The Irony of ’60s “Liberation”: The Age of Aquarius Ushers in a Ruling Class of “Experts”

It has been half a century since the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the opening of the Second Vatican Council began the period we call the Sixties. Those were heady times. In America there would be a New Frontier, in the Church a new springtime and even a new Pentecost. The windows of the Church would be opened to let in light and air, and President Kennedy told us there would be a man on the moon before the decade was out.

Man did land on the moon, but otherwise very little worked out as planned. Even the position of minorities, usually considered the great triumph of the period, improved less than it seemed. Equal opportunity legislation provided an initial boost, but in a few years the benefits were increasingly outweighed by other consequences of ‘60s-style liberation. Crime and family breakdown increasingly weighed on the lives of those at the bottom, and by the mid ‘70s the decades-long rise of African Americans out of poverty had come to an end.

The remarkable thing about the ‘60s was the radical opposition between what was expected and what happened. The politics of the New Frontier soon became the politics of utopian fantasy set against a televised backdrop of riots, assassinations, and war. Pope Paul VI was driven to speak of the “smoke of Satan” entering the Church, and her opening to the modern world became less a new Pentecost than absorption by secular, political, and mundane concerns.

As time went by “outer space” became a fitting symbol for the ideals of the time. The dominant theme was rejection of institutions and traditions, and eventually of all limitations including reason. The natural outcome was a radical decline in intellectual, artistic, and religious life, chaos, banality, and brutishness in the world at large, and the replacement of traditional patterns of life by commerce, bureaucracy, and makeshift stopgaps. The expected Golden Age turned out to be an age of lead, or rather of tinsel and trash.

The contrast between expectation and event resulted from an opposition between appearance and reality. Given the Marxist tendencies of the age, it’s fitting that the opposition should exemplify false consciousness—the acceptance of false images of reality and failure to recognize the interests those images promote.

The ‘60s claimed to be about liberation. In fact, they were much more about the rise of a new ruling class of experts, managers, and media people. That class, which is still with us, has some unusual qualities. The most notable is that it denies that it is a ruling class, and claims instead to be a neutral means through which expertise, rational administration, and the machinery of publicity help people attain their goals. Our rulers today tell us they are here to help us: to educate us, free us from the prejudices of the past, let us know what we really want, and make sure we all get it. They claim their power is liberating, and back up the claim by pointing to their suppression of authorities that compete with them, such as family, custom, religion, and traditional hierarchies. If we can go shopping, play video games, surf the Internet, and sleep around, and we don’t have to listen to Mom, Dad, or the Pope, we must be free. Aren’t suppression of incorrect thoughts and safeguards like the Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) mandate worth having to protect that?

A class that rules by claiming not to rule needs to hide what it is. Our new rulers deny their identity as a class while denouncing the influence of classes that remain identifiable as such. If the Supreme Court is all white or male, that’s domination by a particular class and something must be done about it. If it’s all graduates of Yale and Harvard Law School, and recent presidential elections have all been contests between various Yale and Harvard graduates, that’s not domination by a particular class, it’s just proof that Yale and Harvard are superior and the more power we give the Supreme Court and president the better.

The new politics rejected rule by political give-and-take among the WASP establishment, ethnic and religious majorities, cigar-chomping businessmen, and big-city bosses. Instead, we would have rule by whiz kids and the best and brightest, who would remake everything through expertise backed by expansive interpretations of the law and the urgency provided by various protest movements at odds with authorities the new rulers didn’t like either. The integration of the new ruling class with the news media, manned by Columbia J-School grads instead of the hard-drinking wise-cracking street-savvy reporters of yore, ensured that the official story would be accepted at face value. The result was a consensus that liberation meant stripping minority communities of leadership through affirmative action, and turning women from homemakers into single moms getting by on a waitress’s pay and the occasional welfare or child support check.

Something similar happened in the Church. Instead of tradition and hierarchical discipline the Church would be guided by expert committees and supervised by the news media. Vatican II gave the process a boost through the prominent role it gave academic experts, a role encouraged by its decision to issue lengthy pronouncements on the general nature and direction of the Church. The emphasis on formal expertise was then fortified by the creation of national bishops’ conferences, the need to interpret the Council and put together the new initiatives it seemed to call for, and the growth of bureaucracy at all levels. The occasional hierarch might resist the demands of the rising academic and bureaucratic magisterium, but if he kicked up too much of a fuss a media campaign would intervene, so it was easier to go along. And if faithful Catholics were more attached to rosaries than newly-composed songs of worship, they were told they were wrong and the People of God wanted the songs even if they didn’t know it. If the result was that the People of God dropped out altogether, that’s too bad but there are always growing pains and there’s no going back.

The new elite claimed to be democratic, since it was a meritocracy open to all, it claimed to interpret popular needs and aspirations, it included people who had been outsiders under the old regime, and it mostly avoided the direct use of force. In fact, it was narrow, self-selected, and utterly uninterested in views other than its own. It was composed by definition of those who knew better, so why should they listen to anyone? Hence the increasing insistence on formal certification and propagandistic educational materials informing us that everything we thought we knew was wrong. The new, rational, democratic, and liberated order turned out to mean that people can’t be allowed to do much of anything without training and supervision by their betters. Otherwise they won’t do it right, and they might hurt themselves or others. They are required to be free in the way they’re told to be free, and that is decided by committees whose expertise exempts them from any need for personal knowledge.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Edward Peitler

    As a body politic, we have been marched in the direction of Marxism since the 30’s. We have a global economy, United Nations, World Government, etc, etc All in the name of centralized planning and control.
    As a Church, we have been centralized by mega bureacracies such as the USCCB, CCUSA, CCHD, CRS, etc. etc.
    There is only one solution to the mess in the Church and the body politic: DE-CENTRALIZE through States right’s and make SUBSIDIARITY the watchword of all that we do as Church.

  • Vicki

    “the replacement of traditional patterns of life by commerce…”
    Surely you mean something else here: consumerism. perhaps? Commerce has been around since men first walked the Earth. It’s as traditional as it comes and absolutely essential to the existence of man.

    • The point isn’t that commerce and markets are novel or bad, any more than bureaucracy or makeshift stopgaps (which I also mention) are novel or bad. It’s that they’re over-extended themselves at the expense of other things we need like family and tradition. An example would be replacement of home-cooked meals by fast food.

      • Adam__Baum

        “An example would be replacement of home-cooked meals by fast food.”

        Did free markets do that? Fast food is the result of the destruction of the family, proposed by social thinkers hat saw domesticity as slavery and external employment as liberation. Fast food was a response to the absence of home-cooked meals, not a cause.

        • In the paragraph under discussion I attribute the overextension of commercial relations etc. to rejection of institutions, traditions, and various limitations.

  • Pingback: The Irony of ’60s “Liberation”: The Age of Aquarius Ushers in a Ruling Class of “Experts” | Catholic Canada()

  • ontheroad1

    As one who came up in the 60’s, I agree with this article. Our goal was to be bring peace and love to everyone, but out ideals where side tracked and those that thought this was the best way to attain their goals, if honest, today would realize that the experiment failed. Those who were brought up during that time are the one’s who are running this country today, in the banks, industries, and also in the stock market. This era could have been better served if they would have taken the right direction and kept the right morale fiber that bonds the principles and honor of this great country. We got big feeling, greedy, and forgot about our brothers and sisters, and went on direction of self. We have a chance to change that with this election, by prayer, and acceptance in God’s ways and not ours. If we continue on this path all the freedoms that we have fought so hard for will be gone, and once gone, will be very hard to get back. Pray that America Wakes UP.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      I was in Paris, during the “Events,” as the French call them, of May 1968. I particularly remember one slogan that was everywhere at the time – « Le futur n’a plus d’avenir » [The future has no future]. That, I believe, captured the mood of a generation.

    • Charlie Kester

      For all the talk about peace and love, there was always an element of oneupsmanship in the Sixties counterculture, whether it was having the hippest clothes, attending the best concerts and being familiar with the most obscure but upcoming bands — and even being able to function while stoned.

      I’ve long suspected that the seeds of yuppiedom can be found, of all places, in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. It was a short step from that book’s reviews and recommendations of tools, yurts, etc. to the full-blown consumerism of the 80’s. And with that came the former hippie in a three-piece suit…

      • Is that not an eternal human characteristic though?

  • sj

    It seems we relegated “common sense” to the attic in favor of the “new ruling class of experts”.

  • Adam__Baum

    While I agree that sixties gave rise to a tide of centralization-the seeds of this were sown by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, not fifty years ago, but a century ago. Roosevelt showed there was a public appetite for an arbitrary and theatrical executive, and Wilson presided over the construction of it’s foundation.

    The two main girders of statism were the 16th and 17th amendments. The Federal Income Tax not only provided a virtually unlimited source of money, it ensured that the citizenry could easily be set against itself in petty arguments about relative taxation while ignoring the aggregate level and the Seventeenth Amendment effectively removed the representation of states as political constituencies.

    Statism is predicated on an idolatrous worship of expertise that doesn’t exist. From a Catholic viewpoint, it is a violation of subsidiarity. Similarly, secular thinkers, such as Friedrich Hayek demolished the idea that knowledge could be acquired, concentrated and deployed through centralization through secular analysis and reasoning.

    • James

      I don’t think our problem is simply “statism,” however. Economists who argue that a free market is the most rational and efficient way of organizing both the economy and society, and subordination of the social to the economic is the implicit assumption of all who believe in a self-regulating market, are just as hostile to tradition and authority. In the end, the state-market dichotomy is less than helpful because both sides of this dichotomy depend on one another, and both destroy traditional social relations.

      • Adam__Baum

        Actually, “our” problem is almost exclusively “statism”, in that there are a significant group of people who believe in government, not only as wise, beneficent and incorrupt actor, but one capable of remedying every manner of social ill.

        The free market isn’t argued as the best (rationality and efficiency, being but two attributes of any system) – it is, except where denied by people who are empirically challenged. Nobody argues for the “subordination” of the “social order” (whatever that might mean) to economic order-indeed economic order serves the social order.

        As for subordinating the social order-its the state which has been busily undermining the family, marriage, and attacking the Church. The more powerful the state, the more it denies the social order.

        Where there is exclusive (USPS, Amtrak) or significant (healthcare, education) government involvement in the provision of some good, there are always questions of effectiveness and efficiency.

        Tradition and authority are essential in ecclesial matters, but irrelevant to the production and distribution of temporal goods-which is why Joseph Schumpeter described the constant recreation of economic order as “creative destruction”. When we allow the imposition tradition and authority on economic issues-we get all sorts of inane results-whether it’s the housing bubble or Solyndra.

        Please, if you want to discuss economics, become conversant with its workings.

        • “Tradition and authority are … irrelevant to the production and distribution of temporal goods.”

          1. Many economic goods depend on traditions of use, appreciation, craftsmanship, design, etc. Food, drink, clothing, shelter provide examples.

          2. Economic life takes place in a social setting. Tradition and authority facilitate trust and cooperation, which promote good results in a variety of situations. Hayek has some helpful discussion of tradition, and tradition requires some sort of principle of authority–some reason for people to do things or refrain from doing things other than necessity, willfulness, or obvious self-interest.

        • curri
  • Pingback: James Kalb Takes On The 1960′s | Conservative Heritage Times()

  • Pingback: Recent Mass-Market Manifestos « The Orthosphere()

  • Pingback: The Sixties Regime in Power: The Dangerous Shortcomings of the Managerial Class | Crisis Magazine()

  • Pingback: Jim Kalb on the 1960s | Uncouth Reflections()

  • Epiminondas

    The elite now exist for their own sake. The generation of the sixties revolution have retired. Their places are being taken over by their proteges. And this next generation is completely inured to “law” in the traditional sense that voters understand it. Politicians come and go…the bureaucracy is eternal. This is the reality which the media mavens well understand and exploit. Patiently push, push, push until you get a law or legal decision that will allow the formation of a bureaucracy to enforce it. And then it is there forever, even if the reasoning behind it has morphed beyond all recognition.

  • Pingback: Randoms « Foseti()

  • Thomas D

    How apt: I read this essay today minutes before discovering that Rolling Stone magazine has made Barack Obama its cover story. (Again.)

    That onetime voice of the counterculture, that antagonist of the establishment, now wallows in cheesy authority-worship by glorifying politicians.


  • Pingback: Cultural Assimilation: A Threat to Catholic Identity | Crisis Magazine()