Today, we are witnessing an emerging massive global revolt, led primarily be the educated and unemployed youth of the world, against the institutionalized and established powers which seek to deprive them of a future worth living. In Chile over the past year, a massive student movement and strike has become a powerful force in the country against the increasingly privatized educational system (serving as a model for the rest of the world) with the support of the vast majority of the population; in Quebec, Canada, a student strike has brought hundreds of thousands of youth into the streets to protest against the doubling of tuition fees; students and others are on strike in Spain against austerity measures; protests led by or with heavy participation of the youth in the U.K., Greece, Portugal, France, and in the United States (such as with the Occupy Movement) are developing and growing, struggling against austerity measures, overt corruption by the capitalist class, and government collusion with bankers and corporations. Students and youth led the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt last year which led to the overthrow of the dictators which had ruled those nations for decades.
All around the world, increasingly, the youth are taking to the streets, protesting, agitating, and striking against the abuses of power, the failures of government, the excesses of greed, plundering and poverty. The educated youth in particular are playing an active role, a role which will be increasing dramatically over the coming year and years. The educated youth are graduating into a jobless market with immense debt and few opportunities. Now, just as several decades ago, the youth are turning back to activism. What happened in the intervening period to derail the activism that had been so widespread in the 1960s? How did our educational system get to its present state? What do these implications have for the present and future?
The "Crisis of Democracy"
In the period between the 1950s and the 1970s, the Western world, and especially the United States, experienced a massive wave of resistance, rebellion, protest, activism and direct action by entire sectors of the general population which had for decades, if not centuries, been largely oppressed and ignored by the institutional power structure of society. The Civil Rights movement in the United States, the rise of the New Left -- radical and activist -- in both Europe and North America, as elsewhere, anti-war activism, largely spurred against the Vietnam War, Liberation Theology in Latin America (and the Philippines), the environmental movement, feminist movement, gay rights movements, and all sorts of other activist and mobilized movements of youth and large sectors of society were organizing and actively agitating for change, reform, or even revolution. The more power resisted their demands, the more the movements became radicalized. The slower power acted, the faster people reacted. The effect, essentially, was that these movements sought to, and in many cases did, empower vast populations who had otherwise been oppressed and ignored, and they generally awakened the mass of society to such injustices as racism, war, and repression.
For the general population, these movements were an enlightening, civilizing, and hopeful phase in our modern history. For elites, they were terrifying. Thus, in the early 1970s there was a discussion taking place among the intellectual elite, most especially in the United States, on what became known as the "Crisis of Democracy." In 1973, the Trilateral Commission was formed by banker and global oligarch David Rockefeller, and intellectual elitist Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Trilateral Commission brings together elites from North America, Western Europe, and Japan (now including several states in East Asia), from the realms of politics, finance, economics, corporations, international organizations, NGOs, academia, military, intelligence, media, and foreign policy circles. It acts as a major international think tank, designed to coordinate and establish consensus among the dominant imperial powers of the world.
In 1975, the Trilateral Commission issued a major report entitled, "The Crisis of Democracy," in which the authors lamented against the "democratic surge" of the 1960s and the "overload" this imposed upon the institutions of authority. Samuel Huntington, a political scientist and one of the principal authors of the report, wrote that the 1960s saw a surge in democracy in America, with an upswing in citizen participation, often "in the form of marches, demonstrations, protest movements, and "cause' organizations." Further, "the 1960s also saw a reassertion of the primacy of equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life." Of course, for Huntington and the Trilateral Commission, which was founded by Huntington's friend, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and banker David Rockefeller, the idea of "equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life" is a terrible and frightening prospect. Huntington analyzed how as part of this "democratic surge," statistics showed that throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, there was a dramatic increase in the percentage of people who felt the United States was spending too much on defense (from 18% in 1960 to 52% in 1969, largely due to the Vietnam War).
Huntington wrote that the "essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private," and further: "People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents." He explained that in the 1960s, "hierarchy, expertise, and wealth" had come "under heavy attack." The use of language here is important, in framing power and wealth as "under attack" which implied that those who were "attacking" were the aggressors, as opposed to the fact that these populations (such as black Americans) had in fact been under attack from power and wealth for centuries, and were just then beginning to fight back. Thus, the self defense of people against power and wealth is referred to as an "attack." Huntington stated that the three key issues which were central to the increased political participation in the 1960s were:
social issues, such as use of drugs, civil liberties, and the role of women; racial issues, involving integration, busing, government aid to minority groups, and urban riots; military issues, involving primarily, of course, the war in Vietnam but also the draft, military spending, military aid programs, and the role of the military-industrial complex more generally.- Advertisement -
Huntington presented these issues, essentially, as the "crisis of democracy," in that they increased distrust with the government and authority, that they led to social and ideological polarization, and ultimately, to a "decline in the authority, status, influence, and effectiveness of the presidency." Huntington concluded that many problems of governance in the United States stem from an "excess of democracy," and that, "the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups." Huntington explained that society has always had "marginal groups" which do not participate in politics, and while acknowledging that the existence of "marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic," it has also "enabled democracy to function effectively." Huntington identifies "the blacks" as one such group that had become politically active, posing a "danger of overloading the political system with demands." Of course, this implies directly an elitist version of "democracy" in which the state retains the democratic aesthetic (voting, separation of powers, rule of law) but remains exclusively in the hands of the wealthy power elite. Huntington, in his conclusion, stated that the vulnerability of democracy -- the "crisis of democracy' -- comes "from the internal dynamics of democracy itself in a highly educated, mobilized, and participant society," and that what is needed is "a more balanced existence" in which there are "desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy." In other words, what is needed is less democracy and more authority.
The Trilateral Commission later explained its views of the "threat" to democracy and thus, the way the system "should' function:
In most of the Trilateral countries [Western Europe, North America, Japan] in the past decade there has been a decline in the confidence and trust which the people have in government" Authority has been challenged not only in government, but in trade unions, business enterprises, schools and universities, professional associations, churches, and civic groups. In the past, those institutions which have played the major role in the indoctrination of the young in their rights and obligations as members of society have been the family, the church, the school, and the army. The effectiveness of all these institutions as a means of socialization has declined severely.(emphasis added)
The "excess of democracy" which this entailed created a supposed "surge of demands" upon the government, just at a time when the government's authority was being undermined. The Trilateral Commission further sent rampant shivers through the intellectual elite community by discussing the perceived threat of "value-oriented intellectuals" who dare to "assert their disgust with the corruption, materialism, and inefficiency of democracy and with the subservience of democratic government to "monopoly capitalism'." For the members and constituents (elites) of the Trilateral Commission, they did not hold back on the assessment of such a threat, stating that, "this development constitutes a challenge to democratic government which is, potentially at least, as serious as those posed in the past by the aristocratic cliques, fascist movements, and communist parties." This is a very typical elitist use of rhetoric in which when identifying any perceived threat to elite interests, they are portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms. The implication, therefore, is that intellectuals who challenge authority are presented as much of a threat to democracy as Hitler and fascism were.
The Trilateral Commission report explained -- through economic reasoning -- how increased democracy is simply unsustainable. The "democratic surge" gave disadvantaged groups new rights and made them politically active (such as blacks), and this resulted in increased demands upon the very system whose legitimacy had been weakened. A terrible scenario for elites! The report explained that as voting decreased throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, active political participation on campuses increased, minority groups were demanding rights (how dare they!), and not only were they demanding basic human rights, but also "opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before." That is, unlike the rich, who have considered themselves entitled to everything, always, and forever. Thus, government spending on social welfare and education increased, explained the report: "By the early 1970s Americans were progressively demanding and receiving more benefits from their government and yet having less confidence in their government than they had a decade before." Most people would refer to that as the achievement of democracy, but for the Trilateral "intellectuals" it was an "excess of democracy," and indeed, a threat.
Samuel Huntington, naturally, assumed that the decline of confidence in the government was irrational, and had nothing to do with the Vietnam War, police and state repression of protest movements, the Watergate Scandal or other obvious crimes. No, for Huntington, the decline in confidence is tied magically to the "increased expectations" of the population, or, as Jay Peterzell explained in his critique of the report, "the root cause of public disillusionment is consistently traced to unrealistic expectations encouraged by government spending." Huntington justified this absurd myth on his skewed analysis of the "defense shift" and "welfare shift." The "defense shift," which took place in the 1950s, described a period in which 36% of the increase in government spending went to defense (i.e., the military-industrial complex), whereas welfare declined as a proportion of the budget. Then came the "welfare shift" of the 1960s, in which between 1960 and 1971, only a paltry 15% of the increase in spending went to the military-industrial complex, while 84% of the increase went to domestic programs. Thus, for Huntington, the "welfare shift" basically destroyed America and ruined democracy.
In reality, however, Jay Peterzell broke down the numbers to explain the "shifts" in a larger and more rational context. While it was true that the percentages increased and decreased as Huntington displayed them, they were, after all, a percentage of the "increase" in spending, not the overall percentage of spending itself. So, when one looks at the overall government spending in 1950, 1960, and 1972, the percentage on "defense" was 44, to 53, to 37. In those same years, spending on welfare amounted to 4%, 3% and 6%. Thus, between 1960 and 1972, the amount of spending on defense decreased from 53-37% of the total spending of government. In the same years, spending on welfare increased from 3-6% of the total government expenditure. When viewing it as a percentage of the overall, it can hardly be legitimate to claim that the meager increase to 6% of government expenditures for welfare was anywhere near as "threatening" to democracy as was the 37% spent on the military-industrial complex.
So naturally, as a result of such terrifying statistics, the intellectual elite and their financial overlords had to impose more authority and less democracy. It was not simply the Trilateral Commission advocating for such "restraints" upon democracy, but this was a major discussion in elite academic circles in the 1970s. In Britain, this discussion emerged on the "governability thesis" -- or the "overload" thesis -- of democracy. Samuel Brittan's "The Economic Contradictions of Democracy" in 1975, explained that, "The temptation to encourage fake expectations among the electorate becomes overwhelming to politicians. The opposition parties are bound to promise to do better and the government party must join in the auction." Essentially, it was a repetition of the Trilateral thesis that too many promises create too many demands, which then create too much stress for the system, and it would inevitably collapse. Anthony King echoed this in his piece, "Overload: Problems of Governing in the 1970s," and King explained that governing was becoming "harder" because "at one and the same time, the range of problems that government is expected to deal with has vastly increased and its capacity to deal with problems, even many of the ones it had before, has decreased." The Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori asked the question, "Will Democracy Kill Democracy?"