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THE SEARCH FOR NEW BEGINNINGS; Social historian Theodore Roszak

By Stewart McBride / June 26, 1980



Theodore Roszak is a maverick historian capable of distinguishing running tides from the froth that rides that waves. For the last two decades he has astutely monitored American popular culture, from war protests to the women's movement, from CB radios to punk rock, and managed to separate the hucksters and hokum from genuine trends and seeds of new social orders

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Roszak first made his reputation reading the pulse of America in the '60s through his books "The Making of a Counter Culture" and "Where the Wasteland Ends" -- both of which were nominated for the National Book Award. He argued that student rebellion was not a historical aberration or momentary catharsis, but part of the constant undertow of the human spirit's resistance to technological excesses and bigness. Roszak believes the counterculture has now moved off campus, taken on new forms, and graduated into the culture at large. He interprets the general unrest of the '70s over Watergate, corporate scandals, inflation, energy, the deterioration of the cities, as the troubled birth of a major cultural transformation, a spiritual awakening in this country. Roszak is neither starry-eyed futurist nor bemoaner of contemporary society. Rather he attempts to offer alternatives and values to break the cultural momentum he denigrates. His most recent book, "Person/Planet," explores the interplay between global ecology and the individual's search for identity.

Mr. Roszak, raised in Chicago and educated at UCLA and Princeton University, is a professor of history and chairman of General Studies at California State University, Hayward. He lives in Berkeley, California, where he recently spoke with Stewart McBride. The first part of this inteview appeared in yesterday's Home Forum Page.m

A number of times you point out that bigness plagues both person and planet, but you also recognize that small is not always beautiful. How do you go about approaching the question of scale nonquantitatively? It is some degree quantitative question. You can't always specify in advance what the ideal size will be. Both the persons and the planet are now confronted by a common enemy. It is terribly important to recognize that scale is an independent problem over and above, say, ownership and control. The Marxists never grasped this. They assumed that you can correct all the problems of the industrial system by just changing ownership and control. They now recognize that there are problems in the industrial system that are due to size. It doesn't matter who owns and controls them. They go on generating the same problem. Say, pollution and resource deterioration.

It's not because the people who run the system are profiteers; it's because the system is too big for its own good. Once you've passed a certain critical point in scale, you've got problems independent of ownership and control. The scale of the operation will defeat even the best intentions of people, because bureaucratic rules and regulations, chains of command, are necessities that go with bigness. In order to achieve personal autonomy and a healthy planetary ecology, you've got to scale down. So smallness is necessary. But this is not sufficient -- it's necessarym but it's not sufficient. Some of the worst evils of capitalism have been perpetrated in sweatshops with a handful of employees. On the other hand, we cannot be humanistic in institutions that are crushing size. Everybody in them begins to behave in certain institutional roles. As you scale it down you have to make sure that you're moving in the direction of human values. That's an additional ingredient that has to be included.

Do you see examples of people who are successfull in paring down the gargantuan institutions you're talking about?