The Long Decade Is Done
Since the 1890′s and increasingly over time, we have spoken in terms of decades. While sorting out how much of this is literary trope ”“ it grew up in the wake of nationalizing economy and media, and therefore has both objective and subjective roots ”“ is a fertile field for sterile arguments, the power of the decade as a synchronizing force is not to be underestimated. We think and act in terms of decades.
The powerful decade moments have come at appropriate times: the Crash of ’29, the invasion of Poland by Hitler in ’39 and 9/11 have all been signals that eras had ended, and that everyone had to admit that new forces were in play. In each case the forces had already been active and overwhelming, but had been discounted or ignored. The event did not so much begin the era, as begin everyone’s acceptance for the death of the old. As Asimov noted, it is a large wall with a big “The End” scrawled on it.
But decades have an anatomy, they can be broken, most specifically, into two parts. The first part is the long decade: stretching from the passing of the last decade, through a frenzied peak. It is dominated by what people thought was wrong with the previous decade, while clinging to what they thought was right. The early 1960′s look like the 1950′s, with certain crucial changes. An activity, a youth, a forcefulness. The short decade is the point of frenzy: where both the problems and opportunities become engorged, dragging every one along with them. Somewhere in1967, the world lost faith with the idea that bolder and more decisive action could hold together the post-war era and late colonial era. Somewhere, young became youthful, and by 1968 powerful figures and trends were swept away. LBJ went from landslide to loser, the suits and ties became tie-dyes, and the war went from catapaulting the Ballad of the Green Berrets from the number one song of 1967. The “Summer of Love” of 1967, which was localized and considered passing, was, in retrospect, a stylistic and imaginary moment.
The Thousands have as clear a marker for their beginning as any decade in the modern run of decades: 9/11. Somewhere in the next few months, there will be a line that will, like the crash of 1987, be used to declare “the thousands are over”, the way Duke woke up on the cover of a GB Trudeau penned Newsweek.
In one sense this will be true, in another, the reality will be that the thousands as history will remember them, will just be getting started.
The Anatomy of Decade
There is no physical cycle of 10 years. It is a construct of the decimal system and our own grasping for lines and patterns. However, because of rising forces of synchronization, the ability to make more and more people subject to the same forces at the same time, the movement of peoples has grown more coterminal over the course of the last two centuries. Faster communication and transportation, mass production, and the unification of media and monetary systems can all be pointed to as contributing factors, as can the rise of urbanization, and the rise of cities were where seen as being on the leading edge of particular parts of human activity. If everyone is watching the cities, and the taste makers of the cities are watching New York, than more butterflies will be sitting on the right breeze.
The 1890′s are the first decade which is commonly given a name, and which can be thought of as the archetype for the decade pattern. While previous decades had been named, the trope was not established, and in the case of the gay ’90′s in retrospect, as part of a larger “belle Ã©poque” and “fin de siecle” period. These two longer designations catch the ambivalence of the era. One is remembering the fine beauty of an age washed away by war, the other the looming sense of decadence and impossibility of continuation.
The decade however, that forms the model for Decade as a trope, is the 1920′s. The “Roaring Twenties” had the beginning, in the ending of “The Great War” and its immediate economic aftermath, and the coming of a perception of opening possibilities. The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression forcefully underline the shape as “Decade”. However looking at the 1920′s there is a clear break internally, one that is also part of the trope of Decade: the point where the market bubble made people believe that prosperity would never end. This feeling of immortality is not unusual: the period just before the First World War was filled with predictions that prosperity and war would never come.
The reason for this definite break is related to the nature of decision: decisions are made, a social consensus both in thesis and antithesis is established, and at a certain point, those decisions are seen either as being so ineluctably correct, or so obviously bankrupt, that there is a desperate lurch. Both can be occurring at once, where the reaction to a lose of faith in one part of the consensus leads to an overloading of the other. The 1960′s for example, can be seen as having two very potent decisions made early: a faith in youth, and a faith in sharp hardness. In 1967, the faith in hard gave way.
The period of frenzy burns like trauma into people’s minds, and it pushes the effects of the decade, which on analysis often turn out to have touched few people strongly, out to a wider public. Radio, automobiles and paved roads slammed into New York City’s urban consciousness hard in the 1920′s, but it was not for some years before these reached the outside regions of America. In no small way, the presence of a decade in our memory is often that it arrives much sooner than it does. The 1990′s may have been the “Internet” decade, but it was late in the decade before substantial numbers of people had broadband at home, or even dial up that was reliable enough to make the internet a pipeline to the outside world.
The anatomy of Decade then relies on a point of division from the previous frenzy, a point where a new normalcy has taken over, a pinnacle point where it seems as if the decade is confirmed, a moment where the decisions which formed the consciousness of Decade become both declared bankrupt and unquestionable, and the last kinetic moments of the hyper-decade, or “short” decade.
The thousands have, until recently, been a decade without a name, to no small extent, because a large fraction of the people involved in it either don’t want to be here, or don’t want the general public to think of this as an impermanent moment driven by temporary forces and consensus. This, in itself, is a consensus: that this moment is peculiar.
However, the decade so far conforms to the pattern. The inauguration of Bush was built, to no small extent, on the willingness of elites to buy the argument that there was “Clinton Fatigue”, or more accurately, that they were fatigued at the sheer amount of work and pace of the 1990′s. Smart, fast and over caffeinated were out.
However, at that moment, there were two very possible narratives: one is that Bush was the hyper version of the Republican 1990′s: one that rejected the Clintonian “looseness”, while still worshipping the wealth and possibility of the 1990′s. The fruits of a movement that had produced an impeachment, and had ridden techno-libertarianism to a kind of fast wealth unseen since the 1920′s. The other was that overwhelming storm clouds had gathered, erasing fundamental aspects of our society. The decade was either over, or reaching its perfect form. And there were others as well: one being that 9/11 precipitated these possible narratives, into one: suddenly the decade painted itself in terms of a grand Manichean struggle. This was true not only of the “ins” and the “slightly outs”, but the “way outs” as well. The narrative argument rested on a point of agreement: that a great evil was loosed upon the world. It bent everyone and everything into a single focused narrative.
But as important to a decade as the grand political arc, is the stylistic one. The 1990′s were the decade of grunge, the decade of dirty. A decade that opened with people working three jobs and eating 99 cent whoppers. The thousands wanted a different sense of real, that sense of real replaced bouncing, hand held camera movements and digital uber clarity of line for the dark and muddied view of the previous era. “Se7en” was a film in the 1990′s aesthetic, 24 a show that hammered home the new.
The speed at which the new decade’s style was adopted, and the swift and sudden victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan were paralleled by an almost unearthly early faith in Bush and Bushism. Charge ahead, all will be well. The cult of internal combustion did not slow even with the rising price of gasoline, but reached for bigger, badder and bolder assertions of SUV size.
To no small extent, the power of a decade is determined by which is the rising economic class. The techie class was dumped from economic forefront with amazing speed, clogged techno highways became open and clear in the mornings. Spending power shifted dramatically from “latte drinking Volvo driving” technocrats, mislabeled liberals, to exurban pickup truck construction contractors in the housing boom. While trashy is never really out, it had never quite been so in to be red neck chic as the Thousands would make it. The tastes to be catered to are important. Who has money to spend, determines the shape of how those who try and get people to spend it behave. The dance between consumption and production begins with the decision about who to give money to, but that decision is, to no small extent, based on a diagnosis of who was robbed in the previous decade. In 2000 those who felt left behind voted to kneecap the urban renaissance, and loan themselves a great deal of money to prove that really, security, not information, houses, not knowledge were the ultimate units of desire.
Big was in, as was a quantity of rough and immediate no red tape no rules decision making. For those who did not like what they saw, the thousands became, almost immediately, the “stupid decade”.
What makes the 1990′s unique is that its early moment of synchronization did not build, but instead, bled, almost from the beginning. Faith itself replaced reason, a kingdom of noise was unleashed to convince us all that Hitler was loose in the world, and given almost absolute power, lost support in a slow swooping continuous arc in the political, even as more and more people believed that houses, at least, would never go down in value, and that there was nothing more important than having a couple of tons of steel underneath your butt when you drive. Almost no decade can be said to have lost more faith in its leadership, even as it had an seemingly unshakeable faith in the decisions made.
At the same time that the red neck riveria look dominated retail, so too did the other important money trend of the Thousands, driven by massive borrowing binges to reduce top marginal tax rates, come into play: ultrawealth. In the 1990′s, it was not fashionable to be ultra-wealthy, even if it was fashionable to be living large profligate at the end of the decade. Ultra-wealth can be seen in the funding of massive museums, which while undertaken in the 1990′s came to completion in the Thousands as iconic of the era, and the boom in both “McMansions” and in real massive manstion building. But a need for connection between the wealthy class, and their soldier supporters, was constantly churned through the consciousness. Stretch SUV’s for example. What, exactly, is a stretch “Sport Utility Vehicle”?
The key moment for the stupid decade politically was the election of 2002, not the election of 2000. It was in 2002 that the public ratified, by a narrow margin, the consensus decision of a nation undersiege, and despite poor performance in dealing with economic problems, neither the opposition party, or the cultural opposition, could come up with a simple way of saying that government’s of national unity need checks and balances. Instead, Bush was handed undivided government, and then again in 2004.
But 2004 represented both the pinnacle moment, and the unraveling of the decade. In essence, the decade was the decade of stupid, charge forward and faith, because its fundamental model was “drill for more oil, let rich people turn it into junk that poor people will buy, kill anyone who gets in the way.”
The Fall of the House of Gusher