One unexpected effect of the financial crisis is that it has brought the culture wars to Britain. The legacy of the 1960s hangs heavily over the US, with a mass theo-political movement dedicated to attacking and undoing it, which emerged almost as soon as the decade was over. But where the US has been divided over such fundamental questions as the moral rights of a foetus, we British have now joined in with some slightly less metaphysical questions, such as "have the baby boomers screwed up the pension system?"
Matthew Taylor has a blog post referring to some of recent contributions on this topic, and there is also a new book which develops the attack on my parents' generation from the position of a twenty-something. I look forward to Matthew's forthcoming Radio 4 program on the 1960s. There is something quite telling that, where Americans have spent decades committing acts of terrorism upon one another due to their polarised relationships to the 1960s, the British have only now started to argue about this due to impending downward mobility. We never really cared whether they were selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man, until now after Woolworths has been sunk by economic crisis.
At the risk of getting all 'meta' on this issue, what it typically misses (and this is also true of the American culture wars) is that the liberal middle class baby boomers successfully frame both sides of this argument: it's always presented as 'for or against personal freedoms'. In the US, conservatives now run with this even further, by framing religiosity and tacit racism in terms of individual freedoms. Surely a real critique of the 1960s would de-centre our assumptions about the decade, highlighting how few people ever won any personal freedoms, how few people speak the language of personal freedoms, how few people want them, and how politically weightless and inconsequential they are anyway. George Irvin has a point.
It's always values. Values, values, values. But if you insist on viewing the world in terms of 'values', you will be left with the polarity of psychoanalytic politics on the one hand ("should I let my daughter stay at her boyfriend's?") and theological militarism on the other ("is it still right for me to wage war in defiance of the United Nations, evidence and law?"). The word 'values' always leaves me with the impression that what purports to be a moral concept is in fact an aesthetic one, namely taste, or perhaps even an economic one, namely preference.
I wouldn't be the first to highlight the overlaps between neo-liberal economics and 1960s liberal emancipatory discourse, but consider this. For Milton Friedman, there was no philosophical difference between a moral commitment and a desire (i.e. between the normative and the aesthetic, or the psychoanalytic if you prefer). Both are things that spring arbitrarily from one's brain, and therefore my right to pursue some moral project such as 'justice' is no different from my right to pursue some other type of preference or taste, such as cocaine. But only the market can ensure that I am free to choose which of these I exert my energies upon. 'Values' are therefore what's left up to the individual to work through, select and pursue, after society has been appropriately reorganised by a set of invisible elites. This is neo-liberalism in a nutshell.
As I wrote of Mad Men, there are some important contributions to the de-centering of the sixties we need. It's a tragedy that Tony Judt has left us just as this debate is developing in his home country. Where else can we look? Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias is now out, which pointedly begins with a recollection of a Berkeley seminar of wide-eyed hippy draft-dodgers in the early 1970s, but then goes on to lay out the blueprint for a very different sort of leftist politics. Rather than obsess over values (which, as Thomas Frank and Boltanski & Chiapello have brilliantly demonstrated, is something that business leaders and gurus are also endlessly happy to join in with) Olin Wright's new project is focused on institutions, experiments, innovations, case studies and visible structures. It's quite close to the civic republican approach of Stuart White and others. I offered some further thoughts on how the left might move beyond the respective traps of moralism, nostalgia, utilitarianism and ideology.
The boomers still want to have a debate about whether their values were right or not, whether they were liberating or anti-social. Did sexual freedom unleash a new era of expression and female autonomy, or did it destroy the family? Did cultural hedonism overthrow the shackles of wartime austerity, or un-do the very basis for community? How about this, boomers: maybe it was neither. Maybe casual sex is neither life-affirming and liberating, nor immoral and self-destructive, maybe it's just casual. And maybe the bored 30-year-old smoking weed in front of an action movie is neither sticking it to the man, nor falling into the crevices of a broken society, but simply trying to forget about his boring job. Could it be that the real legacy of the boomers is neither anarchy nor utopia, but a sort of masturbatory tedium of people wondering which itch to scratch next? This is what Mark Fisher defines as neo-liberalism's "depressive hedonia... constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure."
We need more bridges out of the arbitrary moralistic language of values, and into the political-economic language of institutions, governance, ownership, consumption and work. Part of this involves recognising how those bridges have been strategically dismantled since the 1960s, such that advertising and managerialism generates a closed loop of economics and psychology (centred around the self, desire, incentives, dreams, identity, efficiency etc), which remains safely insulated from sociology (centred around inequality, power, government, authority etc). People who either praise or criticise the legacy of the 1960s, but only in terms of what it meant for the individual, have not found a critical position external to that of the boomers themselves.
The question that interests me, at this juncture, is how sustainable this 'for or against the 1960s' really is, or how much mileage there can be in this 'my values are better than yours' wordplay. At a certain distance from the nineteen bloody sixties, a less hysterical aestheticised version of the New Left might appear, which is interested in institution-building and the promotion of positive political-economic freedoms, via carefully designed structures and templates. This, for example, is where Olin Wright appears to have got to. I enjoy whinging about baby boomers as much as the next man, but lets not attack them in the same values-based, de-politicised language that they themselves invented.