The Potential Power of the Citizenry

Brian T. Watson

Cover Image Courtesy of United States Library of Congress


I am haunted these days by the sound, tone, and words of a song. They’re from a fifty-three-year-old protest ballad written and performed by the rock band Buffalo Springfield. Reaching hit status in the spring of 1967, the song became an anthem for the many street protests, teach-ins, and counterculture gatherings focused on objection to the Vietnam War, racism, environmental degradation, conformity, materialistic values, and many other facets of “the system” generally then coming under scrutiny by an aroused public.

There’s something happening here

What it is ain’t exactly clear

There’s a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

Although the song, titled “For What It’s Worth,” was written specifically in response to the police clampdown during the nightclub-curfew riots in Hollywood in late 1966, its eerie and transfixing melody seemed to capture the mix of fear, bewilderment, momentousness, and potential that was accompanying all the social unrest that was unfolding during the late 1960s.

That period was unique. As that decade wore on, Blacks, Whites, young, old, students, men, women, clergy, musicians, artists, and athletes joined together in an unprecedented way to advocate for peace, social and economic justice, civil rights, ecological awareness, and—arching over all—a new value system that could guide us to a smarter, wiser, more restrained, and sustainable society.

Looking back from our vantage point in 2020, it is the perfect-for-TV, visually dramatic opposition to the Vietnam War that we most easily identify and that seems today to have been the dominant concern of protesters. However, that perspective shortchanges the then-concurrent existence of a spreading, significant, 1960s countercultural consciousness that was involved in developing a sophisticated, integrated critique of society.

That awareness took many forms and was expressed by new citizen attention to many once-ignored aspects of our society and by participation in activities intended to bring about reforms in those areas.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for example, had written their famous “Port Huron Statement” in 1962 and had provided the intellectual foundations for envisioning a fuller participatory democracy in the United States accompanied by a saner, less predatory capitalism. As a forty-five-page analysis of America, it testifies to the reality that the foreign policy, militarism, corporate greed, racism, worker exploitation, ill health, and environmental depredations of a society do not exist discretely in separate categories but exist synergistically as part of a consistent whole. As long as a society embraces or tolerates one of those sicknesses, it is likely to be able to embrace any of them.

Almost simultaneously, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had led civil-rights supporters in the March on Washington. As the 1960s rolled on, King increasingly connected the fight against racism with the need to defeat poverty and a capitalism that he said contained a violence of spirit. In 1968, the year he was assassinated, King was actively encouraging a broad array of ordinary Americans to join forces in the search for social and economic justice. He was exhorting coal miners, farmworkers, trash collectors, union members, White Appalachians, Black Muslims, students, Indians, and poor people of all colors and classes to see their shared goals.

Meanwhile, an environmental consciousness was building across the country. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring; in 1969, Ian McHarg published Design with Nature; and in 1971, Barry Commoner published The Closing Circle. The first Earth Day was in 1970. The peace movement, the anti-nuke movement, and the green movement—perhaps best symbolized by the birth of Greenpeace in 1970—merged into a worldview that recognized that ecological principles provide the unavoidable context and capacities within which all human activities must operate.

Furthermore, out of the ferment of the 1960s emerged the sophisticated and still-profound certainty that everything is connected and that the individuals, institutions, economics, and arrangements of human societies must be approached or reformed not as single items but as interlocking elements of a consciously designed system. This view, and the enlightened values that informed it, may have been summarized best in Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, authored in 1973 by E. F. Schumacher.

For a variety of reasons, the heightened revolutionary spirit of the 1960s faded as the 1970s wore on. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 definitively marked the end of the period. But for a time in the 1960s, the mood across the country was deeply unsettled. Citizens confronted terrible truths and horrible images. On television, we witnessed the brutal violence of racism, the execution of students, the slaughtering of nature, the terrifying size of nuclear test explosions, and the daily atrocities in Vietnam. Very much like today, the citizenry was angry, fractured, fearful, traumatized, and deeply uncertain of what the future held.

Moved by the events of the time, we knew that something momentous indeed was “happening here,” and we knew no particular outcome was foreordained. When we heard “there’s a man with a gun over there,” we knew that the gun we had to beware was not just a National Guardsman’s rifle but a nuclear bomb, a whaler’s harpoon, racism’s oppression, capitalism’s bite, society’s values, and a whole host of reprobate powers.

Today, I am haunted by “For What It’s Worth” because the country’s mood and predicament feel so like the crises of the 1960s. Many of the most profound problems we have today are the same ones of that time. I feel sick because our crises today are similar, yes, but also far worse—more numerous, more complex, more intractable. They are also occurring fifty to sixty years later. We are nearly out of time—or are possibly already out of time—to solve them.

We are facing crises nationally and globally in capitalism, technology, Webworld,1 politics, democracy, media, education, the environment, overpopulation, and transportation. In these areas, serious flaws and dysfunctions have been worsening for the past forty years. The many threats contained in these fields are literally existential; if all are not met and disarmed, societies and civilization across the entire world will quite likely disintegrate during this century.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, we were already reeling. Democracies and societies around the globe were being buffeted by problems in the areas, forces, really, that I listed above.

Let’s look briefly at some of the major challenges. Capitalism has been pushed into a form that is predatory, distributing wealth poorly, and increasingly creating a volatile and giggish economy that corrodes the economic security of citizens around the world. For the past forty years, the consequences of deregulation, corporate consolidations, globalization, an unfair tax code, and an unresponsive, withdrawing government have increasingly victimized most of the populace. Despite nearly full employment in the United States before the pandemic, wages and working conditions had left millions of American households in debt, insecure, and living paycheck to paycheck. Artificial intelligence and automation are still poised to eliminate millions of jobs in the near decades.

Furthermore, there is one flaw that is quickly coming to a head: capitalism was never designed with a finite planet in mind. Capitalism relies on infinite growth, infinite consumption, and steady land and resource development. Now, with nearly eight billion potential consumers on earth, the organizing tenets of capitalism are crashing into the limits of the capacities of the ecosphere.

Meanwhile, technology and the internet continue to expand their dominance over ever-larger swaths of industry, commerce, finance, politics, entertainment, and the media. Almost no area of our developed societies, commercial or personal, operates outside of the structures and platforms provided by computers, websites, apps, and social media. This makes us incredibly dependent upon—and vulnerable to—the operation, ways, dynamics, and consequences of the brave new digital world.

Further, machine learning, facial recognition, augmented reality, virtual reality, the Internet of Things, and computer-enabled bioengineering and genetic modification are all advancing extremely rapidly and promise to further transform our ways of being—and not for the better overall.

We may think the internet offers us infinite choice—a banquet of online offerings—and that is true at one level. But it is choice constrained within a screen and choices defined and limited by the rules of Webworld. We engage with it only on its terms, not ours. And it is damaging our longstanding capacities for perspective and our best habits of mind.

Politics and the media are two additional powerful forces at work today, both transformed by the dynamics of the internet. With money dominating politics and also essentially controlling the playbook of the online world—which is well on the way to constricting the role of sober, professional journalism—the ordinary citizen is being assessed by data, diced, divided, grouped, manipulated, and revved up. Ordinary people, disempowered and under siege, have legitimate reasons to be angry and alienated.

The evolution of our political system over the past forty years—culminating in the election of Donald Trump—has left it nearly dysfunctional. Especially on the right, its merger with Fox News, talk radio, conservative and corporate money, internet dynamics, a badly confused citizenry, and a visceral no-taxes, no-government fanaticism has made politics one emotion-driven chaff show.

Hanging over all the other crises we face, and bringing a frightening deadline with it, is the rapidly approaching disaster of climate change. Having squandered thirty or so years when we could have begun a transition to cleaner energy systems and a more restrained consumerism, we now face needed reforms that are nothing short of staggering. It is likely that by 2100, and probably well before, organized society and civilization itself will collapse in the face of huge and deadly (to us) ecological changes rippling across enormous regions of the globe.

To this already desperate world, and to already stricken people, now add the coronavirus. Everybody wants to know when we’ll defeat the virus and what the world will look like after it. Well, true victory over the pandemic probably awaits a vaccine and then its wide dissemination, which may take well into late 2021. Clearly, we still have a very long vigil yet.

And there are many ways the pandemic may affect us. Starting with the indisputable: The internet platforms and the internet itself will only become more powerful and more indispensable. To limit the spread of the virus, any business that can has sent its workers home. Corporations are finding that this arrangement works well, cuts costs, and, as a bonus, makes employees less secure about retaining their jobs. Remote workers have less ability to compare notes with fellow workers, and—with employers free to hire non-commuting substitutes—they now realize how easily they can be replaced.

Furthermore, increased remote work will continue to weaken cities and the urban fabric. Small businesses in the city will suffer. Public transit, which is already struggling, will lose advocates and funding. As we decentralize and atomize more and more and increasingly live, work, shop, and play online, the physical environment—both manmade and natural—will continue to hold less importance for us.

Yet another way that the internet is building its hegemony over us during the virus is seen in the dramatic rise in cashless payments. To avoid possible contamination, customers at stores have increased their use of credit cards, payment apps, and other digital tools. Shopping online has also surged. These changes translate into bigger fees on the cards and apps and increasing digital dependence. More important, they empower internet platforms and their advertisers with significant additional data with which to profile, track, and manipulate us. Ironically, the internet has been a godsend during the pandemic, but after the virus we will be living in a Webworld that exerts an even firmer grip on society.

At the same time, the pandemic is weakening our governments. Because of the extraordinary federal costs of responding to this crisis, the national debt is soaring. We have repeatedly had to tap the “emergency” borrowing capacity of our government, which means we will have less financial “reserve” and less political capital to draw on for all the other challenges that will still loom large after the pandemic ends.

Yet we haven’t yet even seen all the economic dislocation and devastation that’s coming. As tens of millions of citizens remain unemployed, spending their savings (if any), barely making mortgage and rent payments (if they can make them at all), the citizenry and the nation are falling into a deeper and deeper hole. It will take years, if not decades, for many people to recover.

Individual states are even worse off economically than the federal government. When public schools and state universities open in the fall—partially and without adequate resources—our national picture will look additionally grim. The mission stress laid on the schools, teachers, parents, and students will be enormous.

Another serious and probably permanent consequence of the pandemic is the downsizing or outright closing of many good daily and weekly newspapers. Without adequate store and business advertising, newspaper budgets are evaporating and journalists are being furloughed or laid off in great numbers. Therefore, there are fewer news stories, fewer analyses, and less coverage of local and state governments. This is a further body blow to professional journalism that the bloggers and news aggregators on the interne don’t begin to make up for.

Finally, we have the actual deaths and sicknesses caused by COVID-19. Whatever that final tally is, it brings loss and trauma that will leave lasting emotional scars on the survivors. This legacy will add to the mental-health issues of our nation and make it more difficult for the population to achieve the emotional potential needed to transform our society.

On top of and woven into both the pandemic and the country’s longstanding unaddressed crises are the Black Lives Matter movement, the street protests, and the other issues associated with them. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd triggered long-building volumes of pain and anger both within and without the Black community.

This is where, as the song says, there’s something happening here. It is appropriate to talk about some positive things that are happening, some positive outcomes that are developing, and where it is possible to discern grounds for hope.

First, the pandemic has stripped the disguises and false narratives off the economy. Today, as millions of relatively poor, low-wage workers struggle with either no work or work highly exposed to the coronavirus, Americans can see clearly their Hobson’s choice.2 With no savings, inadequate or costly health insurance, and sometimes with insecure citizenship or visa status, these employees have been operating many of the basic services and infrastructure of the nation throughout this pandemic. Who is running the subway trains, buses, gas stations, pharmacies, grocery stores, food processing plants, hair salons, dollar stores, and other necessary service businesses? The answer: ordinary people who are exploited and considered disposable.

These workers—and they are White, Black, brown, red, Latinx, and every other identity—have been struggling financially for decades. Before the pandemic, despite plenty of corporate and national wealth, citizens in the bottom two-thirds of income earners nonetheless have been severely underpaid and generally taken advantage of in myriad ways.

Since 1980, the power brokers of our society have constantly lauded and bulwarked the “free enterprise” system and the “invisible hand” of the market. They liked to say that citizens rise and fall on their merits and that each of us is where we are due to our work habits, personal initiative, education, and character. While those factors are relevant, they do not begin to explain the story of the American economy and how it distributes the wealth it produces. The power brokers do not want us to understand how deliberately designed are the tax codes, legislative initiatives, regulations, and so-called “free” market, which produce a rob-the-poor, winner-takes-all version of capitalism.

The desperation of so many citizens—not least of all young adults—during the COVID-19 crisis has made it easier for everyone to see the economic system for what it is. American capitalism over the past forty years has been turned into a scheme that safeguards profits, corporations, and the wealthy elite above all; it does not serve the people. On the contrary, we serve it. To the economy, we are nothing more than gig workers, “contract” workers, consumers, online data profiles, and advertising audiences.

Similarly, the pandemic has exposed the economy’s extreme fragilities and dependencies. With the shutdown of restaurants, retail stores, some production facilities, and many businesses, the economy basically collapsed. Instantly there were forty million or so layoffs. Half the nation stopped purchasing everything except food, medicine, and other essentials. The fact that that our “healthy” economy required most everybody to spend steadily on all sorts of nonessential products, services, and entertainment was clearly demonstrated.

Before COVID-19 came along, it’s not like citizens were left alone to decide how much of their money to spend. We were surrounded 24/7 by messaging, advertising, enticements, and conditioning, all of which encouraged us to be relentless and mindless consumers.

The pandemic has exposed the insanity of those dynamics. Buying too much stuff, consuming too many resources, and generally acting impulsive and irresponsible, we were pushed into—and we bought into—a destructive materialism. Our behavior and attitudes combined with our growing online lives left us vulnerable, misfocused, and ill-equipped to craft smarter choices.

As the coronavirus has opened the eyes of America to the real properties of our capitalism, so too has the Black Lives Matter movement, undeniable police violence, and street protests for justice awakened people to the still-significant racism in the country. Additionally, the belligerent reactions and provocations by President Trump to the social unrest are causing increasing percentages of the general population to turn against him. At the same time, more citizens are observing that the internet and social media are major enablers of groups and individuals that promote hate, bigotry, racism, conspiracies, disinformation, and right-wing extremism. Even the social-media platforms have finally begun to remove or warn against destructive posts. Their advertisers have paused their ad buying to assess their relationship to the internet.

These developments are extraordinarily positive. Many Americans appear to be seeing some things with new clarity. They’re connecting dots. So, what does the future hold?

First, I’m guessing that President Trump will not be reelected. I think that by now too many Americans have concluded that he has—by both his words and his actions—demonstrated that he is unfit to be the president. Second, I think the Black Lives Matter movement, street protests, coronavirus, and shocks and interruptions to what was pre-pandemic “normal” life have caused an arousal in the citizenry that will not easily fade.

But what this arousal will lead to is an open question. In the short term—meaning, say, one to three years—I have no doubt that there will be tangible progress on reforming police departments. There may also be progress in reducing some of the racism woven into our systems of justice, housing, banking, and voting.

Regarding the economy, especially if the Senate flips Democratic in November, we could reasonably expect the passage of legislation for higher minimum wages, a fairer tax code, some re-regulation in many areas, and less corporate consolidation. Because many Democrats support a Green New Deal, there would also probably be progress toward the goals expressed in that document. That may mean legislative initiatives for large infrastructure projects, greener energy development, better environmental protections, and a host of complementary measures.

So, with a President Biden and a Democratic Senate, there is no doubt that good things would happen. Where I am wary, however, is on the questions of the significance, magnitude, relevance, and speed of the changes that may occur.

In every major area that is responsible for determining the shape of society—capitalism, technology, Webworld, politics, media, education, the environment, and transportation—the reforms and changes we need to make are absolutely enormous. Bigger than most people have even dared to imagine. The changes would be costly and wrenching.

Across the globe for forty years, technology and market forces and modern Western notions of progress have worked their way on populations, societies, and the environment. We have spread crises, vulnerabilities, and unsustainability across the world.

In the race to expand capitalism, reduce poverty, introduce technology, “connect” the world online, automate and produce goods, build roads and housing, raise living standards, and accomplish a host of other often well-meaning goals, we simply lost sight—and control—of the mixed consequences of all we were doing.

Along with “progress,” especially in the United States, we have created angry, alienated citizens. Sure, we know we’ve been victimized—after all, we’re in the streets again—but can we join our brothers and sisters of all colors, ages, political affiliations, and nations? Can we learn that the real enemy is not the neighbor who may be a Republican or a Democrat? Can we learn that the real enemy is the money in government, the automation that eliminates jobs, the internet that transfixes us, the politics that divides us, and the 24/7 advertising and conditioning that impoverish our values and define our horizons?

I see two possible paths forward, both unlikely and both nearly fantastic. Neither of these unfolded in the aftermath of the 1960s ferment—people mostly drifted back to work—but today the existential stakes are much higher and more widely known. Ordinary alternative paths, such as work, are increasingly seen as inadequate and precarious.

First, the potential power of the citizenry is huge. If the mass of ordinary people can educate themselves—if they can learn how capitalism, politics, and technology are controlled not by actors interested in lifting and empowering our lives or by actors who are working for the health of a broad society but by actors who are intent on taking for themselves whatever profits, wealth, land, and power they can amass—then we can put the solidarity of ordinary people ahead of our differences.

This would be extraordinary. It would require from citizens a commitment of sustained seriousness, study, and attention that public intellectuals such as John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert Heilbroner, and Neil Postman have warned us not to expect.

In addition, it would require us to use our hearts and our consciences as much as our minds. It would require us to observe things that we know are wrong and say, “That’s not right.” Above all, it would require us to take responsibility for every aspect of this world. It would require the same identification with the pain of others that we allowed ourselves when we were touched by George Floyd’s humanity.

But what may be spreading across the citizenry is the awareness that we have been, as Vaclav Havel put it, living within a lie. Facing another year of living with the pandemic—every day having society held up nakedly to its own mirror and watching President Trump make a mockery of what we know is reality—we are perhaps having a difficult time reconciling our own contributions to the lie. For when society’s arrangements and power structures are built on lies, contradictions, and indefensible injustices, then the power of truth of conscience and morality must always lie in wait. This is potentially an immense power, and it resides only in a unified populace.

The second equally startling path forward would be for the power brokers of society to find their integrity and responsibility and lead the change we need. They are at the crossroads now. They will choose to either obstruct or lead, either to defend their advantages or work for the preservation of civilization. The reforms we need are so pressing, so comprehensive, so difficult to implement, so globe-straddling, so puncturing of the ideological gods and frames of reference we have been living with, and so society-as-we-know-it overturning that it is hard to believe that even an enlightened citizenry could transform the world quickly in the absence of active leadership from those already in power.

Today, our society reflects the worst of two realms: psychologically and emotionally, it is traumatized and immoral. In the most prosaic, literal, practical senses, it is unsustainable. Without a national and global overhaul, civilization will end within mere decades.

During the 1960s activism, in which I participated, we were on to something. We knew then that the sustainable health of a society and its people depend on living with respect and responsibility toward others, the truth, and the planet itself. But not everyone saw that. Today, though, more people are looking around and asking, “What’s that sound?”

It might just be that what they’re hearing are the liberating sounds of citizens taking the first steps toward new ways of being. Will those new ways of being come to pass?



1 See “The Internet, the Virus, and Reason,” by Brian T. Watson, in the June/July 2020 Free Inquiry.

2 A Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one thing is offered.

Brian T. Watson

Brian T Watson is a registered architect, an environmentalist, and a writer focused on public affairs and the built and natural environments.