Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Hippie Modernism, the ongoing series Counter Currents invites a range of individuals and collectives—from writer Geoff Manaugh and artist Dread Scott to Are.na and Experimental Jetset—to share how countercultural artists and designers of the 1960s and ’70s have influenced their work and thinking today. Here designer, artist, and archivist Josh MacPhee links the ethos of the San Francisco Diggers with his own experiences in DIY publishing and punk activism decades later.
In my early 1990s East Coast punk and anarchist scenes, the Diggers were a myth—a composite of militant urban legends, their exploits mixed up with the actions of the Yippies, Black Mask, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, the Provos, the Black Panthers, King Mob, the Metropolitan Indians. There was a generation gap of radicals in the late ’80s and ’90s; I had no anarchist mentors, no direct line to this troublemaking history we attempted to piece together from a trail of crumbs left in old political pamphlets, fanzines, and proto-Situationist literature.
The idea that these mythic countercultural heroes would fall under the hippie umbrella wasn’t really on the radar. I hated hippies—those affected, lazy peaceniks who fell back on their class privilege to avoid having to engage in what we perceived of as an intense social war: the status quo vs. everything worth living for. We exchanged bell-bottoms and tie-dye T-shirts for double-bibbed Carhart work pants and gas station attendant jackets. We cloaked ourselves in a form of emo-militancy. An ideal of softness, support, and loving within our scene, but all barbs and taunts projected to the outside world.
We figured out dozens of methods for hijacking Xerox machines and turning them into our own furtive printing presses, but we had never heard of the Communications Company and had no idea what a Gestetner was. Many of us were accomplished shoplifters, but didn’t know that the Diggers had scaled-up the practice enough to have to open a Free Store to move all their “borrowed” goods. My friends and I cooked and served meals to dozens of homeless people (and anyone else)—under the banner of Food Not Bombs—but had only hazy ideas about where this practice had come from. At the time it didn’t really seem to matter who had spawned the contours of our life practice: setting up social centers, cooking and serving food together, dumpster diving, petty theft, street art, and self-publishing—all wrapped in a blanket of community building with an anti-authoritarian sneer.
When the Diggers were inaugurating many of these utopian actions, they must have felt refreshingly new, breaking open space for all kinds of people to participate. Stories abound about the diversity of people who ate food with them, shopped at the Free Store, and took part in their concerts and theater projects. Twenty years later we inherited a codified version of these activities, with the style firmly intact but the history lost in the sand. The Reagan assault on our very youthfulness had left us defensive and scared; in part because of our sense of being adrift, our utopianism took on a slightly darker cast. We tightly drew lines between those that would and could participate in our activities, and those clearly outside our frame. While wholeheartedly rejecting the hippie rhetoric of tribes, we actually took our tribalism far more seriously by creating intensely uniform systems of dress, behavior, and politics. We reveled in our marginality, fundamentally not understanding that the ’60s counterculture was mass-based and that for many the goal was to make their freakishness mainstream.
These anarchistic experiments I was involved in in the ’90s failed. Almost all of our “Infoshops” have closed, our newspapers and zines have stopped circulating, flyers for our punk shows are being sold for hundreds of dollars at art fairs, safely absorbed into a toothless history of pseudo-revolt. We have become mainstream in spite of ourselves—but Punk and youth-driven anarchism today are as much historical reenactments of style as they are sites of generative ideas and practices. Sadly, while we never were able to truly re-capture the spirit of commons and surplus brought into being by the Diggers and their compatriots, it is venture capitalists that have really inherited the mantle of hippie utopianism. Kickstarter, Groupon, Uber, Zipcar, and bank-funded shared bicycle programs have all taken the Diggers’ belief that human beings relating to, and depending on, each other creates unique forms of value and surplus and moved it firmly from the realm of quality to quantity. Networked technology promises us a seamless ease of life’s administration while invisibly extracting profit from our community interdependence. Our “social surpluses” are now being sold back to us as commodified forms of sharing.
I spent most of my late teens and 20s traveling around crashing on couches in punk houses in dozens of cities. No money was ever exchanged, and many of my hosts I knew only through friends of friends of friends. One night in 1993, my friends and I arrived in Houston, Texas at 9 pm with no clear plan and no place to stay. We asked directions to the closest Kinkos, then only a modest room with a handful of copy machines, and found a crew of young delinquents cutting and pasting up layouts for their new zines. Within minutes we had secured a place to stay, a community meal, an invite to a punk show, and late night discussions under an enormous Texas sky. While AirBnB promises a more efficient and open version of the same thing, it has also turned all of us into aspiring slumlords, scheming to extract as much possible profit from what little roof we can claim over our heads. Somewhere along the way the hallucinations of hippie modernists have become a decidedly bad trip.
The youth counterculture of the ’60s was framed as a revolt against the technocratic society. In the ’90s we saw our opposition as a bulwark against neoconservative death politics and the rise of corporate globalization. While the forms capitalism takes in the 21st Century appear different, as a socioeconomic system it can no more provide for the needs of the population of our planet now than it could 50 years ago. I don’t think it’s entirely clear all the forms resistance will take against our current benevolent neoliberal sharing society. But I feel confident that the dreams of the Diggers—and my misfit friends in the ’90s—will still be relevant. We can only hope that shining increased light on our histories and activities will generate more critical engagement against the status quo rather than simply the mining of our ideas for entrepreneurial opportunities.
My current work with large collaborative projects like the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Interference Archive are attempts at trying to build on what I’ve learned from the Diggers, and all the magical nights under Texas skies. I believe, like the Diggers did, that it’s not simply about what you do, but also about how you do it.
Josh MacPhee is a designer, artist, and archivist. He is a founding member of both the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Interference Archive, a public collection of cultural materials produced by social movements based in Brooklyn, NY. MacPhee is the author and editor of numerous publications, including Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now and Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics and Culture.