Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The ‘60s, the Libertarian Left, and the Demise of the Social Consensus

One is probably safe in concluding that in the arenas of economics and politics success will reward itself with excess, and thereby will assure its ultimate failure. The excesses of free market capitalism were finally wrestled under control following a Great Depression and World War II by the emergence of a consensus that the government could and must step in to regulate affairs and repair the damage that had been done. That approach led Europe and the US to several decades of unmatched prosperity and stability. Eventually a new generation emerged that had not shared the experiences of their parents and chaffed under what was viewed as the heavy hand of society. There followed a reemergence of free-market ideology and libertarian views toward the role of government in society. Was it a principled attack from the right that disassembled the social consensus that carried us through the postwar years? Or was there another dynamic in play?

Tony Judt writes of these issues in Ill Fares the Land, a short but illuminating book that he produced just before he died.

For Judt the postwar years were a near magical time in which the western societies acted as if motivated by the shared belief that they had a duty to ensure the security and welfare of all their citizens. National governments were the only agencies capable of taking the necessary actions—and they performed well.

"What did trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and the interventionist state bequeath to western societies in the decades following 1945? The shorter answer is, in varying degrees, security, prosperity, social services and greater equality."

"Not only did social democrats and welfare states sustain full employment for nearly three decades, they also maintained growth rates more than competitive with those of the untrammeled market economies of the past. And on the back of these economic successes they introduced radically disjunctive social changes that came to seem, within a short span of years, quite normal."

Judt describes this as more a moral approach than a view of economics or polity.

"....people should cooperate, they should work together for the common good and no one should be left out."

The success of the "interventionist" state inevitably encouraged greater intervention.

"The idea that those in authority know best—that they are engaged in social engineering on the behalf of people who do not understand what is good for them—was not born in 1945, but it flourished in the decades that followed."

There developed a feeling that the state was becoming too "responsible," but not sufficiently responsive. This sense was augmented by the arrival of a generation of young people who had no memories of the miserable conditions that called this state into existence, and who consequently owed it no allegiance. They were more concerned by the "heavy hand" wielded by this system that seemed to be limiting their personal freedoms.

"What united the ‘60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each. ‘Individualism’—the assertion of every person’s claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalized by society at large—became the left-wing watchword of the hour. Doing ‘your own thing’, ‘letting it all hang out’, ‘making love not war’: these are not inherently unappealing goals, but they are of their essence private objectives, not public goods."

This emphasis on an individual’s private goals is reminiscent of right-wing libertarianism. The latter was undergoing its own renaissance, driven by similar dissatisfactions.

"The politics of the’60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. ‘Identity’ began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity. From here it was but a short step to the fragmentation of radical politics, its metamorphosis into multiculturalism."

The liberal coalition in the United States had the blue collar workers as its base. At a time when this core element was beginning to shrink and lose its coherence, the libertarian left chose to wage a succession of battles for which there was little sympathy. Sexual freedom, anti-war protests, and even racial equality were not issues that resonated with that base. In fact, they contributed to the success of the right in wooing them away with ‘values’ arguments.

Judt provides a quote from Camille Paglia that serves as an apt summary.

"My generation of the sixties, with all our great ideas, destroyed liberalism, because of our excesses."

Over the last three decades the liberal momentum in the US has ground to a halt. Liberal politicians have been fighting a delaying action hoping to maintain what took so long to put in place. As the right tries to disassemble the social fabric of our nation with its policies of total free-market capitalism and individual self reliance, it is sowing the seeds of its own demise. We have been here before, and it was not pleasant. The plutocracy and inequality of wealth that are inevitable will have to be countered with a new vision for the interventionist state. The times and people have changed. Old solutions will not do. The notion that we are all in this together and cooperation is required if we are to succeed must take root. Hopefully, another succession of catastrophes will not be required.

The needed new vision has yet to emerge, and the saddest thing is that Tony Judt is no longer here to help give birth to it.


  1. Thank you for this review. I had listened to mixed reviews of this book on a BBC (I think) podcast. Am looking forward to reading it now. Do you think the Occupy movement could be the beginning of the new vision? I live in a very small, "liberal" city in the Northwest. The Occupy group here has been kicked out of the downtown park they were occupying and are now focused on finding safe places for the homeless to sleep. As an aside, I found your blog when searching for an article in the London Review about Germany and "ordoliberalism".

  2. Welcome. I also include some comments by Judt from the book in the post: Chile, the United States, and Income Inequality. My personal observation leaves me dubious that Occupy will lead anywhere. If it makes young people more politically conscious and active that will in itself be an accomplishment. Judt decried the lack of interest in students today in what he referred to as 'radical politics.' He feared that we gathered together to protest as an expression of mere emotion, and we had forgotten how to organize our feelings into a coherent political movement. I liked the book. If there is a fault, it is that he does not provide a solution to how to recover a state where people are 'driven by a sense of shared purpose.'

  3. I have the same doubts about Occupy going forward as a coherent political movement. However, the "99%" and the "1%" are now in the mass consciousness and that is good. I will read your Chile article and have added your blog to my daily reading.


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