From the Affluent Society to the Politics of Austerity

Many people have compared the New Left of the 1960s to Occupy Wall Street. The differences are obvious. The Port Huron Statement, the New Left’s founding document, was a weighty 60-odd mimeographed and stapled pages. Occupy Wall Street’s documents are shorter and posted on the Web. The political backdrop for the rise of the New Left was the moral Manicheanism of the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation, in contrast to the murkier politics of the “Global War on Terror.” The earnest idealism of the young people who wrote the Statement—informed and inspired by the civil rights movement—contrasts sharply with the ironic tone of much contemporary politics.

Perhaps most notably, the Port Huron Statement was written near the high point of postwar prosperity, a moment when the unemployment rate was at 5.5 percent (it would sink even lower, to 3.9 percent, by 1969) compared to 9 percent last fall. Its authors took material affluence for granted. They had grown up, they wrote, in “at least modest comfort,” and their anxiety about the world they would inherit did not include the return of real economic insecurity. They described a population that had been lulled into apathy by prosperity. In the early 1960s, the Statement’s authors could write that “many of us comfortably expect pensions, medical care, unemployment compensation and other social services in our lifetimes,” all of which are much more difficult to come by today. It is easy to look back at the postwar years as a kind of idyll.

Despite these differences, the Statement’s views on the economy, though widely forgotten, show that many of the issues being raised about economic inequality today were already on the table in the early 1960s. The postwar era, in fact, resembled our own more than we sometimes remember.

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“The modern concentration of wealth is fantastic,” the Port Huron Statement observed, noting that the “wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock.” This economic centralization mattered not only for economic reasons—it also shaped political life: “Economic minorities not responsible to a public in any democratic fashion make decisions of a more profound importance than even those made by Congress.” The Statement referred to a price-rigging scandal in the electronics industry that had involved corporate behemoths such as General Electric. But most of the time, the authors observed, the political power of business involved “no conscious conspiracy.” It was simply business as usual.

The economic inequalities of our own day were anticipated even at the height of postwar affluence.

The section on labor unions also feels prescient. American labor, the authors observed, was heading for a difficult time, as the American economy was undergoing a period of dramatic change, with the expansion of jobs in “white collar” industries—what we think of now as the service sector—outpacing those in more unionized industries. “As big government hires more, as business seeks more office workers and skilled technicians, and as growing commercial America demands new hotels, service stations, and the like, the conditions will become graver still.” (The authors did not foresee that by the end of the twentieth century, the public sector would provide one of the few areas of expansion for the labor movement.) The South’s hostility to unions provided a haven for “runaway” plants to relocate from Northern cities, and a ready source of “cheap labor threatening the organized trade union movement”—a domestic source of what Mexico and the Philippines would later become. At a time when union membership has fallen to about 8 percent in the private sector, it may feel strange to read that “only 40 percent” (emphasis added) of workers were unionized, but the authors clearly recognized what few did in the early 1960s: that economic trends posed a threat to unions, which they still saw as one of the few institutions with the potential to speak for the dispossessed, even though they have often failed to do so.

Finally, the authors were closely attuned to continued poverty and deprivation amid the “national celebration of consumer prosperity.” They also noted the problem of a Keynesian economy that focused public spending on military defense even while preaching the values of “free enterprise” and a “share-holder’s democracy.” The Cold War rhetoric of the day was all-encompassing, just as the language of the free market is now. The common wisdom was that “there simply are no alternatives,” an attitude of “tough-minded” realism that in fact meant rejecting any aspiration to honestly confront the problems of the day.

Today, it is easy to imagine the postwar years of Keynesian prosperity as a Golden Age, an alternative to our own difficult times. But a careful reading of the Statement suggests the extent to which the economic inequalities of our own day were anticipated even at the height of postwar affluence. Even if mid-century capitalism was in some ways “more reformed, more human,” there remained “hard-core poverty and unemployment,” the political empowerment of “fantastically rich elites,” and the decline of labor. (Of course, even at its height, the consumer society of the postwar period was available primarily to white Americans—something else that the authors of the Statement acknowledged in a way that few contemporaries did.)

Most of all, we can hear an echo of our contemporary crisis in the document’s description of the “poverty of vision” and “poverty of political action” in addressing these economic questions. While its authors were concerned about the material aspects of economic inequality, they focused primarily on the economy as a political and moral space, too important to be left to technocrats. In this they differ most sharply from prevailing opinion today, and agree most strongly with the Occupiers.