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?
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.
The Trilateral Commission later explained its views of the “threat” to democracy and thus, the way the system ‘should’ function:
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.
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.
So naturally, as a result of such 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?”
We are pursuing targets which are out of proportion, unduly isolated and pursued blindly, and that are, therefore, in the process of creating… a wholly unmanageable and ominous overload… We are beginning to realize in the prosperous democracies that we are living above our means. But we are equally and more grievously living above and beyond our intelligence, above the understanding of what we are doing.
While elites were lamenting over the surge in democracy, particularly in the 1960s, they were not simply complaining about an “excess of democracy” but were actively planning on reducing it. Four years prior to the Trilateral Commission report, in 1971, the infamous and secret ‘Powell Memo’ was issued, written by a corporate lawyer and tobacco company board member, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (whom President Nixon nominated to the Supreme Court two months later), which was addressed to the Chairman of the Education Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing American business interests.
The Powell Memo is largely credited with being a type of ‘Constitution’ or ‘founding document’ for the emergence of the right-wing think tanks in the 1970s and 1980s, as per its recommendations for establishing “a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system.” In 1973, a mere two years after the memo was written, the Heritage Foundation was founded as an “aggressive and openly ideological expert organization,” which became highly influential in the Reagan administration.
These right-wing think tanks helped bring in the era of neo-liberalism, bringing together “scholars” who support the so-called “free market” system (itself, a mythical fallacy), and who deride and oppose all forms of social welfare and social support. The think tanks produced the research and work which supported the dominance of the banks and corporations over society, and the members of the think tanks had their voices heard through the media, in government, and in the universities. They facilitated the ideological shift in power and policy circles toward neoliberalism.
 Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy, (Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, New York University Press, 1975), pages 61-62, 71.