The spirit of ’68 and its legacy

The street revolts targeted authority and promised liberation from the traditional social order. In today’s infantilized societies, perhaps the only way to avoid a dystopian version of “bread and games” is for the social pendulum to swing back toward personal responsibility – assuming anyone is still interested in such old-fashioned values.

French students confront police on the streets of Paris in 1968
The student protesters of 1968 thought they were liberating people from consumer society, but ended up building a culture addicted to consumption (source: dpa)

In a nutshell

  • The 1968 student revolts sought to “deconstruct” the traditional capitalist order
  • But their rights-based rhetoric promoted an even more consumerist, infantilized society
  • This culture of irresponsibility now poses the real threat to democracy and freedom

Fifty years ago, students in the Latin Quarter of Paris were enraged by authority. Their anger was directed against a university system that was probably too conservative and elitist, but also against the chief of state. For all his trappings of democratic legitimacy, the president of the republic, General Charles de Gaulle, ruled with the imperiousness of a monarch. He also seemed to embody a middle-class respect for the bourgeois order and individual property rights, allowing social inequalities to persist despite an economic boom. Hence, millions of workers joined the student movement in a general strike. Such were the origins of “the events of May 1968,” as the French call them.

After weeks of street fighting, the revolution failed to materialize. Instead, after the government agreed to a 35 percent increase in the minimum wage, De Gaulle dissolved parliament and called new elections, making a fighting speech on the radio that warned “France is threatened with dictatorship.” The vast majority of Frenchmen supported the old general’s appeal to common sense and to safeguard the Fifth Republic. Nonetheless, these events are often said to have opened a new era of “liberation” in France – and the West – thanks to the “social struggle” they unleashed against conservatism and the consumer society. Is this the real legacy of the “spirit of ’68?”

Against authority

Much inspired by the thought of philosopher Michel Foucault, the demonstrators of 1968 saw (illegitimate) “power” and “authority” in everything. A popular slogan was “Il est interdit d’interdire” (“It is forbidden to forbid”). The protests came to symbolize a way to liberate Western society from the conservative capitalist order: new music, freer sex, drug use, deliberative democracy, women’s liberation, anarchist utopias, a rejection of traditional education, and a critique of consumerism. And indeed, it would be unfair to downplay the role of the 1968 counterculture in opening up the conservative society of France – and other Western countries.

In opposition to traditional truths, the rebels ended up propagating a form of radical individualism.

In their passion for the “end of truth” (in philosophy and society) and the “deconstruction” (Jacques Derrida’s motto, taken from Martin Heidegger) of just about everything, one logical target of the soixante-huitards’ intellectual leaders was the traditional order of society. In opposition to these traditional truths, the rebels ended up propagating – despite their ostensible collectivism – a form of radical individualism. An interesting and rather valuable outcome of this cultural shift was a new stress on the “right to be different,” which no doubt helped pave the way for the emancipation of women and the widespread acceptance of gay rights. But it also had serious drawbacks.

First, as many political philosophers have shown, freedom requires rules. Without proper rules, society ends up with the opposite of freedom. Rules derived from traditions might not be perfect, but erasing them usually leads to even less optimal outcomes for freedom – as the French or Russian Revolutions should remind us. The same goes for “real, deliberative democracy” as an alternative to traditional, formal democracy: without rules, it ends up granting power to those who shout the loudest.

Second, the “right to be different” can lead to extreme subjectivism, rendering any form of social coordination impossible. Third, the repeated references of soixante-huitards to Marxism or Maoism, as well as their impassioned defense of violence, are quite paradoxical positions for advocates of freedom and emancipation to hold.

Consumer society

Ironically enough, much of the “liberation” that took place in the late 20th century can be explained by the evolution of consumer society – the very target of the rebellious youth in 1968. Electronics and computers enabled new styles of music; home appliances, processed foods and contraceptives freed women from their traditional roles at home. While the “social struggle” may have spurred more egalitarian redistribution, it was the postwar economic boom and the consumer society that made this redistribution possible, while equalizing access to consumption. Economically and culturally, 1968 was the culmination of a trend that started a decade before, not its point of departure.

The radical individualism of 1968 helped open the door in Western capitalism to a compulsive consumption model.

Another paradox is that the radical individualism of 1968 – best encapsulated by the slogan “jouissez sans entrave” (“enjoy/come without constraint”), essentially a call for freedom without responsibility – helped open the door in Western capitalism to a more intense or compulsive consumption model. With the rejection of traditional morals and their boring emphasis on self-control and delayed gratification, individuals “had the right” to consume now – rather than save and invest. (No doubt the short-termism of expansionary monetary policies and collectivized pension schemes reinforced this deformation.) Those who rejected the consumer society ended up building a culture that was addicted to consumerism.

Entitlement mentality

Another rupture probably generated by the rebellion of 1968, with its rights-based rhetoric, is the “entitlement mentality.” Welfare states had already been around for the better part of a century in the West, but this marked a new departure in socialization. Where consumer society met politics, political demands were generated for more welfare benefits, more protection and more nanny state – what Economics Nobel Laureate James Buchanan used to call “parentalism.”

The notion of a “right to be different” only exacerbated this trend, even if it would have been quite valuable when limited to mere toleration. The possibility of demanding even more rights based on real or imagined differences encouraged bargaining strategies based on victimization and communitarianism – not an atmosphere in which democracy is likely to flourish.

Anti-capitalist protester kicks tear-gas canister in Paris in April 2018 targeted authority
April 19, 2018: The “black bloc” radicals who vandalized shops in Paris last month to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s policies regard themselves as the spiritual heirs of 1968. © dpa

The irony is that this anti-conservative revolt fostered a new kind of conservatism, based on entitlements and social status. These, in turn, created labor market rigidities that increased unemployment, thus generating more demands for state protection. The entitlement mentality was made easier because the real costs of these proliferating “rights” were concealed by the fiscal illusion mechanism (where spending is financed by hidden taxes or public debt), weakening the democratic incentive for citizens to control spending.

Some see here a process of “infantilization” – the very opposite of a mature democracy. The philosopher Pascal Bruckner has identified infantilization and victimization as the two diseases of modern individualism, and they are both symptoms of weakening individual responsibility.

No education

A decade after 1968, the rock band Pink Floyd’s famous chorus “We don’t need no education” echoed these sentiments. Criticizing the elitist educational system, with its centralized, top-down pedagogical methods and its confidence-destroying lack of trust in pupils and students, was understandable and welcome at the time. Students did not want to become “another brick in the wall.”

But where thinkers like Pierre Bourdieu saw the operations of a quasi-Marxist law (the reproduction of the bourgeois elite), the system’s real aim was to reduce social differences by elevating pupils to a common level of knowledge. Personal fulfillment certainly matters, but replacing the old system with a permissive educational supermarket meant “kneeling before individual differences,” as the philosopher Luc Ferry put it.


Facts & figures

Many 1968s

  • China: Popular revolt had erupted two years earlier as part of a fake “cultural revolution” orchestrated from above. Mao’s purpose was to use the young rebels against the state apparatus as a means of staying in power. Many in the West were all too happy to follow Mao’s lead with religious fervor, deeply influencing the spirit of ’68.
  • Czechoslovakia: Youth protests triggered a national uprising, which emerged from an impatience to break free from communist dictatorship and build “socialism with a human face.”
  • Italy and Spain: Student revolts targeted traditional Catholic conservatism.
  • Poland: A relatively small number of students demonstrated for freedom of expression, but were met with police violence. The leaders were imprisoned or forced to emigrate.
  • West Germany: Students demonstrated to improve their living conditions.
  • United States: the “long hot summer” of 1968 stemmed from a revolt against racism, especially after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and opposition to the costly, protracted war in Vietnam. Both sprang from powerful social forces – the civil rights movement had gathered momentum since the late 1950s, while the antiwar movement came of age during the 1965 March on Washington.

Making it easier to pass courses with less effort, banning homework, drastically shrinking the required reading, and more “tolerant” grading was a recipe for decline, even if the changes were made in the name of equality and respect for different abilities. It created the illusion of education while devaluing academic credentials, corrupting the minds of a generation into believing that effort does not matter. This was the surest path to destroying any incentive for self-control and personal improvement. It also had the unintended effect of increasing inequality in education.

Focus on grades rather than on the genuine acquisition of knowledge through hard work is an indirect legacy of 1968. To cite one example, it was decided in the 1980s that 80 percent of French students should receive their baccalaureat – because that was the ratio in Japan. The reform was implemented by lowering the requirements to pass, rather than improving students’ performance to meet the old standard. As a result, too many of today’s university students are unable to write proper French. 

1968 redux

In April 2018, the Parisian students who celebrated ’68 with blockades and pseudo-democratic student assemblies demanded that they all receive a minimum 10/20 or even 12/20 grade on their final exams. Here again we find a conflation of the “entitlement mentality” with the new consumer society. The May Day demonstrations were hijacked by radical leftist, anti-capitalist “black blocs” who vandalized shops in the center of Paris to fight against “repression” – an old 1968 theme.

The long-term political response to the 1968 revolts had an infantilizing effect on democratic institutions.

This is probably evidence that the 1968 revolts had a long-lasting impact on Western culture and politics, even if it did not turn into a revolution. Their emphasis on freedom was an inspiration to open up the traditional social order, but their insistence on the “right to enjoy” instilled a culture of irresponsibility that poses a genuine threat to freedom and democracy.

Between the extremes of a conservative social order, locked in traditional hierarchies, and violent, anarchist pseudo-freedom, there should exist the possibility of a peaceful society, based on openness, freedom and responsibility. The problem is that the long-term political response to the 1968 revolts may have undermined this prospect, through its infantilizing effect on democratic institutions. There is still time to avoid a dystopian, technocratic version of “bread and games,” but only if the pendulum swings back toward self-control, personal responsibility and an empowerment of civil society. The question, however, is whether any significant political or social groups are interested.

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