April 25, 2010


REVIEW: of The Shock of the Global: the 1970s in Perspective By Niall Ferguson, Charles S Maier, Erez Manela and Daniel J Sargent (John Gray, 25 April 2010, New Statesman)

Crisis, what crisis?

At a time when many fear a return to the political deadlock and industrial conflict of Britain a generation ago, Niall Ferguson offers a comforting reassessment. "In terms of political violence and economic instability, the 1970s were an unexceptional decade." According to the Harvard-based historian, the chaos of the 1970s was largely imaginary, a delusion produced by an outbreak of moral panic in universities.

“The period's dire reputation may owe more to the bad experiences of Anglo-American academics, caught between inflation and student radicalism," he writes, "than to any measurable increases in global disorder." What academics were worried about when they chronicled the conflicts of the 1970s was their own falling income and status. "The combination of double-digit inflation and public-sector pay freezes seemed to threaten a generation of dons with proletarianisation . . . Professors could not even rely on their investments to compensate them for sharp declines in their real pay." Among these panic-stricken professors, Ferguson singles out A J P Taylor, whose opinions and finances he examines at some length. "For someone of Taylor's age, the trauma of financial crisis was in some measure compounded by the strained relations with students (not to mention teenage sons) that characterised the period after 1968." Taylor believed British capitalism had hit the buffers, but in Ferguson's view this perception was highly subjective. "Taylor was much too gloomy about the west's prospects: it was Deng [Xiaoping] who got it right." Aside from the Anglo-American academy, there was no crisis in the 1970s.

It is a strikingly reductionist interpretation, and quite entertaining as long as it's not taken too seriously. There is a certain drollery in the thought that the status anxieties of academics were more symptomatic of the 1970s than the oil shocks of the mid-1970s and the Iranian Revolution at the end of the decade. For Ferguson, these events had little significance. It was the new technologies that came onstream in the 1970s - microprocessors and catalytic converters, for example - that were important; hence Ferguson's view that Deng got it right.

My freshman year in college, when he was on his book tour for Will, G. Gordon Liddy came to Colgate for a lecture. He was arrogant, bombastic, unapologetic and very, very funny. He took obvious pleasure in goading liberal listeners and they reacted exactly as he hoped, making for an entertaining spectacle. At one point, two co-eds stood up and complained that he kept referring to them as ladies rather than as women. His response: "I assume that you are ladies until your behavior demonstrates otherwise."

He said one thing though that always struck me as somewhat poignant and, while not a justification for the vile Richard Nixon, at least an insight into how the Administration got itself into such a mess. He said that he did what he did because he genuinely felt like the institutions of the country he loved were under assault and that he needed to be as extreme in their defense as his opponents were in their attacks.

In retrospect, we have a fair bit of trouble taking the radicals of the 60's and 70's seriously. After all, it took just a whiff of grapeshot at Kent State--and the middle classes applause for that action, for the hard hats who beat up protestors and for the final scene of Easy Rider--for the student movement to collapse. Likewise, when even LBJ showed himself willing to militarize the ghettoes it quieted the cities in a hurry. And where the shooting of JFK, RFK and MLK were genuine tragedies, the assassination attempts on Gerald Ford smacked of comedy. By the end of the decade the bland caretaker government of a Southern white evangelical was yielding to the reformist government of a white Western evangelical and, despite the economic disruption required to wring the legacy of inflation out of the system, by 1984 the whole era had taken on the quality of a bad dream and was a butt of relentless joking.

Indeed, Frances Wheen's recent book, Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, plays the decade for laughs and finds many. The radicals and the supposed threat they posed are so comical that the reaction of folks like Liddy can't help but seem lunatic. In essence, his account boils down to a war of the fringes with the vast majority uninvolved.

Oil shortages were unquestionably inconvenient and inflation is a terrible social solvent, but these were both discrete crises that were dealt with quickly. They had no lasting social effect, except to turn parties of the Left in the West just as hawkish on inflation as Wall Street bankers had always been. Significantly, whereas countries outside the Anglosphere often saw former radicals come to power, in the U.S. the only two presidents whose formative years came in the '70s were both establishment creatures and, llike their precedecessors, conservative white Southwesterners. And Barack Obama, the first to be formed by the 1980s, is an archetypal organization man who had to pretend to follow the Reverend Wright just to gain some street credibility. He represents the ultimate fruition of the civil rights revolution not because he is black but because is so "white" and because his race was a help rather than a hindrance at every step of his career.

Whether the chaotic events of the '70s were unusual or not, the fact is that order was restored so quickly and thoroughly that it is entirely fair to say that they were nothing more than chaos, devoid of any larger meaning.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2010 7:07 AM
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