Dave Smith: Counter Cultured…

Excerpted from To Be Of Use
The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work (2005)

Religion is something you do, not something you believe. ~Kenneth Rexroth

Once upon a time, members of my generation broke free and created what was labeled a “counter culture.” Because the surrounding culture was not living up to our young ideals, we began creating our own work, our own services, our own communities. I prefer to call what many of us were doing a “parallel culture,” as my experience was more about building something new rather than countering or opposing. Between the straight culture and the anticulture, we chose to be part of a third way, seeking to build something positive out of the chaos rather than just spending all our time protesting and demonstrating. We chose to compose new social and workplace structures and relationships, practicing and feeling them, discovering how to make them meaningful and how to restore a measure of love and joy and amazing grace to our daily work. Instead of remaining within rigid hierarchies and stratified gender roles, we were all in it together. Sure, we made mistakes, but we were willing to fail young rather than take our assigned places and nod off into the ethical and moral wasteland we found around us.

Those times in the sixties and seventies mean different things to different people, and our memories of that time are most often associated with events and places. One image we have is Woodstock: free lovin’, dope smokin’, skinny dippin’, screw-it-all, hippie heaven. Another is Berkeley: radical, peacenik, burn-it-down, anti-war, anti-nuke, anti-everything. Another is the summer of love in the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco in 1967. At the time, I was coming of age in the center of it all, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I migrated after having grown up in South Florida, a land of racial segregation with its separate schools, separate restaurants, and separate public water fountains marked “Colored” and “White.”

Along with many others, I had responded to John F. Kennedy’s call to service. We believed we could and would change the world, and we did. Along with our protests and marches for civil rights, farmworker’s contracts, and the environment, we organized free universities, cooperative food stores, and small alternative community businesses. Our memories of that time are overwhelmingly positive. We had passionate faith in the future and look back now with pride at our accomplishments. We stopped a war. We put civil rights into law. We shut down the building of new nuclear plants. We passed the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act — every one of them now being chipped away by the culture that was then being countered. We created movements built around human potential, women’s rights, the environment, alternative health, and natural foods. Many of the positive results have by now been diffused into the overall culture as part of our everyday lives. One of many examples is the market for organic foods. The demand for healthy foods germinated in the fifties through vitamin-centered health food stores and a few scattered organic farms and took root in the sixties through hippie cooperative buying clubs and the popularity of Asian diets. The organic food market has now been growing over 20 percent per year and has gone mainstream.

For me, the sixties and seventies were not about selfishness and doing our own thing, an interpretation that has been perversely sensationalized by the media. Those years were delightfully exuberant with passion, idealism, possibility, higher vision, and work from the heart. They were a way out of the suffocating soullessness imposed by a scientific materialist worldview, the conformity that corporate megamachine behaviorism requires, and the individualistic selfishness hyped by its marketing. Alienated by the rugged cowboy models of isolated, independent manhood, many of us practiced tribal values of mutual aid and support, the common good in community, and the use of our gifts and creativity for others. We relearned how to take responsibility for each other, have faith in each other, help each other, care about each other, share with each other, cooperate with each other — values that have kept cultures together since humankind began. We were lighthearted and joyous in our abilities to live simply and walk lightly on the Earth. We worked hard at what we believed in and had an enormous amount of fun doing it. Our daily life glowed with purpose and meaning, and we believed deeply what one of the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, had written: that without feeling and emotion, nothing can really be known. He was echoing Thoreau, who said that a person has not really seen a thing who has not felt it. Or, as Janis Joplin famously sang: “You know you got it if it makes you feel good.”

As budding businesspersons, we were inspired and energized by the psychologist Abraham Maslow and management professor Douglas McGregor. Maslow wrote that personal salvation is a byproduct of self-actualizing work and self-actualizing duty, and that the proper management of the work lives of human beings can improve them and improve the world. McGregor, who based much of his work on Maslow’s research, portrayed managers as either authoritarian on the one hand, or collaborative and trustful of people on the other. Their published research proved that cooperative democratic principles applied to business management not only created better places to work but were also more profitable — that managers who were compassionate, helpful, friendly, altruistic, and democratic always produced better results. Maslow wrote that the “best way to destroy democratic society would be by way of not only political authoritarianism but of industrial authoritarianism, which is antidemocratic in the deepest sense.”

What was the context that led us to attempt new lives and livelihoods during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the “hot war” in Vietnam? We had grown up cowering under our school desks during air raid drills, preparing for potential nuclear annihilation. Friends were leaving, fighting, and dying, and for who knew what? We knew there must be a better way to run the world, and it had to start by remaking the “lethal culture” of our elders.

But we lost our way. The giant corporate MegaMaw lifted its ugly head from its ceaseless devouring, looked us straight in the eye, and said, “No you don’t”. We did anyway … for a while. But we were soon devastated by the deaths of progressive political leaders, brought down so suddenly and shockingly, and we were left lamenting what could have been. The Vietnam War dragged on as the positive and creative alternatives gave way to deep divisions and antagonism. Many of us gave it all up to despair, drugs, and deluded insurrections. And in our confusion we took the easy way out and lost ourselves by moving back into what the institutions of our culture had planned for us all along: safe careers, cake and circuses, bright shiny chariots, and commutes to tall buildings. Sure, you could say that we were on the losing side of the culture wars, or you could say it was simply time for us to grow up, move on, raise our families, and take our places of responsibility. Many of us turned inward, feeling that the only real change is spiritual and psychological, and that what is important is personal growth. But personal growth without an eventual return to the scene of the crimes to take up compassionate action is only escape into navel-gazing denial and the postponement of personal and social defeat. The goal is not either/or, it’s both/and. It takes both personal growth and social involvement to live the purposeful, meaningful life that is the fulfillment of our human potential.

I still cherish the traditional values we lived then. We were onto something, with great creative, stumbling, desperate leaps into anything that was better, more life affirming. Those values derive from old-fashioned, responsible, conservative ideals that promote community service, spiritual understanding, mutual cooperation, and democratic decision making. And they didn’t lose their hold on us. Instead of giving up on those values, I realized, along with many others, that it was going to take longer to see them realized. A stubborn patience, an unwavering faith, a clear hope was going to be required, and we hunkered down for the long haul.


I also grew up in south Florida, but I migrated around the east coast until finally ending up in CA at twenty-five in 1969. The Haight had hard drugs as well as pot and psychedelics by then. I got a job in the belly of the corporate beast in 1975 and went on to live the “good life”. Those like me used up a lot of resources doing fun but foolish things. Sliding down mountains on plastic stick, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, and even breathing underwater. I honestly do not regret the good times, but I do regret the waste my peers and I foisted on our spaceship, Earth. And there were a lot of people in America in the twentieth century burning up resources to keep enjoying the circuses and cakes. Now my wife and I are trying to be self-sustainable in the Yolla Bolly Universe. I’m giving back what I can and hope the future is available to the generations ahead. I also wish future generations to be more like the Dave Smiths of the earth and to cherish what is still available.

They say timing is everything, and maybe some of us were a bit ahead of our time back then. But events are surely catching up, and the problems become ever more obvious and undeniable. Sometimes, just keeping the faith is all that can be done.

It calls to mind that old gospel line:

“Little wheel turns by faith, Big wheel turns by the grace of God”.