Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Bust to the Baby Boom 2

The popular part of the Baby Bust's ideology works fairly well told in Marxian terms: after the austerity of the Great Depression, and the Second World War, pent up demand created a wave of babies, this demographic bulges objective realities – they outnumbered their parents; atomization of labor for the required mobility meant that they were in nuclear families; there were competing demands on capital, and these previous facts meant they were Lord of the Flies style left to misraise themselves; mass production and mass broadcast became their form of social mediation and social proof – led to rather clear response in the creation of a "generational consciousness" which replaced class consciousness. For the boomers, one's age was the defining feature of ones opportunities and circle of friends, challenges and outlook.

This story is a gross oversimplification, it has been told often, and while it is close enough for understanding two important parts of Boomerite ideology, it does not tell the other half of the story, namely the intellectual aridity of the previous age. New ideas, other than exploitation of semi-conductor technology, have been almost non-existent.

This intellectual story does not fit in Marxian objective realities of production, part of the problem being that Marxism and its spin offs is only half a theory: objective realities work to create consciousness, and that consciousness is the response to pre-existing distribution of wealth and capital, and thus how class conflict plays out. All well and good, but it is missing a theory of psychology, and all economic theories are scaled up theories of psychology.

This is why in the late 20th century a myriad of hybrids of Marxism sprung up, many of which were attempts to combine Marxism, with Freudianism. This impulse is not generated by class consciousness, or generational consciousness, but by historical consciousness: where people think they are in the historical structure. The boomerite ideology is as the janitor generation for a series of synthetic – indeed synthesistic and even syncretic movements, in the arts, in the sciences, and in the humanities. Once one grasps that Syncretism, with a capital "S" is the historical consciousness, one which won among a competing series of ideas, not because of objective consciousness, but because it was the historical consciousness, then the second, that is the elite, strand of the boomerite problem becomes visible.

Syncretic thinking is the response to the Modern period's legacy: where there was war, there had to be peace, where there had been fiat, there had to be consensus; where there was siloed theories, there had to be unity. There had been syncretic movements in the Modern, in cubism, in Dada, in various aspects of literature, and previous syncretic ages, my own study is of Petrarch, and the syncretic nature of his "Scattered Rimes," the collection of hist Italian poems, as well as the 1500's with its syncretic approach to knowledge and myth – e.g. occultism, and poems such as Orlando Furioso. There have been others, for example the mid-Bronze age after the first Bronze dark ages was host to several: the Babylonian synthesis of the Sumero-Akkadian, the Vedic tradition in India, the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, the Hebrew tradition, the early Ionic tradition which leads to Hesiod and Homer. Key signs of syncreticism are hybrid names: Pallas Athena, for example which is a merger of two different goddesses, and shifts away from an original creator sky god to some other God – for example the shift in the pantheon in the middle east to Marduk.

The first wave of the syncretic takes overt pleasure in "mash up" and "bash up" cross over of myth, like that great middle modern syncretic exercise, the superhero comic, where techno marvels, e.g. Iron Man, are next to Norse Gods, e.g. Thor. However once this is done, the next wave looks for a way to unify the competing pieces, and make them look whole. There are many sources for the Greek Pantheon, sources that are still largely visible in Hesiod, but by the time of Greek Tragedy, these sources are being blended together. There is still a need for "deus ex machina" – literally "the god out of the machine," where some higher power is invoked to sort everything out. This is a second wave syncretic exercise, but it is headed to full synthetic. Plato, wants synthesis, where the joints between near eastern despotic gods of nature as it is, have been merged into logic idealist gods, of nature as man imagines it in the utopian. Plato points out, perhaps somewhat in jest, that the Iliad purged of bad gods, is an ode, not an epic.

The synthetic paradigms of the post-war era are many: in physics, the relativistic Standard Model, in economics the neo-classical synthesis, in sociology Marxo-Freudianism, in biology the neo-Darwinian synthesis of mendelvian genetics and Darwinian selection. The necessity of taking very disparate underlying theories, and fusing them, went first by syncretic thinking, and then a search for full synthesis. Many of these theoretical frameworks were extremely successful, for example the Standard Model and General Relativity are the most precisely predictive ideas ever created. Marxo-Freudianism is virtually a religion complete with iconography, without which there simply is no understanding modern cinema and much of modern literature.

The Baby Boom inherited, then, a historical consciousness of their role as the ones who would bring full smooth synthesis to syncretic hybrid theories, prove that there could be "one ring to rule them all," or "a theory of everything. The Baby Boom became the neo- era, neo-classical, neo-liberal, neo-conservative – even a film grasped that to be the arch-neo was the holy grail in The Matrix and its sequels. The Baby Boom was destined to be either a janitor generation, or the root of one of the "Grand Bargains" of intellectual history: make each theory budge enough to make both fit.

Such grand fusions in the past include the medieval synthesis of Mediterranean antiquities (Roman, Greek, Hebrew), the Roman synthesis of Greek and Hebrew thought, the Christian gospel fusion of Jewish and Greek mysticism, the hellenistic synthesis, the renaissance synthesis of Antiquity and post-medieval Catholicism. This last word "catholic" is rooted in universalism. The end of synthetic thought, is catholic, small "c," thought.

Thus the boom at once was disabled, and challenged: challenged to create an envisioned catholic universalism, and disabled, because the real synthetic problem is between the reality of a popular social consciousness, and an elite historical one. These are incommensurable.

So the second part of the preconditions of the boomerite problem is that consensus leads to the necessity of creating synthesis, where none of the parties must give up their preconditioned values or ideologies, leading to an attempt to form a catholic field theory of society and nature. This is the elite consciousness of the age. And this part of the story ends with an exclamation point: the Janitor Generation project of a simple "elegant" solution to synthetic problems has failed, across the boards. Before the boom even came of intellectual age, they were already condemned to a generation of intellectual labor which would go nowhere.


  1. "Lord of the Flies style left to misraise themselves"

    My memory is that this was truer for those who were children in the late 60s and 70s. There really were a lot of June Cleavers in the 50s and into the early 60s. Then comes the kind of childhoods portrayed in ET. The reaction against that helped support Reaganism (without actually changing family dynamics).

    This piece has so many interesting points and puts them together in new ways. So I write this in the spirit of engaging and refining your ideas.
    The notion of boomers as obsessed with grand unification is interesting. Have you run across Ken Wilber, who is a boomer, and Integral school?
    I think your notion of boomers left to misraise themselves is truer intellectually. McCarthyism and the development of the house-broken liberal left meant that the New Left really had to make it all up from scratch. When organized understandings from the past were engaged with, it was more like looting the ruins of a temple left behind by a dead civilization and less like engaging with a living tradition. Europe was different from America in this regard.

  2. "It is missing a theory of psychology, and all economic theories are scaled up theories of psychology."

    I don't even psychology is adequate to this task. What is needed is something that can explain and move forward the evolution of the average psychology over generations. The psychologies I know of deal with snap shots of phases of that evolution. Some useful material can be gotten from Buddhism and other meditation traditions (especially A.H. Almaas), but at least in the West now, those traditions have a strong taboo against engaging the social aspect of this project. (Because those traditions have arisen in the West within the knowledge worker class)
    And some hints can be extrapolated from Maslow.

  3. Actually, the line of research starting with feminist critiques of the electrical home starting in the 1980's and the "Overworked American" thesis of Juliet Schor (The Overworked American:
    The Unexpected Decline of Leisure 1992) show that even by the 1950's leisure had begun to decline, and that "unpaid work" by women was increasingly radically. Some of the reasons for this is the move to explicit organizations for education, religion, and charity, the increase in work in being the "consumer in chief" of a mechanized home, and social spill over in supporting the husband's work. Being a home maker was not focused on with child time. Also the time in home by children declined rapidly, as centralized school systems replaced local schools.

  4. What I remember about middle class married women entering the paid work force was that many of them started in part-time jobs to earn money for a second family car. Men increasingly felt constrained by the need for their car to run household errands like grocery shopping and to ferry the children around. The nuclear family home managed by the wife extended into the nuclear family car managed by the wife, reproducing the atomization and mobility of the labor force in the so-called private sphere.

  5. Statistically married women started entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970's in response to inflation, the increase in LFP for spouse present married women tracks inflationary episodes in the 1968-1979 period quite well.

  6. I'm a bit of plodder, and my mind has been laboring over your Boomer lectures, trying to figure out what you are saying. I was born in 1954, and went to college in the mid-1970s, on the lee side, definitely, of liberalizations of the 1960s. My older sister, born 1946, broke down all the pseudo-authoritarian strictures my parents laid out with rebellions; I met none of those strictures, and all of the idealisms of the 1960s seemed like conventional wisdom. I was the "responsible" latch-key child raised by passive, benign-neglect permissiveness, liberal in all the ways Bonanza and Gunsmoke and Laugh-in were liberal; my geeky friends in high-school knew every detail of Dark Shadows.

    In college, there was a major and self-conscious changing of the guard underway in the early 1970s. My impression is that the 1950s had witnessed an enormous triumph of sociology, and the "social sciences" generally, including economics, and that felt triumph was connected to a sense of having arrived at a successful synthesis. Figures associated with that synthesis, like Paul Samuelson or Talcott Parsons or C. Wright Mills were practically worshipped, and even lesser mortals, who could affect sweeping generalizations -- Barrington Moore or Douglas Hofstader or the young Schlesinger had great prestige. (Marcuse didn't seem to make much of an impression in my little world.) Structural functionalism is an idea that was impressed upon my mind, over and over. I vividly remember my honor Economics teaching fellow saying that he thought all of of economics was packed into our introductory textbook (Lipsey Steiner), everything more advanced being just a repetitive elaboration on details and extremities. My intermediate macro class was the first or second time Gardner Ackley did not assign the General Theory as the primary text.

    One of the strongest norms we had was a sense that everything valid was dated after 1965, with a few exceptions (Weber was OK). I'm sure our teachers meant to convey after 1940, but we heard it differently.

  7. The triumph of that grand synthesis wasn't just an intellectual accomplishment; it gained from the sense of technocratic triumph and self-confidence -- the contributions of academics to the New Deal and, even more, the war effort and the Occupation reconstructions. The triumph of sociology and social science and neoclassical economics, was a filter that blocked out any sense of history, and a lot of factual or experiential wisdom. Samuelson's textbook was like a Cliff's Notes for the whole of political economy. Somewhere, I saw Paul Krugman confess that he, the great theorist of international trade, had never read Ohlin's textbook, until after he (Krugman) had won the Nobel Memorial prize. Solow, who is quite a bit older than Krugman, has noted that he heard Schumpeter lecture, but couldn't figure out what the fuss was about. That filter pretty much eliminated institutionalism, with all its feel for realistic and messy detail, from economics.

    And, then, there was the computer. The assistant and associate professors of economics (and sociology, too, I suspect) all came into the field expecting to do great things with computers. The Cowles Foundation had prepared the path. In economics, in the 1970s, there was great enthusiasm for Otto Eckstein's Data Resources, Inc. But, I remember that my professors seemed to have already realized that those great assemblies of simultaneous linear equations were a dead-end, useful only for a Wizard-of-Oz sort of show. I worked as an economist in government in the 1970s and 1980s, and witnessed (from the bottom of the heap, admittedly) the transformation of role expectations for my profession from "expert" to frontman.

    The last hurrah for grand, broad visions of the political economy and society turned out to be the "debate" between Friedman and Galbraith, which spanned the "long decade" of the 1960s (1958-1977). Friedman won, and he won with a vision, which completely denied any function for the institutional structures of the New Deal/WWII economy, and asserted against all the evidence, the sovereignty of the couch-potato consumer in a "market economy", where actual markets were rare and exceptional curiousities. The great synthesis of structural functionalism, asserted with the overweening confidence of technocrats, who thought themselves wildly successful, ended with no one (after 1977), apparently, knowing anything whatsover about how things in society worked.

    Fast forward to GWB, Churchillian poses to justify aggressive war against Iraq, followed by Paul Bremer and the farcical Reconstruction of Iraq, followed by the spectacle of Katrina, followed by Bernanke presiding over the Great Depression Redux.

    And, as you noted about Zero Dark Thirty (what a name!), we now seem to want to take pride in our stupid, vicious insistence on making our completely wrong, stupid theories of how the world works, work anyway with vast waste of resources.

  8. "he triumph of that grand synthesis wasn't just an intellectual accomplishment; it gained from the sense of technocratic triumph and self-confidence -- the contributions of academics to the New Deal and, even more, the war effort and the Occupation reconstructions. "

    Excellent point.