The Beatniks Were a Bunch of Consumerists

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Well, kinda

William Burroughs liked opium, a lot. He liked its derivatives, morphine, and heroin. He liked other types of dope. He liked women. He liked men and boys. He wrote recklessly. He lived recklessly. He loved his common-law wife. He shot her dead in a drunken game of William Tell in a Mexico City bar.

William Burroughs was a member of the Beatniks, that dope- and jazz- and danger-loving generation that dazzled and unnerved America during the decades following World War II and gave rise to the peace, love, and hippie movements of the late 1960s.

If a person compiled a list of history’s Most Hip, Beats would litter the top 20: Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady. They’d be right up there with James Dean, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, Jackson Pollack, and Lenny Bruce.

And Nike, McDonald’s, Madison Avenue, and the army of men in grey flannel suits that have marked American business for the past 100 years.


That’s right: Kerouac and McDonald’s, Miles Davis on Madison Avenue, Burroughs donning Nikes, James Dean in a grey flannel suit. They’re related: they’re all hip.

Every manifestation of hip — from Walt Whitman to the Harlem Renaissance to the Beatniks to Kurt Cobain — has this in common: it lives for now. That’s what makes it so cool, whether it’s a heroin junkie playing saxophone (see Charlie Parker) or a speed junkie who dies walking outside on a cold, wet night wearing nothing but a t-shirt (see Neal Cassady).

Compare that to the American marketplace. What does it want? It wants people to live in the present, preferably with no thoughts about the past and definitely no worries about the future, including second mortgages and 18% APR credit cards.

Simply compile advertising slogans: “Just Do It,” “It’s Time for U,” “No Limits,” “Get More,” “Is This a Great Time or What?” “It’s All within Your Reach,” “Expand your Playground,” “Keep Going,” “Challenge Everything,” “Live Your Life,” “I Am What I Am.” They scatter misty mental images in our heads, difficult to nail down, but at bottom, they all say, “Gratify Yourself. Buy Now.”

It’s a hip message and it’s working. In his 2004 book Hip: The History, John Leland writes, “The squarest of American institutions, from gardening manuals to Army recruitment ads, now market themselves in two strengths: hip and hipper.”


What does America’s hip culture do? It buys and goes into debt. The United States is “awash in debt,” to quote Merrill Lynch chief North American economist Dave Rosenberg. U.S. household debt is at an all-time high ($14.64 trillion in the first quarter 2021).

Hip and debt have risen together because the marketplace feeds off that central element of hip: concern for nothing but immediate satisfaction. In Leland’s words, hip “is well suited to the values of the market, which has always had a place for wild yea-saying.”

But the marketplace doesn’t emphasize another aspect of hip; namely, that of Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

It’s an important element in the hip formula. Hip originated among poor blacks who didn’t have much wealth or prospects to distract them. It was a central element of the Beatnik phenomenon: “Better to live simply, be poor and have the time to wander,” is how Pulitzer Prize poet Gary Snyder explained the Beats.

Heresies, G.K. Chesterton observed, aren’t errors. They’re simply exaggerations of one truth to the detriment or suppression of other truths.

Hip’s emphasis on Now is good. Perhaps the Now’s highest praise came from C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.”

The free market’s ability to meet our needs and wants is also good. Market prices provide information that, properly sifted and responded to, allow buyers and sellers to conduct their affairs in the most advantageous manner. Since every person acts for a good (to move from a less satisfactory state to a more satisfactory one, said the commonsensical Thomas Aquinas), the market’s ability to meet our needs is a great good.

But hip’s emphasis on immediate living through things like reckless sex and the market’s promotion of it through frenzied buying are exaggerations of the Now’s goodness. Debt-racked and video game-playing adults with the mental horizon of kindergartners are merely one example of the heretics produced by the exaggeration. They are the existential offspring of heroin junkie jazz musicians in the mid-twentieth century.

James Dean died young when he lost control of a racing car. Lenny Bruce overdosed at 41. Charlie Parker died of alcohol abuse at 34 and Kerouac at age 47. Cassady died along the train track at age 41. Early death, says Leland, is the ultimate renunciation of the future tense.

Years after their deaths, Jack Kerouac and James Dean appeared in ads for the Gap. It was fitting.

Consumerist spending is also a renunciation of the future tense.