Academic journal article New Formations

Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible

Academic journal article New Formations

Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible

Article excerpt

In the final speech of his presidential campaign in May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy declared 'it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all'. The 'cynical' and 'immoral' left were held responsible for a crisis of 'morality, authority, work and national identity', including a failure of business ethics and the 'morality of capitalism'. Sarkozy said 'I want to turn the page on May '68', because 'The heirs of May '68 have imposed the idea that everything has the same worth, that there is no difference between the true and the false, between the beautiful and the ugly and that the victim counts for less than the delinquent'. (1) The demonisation of the sixties has been a common theme in the New Right for the last thirty years, both in the United States of America and in the United Kingdom. (2) Consequently, Sarkozy's words were greeted with delight by contributors to Freerepublic.com, 'the premier online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web'. (3) Just as Margaret Thatcher wanted to consign socialism to the 'dustbin of history', (4) Sarkozy wants to excise the spirit of 1968 from the social imaginary. But as Kristin Ross says, the discourse about May '68 from June '68 onwards has already met Sarkozy's purpose: 'Discourse has been produced, but its primary effect has been to liquidate--to use an old 1968 word--erase, or render obscure the history of May'. (5) The idea of 'May '68' already emerges as bivalent. Alain Touraine distinguished between the broad phenomenon of a social movement involving widespread cultural changes, and specific political expressions and organisations that erupt from this. (6) Similarly, to talk of the spirit, heritage, or heirs of May '68 conjures a distinctive social and cultural orientation, which was international in reach and sometimes in orientation. The political events in France at the time (the history to which Ross refers) constitute a particular expression of this. In terms of general legacy, it is the broader cultural movement that is most significant, and this that has attracted repeated obloquy from right-wing critics, although it is important that this focus on the wider movement does not itself obscure historical specificities. This essay argues that the spirit of '68 in this broader sense of utopian energies in Europe and North America has been largely extinguished and survives only in vestigial forms; and this is a disaster, not only for those who do not do well out of unbridled capitalism, but for our collective capacity to address the current environmental crisis.

soyez realistes, demandez l'impossible

The iconic situationist slogan painted on the walls of the Sorbonne, 'Soyez realistes, demandez l'impossible'--'Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible --embeds the utopian optimism of the politics of 1968 in France and elsewhere. (7) Whether the actual political situation was more open to radical change in the years before and after 1968 is debatable. In favour of this hypothesis are the revolution in Cuba in 1959; successful anti-colonial struggles such as the war in Algeria, which ended in 1962; the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the United States in 1964, accelerated by Martin Luther King's speech 'I have a dream'; the Dubcek reforms in Czechoslovakia in early 1968, known as the Prague Spring; the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970; the rise of liberation theology in Latin America, and the alignment of parts of the Catholic Church with the cause of justice for the poor and exploited; the resistance to the United States military intervention in Vietnam. On the other side are the potential for nuclear annihilation, most prominently brought to public consciousness by the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the Cuban missile crisis in 1961 and 1962; the brutality of the Algerian war; the suppression of the Prague Spring by Soviet military force in August 1968; the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968; the US-supported military coup in Chile in 1973; the condemnation of liberation theology by the Vatican; and the Vietnam War itself, which lasted until 1975. …

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