Inside the tent

IN 2009 I ATTENDED two large sixtieth-birthday parties. Each celebrated a senior woman academic who had attained considerable recognition and seniority within her profession and the larger intellectual milieu. Both women spoke to mark the occasion: one, of her sense that reaching sixty was a great achievement; the other, that it marked the point to recognise that the end was in sight. Together, the two comments mark the acceptance of a significant generational shift, as the postwar baby boomers give way to a new generation with rather different memories and political influences. Those of us who are now over sixty grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and the large shifts that make up what is now mythologised as the sixties. We were marching in anti-war protests when Kevin Rudd was starting secondary school.

Many of the same generation were serving in the war against which we were protesting; even in its halcyon days the new left and the counterculture included a minority of young people. Nonetheless, the period marked a fundamental shift in social and cultural attitudes, and its impact remains today. As the baby boomers age, the 1960s has become a major nostalgia industry, and there is a looming sense that the decade was one where the direction of modern history turned irretrievably, with legacies we are still working through today. This is taken for granted in the US: as one conservative wrote, ‘To an extent scarcely imaginable thirty years ago, we now live in that "moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties".'

The mythology of the generation gap spawned by radicalism in the sixties is now a staple of popular culture, as in several recent films based on the Woodstock festival. In Ian Rankin's novel The Naming of the Dead,set around the G8 summit in Edinburgh in 2005, a woman policeman is visited by her parents, radicalised in the sixties and now part of the anti-globalisation protest. In the same way the Egyptian author Alaa al Aswany, in Chicago, his novel of Egyptians in contemporary America, creates a stereotypical sixties protestor, now an eminent professor, who talks of a time of ‘true ideological revolution when progressive values replaced capitalist ideas'.

There is less reverence for the period in Australia, although the social commentator Hugh McKay described the period as ‘disrupting the established pattern of cultural baton-passing from one generation to the next'.[1] More common may be George Megalogenis's laconic comment: ‘The shriek that greeted the Beatles, the tumult of Vietnam, women's liberation, and full employment can be neatly slotted between these two slumps [of 1961 and 1971-72].' [2]

Yet if the social, cultural and political upheavals of 1968 seemed largely to bypass Australia, the country has changed in significant and radical ways over the past forty years. Without apparently setting out to do so, Australians have reinvented themselves. Some of the changes have met the demands of sixties radicals; others have created new inequalities and problems we could not have imagined. In some ways the present looks very familiar: students who demonstrated against Vietnam found themselves, now in their sixties, marching against sending troops to Iraq. The global recession of 2008 and the looming problems of climate change suddenly made the radicalism of the sixties, long dismissed as irrelevant, seem worth re-examining.

The generation of the sixties was always diverse: more young Australians voted for Menzies in 1966 and 1969 than protested against the sending of troops to Vietnam. Equally, the itineraries of those who were part of the mythical sixties generation have been very different. Some of those associated with radical cultural and political protest have moved to the right, or built successful mainstream political and business careers. Others have remained true to their beliefs, and there are a number of former sixties radicals and hippies to be found living in mud-brick houses in Eltham or on communal farms on the northern New South Wales coast. Less often recognised are the casualties of the sixties, those who were caught up in the major political and cultural events of the time and found their lives disrupted in ways that resulted in depression, dependence and an inability to adjust to later life.


IN MY OWN case I constructed a career as an academic and writer, able to take advantage of the openings that the changes of that period created. Ironically, I am now part of a system that, through its emphasis on outcomes and evaluation, is foreclosing for new generations the possibilities that allowed some of us to create fulfilling professional lives while retaining some degree of political commitment.

There is very little substantial written about the lasting impact of this period on Australian life. In 1980 Donald Horne published Time of Hope, a look back at the years between Menzies and Whitlam when ‘some of the established common sense was being upset'.[3] Horne was a political maverick whose politics steadily moved to the left, and who influenced generations of Australian intellectuals and writers. He was interested in this period because he saw it as a time when everything seemed to change. (It's worth noting that the book was commissioned by Richard Walsh, who as one of the founding editors of Oz magazine was an important part of the cultural changes of the 1960s.) Other than more specialised accounts of particular movements, of which Verity Burgmann's 1993 book Power and Protest is the most substantial, little analysis has been added to Horne's.

In retrospect Horne exaggerated the political if not the social changes taking place in Australia. He saw the election of the Whitlam government as changing political debate: ‘By the time of the 1972 election it was another country. The maintenance of "economic growth" had disappeared as a political issue.' Perhaps: but it would soon reappear, and economic management was to be central to every election since. Indeed, what is most striking about Horne's evocation of the time is the echoes of his concerns in the current era.

Thus Horne pointed to a questioning of ‘developmentalism', and to major shifts in attitudes towards racial, sexual and gender relations. His book reminds us that concerns about consumerism and the environment are hardly new, and generated considerable political debate forty years ago. He was also realistic enough to recognise that the new social movements of the time barely changed basic bureaucratic and capitalist structures, and may in some ways have strengthened them. Horne recognised the strength of institutions in our political culture, and the particular attraction that progress through institutions would have even for those who saw themselves as radicals.

What is most striking about Time of Hope is its indifference to the rest of the world, even though in his earlier The Lucky Country Horne had been one of the first Australian writers to seriously ponder our relations with Asia. In Time of Hope he was very aware of the growing impact of the United States, and the contradiction that many of the cultural ideas imported from the US fuelled protest against Australia's involvement in American military adventures in Indochina. He noted the tentative post-Menzies steps towards closer links with Asia, or at least those Asian countries seen as reliably anti-communist (while Whitlam's visit to China receives a paragraph, there is little sense of just how major a change this prefigured in Australia's relations with the outside world). But Horne was writing before the concept of globalisation had become a framework for understanding the world. He wrote in a tradition that saw the nation state as the primary focus for political action.

Horne ends Time of Hope by asking what had changed. Almost thirty years later Raewyn Connell, herself a participant in the radical politics of the period, addressed the same question in reflecting on the new left of the 1960s. Like Horne, she sees the period as one where large numbers of new ideas and possibilities emerged, and describes the new left as ‘a collective midwife...a kind of social and cultural catalyst – not a world historical force in its own right but something that helped larger and slower processes along'. [4]

For me, the crucial element of what Horne calls ‘time of hope', and Connell ‘a startling assertion of vivid life', was the sense of reimagining the world that was expressed through a plethora of social and cultural movements, ranging from Black Power groups to new forms of theatre and music. It is common to dismiss the sixties as inconsequential in Australian life, no more than a faint echo of overseas events. For some, the real shift came in the supplanting of Britain as the most significant cultural influence within Australia, in favour of the United States. Julie Stephens, for example, has argued that the best way to understand the impact of the sixties is to view it through the American experience. [5]

Raewyn Connell draws on a comment by the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin to invoke colour as part of the sixties, and for those of us whose political outlooks were to some extent shaped by this period the sixties, however defined, remain a time of Technicolor brilliance, surrounded by the remembered greyness of the Menzies years and the steady growth of technocratic economic rationalism that came in the 1980s. It is dangerous to generalise about experiences, but for a generation born during the 1940s our school years during the 1950s and early 1960s seemed dominated by a conservative parochialism, where an unreflective anti-communism and slowly growing affluence, symbolised by the arrival of television in 1956 (in time for the Melbourne Olympics), ensured the seemingly endless continuation of conservative governments.

Unlike the United States, where the 1950s also saw significant shifts in civil rights and the beginnings of a counterculture through the Beat generation, there were few signs in Australia before the late 1960s of any revolt against the social and cultural status quo. I have written of the ways in which the stamps produced during the long Menzies years reflected a complacent and parochial view of the world: ‘Largely in russet red and royal blue, these are the images of unquestioning respectability: cows and tractors exhorting us to PRODUCE FOOD; homage to the suburban volunteers of Red Cross, Rotary, the YMCA; nativity images of Christmas; and, most laden with symbolism of them all, the Queen's head set in an oval alongside our memorial to the American war effort: this was the Australia Menzies had created, and which we all in our different ways wished to escape.'[6] The fifties were a bad time for stamp design everywhere, but Australia produced some of the very worst.

Despite his strong support of the American alliance Menzies is, of course, heavily identified with Britain and the view that Australia was essentially an antipodean extension of the ‘mother country'. That view had been contested already during the nineteenth century, and it could not survive the dual impact of declining British power and large-scale non-British immigration. The historian Henry Reynolds, who grew up a few years ahead of me in Hobart, writes of the excitement at non-Anglo migrants arriving at his school,[7] part of a wave that would in time transform much of Australia. My memories of the 1950s, a decade spent at the only Quaker School in Australia, encompass vignettes of the changes that were beginning to occur. The old trams went, replaced by trolley cars, and with them the unofficial rules whereby single women travelled in the front, men down the back. A couple of cafés opened, serving cappuccinos and – my favourite exotic dish – Russian egg salad. Like many others of my generation, one of my first political memories was the huge Royal Tour of 1954, and during my brief period as a Cub we stood in serried rows in the gardens of Government House to welcome the royal couple. The classes above us rehearsed for months for a schools pageant, and I remember my relief at not being exposed to the relentless drill instructors of the North Hobart Oval.

In 1956 the Melbourne Olympics saw Cold War conflict come to Australia, as Hungarian and Russian water polo players came to blows in the pool. Reports spoke of the crowds of ‘new Australians', a term which quietly disappeared from the language once the Whitlam and Fraser governments replaced it with ‘multiculturalism'. New Australians were almost exclusively European, and a pervasive racism was part of Australian identity. One of the first signs of a new style of politics was the emergence of a movement opposed to the White Australia policy: the Immigration Reform Movement was founded in 1959 by a group of academics and journalists with links to Melbourne University and the Catholic Worker. By the time I was an undergraduate at the University of Tasmania in the early 1960s this was an important issue, and we organised a well-attended debate between the Liberal Senator John Marriott and Professor James McAuley, as well as a visit by federal Labor's deputy leader, Gough Whitlam, who risked expulsion from the party for his opposition to the policy.

Perhaps the first precursors of a new political and cultural era were in popular music, beginning with the period of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, and the phenomenon of bodgies and widgies. On 1 February 1951 the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on its front page: ‘What with "bodgies" growing their hair long and getting around in satin shirts, and "weegies" cutting their hair short and wearing jeans, confusion seems to be arising about the sex of some Australian adolescents.'[8] By the mid-1950s there were ‘rock and roll riots' in several Australian cities.[9] I was too young to be tempted by what seems now a foretaste of the counterculture, but by the early 1960s British pop music was suggesting new ways of seeing the world, above all through the sensation caused by the Beatles, who visited Australia in June 1964. It is estimated that up to 350,000 people gathered in Adelaide to watch the band arrive, perhaps the largest street gathering in Australian history. Listening to their music today it's hard to recapture the sense of challenge to the old order the Beatles represented, but as Peter Beilharz has noted music was everywhere in that period, and it often expressed an inchoate desire for change that would become expressed in new social and protest movements.[10] A Hard Day's Night, which was in cinemas about the time of their Australian tour, marks the transition towards a new sort of cultural politics.


YET IN AUSTRALIA the sixties only began at the very end of that decade. In 1968, while riots and demonstrations threatened governments in France, Italy, the United States, Czechoslovakia and Mexico, the new Gorton government was barely touched by anti-war protest. Arguably more Australians experienced 1968 overseas than here: Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, speaks of her experiences in London with ‘an Australian mafia...libertarian anarchists'[11] who made their mark in Britain through Oz magazine. (Oz began in Sydney in 1963 and a British version started in 1967, after co-editor Richard Neville moved to London.) Barry Humphries, already established in London, toured Australia that year with Just a Show, featuring Edna Everage.

In Tim Burstall's Two Thousand Weeks (1969)the first Australian feature film for a decade, one character says: ‘Isolation means that every idea arrives here second-hand, and usually five years out of date.'[12] But the source of these ideas was increasingly the United States, and the emergence of new forms of political and cultural activism in America started to replace the attractions of Earl's Court and the British media. It was perhaps symbolic that the sixties seemed to have been imported to Australia as a rock musical, Hair, set in the United States, which opened in Sydney amid huge controversy in 1969. During 2008 a student posted the following on the website for my US Politics course: ‘Don't know if Dennis set this up, but this Tuesday's showing of Hair in the classroom coincided with the forty-year anniversary of the premiere of the movie in 1968.' It was the fortieth anniversary of the musical, not the film, but the point remains. Hair came to Australia the following year, and the thirty-second nude scene was a scandal. The director Jim Sharman speaks of Hair and The Rocky Horror Picture Show book-ending the era: ‘We had lived through the don't dream it, be it period and its all too brief jump to the left, and were now about to witness a very firm step to the right and a return to conservatism in the endless time warp of global politics.'[13]

By 1968 Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, which had been opposed by the Labor Party from the outset, was dividing the country, with a growing anti-war and anti-conscription campaign. As universities became the sites for anti-war protests, the RSL called for the expulsion of all protesting students. The federal election the following year suggested the long period of conservative rule was declining, as Whitlam won a huge swing to Labor and established himself as Prime Minister in waiting. (Paul Keating entered parliament that year.) That election became famous in Australian mythology through David Williamson's Don's Party, which portrayed the emergence of a new generation determined to change Australia. The small numbers of activists who saw themselves at the pioneers of a new Australian identity were overwhelmingly male and Anglo-Irish, and the next forty years would see major growth in diversity as the intellectual and political elites opened up slowly to include women and newer immigrant groups.

The late 1960s were defined by the war in Vietnam in ways very different to the impact of the Iraq war forty years later. The anti-war movement rallied hundreds of thousands of people across Australia in mass Moratoriums, and countercultural and feminist critiques starting cutting across mainstream Australia. In Steven Carroll's 2007 novel of suburban Melbourne, The Time We Have Taken (Harper Collins), the older characters are threatened by what seems a tsunami of change. As one muses: ‘For Michael, his kind and this Whitlam of theirs are a wave, she imagines, a wave that has been steadily building over the years and will not be stopped. They are History, their every word and gesture tells you.'[14] Perhaps the real turning point came in 1970, with the introduction of jumbo jets heralding a new period of mass travel, and the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. Tradition was recalled in the celebration of Cook's ‘discovery' of New South Wales two centuries earlier, and another Royal Tour, though one with far less pomp and popular interest than that of 1954.

By the end of the decade, changes in the social and ethnic composition of Australia had produced the potential for a rather different radicalism to that which had been based around militant sections of the trade union movement and the Communist Party, largely irrelevant since the denunciations by Khrushchev of Stalin's crimes in 1956. Unlike the United States, there was no Port Huron document, the founding statement of Students for a Democratic Society, to sum up a new radicalism in Australia. It was easier to retain some faith in electoral politics, for while Labor had been defeated in the elections of both 1966 and 1969 it remained critical of the war in Vietnam, and through its deputy leader, Jim Cairns, was closely linked to the anti-war movement. Some leftists distrusted Whitlam, who was thought too willing to compromise on opposition to the war, but many of us saw in him the promise of radical change and a new pride in being Australian.

The early 1970s was a period of considerable protests, demonstrations and social movement: large number of people marched against the war, there were sit-ins in university offices, consciousness-raising groups, green bans against the razing of inner cities – especially of Sydney. There all took place against the background of larger social and cultural change, which makes it difficult to distinguish what the new movements actually achieved and what was thrust upon us.

The countercultural and new-left politics that developed in this period had both strengths and weaknesses. By re-imagining the very nature of the political they enabled the mobilisation of large numbers of people who would otherwise not have become political activists. Quite extraordinary changes in how we think about cultural, ethnic and gender diversity stem from this period. But in retrospect the new left failed to grasp the ways in which capitalism was also changing, and the seductiveness of consumerism and affluence for the vast majority of people. The constant attacks of the right since the 1980s on ‘latte-sipping leftists' demonstrates the failure of the left to capture the cultural agenda, and the irony that its successes in some arenas allowed the right to portray them as dangerous and elitist.

The opinion pages of The Australian remain full of attacks on the success of the sixties generation in conquering public space. Thus the former art critic Giles Autry laments the ‘abject internal collapse' of western society, which he equates with the success of a whole set of understandings of the world summed up as ‘postmodernism', which ‘corrodes society largely through assaults on its soft underbelly, principally the effective hegemony it has created in the arts, education and culture generally'.[15] If you start with this premise it becomes very easy to find examples – and The Australian has been particularly agitated by politicised readings of literature and history in schools, and the teaching of cultural studies more generally – but evidence that this had changed dominant political understandings is far less apparent. For every postmodern, postcolonial or queer reading of ‘reality' shows on television there are many more people who watch such shows as pure escapism, and are probably reinforced in their attachment to an individualistic and acquisitive view of the world. Despite Autry's claim that the left is killing religion we currently have a Prime Minister who is more publicly religious than any of his predecessors, and religious fundamentalisms of various sorts are on the rise.


MANY OF THE new leftists of the sixties did move into various political and civil institutions, seemingly bearing out Pat Buchanan's comment: ‘Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket.'[16] I find myself spending large amounts of time and energy working through institutions that in different ways are a result of the social changes of the past few decades. Over the past decade I have been an active member of three boards: a university council, the Australian affiliate of a major international development agency and the governing body of the largest association of AIDS professionals in the world.

Although each has its peculiarities, they all represent certain assumptions about complex social organisation that is typical of liberal institutions at the beginning of the century. All, it should be noted, exist within the non-profit sector and have considerable, though very different, relationships with governments. They cover the spectrum of local to global: the university functions under state legislation, though it is heavily dependent on federal funding; Oxfam Australia is part of a confederation that is rapidly moving towards greater consolidation between its national member organisations; and the International AIDS Society is a genuinely international membership organisation, with something like 10,000 members across the world. All are organisations whose mission statements suggest a commitment to social justice and something that an earlier generation would have called ‘progress'. All are to some extent representative; that is, I sit on each of their boards as the result of an electoral process, although in no case would I be seen as simply a delegate of my electors. All are likely places for a former activist to find himself, and all have been the cause of very considerable personal frustrations and some sense of achievement.

My dilemmas are one shared, I suspect, by many of my generation. We like to imagine ourselves as radicals, or at least critical thinkers, but we have moved into the lower ranks of the establishment. Objectively, as Marxists used to say, we prop up the system, however much we may imagine we are helping to undermine it. ‘Selling out' is not a concern limited to those of us with radical or intellectual claims. At the end of one of his Los Angeles thrillers Michael Connelly writes: ‘Bosch knew he would be co-opted...Because [Irving] held the only thing that Bosch had left, that he still cared about. His job. He knew Irving would trade that for his silence. And he knew he would take the deal.'[17]

As I started thinking about the amount of time I spend in meetings, committees and conferences it occurred to me that there should be a major body of work on co-option through institutionalisation. (I am, after all, an academic.) There is only a limited amount, though the political theorist Michael Saward wrote a book fifteen years ago called Co-optive Politics and State Legitimacy. But the larger questions of how individuals committed to social change and radical action become incorporated into institutions that in turn develop their own inertia and conservatism is surprisingly under-investigated, though there is some American material on both African-American and environmental politics.[18]

Most of the literature tends to be written from the starting assumption that participation in mainstream organisations inevitably leads to some form of selling out; a typical comment comes from an unsigned webpage with the arresting heading ‘The Tug of Gravity: Co-option, Absorption, and Shlock Rock'. ‘Co-option is a natural product of systems. Which brings us to two rules. Rule one: representatives of the system, no matter how genial, are not on your side. Rule two: there is no such thing as half a loaf. There is no such thing as working within the system. All the alternatives developed by children of the sixties were gobbled up.'[19]

As Michael Barker argues, liberal philanthropy takes radical causes and ‘colonizes' them in the interests of perpetuating capitalism.[20] This argument has force, and it occurs in various guises, such as the constant complaint about co-option by consumerism, whereby former radical slogans become advertising gimmicks. But it is worth reversing the argument and asking whether co-option might be a defensible tactic to build political influence and, indeed, effect change.

The development from social movement to institution is a constant one, most obvious in the ways in which the labour movements of the nineteenth century built political parties across most of the industrialised world that in time became part of the dominant political establishment. Australia today is governed by a Labor Party which allows very strong representation of unions within its party structures, but is equally very clearly determined to maintain the supremacy of the parliamentary leadership over the party membership, let alone any sort of social movement. One of the striking differences between the Rudd and the Hawke governments is the lesser role of organised labour, although it would be hard not to argue that Kevin Rudd, like Tony Blair before him, has successfully co-opted all but the most radical sections of the union movement into support of the state.

The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s inevitably produced their own paths towards co-option through institutionalisation. Australians, as the political scientist Alan Davies used to observe, have a talent for bureaucracy. It is not surprising that Australia pioneered ‘femocrats', the neologism coined to describe women who took up positions in government for the purpose of expanding women's equality. (The term is analysed in several books, particularly Hester Eisenstein's Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, 1996, which may have introduced the term to an international audience.) The Greens began as a social movement born in environmental struggles in the 1970s and 1980s. The party's strongest base was Tasmania, because of the deep divisions around dams and timber, which became national issues on several occasions; the decision to form a political party, and to enter the parliamentary arena, was opposed by a number of environmentalists who feared that having to ‘play the game' would reduce the integrity of the movement.


IN A SENSE, this is what the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci predicted: ‘the long march through institutions'. Gramsci argued that real power was exercised through hegemony, the ideological domination possible through non-state institutions such as the church, the educational system and the culture of the workplace. This view of how modern societies operate was developed by Herbert Marcuse through his concept of ‘repressive tolerance' and his political reading of Freud's analysis of ‘desublimation', summed up in One Dimensional Man, which seems largely unread by contemporary radicals.

The right still remembers Gramsci; the British journalist Melanie Phillips referred to him in her crackpot attacks on Barack Obama: ‘In both America and Britain, Gramsci's acolytes have been conducting a decades-long march through the institutions. In Britain, they have substantially achieved their aim of subverting western morality and changing the face of British society.'[21] The left now speaks of Gramsci less often, although his ideas have helped shape its ways of seeing the world; even as sophisticated an observer as Manfred Steger writes about ‘the rise of the global imaginary' with no reference to Gramsci and one slighting mention of Marcuse. [22]

Co-option operates at a number of levels, both in the ways in which the institutions of civil society (also a term derived from Gramsci) become incorporated into the larger agenda of the state and the ways in which the internal workings of those institutions themselves come to reflect the agenda and assumptions of the dominant system they seek to criticise. An agency like Oxfam constantly needs to balance its desire to remain able to advocate for changes in government policies with the reality that governments will provide much-needed resources for significant development work: whereas Oxfam America refuses any government funding, Oxfam Australia is prepared to use AusAID funds, though it maintains a strict cap on their proportion of total funding. Even this approach would not satisfy the radical critics of development assistance, who argue: ‘Foreign aid directed towards NGOs has undermined national decision-making, given that most projects and priorities are set out by the European or US-based NGOs. In addition, NGO projects tend to co-opt local leaders and turn them into functionaries administering local projects that fail to deal with the structural problems and crises of the recipient countries...Rather than compensating for the social damage inflicted by free market policies and conditions of debt bondage, the NGO-channelled foreign aid complements the...neo-liberal agenda.'[23]

The key question is whether we can change institutions faster than they can co-opt us. The danger is that by sitting on committees and working within institutions we strengthen their hegemony, thus making radical critiques all the more difficult. I am reminded of the French term ‘recuperation', which the Situationists, a cultural-political movement of the 1960s, proposed to describe the condition whereby radical ideas and movements are incorporated into the mainstream and become commodities to be used by corporations. For a period Benetton advertisements were famous for doing just that.

The particular ways in which interest groups are co-opted into government processes is a form of corporatism that was most evident during the Hawke period, when the Accord provided for representation of unions and businesses alongside government in national economic fora. But this is a strong tradition in Australia, where governments use many advisory bodies made up of the leadership of interest groups both to provide input into policy and to help legitimise government decisions. Recently Penny Wong was able to bring together a large coalition, ranging from business to the Australian Conservation Foundation, behind the (seemingly doomed) proposal for an emissions trading scheme.

This is the dilemma for everyone who seeks political effectiveness. Imagine the agonies for many Indigenous leaders after the announcement of John Howard's intervention in the Northern Territory. The choices they faced were far more complex than the rhetoric on either side usually acknowledged.[24] A senior bureaucrat once justified the inclusion of a maverick scientist on an advisory committee by using Lyndon Johnson's comment that it was better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Once you accept that the state is made up of myriad different interests and individuals, it is possible to influence policy through careful use of the different levers available, which may include building alliances with people within institutions of both government and business who are willing to contemplate far more radical changes than is recognised by attacks on them as tools of the system.

My own experience of this sort of co-option has been largely in the world of both domestic and international AIDS politics, where I have sat on a number of committees and enjoyed the thrill of ministerial meetings. The world of AIDS politics exhibits both a remarkable degree both of political activism and of inclusion in official decision-making. From the street protests of the 1980s and early 1990s, associated with the self-dramatising projects of ACT UP, to mass action in South Africa organised at the turn of the century by the Treatments Action Coalition against the denialism of President Mbeki and his incompetent health policies, HIV has sparked considerable mobilisation in countries rich and poor. At the same time it has led to the incorporation of activists into major decision-making bodies, with the inclusion of ‘civil society representatives' on the boards of several international bodies, and firm commitments for their involvement in a range of national advisory committees.

At one level this is an admirable example of the widening of representation to include those who are most affected. At another it raises questions about how representative such voices can be: the means and criteria for selection will inevitably favour those with the resources to play the system, which means command of English, the language of almost all relevant international meetings. Very small groups of leaders seem to appear at every meeting, with little evidence of their connection to the far broader communities for whom they claim to speak.

Yet for all these problems their absence would leave a significant gap. In my years on the university council I came to believe that the main contribution of those staff and students elected from within the university was to keep the bastards honest; that is, by our presence to remind the external members of council that ultimately the core of any university is its staff and students. In the same way, the presence on AIDS decision-making bodies of someone who is HIV positive, an acknowledged sex worker, homosexual or drug user means certain issues cannot be denied, however weak the claim of that particular person to speak for an entire and ill-defined group.


HOW REPRESENTATIVE ARE are those who speak for others, and how far are they able to maintain their radical critique once they enter the system? Members of a board need to balance loyalty to their constituency with loyalty to the organisation as a whole, and the dominant assumption of corporate governance is that an individual's responsibility is now to the institution itself. This becomes apparent to anyone who has sat on any of the myriad committees, boards and advisory structures that are part of the fabric of contemporary life. The dominant language becomes that of the commercial world, and it is assumed that the only relevant skills are those required for corporate boards. Institutional loyalty creates pressure to be supportive of the institution, sometimes to the point of forgetting the reasons you joined the organisation.

One of the unexplored territories of co-option is the impact it has on those who enter the system hoping to change it, and become seen by others as its agents. The public service is full of people who are required to pursue policies with which they disagree, sometimes leading to severe stress, as was known to be the case for many in the Immigration Department under the Howard government. For those who have been elected or appointed to boards there is always the need to restrain our self-importance, the tendency to believe that what we see as crucial – that sneaky question to the CEO, that cunning amendment to the motion – amounts to very little. Some of us adopt symbolic gestures to proclaim our refusal to be co-opted, such as one friend who refused to wear a tie once he started working for a United Nations agency. I'm reminded of the moment in the film Milk where Harvey shaves off his beard and starts dressing like the councilman he aspires to be.

After perhaps a quarter-century of working through institutions I still wonder whether it is ever possible to attain other than incremental shifts. Part of the difficulty lies in measuring your achievements, for it is only when others take up radical ideas and they become part of mainstream language that you have changed the debate. It is satisfying to hear people who once opposed a particular suggestion putting it forward as their own, but it is hardly the heady triumph of storming the barricades. There is some pride in knowing that Oxfam played a significant role in creating concepts like ‘make poverty history' and ‘close the gap', which are now part of mainstream politics.

In Australian politics Peter Garrett is usually chosen to illustrate the dilemma of co-option. The common view is that since entering parliament Garrett has betrayed many of the principles for which he stood as a rock star and an influential, radical environmentalist during the 1980s and 1990s, and has been forced to promote policies he once opposed. As his fellow minister Lindsay Tanner observed: ‘As an activist you don't have much power, and as a politician you operate under heavy constraints.' Garrett tends to avoid too much reflection on the problem, answering questions about it in homilies such as, ‘You don't leave your feelings behind you...if you move into jobs which have got additional levels of responsibility, then you act in accordance with the responsibilities of the position.'[25] We are left wondering whether there might be an issue where his conscience demand he no longer stay a member of the government. But what else could someone in his position say?

Paul Kelly, in his March of Patriots, wrote: ‘The deepest fractures in Australian politics are based on generation not party, a universal truth long denied.' It's an attractive claim, and one that seems persuasive in explaining developments such as the collapse of the old ties between Catholics and the Labor Party, and the rise of new social movements in the sixties and seventies. But it's a generalisation that also breaks down pretty quickly, even if you confine your observations to the limited world of Canberra politics: yes, politics is now considerably less male and less Anglo than when Keating and Howard entered it forty years ago, and certain prejudices have now become far less acceptable, even if they are still present. But compare two non-Anglo female politicians of a much younger generation, Natasha Stott Despoja and Sophie Mirabella (née Panopoulos), and it is hard to argue that what united them in age transcends that which divides them in world views.

Political activists are formed by certain shared experiences; World War II and the spectre of appeasement had a marked effect upon the debates over Vietnam in the 1960s, just as memories of the Vietnam War now hover over debates around intervention in Afghanistan. Yet different people will draw very different lessons from these experiences. Barack Obama stressed that he was of a generation too young to have experienced the sixties, and that he could transcend the polarisation that was its legacy. So far events seem to have proven him wrong, and the bitter cultural divisions in the United States that grew out of the divides of the 1960s are perhaps more pronounced than ever.

As I was writing this, I had coffee with a third woman from our generation, one whose achievements more than match those of the ones whose birthdays I'd helped celebrate, but who seemed strangely bitter at how the world has changed. She seemed angry, sharing the common complaint of many former radicals that today's young are apolitical, self-absorbed and uninterested in anything but their own lives. This view too easily ignores the extent to which social movements are as much about individual fulfilment as they are about altruism: those of us who took part in the new left and the counterculture of thirty years ago were as concerned about personal fulfilment as are those who today seek better jobs and their own apartments.

I deeply distrust generalisations about generations: Generations X, Y and Z (will the marketers now return to the beginning of the alphabet for their next category?) are as divided as were the generations of the sixties, where there were pitched street battles between young men in the army and police, and those who opposed them. There may well be common generational experiences mediated through the mass market – popular music and the use of certain forms of technology are the most obvious examples, although even then it is a huge generalisation to assume that the young don't like classical music, or the old don't use Facebook. Yes, polls suggest that people over fifty are somewhat more conservative in their voting patterns and their attitudes to certain social matters, which knocks on the head the self-image of those now well over fifty who cling to the idea of how radical was their generation. But basic worldviews are not defined by generations, and political differences cut across age just as they do across class, gender and ethnicity.

Generational distrust works both ways: there may still be those who claim you can't trust anyone over thirty, but there are at least as many people over sixty – the fastest growing part of the population – who believe that all change is necessarily deterioration. Few are as conservative as those former radicals who cling to their memories of the sixties. But what was crucial about that period was the willingness to rethink all established truths, and to argue for new means of political action. The upheavals of the sixties were simultaneously products of and criticisms of Marxism, and of the whole socialist tradition. Today little remains in popular consciousness of a leftist analysis, let alone the sort of community that it once provided. Radicals tend to be found in specific movements, which speak relatively rarely in common language or see themselves as part of a larger project for radical social change. Even most environmental campaigners behave like single-issue lobbyists, rather than seeking to engage in the rethinking of larger socioeconomic structures that the environmental critique demands. It is an ominous sign that the most inventive accounts of our predicament probably now come in science fiction, which doesn't, by and large, suggest meaningful forms of building political action.

The closest thing to the radicals of the sixties may be found today in the anti-globalisation movement, which quite correctly sees the dominant meanings of globalisation as enforcing a market society based on ever expanding consumption. What strikes me about young activists of today's generation is their far greater sense of universalism, and the commitment to work globally. Street protests at G20 meetings are a small part of this; more interesting are the numbers of people in rich countries who volunteer to work in some of the poorest and most violent areas of the world.

I don't share the pessimism of those veterans of the new left and counterculture who fear the loss of some sort of essentialist radicalism and assail today's young as self-centred and apolitical. Nor do I believe easy slogans about youth offering all hope for the future; ‘youth' is a meaningless term except in demography and perhaps advertising. But it is likely that those of us who have become part of institutions and benefited from the compromises we have made with power over a long period are unlikely to find the radical new ways of seeing the world that the current situation demands. I suspect we won't even recognise the ideas that might reshape our political and social lives even if they were to emerge.

Thus the ultimate way of recreating the spirit of the sixties will be to abandon the nostalgia for a mythologised radical past, and the accompanying culture wars. The sixties remind us that it is possible to radically re-imagine the future, but they don't provide a blueprint for the present. The American civil rights leader Andrew Young once said: ‘We can change history through finding the one thing that can capture the imagination of the world. History moves in leaps and bounds.' At the moment we are waiting, breathless, for that ‘one thing'.


[1] Hugh Mackay: Generations: Baby boomers, their parents & their children Pan MacMillan 1997: 3

[2] George Megalogenis: The Longest Decade Scribe rev. ed. 2008: 9

[3] Donald Horne Time of Hope Sydney Angus & Robertson 1980:4

[4] Raewyn Connell: ‘Ours is in color: the New Left of the Sixties, forty years on' Overland on line Nov. 12 2008

[5] Julie Stephens: Anti-Disciplinary Protest CUP 1998

[6] Dennis Altman (1993) The Comfort of Men, Heinemann, Melbourne,  75

[7] Henry Reynolds: Why weren't we told? Melb. Penguin 1999: 17

[8] The reference comes from Wikopedia:

[9] ‘Bodgies, widgies and moral panic in Australia 1955-9' Centre for Social Change Research QUT October 2004

[10] Peter Beilharz: ‘the sixties and seventies' in P. Beolharz & T. Hogan: Sociology:Place, Time & Division Melbourne  O.U.P. 2006: 194-5

[11] Carmen Calill: ‘Reading our Lives' The Age May 10 2008

[12] Tim Burstall & Patrick Ryan: Two thousand weeks Sun Books 1968: np

[13] Jim Sharman: Blood and Tinsel MUP 2008: 232

[14] Steven Carroll: The Time we have Taken Sydney Harpers 2007: 245

[15] Giles Autry: ‘the left is killing religion' The Australian July 1 2009

[16] quoted by George Packer New Yorker May 26 2008: 49

[17] Michael Connelly: Angels Flight Sydney Allen & Unwin 1999:399

[18] eg. Robert Smith: We Have No Leaders Albany SUNY 1996

[19] Sourced June 18 2009:

[20] Michael Barker: ‘Do capitalists fund revolutions?' Z Net Spetember 9 2007 []

[21] M. Phillips: ‘Revolution you can believe in' The Spectator Sept. 9 2008

[22] Manfred Steger: The Rise of the Global Imaginary OUP 2008

[23] James Petras & Henry Veltmeyer: ‘Age of reverse aid: in J. Pronk [ed]: Catalysing Development Oxford Blackwell 2004: 70

[24] See eg. Galarrwuy Yunipingu: ‘Tradtion, truth and tomorrow' The Monthly Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009: 3240

[25] ‘Playing for change' interview in Limelight Magazine October 2009: 22

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