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1968: The revolution that will not die

How conservatives won the counter-revolution after 1968—and how they might lose.

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CCO 1.0.

This year’s fiftieth-anniversary media celebration of 1968’s ‘year from hell’ feels a lot like opening a high school yearbook to reminisce about old friends. HBO’s fresh take on Martin Luther King Jr's last years and Netflix’s Bobby Kennedy bio-pic reconnect us to our ‘class presidents.’ And who can forget the colorful gallery of ‘classmates’ in CNN’s 1968: The Year that Changed America, from Abbie Hoffman and Daniel Cohn-Bendit to Alexander Dubcek and Richard Nixon?

But so what? Why not lock up 1968 in a time capsule and forget about it? The answer is simple: because it was a hugely-significant event that even now refuses to leave us alone.

Immanual Wallerstein, faculty representative that year for radical students at Columbia University, insists that 1968 was a “world revolution,” comparing it to Europe’s numerous 1848 national revolutions, many of which backfired, but all of which together redefined radical and reactionary politics for a century. Likewise, 1968 will play out well beyond 2018, but not only in a positive sense: it was that year’s reactionary counter-revolution that undid the promise of radical freedom and equality and continues to do so today.

What did the Sixties’ “years of hope, days of rage” actually reveal? In a nutshell: a cultural transformation that marked the beginning of the end of white, liberal, male-dominated America as we had known it. The Sixties broke the cultural authority of liberal democratic-capitalism and the West’s grand narrative of ‘progress.’ A wide public came to agree with King’s demand for “a revolution of values” to challenge the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism,” to which feminists added emancipation from patriarchy.

We lost trust in our institutions, especially political institutions, thus commencing their 50-year slide into a crisis of legitimacy. Bourgeois mores and ‘high culture’ gave way to the sexual and pop revolutions; Enlightenment rationality to new forms of consciousness; the hegemony of homogeneous white culture to diversity; and excessive economic growth to protecting the planet. The personal became political, while identity and identity rights replaced national citizenship as the foundation of political solidarity.

All these gains—and they are substantial when compared to the pre-1960s world—continue to define the left’s thinking and political culture. Disastrously, however, the’68ers never put in place a coherent political economy to institutionalize these gains; nor did they manage to assert enough cultural authority to define the new world on their own terms. Instead, that initiative was picked up by racial and economic reactionaries. 

The conservative counter-revolution began in 1968 with Richard Nixon’s race-baiting, ‘law and order,’ “southern strategy” and the shift of the anti-civil rights vote to the Republican Party. This story of  white backlash in the aftermath of the Civil Rights era is well-known—‘white flight,’ continued housing discrimination, private ‘segregation’ schools, violence over mandated school bussing, resistance to affirmative action, and vicious ‘law and order’ policies that targeted African-Americans.

But there is another side to this coin: the furious counter-revolution of business elites to protect their ‘freedom’ from the insurgent democratic and ‘socialist’ masses. ‘Panicked’ might be a better word in light of their perception of a concerted left-wing attack on capitalism. Just as the radical student New Left organized around the 1962 Port Huron Statement, radical capitalism’s call-to-arms grew from the 1971 Powell Memorandum, and the movement it set off continues to drive the counter-revolutionary narrative 50 years later.

The first part of this story has been well-told by economic historian Quinn Slobodian in terms of the acceleration of global neoliberal capitalism from the early 1970s. Neoliberals set two revolutionary goals to protect capitalists from insurgent radicals.

First, to re-organize capitalism on a universal, transnational scale and thus place global markets out of reach of the influence of national governments, making markets less subject to national-scale popular democratic demands and freeing corporations to exploit labor and the environment at will.

Second, to apply global economics in a “race to the bottom” competition between nations, creating ‘austerity societies’ of disempowered consumers at the expense of social groups and their ‘market-distorting’ demands.  The formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 capped-off this revolutionary process of transferring economic power from nations—which ostensibly could be controlled democratically—to the much-less accountable global level.

The second part of the counter-revolution’s story is unique to the United States. Historian Nancy MacLean and journalist Jane Mayer have at long last given it a systematic, critical narrative. Copying from the Sixties’ New Left revolutionary style and even adopting Lenin’s plan for secret, revolutionary cadres, radical libertarians created their own revolutionary movement for economic ‘freedom’—a capitalist ‘declaration of independence at the expense of popular democratic government.

The libertarian’s ‘stealth revolution’ was not exactly a secret: Senator Rand Paul, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, the Cato Institute, the legislative policy-setting council ALEC and the Federalist Society (which has ties to Supreme Court justices Alito, Roberts and Gorsuch as well as new nominee Brett Kavanaugh) are all connected to it; while the 2010 Tea Party movement gave it more visibility. It seeks to restrain democracy altogether to protect a ‘pure’ market economy of ‘makers’ from the voting power of ‘takers’—the ‘grasping masses.’ Take Wisconsin politics as an example of this logic in action: Congressman Paul Ryan’s assault on welfare entitlements and tax slashing; and Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting, education-cutting and voter-suppression policies.  

Their success would, as MacLean puts it, “unquestionably take the ‘demos’ out of American democratic government.” In terms of money raised, organizations created (like think-tanks, media outlets and activist networks), and numbers of employees, it is substantially stronger than the Republican party apparatus and has taken over the conservative movement itself, providing a stronger ideological foundation for the laissez-faire, democracy-suppressing, ‘classical liberalism’ that has defined Republicans since they abandoned Reconstruction in the 1870s.  

What are they after? Something far more prosaic than you might think, and deeply rooted in U.S. history, culture and jurisprudence: a return to the 19th Century’s fin-de-siècle era of laissez-faire economics and racial segregation (though they would deny it). Here is the connection between the racial and the business backlash after 1968.

Arcane as it may seem, the ultimate libertarian objective is a recovery of the U.S. Supreme Court’s convoluted 19th century history of applying the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution to individuals, an argument always advanced in favor of business and segregation.

Passed in 1868 to defend the individual rights of former slaves, the Amendment was applied by the Court most often to defend white individual rights—most famously, the right of individuals to discriminate on the basis of race (through the 1897 Plessy decision legalizing Southern Jim Crow segregation laws), and to protect individual corporate ‘persons’ from industrial regulation and labor organizing (through the 1905 Lochner decision that made regulation nearly impossible for 30 years).

Returning the Supreme Court to this earlier era of ‘strict,’ individualist Constitutional jurisprudence backed-up by retrograde state legislatures that are permeated by the institutions of the counter-revolution ties the hands of citizens’ groups, unions and popular democracy and effectively creates a veto power over progressive government policy making and regulation.

The result of ‘individualizing’ Constitutional law in this way takes us back to what legal scholar Amy Chua calls an era of “market-dominant minority” rule. By that she means the capacity of a wealthy minority (usually defined by race) to maintain permanent control over the majority—made all the more salient today by the coming minority-majority demographic wave. The net effect of the Supreme Court’s transformation in this direction will be nothing short of creeping de facto class- and race-based economic and social apartheid, advanced one ruling at a time. Hence the crucial importance of libertarian judge Brett Kavanaugh’s current nomination to the Court.

We’ve seen this story before—conservative Court activism, unrestrained economic elites, judicially limited recourse for social justice, and a racial majority that perceives itself as ‘threatened’—and it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it took the Great Depression, the New Deal and the Sixties revolution to overturn it.

This year’s 1968 ‘year book’-quality reminiscences may engender nostalgia, but they should be taken as a wake-up call to remember what was gained, and what we risk losing. The ’68ers (and the still-struggling left they inspired) have to face the reality that the liberal establishment they brought down in 1968—which despite its faults had produced hard-won advances from the New Deal to the Great Society—opened the door to a libertarian-conservative counter-attack that was intent on dismantling them. Libertarians are winning today by paralyzing the very political institutions on which progressives depend. We are stuck. No wonder we’re at each others’ throats.

I once heard Wallerstein asked a question about how to translate anger into productive activism. “Cold, hard analysis” was his answer. It’s time to relearn the lesson that the New Left forgot but the Old Left understood: popular democracy and unregulated markets are locked in a perpetual death match, and have cycled back and forth through modern history.

We need to rebuild our democratic institutions once again, recover their legitimacy, and assert collective cultural authority in favor of people and the planet to rein in the power of property. It was a new story in 1848 and an old one in 1968; it’s still a necessary story in 2018. The revolution is far from over.

About the author

Gregory Leffel, Ph.D., is a missiologist working on collective action, social movements and theo-politics, and is director of One Horizon Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. He is author of Faith Seeking Action: Mission, Social Movements, and the Church in Motion; and is past president of the American Society of Missiology.  


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