1968 - Revolution of Perception

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

Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey, Bielefeld University, Germany

Despite the internal diversity of the movement of ’68, the protests were all aimed at creating a different society in Western countries. The social imaginary associated with it came with new concepts: “Être libre en 1968”, could be read on a staircase of Sciences Po, “c’est participer” [To be free in 1968 means to participate – ed.]. In 1968, freedom was associated with an expanded concept of democracy, the democratisation of all areas of life. Participation was thought to be a means of undermining apathy and indifference and thus breaking the tacit agreement with the existing order. However, a structural change in the institutions was not conceived as something that could originate in the political system. Parliamentary democracy was blamed for steadily “eroding” democracy. It was therefore seen as necessary to supplement or replace it with a non-parliamentary opposition and basic-democratic structures.

The image of the “other” society was not fixed, for there was no final state of utopia for the New Left. Utopia remained in motion, an unfinished, permanent project. However, in the Kursbuch, the [German – ed.] forum of the extra-parliamentary opposition, or on Parisian house walls, core elements of the desired “other” society were outlined with concepts and slogans such as “Association of free individuals”, “real democracy”, the establishment of council-democratic structures along the lines of the Paris Commune, “decentralisation of decisions”, “cooperation instead of subordination”, “reduction of the working day to five hours”, “life without dead time”, “reinventing life”.

How were these goals to be achieved? The transformation concept of the New Left rejected – and this is one of its innovations – the “Two-Step-Strategy” (Immanuel Wallerstein) into the “other” society. Socialism should not be limited to the conquest of political power (political revolution) and the nationalisation of the means of production (social revolution). More recent history, as Gabriel and Daniel Cohn-Bendit argued in 1968, had shown that the abolition of private ownership of the means of production by no means coincided with the end of exploitation, and the conquest of political power merely replaced one new elite by another. The New Left was concerned with power control, the dismantling of power and hierarchies, not the conquest of power.

Instead of the conquest of power in the state, the anticipation of a free self-organisation of society came about through the creation of a “counter-public”, “counter-institutions”, “counter-cultures” and “counter-milieus”. Worldwide, the movements of 1968 produced broad and colourful “counter-cultural spaces”, mostly by occupying cultural institutions (universities, theatres, lecture halls, editorial offices) as well as public streets and squares, but also by founding new communities and kindergartens, alternative publishing houses, magazines, bookstores, law firms, medical clinics, etc.

By accentuating counter-institutions, the New Left detached the political from the state and its institutions. “La politique est dans la rue” [Politics is in the streets – ed.] was a slogan in France. The political manifested itself in discourses that dissolved established patterns of perception and classification of the social world and allowed new criteria of vision and division to emerge. The intellectual New Left and its student support groups thus conveyed a new understanding of politics. The New Left relied on the politicisation of society “from below”. It tied the political to talking and reflecting together in public space.

The occupation of the Odéon in Paris is an example of this. “Imagination takes power” could be read on the walls of the theatre occupied by students and artists in May 68. The aim of the occupiers was not to replace the old government with a new one, nor to just reform the university. It was about more: about a new language, a new way of thinking, a new way of listening; in other words, new forms of communication and lifestyle. As the Commission Culture et Créativité de Nanterre’s policy paper states, the aim was to remove individual alienation through analysis and criticism of a society in which culture has become a commodity and has thus been deprived of its creative and critical potential. In the occupied Odéon, free speech of all – everyone should be allowed to speak – replaced the staged play. Students and workers, housewives, waiters and policemen, members of religious sects and occasionally also paranoiacs spoke out. “Taking the floor” in May 68 was equated in Paris with the “conquest of the Bastille” in 1789. To seize the word was experienced as an act of liberation. Tried and tested in offices and factories, it imparted the “freedom to be free” (Hannah Arendt) and at the same time expanded both the horizon of the political and the space of the possible.

“The political” starts where protagonists call into question dominant schemes of perception and classification and set examples through expressive and subversive discourses, proclaiming the cancellation of the clandestine dissent of the prevailing order. If established ways of seeing can be broken up and a shift of horizons can be initiated, it can lead to a symbolic revolution, a revolution of perception. The New Left, analytically speaking, pursued a “policy of perception” (Pierre Bourdieu in Méditations pascaliennes, 1997) “which aims to maintain or overturn this order itself by changing or preserving the categories by which the order of things is perceived and the words in which it is expressed.” Following the protests in the USA, France and Germany, Herbert Marcuse wrote in Versuch über die Befreiung (An Essay on Liberation, 1968): “Today’s rebels want to see, hear and feel new things in a new way; they combine liberation with the dissolution of the ordinary and regulated way of perception.” He concluded that “the revolution must also be a revolution of perception that accompanies the material and spiritual transformation of society and creates a new environment.”

In the spring of 1968, radical social criticism and critical events created moments in which, as the writer Annie Ernaux writes in Les Années (The Years, 2008) “none of what was considered normal was natural anymore”. “Family, education, prison, work, holidays, commercials, the whole reality came under scrutiny”, “even the words of those who criticised.” “One learned new words, a new way of speaking” and “one was requested to reveal one’s origin, ‘from where do you speak’?”

Experimenting with perceptions is a hallmark of the artistic avant-garde. The New Left adopted this approach with the construction of situations. “The one who constructs situations”, was stated in the magazine Situationistische Internationale (1959), “changes, by acting through his [sic] movement on external nature and transforming it, at the same time his [sic] own nature”. The construction of situations as well as the parallel applied anarchistic concept of ‘direct action’ aimed at the individual and its change in and through action. The combination of individual and collective emancipation strategy – self-realisation and self-administration – was a special feature and was the basis of the attractiveness of the New Left. In their book The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), French social scientists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello classified the innovations that the 1968 movements invented with their social criticism and their forms of protest as a transition from “social critique” to “artistic critique”.
Against this background, the characterisation of the “68ers” as mere “epigones” or “catalysts” of a general democratisation process beginning in the late Adenauer period [Konrad Adenauer was the first German Chancellor after World War II until 1963 – ed.] is not convincing. The transformation strategy and goal orientation of the 1968 movement, its understanding of politics and its criticism of supranational organisations and spheres of power (NATO, American and Soviet imperialism) which transcended the nation-state, eludes this label. With its policy of perception, the New Left, aware of the power of the consciousness industry, shook up stalled world views. It accentuated the priority of the North-South conflict over the East-West conflict. The New Left, which fostered the mobilisation process, pursued a socialist project that transcended both established capitalist society and the transformation concepts of the traditional left.

Finally, three theses. First: Since the 1990s, the movements critical of globalisation have been tied in with the transformation concept of the New Left without following its philosophy of history. Based on the premise that the structures of the future order must be experimentally tested within the existing society, they again rely on the creation of autonomous spaces to test basic-democratic, horizontal forms of communication and relationships. The Zapatistas in Mexico (1994), Occupy Wall Street (2011), the Indignados in Spain (2011) and the Nuit Debout movement in France (2016) are illustrative examples of this. They share with the movements of 1968 the conviction that “another world” is possible and can be achieved without the conquest of political power in the state. The political concept of the New Left, which separates the political from the state, is continued, as is the self-image of being a transnational movement and thus also acting against opponents outside national borders (supranational organisations, transnational corporations, global spheres of power).

Second: This comparative analysis shows that the 1968 movements – across all national differences – were aiming at broadening participation opportunities. Whether autogestion, co-determination democracy, or self-administration, the central demand was aimed at the attainment and expansion of participation and participation rights. Since the 1980s, in political science and political philosophy, debates on deliberative and dialogical democracy have continued the ideas about basic-democratic and participatory democracy, as among others Antonio Floridia shows in From Participation to Deliberation (2017).

Thirdly: At the centre of 1968 was what can be called the “revolution of perception”. A new way of looking at societies, new criteria for seeing and dividing the social world, new patterns of perception and evaluation which should be made possible in order to break open and through the incorporated structures of knowledge that correspond to the objective world. This also includes the refusal of obedience to unfounded claims by authorities.

Cognitive subversion is seen as a prerequisite for social transformation. In the Spring of 1968, radical social criticism and critical events that broke through everyday life and the normal order of things created transitory moments, marked by the emergence of the possibility of the new, the perception of an open time. It is this opening of a space of possibility from which the magic, the charisma of 1968 still emanates. The economisation of all sectors of our society and the social and ecological consequences of globalisation in the spirit of neoliberalism once again challenge us – as in 1968 – to seize the word and revolutionise perception.