When I was in college in the late 1970s, I majored in science. My laboratory classes were all taught by graduate students who had been in high school at the turn of the seventies, and in college in the early to middle seventies. They spoke to us in patronizing tones of voice of the massive social upheaval in which they had participated. We heard stories of protest marches, of political debate, and of a sort of wild freedom they claimed we had been denied. During my own college years, by contrast, my undergraduate institution was known as a "party school". Indeed, the word was that Playboy Magazine had stopped ranking it as the number one party school of the USA, because the element of debaucherie was so extreme that a ranking would be simply pointless. During my freshman year of college, a walk through my dormitory halls was like a walk in a huge cannabis den, with music blaring from a hundred speakers at hundreds of watts each. Folks lived in an era pre-AIDs, pre-crack, and pre-Reagan. I am perpetually a fish out of water, and I found myself among people whose values were not the same as my own. But this focus on hedonism, the only relic which had survived the sixties, was a necessary part of the commercialization of the counterculture.
Gil Scott-Heron wrote a wonderful jazz rap a few years prior to the time I started college called "The Revolution will not be Televised". In it, he posited that the true revolution would not be sponsored by Xerox, would make "Green Acres" and other sitcoms irrelevant, and could not be enjoyed with a beer during a commercial break. The lyrics seemed so dead on. In fact, the lyrics were almost dead on wrong. In fact, the "revolution", such as it was, was entirely co-opted by corporate America, which turned its icons and ideas into commercial ideas, the basis for conspicuous consumption. High fashion incorporated the sixties styles, which were then available in Neiman Marcus. Rock music, promoted and peddled by corporations, soundtracked commercials. The "freedom" of the sixties did not remain anti-materialistic, but instead turned into a massive endorsement of conspicuous consumption. The so-called "boomers" became the eighties high-consumption thirtysomethings. The sixties showed us that everything--music, sex, euphoria, freedom--could be marketed.
Any movement could be commoditized. The UK punk movement in its late 70s turn, featured people who glorified this phenomenon. Malcolm McLaren's genius was his realization that subversion was profitable, if one did it right.
By the time I graduated college in 1980, raw fear of an economic downturn, coupled with incredibly poor management of political crises by the party in power, brought Ronald Reagan into office (for 3 months in 1978, I had tried to flirt with a more conservative outlook, but I found the lack of common sense boring after a while). Suddenly, I was not the only one in a suit at Sunday lunch in the cafeteria, but the other kids were something called "born again", and did not sit around, as I did my freshman year, discussing liberal theology with the young associate minister who believed in the proverbial none of the articles of our denomination. By the time I was in my mid twenties, thirtysomethings who had been in their day "radicals" were the besuited "high flyers", having capped their liberal arts degrees with MBAs, who stood in line for tables for lunch, discussing in public the joys of ecstasy (which was, along with many other 'designer' drugs, entirely legal for a long time) and one night stands in discos. This was the era when high fashion dance clubs in Dallas, as in many cities, had "coded" drinks which came with x or other synthetic drugs. Consumption--of anything, of anyone--was everything.
The counterculture was essentially no more. Oh, there were alternative bands and movements, alternative papers and ideas. But it had all been a massive failure. The "Revolution" was televised, and now it sold perfume, and records, and travel. Part of this, of course, was that the "great issue", the Vietnam War, had ended when essentially all but the far right realized that a decade in a holding pattern defending a non-democracy unwilling or unable to defend itself did not advance our agenda.
I believe that the sixties protests helped crystallize this view, but this view would have been reached in any event (the Russian experience in Afghanistan supports my thinking, where a similar cessation occurred despite the lack of an effective USSR opposition movement). Instead, the sixties came to represent merely unbridled consumption, a message corporate America was happy to share.
Part of this was a function of the fundamental inaccessibility
of many new left thinkers to the great mass of folks. While the philosopher Marcuse understood that both the first and second worlds were beset by the alienation of common folks from their workplace by technology, his acolytes in the sixties counterculture were too busy turning out dull tracts to pick up ways to actually transform a culture. The SDS, the Free Speech Movement, the Weathermen, the various new left intellectuals--all simply failed to rally any fundamental support for goals other than ending the war. The deep anti-democratic tendencies and fundamental sexism of some of the members of these groups virtually ensured a lack of popular support. Essentially, it all turned into a giant Salvation Army meeting, when everyone came for the food, but nobody stayed for the sermon.
Now we're 32 years after 1970. The sixties are concerts by Dead remnants, the (arguably long overdue) decline of mainstream religion, the creation of a strong drug subculture, and a lot of cool retro fashions. I never underestimate the immense changes that took place, but the changes were in so many ways changes of all the wrong things. I'm not quite ready to start telling the Forrest Gump story, as I don't see the sixties as the failure of left-wing ideas. I see the sixties as one endless failure to understand that true change will require actual democratic movements involving the majority of people.
I sit in my home tonight when the State of Israel announced that it will destroy the homes of non-combatants to revenge suicide bombings while my government, its chief ally, silently looks on. I listen as the financial markets collapse because my government failed to regulate financial disclosures and failed to staff the regulatory agencies it has. I watch as the economy reels from a tax cut based on flawed projections in pursuit of a needless doctrinaire agenda. I see us gear up for war with Iraq, without any showing being made to the people expected to endure this war whether Iraq actually has the weapons of mass destruction which would presumably justify such a war. I see proposals to eliminate civil rights pushed through Congress at lightning speed, even as the courts unravel obviously flawed justice department positions on detainee rights. I see environmental laws gutted, the safety net for the poor sliced away, and corporate and agribusiness welfare increased. Even the one thing I counted on Republicans never to do--ruin trade relations with protectionism--takes place as the right protects steel and farmers.
Meanwhile, what happens on the left? McDonalds store windows are broken at protests, as if that matters. "Battles for Seattle" replace real civic action. Nader siphons away a chance for Democrats to keep the White House. The wrong man, not dislikable but now in the most powerful office in the world, pauses during his golf game to hold forth on America. The Middle East erupts, as Hamas and Sharon compete to see who is most counter productive. It has not escaped my notice that the exit of the Clinton peace process also meant the exit of any real dialogue for peace. Right wing isolationism betrayed us all.
The problem is with that darn Revolution. It's going to require
us to vote. It's going to require us to appeal to people who are not as cool as we are (altho, given how uncool I am, it is hard to find people who are not as cool as I am). It's going to require us to build coalitions. It's going to require us to support people who may be to the right of our social or fiscal agendae (in my own case, actually, I am socially far left and fiscally mod left, so I only have to go against one value), in order to get someone elected. The Revolution will not have cool songs (god, please spare us Lindsay Buckingham this time), will require compromises, and will not be exciting.
The move back left this country is going to have to take will be long, it will be boring, it will require common sense, and it will not be televised. Because nobody on E! will care. But if we don't move things back from the right, we may find we have a country we love but which drives us crazy. I'm bored of the "let's wear black and say we reject it, and it'll all go away" school of thought. Damn it, this means I've got to go volunteer time. Rather than smashing the windows of corporate offices, or denuding burger joints, and calling that "revolution" we may have to actually recognize that we have become corporate America, and make democratic change. So might it be.