cj#424> Thoughts on the 60’s and political effectiveness

1996-01-19

Richard Moore

I wrote the following as part of a thread on CyberspaceSociety, and thought
it might be interesting to cj.

-rkm

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Mark J. Harris wrote:
>The ideals were there, and some people put it
>into practice.  But something happened to cause many of them to abandon
>ship.  And pardon my cynical nature (it's the curse of my generation ;->)
>but from where I stand much of the be-in ethos of hippies and flower
>children amounted to a failure to engage the world and change it.

and David E. Anderson wrote:
>At any
>rate, a lot of the "politicos" did study economics and power structures, for
>what that is worth.  I think more germane than lack of preparation is the
>following point:
>
>"Power wears out those who don't have it."

---

Most expressions I've seen about the 60s are wrong by a wide margin (IMHO),
while the ones cited above are pretty good.  As a veteran of those days,
who tried to observe the movements as well as participate, I'd like to add
some clarifications of my own, and relate it to our current situtation.

About the flower children ... this one's pretty simple -- the
flower-children culture became the dominant culture of the society!  They
didn't go away, they disappeared into the mass-culture that joined them.
The aspects of their culture I refer to are:
        - the use of recretional drugs
        - openness to and about extra-marital sex, the rise of "relationship"
        - an attitude that life is to be lived now, not saved till later
        - raucus and irreverant rock & roll
        - a desire to "understand oneself", exploration of eastern perspectives
        - the belief that ethical rules must "make sense" to oneself

        The change in our culture away from the puritan ethic (which still
was the de facto norm right through to the 50s) was so rapid and so
pervasive that we've forgotton its primary origin -- the hippie movement.
As the ethic/life-attitude became widespread, it naturally became diluted,
with the more commercializable aspects becoming dominant.  And of course
there's been a reaction movement -- Christian fundamentalism.

About the politicos ... there was an incredible diversity of political
activity in the 60s.  Organizations sprung up all over the place, centered
on churches, student groups, charismatic leaders, pre-existing activist
organizations, specific concerns, etc.   There was a realistic
understanding of the "establishment", and an appreciation of how it is
stacked against real democracy.  Imaginative means were devised to spread
information, to exploit the media, and to exert political pressure.

        Yes there was some divisiveness, some asshole leaders, and some
crowd-pleasing posers, but out of the political soup evolved several
strong, well-organized, mutually reinforcing coalitions.  There arose
something called the "New Left", whose strength and effectiveness seems to
have passed from public memory.  We recall images of street protestors and
draft-card burners, but the New Left was something else entirely.  It came
about when a nucleus of professionally compentent political
leaders/organizers began to shape the anti-war, pro-humanity consensus into
a potent political force that could wield significant influence over
American elections and public attitudes.

        Perhaps the peak of this influence was marked by Eugene McCarthy's
presidential campaign.  One can never tell with politicians, but I believe
Mr. McCarthy would have represented the New Left consensus faithfully and
competently.  He was a widely respected politician -- when respect for our
institutions was still high (even though the current office-holders were
often despised).  He was a veteran Senator and could have been an effective
president.  And he was obviously going to win the nomination and the
election -- he was wildly popular, becoming almost a cult hero on the left,
while his gray-haired respectability extended his constituency to the
broader population.

        From there it was all down hill.  Bobby Kennedy was the
establishment's answer to Eugene, and he jumped into the race late after
Eugene proved in New Hampshire that the New Left consensus was real indeed.
The American instinct for "going with the proven winner" dominated, and
Bobby shouldered Eugene out of the race.

        But the New Left was not dependent on a single charismatic leader
-- it was more robust than that.  Indeed, much of its agenda continued as
significant political forces throughout the 70s and into the 80s --
environmentalism, civil rights, anti-interventionism, democratization of
institutions, etc.  In some sense, Reagan's revolution was against a New
Left consensus which was threatening to become the dominant politics, in
the same way the hippy-thing was becoming socially dominant.

        But Reagan wouldn't have been possible, if the New Left grass-roots
organizations had not been de-activated before hand.  The real story of the
evaporation of 60s activism is about FBI/police infiltration,
assassination, provacateurism, harrassing prosecutions, false witnesses --
the most massive deployment of suppressive tactics since the 30s.  The
democratic renaissance of the sixties was destroyed by covert government
intervention, not by misunderstanding of politics nor by a "turning away".

---

Ever since then, the establishment has been building its maginot line to
prevent a repeat of the New Left.  The conspiracy laws have been developed
to the point where any emerging leadership can be arrested if it gets out
of hand, by various techniques such as we saw in the Trade Center bombing
case.  Campaigning is even more dominated by television, and television
coverage is more tightly orchestrated and managed by the networks, making
effective grass-roots campaigning much more difficult.  The grass-roots
organizing techniques themselves have been turned against the people, being
used by the right to manufacture organized constituencies along religious
and ideological lines.

Meanwhile we on the left seem to have learned nothing.  We've forgotten how
to organize or ariculate a political agenda, and we've forgotten our own
history.  Not only do we need to somehow generate the kind of momentum the
New Left had, but we've got to contend with an adversary well-prepared to
stamp out popular movements in their infancy.  Dismissing the sixties
movement as a sadly lost cause by idealistic incompetents is exactly what
"they" want you to do.  We need to "own" the successes of the sixties and
borrow from its techniques (as well as from the thirties movements, which
were labor/economic-centered.)


Solidarity,
Richard

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