The hope of 1968 that public demonstrations can actually change the power structure has been lost.
1968 was a tumultuous year globally and domestically. The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia–a very mild form of political and cultural liberalization within the Soviet bloc–was brutally crushed by the military forces of the Soviet Union.
The general strikes and student protests of May 1968 brought France to a standstill as demands for social and political change called the entire status quo into question.
On the other side of the planet, the Cultural Revolution was remaking China’s still-youthful revolution, to the detriment of the political status quo, the intelligentsia and the common people.
The U.S.was convulsed with assassinations, civil unrest and mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the political status quo (the Democratic Party convention in Chicago).
Ironically, much of the world was benefiting from two decades of rising prosperity and the demise of colonialism. When expectations exceed actual opportunities, discontent is the result. When the power structure is deaf to the discontent, a cycle of repression and disorder feed on each other.
Fifty years on, the ghosts of 1968 are still with us. With the advantage of hindsight, 1968 was the culmination of the belief that it was still possible for the common people to change the political and social order in a positive fashion– to remake the status quo power structure into something more humane, accessible, just and fair.
The Western status quo bent but did not break. Nothing in the developed-world power structures actually changed. The status quo did break down in China, but the breakdown was not liberating; it was a catastrophe of injustice and destruction without precedent.
A new winter of discontent is chilling the air. Though the current state of affairs seems quite different from that of 1968, the basic context is eerily similar: decades of economic growth have ushered in widespread prosperity, but the benefits and power have gone disproportionately to the few at the top of the wealth-power pyramid.
The status quo power structures are deaf to the discontent of the common people, and respond with blandishments (Universal Basic Income, etc.), propaganda and a spectrum of repression.
In the context of 1968+50=2018, Chris Hedge’s incisive essay from 2010 bears re-reading. 2011: A Brave New Dystopia (truthdig):
The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.
We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.
It’s also worth re-reading Mario Savio’s extemporaneous speech to the Free Speech Movement’s sit-in on December 3, 1964, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Though the speech predates the Prague Spring and the Paris general strike by four years, it embodies the core dynamic of those social uprisings: the system itself is fundamentally flawed, and we are the raw material and product that keep the system operating.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
The hope of 1968 that public demonstrations can actually change the power structure has been lost. The ghosts of 1968 inform us that there is no reforming the status quo power structure, there are only simulacrum reforms that fulfill the PR requirements of being seen as effecting reform. But people are losing faith in do-nothing policy tweaks; those tossed aside as detritus by the winner-take-most status quo realize the system is failing not just those on the margins but the entire citizenry. Those who look at the stripmined seas, polluted air, depleted soils and aquifers know the system is also failing the planet.
The system needs us as raw material, as “product,” as consumers of the output of the machine. That we are consumed by the process–that awareness has faded into the shadows inhabited by the ghosts of 1968.