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What 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).
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?
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
Each 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 »