Via his debut book, Jakes offers a new perspective on Egypt under British occupation— and on the United States today
A history book can reflect the peoples and worlds researched as much as of the world unfolding around its author. As Aaron Jakes, Assistant Professor of History at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, wrote his first book, archival research brought him through worlds of bureaucrats, peasants, journalists, and spies, as financial crises, civil unrest, revolt, and populism electrified the world around him.
Jakes started working on the book in its first form — his doctoral thesis — in 2007. As he looked at ways that cotton farmers borrowed money in the early 20th century, he couldn’t help but notice parallels with the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In both periods, the growing influence of financial institutions — financialization —characterized political life. “In a moment in which everyone was thinking about finance, it became possible to start thinking about a contemporary moment in which we had parallel discourses of financial and ecological crisis that were treated as though these were completely separate phenomena,” Jakes says. “And so the first cut at the project in light of that present moment was to begin thinking about what it would mean to write an environmental history of a prior moment of financialization.”
Information Access and Control
Digging back more than a century meant Jakes spent years doing research in archives around the world, including Egypt’s National Archives, the United States Library of Congress, and financial archives across England. But gaining access to those materials wasn’t easy.
Egyptian intelligence agencies maintain strict surveillance over the country’s National Archives. Amid a time of water-related conflict with Egypt’s neighbors to the south, Jakes’ application was left in limbo for his use of the word “irrigation”. Jakes enlisted the support of his doctoral supervisor, who then enlisted Egyptian political novelist and journalist Gamal al-Ghitani to pressure the archive director, culminating in a “scathing” op-ed in Akhbar al-Adab, the Egyptian equivalent of the New York Review of Books. The strategy was effective, but Jakes still spent the following three years navigating bureaucratic and technological barriers to information.
“Computerized control actually makes it possible for [the intelligence agencies] to monitor and restrict who can see what, so the cataloging process itself made it possible to just cause huge swaths of documents to ‘disappear’,” Jakes explains. While he was ultimately able to access the resources he needed, he laments that his Egyptian colleagues, without the same degree of foreign institutional support, don’t have the same access — another lasting effect of colonialism.
As his research progressed, a narrative emerged that contradicted the widely-accepted understanding of the British occupation of Egypt, which is rooted in the notion that colonial rule simply consolidated an earlier set of economic arrangements and that ideas about economic life played no significant role in the major movements and struggles of that era. Through his detailed research in both government and banking archives, Jakes pieced together a far more dynamic story about Egypt’s role as a major investment frontier for global finance and about the multiple crises that this process of financialization induced. This new history of capitalism under British rule, in turn, shed new light on the commentaries that Egyptians at the time, from government officials in Cairo to poor peasants in the countryside, offered about the problems they faced. The pages of Egypt’s burgeoning Arabic press likewise became a site for rich and sustained debate about the consequences of the British occupation. And because colonial officials were so emphatic and consistent in their claims about how economic improvement would translate into political legitimacy, developing a rigorous, alternative account of the relationship between economics and politics soon became central concern of Egypt’s growing nationalist movement.
Economism and Trump
Jakes earned his PhD in 2015 and joined The New School’s Historical Studies department shortly after. As he worked on turning his dissertation into his first book, a new event influenced his writing: the election of Donald Trump.
“It was striking that explanations both for the [Bernie] Sanders phenomenon and for Trump’s election often entailed some suggestion that there was a kind of base motive of economic grievance that really explained what was going on,” Jakes says. This is called economism, the attribution of political effects to underlying economic causes.
To this day, economism is often treated as a unique and even defining problem of the left, which, Jakes argues, obscures other important forms. Whereas various thinkers on the left have seen ideas about economic determination as the grounds for a universalist politics, Jakes shows that such claims can just as easily assume a particularistic and exclusionary character. Often entailed in this latter variant of economism is an implicit, racialized judgment about the “kinds of people” who can’t engage in sophisticated politics beyond “base economic motives” — precisely the same rhetoric the British employed to justify their continued occupation of Egypt.
While Egypt’s Occupation never explicitly makes this connection, the parallels are there. Chapter two, for example, highlights the way the British used economism to justify abolishing the system of local elections that Egyptians had long practiced on a village level by arguing that they were not qualified to participate in even the most local politics because of a supposed inability to overcome their economic self-interest.
“If there’s one thing that I really want people to understand,” says Jakes, “it’s that making claims about a kind of strong underlying economic motivation in politics is…often a way of making claims about political disqualification, and actually means that in this country, as in Egypt a hundred years ago, when people are talking about the economy, they often are really talking about race.”
Bringing Research Questions into the Classroom
The day after NSSR spoke with Jakes, he taught a chapter of Egypt’s Occupation in his Lang survey course on Middle Eastern history, marking the first time he’s brought his work directly into the classroom. But teaching has long given him new ways to think about the problems at the center of his research.
“There are moments in which I have actually taught about a topic that I am sort of starting to get my head around,” Jakes said. He often designs courses not necessarily around the research he’s done, but rather based on problems that appear in his work, such as “A World of Disasters: Famine, Plague, and Crisis in Global History,” which he calls “an attempt to…chart a history of concepts and ideas about disasters and the way that meaning had attached to them in different social settings.”
Jakes credits students — especially his NSSR research assistants — as well as faculty across The New School in helping this first book project come to fruition. The university has, he says ”a really special kind of ecology to make serious critical research both possible and fun.” Grants from NSSR, Lang, and NSSR’s Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies helped him complete this work.
It’s fitting, then, that the November 9 launch event for Egypt’s Occupation is a full NSSR affair, with faculty members from Historical Studies as well as Anthropology, Politics, and Sociology joining Jakes to discuss the book as well as the fallout from colonialism and financial occupation. Register for the book launch here.
Photo credit: Nina Subin
Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.
In Spring 2020, members of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies (DEES) group produced a series of video essays critically examining how states and societies in Eastern Europe have responded to, and thought about, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes in humans, COVID-19. Each essay draws on long-term, direct engagement with people in the region and with scholarship written in the languages of the region.
The essays and accompanying videos were originally published on the DEES group pageand have been reshared here with permission.
DEES on COVID-19: Introduction Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics and DEES coordinator Read her essay here
COVID-19 and Hungarian Democracy Orsolya Lehotai, Politics PhD student Read her essay here
Hitler and White Asparagus: The Pandemic in Romania Elisabeta Pop, Politics PhD student Read her essay here
Russian Governmentality and COVID-19 Dina Shvetsov, Politics PhD student Read her paper here
Old Wine in New Bottles: Church and State in Georgia in COVID-19 Malkhaz Toria, Sociology MA student Read his paper here
What’s Wrong with Ukraine’s Response to COVID-19 Masha Shynkarenko, Politics PhD candidate Read her paper here
Voices from the Polish Borderland Karolina Koziura, Sociology and Historical Studies PhD candidate Read her paper here
As the spread of COVID-19 affects every part of life across the world, The New School for Social Research community is putting knowledge into action. Faculty, students, and alumni are sharing their expertise on how the pandemic is affecting immigration, protests, economic policy, workers’ rights, and emotional well-being.
Read on for more from our anthropologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, historians, and more.
Last updated: 5/26/20
Illustration credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
In contrast to the buffoonery masquerading as leadership in the White House at a moment that necessitates the full mobilization of the government, Cuomo’s slideshows project a reassuring image of managerial order—one that has arguably distracted from his missteps, such as the delay in implementing social distancing measures and closing non-essential businesses. Still, the motley aesthetic of Cuomo’s briefings mirrors our own confusion and disorientation…
In other words, the post-Covid future can’t be appreciated using pre-Covid models and modes of valuation. It will be shaped by long-term obligations instead of high-risk/high-reward strategies or stopgap measures that merely shift risk and debt between balance sheets.
When you depict people as dangerous contaminants, you make dehumanization and elimination more likely. This is the precarious situation we find ourselves in today with the coronavirus spreading in a time of deep polarization, xenophobia and ‘othering’ in many parts of the world, including the United States.
The COVID-19 Policy Forum from the Schwartz Center for Economics Policy Analysis convenes Economics faculty and students to share their ideas on progressive policies and considerations in response to the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Read updates from Professors Mark Setterfield, Paulo dos Santos, and Willi Semmler, PhD and MA students, and more.
Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development:
They should have built up some buffers against such sudden shocks and risk.
To enable millions of people to focus on the areas of work needed to fight this pandemic, society needs to recognise the valuable public goods that care labour creates, and to reward those performing other essential tasks in line with the social contribution their work makes.
Models are needed for sensible decision-making, but so is sound judgment. For it to be applied, it is essential to recognize that models can be constructed in different ways, reflecting a range of plausible premises.
Barron’s: The Danger of Overreliance on Epidemiological Models (4/29/2020)
Is the coronavirus lockdown justified? One school of thought holds that any societal cost is worth paying to save a life. This seems sensible at first, but we do not honor this dictum in normal times, either in India or globally. We tolerate people dying for lack of resources, often on a mass scale, in developing countries.
The economics discipline has provided the most influential framework for thinking about public policies, but it has proved inadequate, both in preparing for the current emergency and for dealing with it. The pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics and points in some directions that this rethinking should take.
Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, has been been a major voice in advocating for workers’ rights, against budget cuts, and for more compassionate retirement policies:
In stark contrast to the effective leadership shown by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Singapore’s autocratic technocracy, the world’s far-right nationalists have met the COVID-19 crisis with something not seen in decades: the fascist politics of disease. And no one typifies this brand of politics better than Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.
We are recognizing that we need a more important role for the State, one that gives answers to society. This means that in a context of so much emergency, the market is not everything. The market clearly can not resolve everything.
“Emergencies teach us something about what citizens want and need, and they teach us how to safeguard our economic system from grifters and market dynamics. The Great Depression, and then World War II, pushed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to recognize social needs and respond to them. What progressives refer to approvingly as the welfare state, and conservatives as “creeping socialism” are the same ratchet effect regarded from two different political perspectives.”
When the coronavirus presented them with a choice between letting people die and closing down ‘the economy’, there was no question which the masters would choose. A herd that had already had its most contentious and inquisitive members culled, and that had been rendered submissive, would easily become accustomed to the slaughter of two thousand or so per day.
Netflix is one of the most popular strategies we have against smashing our bug-like faces against the onrushing windscreen of personalized finitude. And as such, it embodies a new kind of digital cogito: “I watch, therefore I am (not).” Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that Netflix itself has become sentient, and is trying to communicate with us, and perhaps even warn us against further dangers to come.
Philosophers have had a long, tortured love affair with social distancing, beginning with Socrates confined to his cell; René Descartes withdrawn from the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (in which he was a participant) into a room with an oven in the Netherlands to ponder the nature of certainty; others like Boethius, Thomas More and Antonio Gramsci, all part of this long tradition of isolation and thought.
He also talks with The Slowdown podcast about how COVID-19 may be rewiring our very being, the need to better understand our anxiety, and how the pandemic is revealing how much we don’t know. Listen to the audio recording here (4/6/2020)
Prof. Critchley discusses mortality, hypochondria, anxiety, and pandemic on The Stone, the philosophy forum at the New York Times that he moderates. Listen to the audio recording here (3/30/2020)
The only way to resolve this contradiction within our current situation is for governments to mercilessly take measures that threaten the private property of capitalists and the “free market.” The more they take control of the private property of necessary industries through nationalization, provide public services and cash payments, and displace market relations by social planning, the more likely it is that we will be able to mitigate the effects of the pandemic while still allowing people to meet their survival needs. In the absence of such changes, human values are powerless against economic value.
This is a strange story to tell: it is about shifting ideals, how time unfolds for an individual, and the will to act or speak at the limit of life. Also, the care one must take when speaking of the dying or the dead.
“Hong Kong has a long tradition of making fools of forecasters (that goes back to the 1840s), and I’m continually struck as well by how often social movements take unexpected turns in all parts of the world. That said, while I hesitate to make firm predictions on this topic, I see good reason to expect a significant resurgence of protests. There have been some even as fear of infection has led to a drop in all kinds of crowd activities.”
It will be extremely tempting for the CCP and the Hong Kong government to use the threat of coronavirus contagion to deny protest permits, and to use aggressive coercive techniques to prevent any “unlawful assemblies.” But the protesters have the support of an exceptionally large number of Hong Kong citizens.
“This is the alarming thing about the transmission of fear. It infects people’s feelings and actions, causing them to behave in ways that often run against their own interests, not to mention their larger obligations to public health and social life.”
Alex Aleinikoff, University Professor and head of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility:
With the ability to move about freely sharply curtailed in nearly every country in the world, immigration scholars will need to think hard about a fundamental assumption of the field: that we are living in an “age of mobility.
For the first time in their lives, many Americans are now walking in the shoes of others. Or, rather, not walking. We are confronting government actions, policies, and admonitions that seek to dramatically limit how and when we move.
From these experiences, can we learn empathy for those around the globe for whom mobility is routinely and severely restricted: Syrians refugees trapped in camps on Lesvos, and Rohingya refugees languishing in Bangladesh; Palestinians confined to Gaza, and controlled by separation walls on the West Bank; Central Americans pushed out of the United States to wait in border towns in Mexico; Uighurs confined in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang; African migrants stopped in boats on the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya; victims of mass incarceration in the United States; poor people everywhere who lack the resources to begin journeys to improve their lives.
Theo Vasconcelos de Almeida, a Politics PhD student:
In short, I am suggesting a generalization of the #CancelRent demand to cover people employed in all non-essential sectors who cannot continue to work from home. However, there is an obvious problem: the interconnection between these two sectors. Even with canceled rent, many who work in the non-essential sector will not be able to pay for their food and common utilities without working.
We know that securely attached adults and securely attached children are not immune to stress. The challenge is to feel able to acknowledge the stress and share one’s unsettling feelings with family members and close friends
…we need calm discussions of our fears. These conversations ought to emanate from high political offices and resonate from personal discussions with family, friends and co-workers. This will naturally lead to sympathetic and supportive behavior that may be seen as heroic problem-solving strategies. These strategies take the form of everyday actions (like washing one’s hands for 20 seconds and restricting self-touch of one’s face), as well as large-scale coordinated scientific efforts at developing treatments (ramping up the production and delivery of life-saving ventilators and protective gear for front-line health care workers) and, longer term, vaccine developments — all this can do much to attenuate the fears currently (and reasonably) felt on a universal scale.
Influencers, bound by contracts and carefully crafted images, simply can’t be that free. The best they can do, Brown says, is “tap into needed resources like safety, community, a sense of trust.” He believes that with Covid-19 sticking around for an indefinite amount of time, the field will grow narrower, as more people will start “congregating” around a smaller group of influencers who can meet their needs.
…we suggest that COVID-19 requires us to prioritize and mobilize as a research and clinical community around several key areas: (a) diagnostics, (b) prevention, (c) public outreach and communication, (d) working with medical staff and mainstreaming into nonmental health services, and (e) COVID-19-specific trauma research.
While mental health services have shown to be inaccessible to many in the United States, research indicates that African Americans encounter added challenges that prevent them from getting the care they need. Among those challenges, according to Thomas Vance…are increased stigma associated with mental health concerns and lack of available culturally competent care
I had already experienced the drama of forced displacement when in 1993 my family had to leave our home in the Abkhazia region of Georgia at the end of the armed Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. But strangely, this time, I was going simultaneously through mixed feelings of joy and distress. I was not being forced to abandon my home, but was rushing back to reunite with my family – my wife and two kids — in Georgia.
It’s almost like, since so many of my normal habits, my regular ways of distracting myself from what my heart is saying, have been swept away by the silence of the quarantine, that God’s desire for my attention to go outwards is coming through even stronger.
It is as if Milan, under quarantine, has asked me to renounce the particular version of our American response to fear that I have made my own: the unceasing effort to control, to master, to define and thereby dictate what is really real and truly true. And thereby be secure.
The Pandemic Discourses blog aims to foster an interdisciplinary and global dialogue on the historical, social, and political dimensions of the pandemic. It provides perspectives from different corners of the world, and especially the global South, bringing to the forefront variable and contested understandings of disease, expertise, and society. It includes noted authors from South Africa, China, Brazil, and more.
PanDemos 2020 is the latest initiative from Letters from the Field, a column devoted to news and commentary from TCDS friends and colleagues around the world. PanDemos 2020 focuses on the relationship between democracy and COVID-19, and includes letters from Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and more.
Saladdin Ahmed, Visiting Assistant Professor at Union College:
COVID-19 is the kind of event that has momentarily confused various ruling groups. Clearly, there is a confusion about how much and what kind of information the public should be allowed to access. The confusion is mainly caused by a significant degree of conflict between the priority of the stock market and the possible political consequences of a pandemic. The virus does not have an ideology, but the outbreak will certainly have ideological consequences. It is now time for creativity. It is time to simultaneously reinvent methods of resistance against all viruses and all fascists.
Well-known for its doctoral programs in the social sciences and philosophy, The New School for Social Research also offers terminal Master’s degree programs that allow new graduate students to dig deeply into a topic and develop their research skills while preparing for careers or for additional graduate study.
This year, several 2019 Historical Studies MA graduates were accepted at top History PhD programs that support their research interests. Their experiences illuminate how the department can help emerging historians identify, prepare for, and confidently choose the best next steps in their scholarly careers.
Ella Coon, a Minnesota
native, first moved to New York to attend Columbia University where she majored
in printmaking. Later, while working as an archivist at the LeRoy Neiman
Foundation, she discovered her passion for combing through archives. She had
long been interested in history, especially the Cold War and the political
debates that underpinned it, and she began to seek opportunities for research
that could combine research and art.
always wanted to be at The New School,” Coon explains. “I was attracted by the
faculty, but also to what seemed like a progressive environment.” That scholars
and students in the department were unafraid to innovate methodologically or to
delve into the political implications of their research “was really
As she deepened her understanding of the politics and economics of the Cold War, she began working closely with Associate Professor of History Julia Ott and Assistant Professor of History Emma Park, both of whom teach classes in the history of capitalism. Coon cites their encouragement and flexibility with helping her craft a project while also gathering resources and preparing essential elements, such as a literature review, to help her write a strong thesis at the end of her second year.
beginning of the program there was a sense that you should be thinking about
what you’re going to do at the end,” Coon explains. A large part of that work
happens during a required third-semester
seminar in which students workshop their theses and also prepare PhD
applications. “Faculty would come in every other week to talk about their work
and their methodology, but then some weeks were dedicated to helping us apply
by going over our projects with that in mind,” Coon says.
It worked. She completed her thesis, which examines the political economy of technology transfers between the U.S. and Comecon during détente. And in Fall 2019, she’ll be heading back uptown to start a PhD in History where it all began — Columbia University.
contrast, Deren Ertas moved to New York from Turkey at just 11 years old. She
threw herself into books, primarily as a way to learn English. “Then I just
kept reading,” Ertas says, reflecting on the path that led her to major in the
College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University.
discovered her passion for history while writing her undergraduate thesis on
the 2013 Gezi Park protests that swept across Turkey. Through analyzing protest
rhetoric, Ertas began to focus on how Turkish practices of civil disobedience
and resistance had developed historically, as well as how a Turkish national
identity had been constructed more generally. “In Turkey we’re kind of
fomenting hatred for each other all the time and I was interested in how that
dynamic had been historically configured by different political projects,”
As her interests in history developed, so did her passion for political theory and theorists such as Hannah Arendt, who drew her attention to NSSR as a potential next step. “Of course I wanted a strong background in history, but I also wanted to continue to take classes in different disciplines and develop my insights through an engagement with different methods,” Ertas says. “I couldn’t go to a more traditional program, that’s not the kind of relationship I want to have to my field.” Conversations with Assistant Professor of History Aaron Jakes and the possibility of taking classes with major thinkers like Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and History Ann Stoler helped her realize this was the place for her.
Ertas knew that she had made the right decision while delivering a paper at the 2018 Radical Democracy Conference. “Andreas [Kalyvas, Associate Professor of Politics] and some other students in the class really encouraged me to present this paper, and I’m glad they did because it led to a shift. I decided to dedicate myself to academic work full time and pursue my application to PhD programs in Fall 2018” she remembers.
Ertas credits Historical Studies faculty with helping her develop the content of her thesis, which explores the ways in which the project of modernizing and liberalizing reforms undertaken by the Ottoman state in the 19th century (known as the Tanzimat) can be understood as an effort to address specific problems in tax levying and military recruitment as well as a modern project of nation-building. She also examines the way resistance to these modernizing projects — much like the Gezi Park protests — established patterns of resistance that recurred in later Ottoman and Turkish politics.
“My conversations with [Professor Jakes] were fundamental in terms of my understanding of my work and how to situate it within the field of Middle Eastern history” she says. Jakes also invited her to participate in a small gathering of scholars to workshop his forthcoming manuscript, which allowed Ertas to see different aspects of what academic life could be like. “Those experiences were intellectually enriching at every turn,” she added.
As she crafted her PhD application, she received support from other Historical Studies faculty members, and Jakes also urged her to continue reaching out to people in her top-choice programs. “He kept encouraging me because I was feeling very shy,” Ertas explains. “Pushing me to do that was very important!”
The recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Master of Arts Graduate Award for Historical Studies, Ertas will pursue her PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is happy about staying in the East Coast, which will allow her to sustain the close connections she made with NSSR faculty and students. “I’m excited to go from one place where I can forge my own path to another place where I can do that,” she says.
Lucas Ballestin is a PhD candidate in Philosophy. He specializes in political philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. His dissertation is on psychoanalytic theories of political ideology in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
The year 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of 1968, the iconic year of a seismic decade in the U.S. and around the world. Amid countless museum exhibits, academic conferences, and media retrospectives, many drew comparisons between 1968 and today around increasing global turbulence and sense of unease.
Professor of History Jeremy Varon is an American historian specializing in the 1960s, and in 2008 co-founded The Sixties, the first academic journal solely devoted to scholarly study of the decade. He recently reflected on the 1968-2018 comparison, and on the ways in which we study, celebrate, and remember our past, for Public Seminar.
Research Matters spoke with Varon about the topic, and the more personal dimensions he brings to his research. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Research Matters: In your work, you discuss the idea of nostalgia, and of the “anniversary glut” as a double-edged sword. You open your Editor’s Statement [of The Sixties] by stating that what you want to do in the journal is not traffic in nostalgia but provide an actual professional history–provide a memorialization of the period that is more nuanced. What do you see as the pitfalls of nostalgia? And what do you think is its power or allure?
Jeremy Varon: The 1960s, and 1968 in particular, are endlessly memorialized, especially in those societies that, during that time, underwent profound transformations. Part of that memorialization is often a reliving of that past by those who shaped it, and that memorial culture can be either superficial or substantive depending on the media. This can be a wonderful point of entry for younger people who aren’t familiar with this period, and a wonderful incitement to memory for the people who lived through it. But for a discerning professional scholar, it’s a mixed bag: there’s exposure of an important era that I’ve dedicated my life to studying professionally, but yet a kind of reduction of history to a set of ruling cliches.
I define nostalgia as an affection for one’s past simply because it was one’s past. Engaging the ‘60s beyond nostalgia involves a combination of assiduous historical study that tries to understand the alchemy that produced a singularly robust era of global revolt in the history of human civilization. History never fully goes away; it is with us, and we live with it. Still, half a century later, the ‘60s represent an epic frame of reference–partly mythological–to which people appeal when they want to champion justice, confront illegitimate power, and advance the project of human liberation. In my work, and in the journal, we try to honor both: detached scholarly analysis, and then ethically and existentially engaged connection with a history that I see as an unfinished project.
RM: I’m interested in the personal aspect of it for you. What are the elements of the ‘60s to which you’re most drawn in your research?
JV: I was born in 1967. As a child, I was obsessed with the ‘60s and wanted to participate in whatever of it was still available to me. [By college in the 1980s], my life consisted of reading philosophy and literature, playing the guitar with friends, and ceaselessly protesting, while living in what was essentially a campus commune. I saw myself as in some sense trying to deeply realize the ethical vision of the 60’s movers and shakers: Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman, Malcolm X, people I saw as these larger-than-life moral superheroes. When I started to study the era in a more sophisticated way, I remained inspired by the genuine heroism but also very curious about the moral and political complexities of the era.
RM: You write that your hope for The Sixties journal, which celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018, is to sharpen and expand the terms of established debates and open up new ones. What debates about the ‘60s were ongoing in 2008?
JV: The journal was founded during a time at which there was no such thing as “1960s Studies.” It was explicitly meant to be a catalyst for an emerging subfield as opposed to a disciplinary reorientation. I think the journal has succeeded in being that kind of home that has helped the field evolve. The single greatest evolution has been the maturation of the idea of the global ‘60s–that there were spirited revolts that were happening almost synchronically in diverse settings throughout the world, and that to understand the ‘60s deeply you had to understand the causes of this unbelievable synchronicity far transcended coincidence. By now, the global ‘60s as a framing concept has achieved a kind of hegemony and I think it’s increasingly understood that the grand narrative in which the revolts of the ‘60s participated was decolonization: the “Third World “trying to liberate itself from the chains of colonialism, inspiring in the process all kinds of freedom struggles that might exist outside of an explicit colonial context.
As to where we have broken new ground, I would point to an essay about East Germany’s adoption of the paper dress, which was invented by Andy Warhol and other Western pop artists as a kind of disposable art that made some comment on mass consumer culture. In East Germany at the time, they had a shortage of cotton and needed to produce things cheaply. So they marketed this paper dress as a kind of wearable fashion. Though it was the product of decadent, bourgeois Western modernism, East Germany also wanted their youth to participate just enough in the global youth culture so they wouldn’t feel left out and disdainful toward their elderly communist masters. That’s what I call a “global ‘60s adventure story,” where you have the migration and resignification of certain texts, artifacts, and impulses in disparate geographies, conditioned by geopolitical and economic conflicts.
A second landmark essay is a major rethinking of the counterculture by David Farber. He used the concept of “right livelihood,” a Buddhist idea–that young people wanted to separate themselves from the crassly materialistic mainstream and live lives of meaning, but also had to earn enough money to have a proper livelihood. The essay provides a reinterpretation of the counterculture not simply as the enemy of white-collar, soul-deadening bureaucracy, but a movement of young people who went to work to try to build, if only in small ways, a more humane society. Farber’s essay is absolutely required reading for anybody who does anything new with the idea of the counterculture.
RM: Bill Clinton once said, “If you look back on the ’60s and think there was more good than harm, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” I’m interested in the way that the ‘60s, and especially the memory of this time and the way we make meaning of this era, defines political lines. How do you see that playing out?
JV: I would argue that the memory wars over the ‘60s are ongoing. Clinton’s diagnosis more or less still holds. Many people have said that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is a reference to a pre-1960s past, where white supremacy was substantially uncontested; [second-wave] feminism hadn’t yet happened; America was very much a white, Christian nation, as defined by the people at the top of social and cultural ladder. Progressive America, broadly defined, wants to deepen values of pluralism, ecological stewardship, emancipation–the hallmarks of the ‘60s.
There are, however, twists. For example, a lot of conservatives see themselves as today’s great rebels, fighting against the politically correct, progressive, Hollywood, beltway establishment. The younger set of conservatives feel like they are the ones who are authentically fighting a new kind of liberal establishment.
RM: As a historian, what are some of the ways in which you have been challenged and have challenged other people to push past that kind of easy division of the 60s between “it was mostly good” or “it was mostly bad”?
JV: I would say that the single greatest example is how I present the ultra-radicalism of the Weathermen. People who denounce the Weathermen think that I’m an apologist for terrorism, while people who are closer to their vision think that I represent some kind of liberal mainstream that marginalizes radicalism. I don’t think that either of these accusations is true or fair, and neither speaks to the complexity with which I try to present a morally and politically complex history.
My other intervention is to get my colleagues to recognize that our sustained interest in the 1960s isn’t simply because a lot of important stuff happened then. Its enduring appeal is the power of its political and moral, world-changing vision of a more just and more free world. And more and more as I get deeper and deeper into this identity, I’m owning that sense of wanting to sustain a legacy of contestation in how I do my scholarship and, in a deeper sense, how I live my live. And that has meant a return to that sense of awe I had as a young boy looking at this history just out of my reach, one that seemed almost infinite in its mandate to future generations to struggle in their own times and in their own terms to make a better world.
Lucas Ballestin is a PhD candidate in Philosophy. He specializes in political philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. His dissertation is on psychoanalytic theories of political ideology in the 20th and 21st Centuries.