Rescuing the Sixties

Edward P. Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed Democracy (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2010).

“On his return [to the United States from a deployment with the U.S. military in Vietnam], Forrest finds himself at an antiwar rally, where he bumps into his childhood love, Jenny, now attired in hippie garb. ….Jenny’s boyfriend, cast as an SDS leader with no redeeming qualities, shouts clichéd antiwar slogans, calls Forrest a ‘baby killer,’ and slugs Jenny in the face, causing Forrest to lose his cool and attack him. Threatening Black Panther lookalikes spew epithets at America’s white racism. And, finally, Jenny’s role embodies a variety of blame-the-sixties mythologies circulating in popular media. Growing up with an abusive father, Jenny falls in with the folk crowd, begins to smoke dope, performs naked in a folk club, is featured in Playboy, gets strung out on hard drugs, and eventually dies of an AIDS-like disease” (277).


Some will question the depth and degree of the great 1960s “democratic awakening” today. Many in the U.S. establishment did not at the time and in the Sixties’ immediate aftermath. In August 1971, for example, top corporate attorney Lewis Powell penned a length and remarkable memorandum to the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Written two months before Richard Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court, the memo detailed what Powell considered a “broadly based” assault on “the American economic system” (capitalism) emanating not just from radical margins but from “perfectly respectable elements of society: the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” By Powell’s reckoning, a dangerous anti-business uprising led by such “charismatic” threats as Ralph Nader and the radical professor Herbert Marcuse meant that corporations should undertake a concerted and many-sided public relations and media counter-offensive – a veritable capitalist cultural counter-revolution. “It is time,” Powell proclaimed, “for American business – which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in history to produce and influence consumer decisions – to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself” (emphasis added). Powell felt that the struggle to win back hearts and minds for capitalism should target the universities, the publishing world, and the mass media, including an effort to place the television networks “under constant surveillance.” By Morgan’s account, Powell’s “urgent appeal helped set in motion forces that subsequently transformed public discourse in the United States for decades to come.” (165-167). 

Two years later, Chase Manhattan Bank chief David Rockefeller, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, convened top figures from business and government in Europe, North America, and Japan to determine how to maintain what he called “the wider international system.” Organized as the Trilateral Commission, the elites gathered by Rockefeller produced a study claiming that “excessive” popular engagement and activism during the 1960s had generated “A Crisis of Democracy” – meaning, by Morgan’s translation, “that capitalism, its constrained, elite version of electoral democracy, and U.S. global hegemony were all endangered” (243). Writing the report’s section on the United States, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington worried that the “democratic surge” had activated “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population,” including “blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women,” who “embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges” (imagine!). This was all, Huntington scolded, part of a an effort towards “reassertion of the primacy of equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life” – a goal that Huntington found dangerous and dysfunctional because it sought a “welfare shift” of government resources from “defense” (the military-industrial complex) to things like education, public health and social security (244). 

What really happened to the great many-sided democratic and egalitarian awakening that was the essence of the 1960s? The decade’s great popular movements were of course quite significantly snooped on, infiltrated, manipulated, smeared, bloodied, and otherwise repressed by local, state, and federal government. Just as importantly and of no small relevance for authorities’ ability to repress, however, those movements were defeated in their own time and ever since by a mass media that has distorted and exploited the Sixties for reasons both political and commercial, with terrible results for democratic and human prospects. 

This is not to say that progressive Sixties and post-Sixties activists bear no responsibility for “the left’s” marginalization in the U.S. today. Morgan offers sage reflections on the significant extent to which excessively “expressivist” and insufficiently “strategicist” (left philosopher John Sanbonmatsu’s useful terms) activists during and since the protest decade have been tragically and narcissistically complicit in the triumph of the “market dialectic” over the “democratic dialectic” in neoliberal America. A left Sixties veteran with a distinguished history of teaching students about social movements past and present, Morgan gives some wise advice on how activists and citizens can re-awaken the latter dialectic in re-waging an ultimately spiritual peoples’ struggle pitting democracy and “eros, the life principle,” against capitalism and “thanatos, the death force” (quoting Lewis Powell’s bête noir Herbert Marcuse, 329). I can’t imagine a more significant subject today. All environmental indications suggest strongly that Morgan’s core Sixties struggle – that between capitalism and democracy – has become a matter of life and death for human and other sentient beings. 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com 

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