A reader wrote to say he’s surprised I didn’t catch this Kurt Andersen piece from The New York Times the other day. I’m flattered that he thinks me sharp enough to catch everything, and grateful that he sent the link on.
It’s an interesting piece from Andersen, a Baby Boomer, one of the founders of Spy magazine and now the host of the public radio arts and culture program Studio 360. He is not what you’d call a conservative. He reflects on why it is that the 1960s counterculturalists won on all their sociocultural goals, but failed to realize their economic ideals. Andersen theorizes thus:
What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.
Yet each time, thanks to economic crises and reassertions of moral disapproval, a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good was restored.
Consider America during the two decades after World War II. Stereotypically but also in fact, the conformist pressures of bourgeois social norms were powerful. To dress or speak or live life in unorthodox, extravagantly individualist ways required real gumption. Yet just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires. My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent. Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outré — but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck. When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.
But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.
Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.
Andersen goes on to say that “Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.”
He might have gone on to say that basically American politics amount to a struggle between the Party of Lust and the Party of Greed. But I did six years ago (and hey, it’s now available on Kindle!)