Remembering the 1960s

By Edward Hadas
September 19, 2012

Revolution was not on the agenda when the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church opened on Oct. 11, 1962, almost exactly 50 years ago. However, the gathering marked the start of a new era, not only for the world’s largest centrally-run religion. During the following years, the hope for a better, freer world led to everything from the sexual revolution to the Prague Spring, from African independence to the hippie culture of Woodstock. A half-century on, it seems a good time for an economist to take stock.

The economy was not the top concern of the ’60s would-be revolutionaries, but calls for a new society had two revolutionary economic implications.

First, like so many other parts of the established order, the economic “system” was to be overthrown. The target was clear enough in Eastern Europe – the Communist planned economy. Elsewhere, the economic villain was harder to pin down, although it was often assumed that “capitalism” was intrinsically evil – heartless corporations and excessive materialism in the West and post-colonial exploitation in the Third World. It was time for radical change; if not a return to some imagined pre-industrial communal paradise then at least a massive refusal to become cogs in the machine. It hardly seemed to matter then that dissidents in the East were longing for what protesters in the West were loathing.

One of those 1960s dreams has come true. Communism is gone, save for Cuba and North Korea. Otherwise, the “system” appears well entrenched. Corporations, larger and more impersonal than ever, have extended their reach in a globalised world. Developing economies may be less in thrall to the former colonial masters, but indigenous entrepreneurs are just like their western exemplars. The communes are closed or have gone commercial. Alternative careers are rare, money and finance ubiquitous.

The second economic revolutionary demand was for the abolition of poverty in the midst of post-War plenty. This sentiment led to the foundation of the United Nations World Food Programme in 1961 and the U.S. government’s war on poverty in 1964. The post-Vatican II Catholic Church was one of the keenest promoters of global economic “Justice and Peace”.

That dream has come closer to reality. True, hunger still plagues a billion people, but abject poverty has diminished as GDPs have risen around the world, and safety nets have helped the needy in richer countries. Nonetheless, the 1960s’ revolutionary and religious fervour made only a minor direct contribution to these improvements. Developing countries primarily copied the practices of rich countries while the welfare state mostly expanded existing programmes.

It might sound like “the system”, which was not overthrown, has actually been good for the world. Was the rage against the machine all in vain, and the idealism unnecessary? I think not, and not only because of the collapse of the Soviet economic model.

While most of the children of the 1960s eventually signed up for work within the system, many did not completely abandon their higher aspirations. As a result, the counter-culture spirit has infiltrated the corporate world. Capitalism has proved flexible enough to change in response to its critics. In the 1960s, theory Y management – the idea that employees should be encouraged more than disciplined – looked original. It is now obvious. Corporate claims to “social responsibility” may often sound hypocritical, but executives would not even bother to pretend if they didn’t believe that companies should do more than merely provide profits for shareholders. “Don’t be evil”, as Google’s founders put it, is a 1960s-style slogan that most bosses would now endorse.

The 1960s commitment to the elimination of poverty has also borne fruit. Without it, companies would be less willing to offer better conditions for their employees in poor countries, or to demand better conditions for their suppliers’ employees. Without it, western politicians would be more hostile to the expanding power of China and former colonies. Without it, there would be even more hostility to economic immigrants struggling to earn a decent living in rich countries.

Of course, history does not repeat itself. Last year’s global Occupy Movement didn’t amount to much. In a way, that failure is a sign of the greater success. The decade’s economic idealism has had enough influence that calls for radical change now sound silly.

Nonetheless, idealistic dreamers are still valuable. They can remind the world that the ultimate purpose of a prosperous society is not wealth for its own sake, but something better. I would suggest three goals for the grandchildren of the 1960s. First, the battle against pollution is not yet won in rich countries and has only begun in the developing world. Second, there is an urgent need for a financial system which doesn’t have greed as its only engine. Finally, the gulf between rich and poor is still too wide. It is too often forgotten that a poor man’s rise from wretched poverty does more good for the world than a rich man’s latest bauble.

11 comments

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I would not say “greed” is the only engine of our financial system. Greed is a word laden with luggage, all negative. I would say that maximizing profits is the engine of our financial system. One may see that as good or bad but so far it’s worked far better than socialism.

Yes, there are plenty of poor people. For that reason, equality of opportunity (not results) is essential. Some people will take advantage of opportunities. Many will not, and that cannot be helped. People are what they are.

Cuba and North Korea are the only remaining Communist nations? Actually, North Korea does not claim to be Communist. Vietnam, Laos and China are officially Communist, but China is, of course, swimming toward capitalism as fast as its Red arms will take it while maintaining the Communist fiction.

Posted by MDickson | Report as abusive

Mr. Hadas says, “… there is an urgent need for a financial system which doesn’t have greed as its only engine.” And in the paragraph before, he said, “Last year’s global Occupy Movement didn’t amount to much. [....] The decade’s economic idealism has had enough influence that calls for radical change now sound silly.”

Well, that urgent need is exactly what the Occupy movement is addressing. Calls for radical, or should we just say substantial change do not sound silly at all to those who see the decision-making process in our country already so strongly shifted to a basis of ‘one dollar, one vote’, rather than ‘one person, one vote’, as the richest 400 families, taking in a quarter or so of the country’s total income in a given year (23.5 % in 2007, latest figures), undermine our democracy through their inordinate influence on legislators, who depend on deep-pocket funding.

Posted by bcrawf | Report as abusive

“Nonetheless, idealistic dreamers are still valuable.”

Just don’t be an idealistic dreamer yourself. Because when you want to talk about the truth and make things right/logical, somebody will get hurt. And they will track you down, hunt you, mark you down, call you out and you will be turned upside down

Make sure you let somebody ELSE be the “idealistic dreamers”, hopefully they will have thoughts deeper than our current set of “idealistic dreamers”.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

…you will be turned upside down AND inside out

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

@bcarwf, and to Mr. Hadas, and to others –

Thank you, Bcrawf for correction re Occupy! The intelligence and sentiment that energized Occupy exists. It’s form may have changed, but it has by no means gone away.

This is also true of calls for fundamental change that emerged during the 1960′s. The intelligence and sentiment has not gone away. True, many participants eventually re-connected with the system, but not all. Of those who did re-connect, the larger share took their philosophies and questions with them. The conversation never completely stopped.

Try as corporatists might, very few have managed to dis-entangle themselves from the system’s mechanisms in such a way that they no longer externalize as many costs as possible. Need to “do whatever is necessary” to ensure market competitiveness, if not outright dominance, puts even the most well-intended corporation in position of ‘slave’ to system as master.

Externalized costs are presented to ordinary citizens as costs they must bear, (bailouts and environmental cleanups, for example). These have negative consequences to citizen financial and physical well-being, and are not necessary if we’re willing imagine and shift to a better design for our economic system.

Poverty, alas, is making fresh gains. Not only are policies skewed to allow more wealth to accrue to an increasingly smaller portion of any national population, but robotics (a good thing) have cost jobs (not so good) and governments have responded by “warehousing” the unemployed with attitudes surpassing those of Scrooge, (not a good thing at all.)

The whole notion that a newly born human is a precious potential of talent and gift to be fed, housed, educated, and kept well as investment and celebration is completely outside any/all discussions of what needs to be thought about in revising the economic machine we’ve designed.

Also off the table is serious open discussion of earth conditions. If we discussed it, we’d have to take responsibility. I’m afraid we’ve shot way past pollution as a concern. We’re now into destroyed oceans, rapid species losses, destroyed large masses of land to extract coal and shale oil/gases, and “privatizing” fresh water as “investment” for you-know-who, those mega-corporations and their chief investors mentioned above. We’re also silent about Fukushima. We’re not opening conversation that takes an honest look at true current and future costs and risks of nuclear energy.

A number of nations include manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction on the “positive” side of their ledgers. Wars seem ever popular – quite an opportunity for lucrative contracts. And if a few children, caregivers, and neighbors lose family members or are actually blown to bits themselves – we say “we’re so sorry but we had no choice.” At home, we turn to our people and explain that education and health care are “too expensive” while refusing to discuss full cost of war and military.

While explaining how serious our national economic conditions are, some use “entitlement” as a pejorative against ordinary citizens who foot the costs, and fail to consider “entitlement” when the wealthy want better tax breaks. “Entitlement” definition, too, needs public airing.

I so very much agree with your closing, Mr. Hadas: “idealistic dreamers are … valuable. They can remind the world that the ultimate purpose of a prosperous society is not wealth for its own sake, but something better.”

Now – the trick is for us to out of the “machine” long enough on a regular basis to seriously consider how to achieve the “dreams of something better”.

Posted by MaggieMP | Report as abusive

@trevorh – very good! :)

Since I’m posting again – here a couple of typo corrections for my piece:

“negative consequences to citizen financial and physical well-being, and are not necessary if we’re willing TO imagine and shift to a better design for our economic system.” (‘to’ omitted by accident)

and:
“the trick is for us to STEP out of the “machine” long enough on a regular basis to seriously consider how to achieve the “dreams of something better”. (‘step’ omitted by accident)

Posted by MaggieMP | Report as abusive

@MDickson

As much as I don’t like Communism and China. I hope that the CCP won’t be wiped out. Because, with their potential, the day China goes completely under the Kuomintang and the true nationalist spirit, Pacific Asia should remember the old days of Imperial Japan as the “good old days”.

Communism with its many flaws still has in its core the good goal of no-conflict and cooperation.
Nevertheless, it is an absolutist’s solution with the fatal lack of efficiency and balance. It needs to add at least those two in order to compete with private capitalism.

Anyway pointless thought much, I’m back to watching Family Guy now :P

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

@MDickson, Capitalism is not a form of government. It is an economic system. ALL forms of government have employed Capitalism including Aristocracies, Dictatorships, Socialism and Communism, and most have excelled at it at some time in human history. China is not swimming toward capitalism it is proving that their “Communism” can succeed economically with Capitalism.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive

An “ethical economy” is an oxymoron.

Whenever a society attempts to mix the two, the result is an unmitigated disaster — which I believe is an apt description of the present times.

You need to stick to one subject or the other, otherwise you end up with nonsense, which is what this article is.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Western style capitalism has proven to be disastrous for the workers and a bonanza for the elite, ongoing to this very day. China, (would have anyone guess it?) just might prove to be more equitable under its new leadership coming up in the next few months.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

“Second, there is an urgent need for a financial system which doesn’t have greed as its only engine.”

Fix this one and the first takes care of its self. We need to end the money monopoly. If the free market is really the best system, why surround it with legal tender laws? Let every country, state, city, community, individual, etc. create it’s own competing currency. Let them back it with whatever they have or choose.

But how would they ever tax (rob) us?!

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive