Wright on Borstelmann, '1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality'

Thomas Borstelmann
Christian Wright

Thomas Borstelmann. 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality. America in the World Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 416 pp. $33.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-14156-5; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-691-15791-7.

Reviewed by Christian Wright Published on H-Socialisms (October, 2015) Commissioned by Gary Roth

1970s in Retrospect

Thomas Borstelmann’s new synthesis of the 1970s is an essential volume for anyone seeking to understand the legacy of that decade. It also elucidates much that is enigmatic within American political culture today. The primacy given to mid-decade analysis allows Borstelmann to avoid separation of those tendencies frequently bracketed into earlier and later parts of the decade: the expansion of civil rights and the origins of neoliberalism. Instead, he convincingly argues that egalitarian values and market values converged to promote a new hyper-individualism at the expense of communal connections. Driven by political crises, economic shocks, and technological changes, formerly excluded members of society were now welcome to participate in an individualistic competitive race that expanded opportunity as well as class inequality.

This book’s initial overview of crisis is similar to many treatments already in publication. Americans’ disillusionment over the war in Vietnam, as well as the Watergate scandal, shook many citizens’ faith in the ethics of the federal government. Energy crises in 1973 and 1979, the 1974-75 recession, and a rapid rise in inflation challenged a generation raised during an unprecedented period of prosperity. The Carter administration’s failure to resolve inflation on a national level threw the logic of Keynesian economics into doubt, and Jimmy Carter himself moved in a free-market direction that anticipated Ronald Reagan’s subsequent vision. Within this context, free-market reformers shook the stigma of greed to frame themselves as true reformers. Contrasting themselves with government inaction, they promised economic efficiency along with a decentralized, self-correcting, and “democratic” empowerment of consumers’ choices. By decade’s end, both political parties and much of the voting public were willing to embrace a neoliberal vision.

Borstelmann’s analysis successfully extends this narrative into the nuances of changing race and gender relations. While some backlash among working-class, heterosexual, white male voters to the movements of the 1960s may have been inevitable, a challenging economic context increased this population’s resentment of its emerging financial competitors. Yet public defenses of white supremacy—such as the iconic protests of white Bostonians against court-mandated school busing—remained rare. While prejudice endured, its expression became increasingly privatized. “Racist” became one of the worst, and most career-threatening, pejoratives, and anxious whites adopted a coded political language to express insecurities publicly. Segregation of schooling and residency was not maintained through an overturn of civil-rights era statutes, but through the private actions of white flight and the creation of church-based, suburban academies. In the context of rapid inflation, these changes in residency and schooling further stressed urban planners and reduced the level of social services city governments could provide. With more blacks included in government, inner-city residents disproportionately nonwhite, and taxpayers already burdened by inflation, the anxieties of wealth and whiteness lent a racial undertone to many Americans’ embrace of the private sector.

Like African Americans and Latinos, women also made tremendous strides in employment, government, and personal independence throughout the decade. Yet their progress never approximated the sweeping visions of societal change some second-wave feminists had articulated. Rather, feminism found itself increasingly narrowed to the terrain of individual rights and competitive opportunity. Economic crisis also pushed many nonfeminists to support female employment, as it provided families an increasingly necessary source of income. Working by choice or by necessity, women found a source of liberation from oppressive marriages, yet they remained disproportionately burdened by the perpetuation of gendered expectations regarding housework and child-rearing. Absent a sweeping expansion of government or male support for these duties, the negative impacts of female employment included the increased stress and loss of leisure for many women workers, as well as a reduction in the amount of volunteer participation they had previously provided for their communities. Women, too, became more and less equal as sexual independence, liberalized abortion and divorce laws, and the benefits of working were disproportionately enjoyed by those with higher incomes.

While neoliberalism may be understood as a response to the political frustrations of the 1970s, Borstelmann does an excellent job illuminating the role of technology within this process. Here, he goes beyond macro-economic discussions of containerization or telecommunications to discuss how technology reshaped the fabric of individual human lives. Individualism gained dramatically from the increased distance between suburban houses, the rise of electronic entertainment, and the increased time spent alone in cars. The spread of air conditioning ended centuries of open windows, front porch sitting, and neighborly visiting as a way to grapple with warm weather. The invention of the VCR, cable TV, the video game, the Walkman, and the precursor to the Internet dramatically increased the amount of time Americans spent alone and indoors, perusing entirely personal forms of entertainment. If Americans found it difficult to maintain a functioning economy or political system, “atomized individual realities” offered individualistic forms of escape, alongside “diminishing expectations of communal connections of even an incidental kind” (p. 125). Aided in part by advances in technology, recreation changed as well, with rock climbing and mountain biking offering a physical component to the personal well-being elsewhere offered by health-food stores, SELF magazine, a threefold increase in the number of clinical psychologists, and an arsenal of pharmaceutical remedies for behavioral and emotional ailments. This discussion may be among the most interesting to political observers today, as the tendencies Borstelmann describes in their infancy have accelerated in their impact and continue to shape the material fabric of American (and global) culture.

Borstelmann also includes a consideration of those movements and governments that challenged the neoliberal trend. He is at his best in treatments of environmentalism and religious fundamentalism, which rose throughout the decade and contained strong impulses toward government regulation and communal responsibility. In the case of the former, a flurry of Richard Nixon-era regulations and social activism found themselves severely diffused by decade’s end. With radical environmentalists remaining few, both political parties backing away from regulation in favor of energy development, and most citizens’ sense of urgency diverted into individual lifestyle and consumer choices, the marketplace rather than the state became the central arena in which citizens exerted an impact.

The rise of religious fundamentalism had more success, as politicians beginning with Carter asserted personal relationships with God with unprecedented frequency. The expansion of acceptability for women and gays, sexual activity, abortion, and pornography motivated the strongly religious to defend their principles, with the result that issues of morality, sexual behavior, and prayer moved for the first time from individual realms into public discussion and legislation. While a major countervailing tendency that prioritized collective well-being and saw the state as a tool for reform, fundamentalism also dovetailed with the search for authenticity that had defined much of the 1960s counterculture. The more powerful Christian Right also fit better into the rise of individualism, building a sense of community on the basis of personal decisions, such as becoming “born again,” home schooling or enrolling children in private academies, and celebrating personal wealth. In contrast, a smaller Christian Left continued to focus on foreign policy, social justice, and the needs of the urban poor. Like radical environmentalists, these activists persisted, though they remained small and marginalized throughout the decade.

Perhaps more controversial among some scholars will be Borstelmann’s brief discussion of the labor movement’s troubles during this period. Deindustrialization, capital flight, imports, and the rise of new industries are cited as familiar culprits, yet a deeper look into exactly why, or how, labor organizing declined is absent from this volume. While Jefferson Cowie’s work on this era, Staying Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010), is cited authoritatively, substantial criticisms have been made of it since Borstelmann’s publication.[1] Public antipathy to mid-decade strikes and protests by public employees in New York are mentioned as evidence of labor losing its base, yet more popular efforts to re-energize labor, such as the 1977-78 coal miners’ strike, or the rank-and-file reform movements that erupted inside several major unions, are not mentioned. Neither is American labor feminism considered outside of a brief statement that “British feminists allied more closely with labor unions” (p. 95). Likewise those crossovers that brought racial minorities into union activism remain unexplored, and the extent of their success or failure could have provided a useful test for Borstelmann’s thesis. Organized labor did not face its own decline passively, and serious roadblocks from labor law and the business-unionism model undermined its potential for growth. The current ubiquity of class inequality begs for this story to be told in greater detail and analyzed alongside those other “exceptional boats paddling upstream” that contested neoliberalism in its formative era (p. 16).

Largely a contribution to American history, Borstelmann’s international perspective demonstrates a global shift to socially inclusive, free-market values. The fall of empires is understood through a comparison of the Vietnam War with Portuguese and Russian imperialism, with the “hollowing” of Chinese socialism also well introduced. The affinity of the American Right for Israeli military prowess is examined in this context, and the long-term impacts of an all-volunteer military are also nicely explored. Not every global comparison confirms the American trajectory, however, with a substantial disparity in European voting participation and state integrity acknowledged but not entirely explained. While providing a useful structure for Borstelmann’s arguments, the book’s thematic organization may frustrate some readers by repeatedly introducing peripheral concepts in multiple sections. This is perhaps inevitable in any overview of this type, and does not detract from the essential value provided by it.

The 1970s is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among historians, and for anyone working on that era, this book introduces a very useful conceptual framework. It is also the good fortune of the public that such a talented writer has produced it, and few lay readers seriously interested in the legacy of that decade will suffer for having purchased this volume. While Borstelmann historicizes well a decisive shift in political culture and working conditions, this book is every bit as valuable for those seeking to understand, or change, political and economic realities today. Many trends observed by Borstelmann in their infancy reached maturity in subsequent decades, and a consideration of their impact is essential for any current political actor.


[1]. See, for example, Steve Early, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013), 45-48.

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Citation: Christian Wright. Review of Borstelmann, Thomas, 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. October, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43066

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