Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Spirit of the Sixties?

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by Nemo

Over at the excellent U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Andrew Hartman has written a provocative post on the relationship between neo-liberalism and the “spirit of the 1960s.” Citing a number of recent theorists including Wendy Brown, Slavoj Žižek, and Walter Benn Michaels, Hartman argues that activists in the 1960s, with their demands for “public tolerance of things that were once intolerable, such as racial and sexual difference,” helped pave the way for “unfettered capitalism with a smiley face.”

The Spirit of the Sixties?

Through the cunning of history, Hartman argues, capital has learned to thrive off of movements that “many thought was formed as resistance to capitalism, or at least, as resistance to the symptoms of capitalism: imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.” From this perspective, it appears that one of the most significant–but historically neglected–legacies of the 1960s was the way it provided establishment institutions multicultural ploys to feign progressivism while reproducing inequality.

While I think there’s something to be said for this view, especially the way that corporations and universities undertook the bare minimum of action to address the many grievances launched against them, it also risks downplaying the period’s genuine radicalism.  As historian Jeremy Varon has observed, by the late 1960s activists tended to understand inequality as a total “system” perpetuated by the nation’s leading institutions: universities, corporations, and government each played a role in protecting the interests of patriarchy, racism, empire, and global capital.

Or is this the spirit of the Sixties? Or just an awesome hair day?

In this era, groups such as the Black Panthers, the New York Radical Women, and even Students for a Democratic Society (and its various offshoots) demanded much more than diversity programs and corporate restructuring. This explains why the United States government saw the period’s activists, particularly the Panthers, as a major threat, and did everything in its power to destroy them (often breaking the law in the process).

On his larger point, I think Hartman’s correct to highlight capitalism’s newfound love affair with a United Colors of Benetton style of “multiculturalism” in the post-1960s period. These corporate reforms came on the cheap and did nothing to address the intertwined tyrannies highlighted by the late New Left: economic inequity, male privilege, black ghettoization, and American militarism. Today, corporations and universities–key institutional reproducers of social inequality–make use of the language of diversity to present themselves as the protectors of egalitarianism and social mobility. The fact that they get away with doing so—I think—says much more about the power of the American establishment than it does with the goals of 1960s radicals like Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Hayden, or Shulamith Firestone.

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton: Harbingers of Neo-Liberalism?

While American institutions might have found ways to co-opt much of the period’s dissent, this should not detract from the real gains that the era’s activists have won, even when up against some of the most well-entrenched and well-funded opponents imaginable. In the face of massive hostility, sixties radicals played a major role in electing the first generation of black political officials since Reconstruction, transformed rape and abortion laws to give women more control over their own bodies, witnessed the rise of the gay liberation movement, and helped launch modern environmentalism. While never as successful as their conservative critics claimed, the era’s radicals also transformed the teaching of American history–making the stories of the poor, of people of color, and of women, for example, central to the discipline’s mission. If the period’s activists failed to stem the rising tide of economic inequality in this country, I think that says a lot less about them than it does with the power of their opponents.

Which brings me to the Tea Party.  Hartman concludes his post by asking whether he is “crazy” for sympathizing with Benn Michaels’ view that the Tea Party represents America’s only significant resistance to neo-liberalism (even if its members don’t realize it) because of its opposition to illegal immigration. Our own Wiz has already addressed many of Benn Michaels’ principal  arguments here.

As for me, I don’t think that Hartman’s crazy, but I do think that describing a movement largely composed of affluent and well-educated white people, who attack undocumented workers (one of neo-liberalism’s chief victims) and call for the elimination of an already pitiable welfare state somehow “anti-capitalist” wishful thinking at best. (Whether or not the Tea Party has some legitimate grievances is another point entirely.)

Resistance to neo-liberalism in action.

What does all this all mean for today? As Wiz noted in his critique of Benn Michaels,“one of the main effects of neoliberalism has been to create a global working class that is increasingly female and people of color. So any movement which seeks to empower this new working class has to take issues of gender, race, and sex seriously.” Creating alliances among opponents of neo-liberalism, while recognizing difference, it seems to me, remains crucial to any movement that aims to achieve social justice. This, perhaps, requires honoring the best of what the “spirit of the 1960s”–at least its radical side–has to offer.


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