The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture, by Brink Lindsey (Harper Collins, 394 pp., $26.95)
In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the ur-text of the mid-1970s malaise, Daniel Bell argued that the prosperity produced by America’s market economy had become its undoing. The unprecedented affluence of the 1960s had generated hedonism that undermined the classic Protestant virtues of self-restraint and patience, which had long underwritten capitalism. For Bell, the Marxist democrat, the moral heritage of the bourgeois tradition was apparently exhausted. It seemed that capitalism had, in ways unforeseen by Marx, chopped down the tree in which it had nested. Except, to the surprise of many liberals and conservatives, the tree not only continued to stand, it grew taller and thicker as new branches sprouted in the post-1989 globalized economy.
Brink Lindsey’s new book, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture, explains why Bell was wrong. Lindsey, a Cato Institute libertarian, deploys a version of the Marxist dialectic to explain how the thesis of 1960s anticapitalist Aquarianism and its antithesis—the Evangelical revival that followed—produced the synthesis of today’s unprecedented prosperity.
The New Left and the New Right, he contends, “offered conflicting half-truths. On the left were arrayed those elements of American society most open to the new possibilities of mass affluence . . . however, many on the left harbored a deep antagonism toward the institutions of capitalism and the middle class life that had created all those glittering new possibilities. On the right were the stalwart defenders of capitalism and middle class mores . . . repelled by . . . the social and cultural ferment that capitalism and middle class mores were producing.” As Lindsey summarizes, “One side attacked capitalism while rejoicing in its fruits; the other side celebrated capitalism while denouncing its fruits as poisonous,” but “out of their messy and confused dialectic . . . the logic of abundance would eventually fashion . . . a new modus vivendi.”
It’s an engaging argument that, probably better than any other, explains much of how we’ve arrived at our current pass. But the accommodations began even earlier than Lindsey suggests. It was the Greenwich Village bohemians of the 1920s who made such daring items as pajamas, lounge chairs, and modern, angular furniture attractive to the middle class that they despised. Literary critic Malcolm Cowley, writing in 1934, anticipated today’s bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, to use David Brooks’s term. Bohemia, Cowley wrote, was “dying, it was dying of success. . . . American business and the whole of middle-class America had been going Greenwich Village.”
Similarly, in the early 1970s, Joseph Epstein wrote a trenchant article on how the counterculture was transforming into the “over-the-counter-culture,” peddling the kind of environmentally friendly cosmetics and health foods now so commonplace. It turns out that when Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, wrote of “wishing I was a Negro, feeling that the best the white world has to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough life,” he was laying out the basis for a whole new line of products, from hot tubs to Viagra to iPods.
Lindsey exults in the “exuberant hyperpluralism” and “seething ferment and innovation” that emerged out of the counterculture. The revolt against the soulless centralization symbolized by the IBM mainframe was, after all, led by Steve Jobs, an LSD-imbibing vegetarian who had lived in a commune and bummed around India. Still, Lindsey is balanced enough to note that the 1960s helped produce neo-Luddism as well as the personal computer.
In the end, as Lindsey sees it, all worked out for the best: “The Aquarian dream of widened horizons came true after a fashion, but only after the idol-smashing radicalism of the 60s was first checked by a conservative backlash, then swallowed up by a more comprehensive iconoclasm. Ironic origins for an ironic age.”
The Age of Abundance delivers much more than merely an incisive thesis, or a domestic-focused version of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. In describing how the new synthesis evolved and how much the economy has changed, Lindsey has an eye for the telling detail. He notes, for example, that in 1959 six of the ten highest-paid executives in the U.S. were from the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel. Rock and roll, he points out, was originally black slang for sex. And in discussing the overlooked similarities between the spiritual quests of Aquarians and evangelicals, he notes that Oral Roberts University was founded during 1967’s “Summer of Love.” Finally, in what sounds like an over-the-top Hollywood script, he relates how Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy arrested the prophet of LSD, Timothy Leary, who was placed in a cell next to mass murderer Charles Manson—whose killings so graphically exposed the underside of the 1960s version of happy nihilism.
Lindsey argues that the younger generations are sick of the sanctimonious scions of the 1960s and their everlasting hostilities, and he may be right that history is working out for the best. But when, in the closing pages, he discusses current issues such as education and immigration, the seams in his argument become visible.
Regarding immigration, Lindsey insists on the need to “take assimilation seriously.” Fair enough, but how does that comport with his love affair with the creative “Babel” of “hyper-pluralism”? As for the state of American education, Lindsey simply blames it on the teachers’ unions. No doubt the unions are part of the problem, but it was Lindsey’s beloved “hyper-pluralism” that gutted not only the idea of a common culture, but also the concept of a shared civics available to all regardless of origins.
One effect of the 1960s, he acknowledges, was to increase inequality. The deregulation of moral life not only removed the ceilings constraining the Aquarian “creatives”; it also opened the floor beneath the undisciplined poor, producing an underclass. Inequality increased even more as the free-agent economy generated a greater and greater return for the talented. I wonder if Lindsey can envision a revolt against meritocracy not only from the poor, but from parts of the middle class uneasy with the way that some of the wealthy seem to have seceded from the rest of society.
Lindsey points to the growing social tolerance of the red states and the growing acceptance of markets in blue states in anticipation of both sides’ accepting the “truth” of a libertarian resolution. But then, much like Al Gore—who decries television news as nearly the sole source of polarization—Lindsey proves unable to recognize that political identity largely defines itself by opposition, even outright hostility, to one set of adversaries or another.
In the 1920s, for instance, the conflict between liberal elites and Bible Belters, who had been quietly absorbing the implications of Darwinism, was deliberately brought to a boil by the ACLU, the founding organization of American liberalism. Similarly, in the 1960s, the professionals and academics drawn to an adversary culture mocked the middle class, in part to elevate themselves into a position of dominance. Lindsey rightly emphasizes how affluence can soften some conflicts, but—as seen on the Internet daily—it can also provide a megaphone for ideologues to use politics as an outlet for their private passions.
While issues central to the 1960s, such as race, are far less salient today, the underlying dynamic remains unchanged. The “brights” of the “creative class” think that they need to rule as a matter of professional responsibility. An irreconcilable tension exists between those whose expertise gives them a sense of earned superiority and small-business people who cater to what people actually want. In the period ahead, that conflict is sure to be posed in environmental terms, as the public hears that it must submit to technocratic mandates to save the planet. It’s hard to see how we’ll compromise over these tensions, let alone agree on Lindsey’s libertarian version of political truth. Notwithstanding Lindsey’s logic of history—like Fukuyama’s before him—we should expect shocks ahead.