In the month of May, in 1968

Marco Buti, Via


Reflections on the meanings of the events of 1968.

In Brazil

I followed the events of May 1968 as a young professor of philosophy at the faculty on Rua Maria Antônia. As a newcomer, May collapsed in my first semester of teaching. It caught me, therefore, by surprise, still insecure in the exercise of the new office, terrified of not being up to the trust of my elders. Contestation in that school atmosphere of compliance, no way, just because of inertia or mimicry. By the way, contest what? Even the “leaderships”, as they used to say, of the movement for a critical University, were a bit of a mixed bag.

With the usual exceptions, everyone was reasonably against the military dictatorship and the mediocre ambient conservatism that had awakened it in the drowsiness of the barracks. However, in favor of the good courses offered, especially when compared to the dull life of the big schools. In the case of my department, for example, the students – in addition to palpitating in management, which they soon gave up as soon as routine replaced the agitation of the first weeks of occupation and strike – wanted less Plato and Bergson and a little more Marx and Lenin , but studied according to the usual philological methods.

I don't mean to say that the climate was mild in the midst of the usual ideological chatter. On the contrary, there was a lot of apprehension, because the repression could subside at any moment, as in fact happened with the burning of our building and the death of a student by gunshot.

Under those conditions, it really wasn't possible to understand much, to say almost nothing, without wanting to take it out on the relatively peaceful environment, although exasperated by the still poorly assimilated backfire of 64, which was undoubtedly due to my personal ineptitude. Our sociological luminaries also kept saying that all that was going to come to nothing, whether in Paris or in the Brazils (I don't know if that was Lamartine's rhyme in Joujou and Balagandans), perhaps because they wanted it that way along with the CGTs of life.

It was fashionable, moreover, in the highest echelons of Mariantoneesque knowledge – a primer for which I prayed with sincere pity – to criticize poor Marcuse, for lack of rigor, of course. The Great Refusal wasn't really up to us: with luck we would get rid of the dictatorship and try to find a way out for the country, unfortunately pro-systemic, since the anti one, burned by the Soviets, could only lead to nonsense, to say the least.

But speaking of Marcuse, there were quite a few quid pro quos about him. It was successful in radical circles of readiness for armed struggle as a proletarian vanguard maneuver, but its main book demonstrated how late capitalism was recovering (in the Gaucho jargon of the time) and reverting into its opposite all the qualitatively new subversion tendencies of the system; but, on the other hand, when he admitted the breach, the so-called fundamental classes would not pass through it.

Returning to my zero understanding. Sympathized, but saw nothing. So when Roberto (Schwarz), in a memorable essay, recounted what we had all experienced, I was embarrassed by my myopia at the time, aggravated by our philosophical horizon. It wasn't for nothing either. The world syndrome known as Parisian May '68 had erupted among us on a stage that was ardently oppositional, a largely hegemonic but socially confined left-wing culture, preaching for converts: contestation in closed (and crowded, as in song festivals or theaters) only it could exasperate Homeric misunderstandings. Just remember Tropicália's subversive way of transforming counterculture into commercial appeal. Or the new left rehashing old slogans: from so-called social art to democratic centralism.

De 1789 a 1968

If 1789 is the outcome of a long struggle between capital accumulators for capital accumulation (the usual absurd end in itself) and not a “progressive” struggle between “modernity” and “backwardness” (feudal, in this case) and if, moreover, taking certain liberties with the so-called period of primitive accumulation, we consider that in 1789 it had been at least three centuries since the main institutions of endless accumulation, characteristic of capitalism as a historical system, were already in place (from the unequal and polarizing world division of labor to interstate competition for the benefits of accumulation), the vision of capitalism emerging from the transition from the Old Regime to the new bourgeois order, etc., is at least too narrow: all this to say that, in this line of reasoning (which I'm adopting it provisionally, just to test people's “oppositional” imagination, because after all, if it weren't for that, it wouldn't have any relevant meaning, plus this routine ephemeris, the thirty years of 68) 1789 was a “systemic” arrangement between the same dominant strata that three centuries earlier had successfully reversed the trend towards relative economic egalitarianism that was announced with the collapse of medieval Europe.

In other words, a great anti-systemic upheaval like 1968 cannot be part of the same series inaugurated in 1789. Counterproof: not by chance, going around the world, what started in 1968 (and didn't end in 1968, a flash in the pan that didn't work nothing), in addition to being anti-imperialist, it also opposed the old left, which from the beginning had aligned the “proletarian revolution” with the historical perspective of the “bourgeois revolution”. Now, anyone who thus opposes the inherited idea of ​​“progress” as a cultural matrix that legitimizes historical capitalism is undoubtedly, whether they like it or not, signaling that the inherited political form has reached its historical limit.

As I cannot expand on another commonplace, the “new social movements”, etc., I recall another point, within the same explanatory model that gave rise to the question: the series that culminated in 1968 and ended there began with the first anti-systemic rebellion of modern times (pax britannica), 1848: the current disintegration of politics as an autonomous sphere, now swallowed up by total commodification, means that the old progressive choreography, the pas de deux or pas de trois, conservative reaction, (hegemonic) liberalism and its radical derivation, socialism, also failed to mark out the social war between accumulators of money and power and the various classes that slip (or alternate) to the common bed of alienation and exploitation No Boundaries.

Having said that, I think it would be good to remember that 1968 opened almost a decade of social struggles, and that it was only actually buried by the conservative liberal counterrevolution. Reagan-Thatcher wouldn't try so hard to break the back of a supposedly dead union movement! The seed of globalization (or whatever name is given to the fraudulent dictatorship of the financial markets sustained by the resumption (…) of American hegemony) was planted in response to the crisis of governance (in the conservative meaning of the formula) triggered in 1968 (the fiscal crisis of the State does not just have endogenous economic roots, Fordism did not explode solely due to its success).

Even our peripheral “miracle” has to do with international liquidity looking for profitability blocked in central countries; and even our 1978 ABC on strike can be seen in line with the turbulence of the 70s (combat unionism etc.), perhaps more crucial than the 1960s. If these impressions make sense, the famous systemic adherence of the work, co-opted by the benefits of the welfare state, needs to be recounted. As well as the impression (...) that we would live again (as Marcuse thought in 1964, opening the one dimensional man) in a society without opposition. This is not to say that the timing of a wave's arrival does not remain a surprise.

The French Ideology

As immortalized in a famous article by Viansson-Porté in Le Monde by March 1968 (things were starting to boil over in Nanterre), France was dying of boredom. On the intellectual side, this boredom was expressed in the false gloss of structuralism, a professional revenge, not by chance epistemologizing (alas!), against the free manners, the amateurish lack of decorum of the “existential-Marxizing” transformation of post-war French intelligence.

As two centuries earlier with the Enlightenment, 1968 trampled over structuralism's scathing ruminations against history and other similar diachronies. The French Ideology itself came to administer the spoils of the breach in 1968, of course reneging on the previous phase. Overnight, everyone became Gauchists... and anti-Marxists, because after all, the famous working class refused fire at the moment of the great turning point: they had then "desired" "voluntary servitude".

This far-fetched fabrication was the green light for all sorts of theoretical fantasies about Power (a substitutive metaphysical entity), of “energetic capitalism”, which, however, invited the affirmative alienation of drives and other sublime cleavages. And this while the world was changing its axis (the dynamic pole of accumulation threatened to move to Asia and, meanwhile, the Parisian Maoists were delirious in the Vincennes zoo).

Then came the Reagan-Thatcher stride and the apotheotic rise of money to the skies: the imaginary third-worldism of the previous period was denied (difference, margin, etc.), disciplinary society was miraculously reformed, the post-modern condition was discovered. -modern as the farming solution, Foucault rediscovered ethics, the subject and the stylization of existence, etc. Without thereby giving reason to their opponents – who, incidentally, coined the pejorative formula “half-eight thinking” – who rediscovered the Europe of Husserl and Habermas as the cradle of Theory, the last refuge of (European) humanity in the face of the (remedable) pathologies of the new order worldwide etc. etc. In hindsight, there was even a bit of a radical impetus in that 1970s, even – sifting through it well, of course – to feel nostalgic when one observes the dullness that followed in the adjustment of the Mitterrand era.

From where you can see that the divorce, or mutual lack of knowledge, could not be greater, between the underground of decomposing Fordism and the pirouettes of post-structuralism, or else everything to do, taking the thing from the other side: who guarantees me that the Was not the microphysics of power an involuntary theory of the vacuum left by the collapse of Keynesian modernization before the return to order in the form of an endless commentary on the end of grand narratives, etc.?

In short: to avoid amalgamation, nothing in common between the premonitory criticism of the system then in full expansion as one reads in the work of the Situationists, in particular in the society of the spectacle, by Guy Debord, there is nothing in common between this irrecoverable author who in fact anticipated the rupture of 1968, and the stylization of his later decay, for example in Braudrillard's musings about the “simulacrum”, a bastard concept that not by chance is the result of from the plundering of the situationist notion of “spectacle”, in turn derived from the materialist critique of political economy in its early days.

The Meanings of May 1968

A library has been written about May 68, but we still know little, and less and less until we decipher the current crisis, the key to the periodization that will allow us to subtract that world upheaval from the empire of clichés, it doesn't matter if it's for or against (I go as far as prefer the opinion of conservatives to the usual celebration). Even in the 1970s, the idea began to spread that the May explosion had simply opened the door to the Americanization of France, until then entrenched in its exceptionality.

I won't say no. See if I'm abusing it, if it's too dialectical for the ox to sleep: an anti-authoritarian revolt, an explosive demand for the right to difference as the end of all alienations that at the same time spread mercantile relations throughout the entire extension of the social field, as if the productive apparatus was colonizing the social energy that was released in the struggle against it. On the other hand, nine million strikers for three weeks in a central country is no small joke. How we stay? At the same time the biggest anti-Fordist mass rebellion and the consummation of Fordism in the Grenelle Accords of June 1968 – at least that is the scenario of the French “regulationists”.

It doesn't hurt to follow the script of the “regulationists”: Great Mass Refusal of Fordist regulation in all its forms (in parentheses: the fully administered society that Frankfurtians considered a frozen monolith); gradual alignment of the new social movements of the post-68 years with the left of the Fordist commitment, whose notion of social progress precisely implies an increase in mass purchasing power and, consequently, an extension of the kingdom of merchandise at the same time that the welfare state decommodifies a a fundamental portion of the workforce, but via administrative means and therefore a new round of alienating frameworks; in 1981 all together in the basket of a new common program come to power; less than two years later, the famous Fordist compromise was in a coma and retrospectively, May 68 was the sign that its material base had begun to sink.

The 1980s counterculture was caught on the wrong foot: the crisis of the XNUMXs – the conservative adjustment to a new global hegemony that had buried “development” in favor of the non-negotiable norm of a “solvable” economy –, seen again in retrospect, reveals a movement contestation of ideas and behaviors piling up libertarian arguments in favor of liberal-productivism before its triumph. At the time of the latter, the adaptation will come naturally as it does not need to disown the old staging of rebellion.

See then the Cohn-Bendit case. If anyone wants to demoralize the movement of May 68, just follow the gestures of this high character. Which comes into play in Nanterre and later in the successive nights of barricades and crowded amphitheaters with an amazing sixth sense for timing of the media; today a European hero of market society and illiterate slander of the only “philosopher” who understood what was at stake in 1968 (Marcuse).

Well then: everything happens as if a kind of objective irony (that's what capitalism is after all, or rather, it has just passed from irony to the stage of objective cynicism) permanently converts the situationist critique of the society of the spectacle into its opposite: After all, what was 1968 if not, or also, a Great Show? Now, the nominee Dani Vermelho-Verde, ambiguous from the start to the roots of his hair, what did he do but catch up – and manipulate, as a result – with the spectacular nature of every political act after the end of the classical political sphere that, precisely if presented as such, integrated to the mercantile order, in 1968?

Counterproof, moving from the organic core to the periphery: nothing more similar to the commercial provocation, however nonconformist of Dany Furta-cor, sometimes red, sometimes green according to the tide, than the cultural alpinism of our ideologue of Verdade Tropical, who maneuvers ( …) as a born “statesman” from the lowered style of pop to the elevation to the condition of a national cultural hero, ten thousand meters above the left and the right, seen from that height as indistinct and surpassed.

Idem ibidem FHC, but in the opposite direction, from the heights of USP's Marxism to the tropicalist mass grave in which he waddles, singing the force of destiny in the lowest category riding stables (…). (…) (from old Varguista France) due to the expansion of merchandise.

*Paulo Eduardo Arantes is a retired professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Formation and deconstruction: A visit to the Museum of French Ideology (publisher 34).

Article based on an interview given to Ricardo Musse. A selection of excerpts from this interview was published in the notebook most! from the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, on May 10, 1998.


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