlie Bubbles and the work of Ray Gosling. By doing so, I 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.

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