Features » June 20, 2008
The Ambiguous Legacy of 68
Forty years ago, what was revolutionized – the world or capitalism?
If the principle task of the last century was to awaken the rural population of Asia and Africa, the task of the 21st century is to politicize the destructured masses of slum-dwellers.
In 1968 Paris, one of the best-known graffiti messages on the city’s walls was “Structures do not walk on the streets!” In other words, the massive student and workers demonstrations of ‘68 could not be explained in the terms of structuralism, as determined by the structural changes in society, as in Saussurean structuralism. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s response was that this, precisely, is what happened in ‘68: structures did descend onto the streets. The visible explosive events on the streets were, ultimately, the result of a structural imbalance.
There are good reasons for Lacan’s skeptical view. As French scholars Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello noted in 1999’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, from the ’70s onward, a new form of capitalism emerged.
Capitalism abandoned the hierarchical Fordist structure of the production process – which, named after auto maker Henry Ford, enforced a hierarchical and centralized chain of command – and developed a network-based form of organization that accounted for employee initiative and autonomy in the workplace. As a result, we get networks with a multitude of participants, organizing work in teams or by projects, intent on customer satisfaction and public welfare, or worrying about ecology.
In this way, capitalism usurped the left’s rhetoric of worker self-management, turning it from an anti-capitalist slogan to a capitalist one. It was Socialism that was conservative, hierarchic and administrative.
The anti-capitalist protests of the ’60s supplemented the traditional critique of socioeconomic exploitation with a new cultural critique: alienation of everyday life, commodification of consumption, inauthenticity of a mass society in which we “wear masks” and suffer sexual and other oppressions.
The new capitalism triumphantly appropriated this anti-hierarchical rhetoric of ‘68, presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations of corporate capitalism and “really existing” socialism. This new libertarian spirit is epitomized by dressed-down “cool” capitalists such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
What survived of the sexual liberation of the ’60s was the tolerant hedonism readily incorporated into our hegemonic ideology. Today, sexual enjoyment is not only permitted, it is ordained – individuals feel guilty if they are not able to enjoy it. The drive to radical forms of enjoyment (through sexual experiments and drugs or other trance-inducing means) arose at a precise political moment: when “the spirit of ‘68” had exhausted its political potential.
At this critical point in the mid-’70s, we witnessed a direct, brutal push-toward-the-Real, which assumed three main forms: first, the search for extreme forms of sexual enjoyment; second, the turn toward the Real of an inner experience (Oriental mysticism); and, finally, the rise of leftist political terrorism (Red Army Faction in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, etc.).
Leftist political terror operated under the belief that, in an epoch in which the masses are totally immersed in capitalist ideological sleep, the standard critique of ideology is no longer operative. Only a resort to the raw Real of direct violence could awaken them.
What these three options share is the withdrawal from concrete socio-political engagement, and we feel the consequences of this withdrawal from engagement today.
Autumn 2005’s suburb riots in France saw thousands of cars burning and a major outburst of public violence. But what struck the eye was the absence of any positive utopian vision among protesters. If May ‘68 was a revolt with a utopian vision, the 2005 revolt was an outburst with no pretense to vision.
Here’s proof of the common aphorism that we live in a post-ideological era: The protesters in the Paris suburbs made no particular demands. There was only an insistence on recognition, based on a vague, non-articulated resentment.
The fact that there was no program in the burning of Paris suburbs tells us that we inhabit a universe in which, though it celebrates itself as a society of choice, the only option available to the enforced democratic consensus is the explosion of (self-)destructive violence.
Recall here Lacan’s challenge to the protesting students in ‘68: “As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.”
And we did get one – in the guise of the post-modern “permissive” master whose domination is all the stronger for being less visible.
While many undoubtedly positive changes accompanied this passage – such as new freedoms and access to positions of power for women – one should nonetheless raise hard questions: Was this passage from one “spirit of capitalism” to another really all that happened in ‘68? Was all the drunken enthusiasm of freedom just a means to replacing one form of domination with another?
Things are not so simple. While ‘68 was gloriously appropriated by the dominant culture as an explosion of sexual freedom and anti-hierarchic creativity, France’s Nicholas Sarkozy said in his 2007 presidential campaign that his great task is to make France finally get over ‘68.
So, what we have is “their” and “our” May ‘68. In today’s ideological memory, “our” basic idea of the May demonstrations – the link between students’ protests and workers’ strikes – is forgotten.
If we look at our predicament with the eyes of ‘68, we should remember that, at its core, ‘68 was a rejection of the liberal-capitalist system, a “NO” to the totality of it.
It is easy to make fun of political economist Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the “end of history,” of his claim that, in liberal capitalism, we found the best possible social system. But today, the majority is Fukuyamaist. Liberal-democratic capitalism is accepted as the finally found formula for the best of all possible worlds, all that is left to do is render it more just, tolerant, etc.
When Marco Cicala, an Italian journalist, recently used the word “capitalism” in an article for the Italian daily La Repubblica, his editor asked him if the use of this term was necessary and could he not replace it with a synonym like “economy”?
Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.