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.