The New 68ers

Has the Revolutionary Spirit Survived?

Demonstration 1968

The ‘revolutionaries’ of past – a student demonstration on May 24, 1968, in Paris | Photo: Sylvain Cepsyl

In 1968, my mother was at the barricades. She tried to change the world. And I? Where was I at her age? I was at the top floor of a multinational corporation. And all I was trying to change was the amount of money in my bank account.

Who are we, the children of the 1968 generation? Are we just a bunch of cynical, egoistic, lobotomised consumers? Or is there an idealistic spark hidden somewhere deep under the Prada logo, waiting to start changing the world?

1968 vs. 2008

The fact that in 2008, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1968 movement was hard to miss. The media, always hungry for stories, was happy to cover this theme from all sides. Der Standard had a whole weekend issue glorifying 1968. In its 1968 commemorative edition, the Austrian teenage magazine Skip rudely blamed the ‘68 activists for being “just a bunch of smoked up loonies.” Arte TV devoted a few evenings to “the year that rocked the world.” Zagreb hosted a “Subversive Film Festival” showing movies from 1968, and Warsaw is preparing a big international exhibition of art inspired by the movement. We learned quite a lot from all this about 1968 and its battles. But one interesting answer was missing: What did we, the next generation, inherit from our 68er parents? A lot? A bit? Or nothing at all?

Today, forty years later, we find the world in similar shape. The US has started a war hated so much that it has brought millions around the world to the streets. Unfortunately, without much result, which shows that the “democratic” system we believe we live in is dubious. This has resulted in the same wide-spread mistrust in the establishment that our parents felt.

We are also experiencing a similar information revolution – just as in 1968, when television began taking over from newspapers as the dominant voice of news from around the world. Then, it was still too young to be controlled and packaged as it is today; now it is the Internet that is providing the uncensored real-time information from any corner of the planet, an openness whose days too may be numbered.

Just like our parents, we grew up in times of peace, which some tend to blame for the rebellious spirit: “They were just bored” is what you will sometimes hear about the ‘68ers. And as I am writing this, we are witnessing a Russian occupation of Georgia, reminding us of the USSR occupation of Czechoslovakia, resulting in the bloody riots of “Prague Spring.”

Today, there is enough to be unhappy about. We feel manipulated and treated like robots, just like our parents did back then. Consumers are manipulated by the corporations in the name of free markets. Under the pretence of being independent, the media – held in the hands of just a few conglomerates – feeds us pictures of the world they want to us to believe in. Working hours are increasing, salaries and purchasing power are on the decline. Prices are sky-rocketing, people are losing homes, jobs and health insurance. More people are dying of hunger than ever before. The rich are getting richer and both the middle class and the poor are getting poorer. If anything, this is a world of broken dreams.

The Generation of Resignationaries

So, why do we not hit the barricades, just as our parents did? Some intellectuals claim that there is no hope, that we are just another ‘lost generation.’ Under the pseudonym of Camille Toledo, Alexis Mital, ironically enough the 32-year-old heir to the French Danone yogurt empire, wrote Goodbye Tristesse and Coming of Age at the End of History, two books portraying our generation as a generation of resigned, passive, hedonistic egomaniacs. In his eyes, we are a generation of educated liberals who spend their time watching Jon Stewart and reading The Onion.

Instead of resistance, the young, smart, and discontented of today have relegated themselves to unruffled, even enjoyable, complacency. There is no sense to rebel, he claims, because “rejecting the establishment was now part of the establishment’s very foundation,” revolution nothing more than a marketer’s term. Austrian author Robert Misik made a similar point in his book Genial Dagegen, [Ingenious Opposition] in which he showed how quickly the system can absorb any revolution as a trend. Once Naomi Campbell has been seen on a runway wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, many battles have been lost even before they began.

Some blame the sluggishness of our generation on the 68ers themselves. The claim is that we grew up not only witnessing the failure of their upheavals, but also by what they later became: many of the 68er sold their souls to the proverbial devil and ended up serving the establishment they once fought. So for us, there is nothing left but to rebel against the rebels – by not rebelling at all. We have studied so many failed revolutions that we are hardly motivated to start one ourselves.

Others suspect that we are paralyzed before an enemy we cannot see: While the power structure used to resemble a pyramid with a tiny, but visible, top ruling a large base, today’s power structure resembles an hour glass without the sand – because nothing switches sides. The tight belt of middle managers act as a curtain between a massive base of employees and resources and a veiled layer of anonymous stockholders.

Who can fight an invisible adversary?

In Frédéric Beigbeder’s book 99F, the main character kills a US retiree in Florida, symbolically taking revenge for all the wrongs done by corporations largely owned by USA pension funds. It is sad but true – today, for the first time in history, the authority is faceless.

The governments are stripped of their face by leaving their greatest responsibilities to the private sector. And the corporations are an unidentifiable mass of nameless stockholders, who might even be little bits and pieces of our powerless selves.

Many tried protesting, but this proved useless. For years now, street demonstrations such as the anti-globalisation protests at the G8 summits have gathered hundreds of thousands of activists – never achieving any real results. Not only do the pictures of students throwing Molotov cocktails not touch anyone anymore, but the authorities take those protests and hold them up as irresponsible examples of free speech run wild in a liberal democracy.

Francis Fukuyama, the author of a widely read essay “The End of History,” jubilantly proclaimed that we’d reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In short, capitalism had won, and we seemed to have reached the sad point of believing that if there was nothing we could do, why even try?

Now we are stuck minding our own business and making sure we are alright. As a bunch of passive individuals we are, in fact, powerless.

Or are we?

Is There Hope?

As I talked this over with a group of friends, demonstrating my disgust with my generation, someone made an interesting observation: Out of the six people at the table, five have recently quit their safe and well-paid jobs at large corporations to open their own businesses or work as free lancers. In Vienna’s seventh district, they told me, you see small businesses opening on an almost daily basis. We buy local organic products – from food to cosmetics to detergents. Since we had all read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, we have been boycotting big brands and buying anything that can guarantee fairness and is not in hands of a conglomerate. We are critical towards the information served to us by Big Media and are relying increasingly on independent Internet sites. There are more and more housing cooperatives being established around Europe, resembling the hippie communes of the 68 generation, but more successful, perhaps due to the touch of rationality of the new generation. Yes, many of us have become aware of our power not only as consumers, but also as an educated, creative, dedicated workforce.

Are we going to turn this power against the establishment in a silent, broad-based, but unorganised revolution? We may be quiet and self absorbed and passive, but maybe there is hope in our growing awareness.

There are many open questions: For example, how powerful is a silent revolution? How soon will anything independent become institutionalised, leaving us again with little choice? What will happen to the establishment if we really manage to boycott it? Will it change? Will it fail? Or will it simply go and recruit in China?

As children of the 1968 generation, we have only two real choices, it seems: We can try and find the answers to those questions…

Or we can become robots to the masters we will never see.

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