1968 in 2018: The Resonance of a Rebellious Year

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018 0

Donatella della Porta, Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, Italy

At each of the anniversaries of 1968, the memory of that year has been influenced by the specific current historical context, with the emphasis on violence in 1978, the impact of a pragmatic decade in 1988, the dominance of an aggressive neoliberalism in 1998, and of its crisis in 2008 with the emergence of new student protests. However, never as much as in 2018, has there been a perception that, notwithstanding the many differences, there is a strong resonance with 1968. This is even more true in Southern Europe, where 2018 is a year still impacted by a strong and broad wave of protests that have not only resisted the financial crisis and the humanitarian crisis, produced by austerity policies, but also promoted alternative ways of life as well as political turmoil.

The two dates are certainly located in different historical contexts: 1968 was, in Europe at least, still embedded in the so-called golden age of the welfare state, les trente glorieuses, that had brought about economic growth and, through state intervention, a decline in social inequalities. Instead, 2018 belongs to a long period of recession that hit European countries, with particular intensity in Southern Europe. The financial crisis, prompted by the neoliberal deregulation and so-called private Keynesianism (with easier loans as instruments to keep aggregate demand high), has been responded to by bailing out banks on the one hand and austerity policies, which have substantially reduced citizenship rights, on the other. The political effect has been a legitimacy crisis that has produced a drastic drop in trust in institutional politics, but also the emergence of new parties including on the Left: while other European regions are turning towards right-wing populism, in Greece, Portugal and, now, Spain the Left is in power and is experimenting with new politics and policies. In Italy, the collapse of the two main centre-right and centre-left parties has opened up space for a self-defined “government of change”, formed by the “5 Stars Movement” and the “League”.

Differences notwithstanding, there have been some similarities that make the 50th anniversary of 1968 particularly resonant with contemporary movements especially in Southern Europe. As I will argue, the social movements of the 1960s share important elements with those of the 2010s, in what cleavage theories define as central elements of a conflict: its social base, its collective identity and its organisational forms.

Social bases: Between class and generation
When we look at the conflicts mobilised around 1968, we can notice an intertwining of a class basis and a generational basis. At the class level, the 1960s saw the mobilisation of an opposition to the declining Fordist model articulated in interactions with the claims of an emergent new middle class. In different form in different countries, a specific class position can be singled out for a new generation which perceived itself (just as nowadays) as ‘precarious’ and silenced. The events of 1968 revealed the tensions of the transition from material to intellectual labour in advanced countries, a new intellectual proletariat with distinctive opportunities to destabilise capitalism. The class dimension was particularly relevant in Southern Europe, where 1968 came to represent a critical juncture in the modernisation of what were still comparatively ‘backward’ countries.

At the macro-level, interpretations of the 1968 revolt pointed to transformations in the broad system of interaction between the state and the market, in which the university system was embedded. Demographic and socio-economic trends – such as those which, in the 1960s, brought about a massive increase in the number of students – have been mentioned as promoting the protests, by spreading anti-authoritarian values but also claims for better infrastructure. Similar to recent student protests against neoliberal educational policies, the student activists of the 1960s were opposing bureaucratised universities and were experimenting with radical politics within anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois discourses.

At a micro-level, as research on the former activists shows, a high percentage of those mobilised belonged to working class or peasant families, being the first generation to enter higher education. However, upward mobility was an ambivalent experience as activists noted describing their uneasiness in institutions that were still built for and dominated by a bourgeois ethos, as well as an increasing perception that the massification of university education went together with the declining value of university degrees. As for today’s student protests against a neoliberal higher education system [1], narratives point to the decline in status, with youth as a new social group, characterised as young intelligentsia, but also characterised as a young proletariat which is becoming more and more precarious – a cognitive precariat like the one which is mobilising today. Also recently, protests in neoliberal universities have claimed education as a public good – opposed to precarity in work and life. [2]

Collective identities: Between utopias and new left ideology
The years around 1968 have been described as a Utopian moment, with a high degree of politicisation in the call for radical changes. In the memories of 1968, its anti-authoritarian and libertarian character is often stressed, whereas the quest for social justice is often removed. Nevertheless, as in today’s progressive movements, we find – in the multifarious movement identity – a bridging of claims addressing civil rights, political rights and social rights. Similarly, worldwide, there was the combination of calls for social justice with an opposition to authoritarian structures in general and the repression of political freedom in particular. In Southern Europe the claims for freedom took a very strong political line, targeting authoritarian regimes in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and a still illiberal democracy in Italy.

Then (as now), the student activists addressed the specific problems of the university system in the face of demographic and social transformations. As in recent student protests, since knowledge is not considered neutral, education was promoted against misconceptions of impersonality, selectivity, and useless content. This, however, required alternative contents and forms of learning, including counter-courses, self-education within a collective process, in a critical university. Counter-courses and dissent pedagogy were experimented with, with the aim of developing discussions between equals, producing knowledge, and making culture. However, claims in the educational system also stigmatised social inequalities as the likelihood of finding proper work after university was seen as declining, with a mass university producing expectations of ‘under-employment’. Not by chance, anti-authoritarianism also developed in factories, in the struggle of the young workers. Just as the 2010s, the 1960s saw hope as well as fears, due to relative affluence but also to insecurity through the memories of nuclear destruction and political repression.

In fact, 1968 was embedded in the ideological development on the Left. So 1968 built upon and contributed to a non-sectarian Marxism that is beginning to be revisited today. In Southern Europe especially, the tension between the call for freedom and the call for justice were often resolved in favour of the latter, with left-wing discourses dominating. In Italy, ‘workerism’, with its stress on the workers’ centrality in the class conflict, and the need for an autonomous organisation, had an important impact on the New Left. The rebellious character of 1968 emerged also from a deep denunciation of the immorality of the system. Similarly, in recent years, a search for a new collective identity has been singled out in social movements that have often developed ideological discourses resonant with the New Left’s concerns for social justice and freedom. The various versions of the New Left discourses challenged – in the 1960s as in the 2010s – growing elitism and the increasing power of big corporations.

Organisational structures: Between direct democracy and participation
1968 combined a highly participatory spirit with direct action. Located at the cross-roads of various emergent political streams, 1968 galvanised interactions between different struggles within a global cycle of protest. New organisational and action repertoires substituted old associational forms even in Southern Europe, where protests remained more linked to the tradition of the Left.

As with the acampadas for the anti-austerity protest in the 2010s, faculty or school occupations in the student movement of the 1960s were creative re-appropriations of space, while at the same time expressing a symbolic challenge to authority and creating a free space in which to experiment new ways of living. Free spaces were in fact cherished as moments of elaboration of a different culture. 1968 was not only a protest in schools and universities, however. In many countries, innovative repertoires also characterised labour conflicts with particularly strong mobilisation among young and precarious workers.

Just as the recent protests, those around the long 1968 triggered tactical innovations in the form of actions as in the organisational structures of oppositional politics. This innovative character of protest cycles emerges in a combination of strategies oriented towards putting pressure on decision-makers with the prefiguration of different futures. Then as now, the protests called for democracy against authoritarianism, through an innovative repertoire including direct action. Narratives of 1968 include references to calls for fundamental democracy, radical democracy, participatory democracy, and self-management.
In sum, and different historical contexts notwithstanding, 1968 resonates with 2018 in the search for radical innovation in democracies.

[1] Della Porta, Donatella (2018): Sessantotto. Passato e presente dell’anno ribelle, Milano: Feltrinelli.
[2] Della Porta, Donatella, Lorenzo Cini and Cesar Guzman (forthcoming): The Contentious Politics of Higher Education: The Student Movements Against Neoliberal Universities, forthcoming.