When The Backwardness Came Back

When The Backwardness Came Back September 16, 2016

In a recent post, I referred to economic pressures, and particularly oil prices, as a factor driving social change. Over my next few entries, I will expand on that point with a focus on a particularly critical era, namely the 1970s. Economic crisis – specifically, the oil crisis – drove social changes, and radically reshaped religious life and thought. (I am adapting this from a paper I presented at the American Historical Association meeting this past January, under the title of “Religious Reaction and the Rhetoric of Generational Danger”).

American political disasters of the mid-1970s require little elaboration here. The Watergate scandal destroyed the Nixon presidency in 1974, while the Vietnam war ended in a humiliating fiasco in 1975. American global prestige stood at a historic low in 1975-76, when the Soviet Union expanded its military reach into several African and Asian countries, commonly using Cuban forces as proxies. Sober commentators, no less than sensational novelists, speculated about a general collapse of the West in visions that oddly prefigure the apocalyptic fall of the Communist world in 1989. The further humiliations of the Iran crisis in 1979-1980 opened the door to a candidate who could promise to restore national power and dignity.

So much is well known, but the story makes little sense without stressing the economic crash of 1973-75, which was profoundly traumatic. Although smaller in scale than the 2008 crisis, in some ways the 1970s event was more shocking, not least because it fractured the illusory hopes that the modern world had put such extreme cycles behind it after 1945. While recessions had of course occurred in previous decades, 1973 seemed to mark a return to Depression conditions. This was made all the worse by the abandonment of the Bretton Woods financial system, and the coming of really threatening inflation. Growing as it did out of the Yom Kippur War and the oil embargoes, the new crisis raised real fears about the sustainability of advanced capitalist society, among other things sparking a wave of dystopian popular fiction. Such fears were stimulated anew by the energy shortages of the late 1970s.

In different ways, that economic crisis had a truly global impact, to which I shall return, and arguably, it directly precipitated the US political and cultural crisis of mid-decade. Without the underlying economic disasters and fears, it is highly likely that the Nixon administration would have contained Watergate scandal, and prevented the ruinous Congressional losses of 1974. That in turn would have prevented the frantic US departure from Indo-China, and US air power would probably have sustained the South Vietnamese government indefinitely.

So much is speculation, but the economic catastrophe vastly aggravated existing discontent. The crash contributed powerfully to the wave of corruption scandals that so destabilized many regimes around the world in mid-decade, opening the way to newer movements. Obviously, elites had not suddenly become more dishonest or corrupt at this time, but rather the risks of exposure and investigation rose dramatically. Many business figures were engaged in delicate and illegal transactions that collapsed suddenly with the economic crisis and the near-instant reduction of credit and bank flexibility. Collapsed and collapsing companies were left unable to sustain payments, and their illicit activities were laid bare. In addition, the Watergate crisis encouraged new attitudes to investigative reporting, and by no means only in the US. Without paying attention to those scandals, and attendant allegations of systematic corruption, it is difficult to understand the appeal of anti-elite rhetoric in this era.

When oil prices are perilously high, that reverberates through the economy and creates acute discontent and systemic disaffection. One key reason that Watergate actually led to Nixon’s destruction was the apocalyptic economic conditions resulting directly from the OPEC crisis. As discontent dragged on, so investigations pursued all manner of misdeeds that were in fact the standard operating procedures of political life, and made them coalesce into One Great Scandal. Conversely, the very low prices in later eras made people much less willing to pursue other scandals that potentially could have been quite as ruinous. I think of the Clinton scandals of the late 1990s, which in reality were just swept away. (I mean the money scandals, not Monica). And before you say I am being partisan, the same is true of the Reagan scandals in his second term. If the economic fundamentals had been different, Iran-Contra could well have shattered his presidency.

Scandals don’t happen because political or business leaders are particularly immoral. They happen because opportunities arise to investigate and expose ongoing misdeeds, and those opportunities largely depend upon shifting public attitudes and moods.

So what does all this have to do with religion? As most observers acknowledge, the US experienced a massive political and cultural shift from the mid-1970s. Conservative politics grew, commonly accompanied by religious and moralistic reform movements. Conservatives and reactionaries were highly innovative in their use of new forms of media, including talk radio and satellite broadcasting. Meanwhile, religious groups themselves became more numerous and active, leading many to speak of a new Great Awakening. Liberalism, meanwhile, entered a period of real crisis. Those trends shaped American culture and politics for decades afterwards.

As I say, that is a well known story, and we can account for it in lots of ways. But any explanation that concentrates solely on US conditions ignores one massive fact, namely that everything I have described here also occurred in very much the same time period around the world. While the US was developing the Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution, conservative religious-based groups were achieving undreamt-of successes in many other countries and, more notably, in other religious traditions. The most sensational and lasting images were associated with Islam, as events in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan sparked a series of movements that are still very much with us today. Yet in other contexts too, and usually without any violent associations, religion re-entered the political realm to a degree that thoroughly startled and confused observers who were thoroughly confident that they lived in a secular age. In countries as diverse as the United States, Israel, India, and Iran, Right-wing, fundamentalist and reactionary movements not only challenged or overthrew progressive liberal establishments and their orthodoxies, but they commonly did so in the name of God.

As Michael Walzer writes, “the backwardness came back.” (That statement obviously rests on some value judgments that I will not address here).

Obviously, I am not suggesting that Jerry Falwell (for instance) was somehow in the same category as Islamic revolutionaries like those in Iran, but both operated in a world in which religion provided a vehicle for political activism in ways that would have astounded even well-informed observers just a few years previously.

However we do try to explain developments in the US from the mid-1970s onward, it is imperative at least to consider those other parallel circumstances around the world. No one-size explanation is going to fit all those different realities, but some of the similarities are striking.

Assume for the sake of argument that societies around the world experienced very similar developments at very much the same time. How do we explain this, without suggesting that the earth suddenly passed through the tail of a singularly potent comet? What these various countries had in common, of course, was that they all to varying degrees suffered the catastrophic impact of the 1973-75 crisis, which effectively destroyed the political and social orders that had lasted since the 1940s. In so many countries, old political regimes were shattered by the revelation of scandals that erupted in the mid-1970s. While the US knows about Watergate, European countries and Japan had their own catastrophes, commonly oil related. But so also, to varying degrees, did countries across the Middle East and Asia.

The near-simultaneous upsurge of religious politics in so many different contexts and faith traditions demands explanation. While some cross-cultural influences might be traced, it is far more likely that the parallel events were common responses to larger events that affected far removed parts of the globe. In the various settings, activists built on widespread perceptions that particular nations had gone badly astray and had failed or neglected their people. This had happened because arrogant elites had imposed progressive policies that flouted traditional values, and especially religious tenets. Such conservative protests might take the form of complaints about national political weakness, but they always posited a close linkage between national failure and moral decadence or degeneration. Nations failed because of assaults on the family, and on traditional concepts of gender and sexuality. In the paper I mentioned, I illustrate this from several case-studies, including Iran and Israel, but US examples also abound.

More on this next time.


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