Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Eleven-Year Itch

Question: what do the Beat Generation, hippies, punks, ravers and anti-capitalism activists all have in common (apart from Glastonbury, that is)? Answer: they are all countercultures. They also all peaked exactly 11 years apart: the beat movement in '55, the hippie movement in '66, punk rock in '77, acid house in '88, and anti-capitalism in '99.

I was first made aware of this 11-year gap between countercultures while reading an article in a dance music magazine. The author listed all of the same examples I have used above, except for anti-capitalism. (He claimed that the big counterculture of '99 was trance, which is bollocks. Trance was a club trend, not a revolution). All the same, the man had a point.

The 11-year gap niggled at me. In my high school sociology classes I had learned about constant social cycles like the 25-year generation gap, as well as less constant ones like war, or recession. An 11-year countercultural cycle didn't really tie with anything I'd learned, yet there it was. There had to be some sort of mechanism underlying it, so I made up my mind to find out what it was.

A possible solution to this mystery finally came to me while researching the link between sunspots and cold weather. It turns out that sunspot cycles also follow a pattern which spans roughly 11 years - 10.66 years, to be precise. So the 11-year cycle didn't just apply to countercultures, it also applied to the one astral object that impacts our lives the most. This couldn't be a coincidence, so I changed directions with my research and gave myself a little crash course in sunspots.

Some of the facts that I learned on the World Wide Web I knew already. Sunspots are cool patches on the face of the sun, created by intense magnetism. While the the spots themselves don't seem to have much effect on the Earth, the magnetism that creates them is a whole other story. In 1859, a solar storm of sunspots and flares generated a magnetic storm which knocked out Earthly telegraph systems. In 1989, a similar storm caused mass blackouts. There is still plenty of speculation about which other aspects of life on Earth are affected by solar magnetism.

While I lack the expertise to interpret much of the information I dug up about sunspots, even I could spot a pattern (pardon the pun) in their cycles. Since the '50s, the period between the start of a new sunspot cycle and its peak has always coincided with an upsurge of counter-cultural activity.

Take the last sunspot cycle, or Solar Cycle 23. It began in the summer of 1996. That was the same year that the UK's fledgling anti-capitalist movement made national waves with a 6000-person party on the M41. Similar events happened worldwide for the next two years but none really made the global news until J18 in the summer of 1999, when cycle 23 hit its first peak. Throughout the height of Solar Cycle 23, the anti-capitalist movement notched up a number of spectacular demonstrations worldwide, most notably in London, Washington, Seattle and Genoa. Then in 2001, anti-capitalist demonstrations abruptly tailed off, along with the sunspots... only to briefly re-emerge in 2002, as cycle 23 hit its final peak.

Solar Cycle 22 shows a similar pattern. It started in 1985 - the same year that house music broke in Chicago nightclubs. By the time the cycle hit its first peak in July 1989, the Second Summer of Love was underway. Rave may not be as shocking today because it's been absorbed into the mainstream but, in the 1980s, its communal, unpretentious ideals flew in the face of the cliquish, superficial club culture. Rave has been criticized for being too apolitical but as it went against the order of the day, it was a counterculture in the true sense of the word.

A similar pattern is visible in Solar Cycle 21. Cycle 21 began sometime in 1975, the year that two of the first punk bands - the Ramones and the Sex Pistols - were breaking. It quickly rose to a peak in the middle of 1978, which according to the Counterculture Timeline was the 'second big year of punk.' After that the movement diversified and branched off into sub-genres. Interestingly the appearance of those sub genres, like hardcore punk, coincided with subsequent peaks in Solar Cycle 21.

As you can see from this graph, a similar pattern becomes clear for the period between 1967 - 1971.

I've come across websites which claimed that sunspot cycles can predict everything from buying patterns to climate change to impending apocalypse, so I'm well aware of the hazards of finding convenient patterns in chaos. And while sunspot cycles may follow an 11-year course, the specific behaviour of each cycle has eluded the best predictions of astronomers. No matter how much we analyze them, the best that sunspot cycles can offer us is 20-20 vision in hindsight. Any effect that they have on humans is bound to be as unpredictable and extreme as the cycles themselves.

So what does all this mean? Probably very little if you are the type of person who likes a quiet night in with a good book and a mug of tea. But if you like a bit of excitement, you'll be pleased to learn that it's been about 11 years since the last big counterculture exploded onto the headlines... which means that another one could be just around the corner. If past trends are anything to go by, it is likely to be something that you've heard about already. Any guesses as to what it is and what it will look like? Please feel free to post them here.

Author's Note: I just realized that I wrote 'anti-capitalization' instead of 'anti-capitalism' at the start of this entry. Must have been sleep deprived when I posted! Luckily, my readers seem to be less pedantic about semantics than I am because they didn't comment on it....


  1. very interesting, we shall see what happens and I'm looking forward to it

  2. I submit for your consideration : The new conservative movement. Because when counter-culture becomes the norm, the only protest available is counter-counter-culture.


  3. It's a good point, and one that I considered myself while writing this entry. In the end though, I realized that my semantics were flawed: subcultures may be all over the place these days, but counter-culture is still thin on the ground.

  4. Conspiracy theorists.

  5. I enjoyed this article a lot. Thank you Doyenne. Roll on 2011ev is all I can say. I do have a feeling something pretty interesting will occur then and perhaps boil to fruition around the December 2012 mark. Or this may just be a case of Apophenia. I don't care. Time is a landscape.

  6. Oh, 2011-2012 is bound to be interesting. Not only will there be a solar storm, rare astronomical configurations and doomsday mania to contend with, but on top of that we get the 2012 Olympics! I get tired just thinking about it ;)