From the freewheelin’ Sixties to the fearmongerin’ Noughties

Everyone talks about the impact, whether good or bad, of the tumultuous Sixties - but two in-depth books about that decade say and reveal more than most.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Books

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Arthur Marwick’s history of the Sixties, first published in 1998, is one of those books that you just want to have on your shelf. Covering every cultural development from the rise of the mini-skirt to the birth of hippy culture, from sex and urban planning to art, film and literature, it’s a fascinating romp through a turbulent period that goes on for 800 pages but leaves you wanting to read on. So hurrah for Bloomsbury’s decision to bring out an affordable ‘Reader’ edition, which also gives me an excuse to review this brilliant book for spiked.

Marwick’s The Sixties covers four countries and 16 years. As with everything else about the Sixties, how this historical period is dated has become a controversial question. Marwick explains that he is ‘postulating a “long sixties”’ on the grounds ‘[that] minor and rather insignificant movements in the Fifties became major and highly significant ones in the Sixties; that intangible ideas in the Fifties became powerful practicalities in the Sixties; that the Sixties were characterised by the vast number of innovative activities taking place simultaneously, by unprecedented interaction and acceleration’.

In Marwick’s view, ‘the critical point of change came, as precisely as one could ever express it, in 1958/59’ – and though that critical period ended in 1973/74, ‘many of the new trends of the Sixties continued throughout the Seventies, and right on to today’.

Why write about the Sixties at the end of the Nineties? Marwick sandwiches his account of this dizzying era between two important explanations, both of which indicate that the importance of the Sixties lies not just in what happened then, but what it has come to mean now. ‘Mention of “the Sixties” rouses strong emotions even in those who were already old when the Sixties began and those who were not even born when the Sixties ended’, Marwick begins, going on to explain: ‘For some it is a golden age, for others a time when the old secure framework of morality, authority and discipline disintegrated. In the eyes of the far left, it is the era when revolution was at hand, only to be betrayed by the feebleness of the faithful and the trickery of the enemy; to the radical right, an era of subversion and moral turpitude. What happened between the late Fifties and the early Seventies has been subject to political polemic, nostalgic mythologising and downright misrepresentation.’

From the breakdown of the traditional family to the demise in manners, from the exaltation of youth to the contestation of knowledge, the twenty-first century continually seems to look to the Sixties for explanations about ‘what went wrong’. Yet as Marwick indicates, this breast-beating coexists with a nostalgia about the period, and a powerful sense that in its aftermath, something has been lost.

To put it crudely – to the current sensibility, the Sixties brought us Jimmy Savile, divorce, dadlessness, and disrespect; but it also held a sense of optimism and possibility that our fearful, depressed new millennium can only envy. So we are constantly pondering the meaning of the Sixties, and often when we do that, historical facts become distorted and our understanding of the period becomes cluttered with the prejudices and preoccupations of the present.

Marwick’s history is great on the facts. What makes The Sixties such a lovely read is the way in which he brings together reference points from popular culture with a detailed account of, for example, the individuals involved in the student ‘revolutions’, and discusses – together, but in their own terms – what was going on in France and Italy at the same time as events that were unfolding in America and Britain. The narrative that develops is one that emerges from the events themselves, rather than – as in many accounts of the period – seeking to shoehorn disparate but connected happenings into a coherent, teleological account.

So Marwick’s conclusion seeks simply, but powerfully, to express the balance of the Sixties legacy. Noting that ‘the consequences of what happened in the Sixties were long-lasting: the Sixties cultural revolution in effect established the enduring cultural values and social behaviour for the rest of the century’, he ends with the ‘pronouncement’, ‘I cannot improve upon these two clichés: there has been nothing quite like it; nothing would ever be quite the same again’.

But while we should be wary of reading our contemporary concerns into history, it is true that what happened in the Sixties did shape what happened next. The question is, how? Philip Jenkins’ Decade of Nightmares is another brilliant book, which offers an account of the relationship between ‘the end of the Sixties and the making of Eighties America’. Jenkins, also an historian, dates the Sixties from Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and notes that ‘[m]ost would agree that the decade of the 1960s transformed American life, and to that extent, the decade deserves its legendary status’.

What is less clear – and this is the subject of Jenkins’ book – is exactly what the Sixties changed. Jenkins asks us to ‘imagine a Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1970 or 1974 and reawakened in the mid-1980s’, and struggles ‘to make sense of the new world, to understand which side emerged victorious from the social conflicts of his day’. He goes on to examine how, through the ‘decade of nightmares’, the 1980s, many of the ‘social and political victories’ won by the Sixties, particularly in terms of racial and sexual equality and open tolerance of homosexuality, continued to exist at the same time as an aggressive foreign policy agenda, a crippling fear about the dangers posed by drugs and terrorism, and imagery that ‘suggests a nation under siege’.

From the quest for ‘personal and social liberation’, the pacifism and ‘esoteric spirituality’ associated with the Sixties, Jenkins suggests that the mid-1970s onwards brought about a ‘marked change in the national mood’, ‘bringing with it a much deeper pessimism about the state of America and its future, and a growing rejection of liberal orthodoxies’.

There are some easy stock answers to the question of how we got from there to here, which Jenkins skilfully avoids. Some argue that the radicalism of the Sixties led to a shift back to the right, giving rise to a ‘neoliberal’ orthodoxy that simply seeks to make people responsible for the problems they face. Others argue that the changes in sexual behaviour and ideas about personal expression that developed during the Sixties themselves led to a cultural coarsening, in which people care only about their immediate, individual desires and refuse to take responsibility for their families and communities.

Jenkins’ approach is far more nuanced than this. For him, ‘[t]he darkening vision was not the result of a deliberate policy of any particular group or agency’, but rather, ‘At home and abroad, the post-1975 public was less willing to see social dangers in terms of historical forces, instead preferring a strict moralistic division: problems were a matter of evil, not dysfunction. Ideas of relativism and complex causation were replaced by simpler and more sinister visions of the enemies facing Americans and their nation. And the forces of evil arrayed against us were conceived in terms of conspiracy and clandestine manipulation.’

For Jenkins, the key shift represented by the ‘end of the Sixties’ was the narrowing of social vision. The expansive optimism that characterised that era become disenchanted, and as the world as a whole moved away from the politics of left and right, the battle between alternative visions of society became inadequate as a framework for attempting to understand and resolve problems. More simplistic, unhistorical ideas about personal morality and behaviour came to form the basis of social narratives and policy, while ideas generated at the more personal and visceral level had a relatively larger impact.

As Jenkins explains, ‘To understand the power of the rhetoric of threat and conspiracy, we have to move beyond the common distinction between mainstream politics and social or cultural history’ – and his book, like Marwick’s, makes effective use of wider cultural trends to express the changing sensibility of the times.

Jenkins shows how, as the social vision narrowed and the belief in both the potential for, and desirability of, personal liberation waned, radical and progressive movements themselves became part of the drive towards restriction. For example, following a theme in his earlier book Moral Panic, a forensic examination of the construction of the child abuse problem, Jenkins draws out the way that radical feminism and conservative moralism came to be united in concerns about sexual violence and pornography.

‘Of course, feminist activism was not the only or even the chief motivation for Reagan-era morality campaigns, and feminists were divided over their response to conservative-led movements, not least if it meant a tactical alliance with right-leaning religious groups’, he writes. ‘Yet the new feminism of the 1970s did promote images of sexual danger, and a line of continuity runs from the radicalism of the late 1960s to the moral activism of the early 1980s.’

Jenkins’ emphasis on the highly moralised character of social discussion is at times convincing, and at other times less so. The organisation of debate and policy around caricatures of ‘good and evil’ is more clearly expressed in what he terms ‘the politics of children’, where child abuse becomes the one fundamental idea about which it is possible to gain a consensus, and also around media representations of terrorism.

But, particularly as we journey farther from the Eighties, the consequences of a narrowed social vision are more convincingly explained by Frank Furedi’s concept of a ‘culture of fear’, where neither political nor moral arguments are ultimately able to provide an organising principle for society. In this context, any cohering factor comes to involve an orientation towards fear, and an attempt to batten down the hatches in the face of uncertainty.

While the significance of fear as a social force is clearly positioned in Jenkins’ Decade of Nightmares, he tends to see it as a problem because of the way it has allowed for narratives about ‘personal moral evil’ to ‘have replaced alternative interpretations and driven out other possible approaches to social problems at home and abroad’. From the standpoint of 2012, it often seems that even a discourse of good and evil would be preferable to one which simply emphasises the dangers of the unknown, and perceives risk itself as a bad thing to be avoided, rather than a challenge to be grappled with.

In trying to get the measure of the Sixties and its legacy for the twenty-first century, perhaps the biggest sense of loss comes from the way that experimentation was so keenly embraced then, and is so cringingly feared now. Somewhere along the line, the nightmares stopped us dreaming.

Jennie Bristow is editor of Abortion Review and author of Standing Up To Supernanny and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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