The feminists of the 1970s, who pioneered the now classic idea that the personal is political, probably also devoted some attention to those of us who wish that our personal had been political, or more political. If so, I didn’t get the memo. But there must be many who would have to confess, with Nora Ephron, that we were wallflowers at the orgy. As we enter our 70s, not having missed the news about climate change and the general dimming of hopes for anything better than human survival, there comes a moment for retrospection, whether intro- or not. I may have been an abject failure at living the experience of my generation, but the generation as a whole did accomplish something. Didn’t it? What do others think?
The iconic liberationist movements that flourished in the Sixties faded and died in the next decade. At any rate, that’s what we have often been told. In The Subversive Seventies (Oxford, 2023), Michael Hardt sets himself to correct this familiar narrative. Hardt became famous as the co-author with Toni Negri of Empire (2000), which somehow managed to find in globalization grounds for an eccentric left-wing optimism. So it’s no surprise that he rejects the cheerless story according to which the 60s movements were beaten down by political and military repression, led astray by extremists who made a wrong turn to violence, absorbed and domesticated by the academy, and (especially) incapacitated by internal conflict between various identity-based constituencies. Hardt collects and analyzes a wide range of movements that emerged and at least briefly thrived in the 70s. They happen in Korea and Nicaragua, Conakry and Detroit. They occupy factories and practice self-management; they stand up against the expansion of a military base and the construction of a nuclear power plant; they defy conventions of gender in the workplace. The list is impressive, as are the unexpected resonances between far-flung actions. These were movements, as Hardt shows, for which the word “subversive” was not a pious overstatement. They are well worth bearing in mind.
Yet Hardt’s version is not as different from the standard narrative as you might have expected. His narrative too ends in failure, and it too largely attributes that failure to the left’s internal fractures. His congenital hopefulness displays itself in the conviction that the experience of that generation still determines where we find ourselves today and that its experience, properly understood, allows us to imagine failing better.
It’s a two-decade story, but Hardt presents it as a drama in three acts. In the first act, industrial workers outside the usual organizations of the left, and sometimes in conflict with them, take action not only against their working conditions but against their voicelessness in the process of production. In the second act, “Economic and political elites in the dominant capitalist countries, frightened by workers’ insurgencies and various orders of crisis, set in motion various processes that reduced the role of industrial labor and commodity manufacturing” (110), including automation, outsourcing, and a shift toward services and finance. In the third act, which Hardt says is the most important, activists, responding to this new terrain, “began to imagine and construct new revolutionary constellations that included but were no longer centered on industrial workers” (110). Now there would have to be “a multiplicity of struggles,” linked but without priority for any one of them. Paradigmatic of this new multiplicity, a multiplicity of movements linked to each other but not subordinated to any one movement, are feminists, students, and activists for gay and Black liberation.
Again, defeat comes less from external repression and more from internal divisiveness. The claim that the left exercised so much agency might be contested. But contesting it would probably mean putting the emphasis back on the outside agents of repression and thus forfeiting some of Hardt’s optimism. In any case, in this version the onus falls not on the identity-based separatists, inadvertently tearing the left apart from within it, but on the inability of the radical workers’ movements to take identity on board—in Hardt’s words, an inability “to articulate with other liberation movements on equal terms” (101). (The Althusserian concept of “articulation” is doing a lot of work here. It suggests that there can be a relationship that is structured without that structure involving anyone dominating anyone. Do I believe that? I’m not sure.) The radical workers were the ones who had to learn that they were not, or no longer, at the center of the struggle for liberation, and they (not the feminists, students, Black liberationists, or gay activists) were the ones who didn’t learn—didn’t learn, that is, to negotiate the new terrain of political struggle that capitalist restructuring had created, the only terrain on which political action was now possible, Hardt argues, and a terrain on which only a multiplicity of struggles had any chance of succeeding.
Although Hardt writes with a fan’s intimate knowledge about the situation in an impressive range of countries, there is a special place in his heart for Italy, where worker spontaneity in the 70s made national and even international news, and for that Italian specialty, off-menu industrial struggles like factory occupations. Hardt’s partiality is evident in his labor-centric hypothesis about the origins of the present crisis. The restructuring of the economy by the elites in the 1970s, he proposes, was not the result, as one might have thought, of a banal corporate quest for lower labor costs and higher profits. Instead, it was a political response to the bold, creative, and threatening initiatives taken by the radical workers’ movements, most often acting against the will of the official unions. Those movements, Hardt argues, were the “prime mover of capitalist restructuring” (99). If so, of course, then capitalism and the workers remain the protagonists. And when Hardt gives the workers the greatest responsibility for the failure with which his drama, like the story he is correcting, winds up, you would have to say that, while being generous to the identity-based movements, he has again kept anti-capitalist workers at the center of the meta-narrative.
It is no discredit to this illuminating and inspiring book that it cannot quite overcome its ambivalence about the priority of anti-capitalism. After all, how much clarity has anyone managed to achieve on this subject? Whether the working class, however broadly conceived, deserves a commandingly central place amidst so many different movements and so many different injustices remains a thorny question for our own time, even if one of our time’s wonders is the fact that (as Hardt notes) so many of the activists who are most committed to racial and sexual causes are also first in line in confrontations over austerity and economic inequality. It makes sense that this analytic challenge has sent many theorists and historians back to retrace the left’s uncertain steps out of the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes including their personal confusions.
Here I turn to a personal confusion. There is no entry in Hardt’s index or on his timeline for the so-called Hard Hat Riot, the beating of student demonstrators against the Vietnam War in May 1970 by construction workers. The riot happened in lower Manhattan; some of the workers involved were engaged in building the nearby World Trade Center. The cops of course stood by or joined in. For some of us who were students at the time, it seemed that a line had been drawn through the left, with the anti-war activists on one side and the labor movement on the other. Highlighting that divide was the fact that four days earlier, peaceful student demonstrators had been shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. From a student’s perspective, the optics for this springtime display of working-class patriotism were not ideal.
The riot happened on May 8th. The next day, I got married.
* * *
Two years earlier, in 1968, I had been cradle-robbed. She was a TA who taught my elementary French course. She was French. I was 18. She was seven years older. At the time, a 25-year-old seemed to belong to a different generation. The idea among my classmates, which I shared, was that she was beautiful. I was very proud of myself.
How such a thing could have happened is a bit of a blur. I would get to class early and sit outside on the steps, watching for her slim black-clad figure to appear on a distant walkway. Somehow we exchanged a few extra-instructional words. I loaned her my Animals record with “House of the Rising Sun” on it. I found out where she lived and, after a night playing ping pong on acid with a classmate, also a roommate, also with a crush on her, we rang her doorbell around 6:30AM, bearing three orders of scrambled eggs and bacon. She buzzed us in. In any other decade, would we have been buzzed in at 6:30 in the morning?
On the strength of that experience, I rang her doorbell again after a snowstorm and asked whether she wanted to come out and play in the snow. I have no idea where I could have found the confidence for such lunacy. I demonstrated my snowball-throwing prowess by hitting a gas station sign (Shell, I think) from a considerable distance. After that, there were more visits.
In these memories I’m always the active agent, the one doing something. Technically, yes, she was the one in a position of institutional authority. If the administration found out, she told me, she’d be in trouble. We abstained from public handholding. The idea that I might be the victim of an older person’s misconduct never came up; if it had, it would have seemed laughable. When she and I got together, my market value went through the roof. As those in on the secret could see, I benefitted indescribably, and in measurable as well as immeasurable ways– in the books and ideas I suddenly had access to and the interesting people who were suddenly talking to me as if I were worth talking to. I leave aside the intense private hours she and I spent together , all the way down to the end, five years later, when she dropped me for her shrink. Even the aftermath of that was friendly and sort of radiant. Now we did go around hand in hand. People told me later that they didn’t know we had broken up.
I remember her saying that we couldn’t make each other any promises. The relationship would last as long as it lasted. So whatever happened (this was the implication) there would be no recriminations. And there weren’t. I don’t remember us even asking each other whether, if we had stuck with it, the relationship might have been “re-articulated” so that the “domination” of the teacher/student hierarchy disappeared, along with the age differential, to the relief of both of us.
The shrink, however, deserved to get in trouble for sleeping with one of his patients. And eventually did, for sleeping with other patients. Today, he might want to think twice before telling a patient how bad her marriage was and then taking advantage of the power of his advice. As everyone has heard, taking sexual advantage of professional authority is now a no-no. Would it be foolhardy to describe that as moral progress? I hope not.
From a generational perspective, the opportunity to point out moral progress I’ve witnessed personally is my justification for forcing my less than fascinating personal life on you, hapless reader. I wasn’t at the Hard Hat riot. (Wedding preparations had to be made.) But even so, there was a kind of long-term intersection with history under way. If teacher-student relationship had happened a half century later, my beloved would have been taking a much greater risk. (I didn’t feel that I was taking any risk at all.) In the epoch of #MeToo, the idea that I was a victim would have sounded more plausible. And that’s a good thing. Even if #MeToo was too long delayed, even if the promiscuous cancellations that followed it have gotten out of hand and some backlash against it is justified, even if the category of victimhood would clearly have been misdirected in my case, that change in public opinion represents an improvement over how things were in 1970. That slow-burning legacy of the 60s is very much alive, and I’m glad of it. It didn’t bring down capitalism, but I would have to call it a success.
* * *
In 2006, a friend, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham, came over to watch the Rolling Stones do the halftime show at the Super Bowl. It was only the halftime show that interested her. And her only comment on the performance was that Mick Jagger’s ankles had gotten stiff. She has since passed away, as has Merce Cunningham, and like Mick Jagger, the surviving members of this generation have stiff ankles. The question is what effect the personal stiffening and withering and waning ought to have on judgments of the generation. Can we still get some satisfaction from what Cunningham and Jagger and the rest of the generation have done, politically as well as culturally? (Or, the world being in the state it’s in, is satisfaction the wrong thing to ask for?) As for sliding down the slope of mortality, it makes a difference that, like Californians changing a lightbulb, we are sharing the experience. Charles Petersen suggests in a recent blogpost, “Why Generational Thinking Isn’t Bullshit” (Making History Newsletter), that resistance to generational thinking comes from resistance to belonging as such. That may be true for more recent generations, but I suspect it isn’t for the boomer generation. What I felt myself, at any rate, was that I wanted to belong but wasn’t doing a very good job of it. But not doing a very good job of belonging to your generation is not an uncommon way of experiencing a generation.
Even if what it produced was a marriage, I had some reason for thinking that my very unauthorized relationship was somehow organic to the tumult of the time. In the fall of 1968, my elementary French class was presented with some of the slogans from the events of the Paris springtime. Sous les pavés, la plage. Nous sommes tous indésirables. Il est interdit d’interdire. Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi! You didn’t have to know much French to see that these were cool lines. But I didn’t get much closer than that to the world-shaking coolness of the 60s. I was as far behind my classmates politically as intellectually. I had to catch up. I had homework to do. Someone else thought up the slogans and made the banners, and I marched behind them. Or, if I didn’t feel I had time, I didn’t. When the SDS organized an occupation of the administration building in 1969, my former roommate (I had moved in with my beloved, perhaps not a smart move in retrospect) was with the crowd on the grass out in front. The police had sealed off the area . I arranged to meet him at a dark corner of the fence and slip him a bottle of wine and a blanket. Then I ran off to see my beloved. When heads were beaten and arrests were made, I was elsewhere. I was in love.
The next year there were more protests. My beloved and I were forced off the pavement by a phalanx of heavily armored cops, marching to clear the streets of protestors. But we weren’t arrested, and in May of 1970, after the big march (the press called it a riot, and Clarence Thomas credits it with turning him off the left), while Cambodia was being bombed by B-52s and those hard-hatted construction workers were beating up on anti-war protesters in New York, we found a non-denominational anti-war minister, wrote a text for him to recite, and had our little wedding. On its way to the university room we had reserved for our festivities, the wedding party briefly stopped traffic. It was flagrant jaywalking. But it wasn’t the revolution.
Supposedly we were getting married to induce our parents to accept the relationship, but both sets of parents accepted it pretty quickly and pretty graciously. My parents came to the wedding. They even brought the booze. My father, looking down from the motel balcony at the busloads of police as they arrived (the protests were still going on), forming their ranks and chanting “God Bless America,” was suddenly enraged and taunted the cops. Loudly. He was close enough so the cops could hear, and their blood was up. My father had never been a college student, but he sounded like he was itching to lead the student demonstrators into battle. And this was the generation I was protesting against?! On May 9th, it didn’t feel that way. My beloved and I certainly had never assumed that our families would find our relationship incomprehensible.
Who knows what the parents said to each other? Looking back, I can observe some inter-generational continuities that weren’t obvious at the time. Economically speaking, the truth of the 60s generation in the US arguably lay in the trajectory of their parents, who grew up in the Great Depression but started making families in the period after World War II, which many of them had fought, coming home to an undestroyed landscape (with European competitors in ruins) and a surging economy. The youthful sense of bright possibility belonged as much to them as to their boomer children. As did the sense that the world was there to be reinvented. They were rewriting the rules too, and enjoying it.
In my family the generational divide centered on higher education, which my parents didn’t have, and the Vietnam War, which I was against. It echoed a larger class divide. It’s no secret that the anti-war movement had its base in draft-age students of the middle class. You could see it in how drastically anti-militarism fell off when the draft was abolished in 1973. Now the middle class was no longer feeling the pressure. Now it was just “volunteers” who fought America’s very voluntary wars, and the volunteers were overwhelmingly the poor, rural or urban, who had no access to higher education and few better career options. The line that was drawn in the Hard Hat riot only got deeper.
As the student son of working-class parents, I was ambivalent about my middle-class status—meaning that I felt it had a good side, too. 1968 was the year of Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” a powerful anti-war polemic based not on identity but on no-double-standards universalism. The only unbending to identity Chomsky made, you might say, was to the privileged identity of the educated, which he didn’t want his educated readers to abandon. The privilege came with a special obligation, Chomsky argued, to fight militarism using the capacities and access with which the system had unfairly and mistakenly gifted them. You don’t want to give those arms away.
Anti-militarism, a characteristic movement of the 60s that was not based on identity, complicates the question of class. Or so it appeared to me. In 1970, I was probably not alone, among anti-war students contemplating the Hard Hat riot, in thinking that from a global perspective, we were more faithful representatives of the working class than the construction workers. The global working class was living under military dictatorships supported by the US. The global working class was taking what shelter it could from American bombs. It was having its surplus siphoned off and transferred to the metropolis, where some of it was distributed so as to forestall worker dissent. In 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory would explain all this, including the official US labor movement’s general support for US imperialism, thereby providing theoretical cover for what was essentially middle-class radicalism.
If your goal is to get political work done at home, cooperating with the people living and working around you, anti-war cosmopolitanism like this has its drawbacks. Your fellow residents of the imperial metropolis don’t want to be told that, struggling as they are to get by, they count as beneficiaries of the world system and are probably more like the privileged top 15%, globally speaking, than the indignant bottom 99%. And all politics is local, even anti-militarism. On the other hand, anti-militarism has gotten stronger and more practical recently, as the children and grandchildren of the non-Europeans to whom US immigration policy opened its doors in 1965 have come of age, changing the country’s political demographic. The range of solidarities that have been expressed by the descendants of the diasporas have put flesh-and-blood individuals behind cosmopolitanism’s moral ideal. The young people who regularly turn out for Black Lives Matter, an end to bombing and blockade in Gaza, protection of abortion rights, and economic equality are not one of the named generations catered to by the marketers, but they are arguably a politically significant cohort.
When Michael Hardt says that the working-class movement has failed to “articulate” its relationship with identity-based movements, he makes it sound as if all it would need to do is pronounce more clearly words that are already waiting there to be pronounced. To say such a thing, you would have to be confident that class, race, gender, and so on are mutually constitutive, as Hardt suggests. Sure, there are connections, but are they really mutually constitutive? Historically speaking, racism and sexism and homophobia were going strong long before there was any such thing as capitalism. It would be nice to think that putting an end to capitalism would put an end to them,, but that would be wishful thinking. On the other hand, it makes no sense to think that without an end to capitalism the other movements can accomplish nothing worth accomplishing. They can, and (as with #Me Too) they have.
And scanning the horizon, you can see signs that the articulations Hardt calls for are not just figments of his imagination, even if they have to be made rather than found—signs that although no one is quite clear how or why, capitalism is showing up on the same agenda, showing up as bursts of clarity amid the murkiness of everyday life.
May 9, 1970, the day after the Hard Hat riot, the day I got married, is also the day when Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, died in a plane crash. It’s possible that he was assassinated; a previous assassination attempt had failed. “Not long afterward,” as a recent article notes, “real wages for non-college-educated workers began to decline.” That decline and its consequences are the big political story of our age, in some ways the story that will continue to be ours, whether or not Donald Trump is re-elected in 2024, as long as the Democrats continue to make themselves the party of Wall Street and the college educated. It’s the story of the Hard Hat riot writ large. It is certainly a much bigger story than the sequence of post-boomer generations whose names and supposed sensibilities have so preoccupied the advertisers.
But the story still has some twists and turns in it. Reuther joined the Cold War crusade against Communism. But as my friend Ken Hirschkop reminds me, the UAW, working through the Alliance for Labor Action, called for an immediate end to the war in 1969. Reuther’s early environmentalism has found an echo in Shawn Fain’s reinvigorated UAW. More than a quarter of the members of Reuther’s union now work in higher education. I teach at Columbia University. The UAW represents Columbia’s graduate students and teaching assistants, who are much more vocal than their elders against US and Israeli militarism. And now the UAW has called for a ceasefire in Gaza. History has not come full circle–it never does–but it seems some loose ends are getting tied up, some links are getting articulated, a supposedly unbridgeable chasm is being crossed.