The Sixties myth

Tony Blair is the latest in a long line to scapegoat the 1960s for the Western elites' own problems.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

UK prime minister Tony Blair’s recent attack on the Sixties follows a long-established pattern of setting up the era of flower power, drugs and rock’n’roll as the cause of society’s moral disorientation.

Yet this obsession with the permissive Sixties has little to do with what actually happened during that decade. Hostility towards the Sixties was driven by a powerful sense of confusion and fear that afflicted sections of the Western elites in the postwar period. Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, elites had experienced something of an intellectual crisis. Many leading thinkers and ideologues were concerned that capitalism lacked the capacity to justify itself in intellectual and moral terms. The sense of exhaustion that affected conservatives also afflicted liberal thinkers of the time. Writing in 1949, Daniel Bell drew a picture of cultural impasse and intellectual exhaustion:

‘For out of the confusions and exhaustions of war, a new non-political attitude is spreading, typified by the French je m’en fiche (I don’t give a damn), and the Italian fanno schifo tutti (they all stink), in which the sole desire of the great masses of people is simply to be left alone. Conscripted, regimented, manipulated, disoriented in the swirl of ideological warfare, the basic and growing attitude is one of distrust. And [for] the intellectual, the seed-bearers of culture, the feeling is one of betrayal by power, and the mood is one of impotence.’ (1)

Until the 1960s, the intellectual crisis described by Bell had little direct public consequence. It existed under the surface, eating away at the confidence of the Western intellectual and cultural establishment. They could even taken a crumb of comfort from the fact that they were living through an era where ideology appeared to have come to an end, where political ideas no longer mattered. In effect, what the establishment was saying was: Okay, we don’t have the capacity to connect with or enthuse the public, but neither does anybody else.

Then came the Sixties. Establishment values were ridiculed and rejected by an active minority of young people. It was the period when nothing appeared sacred. Cherished traditions were mocked and authority was questioned. It was an ‘Emperor with no clothes’ situation – the cultural elites were caught out, exposed as intellectually and morally naked. At the time, and in subsequent decades, this intellectual and moral humiliation of the Western establishment was blamed on the breakdown of traditional values. In turn, the cause of this development was attributed to insidious radical influences who had apparently set out actively to undermine the Western way of life.

This gets things the wrong way around: the intellectual crisis of bourgeois order might have been experienced as the consequence of a challenge from radical quarters, but the crisis long preceded the 1960s. Sixties radicalisation was perceived as the cause, rather than the product, of the erosion of the intellectual and moral confidence of the Western ruling elites.

Unable to come to terms with the decline of traditional ideas and their inability to defend and sustain them, conservative and liberal intellectuals blamed ‘insidious’ influences for seducing the youth. Other thinkers blamed the new economic prosperity for helping to undermine old values. ‘Life has ceased to be as difficult as it used to be, but it has become pointless’, wrote the author of a study on ‘permissive Britain’ (2). What many of these traditionalists could not confront was their own responsibility for failing to give meaning to traditional values. Nor could they accept that at least in part this failure suggested that such conventions and values had become irrelevant. Blaming the Sixties for social and moral ills that afflict the West is a bit like the Emperor turning on the little boy to accuse him of stealing his clothes.

In the 1960s, what had hitherto been the malaise of a narrow stratum of the Western intelligentsia exploded into the public domain. In virtually all of the industrial capitalist societies accepted values and traditions were widely questioned. In particular, the Vietnam War provoked a widespread sense of demoralisation that encouraged a major re-evaluation of the Western way of life. Many observers drew attention to the fact that in the 1960s the moral balance between the West and the Third World appeared to favour the latter. According to the ‘end-of-ideology’ sociologist Seymour Lipset, ‘the extent to which major segments of the intellectual and bureaucratic elites have lost faith in the moral superiority of Western democracy generally and of the United States in particular’ was a source of real concern (3).

In this climate of uncertainty, serious questions were also raised about the role of the family, religion and conventional forms of authority. That is why the 1960s precipitated a major crisis of confidence among the ruling elites. It seemed almost incomprehensible that at a time of relative prosperity the legitimacy of society could face such a barrage of criticism. From the point of view of conservatives, it seemed that something insidious must have been at work.

That something gradually turned into the notion of a betrayal of social values by the ‘Sixties intellectual’. It took some time for this theme to emerge. The initial emphasis was on ‘ingratitude’, ‘spoiled children’ and ‘infantile regression’. Gradually, darker forces were discovered to be at work. It was suggested that Sixties radicals were systematically destroying the Western way of life by infiltrating the media and institutions of culture and education. In some cases the forces of subversion were noted but left unspecified; in other cases, specific groups were identified as the enemy. For Norman Podhoretz, the problem was the ‘culture of appeasement’ associated with homosexual literary culture (4). For others, the ‘immorality’ of liberals was responsible for encouraging the permissive society.

Themes of conspiracy, betrayal and subversion were fuelled by a deep-seated sense of panic among Western elites, which could not face up to the fact that the erosion of their way of life was of their own making. The first battles in what would later be called the Culture War were lost because one side could not find the direction to the battlefield. Instead of confronting the inadequacy of their intellectual and moral capital, opponents of the 1960s dismissed their enemies as immoral conspirators. The view that a ‘New Class’ or a ‘Liberal Establishment’ had systematically subverted Western societies during the Sixties continues to this day. Blair’s recent denunciation of the 1960s, which represents a milder version of this myth, provides yet another account of this stab-in-the-back theory.

Rather than gradually dying off, the myth of the Sixties has acquired the status of truth; indeed, it seems to gain force with the passing of time. The 1960s are routinely blamed for all manner of social problems, from crime to the crisis in education. In the 1990s, David Owen, a former president of the UK Association of Chief Police Officers, blamed a reported growth in crime on a ‘decline in standards, and it is a very serious one. It began, I think, with the “anything goes” ideas of the Sixties. You cannot pretend that it doesn’t matter that there has been such a decline in private and public morality, in family discipline and the education system’ (5). It is accepted that a 40-year-old idea that ‘anything goes’ is the cause of problems today. One newspaper report summed up Blair’s recent attack on the 1960s as follows: ‘Why the Swinging Sixties Shattered Society….’ (6)

The durability of the Sixties myth is fuelled by the traumatic memories of a period when the empty and meaningless character of ruling-class values stood exposed. This unprecedented lack of confidence accounts for the hysterical reaction to that decade. The youth movement of the Sixties has become the stuff of conservatives’ nightmares. According to the former chair of the Adenauer Foundation, ‘the revolt of 1968 destroyed more values than did the Third Reich’ (7). It is difficult for the losers in the Culture War – conservatives – to concede that this apparently all-powerful youth movement did not have to do very much in order to discredit Western society’s already feeble values.

Critical literature on the 1960s self-consciously avoids acknowledging the responsibility of the Western establishment for its failure to defend its traditions. Instead it constructs a conspiracy theory that is promoted through associating emotive terms like ‘fascist’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘violence’ with the Sixties counterculture and radical movements.

There is a particular emphasis on violence in universities. The Nazi suppression of free speech is often evoked as a comparable event. But such condemnation of violence and intolerance on campus is rarely backed up by facts and figures. Someone growing up today who reads such literature could be excused for believing that hundreds, maybe thousands, had died as a result of this violence, when in fact it mostly consisted of forcing open doors in the course of student occupations and shoving matches with the police on demonstrations. Even a superficial acquaintance with the statistics shows that the violence of the 1960s was, in historic terms, kids’ stuff.

The subsequent reaction to the 1960s is as interesting as the period itself. One reason why the Sixties myth continued to thrive is because it gave an otherwise flagging conservative intelligentsia a chance to reinvent itself. As noted before, it was difficult for the Western establishment to face the bitter truth that the breakdown of conventional values and traditions was responsible for the Sixties. It seemed far more plausible to seek out those who had betrayed the cause of Western capitalism – and a new class of university lecturers, state bureaucrats, social workers and assorted do-gooders seemed to fit the bill. Through a confrontation with the ideas of this new class, the conservative reaction in the 1980s finally acquired some intellectual coherence.

It is widely accepted that the Sixties acted as a catalyst for the subsequent conservative reaction. KL Kusmer argued that it is ‘one of the ironies of recent American history that the most significant consequence of the “radical” 1960s was the emergence of a conservative backlash against the social and political concerns of that tumultuous decade’ (8). According to Robert Nisbet, a leading American neo-conservative sociologist, ‘New conservatism was born in the mid-1960s. It is almost inseparable from the “Student Revolution” which played something of the role in the conservative renaissance that the French revolution played in the rise of philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century’ (9).

Nisbet’s rather exaggerated comparison notwithstanding, the conservative reaction to the 1960s provided the dynamic for its subsequent intellectual development. In the 1980s a more coherent conservative account of the world did emerge – but because it was so deeply wedded to the myth of the Sixties it proved to be far too feeble to reverse the losses it had suffered in the Culture Wars. So while the Sixties myth helped conservatives to construct a powerful-seeming backlash, it was always only a backlash, rather than a coherent perspective that could be relevant to the problems of everyday life. And they have been backlashing ever since.

The acceptance of the Sixties myth is not merely confined to the conservative intelligentsia. Most of the critics of Blair’s denunciation of the 1960s believe that decade was a uniquely progressive period of reform and social transformation. Consequently, many of the intellectual and moral confusions that prevail today are overlooked or else turned into a virtue.

The 1960s did not create these problems. Indeed, one of the positive consequences of that period was that it brought the intellectual and moral crisis of modern society out into the open. Such a crisis is not simply a negative phenomenon; it also creates the conditions where problems can be recognised and thus confronted. Unfortunately, the dominant reaction to this opportunity was to turn Western society’s incoherence into a virtue.

Although occasionally political parties, think tanks and intellectuals still claim to be searching for a Big Idea, today’s cultural elite mostly avoids anything that smacks of a coherent view of the world. The authoritarian imagination confuses permissiveness with the prevailing climate of non-judgementalism. Permissiveness is a precondition for a truly tolerant society, but tolerance should not mean a reluctance to make moral judgments or to take strong stands against forms of behaviour deemed wrong. Forty years on, the Emperor still has no clothes – only this time the children are being educated to believe that that is a valid lifestyle option.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
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  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

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Visit Frank Furedi’s website

(1) Cited in Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age, Pluto Press, 1992. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).)

(2) Permissive Britain, by Christie Davis, Pitman Publishing, 1975, P.202

(3) Dialogues on American Politics, by Irving Horowitz and Seymour Lipset, Oxford University Press, 1978, p.146

(4) The Present Danger, by Norman Podhoretz, Simon and Schuster, 1980

(5) See the Guardian, 23 January 1991

(6) How dare Blair and Blunkett blame it on the Sixties?, Daily Telegraoh, 20 July 2004

(7) Cited in Nation, 22 May 1989

(8) An American tradition: Governmental Action to promote equality in American History, by K.L.Kusmer in Amerikastudien, 1989, vol.34, no.3, p.263

(9) The Conservative Renaissance in perspective, by R. Nisbet, The Public Interest, no.81, Fall 1985 pp.134-135

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Topics Politics


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