Revolutions that are not fully successful in overthrowing “the system” tend to be followed by a reactionary period of increased, often violent repression by Old Power desperate to maintain its hold on control and privilege (e.g., the French Counter-Revolution; post-1848 Europe; post-1905 Russia; the Condor era in Latin America). The ever more authoritarian era we are in today can be seen as a counter-revolution brought about by the “Peace-Love” Revolution of the 1960s. Contrast the Soaring Sixties with the previous decade. In the Fabulous Fifties, American prestige was high after Uncle Sam’s important role in winning the war. The American Dream was alive and well, mostly for good white folks but with a rising tide floating all (?) boats, even blacks and other minorities shared, minimally, in the bounty. Wages were rising, corporate profits booming. Politically, blacks were largely kept in their place and Mexican workers exploited without repercussion. The status quo was holding strong.
Already, though, the winds of change were blowing. The era of imperialism, in the traditional sense, was coming to an end as former colonized regions of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean one after another won independence. The threat of self-governing “Third World” countries nationalizing their industries in order to better the lives of their peoples must have mortified the heads of multinational corporations that feasted on the resources of those exploited lands—at least to the extent there was concern the United States government wouldn’t step in and save the day, which of course it did, using every weapon at its disposal—most not very nice—to ensure such a travesty never occurred. How did our oil get under their sand, indeed.
The Sixties exploded onto the scene with a plethora of social movements: civil rights, feminism and equality for women, racial equality, Black Pride, Brown Power, gay rights, workers’ rights, environmental protection. Black Panthers and leftwing Berkeley activists. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, Johnson’s Great Society. Martin Luther King called out the Establishment for the injustice of poverty and the immorality of the Vietnam War. Watts and Detroit burned and streets ran red with blood, mostly of blacks trapped in lives of utter desperation. “Make love not war,” the hippies chanted while passing a joint and planting a flower in the barrel of a “pig’s” rifle. Muhammad Ali went Muslim and refused to step forward at his draft induction. The war threatened to rip the nation asunder.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
The Big Dogs must have been terrified. To a military-industrial complex that thrived on war and a corporate sphere based in the ruthless pursuit of profit, “peace and understanding” couldn’t be allowed currency. Brotherhood, economic justice, “war on poverty?” Nahsuh. To the victor belong the spoils, may the better (armed) man win. This one-two punch of revolutionary developments abroad and at home had Old Power staggering. They came out for the next round smoking like Joe Frazier in a steroidal rage.
May 4, 1970. Four students protesting the Vietnam War are shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State. Eleven days later, two black students at Jackson State College (Mississippi) are gunned down by police, twelve others wounded. Nixon bombs much of Indochina and toys (!) with the idea of nuking Vietnam. The FBI infiltrates the Black Panthers in an attempt to create factionalism. Nixon also takes the US off the gold standard, opening the door to the unfettered flow of capital that would play a crucial role in Twenty-First Century economic woes. The Counter-Revolution is on.
There would be much to ruffle the feathers of Old Power through the Seventies. Hostilities dragged on in Vietnam, keeping anti-war sentiment high. Watergate. Senate and House investigations revealed shady dealings of the CIA and FBI. The presidency of Jimmy Carter was seen as weak, with Iranian extremists taking US Embassy personnel hostage in Teheran. American prestige, barely a decade earlier riding so high, plummeted. Henry Kissinger spoke of the need for America to re-assert itself on the world stage. Kick somebody’s ass somewhere, creating the pretext if necessary, as was usually the case.
Most frightening to the Elite was that despite numerous attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolution was holding strong and giving inspiration to oppressed peoples everywhere, indeed right in American’s backyard, Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the democratic socialist Manley government in Jamaica (the Russian bear always looming in the background). The United States’ highly touted “Puerto Rico model” of development through corporate investment was proving a dismal failure—to Puerto Ricans, that is—compared to the advances Cuba was making in housing, healthcare, education. Communists in Cuba, socialist hippies here at home… the Peace-Love Revolution had to be squashed once and for all.
Riding in heroically out of the setting sun came ass-kicker-in chief Ronald Reagan. Reagan was like some smug, gun-slinging schoolmarm who would tolerate not the slightest hint of disobedience. These rude calls for inclusiveness and fairness and any and all acts of protest or resistance were un-American and worthy of punishment. Reagan adopted a police-state mentality, enlisting the FBI and CIA to track and subvert liberals and leftists. The law of the land was inviolate and as if God-given, no matter how archaic, racist, sexist, or contradictory to universal moral values it might on occasion be. Shut up and do your job and if you don’t like it get a new job, or lump it. National self-examination and self-criticism had no place in this new gilded age, it was enough simply to get back to the way we were when we wore the white hats. Dogma replaced critical thinking, opinion ascended above reason, a good ol’ boy’s common sense trounced science. Under Reaganism, the evolution of American culture was considered to have peaked in a Fifties Fantasyland of blue jeans, white T-shirts and Chevys at the levee (never mind the “strange fruit” that used to hang from the nearby trees).
Both parties were essentially on board. In the ’90s Clinton co-opted rightwing pogroms against such radical threats as single mothers and welfare recipients, repealed Glass-Steagall and imposed strict neoliberal economic policies on such booming markets as Haiti. Obama supported the rightwing takeover in Honduras, the militarization of Africa and expanded the national surveillance state, asking us to believe the government was benign and would never infringe on the liberties of decent folk. OMG those drones!
Existing mechanisms of keeping the people pacified, or as John Lennon sang, “doped on religion, sex and TV” (let’s add sports to that list) had to be bolstered. Fear and loathing—thank you, Hunter S. Thompson—became the hallmarks of the Counter-Revolution. Russians, communists, socialists, angry black males, immigrants, Muslims, welfare queens: Pumping up the public’s fear of these scary creatures and many more allowed Old Power to sell every kind of nonsense. That a scraggly army of barefoot Sandinistas might march fifteen hundred miles and attack our southern border. That Mexican braceros who broke their backs to pick our fruits and vegetables, keeping prices low, were somehow destroying the economy. As were unwed mothers receiving a pittance of government assistance while corporations received incomparably vaster sums and hid profits from the taxman, as Congress winked it all away. That in every black male lurked a violent criminal. These and other frightful specters induced acceptance among the domestic population of Old Power’s cruel and inhuman methods.
“Loathing” here means the devaluing of life, a degenerate and paranoid contempt for humanity and even the entire natural world. Blacks and minorities have always been seen as less than fully human, now increasingly whites too, the poor in general. Following Ayn Rand and social Darwinism, the Elite vilify those deemed not worthy of being in “the club” (accumulated wealth the key qualification; inherited is okay, even preferable). Romney’s “47%” shows that now even struggling Caucasians are written off as “white trash,” though it daren’t be said aloud. People are seen as refuse and treated accordingly. How else explain a society, the founding constitution of which stipulates “the common good” as the highest value, that refuses to provide affordable education for its own children? That then criminalizes them rather than admit some societal culpability when they go astray? That watches lives and families fall apart because so many jobs have gone overseas or been eliminated by technology, yet makes little effort to ameliorate the problem?
What is it but the devaluing of life to lock human beings away in cells in such inordinately high numbers, without providing them opportunities to learn employable skills and rehabilitate, or without having given them the tools to succeed on the outside in the first place? To impose long sentences on perpetrators of victimless and petty crimes, or minorities, while excusing the rich individuals and corporations that harm millions with their fraud and graft?
What is it but the devaluing of life for fire crews to stand idly by watching the homes burn of those who did not pay fire insurance? For police to brutally beat unarmed men, women and children, especially those of color, for some minor trespass or unproven guilt? For vigilantes to shoot down “illegals” crossing vast deserts wanting only to work, or to watch them die rather than offer water?
What is it but the devaluing of human life that allows our leaders to push trade agreements that, at best, give rise to a rich investor class on the backs of others who toil in virtual slavery, and at worst devastate the economies of so-called Third World nations?
What is it but the devaluing of life to raid pensions and Social Security accounts of elders to pay for the mistakes and crimes of Wall Street and their politician enablers?
What is it but the devaluing of life to invade and bomb a country that is not at war with us or threatening us? To refuse to do body counts of, say, children incinerated in their beds on national TV, unseen but surely there? To maintain an obscenely high “defense” budget in the face of enormous suffering on the home front? To invest such vast resources in the machinery of war, period?
Any devaluing of life reflects a loss of conscience and soul. It does no good to ask “what were they thinking?” or rail about their “mistakes” and “bad judgment.” The commissars of the Counter-Revolution are on a sacred mission to beat back the vestiges of the heathen Sixties, using any methods no matter how cold-blooded or calculating in the service of a “greater good” that belongs only to them. It’s all about keeping the machine running as it always has, for the benefit of those that have always benefited.
Perhaps fear and loathing are two sides of the same coin, for it is fear that gives rise to hate and hate that drives fear. Nobody has deeper fears than a bully. At the heart of it all the paranoid dread that one is unworthy unless pulling down a huge salary, driving a flashy car or lording over a vast corporate empire. Wealth becomes not the means to a decent life but an end unto itself, a psychological balm and social badge of honor. Rationalization of increasingly more inhumane actions is shockingly easy if not called out for what it is. Insight into this is provided by Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which the Judah character discovers to his delight that he is free of guilt after committing a murder he has gotten away with.
Fear and loathing have dragged us as a society to Stygian depths of depravity. The further along this road we travel the more difficult it will be to reclaim our humanity. Erich Fromm in his Sane Society argued that a person considered well-adjusted in a sick and immoral culture was himself sick and that in such an environment it was the crazy person who was most sane. Can the last shreds of decency in our collective heart lift us out of this downward spiral into rot and decay? It will require a true revolution, one based in love and understanding, that transcends fear and loathing to give expression to our higher natures while inspiring a “get up, stand up” spirit of activism to make Bob Marley proud. The first step to redemption must certainly be a gut-wrenching admission of guilt, for to paper over our mistakes and crimes is to invite them to come again. It all seems an impossible dream, but the alternative is to blindly follow the Fear and Loathing Counter-Revolution to despair, disaster and ultimate dissolution.