Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Swinging Sixties ,Baby Boomers and political change – and the rise of a new Labour Party in NZ

Swinging 60s - love, peace and freedom
Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the freedom of individuals that was part of the sixties had its dark side; that it had morphed over the decades into ‘me first’ individual selfishness and as a result, less concern with the common good. The heady freedom of the sixties, after an era of austerity, released wave of creativity but ,as traditional norms lost their power, creativity all too often looked more like indulgence.

 With these thoughts in mind it was interesting to come across Francis Beckett’s 2010 book ‘What did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?’ In his book Beckett argues that the children of the 60s betrayed the generations that came before and after. I am not totally convinced but he makes a good argument, an argument that is relevant to the political situation countries like New Zealand currently face

 Beckett makes it clear that political change has its genesis in earlier decades.

Those returning after World War Two, when their time for power came, knew what to do. In 1945 Major Clement Attlee, replaced war leader Churchill, and set about changing the cultural norms of the United Kingdom.  As Churchill left the palace in his Rolls Royce concluding his leadership Clement Atlee arrived in his Hillman Minx to take up the challenge. The less fortunate in Britain had had a difficult time living through the 1930s depression and deprivation caused by the war – it was time for change.

Clement Atlee
Attlee’s government set about abolishing the five giants ‘Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness’ and established the Welfare State against the fierce opposition of the wealthy. The time was right to create a fairer society for all.

 A similar scenario happened earlier in New Zealand with the election of the first Labour Government  in 1936 led by Michael Joseph Savage. Changes began only to be interrupted by the declaration of war in 1939. Savage’s government faced the same ‘five giants’ in post war New Zealand.

As a result the social democratic ideology, both in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, became the dominant narrative for the next few decades  - until the ‘baby boomers’ came of age.

‘Baby Boomers’  are those born following the Second World War who came of age in the radical sixties, when there was , for the first time since the war,  was money, safe sex, and freedom. It is Beckett’s thesis that these young people exercising their new found freedom were unaware of the price earlier generations paid for this freedom. Most of them hardly realised the privation of their parents before and during the war and the struggle that their parents made to ensure that their children were not to be equally deprived.

For Baby Boomers the sixties were exciting and New Zealand was not immune. Young people turned their backs on authority and their parents; it was a rejection of society as it was previously organised. Bob Dylan, a voice of the sixties gurus, told parents ‘not to criticize what they didn’t understand’ –‘the trouble the boomers knew’, Beckett writes, ‘what they were against more than what they were for’.   Parents in the sixties reminded the young that they were fortunate because there were no great causes left in comparison to them having to survive through the depression and the war. A late 1950s, movie starring James Dean, was called appropriately, according to Beckett, ‘A Rebel Without A Cause’! When Dean was asked what he was rebelling against he replied, ‘What have you got?’

So what began as the most radical-sounding generation for half a century led eventually to the ideology of the free market  established by Margaret Thatcher and led to its complete expression under New Labour led by the first ‘baby boomer’ prime Minister Tony Blair. The radicalism of the sixties, unlike the generation following   World War One 1914-1918, decayed fast.

The short sixties – from the release of the Beatles ‘Love, love me do’ was to be a wonderful time to be young who had no time for the past and no appreciation of the privations of their parents. The young had little memory of the appalling conditions their parents had been forced to live through without the security provided by the welfare state – with of course the
 Beatles,'Love, love love me do'
exceptions of the wealthy upper classes. An out of work father in pre-war days meant a family near starvation.  Parents returned from the war determined to change all that. That is why Atlee’s government (and the Savage led government in New Zealand) gave working people opportunities in health, education, employment, economic security and leisure that changed the expectations of people dramatically.

First baby boomer UK PM
With time such advances were taken for granted and ‘baby boomers’ assumed it was the natural order of things. ‘Baby boomers’ fought for, and won, the right to have their hair long and to enjoy sex. The contraceptive pill had arrived. There was full employment; ‘Jack was felt to be as good as his master’.

The baby boomers set about destroying past certainties.  Beckett writes that the sixties philosophy was the ‘direct predecessor of the Thatcherism view that there is no such thing as society. The children of the sixties were the parents of Thatcherism’.

No such thing as society!
‘The baby boomers had benefited from the victory over Nazism and the establishment of the welfare state. As teenagers they had spare cash, and fun ways to spend it – things their parents and grandparents could only dream of’.

Now’, writes Beckett, ‘ as  parents, there seems to be a special venom in the loathing they show their young’. ‘It is though the sixties generation decided that the freedom they had enjoyed was too good for their children’.  The young are now required to pay market forces for such things as their education – which for their parents was free. As a result students are now burdened with debt. The baby boomer generation are now more concerned with protecting their wealth and pensions than freedom for their young

‘Schools, after a quick burst of sixties freedom, are being sent back to the fifties as fast as possible’, Beckett writes. School uniforms,   rigid National Curriculums, the ‘three Rs’, a punishing regime of testing and. increasingly regimented schools Adults are demanding the respect that in their youth they happily ignored.

Once again gaps between the rich and the poor are being established and the young once again have to struggle to buy their first homes. The baby boomers are now old. When they were young they created cult of youth, and now they are old they selfishly look after themselves. We are returning to the unequal world of the 1930s.

Time now for a new narrative to redress the unequal situation we are in as a result of a market forces ideology led by the adult baby boomers. The protective power of democratic governments has been demeaned as privatisation provides, for a cost, for services once provided as of right.

Michael Joseph Savage
At some point the generations following the baby boomers will be forced to confront the inequalities that have been established in Anglo –American societies.  The ever widening income gap has the power to create conditions for unimaginable changes unless faced up to.  

The self-centred culture established by the mature baby boomers need to be balanced by a concern for the good of all people. This is the same challenge that faced Clement Atlee and Michael Joseph Savage in their respective countries post World War Two.

Not wanted in 1945
What will eventuate may well surprise those currently in power – as much as Atlee’ victory in 1945 demoralised Winston Churchill. The private enterprise market forces ideology has not delivered wealth to the poor as promised – there has been no ‘trickle down.’  The wealth has concentrated in the pockets of the few.   A ‘winner /loser’ society has been created.

Belief in the political system is at an all-time low as indicated by falling voting turn outs.  A new vision, one that includes all citizens, needs to be articulated as people become are of the consequences of the growing inequality. The ‘market forces’ ideology is losing its authority as even the aspirational middle income groups are finding themselves at risk. The idea that those in charge of industry know best is wearing thin – the ‘supremacy’ of the wealthy we now experience was last seen before the great depression.

And so the so the greedy eighties’, writes Beckett, ‘became the beneficiaries of the indulgent sixties. Sixties man, twenty years older, became eighties man: sleek, sharp-suited, and ready to harness the language of liberation to the cause of capital.’ It was back to the fifties with a vengeance’ Sixties hippy gurus have been replaced with new business gurus preaching economic freedom and minimal government regulation. What eventuated was ‘a small state, a liberated economy, power in the hands of wealthy individuals and companies rather than the state’.

 A fairer more equitable society needs to be created. The consideration of the less fortunate will be to the advantage of us all. Our politicians must create the conditions where every citizen is able to contribute to the overall wealth of our country. Such an important role cannot be left to the ideology of the rich, the technocrats and their self-centred support of minimal government. All that has created is a greater inequality.

A new government needs to provide a helping hand to all – the young at school, those requiring employment, heath and homes. It is not possible to return to the solutions of 1945 but what can be taken is inspiration of the leaders of those difficult times when it looked as equally difficult. When the welfare reforms were introduced the wealthy railed against them – and will again today.

We need a gentler caring society – a new political consensus, one that values the contribution and creativity of all, not just the rich. A society that once again cares about the underdog, dedicated to getting people out of the poverty trap. If a new consensus is not developed we are heading for a crisis.

The baby boomers are leaving a dismal legacy ‘half are too busy to notice, half too greedy to care’.  As the baby boomers are marching towards the grave they exercise their political muscle; they have money and they have power.

‘We saw’ says Beckett writing about the baby boomers, ‘the class barriers come down, and put them up again. If we meant any of the things we said in the sixties, about peace, about education, about freedom, we would have created a better world for our children to grow up in, and earned the comfortable retirement we are going to fight for. But we made a worse one.’

 New Zealand in the sixties was a great place to bring up the young – for many families this is no longer the case, it is time for a change. Perhaps we need to repeat the sixties but these times to do it properly? The baby boomers forgot what mattered – because they had no sense of the world their parents grew up in.

No expects change will be easy – it will require political courage but for the welfare of the majority it will be worth it. Beckett concludes his book that we are ‘The generation that has to clear up the mess’ the baby boomers created. ‘Money is not the root of all evil: poverty is. But you can’t get rid of poverty except by distributing wealth.’ Not a popular idea amongst the wealthy.

The market forces world of the baby boomers has reached it use by date having delivered the widest income gap since the 1929 depression.  The phrase, once heard by its supporters, ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) is no longer is relevant. As with Clement Atlee in the United Kingdom in 1945 and Michael Joseph Savage in the 1930s, new ideas  have to be found to replace failing policies.

Market forces have not worked
The New Zealand Labour Party is now facing the need for the same transformational challenge of the same degree as those faced by Savage and Atlee.
 The new leadership under David Cunliffe is beginning to express a new narrative for the future. And as it is further expressed it will tap into the feelings of those who have been left behind by the neo- liberals, or those who are sensing that their own security is increasingly at risk, will begin to take heed of new alternatives.

Labour is returning to its roots and is re-affirming its founding principles. Its challenge is to present an alternative vision to the public that gives hope to all and not just to the rich. The time is now right for Labour to regain real political influence if it can present a viable/doable set of policies – a real sense of alternative to the wider public. David Cunliffe has come out strongly against the market forces ideology. He has realised that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and its aftermath requires a comprehensive rethink of Labours entire policy approach. This is the beginning of a real shift and, as it grows, has the power to capture energy from those sensing things are going astray under the current government.  Markets have been shown to fail. Business and government need each other, everybody needs employment and a fair wage.

David Cunliffe is talking about a new beginning – hope and opportunity for all; a fair and just society in contrast to the world of have and have nots that is the legacy of previous market forces politicians. Everyone is entitled to hope for a better future. Regions need to be supported. Conditions must be created to give a helping hand to all. Sustainable clever development needs to part of what is to be offered rather than the short term policies that are all too common today. The welfare of all people must be placed first rather many being sacrificed to ensure only the well- to- do benefit.

The adult baby boomers have had their day. Time for them to move over and to begin to build a world suited for all sections of society and those yet to be born; to develop the common good as well as encouraging the creativity of individuals.

Exciting times!


Dan said...

As with any group or period in time, the Baby Boomers did much to improve society, and probably much that was harmful. The question is, will the next generations "fix" or improve those things which are broken or harmful to society.

Brett_McS said...

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'", Ronald Reagan.