The 1970s and 1980s are often disparaged by commentators and historians as years of narcissistic, cocaine-fueled times of political ennui and right wing resurgence. While there is certainly an element of truth to this perception, there are certainly other perspectives that are equally valid. Unfortunately for today, these perspectives have been mostly left out of the narrative. Even in the more complete popular histories of the period, like Bruce Shulman’s The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics, tend to accept this context.
One important exception to this standard is Max Elbaum’s exploration of the New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. This text is a solidly researched discussion of the numerous left groups that arose from the dissolution of Students for a Democratic Society by an organizer in that milieu. The campaigns, politics, and quarrels are all given their due in Elbaum’s book and when one is done reading it, the result is a much more complete understanding of the far left in the US left of the 1970s.
Missing from Elbaum’s text is the story of that part of the left currently known as the progressive movement. For those who don’t know, this left-leaning element of the Left can be described as reformist. In other words, its members are not organizing for revolution, but for reforms in the current system. Some progressives prefer working within the Democratic Party, while others tend toward grassroots organizing and taking their demands to the streets. Fundamental to either approach is the belief that the current system can be reformed to serve its working class and poor.
The 1970s and 1980s had several manifestations of the reformist variety. Some were successful, at least in the short term. Many others were not. Part of the reason for the former were the movements of the 1960s. Part of the reason for the failures was also the movements of the 1960s. More importantly, however, was the rise of the New Right. It’s not necessarily true that the politics of the New Right were more popular. They were, however, much better funded. This is mostly true because those politics served the interests of the wealthiest individuals, the largest corporations and the financial industry. Indeed, the financial deregulation of the period was not only an important demand of the Right, its implementation would make the manipulation of the US political system much easier for those very forces championing the deregulation. We live in the world whose genesis can be found in this history.
Recently, Michael Foley’s history of the aforementioned popular progressive movements of the 1970s and 1980s was published by Hill & Wang. Titled Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s, Foley’s book surveys most of the progressive movements of the time. From the anti-nuclear movement to the movement against toxic waste dumping; from the struggles of workers in factories and the field to keep their jobs and improve their lives to the struggles around housing and homelessness, Foley discusses the movements from the perspective of a reasonably objective and well-informed historian whose instinct is to believe the US republic is capable of reforming itself. Framing his narrative in a context that minimizes the left-right nature of politics, Foley chooses instead to describe the movements he writes about in a context that places their intimate relevance to the individuals and communities involved at the root. In doing so, he creates wonderful tales of local heroes whose primary action was mobilizing their neighbors into a mass capable of fighting big business, uncaring bureaucracies, and corrupt politicians.
The tales he writes are inspirational and his analysis incisive. However, the analysis does have its limitations. Reading Front Porch Politics from an anti-capitalist perspective, the primary lesson one learns from Foley’s history is that capitalism (especially neoliberal capitalism) trumps everything. Nuclear plants were opposed, yet the laws and the courts allowed them to be built. Corporations closed plants and despite offers by the workers to buy the plants, the courts sided with capital and the plants were closed, destroying a community in the process. Even if the court ruled in the workers’ favor, the next court didn’t. Property tax relief legislation that would have kept housing affordable and curtailed speculators was defeated after massive lobbying by landlord associations and banks only to be replaced by other legislation guaranteed to encourage speculators, high rents and skyrocketing taxes. Those are but a few of the examples of the trump card held by the ruling elites, locally, nationally and around the world.
Foley’s book begins as a hopeful chronicle of grassroots activism. His history is a collection of instances where the people organized themselves into powerful forces and actually won the occasional victory, despite the odds. Reading it in 2013, it also becomes a history of a time when the powers that be made their own determination of exactly what it would take to maintain and expand their control. Front Porch Politics is a lesson as to the nature of that determination. To state it plainly, the all pervasive greed of modern capitalism will, if it sees a need, override, overturn, destroy or just plain ignore every and any reform that does not serve its predatory nature. Those who support these reforms, no matter what their politics, will fare no better than the reforms themselves.