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1968: the Big Five O

Photo by Busy Beaver Button Museum | CC BY 2.0

Jerry Rubin, a “founding father” of the Yippies, is widely credited with having come up with the slogan “don’t trust anyone over thirty.”  He no doubt did say that, many times back in the day, but it was Jack Weinberg, another leader of the 1964-5 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, who said it first.

Being old enough to remember a time when that precept rang true, I am finding it difficult to deal with the fact that fifty years have now passed since 1968, the watershed year of the fabled “sixties.”  But even in Trump’s America, facts are facts; there is no denying that the commemorations taking place this year of the events of that year mark “golden anniversaries.”

I trust that I am not the only one who feels this way; that almost everyone who lived through the major political events of that year, as a participant or observer, does as well.

In the United States, 1968 was about race relations and the Vietnam War.  Elsewhere, the concerns were different, but the spirit everywhere, on all the four corners of the earth, was the same.  The imagination was in power.

Many a soixante-huitard, as the French say, has died since then, and many have become decrepit.  By ordinary human standards, 1968 was a long time ago.  Nevertheless, to me and, I presume, to many others, the events of that year feel like they happened yesterday.

The events of fifty years before 1968 felt like ancient history back then.  Is 1968 ancient history for political militants under thirty today?

Oldsters can hardly get inside the minds of youngsters, much less speak for them.  But I would nevertheless hazard that, for example, the high school students now leading the struggle for saner (or less insane) gun laws since the Parkland shootings feel a lot more connected to their counterparts in 1968 than we, back then, did to our counterparts in 1918.

And although it is even more hazardous for an aging white man to speak for young militants of color, I would venture too that much the same holds for them as well – for Black Lives Matter and similar movements in other communities suffering from police brutality and murderous violence.

How possibly could the civil rights and black liberation struggles of the fifties and sixties and the student (and broader youth) movements of that period seem as remote to young militants today – white, black, or brown — as the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and all that followed in its wake seemed to us fifty years ago?

The idea that they could think of events still vivid in our minds the way we thought of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, or of the British and French empires in the decades preceding their dissolution, seems absurd at least to me and, I would hazard, to everyone else who used to be wary of people over thirty.

If I am right about that, why would this be?  It cannot just be because there is less of a “generation gap” than there was fifty years ago, or because people nowadays live slightly longer.

The pace of scientific and technological progress in the ambient culture surely has something to do with it.   Physicists, biologists and others in scientific and technological fields have learned a lot more in the fifty years since 1968 than in the fifty years before.  However, the consequences for daily life – for communication, transport, commerce and so on – have been less far-reaching.  A Rip Van Winkle who just now awoke after fifty years of slumber would find daily life today more familiar than one who fell asleep in 1918 and woke up in 1968.

It is surely also relevant that the changes for which 1968 now seems emblematic had more to do with the ambient culture than geopolitics or political economy.  Beyond the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that people nowadays associate with the sixties, 1968 made gender and sexuality and diversity political issues in ways they had not been before and have been ever since.  But even with the Soviet Union gone, and China careening down “the capitalist road,” the world order is not all that much changed, and capitalism seems as deeply entrenched as ever.

That is one reason why many of the changed cultural understandings and practices associated with 1968 were effectively absorbed back into the old order.  Those changes  had far-reaching social effects, but politically there seems to have been nothing revolutionary about them at all.

On the other hand, in 1918, revolutionary challenges to the anciens régimesof Europe and much of the rest of the world were still unfolding, their political consequences – and world historical significance — only slightly mitigated by the fact that all but one of them, the Bolshevik Revolution, were already on the brink of failure.

Cultural changes matter, but geopolitical transformations and developments in the material world are more consequential by far.  This was well understood by militants in all currents of the historical Left, as it existed from the time of the French Revolution through the decline and fall of the great revolutionary transformations of the twentieth century.

Politics ventures that focus on identity issues don’t cut it to nearly the same extent.  They are not radical enough; they don’t go to the root.

Fifty years after 1968, it is becoming increasingly clear that those of us who have been insisting on this point – and on maintaining the old, ostensibly superseded perspectives that were still current in 1968 — are not quite the dinosaurs we have lately been made out to be.

The more politically active millennials think along similar lines, the more they identify with 1968 and, more broadly, with the historical Left, the easier it will be for them to recover those venerable, increasingly timely, understandings – up-dated, of course, to take into account the many ways that the world has changed over the course of fifty long years.

***

In 1968, there were no smart phones; demonstrations were organized the old fashioned way – by word of mouth, telephone, and mimeographed leaflets.

Nowadays, everyone has smart phones, and everyone under thirty knows how to use them in ways that no one fifty years ago could have imagined.  Even people who came of age in the final decades of the last century have a hard time imagining.

It is not just that things that were done or that could have been done in 1968 (and for many years thereafter) are now doable more rapidly and easily.  It is also, as militants back then understood, that “the medium is the message.”

Pundits marvel at how “media savvy” the teenage veterans of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, are.  They are indeed, but not just because they understand how to use social media better than Donald Trump.

Their skills in that department have put gun control back on the political agenda in a way that it has not been since the late eighties.  Beyond that, however, they are figuring out not just how to use social media to change the national “conversation” and to get candidates elected, but also how to hold the candidates they help elect, in part because they are talking about the right things, accountable to the people they purport to serve.

Even before the Obama era, political operatives had figured out how to use social media to peddle their issues and candidates to voters, and even before Trump’s run for the White House, they had discovered how useful social media could be for spreading “fake news.”

Needless to say, their antics make a mockery of democratic notions of rational, public deliberation and debate. But our politicians have been making a mockery of democracy from time immemorial.

The difference now is that social media accelerate the process – to a degree that suggests the applicability of the venerable dialectical trope about quantity turning into quality.

This is not the whole story, however: digital technologies have made what passes for democracy worse, but they have also made it better — by reaching people more directly and immediately than would otherwise be possible in ways that maintain political engagement when elections are not immediately in the offing.

Social movements can hold legislators accountable.  Organized labor does that to some extent even now; when it was stronger, and the Democratic Party, was less thoroughly owned by Wall Street financiers and boards of directors of major corporations than it now is, it did it a lot more.

The organizing efforts that began with the Parkland students are also about holding elected representatives accountable.   Calling town meetings during Spring Break in districts represented by bought and paid for NRA flunkies was a stroke of genius.  The flunkies refused to show up, of course; their opponents, many of them newly recruited to run for elected offices and therefore still untainted by longstanding connections to the leaders of the less odious duopoly party, often did.

The problem is that, except when elections are imminent, there is almost nothing that citizens are called upon to do.  Even with elections on the immediate horizon, the only thing to do is vote – and perhaps also to encourage others to do the same.

The Parkland students, along with countless other high school students around the country, figured out something else for them to do over Spring Break.  With their social media savvy, they made it happen.

There is much more to figure out, but, thanks to those students, the journey has begun.

In the future, if all goes well, holding representatives accountable will be at least as important as getting them elected.  As per the slogan often heard in demonstrations, this is what democracy looks like.

Notwithstanding the views of the great democratic theorists of the past several centuries, what legislators in self-identified democracies want is seldom, if ever, the public good.  It is some combination of power and money – money as needed to obtain or retain power, and power to be able, if and when the time comes, to cash in on the wealth their connections can buy.

But for that, they need to be reelected, whenever they run again for the offices they hold.

Thanks to successful, “bipartisan” efforts to depoliticize the body politic, all “we, the people” can do to keep a flicker of democracy alive is boot venal, refractory, and corrupt politicians out of office when their terms expire; and even that measure of control is more formal than real when, as is almost always the case, there are no less odious, but still feasible, alternatives.

Elections held at fixed two, four, and six year intervals are as poor a way as can be imagined to hold the peoples’ representatives accountable; it might almost be better to abandon democratic pretenses altogether.

A better, more democratic way would be to force elected officials to engage not just with their “donors,” the people they actually work for, but with the voters, the people they purport to represent.

Media savvy teenagers are figuring out ways to do this; there is a lot that those of us who are longer in the tooth, by a little or a lot, can learn from them.

Who knows but maybe, before long, for the first time since a few months into Nobel laureate Obama’s first term, even such utterly besmirched words as “hope” and “change” will again be possible to say without gagging.

***

This is happening, however, in the aftermath of a break from a nearly two hundred year long historical epoch that 1968 seems, in retrospect, to have culminated.

The end of the historical Left did not entirely come into view until 1989 when Communists abandoned Communism; and then in 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded.  Even so, it would be fair to say that 1968 marked the beginning of the end of the saga; its last hurrah.

After that, there were, of course, additional last gasps, crises and defeats; and then nothing at all except dissolution or, as in China, where some of the old words and governing structures survived, nothing that bore any substantive connection with what had come before.

And so, long established understandings were abandoned and a treasure-trove of historical knowledge was, for all practical purposes, forgotten.

Writing at the turn of the century, Perry Anderson noted that: “virtually the entire horizon of reference in which the generation of the sixties grew up has been wiped away – the landmarks of reformist and revolutionary socialism in equal measure….”

He went on to say: “For most students, the roster of Bebel, Bernstein, Luxemburg, Kautsky, Jaurès, Luckács, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci have become names as remote as a list of Arian bishops…”

This is the world that the Parkland students were born into; the militants of Black Lives Matter too, though their historical connections with strains of the tradition that focused mainly on racial oppression were less compromised by the time their movement emerged.

Thus it can sometimes seem that militants from the so-called millennial generation are reinventing the wheel.  That can be a serious disability.

On the other hand, it can also be a blessing in disguise if what is invented in place of moorings lost corrects for some of their defects.

But, on balance, it is surely less of a blessing than a curse.

After all, in the absence of a mature Left theory and practice, it is hard to see how, for example, problems associated with school safety fit systemically into the larger social and political landscape.

The problem that the shootings in Parkland epitomized is not just that the United States has stupid gun laws – thanks partly to the odd reading that the Supreme Court has given to the Constitution’s Second Amendment, and thanks partly to the lobbying successes of the National Rifle Association, the NRA.

A deeper problem is that the United States is encumbered by a political, economic and military regime that normalizes murderous violence.

But how can this plain fact be appreciated or even acknowledged in the absence of an over-arching systemic understanding of the factors that keep our politics on its present, disastrous course.?

Now that the United States is mired down in perpetual wars against vaguely defined enemies, wars with no front lines where the enemy can be, and often is, everywhere, the violence that we are disabled from understanding becomes increasingly pervasive and deadly.

Connections between the war machine and everyday violence in America were easier to see in 1968 because, at the time, there was still a vast, multifaceted theoretical and political culture that focused not just on immediate problems, but also on their underlying causes and connections.  We don’t have that anymore to nearly the same extent.

Militants on the front lines used to understand these interconnections reflexively; now they have to be relearned.  This is not an insurmountable obstacle to moving forward, but it is a serious, potentially debilitating, impediment.

The task at hand is to overcome that impediment – not just to address grave problems immediately at hand, but also to restore the idea, formerly at risk of becoming lost, that there is a world to win.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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