Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Two Sides of the 1960s

Occupy Wall Street may never amount to much politically, but it has certainly set a lot of people thinking, including myself. It has been the source of a very heated and lengthy argument at, and that has finally allowed me to break through some confusion and finally understand exactly what the Awakening, a.k.a. "the sixties," actually did, and why it has been so personally liberating and so politically disastrous. To understand this, we have to go back before the beginning, to the 1950s.

Let's take two movies that express the best and the worst of that decade: Twelve Angry Men, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (The book upon which the latter was based was published in 1961 and the movie was set in 1963, but both are before the Awakening.) Twelve Angry Men is about a functioning institution, a jury in a murder case. 11 of the 12 jurors initially trust authority--the prosecution and the court--and vote for conviction and execution. One, played magnificently by Henry Fonda, disagrees. Calmly, without ever raising his voice, he manages to get a few of them thinking about some of the evidence and entertaining the possibility that the defendant might be innocent. His first few allies are equally controlled. The cast is composed entirely of white males, but racism, which plays a role in some of the guilty votes, is clearly defined as an evil. Because everyone is a white male, virtue and vice have nothing to do with race or gender in this movie. The virtuous are polite, restrained, take the job seriously, and are willing to listen. The wicked, including the last holdout, are emotional, at one point almost violent, insulting, or lazy. They also insist that their own feelings are more important than the evidence.

Now let's talk about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It takes place in a mental institution, and incredibly, one million Americans lived in such institutions when the book was written. There isn't much wrong with the patients upon which the film focuses, including McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson. He explains in the opening scene why he has spent so much time in prison: "I fight and fuck too much." And that is what the movie is about: the inability of a large part of the population to submit to the emotional restraint and repression upon which society insisted in those days. That was a heavy burden, and the generation after the war threw it off. They also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the third-grossing movie of 1975.

So the Awakening focused on personal liberation and the end of emotional restraints. Women, suddenly, could complain about, and leave, their husbands, and millions did. Young adults adopted new dress, new music (very emotionally unrestrained), and new values. Therapists, critically, began to drop Freud's mechanistic model and pay attention to their patients' feelings and to how those feelings grew out of their patients' individual experiences. Families no longer deserved automatic respect. By the 1970s gay Americans demanded the right to act out and legitimize their sexual feelings. All this created a new America, and a personally freer America, and that was, for the most part, a good thing in the personal realm. Unfortunately, that was only half the story.

What has finally struck me this week is that those values--spontaneity, the exaltation of individual feeling and experience, and the rejection of institutional authority--were, inevitably, politically disastrous. For one thing, the rich and powerful (and the would-be rich and powerful) seized upon them as justifications for greater economic freedom, lower taxes, and less regulation. But for another, these values worked against the values of discipline, organization, and leadership, which have been critical to effective political action since the beginning of time. And the emphasis on what divides us--on race, gender, sexual preference, religion, and values--has now almost completely destroyed any national sense of common purpose and belief, which was critical in the 1930s and 1940s to the extraordinary things our grandparents and parents accomplished and remain equally critical today. In the second post that I ever made here, seven years ago,, I showed how these same problems had affected the right--and specifically George W. Bush--just as much as the Left. It was natural for him to believe that he could transform a whole region of the world, the Middle East, by dropping bombs, and lower taxes at the same time: it all felt good, so he did it, confident that the world would bend to his feelings. His left-wing counterparts have been equally delusional, and much less effective. The attack on authority became an attack on intellectual authority as well, and both left-wing academics and religious zealots freely reject the rationalist values of western civilization.

The Boom generation, sadly, taught Generation X to think only about itself. Boomers have shown very little feeling for the values of the institutions they have run, from universities to investment banks, and my friends in various walks of life report that Gen Xers are showing even less. The Millennials have been taught to value the group, but in the world their elders have made there is little outlet for those values.

And this is why, sadly, I cannot see that Occupy Wall Street is offering anything new. It belongs to the great (?) tradition founded by the SDS in the late 1960s, the tradition of the media event, designed to dramatize the evil of the existing regime without any real idea what to do about it. (The Civil Rights protests, at least through 1965, were of a completely different character: they were well planned, well organized, and had specific goals.) And for the most part, OWS seems to be opposed to organization and discipline as well--and the Boomers who have adopted it are still convinced, of course, that that is a good thing.

Writing in the 1990s, William Strauss and Neil Howe expected their Boomer contemporaries eventually to play the role of the Missionary generation, the post-civil war Prophets who, with FDR in the lead, had led us through the great national enterprises of the New Deal and the Second World War. (To their credit, they realized that the Transcendentals, the first post-Constitutional generation who gave us the civil war, had failed to leave behind nearly as big a legacy--but it didn't occur to them to compare the Boomers to the Transcendentals. Now the comparison is unavoidable.) The Boomers did not--could not--live up to those expectations. Now the peak of their power has passed and I do not think it will return. Mitt Romney is now the man most likely to become the third Boomer President, and he is not going to lead us on a great crusade.

The Boomer legacy of emotional freedom is an important one, and the counterattack upon it from the religious right seems destined to fail. But the price we have paid politically has been enormous and we will continue paying it for a long time. It is idle even to ask whether one was more important than the other. They came together, a tribute to the endless complexities and paradoxes of human experience, and future generations, apparently, will have to restore the balance.

P.S. I am delighted by the response to this post, below.

Meanwhile, I wouldn't want anyone to miss this brilliant piece of media criticism from Slate, which picked up on something that I had been noticing myself over the last few weeks.


Gerald Meaders said...


I have to read this through carefully.

Sadly enough, this had struck me as well:

"What has finally struck me this week is that those values--spontaneity, the exaltation of individual feeling and experience, and the rejection of institutional authority--were, inevitably, politically disastrous."

Nevertheless, and although it is very tempting for me, I tend not to overly criticize the boomer generation (my own bedraggled one) itself, as against others, both before and after it, for how things have long gone.

For me, the boomer phenomenon had, in context, a kind of inevitability about it, as it unfolded.

The kinds of political and economic and security issues and problems I have looked at would be more obscured were I to see things that way, as a boomer caused hiccup.

All the best,

Ray C Neill said...

While I agree the the OWS movement does not appear to have the necessary driving force for longevity, I am reminded that our history has largely been forged by the world's youth from Neolithic times onward. After an historically brief period of this influence being usurped it appears that we may be returning to those times. The power to organize has moved from its fledgling roots with flash mobs and is now flexing its muscles as a social force influential enough to go from spontaneous rioting in Britain to the Arab spring in the Middle East. Mao Tse Tung believed that power came out of the barrel of a gun. Recent generations refined that to the barrel of a pen. Today's youth have shown that it is the power of their opposable thumbs. Will it be the medium or the message that will cause history to continue to unfold ?

GenX Skeptic said...

David: I'm a regular reader of your blog though I seldom comment. This was an excellent post.

I would summarize it (with my own slant) thus: beginning in the 1960s the New, or perhaps Cultural, Left overthrew the cultural and eventually institutional norms of our life ... and ruined everything.

Beginning in the 1980s the Right-ish wing of the Boomer movement began the takeover of the GOP too (there had long been a nihilist wing of the GOP too) which completed the process, so in recent years the Republicans are equally beholden to the New Left, in spirit, though of course they can never admit this.

Gramsci really was right, wasn't he? This will end badly.

I say this in despair, since I (being a GenXer: you will think that important, and you'd be right) am an old-school social democrat - pretty culturally traditionalist but progressive on economic issues: I'm an army of one in the USA circa 2011, and politically hopeless.

galacticsurfer said...

So perhaps the 4 generation/80-100 year cycle is too simplistic. An 8 generation /160 year cycle where every other cycle is a "failure" due to people being lazy about the previous cycle's success. As in Europe, although now in a serious predicament they are not going mad as in the 1930s so it could perhaps be a success in comparison and they will come out "relatively" unscathed (no WWIII scenario).

America on the other hand looks like civil war scenario at least on the emotional level although there are no proper geographical lines to say where that would happen it seems to be like a disintegration of the 1% being the slaveholders and the remainder being the 99% and the govt. and means of production being in the pockets of the 1%. So a total failure would be some sort of situation like is now going on in Syria or a typical Chinese style internal collapse with tens of thousands of riots and takeovers of govt. offices, anarchist bombings of banks and big business outlets, assassinations of congress people (see gifford), etc. as the situation becomes untenable (unemployment, poverty, etc.-cut all social welfare, unemployment and foodstamps programs to fund the military occupation abroad for example under republican govt.).

People tend to turn to alternate underground economy in such times, barter, gardening, trading services, etc. to get by as formal cash economy collapses. so people double up living, delay marriage and family, stay with parents or with adult kids, avoid formal education as too expensive and just do something to get by and never retire. Like the big banks having all that money drawn down by depositors to local banks and credit unions. People vote with their feet to avoid the criminal elements (big banks, overpriced education, voting at all, etc.) and it all becomes irrelevant like in USSR in the late stages (you pretend to work, we pretend to pay you).

The violent protests together with passive protests I have described together should bring down a corrupt system through lack of tax income and low voter turnout, (citizen/consumer participation rates in "The Game" fall dramtically).

You might have noticed the crackdown on OWS nationwide was confirmed coordinated by Homeland Security. The young people will double down and get out bombs if their peaceful protest rights are denied, think of the slow developments in Syria, first protests then violence against protests then military defectors fighting against the military. Police SWAT teams attacking protesting vets of whom we have millions due to our endless wars (and they are well trained, often poor and often have a lot of emotional baggage) and a huge availability of cheap weapons in the USA facilitates a transition to a violent stage in the US.

Near total political corruption and a lack of will of Xers and Boomers to "do the right thing" is key to a bad ending. 100 million millenials can't be wrong.

Bob in NC said...

Now you have it! Pardon this long quote from your post, but this seems the crux of the matter:
"What has finally struck me this week is that those values--spontaneity, the exaltation of individual feeling and experience, and the rejection of institutional authority--were, inevitably, politically disastrous. For one thing, the rich and powerful (and the would-be rich and powerful) seized upon them as justifications for greater economic freedom, lower taxes, and less regulation. But for another, these values worked against the values of discipline, organization, and leadership, which have been critical to effective political action since the beginning of time. And the emphasis on what divides us--on race, gender, sexual preference, religion, and values--has now almost completely destroyed any national sense of common purpose and belief, which was critical in the 1930s and 1940s to the extraordinary things our grandparents and parents accomplished and remain equally critical today."

Call me a "conspiracy nut", but it seems the elite couldn't have ordered a better defeat of the rest of us than the 60's cultural shift, which enabled the elite to continue their co-optation (to use a '60's phrase) and manipulation of the powerless (lest we gained power) than the 60's movements that helped destroy organizations (such as labor unions, New Deal remnants, public education, etc) which were/are vital to economic equality.
As an academic, you'll recall the frenzy of "specializations" that swept through higher education and transformed the "social sciences" in the 60's and 70's, an era that saw the rise of Anthropolgy and "identity politics" and other faux-science that was essentially a vilification of rationality, science and the achievements of "dead white men", and which has paved the way for "creationism" and right-wing radio blather.
All these outgrowths of "new left" anti-politics have split the working class (too Marxist)? -- OK, the 99%, into warring factions scrabbling for scraps from the tables of the elite 1%.
We, the 99%, are now so fractured and splintered, so bereft of organizational defenses (and common values?) that we are helpless before the juggernaut of elitist money takeover of the democratic process in the U.S.
It may be somehow cocmforting to think this is all generational waves, and that the "pendulum of history" will somehow swing back to parity before we are all destroyed, but I for one seek new forms of democratic "power for the People". It won't be Obama and the Dems anymore than the Tea Party and other footsoldiers of the money elite. A few more notches down -- more millions of foreclosures, unemployment of 20% and rising, erosion of wages and "entitlements" like Social Security -- and violence will break out all over. And of course it will be along lines set by the elite: poor blacks against poor whites, marginally employed against unemployed, etc.
What are we to do?

Steve Clark said...


Even if we had to rely only on the generational forces within America, I wouldn't sink to your level of despair. But, it is a fact that the struggles of generations take place in contexts, and today's context has become global in scope.

These are salient points:

1. The forces that dominate financial and political affairs in the US today also dominate in global affairs. While many of them are Americans and US-based corporations, a significant amount are based elsewhere. Directly, they manage key parts of the global market and society (finances, culture), but they rely on the institutions (nation-states) of the previous age (the age of industrialism and imperialism) to manage (one might say, "control") social issues and politics.

2. The omnipresence and domination of these global forces is qualitatively advanced from even the crisis of the 1930s and now requires a global response for a decisive resolution (whereas, 70 years ago, new social contracts, though similar in form and substance, were worked out within national contexts).

3. The generational struggle must also be viewed globally, and when it is appropriately viewed, it is apparent that, since last February, a global rebellion has begun. Tunisia, Egypt, Iceland, Greece, Libya (and the rest of the Arab Spring), Britain (remember the summer's insurrection), Madrid. Then, Occupy Wall Street and a thousand solidarity occupations worldwide.

4. The level of political awareness displayed by these rebellions (that is, the spontaneous consciousness) is astounding: We, the 99%, insist on social accountability from the financial and corporate elite, the 1%.

If one maintains a global perspective, it is obvious that today's coming-of-age generation has NO FUTURE if the present global regime is not transformed. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that the rebellion will dissipate short of a fundamentally positive resolution of the spontaneous demand for social accountability.

While it will certainly take some time for the rebellion's intellectual component to review and dissect accountability options, the youth and their elder generation supporters (the vast majority, according to polls) will simply continue to employ a variety of confrontational tactics -- best summarized and understood as "occupy" -- until they get what they need from the elites. Progressive Boomers have a major role to play in this struggle (though it is unlikely that an American Boomer is going to emerge as the global Gray Champion).

Nor is the rebellion likely to be fooled into anything less than a new, effective social contract. First of all, if it is fooled, it will simply return to the streets once it realizes the deception (see Egypt, already). Second, these generational forces are HIGHLY educated and extremely well-networked. They get it. And, youth, especially, is collaborative to a fault and with the means and aptitude (via social media) to a move decisively at key junctures.

I cannot be pessimistic in these times. "Darkest before the dawn," is more like it. In part because the American election is important in global affairs, 2012 is likely to be the most politically chaotic and disruptive year so far in the worldwide lives of today's living generations. Given the timing of Fourth Turnings, this one's resolution cannot be too far off. Get ready for the future; it's beginning to impose its will on all of us.

Steve Clark

Anonymous said...

Is not what you have described in this essay just more of the fall out/blow back from the Vietnam war ?

galacticsurfer said...

My idea above which came spontaneously I could develop a little more so. Say The French Revolution folloed by Napoleonic wars was a European catastrophic generational crisis. This led into a cautious reaction by Bismarckian type forces in Europe and a reorganization in Italy as well. Central govt. became responsiblke and against chaotic crowd solutions as a solution. People got "lazy" after this problem was solved and drifted inot bitter recriminations of WWI and WWII killing millions. Now Merkel and co. are like Bismarck, order above everything, even if you have to remove national sovereignty rights, the mob rule and chaos cannot have a chance to swamp the system.

In America they are on the opposite direction. The revolution in 1780s was an "easy" success on the whole line establishing the new nation. The transcendentalist generation in South and North were arrogant and lazy and caused the war. The Missinary generation (FDR) knew, as Merkel and co. today, that they could not allow such a thing to happen again and acted rationally and responsibly. After this success with little bloodshed in america, the Boomers were arrogant and lazy and are letting a catastrophic failure ensue in America.

I don't buy the purely global WWIII theroy in this case. I don't know enough about China but I think they are heading for a failed cycle, maybe war with USA nd internal collapse. Last time under Mao it went well, I believe. Europe and Russia and Japan are too wary due to last huge failures and cautious in this cycle so will stay on sideline as much as possible.

There you have my modified generational theory.

David Kaiser said...

To Galactic Surfer:

Your idea is a promising one. I have expressed something similar in a few posts on, if not here. It it's true, we should all enjoy missing a world war with the deaths of millions of young men. On the other hand, we have to put up with hopeless, corrupt government for the rest of our (my, anyway) lives. . . .well, life is full of tradeoffs.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr Kaiser,

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. And, in case you missed it, here is a little movie featuring Tink Thompson talking about The Umbrella Man in Dealey Plaza:

With affection and respect,
Jude Hammerle

Bob in NC said...

Steve Clark and GalacticSurfer make excellent points. But, let's see if "accountability" will be sufficient after China stops buying our debt, SS & Medicare are reduced NEXT YEAR, big banks fail, unemployment & inflation hit 20% to 30% and bread-lines.(If that sounds extreme, there are many "respectable" commentators -- Martin Weiss, etc -- urging 6-months supply of food & move out of metro areas before the financial collapse.)
I fear a backlash involving riots, impromptu militias, and use of the obscene number of guns and weapons abounding here. Not from the OWS crowd, but from the majority of the 99% that are or soon will be, desperate.
I hope Mr. Clark and GS are right and I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

An earlier entry, “Eastwood Misses the Mark,” called to mind my mother’s first visit to the FDR memorial in D.C. My mother’s deep gratitude and personal admiration for FDR, expressed anew during the visit, quite bowled me over.

Indeed, that generation’s leaders “did extraordinary things” precisely because they “were devoted to their jobs [and those they led, I might add] in ways that few senior officials, today, seem to be.”

Such fond memories of my mother’s visit to the memorial makes the sadness of my generation’s legacy much more of a heartache.

I sincerely hope that my generation and Generation X will conspire and provide The Millennials outlets for their “old school” values before it’s too late for redemption.

Thank you Professor Kaiser and Happy Thanksgiving to all.

jay frank said...

enigmatic epiphany...

publion said...

A meaty and thought-provoking Post, and the various Comments as well.

A couple of thoughts: (And full disclosure: I am a Boomer, born in49)

First, there was a demographic inevitability to the Boomers' mindset and heartset: there were so many of us.

But the key is that there was no 'adult supervision'. Congress was desperate for fresh demographics after the shock of 1964-1965 (the Dems took such a great political risk for Civil Rights, and Watts 10 days later).

But many of the best and brightest of the generation born in the later 1920s - thus too young to be sobered by combat experience in WW2 and eager to make their own mark, now in their early 30s in the 1960s - were also gaga against tradition, conformity, and so on. (In this they perhaps resembled the generations born too late to participate in the Civil War and had to somehow prove in the later 19th century that they too were 'men' - think of 'Teedy' Roosevelt and his boyish exuberance for war as 'manly' and redemptive.)

In the second place, I wonder whether, even if the world situation starts to swing back, this American polity is now so weakend by decades of assault from within by the Gramscian strategies of organized advocacies seeking to overturn the 'hegemonic' national culture (which has been abetted by so much of the deal-making political class) that it will not be in a position to recover itself or its world position.

I also pass along, for those interested, that William S. Lind has returned to military and strategic commentary at 'The American Conservative' magazine.

Anonymous said...

Your comment "For one thing, the rich and powerful (and the would-be rich and powerful) seized upon them as justifications for greater economic freedom, lower taxes, and less regulation" could not be further from the truth... The facts are regulation and government protections have increased... Only RR decreased taxes which pulled us out of the doldrums.
Von Mises and Rothbard have clearly articulated and demonstrated that regulation empowers privelaged institutions at the cost of consumers (absolutely never helping)...
All today's problems are because of government manipulation of the markets...