Friday 8 September 2017

The Seventies: The Decade Right-Wingers Would Prefer Everyone Forgot.

"An Excess Of Democracy": That was the phrase used by the corporate elites on three continents to describe the political crisis besetting the seventh decade of the Twentieth Century. The decade when groups which, for centuries, had suffered in silence: blacks, women, gays and, arguably, the planet itself, found their voice. The history of the past 40 years has been driven by the determination of those same elites to contain, constrain and cynically co-opt the emanicipatory movements of the 1970s.

LONG HAIR, FLARED JEANS AND DISCO: not for nothing were the 1970s dubbed “The Decade That Taste Forgot”. One of the most curious, and little-known facts about the 1970s, however, is how differently the political possibilities of the decade were perceived by Left and Right.

The left-wing revolutionaries of the 1970s took their inspiration from the “liberation movements” of the Third World and openly sneered at the labour movements of the affluent Western nations. Top-heavy, bureaucratic and mired in “reformism”, the working-class parties and unions of Europe, North America and Australasia were written off by leftist ideologues as being either moribund or reactionary.

The view from the Right could hardly have been more different. In the eyes of conservative academics and corporate executives, the steady gains of the enduring centre-left electoral alliances forged during the Great Depression and World War II had whittled away the power of capitalism to the point where the entire economic system of the West was believed to be teetering on the edge of a socialist abyss.

So convinced was the Right that capitalism was facing an existential crisis that they embarked on a full-scale ideological counter-attack against the post-war social-democratic consensus. In his famous 1971 memorandum, Lewis F. Powell, a corporate lawyer, enjoined the leaders of American business to resist what he described as an “assault on the enterprise system” that was “broadly based” and “consistently pursued”.

In the most quoted sentence of what came to be known as “The Powell Manifesto”, the man who President Richard Nixon would later appoint to the US Supreme Court warned corporate America that: 

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”

It was to counter these “disquieting voices” that Powell’s followers established the multitude of right-wing think tanks that, in the intervening 40 years, would play such a decisive role in transforming the ideological climate of Western societies.

What was it that blinded so many Western leftists to the true extent of post-war social-democracy’s success?

Where better to turn for an answer than the writings of Karl Marx. In what is arguably his finest piece of political writing, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, Marx writes: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Never was this truer than of Western revolutionaries during the 1970s.

Just as the American and French revolutionaries of the late-eighteenth century draped themselves in the costumes of the ancient Roman Republic, the 1970s insurrectionist’s vision of “The Revolution” was typically lit by the crimson glow of Petrograd, 1917. Armed workers and peasants riding through the streets of a capital city festooned with scarlet banners – that’s what “The Revolution” looked like.

That a revolution in one of the affluent welfare states of the West was more likely to be the work of Powell’s “perfectly respectable elements of society”, was an idea that occurred to no one – except the Right. It explains, perhaps, why the neoliberal “counter-revolution” of the 1980s and 90s was rolled out from college campuses, pulpits and the news media: as well by politicians representing all those “moribund” working-class parties the left-wing “revolutionaries” refused to join.

The reason why so many on the Right – especially those from the “New Right” of the 1980s – are so quick to condemn the 1970s should, by now, be obvious. For them, it marks the point of maximum danger. That moment in history when groups which, for centuries, had suffered in silence: blacks, women, gays and, arguably, the planet itself, found their voice. The decade when the Right, confronted by “an excess of democracy” – drove it back.

So, the next time Bill English accuses Jacinda Ardern of wanting to drag New Zealand “back to the seventies”, by reinvigorating the trade unions and reducing our society’s growing inequalities, I sincerely hope she will not, again, airily dismiss his comments as: “So last century!”

Far from being “the decade that taste forgot”, the 1970s are actually the decade the Right would prefer everyone forgot. Yes, there was long hair, flares and disco: but there was also, as Bob Dylan sang in 1975: “Music in the caf├ęs at night, and revolution in the air.”

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 September 2017.


peteswriteplace said...

I remember those days with fondness, as I did the 60's before them.

Pete said...

I'd like to quote Mark Blyth, Professor of International Political Economy at Brown University. I hope you'll forgive the wall of text, but he says it better than I can:

"But look beyond this, and there is a bigger issue for left parties to deal with, one that they unfortunately helped to create. Back in the 1970s, a period that now seems quite benign, corporate profits were very low, labor’s share of income was very high, and inflation was rising. We were told that this was unsustainable, and new institutions and policies were constructed to make sure that this particular mix of outcomes would never happen again.

In this regard we were singularly successful. Today, corporate profits have never been higher, labor’s share of national income has almost never been lower, and inflation has given way to deflation. So are we happier for this change?

What we have done over the past thirty years is to build a creditor’s paradise of positive real interest rates, low inflation, open markets, beaten-down unions, and a retreating state — all policed by unelected economic officials in central banks and other unelected institutions that have only one target: to keep such a creditor’s paradise going.

In such a world, why would you, the average worker, ever get a pay rise? Indeed, is it any wonder that inequality is everywhere an issue?" -

jh said...

The problem with post modernism is that it creates dominant narratives based on oppression and and obscures such things as population and limits to growth. So you have Michael Reddel's hypothesis about NZ reaching a peak of prosperity as it built dams and railways etc then kept on adding people while GDP/capita sank, whereas, RNZ features Paul Spoonley telling Kathryne Ryan that that Erlich guy turned out to be wrong.

greywarbler said...

There is a lot of thought and emotion in the lyrics that keep cropping up to the mind as in The Who's.

Bob Dyland was good at expressing the times. I draw your attention to -
Gotta Serve Somebody
Bob Dylan
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes

Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody

You might be a rock 'n' roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are

You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're…

And as he went on he thought of si nany different strata of society and it got longer and more pwoerful and that is really so true now with about 4 people in the world controlling the vast amount of the world's resources and people. We don't know how many but it is a tiny wee fractional percentage point.

Here is the rest of the lyrics in his own inimitable voice.

(His mind and words twist and turn - this is a wry part of
the whole of the lyrics:
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name.)

Charles Pigden said...

Totally concur Chris. And it's been a very depressing 35 years trying to defend the gains of social democracy against the depredations of the New Right (of course, no longer so very 'new'). I feel a bit like Galadriel: Ere the fall of Social Democracy in the UK or the abortion of New Labour, I passed over the oceans, and through the succeeding ages of the world I have fought the long defeat.

And as for all those marxists and postmodernists who scorned the pedestrian achievements of the Les Trentes Glorieuses, you played a squalid role in the catastrophe. When the barbarians were at the gates you were busy running down the defenders and demanding fresh conquests. I remember all those young radicals at King's College Cambridge with their relentless Lefty posturing and their utter unawareness of how privileged they were, many of them people of working-class or lower middle-class origins, to get a top-quality education with no debts whatsoever, a privilege that must seem like a dream to succeeding generations from similar backgrounds. They thought of the seventies as the launching pad for a revolution, when in fact we were at the crest of a reformist wave which was about to collapse.

Gerald said...

"The Seventies: The Decade Right-Wingers Would Prefer Everyone Forgot." ????

Not me!

Norman Kirk and Labour in 1972 could not understand the conservative management of the Holyoake years.
NZ had Overseas Reserves of about $1 billion. Kirk said such reserves were unnecessary and promised to spend them. Labour was elected and duly spent the $1 billion in the Overseas Reserves Account, and another $900 million as well. Inflation rose from 5.5%, when Labour took office, to 15.5% by the time they were routed in 1975. Kirk had the good fortune to die in office, his belovedness intact, whilst Rowling and his colleagues suffered the well deserved thrashing for their profligacy at the 1975 Elections.

No need for working groups in those days. They just did this.

jh said...

The Seventies: The Decade Right-Wingers Would Prefer Everyone Forgot.
And left-wingers.
The left mandated diversity. It became racist to be a nationalist when progressives glimpsed a new world where national membership based on a common ethnic background and history (Big Ben, Rob Roy, Battle of Britain, "One Hundred Crowded Years (1941 - National Film Unit) was just like dirt to be washed off after a good shower. Instead people from all over the world would enter a space where progressive ideology would tower over nationalistic and ethnic influences. Therefore, it didn't matter if homes were added to a free trade agreement; it didn't matter if surgeons came here to sell real estate or play golf; it didn't matter that the highly qualified (allegedly) drove taxis. The people to be fooled here were a recalcitrant public.
And with the 70's came post colonialism (Margaret Mutu) revisionist historians and post modernist academics. The old guard who talked up our achievements were replaced by those who talked us down ("Unsettling The Settler"). The New academic expels the dissenter (Clydesdale) and forms alliances with the devil (Superdiversity - MBIE).
Ian Shirley writes:
"While the deteriorating infrastructure and inability to engage the citizens of Auckland stand as major failures of the ‘super city’ the greatest costs imposed on Auckland by central government are reflected in the social deficit levied on the region in terms of unaffordable housing, low wages and immigration policies that have changed the population dynamics of communities and neighbourhoods across the region."
The undermining of public services by austerity policies and the pressures of immigration has seen the voluntary sector and community agencies employed to pick up the pieces and this has imposed additional costs on particular populations and neighbourhoods across Auckland. That is one of the most damaging aspects of swamping vulnerable populations with immigration. It essentially transfers the costs of high immigration to low-income households and especially Maori and Pacific populations who have been adversely affected by the market fundamentalism of recent years.