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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 »
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]
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.”
I recently finished this fascinating book by C.L.R. James, detailing the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. This was the first (and only?) time in history that an entire colony of African slaves revolted against their masters and succeeded in establishing independence. The magnitude of such a feat, considering all the European backlash and repression, from no less than Napoleon, is shocking to this day.
C.L.R. James is famous for being one of the most outspoken anti-colonial Marxist thinkers of the 20th Century. His political career started in his native Trinidad, took him through Trotskyism to the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which defined the Soviet Union as state capitalist. After being deported from the US, he spent his final years living in London and married to Selma James, the influential Marxist feminist and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign.
The merits of this book are obvious, it is a blow-by-blow account of how the slaves of Saint-Domingue became the free citizens of Haiti. For its profound social history, it has become required reading for post-colonial theorists, pan-Africanists and anti-capitalists of all stripes. The book is made more relevant by the ongoing injustices against the Haitian people by the US government and international NGOs, which have kept Haiti in a state of poverty and dependence. It is important to remind ourselves that the Haitians are proud people with a history of self-empowerment.
The flaws of the book are perhaps more interesting. James wants to paint Toussaint L’Ouverture in the same stripe as Vladimir Lenin, who James sees as actually a heroic revolutionary leader. From this error stem all the peculiar sections of the book where Toussaint’s character become the main focus. Most interestingly, James also criticizes some of Toussaint’s worst moves, correctly charging them as cowardly or counter-revolutionary, yet does not hesitate to explain them away by referring to Toussaint’s “genius.”
For me the bottom line is that humans instinctively desire freedom. We don’t need any authorities to create it for us, we either all create it together or we lack it. Generals like Toussaint tend to want to appeal to authority, whether Napoleon or the bourgeois Jacobins in Paris. It is a simple fact that people in power are more concerned about what other people with power think, rather than what the people think. Here lies Toussaint’s mistake, and the mistake of Leninism as well.
None of this should discourage the reader from reading and absorbing the social history behind one of the greatest popular democratic victories of all time. The point is to read history critically.
One such critical reader is my friend Daniel, who wrote the excellent review which follows, and which brings the contradictions of James’ work to life. [alex]
The Black Jacobins
C.L.R. James, 1938
Review by Daniel Meltzer.
This book was an excellent read. The strengths included breathtaking battle scenes, rousing rhetoric for freedom and against slavery, brilliant stories of liberation, and page-turning political intrigue. The weaknesses in the book come from self-defeating politics of discipline for the sake of discipline, and the heart-rending compromises that Toussaint L’Overture makes with people who see him and the republic he created as nothing more than slaves to be punished for their insubordination.
The utter brutality and injustice of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of slaves is scandalous. You will literally shake your head at the stories of how slaves were treated under the law in Haiti. A particularly unnerving example is the slavemasters filling a slave up with gunpowder and lighting a fuse, exploding the body of the slave, perhaps for punishment, but seemingly just as often because the slavemasters could.
The slaves began creating a series of low-level daily resistance to such a situation that is tragic and fascinating. “The majority of the slaves accomodated themselves to this unceasing brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters. […]Through the shirt of [a slave] a master can feel the potatoes which he denies he has stolen. They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones. He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. “Eh! master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes.” Read the rest of this entry »
Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown
by Max Rameau
Nia Press, 2008
Review by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
I first heard about a group called Take Back the Land, which was illegally moving homeless families into empty homes in Miami, in a study group about the Civil Rights movement and the grassroots organizing that made it so powerful. The reference was highly appropriate. In many ways, Take Back the Land is a direct heir of that bottom-up, Black self-empowerment, civil disobedient, movement-building tradition, and is one of the most inspiring examples of a group renewing and developing that tradition today.
In our moment of crisis and stagnation, here is a group full of creativity, improvisation, and highly potent political analysis. Through its actions, the group proclaims: ‘Families are being foreclosed on and kicked out onto the street? We’re not going to lobby Washington and hope for some crumbs to come down. We’ll take matters into our own hands and move people directly into homes!’ This is precisely the spirit of direct action and participatory democracy that kick-started the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit that we need if we are to escape the human suffering that the elite are imposing on the poor and working class in this economic crisis.
Max Rameau, author of this book and a principal organizer in Take Back the Land Miami, came and spoke in Philadelphia a few months ago. I was struck not only by how charismatic and effective a speaker he was (something I could say about many smooth-talking political or corporate salesmen of our age), but by how Max was able to break down complex, abstract theoretical questions into common language that was easily understood. In this way, he demystifies politics and translates concepts usually reserved for academics or professionals in such a way that average, everyday people can take away something new and useful from the exchange. It’s clear that his primary goal is not an ego-trip to show off his brilliance, or to sell books and make money, but to do something much more difficult and meaningful: to spark movement to force the US government to recognize housing as a human right.
This book is written in that same frank style. In fact, it’s basically a how-to on grassroots housing organizing. It’s short – only 132 pages – but all you need to know is laid out here: the political context of Miami and nationally in terms of lack of affordable housing and gentrification that drives poor and Black people out of their homes, the strategic decisions and organizing that go into launching a new organization and campaign, the challenges and joys of working with homeless people, and the difficult and deceptive terrain of interacting with politicians, who are often agents of larger and more powerful corporate forces. Max Rameau just tells the story of his group, but in such a provocatively specific way. He explains to us exactly how things were done, who did them, who interfered and how, and he’s not at all afraid to name names.
The book centers on the incredible story of the Umoja Village, a shantytown built by Take Back the Land and allies on a vacant lot in a poor Black section of Miami. Because “In South Florida… local governments responded to the [housing] crisis by actively decreasing the number of low-income housing units” (pg. 23), Take Back the Land took the initiative to seize land and invite homeless people to take up residence there. The purpose of the action was not only to house people, an immediate need, but to draw attention to the crisis and to the government’s inaction, thereby hopefully shaming them into creating more low-income housing. Read the rest of this entry »
The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
published 1939 during the last Great Depression.
Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com, May 25, 2010
Arizona SB1070, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, requires Arizona’s local and state law enforcement to demand the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, and arrest them if they lack documents proving citizenship or legal residency. Effectively making racial profiling into state policy, this law is the latest in a series of attacks on Latin American immigrants, as well as the entire Latino community, who must live with the fear of being interrogated by police for their brown skin. Then on May 11, Arizona went one step further, outlawing the teaching of ethnic studies classes, or any classes that “are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity”. This same law also states that schools must fire English teachers who speak with a “heavy accent.”
Perhaps these new laws make sense if we imagine that undocumented immigrants are merely “aliens”, a danger to the good, mostly white citizens of this great country. But suppose we look at the problem of immigration from the perspective of the immigrants? Why are they risking life and limb to come to a foreign land, far from their home and families? Why aren’t they deterred from making this trip no matter how many walls we put up, no matter how many police collaborate with ICE, no matter how many angry armed “Minutemen” vigilantes are conscripted to guard the border?
John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, following the Joad family as they migrate to California during the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, sheds light on these questions in a way that perhaps every American can relate to. One of the most popular and well-written American books of all time, The Grapes of Wrath provides a very human perspective on the harsh lives of migrants, personified by the Joads – a family of poor sharecroppers from Oklahoma. Evicted from their family farm, just as the millions of Mexicans who have suffered enclosure from their land and become homeless and jobless because of NAFTA, the Joads travel to California in a desperate search of work, only to encounter the harassment of authorities and the hatred of the local population.
There are important differences between the “Okies” who traveled to the Southwest in the 1930s and Latino migrantes of the 2000s. The Joads, of course, were white, and did not cross a national border when they made their exodus. But at its core the story of the Joads is the story of the migrant workers, their troubles, their fears, but also their humanity, and their hope. It is a story that can inspire us to recognize the historic nature of the moment in which we live, understand why these enormous transformations are occurring, and recognize that justice for the immigrants is justice for everyone, regardless of color or citizenship status.
In order to understand the migrantes we first have to understand the story of their displacement, or the enclosure of their land, which has left them homeless and with no other options than to leave their homeland in search of a wage. What can The Grapes of Wrath tell us about this reality?
People usually do not resort to risky and desperate moves unless they have nothing left to lose. Steinbeck begins the Joads’ story with the loss of everything they had: the small farm on which they had sustained their family for generations by growing cotton. Young Tom Joad, fresh out of prison, returns to his home to find it deserted. “The Reverend Casy and young Tom stood on the hill and looked down on the Joad place… Where the dooryard had been pounded hard by the bare feet of children and by stamping horses’ hooves and by the broad wagon wheels, it was cultivated now, and the dark green, dusty cotton grew… ‘Jesus!’ he said at last. ‘Hell musta popped here. There ain’t nobody livin’ there.'” (51).
Whether as tenants or small landholders, either for subsistence or for markets, the vast majority of the poor migrantes now coming to this country are fleeing the loss of their farms and their livelihoods, just as the Joads. Perhaps for generations, maybe hundreds or even thousands of years, they had lived in connection with the land and had been able to depend on it for the survival of their families and culture. The loss of this land is devastating to those cultures, but larger forces stand to gain by driving these people into homelessness. Read the rest of this entry »
Review also posted on The Rag Blog.
Review of Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart
by Paul Kivel
Ballantine Books, 1992
Paul Kivel, cofounder of the Oakland Men’s Project, has given all men (and those concerned about them) a tremendous gift in the form of this inspirational book. This Valentine’s Day, let us accept this gift so that we might heal our relationships to the ones we love and to ourselves.
Men’s Work draws on Kivel’s decades of experience in the movement to end male violence, along with his life experiences as a father, son, partner, and friend, to speak about the trauma and feelings of powerlessness men experience to in our capitalist, patriarchal society. He describes how men reproduce this system by hurting women, trans folks, children, and themselves.
He explains that this is crisis cannot be solved by locking up male offenders, because this will only cause more violence and trauma. Instead, Kivel has devoted his life to helping men understand the roots of their behavior so that they might change, to become more caring and compassionate. One helpful way he approaches these roots is through the “Act Like a Man” box, which shows how patriarchal masculinity limits and hurts men:
men…………………………. men are…
yell at people………………. aggressive
have no emotions………… responsible
get good grades………….. mean
stand up for themselves… bullies
don’t cry……………………. tough
don’t make mistakes…….. angry
know about sex………….. successful
take care of people………. strong
don’t back down…………. in control
push people around…….. active
can take it………………… dominant over women
All men have received this male training, and know that when they step outside these boundaries they will face abuse, scorn, name-calling, accusations of homosexuality or femininity, or violence. The fear of this abuse is ultimately what keeps us inside the Box.
Paul relates, “It is not an irrational fear. This fear in me was built by getting beaten up after school by some older kid in the neighborhood who didn’t like me, by being teased and called names because sometimes I cried after I got beaten up. This fear was built by all the times my dad put me down because I wasn’t good enough in sports., at school, or whatever he decided was the standard that day.” Hearing a man brave enough to tell these kinds of stories was empowering and validated my own experiences.
The book also includes a wealth of activities that the Oakland Men’s Project developed to help men think about violence, masculinity, abuse and privilege, so that they might change their behavior. Read the rest of this entry »
Review by Dana Barnett
Originally published by Toward Freedom.
Nov. 25, 2009.
Reviewed: Arm the Spirit: A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, by Diana Block. Published by AK Press, 2009.
“We had gone underground in the early eighties, not a high-tide period for revolutionary activity in the US. Unlike the people who had formed the Weather Underground Organization in the sixties, we were not swept into clandestinity as a response to the Vietnam War or the militancy of the Black Panthers…As we saw it, armed struggle was still a necessary component of every revolutionary movement, and the movement within the US was no exception.” – Diana Block
How do we decide where to put our political energy? For many of us on the left our politicization began with critiques of the dominant ideology. Our critiques may have been a result of formal education, though for many our critiques were lifeboats we clung to keep from drowning in the chasm between what we were told and what we experienced. Upon confronting contradictions we look for explanations. We attempt to deconstruct the world and then reconstruct it to make sense of it and find our place in it. We make our underlying ideologies conscious. We develop our analysis and principles and then attempt to act in a way that is aligned with their logical conclusions.
As leftist revolutionaries we ask ourselves the same questions at different times in our history. What is to be done? What does revolutionary work look like in our time and what is my role within it?
Diana Block’s memoir, Arm the Spirit: A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, is an example of a leftist making sense of the world around her, attempting to act with integrity, and searching for political strategy and home. The memoir moves easily back and forth between two aspects of her story. The book begins with Block’s partner, Claude Marks, finding a bug in their car in 1985 after several years of organizing and living clandestinely, and only two months after she gave birth to their first child. This main narrative details her life underground and her re-emergence and re-engagement with organizing from 1995 to the present. It is interspersed with the back story of Block’s experiences, politics, and the context that led to her decision to form a clandestine revolutionary collective to support Third World anti-colonialist armed struggles. Block’s book is her answer to the question of what it means to be a revolutionary in one’s own time. In particular, Block analyzes her role as a white person in the US with feminist, lesbian/queer, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist politics.
I do not feel compelled to use this book, or this review, as a site to evaluate the usefulness of clandestine work, or the question of armed struggle. Read the rest of this entry »
Also published by The Rag Blog and OpEdNews.
“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations. – The Earth Charter” (pg. 1).
David Korten, long-time global justice activist, co-founder of Yes! Magazine, and author of such books as When Corporations Rule the World, lays out the fundamental crossroads facing the world in his 2006 book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. In response to global climate change, war, oil scarcity, persistent racism and sexism and many other mounting crises, Korten argues we must recognize these as symptoms of a larger system of Empire, so that we might move in a radically different direction of equality, ecological sustainability, and cooperation, which he terms Earth Community. This is a powerful and important book, which excels in overviewing the big picture of threats facing our ecosphere and our communities at the hands of global capitalism1, and translating this into the simplest and most accessible language so we might all do something about it. It’s pretty much anti-capitalism for the masses. And it has the power to inspire many of us to transform our lives and work towards the transformation of society.
Capitalism and Empire
Of course, Korten has made the strategic decision to avoid pointing the finger at “capitalism” as such in order to speak to an American public which largely still confuses the term as equivalent to “freedom” or “democracy.” In fact the “C” word is rarely mentioned in the book, almost never without some sort of modifier as in “corporate capitalism” or “predatory capitalism”, as if those weren’t already features of the system as a whole. Instead, Korten names “Empire” as the culprit responsible for our global economic and ecological predicament, which is defined as a value-system that promotes the views that “Humans are flawed and dangerous”, “Order by dominator hierarchy”, “Compete or die”, “Masculine dominant”, etc. (32).
Korten explains that Empire, “has been a defining feature of the most powerful and influential human societies for some five thousand years, [and] appropriates much of the productive surplus of society to maintain a system of dominator power and elite competition. Racism, sexism, and classism are endemic features” (25). In this way the anarchist concept of the State is repackaged as a transcendent human tendency, which has more to do with conscious decision-making and maturity level than it does with political power. While this compromise does limit the book’s effectiveness in offering solutions later on, it does speak in a language more familiar to the vast non-politicized majority of Americans, and may have the potential to unify a larger movement for change.
Whatever you want to call the system, the danger it presents to the planet is now clear. Korten spells out the grim statistics: “Fossil fuel use is five times what it was [in 1950], and global use of freshwater has tripled… the [Arctic] polar ice cap has thinned by 46 percent over twenty years… [while we’ve seen] a steady increase over the past five decades in severe weather events such as major hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Globally there were only thirteen severe events in the 1950s. By comparison, seventy-two such events occurred during the first nine years of the 1990s” (59-60). If this destruction continues, it’s uncertain if the Earth will survive.
This ecological damage is considered alongside the social damage of billions living without clean water or adequate food, as well as the immense costs of war and genocide. But Korten understands that the danger is relative to where you stand in the social hierarchy – the system creates extreme poverty for many, and an extreme wealth for a few others. He explains how the system is based on a deep inequality that is growing ever worse, “In the 1990s, per capita income fell in fifty-four of the world’s poorest countries… At the other end of the scale, the number of billionaires worldwide swelled from 274 in 1991 to 691 in 2005” (67). The critical point that these few wealthy elites wield excessive power and influence within the system to stop or slow necessary reform could be made more clearly, but at least the book exposes the existence of this upper class, who are usually quite effective at hiding from public scrutiny and outrage over the suffering they are causing.2
Earth Community – Growing a Revolution
Standing at odds with the bastions of Empire is what David Korten calls “Earth Community,” a “higher-order” value-system promoting the views of, “Cooperate and live,” “Love life”, “Defend the rights of all”, “Gender balanced”, etc. (32). Read the rest of this entry »