Where We Are Now

On February 1, 1960, four neatly dressed freshman students from a Negro college took seats at the whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, politely asked for coffee, and refused to leave until the store closed. Ten years and a thousand marches later, Fred Hampton lay dead in Chicago, the latest casualty in the police war against the Black Panthers. In early 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society adopted the Port Huron Statement, which argued that both “the liberal and socialist preachings of the past” were inadequate to the present, and pledged the formation of a “New Left” based in the universities and committed to the methods of “participatory democracy.” On March 6, 1970, a few young members of that New Left, now divided and dispirited, accidentally obliterated themselves with their homemade bombs. The decade of the metaphorical “youth explosion” ended with a literal bang. One era had ended and another begun.

During the Sixties, the young achieved a distinctive status for themselves, a status almost as sharply defined as that of other accursed or blessed groups, such as blacks, Jews, Junkers, and right-wing deviationists. The young demanded and received recognition of their distinctiveness as a group bearing its own values, possessing a unique culture, and dedicated to its own ends. Youth made a deep impact on politics, education, fashion, art, and the consumer economy. The entire nation was aware of the new presence: a Gallup Poll of March, 1969, reported that campus disorders had replaced the Vietnam was as the primary concern of Americans.

Nowhere was the youth presence more visible than on the political scene, where it brought into being a phenomenon requiring a special name. Throughout most of our history, Americans, whether young or old, have not shown a great passion for politics. But the youth of the Sixties showed more political passion than any earlier generation, giving promise of a revitalization of American politics, perhaps even the birth of the American as a political man. The generation experimented with a rich variety of truly political actions and showed a genuine concern for public things, thereby reversing the long trend toward privatization. The young argued, sang, marched, organized, sat in, milled around, walked out, and disrupted. And always the system responded too little, too late, or not at all. Starting with the last half of the Sixties, the politics of the young grew more desperate and factional; and, since the Democratic Convention of 1968, more frantic, more clandestine, and more violent. Apparently fearing that political energy could not move the system, more and more of the young began to seek political substitutes in the illusions of potency provided by Woodstock, dynamite, or drugs.

It is now evident that the youthful politics of the Sixties is over. The mutilated bodies in the rubble of that Greenwich Village house speak loudly of desperation and exhaustion—of too many hopes and dreams wrecked, too much enthusiasm thwarted. The swift, savage years of the Sixties may come to be seen as the time when America said “no” to much of the best that was herself.

It is too early yet to assess the full impact of the youthful politics of the Sixties on the larger political system, but some things can be said.

Over the course of its first ten years, the New Left failed to create the new radical theory beyond both liberalism and socialism which the Port Huron Statement had called for. Although the New Left gradually has moved away from the single-issue, basically reformist outlook of the early Sixties over toward a general indictment of the system, that movement was not powered or accompanied by an increasingly coherent and comprehensive theory. Rather, it is a mood, a feeling of rage and revulsion, which is increasingly impatient with theory, or even thought and argument. The anti-intellectualist strain which was present in the movement from the beginning has triumphed. Theory on the New Left is now reduced to the vulgar Marxism and Maoism of Progressive Labor, or to the Weatherman view of white radicals as a suicide squad providing cover for black urban guerrillas, the true vanguard of the revolution.

Nor was the New Left able to develop a conception of political action coherent and effective enough, over the long pull, to sustain its members in a political vocation—to answer the questions: What does a radical look like in American politics, and how does he define himself in action which goes beyond the episodic and theatrical? Even the heroes, the ego-ideals, of the New Left are drawn from Cuba and China, despite the fact that the only indisputable statement that can be made about any future American revolution is that it will not look at all like any foreign revolutions we have read about. To mistake the many sporadic outbursts and uprisings of the past decade for the American Revolution is to misunderstand the nature of the political system within which these events have occurred, and to underestimate the capacity of that system to assimilate or to suppress anomalies.

Many modes of action have been tried by the New Left—civil rights work, community organizing, on-campus organizing, antidraft unions, factory organizing, political action as guerrilla theater, even electoral politics—but none offered a decisive lever for radical change. There are now few hopeful projects on the left, and the only likely alternative life-styles seem to be Weatherman adventurism and the Yippie freakout. Maybe the only hopeful possibility for action—perhaps it was always the best one—is Rudi Dutschke’s “long march through the existing institutions.”

But that means that the New Left would have to become less a student and youth movement and more a radical political grouping drawn from and able to work within many sectors of society for many different but unspectacular goals. The goals chosen would be those with high potential for accentuating evident contradictions in particular institutions, thereby undermining their present structures and challenging their present policies.

The New Left, so far, has shown little taste for such patient and pedestrian strategies. New Left radicals, for example, despite their own argument that the knowledge industry is the key industry in advanced societies, never developed much in the way of a theory and practice of counter-education. The “Free Universities,” for example, have accomplished little; and most student efforts toward radical experimentation within the established universities have been suppressed or assimilated. The campuses are quieter now, because their managers have raised the ante on disruption and become more efficient at suppression, because few new leaders have appeared in the New Left since the early Sixties, and also because people have learned that episodic outbursts, powered by indignation and hope but not sustained and directed by theory, are ineffective.

Despite these failings, the political impulses of the young during the Sixties have had decisive consequences for the larger political order. The young opened up many closed questions, forcing them into the arena of public controversy, and making it “safe” and politically profitable for the middle forces in American politics to adopt them as issues. Thus while the young have not stopped the Vietnam war, they have reduced its scope and changed its objectives. Not many years ago only a handful of public men dared to oppose the war. Now opposition is so respectable that any overt attempt to spread the conflict to Laos and Cambodia would encounter strong official and popular resistance. Furthermore, debate about the war has also opened the question of American imperialism and neocolonialism, a question closed in the public mind since the Spanish-American War.

Many other questions were opened to public debate by the young people of the Sixties: civil rights and racial justice; conscription and the impact of militarism on American life; the structure and content of higher education, and university complicity with the military and corporate establishments. The young radicals publicized the issues of impersonality and bureaucracy, and sensitized their peers to the subtlety and ubiquity of the modes of bureaucratic control. It was the young who offered a serious and widespread challenge, for the first time, to the values associated with technology, rationalism, objectivity, and bigness. And now the question of ecology has also been opened. (We shall return to this.)

The young opened all these questions, and made them safe for the middle. In order for the Muskies, McGoverns, and Fulbrights to criticize the Vietnam calamity with political safety, many of the young have been jailed or forced into exile or the underground. In order for civil rights and racial justice to become part of the nation’s agenda, the young—black and white alike—have risked their careers and their lives. In order for the biases and hypocrisy of the legal system to become matters of public concern, and for the institution of the police to be seen as a political problem of the first order, the young have paid heavily in their freedom, security, and dignity.

In order for sexual mores to become more than a matter of polite discussion, the young have been driven to experiments in which they have taken on burdens and undergone experiences beyond their capacities. In order for the colleges and universities to reappraise the meaning of education, the young have had to disrupt their own educations and to pay the price in ignorance. In order for the ethic of technocracy and the cult of objectivity to be questioned, a whole generation had to blow its collective mind in self-experimentation.

What is fantastic about the politics of the Sixties is that this crazy compound of wild energy, bizarre experiments, and the large number of lives whose promise will never be fulfilled has all gone toward getting the moderates of America to address themselves to the problems which have been tearing the society apart. The young may not have radically altered the system, but they have probably saved it, though only at a terrible cost to themselves. This, apparently, is what it takes to move the system.

The impact of the young on the political order does not end with the list of issues opened and made safe for debate. There have been other, equally important consequences.

By insistent criticism, the New Left has also brought into question the moral and democratic pretensions of many of the dominant institutions of this country. One must add, however, that the institutions themselves gave their radical enemies a lot of aid and comfort in this campaign. Certainly when Lyndon Johnson ran for the Presidency on promises of peace in Vietnam and then escalated the war, he did more than the New Left ever could to expose the mockeries of electoral democracy. Judge Hoffman’s antics in Chicago did more to subvert the authority of the judicial system than defendant Hoffman ever dreamed was possible. Similar contributions were made by the faculties and managing directors of a dozen major universities.

Still, the basic fact is that the last decade has seen a profound “de-authorization” of many of the major institutions, and the New Left has contributed heavily to that phenomenon. Simultaneously feeding and feeding upon the animus against authority widespread among young people today, the New Left has contributed much to the present crisis of civic culture in America, a crisis which spans the whole range of civic obligations, from simple obedience to the law to the sacrifice of personal interests for the public good. America can no longer count on an instinctive patriotism among the young. One of the consequences of that may be professional army, an institution which, historically, has been fatal to republics.

The coalition that has governed this land since 1932 is shattered. Even liberals now concede that the system has problems whose solutions will require more than incremental adjustments within an established frame. The fundamental structure of power has not changed, of course, but the balance of forces has shifted. Liberals no longer define the issues and set the general direction of affairs and policy. Rather, they respond to the forces of the left and right. More than that, the public mind is going through a historical shift of consciousness. On all sectors of the political spectrum, there is a growing doubt that the liberal myth and logic will dominate the American future. The New Left has been instrumental in this process—which is a way of saying that it did something that the conservatives have struggled unsuccessfully to do since 1932.

One final dimension in this brief assessment of the impact of the New Left. Social change has moved at such a rapid pace from the beginning of the Republic that responses to it have largely provided the stuff of American politics. Our political history shows a repeated pattern of groups and sections feeling left behind, pushed out, by the pace and content of social change. From the beginning one or another “older America” has felt that it has lost the Republic, has been pushed out of its own place and left homeless. The Federalists were convinced that Jeffersonian republicanism meant the end of their world. The Civil War left the South with no acceptable future. Industrialism meant the death of rural and small town America, and democracy seemed to the cultivated and respectable classes to mean the end of virtue and propriety altogether. White Anglo-Saxondom lost America to a motley host of strangers. The list could be extended, but each case exemplifies the pattern of an older America feeling itself robbed of both past and future by a new America. That pattern characterizes much of our political life, and largely accounts for the fact that most radical and reform movements in this country have offered a program of “forward to yesterday.” A better future meant return to a better past.

The revolt of the New Left, combined with the cultural revolution of the Sixties, marked a reversal in this pattern. It was a revolt, not of those who were left behind, not of those who once had a place but were pushed out of it, but of those who felt that America never had a place for them. It was a revolt not of those who felt they could not transmit their legacy to the future, but of those who rejected the legacy which was offered them. It was a revolt of the young, who saw America not as a gift but as a burden, who refused the roles and identities prepared for them by their fathers, and who still feel themselves to be superfluous in the future which they are told is theirs. That is why New Left politics and the cultural revolution were in large part struggles for identity. That is also why the demands and the style of the young in this period were met with such bitter resistance. For the young rejected the gift, and you do not do that without earning the hatred of the giver. That is new in American politics, and it is one of the ways to state the defining impact of the New Left on the old system.

So there has been a difference, even a great difference. But underneath, it is possible to see forces within the system that seem implacable to change, ineluctably working out a logic deeper than the conscious intentions of either right or left. Nixon’s State of the Union message of January 22, 1970, offers some clues to those forces, and perhaps shows the tendencies of the present and foreseeable future.


The President first celebrated the past and reminded us that we would soon commemorate our two hundredth anniversary. But he also spoke of the Seventies as a “time of new beginnings,” requiring a “break with tradition.” He offered absolution from past failures: “We have heard a great deal of overblown rhetoric during the Sixties in which the word war has perhaps too often been used. The war on poverty, the war on misery, the war on disease, the war on hunger.” The President then identified the real enemy and promised all-out war: “But if there is one area where the word war is appropriate it is in the fight against crime. We must declare and win the war against the criminal elements….”

Then, without pausing to adjust his rhetoric or his conception of action, he announced his major theme: “Shall we make our peace with nature, and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?”

That the longest and most significant part of the speech was devoted to “the great question of the Seventies,” the natural environment, was a recognition not only of the intrinsic importance of these problems but also of their great interest to the younger generation. As the President noted, the restoration of nature “is the cause of particular concern to young Americans….”

By this move Nixon captured the issue which might allow for peace between the political system and the younger generation. Many months before the President made his overtures, youthful groups had been energetically spreading the news about nature. Some were ecstatic worshippers of the UrMutter, others were engaged in establishing rural communes, and still others were popularizing scientific doctrines of ecology, warning against pollution and overpopulation, and staging “walks for life.” By their own admission the new activists were abandoning the old issues.

The fact is,” one student leader declared, “the colleges just do not count.” And, with varying degrees of candor, they were saying the same about racial issues, poverty, and war. In some half-conscious way, the younger generation had already begun to grope toward the accommodation which the President later offered. As a young writer in Earth Times put it, “It would be the ultimate cop-out to give all our money to the Black Panthers and then have them all die in twenty years because they couldn’t drink the water.” Most Panthers, it is safe to say, will not die of thirst.

As the President’s speech made clear, the terms of the new consensus would have to be consistent with the logic of technological society. He promised both technological progress and a better environment. “The answer is not to abandon growth but to redirect it.” The need was not to develop radically different ways of thinking about life but to develop “better ways of managing what we have.” The environmental crisis was not cause for rethinking the implications of technology but for enlarging its uses. We must “turn toward ending congestion and eliminating smog the same inventive genius that created them in the first place.” The “wonders of science” had only to be turned “to the service of man.” In sum, an environmental version of the theme of gaining peace by waging war.

His ultimate vision was a uniquely American combination of scientific technology and the Protestant ethic. Our “debt to nature” requires that we “clean up our environment” which has been dirtied by “carelessness.” In this way the society could reclaim its “birthright” of “clean air, clean water.”

The young responded eagerly. On March 15 a gigantic teach-in was held at the University of Michigan to discuss the problems of environment. It was described by The New York Times as “one of the most extraordinary ‘happenings’ ever to hit the great American heartland….” In fact, it was all very familiar, from the $50,000 budget of the happening—$5,000 of which is said to have come from Dow Chemical—to the enthusiastic participation of “state officials…members of Congress, industry, labor, and several representatives of the Nixon Administration,” and to the politician who beseeched the audience to “pressure” him and his fellow congressmen into passing environmental legislation. Thus was found the issue around which the hippies and the Hickels might unite.

This new preoccupation with the natural environment means that for the first time since the early Sixties, when civil rights agitation reached its crest, an issue exists which can connect the energies and ideals of the young to the policies and machinery of the system. Past controversies over the war, the draft, and educational reform sharply divided the young activists from their governors and elders. Now, on the broad ground of environment, they stand in common cause with the power élite. It is the kind of issue which is particularly appealing when the disappointments and abrasions of political encounters become too much, for it permits a full catharsis of moral indignation without seriously altering the structure of power or the logic of the system. Outrage can be directed against enemies whose evils are manifest, enemies who pollute and dirty, enemies who turn out to be the old foes of pastoral America, the corporations and monopolies.

It was predictable that the first target chosen by the government in its new zeal for nature would be that ancient enemy, Standard Oil, which had polluted the waters of New Orleans. It is also predictable that future policies will not be implemented—any more than the Sherman Act was—to transform the corporate structure. We may expect, instead, ingenious devices for passing on to the consumer the costs of cleanliness.

The wide support commanded by the ecology problem is probably due to its uniquely ecumenical qualities. It is not an issue which provokes class conflict or widens generation gaps. Everybody wants clean air and water and open space. Another soothing feature of ecology is that it promises to remove the growing antagonism toward science evident in the student generation of the Sixties. Students have begun to blow their minds with talk of ecosystems, recycling, and biospheres, apparently unaware that the concept of nature held by most biologists is not that of John Muir, but is as abstract and mathematical as the nature conceived by atomic physicists.

The political implications of the new and benign consensus appear most clearly when it is contrasted with the consensus pursued by the Johnson Administration. It is not accidental that at the same time as the Nixon Administration is using environment to forge a new unity, it has been shelving, retarding, or neglecting most of the previous policies dealing with blacks, the poor, education, and the cities. Johnson’s vision of the Great Society lacked nobility, but it never excluded the disadvantaged. The Nixon consensus, by placating the silent majority, is also capitalizing upon the despair of the confused minority of activists who had struggled for racial justice and economic improvement and who now, by their commitment to nature, were tacitly conceding that racial and economic injustice were ineradicable facts of American society.

The evolution of student activism, from the involvement of the Sixties to the pastoral innocence of the Seventies, bespeaks a growing revulsion toward politics. “Our politics,” writes Jerry Rubin, is “our music, our smell, our skin, our hair, our warm naked bodies, our drugs, our energy, our underground papers, our vision.” His testament, Do It!, closes with this vision: “People will farm in the morning, make music in the afternoon, and fuck wherever and whenever they want to.” The revulsion against politics is all the sadder because it is being expressed by a generation which taught itself to be the most deeply political one in recent history.

Let us get America moving again,” President Kennedy had exhorted. The struggle of the Sixties demonstrated how difficult and costly that task could be. In casualties, it may be likened to World War I, where Europe lost a whole generation of young men. The high price of change is inherent in the basic features of the political system and its surrounding technological culture.

First, the institutions of our national government have become bureaucratized to an extraordinary degree. They are huge in size, hierarchical in structure, and impersonal in their ways. As they become distended, they also become less amenable to control and coordination. Change is not typically defeated by a bureaucratic conspiracy but by the normal methods of the system. The tendency of any bureaucratic organization is to assimilate an important change of policy into its routine ways of proceeding, with the result that change is accommodated to the needs of the organization, instead of the organization accommodating itself to the demands of change. Add the interlocked bureaucracies of government, business, and the military, and their extension throughout the world and into outer space, and it is apparent why it takes so much to move the system. One must literally move heaven and earth.

Second, since the Civil War, the system has steadily evolved into a mechanism for blurring choices. The party system works to make both parties identify the same issues and define their programs in very similar terms. At the same time, the dynamic supplied by competition between interest groups reinforces the main thrust of the system because the legitimacy of the groups themselves depends upon their accepting the rules of the game and striving for limited, incremental objectives. There is a powerful and persistent mainstream in American politics which fixes the limits of reform. Successful reform movements of the twentieth century, such as the New Freedom and the New Deal, have accepted the prevailing assumptions and proceeded to improve the going system. As others have pointed out, FDR’s New Deal did not save capitalism, but it did save the corporations.

Third, the evolution of the American economy into a corporate structure with large-scale and interconnected units of finance and production has been accelerated by the technological revolutions of the twentieth century, especially the revolution in electronics. This development has an important bearing upon the possibilities of change. On the one side, the economy of the technological society is continually in process of innovation. It is governed by a rhythm of incessant change, constantly producing new techniques, equipment, and products. On the other side, technological society has a logic and a set of imperatives which confine change within narrow limits. It needs adaptable, technique-oriented persons to operate its systems. It needs a society which will not cling to traditions and customs. It needs a public which has a bottomless appetite for consumption and whose patterns of need and desire are easily altered. Given the dynamic of change encapsulated in a certain logic, the result is a paradox: a society dominated by the rigidities of change; a society in which constant innovation conceals a persistent direction. The difficulties encountered in changing this type of society are measurable by the apparent impossibility of resolving racial problems, reducing poverty and class inequities, reviving the cities, coping with the destruction of the environment, and redefining education.

This form of society is evolving its own politics, one adapted to the needs of technology. To begin with, the present polarization actually works to the advantage of those who are attempting to govern. The dialectic between left and right provides a dynamic which an uncharismatic President would otherwise lack. The rhetoric, tactics, and demeanor of the young, together with the militancy of some blacks, have activated the right and kept it in motion. The majority may be silent, but they are also resentful, fearful, and ready for mobilization. The tactic of the Nixon Administration is to play off these two dynamics in different ways. The President feeds the fantasies of the right by allowing his Vice-President and Attorney General to fulminate and, occasionally, to crack down on dissenters. He gives the right an atmosphere of toughness and the left a few martyrs, while distracting the mass media by crude threats. At the same time, the President moves to undercut the left whenever its objectives are taken over by political moderates. He will champion ecology, guaranteed annual income, a more rational welfare system, and peace in Vietnam. He will then process these causes to the point of blandness so that the right can digest them, while the left remains hungry but unsure of the reasons why.

There are signs that the President is winning the respect of the journalistic connoisseurs of American politics. And those barometers of approaching success, the social scientists, have begun their trips to the back door of the White House. The President is being praised as a shrewd pragmatist who possesses a superb sense of timing and is careful with his political capital. It is possible, however, that what is being admired in the President is more than the politics of opportunism, which is hardly new, but a new art form growing out of the demands of technological society. Perhaps the cunning of history has brought to the highest office in the land a man whose genius is non-leadership. The President himself has characterized his style as one of low visibility, and has asked for a politics of lowered voices. His ideal seems to be a republic whose public space would be filled by silence, or, at most, by the “lowered profile” of a rarely seen leader conducting low-key politics for a silent majority.

The new politics reflects the fragilities of technological society. Such a society is made anxious by instabilities and tensions, passions and animosities. As it comes to see itself more and more as a vast electronic circuit, it is tempted to define its unity in non-political language, to seek values like “economic growth” and “clean water” which are safely “above” politics. “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”

Beyond these dimensions, there is another aspect of technological society which has interesting political implications. It is a commonplace that technological society increasingly deprives men of useful and satisfying work. Despite all of the inquiries into the psychology and sociology of factory life, for example, it is evident that there is no way to alter substantially the routinized and uncreative nature of work in the factories. The same is largely true of clerical work and of much that passes for technical and even intellectual work.

This is the future awaiting the increasing numbers of young people who are being educated and encouraged to develop unsatisfiable expectations about their adult roles. A superfluous population is being produced, one that cannot be absorbed and simultaneously fulfilled. Moreover, education is designed to increase dissatisfactions. It encourages self-consciousness and critical awareness, and nourishes hopes of a better life where beauty and dignity are possible.

As yet, technological society has not figured out how to cope with its superfluous human beings. Without being too fanciful one might suggest the following possibility. The governors of the technological order could combine repressive legal measures with a welfare system which would produce euphoric demoralization. Such a welfare system would merely have to extend many elements already present or probable, such as a guaranteed annual income and unemployment compensation. Subsidize the arts so that music would blare throughout the land, and then take the final step of relaxing drug controls. This seems incredible, but no more so than Senator Goldwater urging the relaxation of marijuana laws. When the incredible becomes credible, then the system will have systematically introduced juvenicide as public policy.