The Ghosts of 1968

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. 

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8 Responses to The Ghosts of 1968

  1. jadan says:

    Hard to see how the eruption of the Red Guards circa 1968 was the destruction of the Maoist status quo and how this constitutes “a catastrophe of injustice and destruction without precedent”. It was a fulfillment of the Maoist collectivist idealism which proved so counterproductive that It opened the way for Deng Xiaoping and the “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” that we see today. It may have been necessary to slaughter 10,000 people at Tienanmen Square when the liberalization went too far, but state control is essential to sustain a population of 1.5+ billion. The same dynamic exists here. The “Peace&Love Movement”, the anti-war movement, the “cultural revolution” that happened around the world, resulted here in assassinations and suppression of those who threatened the power of the state with demands for democratization. The evolution of the surveillance state was the result. Democracy was the victim. Those in power today regard democracy as the Founders did: a threat to law ‘n ordure. That has not changed since 1789. The difference between 1968 and now is that 50 years ago democratizing leaders were systematically murdered, whereas today, there are no democratizing leaders to kill. If the people cannot take control of the state that exists in their name, we have no future worth living.

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  2. Zartan says:

    There is only one way to save this world. The American people need to form their own party and crash the party on wall street. Place them under “citizens arrest” as enemies of the state who have bribed and corrupted your officials, participated in illegal war, and placed the nation in danger.

    You would win, America.

    The only way to lose is to do nothing. Pass the Word.

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    • nomadd says:

      the only problem with that is that the american people are sick. the party they would establish likely to be diseased as well.

      • Zartan says:

        We are all sick indeed; because of their rule ( we are all only human) However, the “common people” are less evil than those who currently rule them. I would trust ( not that I would, but this is hypothetical) the Average Joe before anyone in Washington. I would consider my odds better with the Average? Besides, if you want to live … Well, it is quite obvious that Washington is trying to start a nuclear war. Time is Short.

        We all have our flukes ( myself Included) but it we all do not unite and try to get past them we are Doomed. I am willing to embrace my neighbor “regardless of Color, Gender, Religion, Creed, Habit, ( good or bad) or Criminal Record;” because if we all do not “put aside our differences,” opinions and preferences … WE`RE Universally Doomed.

        • nomadd says:

          i agree. the common man would be better. at least with him their is the potential for a better world. long as he at least tries to heal himself. a slim chance as opposed to the none we have under psychopathic rule.

  3. protestfolk says:

    1968 was also the year that antiwar and antiracist New Left students occupied Columbia University’s campus buildings in late April and May 1968. (See blog post at following link, for example):

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