Those of us who frequent Anthro-L are occasionally stimulated by an erudite effusion filled with thought-provoking ideas by sociologist Daniel Foss. The following is a particularly remarkable example.
Tony Judt, the late great historian, gave a lecture at New York University on Oct 19, 2009, which was adapted into an article in the Dec 17, 2009 New York Review of Books [to which John McCreery posted a link on Sunday] which I am herewith taking as a capsule summary of his last, finest and grandest book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Bakooks, 2009; 912 pp. + xx). In both texts, the author's first achievement, and an uncontroversial one, to my mind, is reversing the obliteration from the historical memory of the older generation, and revealing de novo, ab initio et ovo, whatever, to the upcoming one (and possibly their parents, too), the vanished, golden-age-ish, glowingly hazy, near-utopia-seeming Times Gone By of the period 1945-1973. To Americans, especially, he believed that the period in question was as alien as anything since the Sumerians invented hereditary monarchy and Royal Inscriptions five thousand years ago:
But my concern tonight is the following: Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyonds us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?
The answer he gives us here is both too simple and wrong. Firstly, if the State does not go out of its way, with propaganda and indoctrination, to refresh the historical memory of its ruled masses to a discreditable - to them or their immediate ancestors - past or to a past which is too discrediting to itself or to the nationality which it claims to represent, it will be disremembered automatically, with no further intervention: Compare the German state's owning up to its war guilt with respect to the Holocaust of the Jews to the Japanese state's obliviation of the comparably genocidal sanku seisaku campaigns in China; this is but one specimen: The ontological status of the Turkish genocide of Armenians is still up in the air thanks to American collaboration with their Glorious NATO Allies in putting the squelch on it.
It works the same way with the Good Stuff, people. To speak only relatively, of course. Those Halcyon Days of the American middle classes, in the 1950s, when the Consumer Society and boom times prevailed, notwithstanding anticommunist paranoia, thermonuclear terror, stultifying conformity, "alienation," "identity crises," racism, and primitive stupidity on the campuses got blasted to bits with the middle classes' way of life getting cursed by their own children, or the neighbors' children, as "corporate liberal fascist." [Or other epithets of equal vehemence.] But at this point, it's sufficient to recognise that there was plenty Wrong with the consumer society. To concede Judt's point, it is however necessary to recognise that it "worked," as a society, a damn sight better than what we have now.
There is a longstanding sociological term for the "naturlaising" ideological effects of the mere, simple persistence of a social order over time, and with the speedup in the rate of change, "over time" takes less and less time all the time, such that "what is," which actually is only "what is claimed or posited or assumed to be "what is," is the only "what is," or "whatever is," that has ever been, and more importantly, the only conceivable or imaginable one that, in all likelihood, is ever likely to be "what is."
Where I question his position is in the erroneous attribution of the obliviation of those not-so-distant Times Gone By to the very Electorally Legitimated Rightist Coups - Thatcherism and Reaganism - which need to be theoretically accounted for; but alas for us, as a historian, Tony Judt did not find the creation of innovative social theory part of his job:
Our shortcoming-forgive the academic jargon-is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things. To understand why this should be the case, some history is in order: as Keynes once observed, "A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind." For the purposes of mental emancipation this evening, I propose that we take a minute to study the history of a prejudice: the universal contemporary resort to "economism," the invocation of economics in all discuions of public affairs.
For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss-economic questions in the narrowest sense-is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.
Thatcherism and Reagaanism were logical outgrowths of the destabilising of Western capitalism attributable to the social movements of the 1960s. Judt recognised this, and in his book, Postwar he gives lengthy treatment to a narrative account of the politics of the times: Ch. XI, "The Social Democratic Moment" (early 1960s); Ch. XII, "The Spectre of Revolution" (Late 1960s); Ch. XIV, "Diminished Expectations" (Immediate post-Movement 1970s). Butut what he evades coming to grips with, in lecture and book alike, is why the insurgencies of the 1960s were the ones that actually were, as opposed to what Sensible People kept telling avowed New Leftists, in the United States above all, they should have been doing instead.
That was, to remind the historilcally minded, to recapitulate the Leftist movements of the 1930s: trade union organising; forming and "building" ideologically and theoretically doctrinaire idmass-membership political parties of the Left; organising bureaucratised pressure groups; and above all, concentrating on the causes, grievances, and parliamentary representation of the industrial working class: "Army of Labour" versus "Captains of Industry" in a process which to this day sociologists of social movements call "mobilisation." This last term originated in the planning of World War One, where general staffs elaborately counted and timed the collection of conscripts at assembly points, where they were loaded onto railroad cars and sent rolling and chugging to the front. And, of course, all New Leftists of the 1960 prattled inanely about "building a movement," no matter how far their praxiswas from Marxism or any other abstract theory.
Judt is interested, primarily, in Europe; and in (Continental) Europe, England too, political entities had their Old Left, 1930s-style, names and nomenclature: Second s (Social Democrats, Socialists) over here, Third International/Cominform/neo-Stalinists over there; Fourth International/Trotskyists and their fissiparous "groupuscules" out there somewhere; and the Maoists, most faddish if silliest, "around" somewhere waving and selling Red Books. But the underlying emotional stuff was Subjectivist: If it "feels" right, it must be So, even if demonstrably or provably False with Documents, Evidence, Graphs & Charts, Tests of Statistical Significance. The word "Experience" got overused and abused to the extent that, when you heard the word, for the next several decades, you knew someone was Selling you a Piece of Crap or a New Religion.
Americans and British invented sex in 1963: This is not my impression, as Judt cites a
little poem by Philip Larkin:
'Sexual intercourse began in 1963, the
Between the end of the Chatterley
ban and the Beatles' first LP'.
(Judt, Postwar, p. 390)
Young Leftwing males screamed arrant nonsense supposing it looked good to "chicks," who were Out somewhere inventing feminism. And "Consciousness-Raising" gave rise to another subjectivist ideology. As did "gay liberation." The whole shebang ultimately gott sublimated into "Identity Politics" tout court, then went on to enjoy a prolonged Afterlife as Multiculturalism, which is still with us.
The practitioners of subjectivist ideology par excellence are the Tea Partiers, as led by their chosen American Idol, Sarah Palin; and she is excellently qualified, at least for this role: she knows nothing; she is utterly impulsive and all too likely to shoot her mouth off before a mass audience of "screaming idiots." [Note: This is an allusion to a Spanish Rightist of the early 1930s, who would declare, in speeches, "Down with the Republic of the Professors! I want to see around me a nation of screaming idiots!"]
Anyway, none of this was supposed to happen, and certainly was not supposed to happen in the way that it was, and which it continued to do until it receded in 1968 or 1969. From 1960 on, the British Marxist journal New Left Review solemnly warned its constituency not to do the improper sort of h they were doing, and to recommence organising a bureaucratic, disciplined mass party of the Left, with "workers" in it, to no effect. Instead, the subcultures got more amorphous; the ideologies more eroticised; and the hippies and Lefties merged. Even more so in the USA; and Canada.... is Canada.
My position is that the 1960s Movements happened the way they did because the very same social peace (broken only by the occasional strikes in the US and Britain, general strikes in France and Italy, and so on....), economic growth, and social-welfare safety-nets prevailing in the main Western countries by 1973 had undermined the emotional foundations of that which had hitherto anchored the mind of the individual actor to the logic of commodity produaction/consumption. I am not going to say what that was (or is), as finding out, determining the empirical facts/Truth, would require a research programme of such massive funding requirements that there's nobody imaginable who would pay for it; and it's too late, anyway. But the construct of Scarcity sums it up. Capitalism was now dealing with Post-Scarcity people, who had come to rebel against a society whose workings posited the existence of something called "Economic Man" [sic].
Instead of the usual, and stereotypical, social conflict of Labour versus Capital, the 1960s, above all in the USA, were marked by insurgencies in those groups at poinints of maximum contradiction between what waspossible and what continued to exist: the younger generation of the middle classes (temporarily secured from worrying about making a living except on their own terms, or so it seemed, ha ha), and those of the urban visible-minority lower classes, who hadn't a chance in hell, or so, anyway, it seemed). The workers, except for some shading off into hip-ness of one sort or another, were exposed to hostility on two fronts, which in many cases was returned.
This was the origin of working-class Rightism in the USA, otherwise known as "Reagan Democrats."
The Movements of the 1960s in the USA were historically unprecedented, so they subsided without anyone even fantasising how or what any Revolution or Social Transformation in the USA would occur, what would be the agents of it, and how it would go about putting its program into effect. [This was in total distinction to the discredited, marginalised Marxists, whose moldy, traditional plans for the working class, in Social Democratic, Communist, or Other (Specify) versions had been worked out to the last detail; then revised, again and again.]
The Movements were over; but their cultural and psychological after-effects continued: "the System" was tolerated, now, as an Annoying Presence; and bright young people no longer, in anything like the old numbers, got enthusiastic about making money in the "Private Sector": they adopted the cult of "meaningful jobs" at lower remuneration in the State sector, or otherwise made Disgraces of themselves. And, with the assumption of the indefinite continuity, into the Unforseeable Future, of the capitalist system, both Abroad, where Revolutions of all sorts, none featuring pro-American popular masses, smouldered in numerous counties, including especially those impressed by the Vietnam defeat, and at home in North America, where the disappearance of automatic assumptions of legitimacy interfered with the return on capital. In short and in toto: the economy "StagFlated."
The trick from no on was (1) to promote "economic growth" without allowing hardly any of it to go to mass prosperity. That is to say, real incomes were to be held constant. To get more money, you married (or lived with) someone with a job. Later, the two of you went into debt. (2) For the first time in the history of capitalism, the rich, affluents, and well-off were bribed to want to get rich; it had previously been believed that the craving to get rich was as instinctive as breathing; no more. (3) To reinforce the impression of Grim Determination wherewith this program was pursued, as well as the old-fashioned notion that "Life is real; life is earnest[!]" the poorest citizens were to be severely punished for having no money: if they were destitute too long, they were to be Thrown Out of the Welfare program! But they would likewise be allowed, nay, encouraged to get deeper into debt. And under George Bush, Own Their Own Home! [There were, are too many bizarre wrinkles I've
omitted for lack of space/time.]
It takes an enormous amount of undone theorising to say how we got from There, the "halcyon days," as Judt would have it, to Here, which is the verge of Civil War in the USA. Let us give Tony Judt full credit for his uplifting vision of the Glorious Past:
The welfare state had remarkable achievements to its credit. In some countries it was social democratic, grounded in an ambitious program of socialist legislation; in others-Great Britain, for example-it amounted to a series of pragmatic policies aimed at alleviating disadvantage and reducing extremes of wealth and indigence. The common theme and universal accomplishment of the neo-Keynesian governments of the postwar era was their remarkable success in curbing inequality. If you compare the gap separating rich and poor, whether by income or assets, in all continental European countries along with Great Britain and the US, you will see that it shrinks dramatically in the generation following 1945.
With greater equality there came other benefits. Over time, the fear of a return to extremist politics - the politics of desperation, the politics of envy, the politics of insecurity - abated. The Western industrialized world entered a halcyon era of prosperous security: a bubble, perhaps, but a comforting bubble in which most people did far better than they ever could have hoped in the past and had good reason to anticipate the future with confidence.
And with that I bid you Good Night.
Daniel A. Foss