What-Really-Happened-to-the-1960sWhat Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

Edward P. Morgan

2010, University of Kansas Press

 

Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.

- George Orwell, 1984

 

As a young and politically naïve college student, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to take several of Ted Morgan’s classes. His “Movements of the Sixties” course was hugely influential for me, primarily because exposure to the upheavals of that era taught me that the project of transforming our world towards a more democratic, just, and ecologically balanced future has deep roots. Standing confidently atop those long, sturdy roots transmits the possibility and hope that we can indeed change the world, because we already have. Indeed, the black freedom, anti-Vietnam War, women’s liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, welfare rights and other movements of the 60s era so successfully challenged the dominant capitalist institutions of the U.S. that those institutions have been scrambling for the last forty years to systematically minimize the possibility of future freedom struggles.

In this book, Ted Morgan documents a key component of that reaction: the two-pronged mass media campaign to denigrate and obscure the democratic promise that the movements of the sixties still hold, while at the same time co-opting the symbols and imagery of the sixties to make Corporate America “cool” and thereby sell more products. This media reaction has gone hand-in-hand with material forces, such as student debt, coercing the population into inactivity and obedience. In Morgan’s words, the result is a “depoliticized society,” with a “diminished ability to make history” (pg. 7). This book therefore becomes a weapon against rootlessness and despair, which I especially urge young people to read.

 

The Promise of Democracy

The 1960s are typically remembered as a time of turbulence and change. We all know the iconic images: assassinations, war, protests, urban riots, men on the moon, long hair, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, it’s a decade that Americans are still trying to make sense of, justifying an endless stream of retrospectives like CNN’s latest 10-part weekly series “The Sixties.”  Ted Morgan’s necessary book What Really Happened to the 1960s provides answers you won’t find on primetime TV. In his writing, the underlying story of that decade was a clash between capitalism and democracy, one in which perhaps millions of Americans participated in social movements and challenged the country to become more just and more democratic (8). In some ways they succeeded and in others they failed. But as the book’s subtitle, How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy suggests, the true history of that struggle has been consistently distorted and hidden from view. What the media still cannot comprehend, or perhaps would seemingly most like to forget, is the democratic promise that formed the basis of those sixties social movements.

“[L]argely disappeared from memory [is] the surge in democratic empowerment in which large numbers of Americans of all ages organized themselves to confront and transform a range of injustices rooted in American institutions” (6, emphasis added).

As a practice of democratic empowerment, students initiated the lunch counter sit-ins to challenge legal racial segregation in the South. (1961)

As a practice of democratic empowerment, students initiated the lunch counter sit-ins to challenge legal racial segregation in the South. (1961)

Morgan goes on to define the phrase “democratic empowerment.”

“[D]emocratic empowerment means one’s unfolding ‘freedom to,’ a lifelong discovery of one’s authentic self, the discovery of which progressively frees one from manipulation by others and potentially by the disabling scripts of the unconscious” (51).

In other words, the sixties’ social movements, at their best, were not just about stopping racism or war on a systemic scale, but also about the self-realization of the millions of individuals involved on a personal level. Forty years later, I experienced the same rush of democratic empowerment when I attended my first organizing meeting and realized for the first time that in working with others I had the power to impact the world around me for the better. The meaningfulness and self-confidence that comes from a politically active and engaged life contrasts dramatically from the dominant modes of apathy and self-loathing inoculated into us by capitalist society and its mass media appendages. The experience of activism allows people to see themselves differently and to grow into their full potential, gaining courage as they take on greater and greater challenges – from speaking at a meeting, to holding a picket sign, to risking arrest in direct action.

As civil rights organizer Jim Lawson is quoted, “ordinary people who acted on conscience and took terrible risks were no longer ordinary people. They were by their very actions transformed” (51). Read the rest of this entry »


Today I’m happy to repost a highly thought-provoking article called “We Are All Very Anxious.” The genius of the piece is that it centers the emotional reality that most of us experience while living under the capitalist system, and attempts to catalogue this emotional reality historically. Of course, what misery, boredom, and anxiety have in common is that they are all forms of powerlessness, because ultimately like any system of power, capitalism rules through convincing the vast majority of its subjects that there is no possible way to overthrow it. It’s therefore important how this article highlights the emotionally liberating content of social movements, and questions our strategies for emotionally connecting with the anxious public.

How do we create spaces and actions where people can most past fear and helplessness and feel genuine hope for a radically different future?

The discussion of the emotional “affects” of capitalism also brings to thinking about care. All living beings need to be cared for – physically, emotionally and sexually. Humans, like other creatures, instinctively care for one another. Therefore any power structure rules by threatening this mutual care and offering access to care only to loyal subjects who work for the system. Patriarchy, of course, structures this rewards and punishment system according to the gender binary, and designates women as the primary carers. How are we told to demonstrate loyalty to the gender system, and what care are we told to expect for such loyalty?

Capitalism has re-structured patriarchy in many ways, one of which has been to monetize care. Those with money are guaranteed to be cared for, while those without face the possibility of isolation and invisibility. Perhaps this is what our anxiety is rooted in – the fear of ending up alone and forgotten if capitalism leaves no room for us (as individuals) to earn a decent living. Could this be one way we imagine building a revolutionary movement in the 21st century – grounded in the universal need of human beings to access care?

[alex]

We Are All Very Anxious: Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It 1
by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness
Republished from Plan C

1: Each phase of capitalism has its own dominant reactive affect. 2

anxiety1Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together. This is not a static situation. The prevalence of a particular dominant affect 3 is sustainable only until strategies of resistance able to break down this particular affect and /or its social sources are formulated. Hence, capitalism constantly comes into crisis and recomposes around newly dominant affects.
One aspect of every phase’s dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge.
Public secrets are typically personalised. The problem is only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. And it portrays a fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localised problem.

In the modern era (until the post-war settlement), the dominant affect was misery. In the nineteenth century, the dominant narrative was that capitalism leads to general enrichment. The public secret of this narrative was the misery of the working class. The exposure of this misery was carried out by revolutionaries. The first wave of modern social movements in the nineteenth century was a machine for fighting misery. Tactics such as strikes, wage struggles, political organisation, mutual aid, co-operatives and strike funds were effective ways to defeat the power of misery by ensuring a certain social minimum. Some of these strategies still work when fighting misery.

When misery stopped working as a control strategy, capitalism switched to boredom. In the mid twentieth century, the dominant public narrative was that the standard of living – which widened access to consumption, healthcare and education – was rising. Everyone in the rich countries was happy, and the poor countries were on their way to development. The public secret was that everyone was bored. This was an effect of the Fordist system which was prevalent until the 1980s – a system based on full-time jobs for life, guaranteed welfare, mass consumerism, mass culture, and the co-optation of the labour movement which had been built to fight misery. Job security and welfare provision reduced anxiety and misery, but jobs were boring, made up of simple, repetitive tasks. Mid-century capitalism gave everything needed for survival, but no opportunities for life; it was a system based on force-feeding survival to saturation point.

Of course, not all workers under Fordism actually had stable jobs or security – but this was the core model of work, around which the larger system was arranged. There were really three deals in this phase, with the B-worker deal – boredom for security – being the most exemplary of the Fordism-boredom conjuncture. Today, the B-worker deal has largely been eliminated, leaving a gulf between the A- and C-workers (the consumer society insiders, and the autonomy and insecurity of the most marginal).

 

2: Contemporary resistance is born of the 1960s wave, in response to the dominant affect of boredom.

If each stage of the dominant system has a dominant affect, then each stage of resistance needs strategies to defeat or dissolve this affect. If the first wave of social movements were a machine for fighting misery, the second wave (of the 1960s-70s, or more broadly (and thinly) 1960s-90s) were a machine for fighting boredom. This is the wave of which our own movements were born, which continues to inflect most of our theories and practices. Read the rest of this entry »


The following book review was published in the Fall issue of Fifth Estate.  I originally wrote a much longer version here. This one’s short and sweet. [alex knight]
calibanwitch250
Silvia Federici’s book, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, is an essential read for those of us seeking to overthrow systems of domination and build a liberated future.

What is most fascinating about Caliban and the Witch is how it challenges the widely-held belief that capitalism, though perhaps flawed in its current form, was at one time a “progressive” or necessary development. Uncovering the forgotten history of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe in suspicion and fire for more than 200 years, Federici demonstrates that capitalism has always relied on spectacular violence, particularly against women, people of color, workers, and those cultivating a more egalitarian future.

The book recalls the enormous and colorful peasant movements of the Middle Ages, which pointed towards non-capitalist futures for Europe, and by extension, the world. However, these paths were blocked. The “shock therapy” of the Witch Hunt was used to terrorize rebels and visionaries, impose new discipline on the body, on female sexuality in particular, and usher in a new social system based on a landless working class and the devaluation of women’s labor.

Federici writes, “It is impossible to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years.”

Read the rest of this entry »


by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com

[This article has been translated into Spanish by Guerrilla Translation and can be found HERE!]

magnetic-fields-in-action1. There is a paradox at the heart of this global power structure we live in, known as capitalism. It is the result of two contradictory truths.

2A. The first truth is that capitalism is destroying our planet. Through global warming, extinction, impoverishment, racism, sexism, homophobia, propaganda, war, the burgeoning security state, computerized isolation, and more, it is literally killing us.

2B. The second truth is that we are dependent upon capitalism for our immediate survival. Whether through wages, pensions, or social services, our livelihood depends on income provided by the very system which is killing us.

3A. Most of us would like to avoid facing this paradox, and so delude ourselves into apathy, nihilism, and cynicism. We accept the system’s offer of fantasy and mute our inherent knowledge of the deep wrongness that pervades the real world.

3B. Some braver souls among us face the first truth and so do whatever they can to avoid complicity with the machinery of death and destruction. They may adopt an ethical diet, curb their consumption, or even attempt to “live off the grid” (to the extent this is possible within a global power structure whose tentacles reach into every corner of the Earth). Taken to its extreme, this is the route of escapism. Its goal is moral purity, flight from guilt, the individual satisfaction of knowing you’re no longer part of the problem.

The failure of escapism is that avoiding responsibility for the problem also means avoiding responsibility for the solution. You can take comfort in your moral stance, but with or without your participation, capitalism rolls on, destroying billions of lives.

3C. A different set of folks are more concerned with the second half of the paradox – the fact that we are trapped in this system as bad as it is, and therefore the best we can do is to improve it or make it more fair. They may fight for policy changes through lobbying or even run for office. In its pure form, this is the route of reformism. The aim is to work “within the system,” influence the people in charge, and perhaps become one of them in time. The theory goes that once in a position of power, they would be able to steer the ship in a new direction.

The failure of reformism is that it requires the abandonment of our ideals for actually overthrowing the system or creating a world without capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with making life more livable within the system, but when we become ourselves part of the system, we betray ourselves and we have already lost.

4. By themselves, neither of these two poles, escape or reform, offers us any hope of abolishing capitalism and saving our world. Yet, no way forward can exist without both elements. Rather than fleeing this paradox, if we embrace the absurdity of our situation, we can harness the energy of the contradiction to create something new. Read the rest of this entry »


I’m excited to bring a guest post from my friend Jack Grauer, a Philadelphia-based political writer. Over the last couple decades, as academia has gotten increasingly competitive, forcing more and more alienated labor out of students, many have turned to Adderall and other drugs to artificially keep focus through coma-inducing schooling. Now schools are attempting to crack down on drug use, especially against those students not deemed worthy, such as working class students and students of color. Jack’s article sheds light on this hypocritical clampdown.

What is the function of academia for the capitalist system? Certainly the free/cheap research for corporate and military institutions is important. The classification and indoctrination of students, preparing youth for lifetimes of service in the capitalist apparatus, is absolutely necessary as well. But what is less mentioned is the more pervasive enclosure and specialization of knowledge – the creation of a dichotomy between the few “experts” who have done years of research on increasingly specialized and miniature fields of study, and the general public, which is put into a position of ignorance and helplessness simply by failing to possess a degree. Academia does not pursue or create the kind of knowledge that is useful to ordinary people; it creates knowledge which serves the system.

This is not to say that no radical or revolutionary ideas can be found in the university, because of course the academy is one of the few careers that radicals can enter without totally surrendering their integrity.  However, if one is to attempt to remain true to a revolutionary transformation of society from within academia, one must constantly subvert the kind of knowledge-production inside its walls and attempt to translate any useful ideas into practical language for social movements and regular folks on the outside. [alex]

Adderall and Higher Education’s Delusion of Meritocracy

 by Jack Grauer

adderall-brain-side-effects1Universities have good reasons to call for stiffer regulation of stimulant study drugs; they are addictive and potentially dangerous. But defending the wheezing fantasy that postsecondary education was ever fair in the first place is not one of them.

Imagine you’re a college teacher. Some of your medically insured students have diagnoses for ADHD, i.e. the inability to stare at paper for a long time. They take prescription drugs like Adderall to treat it. Other students of yours buy and use these drugs illicitly; they do so not only to enhance their academic performance, but also to get high. Still other students of yours feel uncomfortable taking Adderall, which the DEA groups with oxycodone and morphine in terms of addictiveness and abuse potential, to do well in school. What you don’t know is which of your students get and take what drugs, how, or why.

You must now assign final semester grades.

Read the rest of this entry »


Silvia Federici is one of the most important political theorists alive today. Her landmark book Caliban and the Witch demonstrated the inextricable link between anti-capitalism and radical feminist politics by digging deep into the actual history of capital’s centuries-long attack on women and the body.

In this essay, originally written in 2008, she follows up on that revelation by laying out her feminist anti-capitalist vision, and how it extends beyond traditional Marxism. This piece is comprehensive – long but far-reaching. At times seeing the truth requires seeing in the dark – acknowledging the true horrors of the world as it currently is manifest.

This essay was updated and published in Silvia’s new anthology Revolution at Point Zero, and I have made a few small additional edits.  Enjoy! [alex]

The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution (2011 edition)

capitalism-domestic-labor“Women’s work and women’s labor are buried deeply in the heart of the capitalist social and economic structure.” – David Staples, No Place Like Home (2006)

“It is clear that capitalism has led to the super-exploitation of women. This would not offer much consolation if it had only meant heightened misery and oppression, but fortunately it has also provoked resistance. And capitalism has become aware that if it completely ignores or suppresses this resistance it might become more and more radical, eventually turning into a movement for self-reliance and perhaps even the nucleus of a new social order.” – Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (2000)

“The emerging liberative agent in the Third World is the unwaged force of women who are not yet disconnected from the life economy by their work. They serve life not commodity production. They are the hidden underpinning of the world economy and the wage equivalent of their life-serving work is estimated at $16 trillion.” – John McMurtry, The Cancer State of Capitalism (1999)

“The pestle has snapped because of so much pounding. Tomorrow I will go home. Until tomorrow Until tomorrow… Because of so much pounding, tomorrow I will go home.” – Hausa women’s song from Nigeria

INTRODUCTION

wagesagainsthouseworkThis essay is a political reading of the restructuring of the (re)production of labor-power in the global economy, but it is also a feminist critique of Marx that, in different ways, has been developing since the 1970s. This critique was first articulated by activists in the Campaign for Wages For Housework, especially Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati, among others, and later by Ariel Salleh in Australia and the feminists of the Bielefeld school, Maria Mies, Claudia Von Werlhof, Veronica Benholdt-Thomsen.

At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.

Had Marx recognized that capitalism must rely on both an immense amount of unpaid domestic labor for the reproduction of the workforce, and the devaluation of these reproductive activities in order to cut the cost of labor power, he may have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive.

As for us, a century and a half after the publication of Capital, we must challenge the assumption of the necessity and progressivity of capitalism for at least three reasons.

Read the rest of this entry »


This personal reflection was written for and performed at a spoken word event on March 2nd in Philadelphia.

“After the Apocalypse” – by Alex Knight

rainbow2As I write, it’s March 1, 2013. I never expected to see this date arrive.

When I was 10 or 11, my father and I watched a TV special, probably on FOX, called “Prophecies Revealed,” which rounded up an assortment of fables from Nostradomus on down, to scare the crap out of the audience and get ratings by making people believe the end of the world was right around the corner. One segment talked about the Mayan calendar, and over a background of creepy and violent images, posed the question, “what’s going to happen on December 21, 2012? Will our technologies revolt against us? Will there be some kind of cataclysmic event, like an enormous meteor impact? Will nuclear war finally consume the Earth?”

I feel silly to admit it, but these ideas of imminent doom really stuck with me. Maybe I was just an impressionable kid who had seen too many Terminator movies. Or maybe there is something really appealing, even liberating, about apocalypse – at least for those of us living in a repressive, alienating, hierarchal social system such as zombie-capitalism. The specter of apocalypse seems to substitute in negative form for the positive vision of “social revolution” that radicals a century ago believed in – namely, a way out, an escape. Say what you will about the Rapture – at least it’s a rupture. Meaning, even if the fires of armageddon were a nightmare in the short run, at least the horror of the world we live in would come to an end, and then maybe something better would sprout from the ashes.

Almost immediately after I left home for college, these apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected from the nether-regions of my mind. On September 11th, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by hijacked airplanes. As I watched in my Freshman dormroom, I felt shock, sadness, but also a forbidden and shameful giddiness. The attack was a horrible, evil thing, and I feel awful for those who lost loved ones. But for me at age 18, the dramatic realness of that event was a sharp, sudden puncture to the bubbly propaganda image of 1990’s peaceful hegemonic America. It was the first time I ever realized that the world is not static – it is changing all the time. I had just never looked outside my plastic suburban cage to see the real world, in its full ugliness and beauty. September 11th, as hellish as it was, was for me that rupture – it jarred me into the awareness that there is an exit from the prison of mainstream America, if you’re willing to do a little digging.

I started to listen a bit more to my communist English teacher, be less defensive in response to voices critical of capitalism, and I set off down the rabbit hole. As Bush put the country on the warpath, I transformed myself from a video game junkie into a committed activist devoting every bit of energy I could to making revolution happen in this country, starting by organizing a national student movement against the war, I hoped. Read the rest of this entry »


“Invisible and unspeakable, without a meaningful lexicon, is the world of care. No human could survive or thrive without touch, affection, nurturing, attention, compassion, validation, or empathy–yet the need for these acts of care (which are often gendered as feminine, no matter who provides them) has been subsumed into necessary invisibility by a system that depends on depriving us of the means to tend to our own lives.”

“Alienation and Intimacy”

Apparently a single by the band "Monster Truck." Thought it was humorously appropriate.

Apparently a single by the band “Monster Truck.” Thought it was humorously appropriate.

by Corina Dross

Originally posted on Revolt, She Said.

Intimacy is often considered outside the realm of political discourse; politics is what we do out there, not what happens in our homes, our friendships, and our romances. We know this is false, but that knowledge itself doesn’t transform our lives.

We still carry shame and fear about our private needs and desires–and we look to our communities for clues about the appropriate ways to get these needs met. So when we mirror for each other the same policing and oppression we’ve learned from the larger culture, we’re failing to demand a better world for ourselves and the people we love.

The enterprise of radical relationships is to create a language that we haven’t yet learned, that can subvert the language we’ve been given, as we struggle to analyze how the alienation that permeates our world specifically functions in the details of our intimate lives. It’s important that this enterprise be public and collective, to avoid the trap of buying into the self-help book mentality–which advises us to analyze our own deepest fears and worst habits alone or with a therapist, or with a partner or best friend–but as an individual project, without agitating for the world to better meet our collective needs.

And our own worst habits are not merely ours; most likely, they arise in response to larger systems of oppression, which we all face, and which we internalize. There are multiple intersections of oppression in our lives, but let’s focus here on capitalist processes of alienation. If we look at some specific ways capitalism creates suffering–and makes this suffering appear normal and invisible–we may see parallels in our intimate lives and begin to formulate forms of resistance.

There are many cultural side-effects of the capitalist project, worth discussing in future conversations, but for now let’s start with the idea of artificial scarcity.

If we agree that capitalism shapes our world through processes that consolidate wealth, power, and resources amongst very few–creating scarcity and need for the rest of us, robbing us of time to pursue our own deepest desires and interests, time with friends and loved ones, access to healthy food and housing, access to medical care, and a thousand other necessary things, we can imagine how much pressure there is on our intimate relationships, which are supposedly outside of the public sphere, to be sites of abundance. It’s somewhat fantastical that we could expect one person (or several, depending on how we arrange our love lives) to make up for all that lack. But popular narratives reinforce this: that love will fix all our problems; that a long-lasting romantic partnership should fill all that is empty in us; that we must give to our lovers all that the world can’t.

Read the rest of this entry »

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