Academic journal article New Formations

After '68: Narratives of the New Capitalism

Academic journal article New Formations

After '68: Narratives of the New Capitalism

Article excerpt

WHOSE REVOLUTION?

Most commemorative commentary on the legacy of '1968' revolves around a now familiar set of issues. (1) It asks how far the putatively revolutionary aspirations of the radical students and (to a lesser extent) workers--who demonstrated, occupied and fought with police across the globe during that year--were realised. It speculates as to how far those revolutionary aspirations were ever authentic, and how far they were 'really' just a cloak for an as-yet inarticulable set of desires for new freedoms: freedoms which post-Fordist consumer capitalism would go on to fulfil more satisfactorily than any form of socialism ever could. This essay will begin by revisiting this set of problematics, but in an attempt to go beyond them, by considering some of the issues in terms of the much wider question of how the evolution and emergence of contemporary capitalism is understood. It will argue that an understanding of the significance of '1968' remains fundamental to any historical narration of the mutations in capitalism of the late twentieth century. It will also argue that one of the reasons that '1968' has proved to be such a confusing event for subsequent commentators to narrate, and such a provocation to oversimplification, is that it was a moment whose specificity and consequences could not be understood in terms of the rather simplistic understanding of the social dynamics of advanced capitalist societies which was prevalent across the political spectrum during the middle decades of that century. Ultimately, it will suggest that any account of social change which escapes these simplicities must, by the same token, draw our attention to the continued indispensability of an anti-capitalist critique to any meaningful democratic politics.

The striking fact from which this discussion starts is this: the world of today is not the one that the radicals of 1968 hoped to build by any means, because it is one in which the requirements of capital accumulation continue to organise most areas of social life across the globe, generating massive inequalities and condemning many of the formerly colonised peoples to extreme poverty, ruining the planetary ecosystem and subjecting millions in the 'developed' world to stress, overwork or poverty; and yet the culture of today's capitalism is different from that of the mid twentieth century in ways which seem to answer with strange precision to some of the demands of those protesting voices. The rigid hierarchies and narrow career paths of classic corporate culture have given way to the networked world of 'flat' management, rapid promotion, flexible working and short-term contracts, offering far more freedom of movement, far more capacity for self-development and self-expression than was available to the 'company man' of the mid twentieth century. To the successful, a 'portfolio career' today offers the kinds of opportunities for travel, autonomy and variety which once only typified the working lives of creative artists or certain kinds of politician. (2) Professional women have opportunities barely imaginable thirty years ago, and the entire education system has been transformed beyond recognition by the presence and success of girls and women at every level, as have a number of key cultural institutions such as the publishing industry. The social liberalism of contemporary culture, with its toleration of diverse lifestyles and modes of sexual expression, its valorisation of cultural and religious plurality, would have amazed and delighted the most imaginative libertines of almost any previous generation. The official embrace of multiculturalism was a long way off in the days when Enoch Powell could give his 'rivers of blood' speech (3) and not assume it to be a political suicide-note, but now few public institutions or corporations can avoid paying lip service to it, at least. The deference which once characterised relations between members of different classes or between juniors and seniors within all kinds of institution, is today long gone, even out of the memory of younger generations. …

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