Banner at a mass demonstration during May 1968, reading "workers, students: united we will win."

The Long Shadow of May ’68

  • May 29, 2018

People & Protest

Fifty years on, contemporary social struggles continue to be shaped in profound ways by the ambivalent legacy of “The Long 1968.”

May 29, 1968. Fires are still smouldering on the streets of Paris. The Quartier Latin is no longer cordoned off by barricades, but the French economy is paralyzed: hundreds of factories have been occupied and nearly ten million workers — two-thirds of the national workforce — are on strike. At a particularly militant meeting of the national student union two days earlier, attended by some 50,000 people, speaker after speaker had rejected any attempt at compromise and demanded the overthrow of the government. For a brief moment, and for the first and only time in postwar history, an advanced capitalist country finds itself poised on the precipice of revolution. That’s when the news comes in.

Charles de Gaulle has gone missing.

Shockwaves ripple through French society. The president was said to be retreating to his countryside residence at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, possibly to mull over his resignation speech—but his helicopter never arrived at its official destination. The government, acephalous and unaware of the head-of-state’s whereabouts, is in disarray. “He has fled the country!” Prime Minister Georges Pompidou exclaims in disbelief, as key ministers and their aides hastily begin to hatch their own escape plans—openly wondering how far they will be able to get by car if fuel reserves are overrun by revolutionaries.

That evening, it emerges that De Gaulle—in what he later dismisses as a “momentary lapse”—had secretly travelled to the French military base at Baden-Baden to meet General Massu, commander of the French occupation forces in West-Germany, to assure himself of the army’s support. The next day, the president appears on national radio to address the French people. In four minutes, he makes short shrift of any rumors of his impending resignation, dissolving the national assembly and calling fresh parliamentary elections instead. Within hours, hundreds of thousands of bourgeois counter-protesters take to the Champs Élisées; weeks later the Gaullists win the parliamentary elections by a landslide. The revolution is defeated at the ballot box.

Nevertheless, the aftershocks of May ‘68 continue to reverberate for decades, unleashing a profound transformation in the economic structure, cultural values and social relations of Western society—especially in the domains of civil rights, women’s rights, ecological awareness and multiculturalism. Today, there is no doubt that we still live under the long shadow cast by 1968, as both late capitalism and contemporary social struggles continue to be shaped in important ways by its ambivalent legacy.

The “World Revolution” of 1968

To grasp the lasting significance of May ’68 for our times, we have to place the French revolt in its proper world-historical context. In a way, the événements de mai were merely one of the most visible and most spectacular expressions of a broader cycle of struggles unfolding across the globe—stretching all the way back to the anti-colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam and including the Cuban Revolution, the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the antiwar demonstrations and student revolts from Berkeley to Berlin, the Hungarian and Czechoslovak opposition to Moscow, and the student protests in Mexico City. The events in France arguably marked the high point of this wave of popular revolt, which some have called “The Long 1968” and which the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein famously referred to as a “world revolution.”

What made this Long ‘68 so significant was precisely the fact that it occurred at the inflection point between two historical eras, arriving at the tail-end of the trente glorieuses of industrial capitalism—the thirty years of unbridled economic expansion in the wake of World War II—and just before the dawn of our contemporary post-industrial era of globalized and financialized capitalism, whose contours only began to emerge following the crisis of 1973, eventually giving rise to a new era of capitalist development characterized by the rapid ascent of neoliberalism and the reassertion of bourgeois power worldwide.

Crucially, the prevailing forms of struggle were profoundly shaped by this historical conjuncture. On the one hand, the Long 1968 constituted the last great outbreak of industrial proletarian revolt in the West. Of course there was to be plenty of worker militancy in subsequent decades, but the widespread mobilizations of May ’68 were never again to be rivalled in their volume or resolve. On the other hand, the revolt also marked the birth of what the French sociologist Alain Touraine—who taught at Nanterre in May ‘68—would later come to call the nouveaux mouvements sociaux.

While the former, the classical labor movement, was principally motivated by material and economic concerns, like higher wages and better working conditions, Touraine and his colleagues saw in the new social movements a novel set of “post-material” concerns surrounding issues of identity, civil rights and individual self-realization. It was precisely from the confluence of the two that the revolts of 1968 derived their unique character, expressed in the simultaneous mobilization of radicalized middle-class students and a rebellious industrial working class. At the same time, however, it was precisely the inability of these diverse social forces to bridge their contrasting interests and worldviews that ultimately left the revolt vulnerable to cooptation.

The Neoliberal Counterrevolution

The French revolt of May ‘68 was nipped in the bud by a combination of right-wing counter-mobilization, crass electoralism on the part of the Communist Party, and the government’s material concessions to the working class. By the early 1970s, however, it was clear that Western capitalism generally remained mired in a profound crisis; one that was both structural and ideological in nature, expressing itself in the form of economic stagnation and towering inflation on the one hand, and a profound lack of legitimation on the other. In short, powerful social movements, trade unions and left-wing parties were making redistributive demands on the democratic system that political leaders simply could not fulfill within the confines of a stagnant capitalist economy.

It was in this context that ideological hardliners within the academic, corporate and political establishment launched their definitive counter-offensive. It began, of course, with Pinochet’s US-backed coup d’état in Chile in 1973, which overthrew Allende’s democratic socialist government—undoubtedly the left’s most successful electoral experiment during the Long 1968. From there the backlash soon spread to the capitalist heartland. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission published a report, The Crisis of Democracy, which infamously claimed that the West’s stagnant economies, conflict-ridden societies and paralyzed political systems suffered from an “excess of democracy,” and that only an assault on social rights and the organized power of labor could restore the vitality of capitalist democracies.

Under Thatcher and Reagan, the UK and US soon answered the call. Meanwhile, Mitterand’s volte-face in the early 1980s—from his pursuit of a socialist experiment inspired in part by Allende’s, to a full-fledged embrace of free-market principles—lauded the end of the Long 1968 in France. By the mid-1980s, the neoliberal counterrevolution was in full swing across large swathes of the globe, thanks in no small part to the Structural Adjustment Programs that were actively imposed on the developing countries by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund during the international debt crisis.

In the Western world, the neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1980s achieved two crucial political objectives: it successfully smashed the organized power of labor—not shunting the use of force in its assault on the unions—while at the same time successfully coopting some of the more individualistic and hedonistic lifestyle elements of the ’68 generation. A shallow commitment to “identity politics” and “ecological consciousness” was partly integrated into a technocratic conceptualization of politics that effectively reduced the purpose of liberal democracy to the stable management of the capitalist economy.

At the same time, the neoliberal counterrevolution also pursued three fixes for the economic crisis that had plagued the OECD countries throughout the 1970s. First, the “technological fix” of containerization and information and communication technology enabled a vast expansion of international trade and finance. Second, a “spatial fix” opened national borders to the free flow of capital, enabling the offshoring of industrial production to the East. Third, a “financial fix” deregulated credit markets to unleash the power of finance over households, firms and governments—making available future resources, in the form of cheap credit, to paper over stagnant wages, falling profits and limited tax revenues. In the process, capitalism’s structural crisis and legitimation problems were temporarily resolved at the expense of popular power, leading to a vast build-up of debt, inequality and popular frustrations within the system.

By the early 1990s, the collapse of state-communism and the Soviet Union confined Marxism and class struggle to the dustbin of history—henceforth, we were to live in an interconnected and peaceful world at “the end of history” instead, one in which “free markets” would reign supreme and the only battles that remained to be fought would be between a culturally conservative center-right and a culturally progressive center-left, over purely “post-material” issues like abortion, gay marriage and what to do about the hole in the ozone layer. This was to become the heyday of the Third Way, in which social-democratic and left-liberal exponents of soixante-huitardist values like Clinton and Blair embraced the prevalent dogma of market liberalization to become the uncontested figureheads of a now thoroughly depoliticized ’68 generation.

The Crisis of Global Capitalism

The dream lasted for about a decade—until the world was rocked by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s neoconservative Project for an American Century. Neoliberalism had always depended on a strong state to “make society fit for the free market,” but the newfound obsession with national security radicalized this reliance on state authority. Through the War on Terror, global trade and financial markets now came to be embedded in a draconian project of border security, mass surveillance and foreign intervention. As the Western world turned on Muslim populations at home and abroad, even the diluted and fully coopted cultural spirit of ’68 came under sustained attack from the xenophobic far-right, which ironically began to wield some of its gains—like women’s rights—as a club with which to beat the Muslim neighbor and dismantle the multicultural open society of the post-’68 era.

But it was really only with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, exactly 10 years ago this fall, that the neoliberal illusions of a democratic and capitalist end of history were properly shattered. In  a remarkable turn of events, the decade since the start of the global financial crisis was to be characterized by Marx’s revenge: as is now plain for everyone to see, and as even establishment publications like The Economist were compelled to recognize on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth earlier in May, capitalism remains subject to potentially catastrophic periodic crises, to rampant inequality, to widespread alienation—and, from time to time, even to violent revolutionary upheaval.

All of this became acutely evident in 2011, when popular revolts—driven in large part by socio-economic concerns resulting from high youth unemployment and skyrocketing food and energy prices—broke out across the Arab world, unseating dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and spreading like a wildfire through North Africa and the Middle East. Soon the “spirit of Tahrir” crossed the Mediterranean, as millions of Spaniards and Greeks—inspired by the Egyptian Revolution—occupied their own city squares in protest against the austerity measures imposed by European lenders and the IMF. Several months later, the Occupy Wall Street movement briefly took the world by storm, and in the next years uprisings in countries like Turkey and Brazil showed that rapidly growing emerging markets were not immune to social unrest either.

After 2011, it became clear that in today’s globalized and financialized world, class struggle is alive and well—even if its forms have changed in a number of important ways as a result of the transformations of capitalism and work over the past four decades. Contemporary class struggles still fundamentally revolve against the opposition between those who own capital and those who have to sell their labor power in order to survive, but they no longer take place exclusively at the point of production (they arguably never did, but this was nevertheless long the privileged site of struggle for the dominant Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist traditions). Today’s struggles also crucially unfold in the relationship between debtors and creditors; between tenants and landlords; between taxpayers and state financiers. The field of action, in short, has become significantly greater and much more complex to navigate.

Moreover, as activists involved in the women’s movement, in refugee and migrant movements, and in the movement for black lives have convincingly argued in recent years, contemporary forms of class struggle should also not be seen in isolation from the concurrent struggles against patriarchy, border imperialism or white privilege and white supremacy. While the latter exist as relatively autonomous structures and logics of domination, they are nevertheless profoundly intertwined with—and ultimately inseparable from—the capitalist social relations of our time.

A key insight emerging from this new cycle of struggles, then, is one that was already present among some of the most radical elements of the Long ’68—namely the realization that dynamics of class struggle and the logic of identity politics cannot be simplistically opposed as alternatives. To be successful, both forms of struggle need to be waged together, at the same time, while allowing for the self-determination and relative autonomy of those groups that continue to suffer multiple layers of oppression. In short, the political objective of the anti-capitalist struggle cannot be limited to a narrowly construed form of socio-economic equality, nor can emancipatory claims be limited to the liberal domain of “equal rights.” The revolutionary politics of the twenty-first century will be for collective liberation from intersecting systems of domination.

The Coming Global Disorder

Today, we find ourselves at yet another inflection point: between an old world that is dying and a new one that cannot yet be born—with all kinds of morbid symptoms arising from the breach. It is now apparent that the credit-fuelled neoliberal counterrevolution to the Long 1968 is rapidly running out of steam. After the crash of 2008, only an unprecedented wave of bank bailouts and money creation by the world’s leading governments and central banks could provide the capitalist system with a lease of life. Now, the last-remaining legitimacy of the neoliberal establishment is evaporating like mist in the morning sun, as signs of an impending general crisis emerge all around it.

The prevailing mood in today’s social movements is therefore very different from that of ’68. It is certainly not one of untrammelled optimism about the power of the imagination, nor does it make any illusions about the existence of a beach beneath the cobblestones. Rather, our historical moment appears to be characterized by an unprecedented sense of urgency. With the rise of the far-right and the existential threats posed by climate change and ecological destruction, this generation knows that it cannot afford for its struggles to succumb to nostalgia or be coopted and defused in the same way as the spirit of ’68. In the face of a potentially dystopian future, the left still retains a small window of opportunity to begin to turn the tables—but only if it can learn to move beyond some of the ambivalent legacies it has inherited. As a slogan that appeared on a city wall in Athens in 2008 put it: “Fuck May ’68. Fight now.”

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