Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Generation Comes of Rage

Look, if you like, at the UC Berkeley Campus of the film, "The Graduate." Dustin Hoffman might as well be hanging around a high school door as he waits for Katherine Ross. It's been noted by others that the gap between the filming and the release had broken open into what would come to be called "The Summer of Love." 1967 was the moment that a generation came of age, and traumatized itself into myth. The belief that people could just gather in places and change everything, is what the boomers continue to try and recreate, even though 1967 was not 1967, it was also the "Long Hot Summer" of riots beginning in Cleveland, but reaching famous crescendo in Detroit and Newark NJ.
Nor was 1968, 1968. In 1967, in April, Dr. Martin Luther King warned that "10 cities" could explode into racial violence that year, it turned out to be widely short of the mark. Already disturbances, in many cases condoned by civil rights leaders, had boiled over in Boston and other cities. In June, 25 died in Newark in five days, in July, 43 died in Detroit. From there violence wound down, but flared up across the country, in places as far from the stereotype of urban concentration as the relatively sleepy city of Pheonix Arizona. The Senate ordered the Committee on Government Operations to prepare a report that was completed by the investigations sub-committee. It concluded that 70 cities had had disorders large enough in the previous 3 years to be "major incidents."

A generation had not only come of age, but had established its own myth.

In gauzy, and largely Anglo-American, retelling this was "non-violent." The facts speak differently, even those in the civil rights movement were not as pure as people now demand themselves to be. The term "Black Power" was coined by Stockley Carmichael, in a paper directed to the leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Council. In it he warned of explosion coming if the tension between what black Americans contributed to society, and what they got from it. But he did not condemn or advocate for violence. Instead:

If people must express themselves freely, there has to be a climate in which they can do this. If blacks feel intimidated by whites, then they are not liable to vent the rage that they feel about whites in the presence of whites--especially not the black people whom we are trying to organize, i.e., the broad masses of black people. A climate has to be created whereby blacks can express themselves. The reasons that whites must be excluded is not that one is anti-white, but because the effects that one is trying to achieve cannot succeed because whites have an intimidating effect. Ofttimes, the intimidating effect is in direct proportion to the amount of degradation that black people have suffered at the hands of white people.
Note well: rage experienced by the masses of black people. Carmichael himself would see beatings as proof that non-violence was a tactic, not a principle. Later he would change his name to Kwame Ture.
But this should be clear, behind almost every non-violent revolution, there is the spectre of a violent one, or a violent overthrow, which forces the powers that be to accept as genuine and legitimate the political leadership that is committed to civil process. Civil process is not non-violent: it arrests and threatens with arrest myriads of people every day. It is not always lawful: laws are bent and broken all the time. But fundamentally it is committed to doing things in ways which can be repeated. If exceptions to a law are made, then they are exceptions that can generally bear repeating, or are labelled as extra-ordinary and unique. The revolutionary process, by its nature, consists of acts which cannot be repeated constantly, because they destabilize. Revolution is a door that goes only one way.
The reason, of course, is that counter-revolution, the use of exceptional and unsustainable violence, ebbs and flares with the power of change. To put a dramatic period at the end of it, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. It was, as the Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives, dryly noted: "not an historical abberation."
But the myth of a consumer revolution remains. It is into this myth that the boom's echo, was raised, combined with a conservative system joining. Everything's a revolution, until nothing is. Rebel against the system by joining it.

The reason for that moment, which came in forms around the world, was that the great synchronizing event of the Second World War had reached an age of political action. The "Baby Boom" is the generational generation: it is one of the longest, largest, and most coordinated generations that will ever happen, because global events of that size and clarity are few and far between. The only other real competitor was the generation that spawned them. The war, made everyone a GI. The boom's love of generational demographics is as nature as a panda seeing the world held up by bamboo: it is the single most powerful force of their existence, and means that almost every problem had a high synchronized appearance as demand crested. However the generations around them, smaller and less synchronized, did not have the same demographic moment, and thus did not respond with the same eruptive force on command. They were also shorter, and less numerous.

This is why in the wake are a more fragmented trail of cohorts, rather than generations. Talk about generations, and the people talking most passionately have been talking about their g-g-g-generation since the beginning.

One reason the GI generation held the political field as long as they did – producing every American President from John Fitzgerald Kennedy through George Herbert Walker Bush – is that the generations before and after were bust generations. Only 16 years separate the birth years of the first of these Presidents from the last. There Boom may well hold power as long, and with fewer Presidents, already at 20 years, they could easily add 8 or 12 more. Again, to either side of the boom are bust generations. The same is true with the other dominant cohorts: the 1790-1808 burst that goes from Tyler to Andrew Johnson, essentially the ante-bellum generation, and the post-Civil War generation that governed from US Grant to Benjamin Harrison, and the late Victorian run from FDR through Eisenhower. But between these large runs, are spotty moments, sub-cohorts where people clustered close together produce a period of dominance, and then are pushed aside. Some it is hard to really argue for one bracketing over another.

The political adulthood of the boom came with what seemed to be the great disproof of turbulence: the coming of the "Great Complacency" and "Great Commodities Depression" and the period of politics associated with the unipolar world. No generation has spent as much time in a long noon day sun of seeming stability, nor came to ultimate power in such a strong position. This, as well as the need to compromise between two increasingly partisanized, but not polarized, political factions, led to the golden age of incrementalism. All change, is gradual change. All political battles, are battles of generational attrition.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a powerful synchronizing moment, but far less than it looked, because it sent some nations down, as it lifted others up. The change to a globalized market economy had been well underway before the shriek of tank shells broke the Moscow day. The financial crisis, however, is a far more powerful synchronizing event, the collapse of the baby boom's peak earning, is a synchronizing event, the failure of the Iraq strategy and the peaking of cheap oil is a synchronizing event. These events were driven by the GI generation's late political mantra: incrementalism: which was to make incremental improvements, and then consume them. For example, the 1983 deal to raise Social Security FICA taxes, and then use them to cut taxes on the wealthy, rather than, in fact, prepare for the retirement of the Baby Boom. This was repeated by the boom itself: Clinton's balanced budget era, was used to fund the largest upper income tax reduction in history.

The specifics of why this moment will be argued, particularly by those who think it can be turned back, or renormalization is possible. But they cannot be turned back. There is no second bite at 1968, or even 2000.

Instead the texture of demographics has been set off. While the GI/Boom pairing made it seem as if all of history is one generation after another, the reality is that there are a few major synchronizing events. These create generational moments: people of different ages are suddenly on the same clock. Between these generation dominated times, there are cohorts: smaller groups of people born close together. Thus the texture of history is of large unified generations that peter out into disunified cohorts. The large unified generations see themselves as generations, the cohorts only as a reflection of their circumstances. Thus the "Generation X" and the "Millennials" are cohorts, they have not been fused into generations.

As importantly the millennials are over: the people now filling in behind them do not share their buying into the system, nor their mimickry of late boomer consumption habits. Instead, they are more violent, more cynical, more bitter, having born the brunt of the crash: they have the debts of a go go generation, and the income of a depression generation.

The reason for this was visible in the early 2000's. It was perhaps prescience that the "Matrix" movie labelled 1999 as the peak of "your civilization." While this is probably not so, it was the peak of that wave of prosperity, which had been rising for 20 years. Growing up in this era, and being adult in this era, is what joins the millennials and the boomers. It taught the lesson that things mostly work out, stay in the system. In this the boomers came full circle: 1967 marked the moment where they rebelled against regimentation and presumed sacrifice of waiting and a war, and now they have inflicted those same conditions on the millennials. The millenials have also repeated the structure of that moment: of an older rising wave that clung to the sense of change by increments, and a younger wave no longer tied to the system. This younger wave is not the millennial generation that the boom wants. Already derided as nihilist, mocked by boomer icons like GB Trudeau for being incoherent and told to get in line behind boomer heroes, this new generation is as yet, without a name.

But the event that set this in motion was not the downturn, however, instead, it is the response to it.