Liberal democracy is in crisis, and there have been various recent attempts to explain why this is so. For example, Greg Sheridan (“Crisis in the Heart of Our Civilisation”, The Australian 11/6/20) argues that it has been caused by a retreat into Identity Politics and away from the universalism ultimately grounded in the Judeo-Christian heritage of Western Civilization: “Without Christianity, there is nothing absolute for liberalism to anchor itself to … This crisis of liberalism is a crisis in the heart of our civilisation. It is a vacuum where there should be belief.” In this he builds on the work of Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014)
A similar analysis has been offered by Paul Kelly (“The Uncivil War Killing Liberalism in the West”, The Australian, 6/6/20). He points to the apparent desertion of the political centre – “the once great middle-class suburban stability, anchor of family life, aspiration and widely shared cultural norms”, and believes that “beneath the hollowing-out of the political middle ground lies a deeper and destructive phenomenon: the crisis of Western liberalism”. This once empowering and dynamic ideology “is being discredited [and] pulled part, under attack from both right and left.” In the vanguard of this assault is the “highly educated, cosmopolitan, secularized, morally superior, opinion-making class”. This privileged caste has an extremely simplistic and intolerant worldview and is interested above all in moral one-upmanship: “It sees every issue in terms of a victim class and an oppressor class [and] it demands people change their values to fit its moral impositions”.
All this is true, but I will argue here that this crisis is one of political and cultural legitimacy. This means that liberal democratic societies like ours suffer from a profound ‘legitimacy deficit’ that facilitates and encourages these assaults from within. Not only that, but our political and social leadership has been disabled and rendered virtually impotent because it accepts the view that our society, and therefore their own leadership, lacks legitimacy and cannot or should not be defended. This capitulation generates the endless apologies to self-proclaimed victim groups and refusal to defend our history that characterizes contemporary politics.
This crisis of legitimacy has its roots in the traumatic experience of the Cold War, and most specifically the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties. As Kelly observes, most of the past century witnessed a seemingly never-ending war for the future of the world, waged between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, represented by Fascism and Communism. This confrontation began with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), exploded in World War II, and continued for decades as a Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It flared again with the rise of Islamism, announced on September 11, 2001, and has now been overlaid by the aggression of Communist China, which has made explicit both its contempt for the West and Beijing’s desire to dominate the world. (Given the capitulation of the West, perhaps the future of the world will be fought out between two versions of Totalitarianism: Islamism and Chinese Communism!)
Incredibly, in the vanguard of this assault on Liberal Democracy is the “highly educated, cosmopolitan, secularized, morally superior, opinion-making class”, as Kelly describes it. It is comfortable waging an endless campaign against the very society that makes its highly privileged existence possible. In the remainder of this article I will seek to explain why this is so.
The Sixties was an era torn apart by mighty political and cultural forces — forces that impacted on the young and, above all, the Baby Boomer generation, born in the 20 years after WWII. They constituted a huge demographic bulge that progressively affected every aspect of society over time. More specifically, the ‘Leading Edge Baby Boomers’ (born 1945-55) came of age in a period of massive change, unprecedented affluence, and demographic, sexual, and educational revolutions.
Initially, it was a moment of great optimism, heralded by the election of US President John F. Kennedy in 1960 and characterized by civic idealism. Amidst countless technological innovations, a new youth culture emerged, obsessed with issues of authenticity, identity, and the ‘generation gap’; and orientated around Rock & Roll and Pop music, from which it took its role models. The era also saw the emergence of major social movements, including Civil Rights, Feminism, and the Counter-Culture, accompanied by an interest in new forms of spirituality, a drug culture and psychedelia.
Above all, there was a widespread openness to the future. As the cultural historian, Frederic Jameson, observed: “for a time everything was possible [it] was a period of universal liberation, a global unbinding of energies.”
However, this optimism and openness was over-shadowed by a profound sense of anxiety. The deep origins of this lay in the previous half-century of total war and bloody revolution. More immediately, it was caused by the Cold War, an era of intense political tension, rivalry, and conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies that lasted from 1945 until the early 1990s. This struggle was played out in many areas: massive defence spending, an endless arms race; military, industrial, scientific, and technological developments, including the space race; diplomacy; espionage; ideology; culture; propaganda; sports; and proxy wars in Vietnam and elsewhere.
At the core of this stand-off was the ever-present threat of global nuclear annihilation. This danger rose to a fever pitch on several occasions, as the super-powers possessed tens of thousands of bombs that were tens of thousands of times more powerful than the one which destroyed Hiroshima. Indeed, in 1961 the USSR exploded the gigantic 57 megaton, ‘Tsar Bomb’, which revealed how horrendous and how possible a nuclear holocaust could be.
Moreover, at the highest level of government defence policy it was contemplated that such a war could be waged and won! A leading figure in this was Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War (1960), and Thinking about the Unthinkable (1962), and the inspiration for the movie character, Dr Strangelove Incredibly, the deterrence strategy was known as MAD, for ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’!
The general anxiety was palpable. As novelist Norman Maile, lamented: “We will never be able to determine the psychic havoc [inflicted] on everyone alive in those years … For the first time in history we were forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that we all faced an anonymous radioactive death.”
The real likelihood of nuclear annihilation became clear in October 1962, with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reconnaissance photographs taken by an American U-2 spy plane revealed that Soviet missile bases were being built in Cuba, and that the Soviet Union was sending nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba capable of striking targets anywhere on the east coast of the United States. This led to a confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union that came extremely close to escalating into all-out nuclear war. It was only defused when the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for US concessions. The media provided a minute-by-minute TV coverage that kept public anxiety at extreme levels for weeks.
The trauma was exacerbated by the Vietnam War. This lasted from November 1955 to April 1975 and was fought between the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam supported by the USSR, China, and other allies from the Communist bloc; and the Republic of Vietnam, supported (after 1963) by massive US military forces, along with Australian and other allied contingents. Although the Allied intervention in the Vietnam War initially had public support in America and Australia, an anti-war movement emerged in the mid-1960s as the profound human, moral, and financial implications became clear.
The war was particularly problematic for young men in the US and Australia: many didn’t then have the vote but could be conscripted and sent into combat. In the US military, 1,728,344 draftees served in Vietnam, joined by 15,381 Australian conscripts. The War was also the first to be fought not only on the field of battle but in the mass media, where a fierce propaganda war raged until America and her allies capitulated and withdrew in humiliation. This allowed for a general communist takeover of all Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the rest of former French Indochina.
Ultimately, about 1.5 million military personnel and some 2 million civilians died in the Vietnam War (US military losses were: 58,209 dead; 2,000 missing; 305,000 wounded. Australian military losses were: 520 dead; and 2,400 wounded). Some 40,000 died in Laos and 300,000 in Cambodia. (The subsequent Cambodia Genocide (1975-9) saw the further death of 2-3 million people at the hands of the Maoist Khmer Rouge, or about 25% of the Cambodian population.)
In the realm of culture, this ominous and prolonged situation re-activated the apocalyptic imagination. Apocalypses are one of the oldest narrative forms, with roots deep in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They provide some of the most terrifying imagery in history. Since the Sixties, popular culture has been saturated with narratives and images of the End of the World, currently in the guise of the ‘Climate Emergency’ and Extinction Rebellion.
Cinema and television proved to be uniquely suited for breathtaking expressions of the Apocalyptic Imagination. Dozens of films and TV shows focusing on a nuclear apocalypse appeared between 1955 and 1974. Movies like On the Beach (1959), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Fail-Safe (1964), Dr Strangelove (1964), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Planet of the Apes (1968) had a massive impact. They offered extremely powerful depictions of people trying desperately to hang onto some sense of normality in the face of absurd but certain death, as everything is stripped away and only unbearable sadness remains.
Meanwhile, in the real world, evidence mounted that this ominous outlook was actually coming true – that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”as W.B. Yeats put it ‘The Second Coming’.
To begin with, against the continuing background of a threatened Armageddon, the 1960s in America were marked by several very traumatic assassinations: US President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963; Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, on February 21, 1965; Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968; and Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy, on June 6, 1968. The latter would have been the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1968 election and was expected to win; his murder and that of King further radicalised the American left. Moreover, many people refused to believe that these were random or isolated events, and came to suspect that they were part of a deep-seated conspiracy overseen at the highest levels of power. Such paranoia has persisted, aggravating the general state of alienation and further undermining faith in the system.
The year 1968 was pivotal. It began with the Tet Offensive, a massive assault on Saigon and throughout South Vietnam. It had been launched by the Communist North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in a surprise attack in early 1968 breaking an agreed ceasefire for the Tet Lunar New Year celebrations. Ultimately, the communists suffered a major military defeat and huge losses that devastated the Viet Cong forces in the South.
However, this Allied victory was not the point. The American public were deeply shocked and panicked by the violence depicted on TV, especially as it was reported by pre-eminent American journalist Walter Cronkite. He happened to be in Vietnam at the time and the offensive convinced him that the Allies could not win the war. His TV report to this effect electrified America and convinced President Lyndon Johnson that he could not win the upcoming presidential election. His shock withdrawal on TV threw the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination wide open and precipitated a chain of events, including Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, which re-routed contemporary history.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe the iron fist of Totalitarianism came down hard on Czechoslovakia in August 1968. There, the new government of Alexander Dubček attempted to liberalise the strict communist regime, offering ‘Socialism with a Human Face’. This provoked the Soviet Union, which saw such liberalization as an attack on its ideological and political stranglehold over the Communism Bloc. It mobilized the Warsaw Pact and, overnight on August 20-21 , 1968, 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, occupying all key strategic points. Despite popular resistance, the Dubček government was deposed, the regime ‘normalized’ to Soviet tastes, and all hopes of liberalization crushed, with massive casualties.
Elsewhere, in May 1968, the huge potential of mob violence led by ‘alienated youth’ was realized in France. This student rebellion occurred in the shadow of the Algerian Revolution (1954-62), a bloody war of independence waged between the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and French military forces. It was characterized by guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency tactics, atrocities, torture, and terrorism, consumed over a million people and led to mass ethnic cleansing. It also caused the fall of the Fourth French Republic and its replacement by the Fifth Republic with a strengthened presidency under General Charles de Gaulle.
The war deeply scarred France, and further radicalized the French intelligentsia, which enjoyed intellectual hegemony in the West. It had been deeply shamed by its capitulation to the Nazi occupation in WWII and swung violently to the left, aligning itself with the anti-Western line of the Communist Party. On the right, powerful forces were mobilized to prevent the granting of independence, led by the Secret Army Organisation (OAS). In 1961-62 the OAS carried out a campaign of terror, attempted to assassinate de Gaulle, and staged an abortive coup. Some 2,000 people were killed, before the OAS was suppressed and its leaders executed or imprisoned.
The May ’68 events in the universities were triggered by female student demands that they be allowed to invite boys back to their college accommodation (yes, it was a different time!), but built on a range of student grievances, largely arising from the incapacity of the decrepit education system to accommodate the huge Baby Boomer population. Secondary teachers and students joined in and the rebellion was supported by a general strike of ten million French workers, which brought the economy to the brink of disaster. There were unprecedented levels of property damage and violence. Internationally, hundreds of thousands of students demonstrated their support.
History had reached a flashpoint. For some weeks it seemed that the French government of de Gaulle might be overthrown. However, the president consulted with the army to ensure he had their backing if he decided to forcefully suppress the rebellion. He also made major concessions to the unions and they called off their strike, while the Communist Party also withdrew its lukewarm support for the rebellion, which eventually faded out. Nevertheless, the rebellion provided an iconic template for further radical student protests. In Australia, it prompted similar student uprisings that lasted into the early 1970s.
This facilitated the extraordinary rise of the ‘New Left’, which marginalised the previous liberal left. Ideologically, the New Left was torn between those affiliated with the traditional leftist parties, e.g., Communist, Trotskyist, Maoist; and those attracted to libertarian neo-Marxist, anarchist, and radical psychoanalytical theories. Crucially, it led the resistance to the Vietnam War, which it interpreted in terms of Marxist-Leninist theories of Western colonialism and imperialism. This drained moral credibility from Allied involvement in the war and increasingly led to negative depictions and perceptions of their military forces. These were often portrayed as little more than war criminals, and this impacted profoundly on Australian Vietnam Veterans. This depiction of the West continues to enjoy a very high profile and is not contested by anyone in mainstream politics, academia, or the media.
Crucial to all this was the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. In the mid-1960s, an increasingly demented Mao Zedong felt his authority slipping away after the catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward and the accompanying Great Chinese Famine, in which 30-55 million people died. In a desperate manoeuvre, he decided to mobilize China’s young masses as ‘the Red Guard’, and turn them against his rivals in a bid to hold onto power. Literally hundreds of millions of Mao’s Little Red Book of quotations were distributed to ensure ideological conformity, while all other points of view were suppressed. The Red Guard then indulged in a cataclysmic rampage that Mao declared was a ‘Cultural Revolution’ against ‘bourgeois influences’. This killed between one and three million people, decimated the economy, and destroyed much of China’s ancient heritage. It appears we are now enjoying a recrudescence of the ‘Red Guard’.
Incredibly, Mao mobilized support amongst the left in Western societies, where translations of The Little Red Book became ubiquitous, and where the national communist parties split into pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow factions. This support was echoed amongst the New Left, which was based almost exclusively on university campuses. These were expanding exponentially in numbers as they tried to accommodate the Baby Boomers and this created innumerable positions for junior staff, especially in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and education. Almost all of these were aligned with the New Left and many of them declared themselves to be ‘Maoists’, going on to provide apologias for Communist aggression for decades, e.g., not only for Mao, but for the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
This radical academic elite inevitably rose to the top in the universities and is only now retiring, having dominated the commanding heights of academia for some 50 years, and having remade it in their own image. The rest of the New Left cadre found employment in the schools, media, politics, and the public service and laid the pedagogical foundations for the present nihilistic and anarchist ideologies that dominate contemporary radical politics.
Right from the outset, this radical intelligentsia worshipped violence. Indeed, the Sixties saw the launching of bloody international terrorism on a strategic scale. In 1961 the USSR concluded that the Cold War could be won in the Third World and that the various national liberation movements would serve as the basis of an aggressive new grand strategy against the US (as, e.g., in Vietnam). In this global struggle systematic terrorism would play a central role. In 1964 the Soviets increased spending in the field of international terrorism by 1000 percent. Special guerrilla and terrorist training schools were set up in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Cuba, while the communist bloc secret services recruited agents and infiltrated the world’s radical left-wing movements, especially the New Left.
Major coordinated global revolutionary and terrorist initiatives were implemented in two principal areas: Firstly, in the Third World, and under the direction of the KGB, the Tricontinental Conference was held in Havana, Cuba in January 1966. Attended by 513 delegates from 83 communist, nationalist and other radical groups from the Third World, it formed the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL). Its stated aim was ‘total liberation’ through armed struggle and terrorism, on these continents, especially Latin America where an undeclared ‘Dirty War’ raged for years (dragging in the present Pope).
Terrorist organizations were also established in the West. These included the Red Army Faction (‘The Baader-Meinhof Gang’) in West Germany in 1968; the Red Brigades in Italy; and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground in the US. (Several of the leaders of the Weather Underground later became mentors of Barak Obama.) Styled romantically as ‘urban guerrillas’, based on the Latin American terrorist strategy, and staffed by privileged middle class students, these groups weren’t completely suppressed until the late 1980s. Antifa and other current ‘urban guerrilla’ fantasists have their ideological and organizational roots in these groups.
This two-pronged global strategy was supported by influential elements of the New Left, and by 1976 there were over 140 active terrorist groups operating in some 50 nations. These formed an international network engaged in bombings and other terrorist operations, assassinations and contract murders, kidnappings, hijackings, extortion, robberies, arms smuggling, the drug trade, identity theft, money-laundering, terrorist training, safe-housing, and other illegal activities.
A particularly prominent form of terrorism in the late Sixties was the hijacking of commercial airliners, with the plane and passengers held hostage to terrorist demands. In July 1968 the longest skyjacking occurred when El Al Flight 426 was hijacked by militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and held for 40 days. This initiated the ironically named ‘Golden Age’ of skyjacking that lasted until the early 1980s, when better counter-terrorism and security measures led to a decline in the use of the tactic (until 9/11!).
Two figures became iconic champions of this ultra-violence: Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. Fanon was the apostle of ‘cleansing violence’ to be engaged in by ‘people of colour’ against their ‘oppressors’. After being a leader of the communist revolution in Cuba, Guevara went first to Africa and then to Bolivia to promote global revolution. He failed dismally on both continents and was eventually killed in October 1967 by the Bolivian Army under the direction of the CIA. Nevertheless, he became an iconic figure of the far-left and remains the pre-eminent symbol of what has become known as ‘the Myth of Revolution’, which remains an incredibly potent force, as we are presently witnessing.
As this historical summary indicates, the roots of the current crisis lie in the Sixties, when the Liberal Democracies came under enormous stress and lost the critical ‘war of ideas’ to the apostles of Totalitarian Radicalism, and these in turn laid the ideological foundations for the ‘Revolution of Nihilism’ that currently threatens to destroy society. The US, the UK, Australia, and other Western societies have been rendered impotent to defend their fundamental values and institutional structures. In the face of mob hysteria, mindless violence and destruction, blatant lies and falsehoods, our leadership appears pathetic, crippled, intimidated, and inert.
The crucial question is: Why? How did it come to this? Ultimately, it seems, a collision of powerful demographic, political, cultural and psychological forces produced a fiendish paradox in the Sixties: never before in human history had so much affluence existed, so much freedom, so much energy, so much youth, so much potential, so much to look forward to … and yet, there loomed over it all the threat of man-made nuclear annihilation, or death in a morally compromised war.
This collision between hope and anxiety was experienced as a profound trauma. It generated fear, anger, suspicion, rage, and disorientation. Above all, it produced a sense of betrayal and alienation from mainstream Liberal Democratic society and its institutions, values, and conventions. It also relativized morality and knowledge, legitimated various forms of extremism, and increased peoples’ vulnerability to propaganda and manipulation. It also fostered a powerful and debilitating sense of suspicion, irony and absurdity, which spread throughout literature, cinema, TV, art culture, and now social media.
Ultimately, as the Sixties ground to an end it seemed most people capitulated to reality and were absorbed back into mainstream society. Once there, most adjusted to a system that they never fully accepted or trusted, got jobs and started families. However, the underlying sense of doubt, suspicion, and ironic detachment never fully dissipated. Inevitably, there was deep-seated alienation and even repressed rage against the society that had created such an agonizing paradox to which an entire generation was subject in its crucial formative years. Liberal dDemocracy had lost its vital aura of legitimacy and it has never recovered. “The best lack all conviction / while the worst are full of a passionate intensity”, as Yeats observed.