We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now

Living through the 1970s was like walking through a never-ending storm.  The cavalcade of world-changing events never seemed to end.  Trying to make sense of the maelstrom was a constant game of catching up and keeping pace.  This was true in politics, international affairs, culture and community.  The contradictions of the post-World War Two world were not just more apparent than ever before, they were crashing up against each other in ways few had predicted.  It goes without saying that the previous decade had intensified those contradictions.  It can also be said that intensification was the result of a system of power and rule being seriously challenged by popular movements around the world.  US imperialism, which had taken advantage of its position after the Second World War as the strongest nation standing, was being challenged around the globe.  The Soviet Union served as its primary opponent in terms of state opposition, but it was a worldwide struggle for liberation that was the US Empire’s real challenge.  Of course, the Soviet Union was more than willing to assist those movements against US power that aligned more or less with its understanding.  At the same time, it was as afraid of the cultural revolution in the West as the uptight moral guardians of the West were.

The paragraph above is a succinct description of how the 1970s began.  This is why many historians, including Aaron Leonard, author of the just-released Meltdown Expected: Crisis, Disorder and Upheaval at the End of the 1970s, call the early 1970s part of what has become the Sixties.  Like the 1960s, these years have had plenty written about them; among those writers are historians, music critics, individuals of importance at the time, politicians of all stripes, and journalists.  There have also been a few books attempting to explore and understand the entire decade from 1970 up to 1980.  Two such books are Bruce Shulman’s 2002 work titled The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics and my 2015 text Daydream Sunset: The 60s Counterculture in the 70s.  The first of these provides an overview of the decade that mostly succeeds in describing the changes wrought over the period.  The second text uses a similar approach while focusing mostly on the cooptation and disintegration of the Sixties counterculture during the same span.

Leonard’s book is the first to focus almost entirely on the last three years of the 1970s.  Rather appropriately borrowing a lyric from the title song of the Clash’s 1979 album London Calling, this text recounts several events from those years.  As the title implies, much of the world was expecting some kind of meltdown by the time 1980 rolled around.  Indeed, lots of folks were already experiencing a meltdown, their jobs being cut, the cost of living rising, and the world still spinning out of control.  All the while that Leonard is describing these events, he is also building a foundation that does plenty to describe how we have arrived at where we are today in 2024.  This includes the rise of the New Right, the retrenchment of the police and surveillance state in the wake of Watergate and the revelations about FBI, CIA and NSA surveillance of and black ops against left-wing radicals in the United States, and the Carter doctrine which continues to rationalize US interference and intervention in the region known in the west as the Middle East. Likewise, events like the Iranian revolution, the creation and arming of the Afghan warlords and the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua continue to determine the direction of the world over forty years later.

 In his text, Leonard often begins his telling of an event by introducing a particular national or international historical episode; from there he brings it closer to home, imbued with a consistent political perspective.  The pervasiveness of disco, Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and a remembrance of the stampede at a Who concert in Cincinnati leads to a discussion of the Clash and punk rock. The death of two popes in a couple of months opens up an explanation of the growing influence of right-wing Christianity in US politics.  As someone who, like Leonard, participated in various incidents and movements described in Meltdown Expected, I think it’s fair to say our perspective on this history and the events portrayed was not as nuanced or contemplative while these moments were taking place.  After all, when a cop is hitting you over the head or even if you’re just dancing to a new band that is different from the rest of the stuff the radio plays, one’s understanding is usually different than the one you come to after forty or fifty years have passed and some reflection has occurred.

As he has in his previous works, Leonard utilized a variety of resources in the writing of this exquisite and unique history of the late 1970s.  Drawing from government files, personal memories, conversations and multiple newspapers and texts, Leonard has composed a concise, thoughtful and important addition to the history of the decades after the 1960s.  Like the song by the Dead Kennedys whose title I borrowed for this review, the history put down in Meltdown Expected goes a long way towards explaining how we arrived at the current debacle we call the present.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com