The Ambiguous Legacy of '68

Article excerpt

Forty years ago, what was revolutionized-the world or capitalism?

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 lefts 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 tranceinducing means) arose at a precise political moment when "the spirit of "68" had exhausted its political potential.

At this critical point in the mid-Vos, we witnessed a direct, brutal push-towardthe-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 sociopolitical 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. …