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Occupiers Have to Convince the Other 99 Percent
Posted on Oct 24, 2011
By Chris Hedges
The divisions between the poor and the working class on the one hand and the white, liberal middle class on the other reach back to the Vietnam anti-war movement. The New Left in the 1960s was infused with the same deadly doses of hedonism that corrupted earlier 20th century counterculture movements such as the bohemians and the beats. The antagonism between the New Left during the Vietnam War and the working class and the poor, whose sons were shipped to Vietnam while the sons of the white middle class were usually handed college deferments, was never bridged. Working-class high schools, including many high schools with large numbers of African-Americans, sent 20 to 30 percent of their graduates to Vietnam every year while college graduates made up only 2 percent of all troops sent to Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. Anti-war activists were seen by those locked out of the white middle class as spoiled children of the rich who advocated free love, drug use, communism and social anarchy.
The unions and the white working class remained virulently anti-communist. They spoke in the language of militarism and the Cold War and were unsympathetic to the anti-war movement as well as the civil rights movement. When student activists protested at the AFL-CIO’s 1965 convention, chanting “Get out of Vietnam!” the delegates taunted them by shouting “Get a haircut.” AFL-CIO leader George Meany ordered the security to “clear the Kookies out of the gallery.” United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther, once the protesters were escorted out, announced that “protesters should be demonstrating against Hanoi and Peking … [who] are responsible for the war.” The convention passed a resolution that read: “The labor movement proclaim[s] to the world that the nation’s working men and women do support the Johnson administration in Vietnam.”
Those that constituted the hard-core New Left, groups like Students for a Democratic Society, found their inspiration in the liberation struggles in Vietnam and the Third World and figures such as Mao and Leon Trotsky rather than the labor movement, which they considered bought off by capitalism. They saw the working class as part of the problem. Many came to embrace the cult of violence. The Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and the Weather Underground Organization became as poisoned by this lust for blood, quest for ideological purity, crippling paranoia and internal repression as the state system they defied.
The bulk of the white protesters in the 1960s found their ideological roots not in the moral imperatives of King or Malcolm X but the disengagement championed earlier by beats such by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs. It was a movement that, while it incorporated a healthy dose of disrespect for authority, focused on self-indulgent schemes for inner peace and fulfillment. The use of hallucinogenic drugs, advocated by Timothy Leary in books such as “The Politics of Ecstasy,” and the rise of occultism that popularized transcendental meditation, Theosophy, Hare Krishna, Zen and the I-Ching were trends that would have dismayed older radical movements such as the Wobblies and the Communist Party. The counterculture of the 1960s, like the commodity culture, lured adherents inward. It set up the self as the primary center of concern. It offered affirmative, therapeutic remedies to social problems and embraced vague, undefined and utopian campaigns to remake society. There was no real political vision. Hermann Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha” became emblematic of the moral hollowness of the New Left. These movements and the celebrities who led them, such as the Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, catered to the stage set for them by television cameras. Protests and court trials became street theater. Dissent became another media spectacle. Anti-war protesters in Berkeley switched from singing “Solidarity Forever” to “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine.”
The power of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it has not replicated the beliefs of the New Left. Rather, it is rooted in the moral imperatives of justice and self-sacrifice, what Dwight Macdonald called nonhistorical values, values closer to King than Abbie Hoffman. It seeks to rebuild the bridges to labor, the poor and the working class. The movement eschews the hedonism of the New Left; indeed it does not permit drugs or alcohol in Zuccotti Park. It denounces the consumer culture and every evening shares its food with the homeless, who also often sleep in the park. But, most important, it eschews, through a nonhierarchical system of self-governance, the deadly leadership cults that plagued and ultimately destroyed the movements of the 1960s. The political and moral void within the New Left meant that, like the counterculture of the beats or the bohemians, it was seamlessly integrated into the commercial culture. At its core the New Left shared the same hedonism, entrancement with mass entertainment, love of spectacle and preoccupation with the self. And the degeneration of the New Left is personified by politicians such as Clinton, who mouthed the usual platitudes about the poor and working men and women while he and both major political parties, awash in corporate dollars, betrayed and impoverished them.
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