Thursday, April 23, 2009

USH29: Making Sense of It All

So, my original question that started all this history stuff was: how did the sixties turn into the eighties?

Having looked through US history, maybe the bigger question is why did we expect anything different? Many of us thought we were making a lasting change, but we didn't see that the system was set up to resist change.

I want to list what several authors have said about why the change in the sixties didn't last.

Todd Gitlin gives many causes for the death of the sixties: He connects the emergence of the movement to the economic boom that lasted from 1945 - 1973 (see my last post) and saw many people returning to more liberal and conservative views for both the veterans of the movement and the younger generation entering college when stagflation/economic distress/returning scarcity hit; he also claims that having not dealt with its own sexism, the emerging women's movement fractured the New Left, and in its desperation at being so far from revolution, the movement spawned the very violent 'Weathermen'. Gitlin claims that in spite of attacks from the government, what did in the movement was it "imploded". He points out that in some ways the country was as conservative in the sixties as it was in the eighties, but there was a (white) young people's movement inspired by the civil rights and black power movements and spirit of the age that grew and self-destructed and got a lot of media attention. Finally, he claims the movements of the sixties also engendered 'the Right... lashing back'. "The counterrevolution seems to have outorganized the revolution." "Ronald Reagan swept to the White House as the defender of verities against upstarts... astonishing not only radicals but many liberals, all of them drastically underestimating the force of conservative impulses. ... The Right, awash in money, unencumbered by antiauthoritarianism, proved... more successful at coalition-building than the Left, which was not only undisciplined but seemed committed to staying that way. ... Who could have expected a reformation without a counterreformation?"

Lisa Duggin (see my post of 11/25/08) suggests that global competition and falling profits in the '70's got "U.S. corporate interests to mount a counter-movement... Beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and through the 1980s, the overall direction of redistribution of many resources, in the U.S. and throughout the world, has been upward--toward greater concentration among fewer hands at the very top of an increasingly steep pyramid." (Again, this mirrors what was in my last post.) She claims that the "New Deal consensus among business, government, and big unions, built during the 1930s and more or less in place through the Great Society era of the 1960s, was dismantled." Her analysis of how the sixties became the eighties: "During the 1960s and 1970s, the proliferation and expansion of progressive-left critiques and social movements constituted a fertile ground for connections ... During the 1980s, as standards of living dropped in the United States and global inequalities expanded, social movements responded to multiple constraints and pressures in part by fragmenting, in part by accommodating to the narrowing horizons of fundraising imperatives, legal constraints, and the vice grip of electoral politics. Identity politics, in the contemporary sense of the rights-claiming focus of balkanized groups organized to pressure the legal and electoral systems for inclusion and redress, appeared out of the field of disintergrating social movements. Single-group or single-issue organizations dedicated to lobbying, litigation, legislation, or public and media education had existed earlier as only one part of larger, shaping social movements. ... But during the 1980s, such organizations ... began to appear as the parts that replaced the wholes."

Lawrence Goodwyn dismisses the whole movement of the sixties in a couple of sentences. He regards the "student radicals of the 1960's" as an prime example of why he thinks the system is so difficult to change, saying "While the students themselves clearly felt they could substantively affect 'inherited patterns of power and privilege', the prevailing judgement of the 1970's, shared by both the radicals and their conservative critics, is that the students were näive to have had such sweeping hopes."

Unfortunately, my survey of US history supports what Goodwyn says. This country was founded by relatively wealthy white men for wealthy white men. The 'Founding Fathers' had an agenda that was quite different from the working folks who came to this country (let alone the native peoples, or the Africans that were brought here as slaves). Our valued Bill of Rights only happened because 'Unruly Americans' fought for it. (See my post of 1/13/09.) From the beginning, the people in charge were interested in building an empire, not taking care of people. (See posts of 1/9/09, 1/17/09, and 2/10/09.) With the advent of the industrial age, some men figured out how they could turn this to their advantage and became 'Robber Barons'. (1/29/09) Eventually, men like Mark Hanna and Edward Bernays figured out how to manipulate the public so real change became unthinkable--today we have Fox News, talk radio, and folks like Karl Rove to keep things in line. (See 4/15/09.)

Nevertheless, rebellions kept occurring, from the early rebels that forced the Bill of Rights (1/13/09), to the farmers who organized co-ops (2/2/09), to turn of the century freethinkers of all kinds (2/14/09), to the lost generation and social rebels of the twenties (2/18/09), to the workers and organizers and unemployed of the thirties (2/26/09), to the beatniks, peaceniks, homophiles, and early civil rights movement of the fifties. (3/6/09) In spite of it all, there has been an undercurrent of questioning and a desire for change (look at the utopian communities of the nineteenth century--profiled in my post of 1/25/09) of which the sixties were only one more manifestation. As Gitlin pointed out, a movement of young white folks that got a lot of media attention. And the rebellions continued through the seventies and eighties and even the nineties. (See posts of 3/30/09, 4/7/09, and 4/11/09.)

Some of the problem is, as Lisa Duggan put it, many of the movements of the sixties and seventies saw how the issues were all connected whereas now (due to repression and economic contraction) the focus is on single issue movements--a much more liberal than radical stance. She mentions how the New Deal consensus between businesses and workers disappeared with the oil crisis of 1973 (again, see posts of 3/22/09 and 4/19/09)--along with the affluence that buoyed much of the movement of the sixties. The change began in the seventies, it was just consolidated with Reagan's election in the eighties. And we are the inheritors of that now. We are in hard times and we are hunkering down. Unfortunately the narrow focus that comes with that seige mentality keeps many from seeing just how interconnected it all is.

The sixties did open some doors (as did all the other rebellions and movements I've talked about) but, as Lawrence Goodwyn put it, we were 'näive' to imagine easy, radical change. And, as Todd Gitlin said, if we were trying to reform things, we should have expected a 'counterreformation'.

And so the work continues...

Quote of the Day: "These rebellions, so far, have been contained. The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who are not pleased. ...
"But most histories understate revolt, overemphasize statesmanship, and thus encourage impotency among citizens. ... History that keeps alive the memory of people's resistance suggests new definitions of power. ...the unexpected victories--even temporary ones--of insurgents show the vulnerability of the supposedly powerful." - Howard Zinn

Lisa Duggin, The Twilight of Equality
Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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