Rescuing the Sixties

Published on ZNet, by Paul Street, July 02, 2013.

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic I Have a Dream” Speech//

… Starting with the southern black Civil Rights struggle inherited from the 1950s and expanding to include remarkable grassroots struggles against poverty, the U.S. war on Indochina, the corporate-military university, pollution, and patriarchy, the great social movements that provided the real historical underpinning of the Sixties contained two basic components by Morgan’s analysis: (i) a widespread sense that American society and its key institutions could be democratically transformed; (ii) an accurate sense that the nation’s problems were rooted in the underlying social, economic, and political power structures of that society.  

The “democratic dialectic” in the 1960s emerged, Morgan shows, from core contradictions between the liberating and egalitarian promises of triumphant post-World War II U.S. capitalism and the unequal, unjust, segregated, soulless, alienating, isolating, and homogenized nature of life under that system. Instructively launched and escalated by “liberal” Democratic presidents in brazen defiance of the nation’s declared benevolent and democratic purposes, the racist, mass-murderous, and imperial U.S war on Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) added no small fuel to the fire.

During the Sixties and ever since, the basic systemic and historical forces and issues that fueled the decade’s uprisings and the real democratic and egalitarian nature of its popular movements have stood beyond the boundaries of legitimate discourse in dominant U.S. media. The underlying problems that drove Sixties movements – soulless corporate rule, imperial war, ubiquitous poverty, oppressive racism, stultifying cultural homogenization, pervasive sexism, environmental pollution, and more – have been thrown down Orwell’s memory hole in that media. They’ve been exiled to the margins of collective memory, along with the democratic hopes of millions who participated in those movements. In transmitting the Sixties, the managers of mass U.S. media have offered an emotionally potent but highly superficial, heavily image- and personality-centered depiction of the decade’s movements and protests as dysfunctional deviance reflecting little more than a rebellion of angry and “sick” youth against authority as such. This great generations Sixties smear relies heavily on sensational visual representations of the protestors themselves and the national degradation and mayhem they allegedly advanced … //

… Some will question the depth and degree of the great 1960s “democratic awakening” today. Many in the U.S. establishment did not at the time and in the Sixties’ immediate aftermath. In August 1971, for example, top corporate attorney Lewis Powell penned a length and remarkable memorandum to the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Written two months before Richard Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court, the memo detailed what Powell considered a “broadly based” assault on “the American economic system” (capitalism) emanating not just from radical margins but from “perfectly respectable elements of society: the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” By Powell’s reckoning, a dangerous anti-business uprising led by such “charismatic” threats as Ralph Nader and the radical professor Herbert Marcuse meant that corporations should undertake a concerted and many-sided public relations and media counter-offensive – a veritable capitalist cultural counter-revolution. “It is time,” Powell proclaimed, “for American business – which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in history to produce and influence consumer decisions – to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself” (emphasis added). Powell felt that the struggle to win back hearts and minds for capitalism should target the universities, the publishing world, and the mass media, including an effort to place the television networks “under constant surveillance.” By Morgan’s account, Powell’s “urgent appeal helped set in motion forces that subsequently transformed public discourse in the United States for decades to come.” (165-167).

Two years later, Chase Manhattan Bank chief David Rockefeller, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, convened top figures from business and government in Europe, North America, and Japan to determine how to maintain what he called “the wider international system.” Organized as the Trilateral Commission, the elites gathered by Rockefeller produced a study claiming that “excessive” popular engagement and activism during the 1960s had generated “A Crisis of Democracy” – meaning, by Morgan’s translation, “that capitalism, its constrained, elite version of electoral democracy, and U.S. global hegemony were all endangered” (243). Writing the report’s section on the United States, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington worried that the “democratic surge” had activated “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population,” including “blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women,” who “embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges” (imagine!). This was all, Huntington scolded, part of a an effort towards “reassertion of the primacy of equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life” – a goal that Huntington found dangerous and dysfunctional because it sought a “welfare shift” of government resources from “defense” (the military-industrial complex) to things like education, public health and social security (244).

What really happened to the great many-sided democratic and egalitarian awakening that was the essence of the 1960s? The decade’s great popular movements were of course quite significantly snooped on, infiltrated, manipulated, smeared, bloodied, and otherwise repressed by local, state, and federal government. Just as importantly and of no small relevance for authorities’ ability to repress, however, those movements were defeated in their own time and ever since by a mass media that has distorted and exploited the Sixties for reasons both political and commercial, with terrible results for democratic and human prospects.

This is not to say that progressive Sixties and post-Sixties activists bear no responsibility for “the left’s” marginalization in the U.S. today. Morgan offers sage reflections on the significant extent to which excessively “expressivist” and insufficiently “strategicist” (left philosopher John Sanbonmatsu’s useful terms) activists during and since the protest decade have been tragically and narcissistically complicit in the triumph of the “market dialectic” over the “democratic dialectic” in neoliberal America. A left Sixties veteran with a distinguished history of teaching students about social movements past and present, Morgan gives some wise advice on how activists and citizens can re-awaken the latter dialectic in re-waging an ultimately spiritual peoples’ struggle pitting democracy and “eros, the life principle,” against capitalism and “thanatos, the death force” (quoting Lewis Powell’s bête noir Herbert Marcuse, 329). I can’t imagine a more significant subject today. All environmental indications suggest strongly that Morgan’s core Sixties struggle – that between capitalism and democracy – has become a matter of life and death for human and other sentient beings.

(full text).

(Paul Street (Paul is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street can be reached here).


Martin Luther King, Jr. on en.wikipedia, including See also and with it’s External Links;

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Quotes, on Brainy Quotes;

martin luther king, jr.: i have a dream speech, 11.52 min, uploaded by wesawthat, Oct 23, 2012: Notice: …

martin luther king jr. i have a dream speech full version: many uploads on YouTube-search;

Martin Luther King, Jr.: I have a dream speech, on en.wikipedia with it’s External Links;

Has Washington’s Arrogance Undone Its Empire? on Paul Craig Roberts, on his website, July 1, 2013;

in german / auf deutsch:
Hat Washingtons Arroganz sein Imperium in Schwierigkeiten gebracht? auf (machte auch die Uebersetzung), von Paul Craig Roberts, auf seiner website, am 1. Juli 2013;

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