"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 cafés 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.