‘To the Edge of Freedom’: May ’68 and Now, by Alison Caddick

Fifty years since May ’68, and the promise, as it was understood then, of freedom. From what, and to what? The unfettering of the imagination was one cry, the flowering of the social capacities of human being another. Here was the definitive opening to ‘make our own history’—to defy the experience of alienation that was now a condition of student life, not just that of the factory. It was a revolt, or revolution, that sought to defy the structures of the received political Left as much as it was a rejection of the structures and effects of (late) capitalism. At least, this was how it largely understood itself: a revolt against authority, a flowering of possibilities, the chance for individuals to become ‘whole’. It was believed that, starting in the ‘nerve centres’ of society—the universities—this completely novel form of revolt would flow out to destabilise the whole.

Commentators on the spot like Tom Nairn and Angelo Quattrochi (in their stimulating book The Beginning of the End) celebrated the students’ bravery and determination on the streets of Paris in the face of a repression only the French know how to administer. Past masters indeed: comparisons with the resolve of the communards of 1871, and then their bloody repression by the authorities who would become the Third Republic, were clearly in the minds of observers at the time, not to mention the Parisian bourgeoisie.

It was a battle that started with teach-ins and mass meetings that moved into the streets, stretching over six weeks, with wave after wave of street fighting and counter-attack. In responding to the spirit and the message of the student radicals and other youth, and against the repressive response of the state, workers also went out, over seven million of them. Commerce, industry, public services—all came to a halt (the City of Light was intermittently plunged into darkness by the action of electricity workers). Government and state were likewise plunged into crisis, while the official left (communist) union’s grasp on worker sentiment and action came perilously close to being entirely broken.

Involving students at universities in various French centres, but centred on the Sorbonne, May ’68 took everyone—observers on the Left as much as the Right—utterly by surprise. A spontaneous uprising and largely leaderless movement, it was not meant to happen, certainly not by any judgment on the Left as to how ‘revolutions’ might any longer take place. The originality of the protest and action was that it was a revolution led by students, not the oppressed in any recognisable sense. Here was the most privileged of any social group anywhere in the world: white, metropolitan, middle-class young people apparently destined for high office and comfortable lives. What could they possibly know about alienation? How could their ‘imaginations’ possibly be constrained?

Various contingent factors had contributed to building discontent. There had been a huge increase in student numbers in France in the preceding decade—from 170,000 to 600,000, with 182,000 in Paris. Overcrowding in the institutions was rife, and facilities poor. The French higher-education system was rigid and authoritarian, and similarly the world for which these young people were destined—supremely bureaucratic, elitist, hubristically ‘rational’. Tom Nairn notes that of all the Western nations, France offered the least opportunity for participation in meaningful democracy, a consequence of France’s deep conservatism, top-down technocratic state and economy, and its leadership from 1958 in the form of a Great Man and military general, de Gaulle.

But Nairn more importantly poses the larger question, which steps beyond discontent as an explanation for the actions taken to aspects of the larger, emergent social reality. The revolt is neither contingent on particulars nor is it primarily ideological, or we might add ethical, although both those dimensions are present. ‘Everything suggests’, Nairn says, that ‘society has secretly transformed itself’, that reality has, as fact, shifted ‘under our feet’. Discontent has purchase, and may be turned into self-conscious demand and collective outlook only because the originality is in the new structures that produce students as potentially the actors they have become.

Of great interest to us today, Gaullist reforms to the university in this period were intended, in the authorities’ own terms, to ‘industrialise the university’ so as to produce the needed quantities of brain power for a surging technocratic capitalism servicing the new commodity industries: for the planners, managers, technicians and emerging ‘creatives’ (for example, in the advertising industry) specific to this form of capital. Authorities conceived of universities as ‘brain factories’. Alienation was indeed possible, then, in the social grouping ‘students’, especially as against humanistic notions of what the university was for, and given dormant traditions of dissent and revolt that might help formulate politically the meaning of felt ‘alienation’. But that they had already become potentially the actors they would be, with a new meaning within, and the capacity to represent back to the social whole (to other social groupings) changes in the substance of the real, goes further than any explanation resting on ‘alienation’. The paradox of being—of having the capacities of—what you don’t yet know you are relates to material processes that implicitly shape consciousness, and constitute new subjects.

Neither alienation nor the metaphor of the brain factory adequately explains the novel intersection of education, economy and the person, or the consequences of that intersection in the postwar period—of postwar reconstruction, a baby boom, commodity capitalism and rising new technologies. Alienation became a preoccupation of some humanist Marxists in the 1960s and seventies; others argued for the proletarianisation of the intellectually trained. But such views remediated the new to old frameworks. In the former case, an essential human being was again being deformed by capitalist economy, if in new circumstances. In the latter, a new militantism was promised but in the same ‘classical’ form as that of the modern working class.

Others, like Marshall luLuhan, had already begun to see distinctive novelties in the 1960s context, which challenged any such harking back to previous understandings:

The aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology… Every culture and every age has its favourite model of perception and knowledge… The mark of our times is its revulsion against imposed patterns. We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally…

This kind of statement fits well enough with cries against alienation, but McLuhan’s point is that a new culture is emerging. The divisions of the old are far less important than what seems to be shaping a new sensibility—psychological, aesthetic, technical. It is not so much that declaring one’s being totally is denied as that the age of ‘electric technology’ makes this kind of being possible, and constraints placed upon it from earlier formations must give way to it. In the notion that the medium is the message, the title of McLuhan’s 1967 book, the shift in consciousness is not accomplished by ideology/ideas/message (the past role of intellectuals in service of other interests) but rather through the shaping power of communicative media as such. As the role of the university trained shifts within the institutions and within industry, communication in its own right is seen to enter the manifold of forces that shape life.

Here, then, in Paris, in one of the heartlands of the Western tradition/logos, in one of the oldest universities in the world, there seems to have been a sense that the whole of existence was being newly lifted into the political. That one might declare one’s whole being. The anti-establishment, anti-authority and anti-conformist tendencies of the 1960s would bleed through all the disciplines and all the social institutions, and new political formations in the new social movements of the seventies would come into being and change the agenda of all progressive politics (the personal is the political). A diversity of social theories have attempted to comprehend this basic shift, Jürgen Habermas from quite different grounds introducing communication, too, as an independent fundamental, and arguing that the very ‘grammar of life’ was what was now at stake. May ’68, together with the student uprisings that took place across the metropolitan West, was the first, intense efflorescence of political desire that erupted through the constraints of the old to declare itself as a (relatively) self-conscious movement of the new.

But with fifty years of hindsight we can ask if this was the ‘beginning of the end’, as hoped by the radicals of the day, or a marker of the beginning of the entrenchment of new powers and even a misrecognition of the form of the person then being installed. It is not just that techno-capitalism would take on the harshest neoliberal forms only years after 1968, or that the electric technologies of McLuhan would lead seemingly inexorably away from the romanticised ‘Madmen’ of sixties advertising to the forms of surveillance and communicative capitalism focused on in this issue of Arena Magazine. Both these developments indicate a limit on understanding at the time, and are deeply disturbing set against the hopes for freedom of the late sixties. But what seems like a reversal of those hopes may not indicate the most enduring aspects of what was felt, and was coming into being, however inchoately, beneath the surface of that reconfiguring world. The call to imagination and individual creativity, to the breaking free from constraint and authority, as others have pointed out, would be key elements of the ethos and practices of the emerging industries themselves. Intellectual training and creativity are factors of production and integral to a new calculus of value—in all senses.

As Arena writers have long pointed out, the specific powers and mode of connection of the intellectually trained are integral with techno-capitalism’s widening application of the commodity form via the sciences and the culture industries to elements of both culture and nature once held at a distance from the workings of capitalism. Certainly, fifty years after May ’68 we are faced with the conundrum of the ‘student’, as with the intellectually trained generally, being almost totally subsumed and enmeshed within the neoliberal university-industrial-culture complex as consumers on the one hand, and as (often grossly aspirational) workers in a system that demands of them both body and soul. Far from any apparent desire, even if ultimately illusory, to ‘declare their beings totally’, or to explore how our being might be better materialised in a world of our making, they are more likely to take up the sop of the highly channelled means of self-curation offered today by Facebook and the reputational economy—only the latest of new media solutions to the problem of the fragility of the contemporary subject.

About the author

Alison Caddick

Alison Caddick is Editor of Arena (third series), was co-editor of Arena Magazine and is an Arena Publications Editor. With a background in the history and philosophy of science, politics and social studies, she writes on techno-science, the body and prospects for social and cultural change.

More articles by Alison Caddick

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.