Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 16, 2012

Is the 60s counterculture to blame for today’s banksters?

Filed under: journalism,literature,media — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

Kurt Andersen

David Brooks

Recent op-ed articles in the N.Y. Times by Kurt Andersen and David Brooks have both blamed the counterculture for the rise of the banksters.

On July 3rd, Andersen wrote that “do your own thing” explains Lloyd Blankfein and company:

But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.

Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.

There is a certain amount of what Freud called projection in Andersen’s analysis. Andersen, now 58, co-founded Spy Magazine in 1986 with E. Grayson Carter. Spy was an irreverent attack on the pretensions of the ruling class, especially those who were featured in gossip columns. But after Spy folded, they hooked up with magazines that flattered the figures they once satirized. Andersen became the editor of New York, a magazine devoted to the tastes of the upper middle-class with feature articles on where to buy the best chocolates or the inside scoop on Tom Cruise’s breakup with Katie Holmes. He was fired after publishing an article that was not sufficiently deferential to a big investor who was friends with Henry Kravis, a major investor in New York Magazine.

His next publishing venture was Inside.com, a short-lived attempt to make the media business interesting. Carter has been the editor of Vanity Fair since 1992. Despite the presence of the irrepressible and often irreverent James Woolcott, who has linked to yours truly from time to time, the magazine is an Establishment outlet that tries to make the lives of Hollywood celebrities, investment bankers and polo-playing Eurotrash interesting to the plebes.

In an article describing the metamorphosis of Andersen and Carter, Howard Kurtz, the usually boneheaded media critic at the Washington Post, hit the nail on the head:

One sign of the times: While Spy frequently ridiculed zillionaire Donald Trump as a “thick-fingered vulgarian,” Carter was among the glitterati at Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples — and put the newlyweds on the cover of Vanity Fair’s March issue.

I found this quote going back through my archives, trying to find something I might have written about Andersen in the past. As it turns out, back in 2006 I had something to say about a New York Magazine piece he had written about Iraq that included this howler: “In Iraq, we really are fighting on the side of the majority of the people (and their not-so-bad-guy leaders) against bad guys,” an assumption that the U.S. has the right to police the world, something that 60s radicals challenged. I summed up his perspective as follows:

For Mr. Andersen, the basic difference between the 1960s and now has a lot to do with the American people, and students in particular, becoming more apathetic, a theme that Time Magazine revisited all through the 1980s and 90s. Our former Spy opines, “And in a way that the sixties were precisely not, this is also an Age of Whatever. Thus the Iraq war, even if it ends badly, will cause no great disillusionment about America’s heroic white-hat nobility–you can’t lose your virginity twice.”

I imagine that Mr. Andersen is quite the expert on losing one’s virginity, given his peregrinations throughout the rather mercenary world of commercial media. As it turns out, he was fired from New York Magazine in 1994 for being, according to Mr. Andersen’s blog, “too annoying in its coverage of the then-owner’s business and social and political associates.” Knowing full well how expensive NY can be and what it means to be out of a job, I can certainly understand Mr. Andersen’s decision to no longer annoy anybody else in positions of power.

Apparently Kurt Andersen has not finished pontificating on 60s radicals, using “True Believers”, his latest novel, as a peg for more of the same. The main character is a 64 year old lawyer named Karen Hollander who removes herself from consideration for a Supreme Court appointment because of some dark secret from her radical past in 1968. I was curious enough about what Anderson had to say that I plunked down $23 of my hard earned (well, maybe hardly earned) money to see what the fellow had to say. Here’s the “message” Andersen seeks to impart:

Imagine if a random New Left kid could be fetched from 1968 to the twenty-first century. Wouldn’t she look around and think the revolution had succeeded? The draft ended, the Vietcong won. Communist China isn’t just in the UN but on its way to becoming the most powerful nation on earth. Socialists run Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Cuba. Since Vietnam, the biggest U.S. wars have been tiny by comparison. Apartheid ended in South Africa, and a billion fewer Asians are poor. All sensible people take ecology seriously. Feminism triumphed—most new doctors and lawyers are women, and so is a majority of the American workforce. Abortion is mainly legal and marijuana practically so. On television, people curse and have sex, and there’s a twenty-four-hour leftist news channel. Respectable grown-ups wear blue jeans and sneakers and listen to rock music and get high. A black man who did drugs and admired Malcolm X was elected president. And Henry Kissinger and other old conservatives formed an organization promoting total nuclear disarmament.

Well, what else could you have expected from somebody who spent his youth carving out a career in journalism rather than trying to overthrow the capitalist system? I should add that the main character was an SDS weatherperson, which is typical for such novels that try to take on the 1960s. I suppose that setting off bombs is more dramatic than handing out leaflets to build a mass demonstration but more to the point Andersen would not begin to have a clue about the Marxist left that took its patient, movement-building strategies seriously.

I see that Random House is the publisher of this dubious interpretation of what the “movement” was about. I can’t say that I am surprised, nor am I surprised that Kurt Andersen is an “editor-at-large” there. This is exactly the sort of book that will sell millions even if the buyers don’t have any idea what the radical movement was about. There’s a blurb from a Vanity Fair review on the book’s back cover, describing it as “a joyful, wild gallup through a joyful, wild time to be an American”. Somehow those are not the words that come to mind when I think of all the fights we went through to have a slogan like immediate withdrawal rather than negotiate with the NLF.

Now Random House did get a story that was faithful to the history of the 60s left but will never publish it. I am of course talking about the comic book memoir I did in collaboration with the late Harvey Pekar. I can say at this point that I will be serializing the book but without the artwork. The artist told me that she would prefer to see her work in print rather than on my blog. I replied that so would I except that I didn’t expect to live until the 22nd century.

Moving ahead from Andersen’s feckless attempts to amalgamate the 1960s with his own sordid ambitions and those of the investment bankers he spends summers at the Hamptons with, we turn to the truly awful David Brooks who responded to Chris Hayes’s “Twilight of the Elites” in a July 12th column titled “Why Our Elites Stink“:

The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The most glaring example of elite decline might have eluded Brooks, namely his own ridiculous attempt to make an amalgam between the 60s counterculture and people like Jamie Diamond or Lloyd Blankfein. People who make such outrageous claims on the op-ed pages of the NY Times, a preserve of the intellectually challenged from Thomas Friedman to the late and unlamented A.M. Rosenthal, are just not in the business of defending their ideas. They get paid millions of dollars to write stupid columns that serve to justify the status quo. The real analogy is not between the counterculture and the hedge fund sharks. It is rather between them and their paid propagandists like David Brooks. The banksters create fictitious capital, while people like Brooks create fictitious columns.

Now there is a sharp contrast between the old-line Wasp establishment and the new class of billionaires that Brooks, like Andersen, blames the 60s for. But it has little to do with LSD or Trout Fishing in America. People like FDR or even Nelson Rockefeller had much more of a sense of noblesse oblige because the people they ruled over belonged to a class that had much more muscle than it does today. Coal miners, steelworkers, autoworkers, truckdrivers, et al understood that militant trade union actions could put the bosses on the defensive if not lead to the transformation of the capitalist mode of production itself. Furthermore, the existence of the USSR always posed a threat to a system in which massive unemployment might break the social contract between rulers and ruled if it passed a certain threshold of pain.

Those days are long gone. The flight of manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere has eroded the social base of the only class that had the power to take Big Capital on. Furthermore, when your wealth is generated through financial speculation, there is no need to worry about alienating workers—at least directly. Hedge fund offices on Wall Street and in Connecticut might be ultimately responsible for millions of foreclosures but there is not the same kind of head-on confrontation that was seen, for example, in 1938 when auto workers occupied the factories in Flint, Michigan.

We are beginning to see the earliest stages of a fightback. The Occupy movement, while put on the defensive, continues to strike a chord with those under attack by the 1 percent. This video makes clear that the movement understands how to relate to the problems of those forced to live in substandard housing, one of the deepest ongoing crises in the United States affecting families on the most basic level. As the attacks continue under the second term of a President who Andersen elevates to demigod status because he did drugs and admired Malcolm X (as if that compensates for being a tool of Goldman-Sachs), it will be up to the left to build solidarity with the ruled and help focus their anger against the rulers, whether they took LSD or not. Some things matter more than whether you are “hip” or not, especially what side of the barricades you are on.


  1. They’re recycling bullshit from former Fortune columnist Myron Magnet, a right-wing hack who sang this song back in the late 80s/early 90s. By destroying our belief in Trad Vals, the 60s kids left a vacuum filled by money. Nonsense then, nonsense now.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — July 16, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  2. Two points:

    (1) The term “do your own thing,” represented, in my opinion, a degenertion withiin the 60s. It was an attempt by people with, essentially, a petty-bourgeois mentality, to find an verbal formula for an ideal that fit an essentially asocial notion of freedom.

    (2) People who are focusing on the Occupy movement as an example of a nascent mass protest movement would do well to pay attention to those elements within the movement, primarily socialists, who are trying constantly to orient to movement towards the working class and the working class towards the movement.

    Comment by RED DAVE — July 16, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

  3. Hat tip to Proyect for making the obscure obvious in laypeoples’ terms like Chomsky but with the brevity of Chekov.

    Few things in what passes as journalism today are more disgusting than the absurd reductionist trivialization of 60’s radicalism – which they (this class of hack writers, pontifs & pundits) never got away with, let alone attempted to do, to 30’s radicals, oweing of course to the sheer strength (& their fear of) of that class in motion.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 17, 2012 @ 12:30 am

  4. One purpose of all this renewed demonization of “the ’60s” is to drive a wedge between the rapidly aging, but still vigorous and numerous, radicals of that time and younger people in general. “They ruined your/our beautiful world, and now you/we have to fix it.” Many people are buying this crap.

    We shouldn’t forget–“’60s youth cult” or no–that the anthem of Mussolini’s fascists was “Giovinezza”–“Youth.” Youth cults are a time-tested way of dividing the 99% against their larger interests–and what could seem cleverer than turning the alleged youth cultism of forty-odd years ago against its now senescent survivors (and vice versa).

    Not the least of the clanking ironies in all this is the fact that “don’t trust anyone over thirty” was mostly a journalistic fiction even when it was news.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — July 17, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  5. The entire thing is completely duplicitous. One has to believe that someone like Brooks really dislikes Dimon and Blankfein, which I seriously doubt. Overall, the NYT celebrates bankster values, so, if anything, by their standards, the Times and Brooks would be celebrating 60s radicals if they actually believed this.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 17, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

  6. “Not the least of the clanking ironies in all this is the fact that “don’t trust anyone over thirty” was mostly a journalistic fiction even when it was news.”

    Joe (or anyone older and wiser or with better research skills)—I remember as a kid—maybe 1969 or 1970— PBS broadcasted a play in which everyone over 30 was sent to the gulag (obviously based on that hack saying I knew well back then via MAD magazine parodies). Any idea who wrote that garbage? Who may have pressured then-liberal PBS into showing it, perhaps to balance out their Clifford Odetts revivals?

    Comment by kjs — July 17, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

  7. From wiki on 1968 movie “Wild in the Streets”:

    Christopher Jones stars as rock singer and aspiring revolutionary Max Frost (born Max Jacob Flatow Jr.; his first public act of violence was blowing up his family’s new car). Frost’s band The Troopers live together with him, their women, and others in a sprawling Los Angeles mansion. The band includes his 15-year-old genius attorney Billy Cage (Kevin Coughlin) on lead guitar, ex-child actor/girlfriend Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi) on keyboards, hook-handed Abraham Salteen (Larry Bishop) on bass guitar and trumpet, and anthropologist Stanley X (Richard Pryor) on drums.

    When Max is asked to sing at a televised political rally by Kennedyesque Senate candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook), who’s running on a platform to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 (a genuine issue, not passed until 1971), he and the Troopers appear — but Max stuns everyone by calling instead for the voting age to become 14, then finishes the show with an improvised song, “Fourteen Or Fight!”, and a call for a demonstration.

    Max’s fans (and other young people, by the thousands) stir to action, and within 24 hours protests have begun in cities around the United States. Fergus’ advisors want him to denounce Max, but instead he agrees to support the demonstrations, and change his campaign — if Max and his group will compromise, accept a voting age of 15 instead, abide by the law, and appeal to the demonstrators to go home peaceably. Max agrees, and the two appear together on television, and in person the next day using the less offensive mantra “Fifteen and Ready”.

    Most states agree to lower the voting age within days, in the wake of the demonstrations, and Max Frost and the Troopers campaign for Johnny Fergus until the election, which he wins by a landslide. Taking his place in the Senate, Fergus wishes Frost and his people would now just go away, but instead they get involved with Washington politics. When a Congressman from Sally LeRoy’s home district dies suddenly, the band enters her in the special election that follows, and Sally (the eldest of the group, and the only one of majority age to run for office) is voted into Congress by the new teen bloc.

    The first bill Sally introduces is a Constitutional amendment to lower the age requirements for national political office — to 14, and “Fourteen Or Fight!” enters a new phase. A joint session of Congress is called, and the Troopers (by now joined by Fergus’ son Jimmy, played by Michael Margotta) swing the vote their way by spiking the Washington water supply with LSD, and providing all the Senators and Representatives with teenaged guides.

    As teens either take over or threaten the reins of government, the Old Guard (those over 30) turn to Max to run for President, and assert his (their) control over the changing tide. Max again agrees, running as a Republican to his chagrin, but once in office, he turns the tide on his older supporters. Thirty becomes a mandatory retirement age, while those over 35 are rounded up, sent to “re-education camps”, and permanently dosed on LSD. Fergus unsuccessfully attempts to dissuade Max by contacting his estranged parents (Bert Freed and Shelley Winters), then tries to assassinate him. Failing at this, he flees Washington with his remaining family, but they are soon rounded up.

    With youth now in control of the United States, politically as well as economically, and similar revolutions breaking out in all the world’s major countries, Max withdraws the military from around the world (turning them instead into de facto age police), puts computers and prodigies in charge of the Gross National Product, ships surplus grain for free to third world nations, disbands the FBI and Secret Service, and becomes the leader of “the most truly hedonistic society the world has ever known”. The final moments of the film indicate, however, that Max and his cohorts may face future intergenerational warfare from an unexpected source.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 17, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

  8. Thanks, Louis. I do remember seeing trailers for that film. Now I’m wondering if it was PBS that it was aired on, since it reeks of being an exploitation film starring a few established figures looking to pay their rent.

    The probable Jewish ethnicity of the protagonist (“Max Jacob”; Shelly Winters as his mother) is unusually direct for that period, no?

    Comment by kjs — July 17, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  9. I don’t know about blaming Blankfein on the ’60s, but I certainly blame Jay Gould and Jim Fisk on Walt Whitman.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 20, 2012 @ 12:00 am

  10. […] out of Yippie pot-smoking 60s counterculture, no matter what silly op-eds in the New York Times say.Louis Proyect dissects the sleazy attempts to blame someone else for the sins and crimes of the banksters.The real analogy […]

    Pingback by Is 60s counterculture to blame for today’s banksters? — July 20, 2012 @ 3:03 am

  11. At the same age Andersen and I, of the first truly television generation, only know the sixties anecdotally. We weren’t there, we were kids. Watching it on TV.

    Comment by Ten Bears — July 20, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

  12. I just had the thought that there was much more going on in the late fifties and sixties than most people are aware. it is written off as people “rebelling” against the “establishment” by doing drugs and listening to a certain type of music. it seems to me that this is an extremely superficial account of what was happening. it could be that the case that people who became part of this “counterculture” were more and more only interested in the drugs and music, this population of people swelled to the point that whatever ideologies were at the base of the movement were crushed under it’s weight.

    I also wonder towards if the military industrial complex took concrete actions to make sure that the real movement that was at the root of the “60s counterculture” was destroyed. so many things began to happen just at that time. JFK was assassinated. a war was started in vietnam that seemed to serve no real purpose, resulting in a draft—was this a deliberately created distraction, something the movement would have to fight against and by the time they were done they would be so weakened that it would all just fall apart. RFK was assassinated. it just seems to me that during this very time a certain element/group was taking firm/concrete control of the government/society. perhaps the people involved in the counterculture were unwittingly fighting against this, they just sensed something was amiss and decided that divestment from whatever this is would be a good idea. what would have happened if millions of people divested from the mainstream military industrial complex controlled society at that time? seems to me like this would have far reaching effects on the wealthy and military industrial complex. at that time they still needed people, consumers to buy their products and labor. would they have been able to solidify, cement control if they didn’t have this? if all the consumers and labor, people, went away in the 60s? completely divested? it would seem to be in their interest to squash such a movement. this could be in part be done by undermining it’s core values and ideologies, co-opting it and turning it into woodstock—-did that happen from within the movement or from without? or a combination of two?

    to me it seems that if what I understand to have been the core ideologies of the 60s movement, the pioneer movement. those people were trying to do accomplish the same thing that people who build earthships today are. if that core movement of the 60s didn’t transform into woodstock, spend all it’s energy and might on stopping the vietnam war, would it possibly have resulted in millions of people living in earthships today? rather than just a few hundred?

    Comment by chuang tzu — November 27, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: