Remember when we thought we were on the ascendant? Way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. You could see the roots in the beatnik culture of the 1950’s. Every generation since the mid-19th century has had it bohemians, but bohemianism merged with social progressivism and broke out and became the social norm for a period of 20 years or more. There is still a certain ‘do your own thing’ aspect of modern culture, the concept of the ‘road trip’ the prevalence of marijuana use, rock and soul music, generally loose dress codes and acceptance of tattoos and piercing, the acceptance of minorities as more or less equal to the majority group, the “Great Society” social reforms, these are all residue from that period.
Some of the high-brow considerations are the development of post-structuralism and deconstructionism in philosophy and their application in political theory, architecture, literary and film criticism and the emergence of popular art forms such as pop art and graffiti as something more than what you see on bathroom walls.
Technically we saw the space program and the moon landings, computers, more advanced missiles, communications satellites, environmentalism, the awareness of the planet as a unitary body, concerns about population growth, advances in medical treatments and increased reliance on pharmaceuticals. There came the supersonic jet and bullet trains.
Economically we reached a watershed, growth stopped being such a sure thing as resource providing nations such as OPEC began to demand a bigger cut. Oil became a weapon with the boycotts after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Stagflation became a problem. Growth in the first world became more complex and a conscious war against labor was developed in the USA, the premier world economy with the emergence of outsourcing in the 1980’s as a way to break the power of labor and lower costs. First the Southern states in the USA, then Mexico and eventually China became the place to send manufacturing and assembly of products to sell back in the domestic markets.
Politically there had been the reemergence of the radical left, the emergence of China as the vanguard replacing the Soviet Union with its Cultural Revolution. This was the high water of the modern communist movement around the world with student revolts on campus in the 1960’s merging with labor struggles, including the famous French 1968 near revolution. Anarchism was reborn as a movement, and revolutionary cells ready to fight emerged in Germany, Italy, Japan, and among the Palestinians. This was a heady time for radicals especially as the USA tried to defeat nationalists in Vietnam and a resistance movement developed in the USA that was the largest leftist movement since the 1930’s.
After the Vietnam War the left in the USA began to lose its unity and began to focus on special interests of minorities rather than push for social revolution. Feminism, gay rights, minority rights all became the issues of the day. Some leftists joined unions in an attempt to radicalize them. But the whole movement became more diffused. Some went for anti-nuke power after the Three Mile Island reactor failure. Some became more involved in environmental issues and saving species became a big thing with groups like Greenpeace emerging to save the whales. The left had become deconstructed by the time that the right wing reaction under Reagan came to power in the 1980’s. The American Empire and its allies were under pressure from the Socialists and the populace turned to support the hardliners among the capitalists instead of joining their socialist brothers.
What happened? How did the world of revolutionary youth and militant working classes become the weak, anemic, passive forces we see now. How did we lose the offensive? In some areas such as academia and civil service unions the left continued to advance. The feminist and gay rights movements moved from victory to victory. But there were countervailing forces from the right. Abortion became a major social issue, cooked up by some right wing Christians, they decided to make coming to term of fetuses a right instead of a natural process. Many tactics were borrowed from the left and they used the churches to motivate their troops, with prayer meetings and Bible classes where they beat the conservative drum, family values it was called. They provided day care, and youth groups and fought the spread of drug use. The war on Drugs became a model for intervention in family life to begin to propagandize youth and to incarcerate potential trouble makers.
AIDs emerged as a vindication of the evil of homosexuality and promiscuity in general. The celibacy until marriage movement emerged to try to curb the sexual aspects of the youth rebellion. Rock and roll was diffused with Christian rock and satanic rock, losing its connection with the radical left it became merely a business, a show, like the circus, another distraction for the public, no longer a force cheering on the revolution. MTV with its faux hipness, hipness you watched passively was the epitome of this coopting of radical youth culture into a marketable commodity that was safe.
Reagan diverted resources from social services to defense and returned to the arms race that had been quieted by dente. The Soviet’s couldn’t keep up, caught up in their own economic stagnation, they tried to implement reforms, which got out of hand and ended up with the ruling classes panicking, turning to the west for financial support and then their betrayal as early Neo-cons were able to implement unregulated capitalism in Russia as they had done in Chile after the Pinochet coup.
Labor was attacked with the destruction of the Air Controller’s union by Reagan, this signaled to industry that the government would support their union busting efforts. Jobs were shipped to Mexico and the maquiladoras were born.
China dropped its pretense to developing socialism in our time and pushed market reforms, destroying the Iron Rice Bowl policies of guaranteed employment and health benefits. Capital accumulation became the name of the game instead of equitable distribution of wealth. China wanted to become a world power and t do that rapidly would mean developing the mechanism for rapid wealth accumulation and that meant entering the world market selling its cheap and disciplined labor force to the capitalists of the world. From there they would learn how to do it themselves and then they would become the world’s economic powerhouse replacing the USA. Political power would then come like ripe fruit dropping off a tree. They hoped that development would out pace inequality and the vast majority of the populace would be included. They had a braking mechanism in that they kept the majority of the population as peasants in the country, only allowing new entrants into their developed economy as needed.
Well the elites have corralled the social revolution temporarily, but as the Middle East shows, people will rebel and attempt to gain some control over their lives as soon as they have an opportunity. The contradiction between wealthy overdeveloped countries spouting their superior military, semi-democratic governments, economic cartels and liberal religion, and the oppressed states that are supposed to provide the cheap labor and resources for these over-developed economies, is, in this age of instant communications, simply too much to bear for any self-respecting human being.
There will either be an attempt to escape to these oases of prosperity or to attempt to create conditions at home that the locals assume will bring those benefits. With Soviet style communism discredited and the communist movement around the world in disarray, some form of liberal capitalism seems to many people the only alternative, with some reactionary elements trying to sabotage, or to superimpose a social system that resembles their own traditional ideals on the technological wonder world that the over-developed countries have projected to the rest of the world.
Technology and population growth, environmental collapse and the green-house effect are the main drivers today. They are the underlying forces that affect all human efforts at control. Capitalist means of production have reached a point where the complexity of the system has begun to demand a more socially planned methodology. Earlier attempts at social planning, the various communist experiments have simply muddied the waters, but as the waters clear they will be seen as what they were, experiments for a future society. That future is rapidly approaching, we need to learn from the past and develop for the future with the needs of humanity and the planet taken into consideration if we are to survive as a species.