Tuesday 8 May 2018

“Convergence Des Luttes” – A Convergence Of Struggles

Is History About To Rhyme? Fifty years ago, exactly, Paris erupted in what looked like (and, by all accounts, felt like) a revolution. Fifty years on, the same groups that convulsed France in May-June 1968 are again occupying universities and participating in mass strikes.

EMMANUEL MACRON will be hoping that Mark Twain was wrong about history. In the French President’s ears, the celebrated American novelist’s famous observation that although history does not repeat itself, it sometimes rhymes, can hardly be reassuring.

Fifty years ago, exactly, Paris erupted in what looked like (and, by all accounts, felt like) a revolution. Fifty years on, the same groups that convulsed France in May-June 1968 are again occupying universities and participating in mass strikes.

There is, however, one feature of the 2018 situation that differs very greatly from 1968. Fifty years ago, the key strategic priority was to extend the political struggle into all sectors of French society. Today, the priority is to draw the divergent campaigns of students and workers closer together. Or, as the French Left put it: convergence des luttes – a convergence of struggles.

That the Left is required to reiterate the most fundamental tenet of collective action: unity is strength; is in many ways symbolic of what was won and lost in the upheavals of May-June 1968.

Crucial to achieving a proper understanding of “68” is accepting that politically it was a colossal failure. Convulsed France may have been by a succession of running street battles between university students and the feared French riot police, mass protest demonstrations, factory occupations and a wave of crippling strikes, but the overwhelming majority of French voters were not persuaded that revolutionary change was necessary. In the snap legislative elections of June 1968, called in response to the tumult in the streets, the government of the day won 353 of 486 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

But, if “68” was not a political revolution, it most certainly heralded revolutionary changes in French society and culture and, thanks to France’s enormous influence on the world’s intellectual and artistic life, our own.

It was in 1968 that the great “metanarratives” of the 20th Century – socialism and communism in particular – began their long, slow fade into the cultural twilight. In the years that followed, the entire modernist project underwent a similar dissolution.

In its place arose a new project – “post-modernism”. The failure of the grand metanarratives to deliver on their promises had encouraged the growth of an all-encompassing scepticism towards any person or party claiming to have a lock on “The Truth”. Indeed, the whole notion that “The Truth” could even be unlocked was subjected to unrelenting challenge. The idea that there might be as many truths as there were people to identify them won widespread philosophical acceptance. That there was just one universal and unchallengeable definition of reality was derided as the thinking of dead, white, males.

With the 1989-91 collapse of “actually existing socialism” in Eastern Europe and Russia, the forces of intellectual and cultural divergence gathered even more momentum. Questions of individual identity in a world where all kinds of boundaries were becoming blurred, or dissolving altogether, became increasingly important, and the prospect of maintaining, let alone forging, collective political unity was rendered increasingly problematic.

In what the French situationist philosopher, Guy Debord, dubbed the “society of the spectacle”, however, one crucial feature of the post-modernist condition had become harder and harder to discern. Capitalism, in the absence of its rival metanarratives – socialism and communism – had grown immeasurably stronger in a fast-changing world where, in Karl Marx’s famous phrase, “all that is solid melts into air”.

Capitalist technology’s frightening capacity to re-define humanity’s self-perceptions hid effortlessly in plain sight: its universal presence making it all the more difficult to see. Not without cause did the American literary critic and political philosopher, Fredric Jameson, describe post-modernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”. If everything can be true, then it becomes increasingly difficult to describe anything as false. If late capitalism’s cultural logic gave us post-modernism, then Donald Trump and his “fake news” can only be its logical outcome.

Except, of course, the social and economic consequences of late capitalism are not fake news – they are only too real. No matter how high capitalism’s apologists turn up the static, the blunt facts of joblessness and/or precarious employment; chronic indebtedness; unaffordable housing; rising poverty and in-your-face social inequality continue to constitute the lived experience of a growing percentage of the world’s citizens – even in its wealthiest nations. The society of the spectacle may constantly be driving them apart, but the inescapable reality of their daily lives is, with equal constancy, generating what the old Soviet communists used to call “the objective conditions” for their coming together.

One of the most memorable slogans of the 1968 “revolution that never happened” was the surrealist graffiti Sous les pavés, la plage! (Under the paving stones, the beach.) It captured perfectly the widespread feeling, especially among the young, that for all its materialistic “success”, the post-war world was one from which everything sensual and life-affirming had been bled out. The attributes that made them human, made life worth living, had been drained of colour; buried beneath tons of grey concrete; reduced to an unbearable sameness. In order to find the beach, they had first to tear up the paving-stones – and hurl them at the police.

Divergence, in 1968, made perfect psychic sense. But, politically, it made no sense at all. Emancipation, if it is to endure, must be a collective enterprise. The students and workers of 1968 only railed against the capitalism of their time in various – albeit highly imaginative – ways: the point was to change it.

Fifty years later, convergence des luttes – a convergence of struggles – is the only slogan that offers any hope of sparking a genuine and enduring revolution.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 May 2018.


David Stone said...

That's a great thought provoker Chris.
How did the generation of Peace marches, Ban the bomb , Flower Power, Hippies and all that wonderful music grow up into neoliberal neocons. My hippy girlfriend never changed her beliefs and neither did any of her children.
What I think must have happened is that throughout western democracies forces have learned how to thwart the will and the interests of the people , rather than that generation en mass evolving into the opposite of what they believed they should be.
As has been the subject of other recent discussion, elected "representatives both here and abroad find they are thwarted by the bureaucrats of the establishment who are able to control elected representatives . And in USA of corse to buy them.
A deep analysis of the basic structures of society, governance and finance is needed and everyone needs to apply themselves to understanding them. Otherwise it's just a constant exchange of inadequately explained contradictory assertions and the bulk of busy people just take an arbitrary pick or tune out.

Tiger Mountain said...

nice overview Chris

perhaps the dust needed this long to settle, regarding the “degenerate workers states” of Soviet era Eastern Europe, for a new appraisal of Marx and socialism, by new generations of people

Post Modernist philosophy has revealed itself as a bourgeois philosophy in practice, whats the old saying–“opportunism means never being wrong”…

jh said...

I was just saying to my friend that when you are older you shouldn't need two mobile phones. My friend then reminisced about life in Invercargill: "we had paths between the houses; you didn't have to walk down the street".
What changed? Would it belong in Emma Espiner's list of progressive achievements?

The complaints about Te Reo being used in mainstream media give me great heart looking to the future. This positive response might surprise some, but I believe we can view these people (and they're always the same people) as the rearguard of progress. As society shifts, they will continue to yap at our heels and protest, but the trend for Aotearoa is against bland mono-culturalism and fearful mono-lingualism. A decade ago it was Māori Television. Today, it's using Te Reo on Morning Report and Breakfast TV and putting macrons in newspapers. In ten years time these things will be completely normal and there will be another battle, which the rearguard will again resist and lose.

My bet is that the left will blame Rodger Douglass. I blame progressives: "diversity is our strength".

jh said...

Quillette has an article about that

greywarbler said...

Even if there is no one truth, and not one way to think, and not one clear unequivocal message, there are goals and values to check each step against.
Ones that humans need more than money and our own bit of capitalism. Is it practical, is it kind, does it indicate respect - short term and long term as well? Are those with me to be trusted to be direct and straight, and loyal to an agreed goal, method and belief. Once their own needs and wishes are satisfied, do they still hold to the group and how much should each expect from the other?

Do they understand the ramifications of agreements, or are they full of verbal diarrhoea which has no depth, no honesty, continual in friendship or annoyance. Are they changeable pigs as in Animal Farm and likely to manipulate the followers and peace-lovers?

So many matters to be considered before committing to a group and a plan.
But once done the assessment was done and an agreed group formed, that would dispel the murky forward vision with diverse paths. Then that sorted, one could go forward till the next checkpoint was reached, then stop, check plan for onward movement.

Personalities and promises and reliabilities are things to hold onto in this fluid time, and understandings of strengths and weaknesses - no blind allegiances. The Day of the Triffids is a sort of analogy. In the end time one needs to be able to find qualities that one can rely on absolutely, and own the faults that will recur in oneself and others. Wyndham's book was about a disaster of blinded people of whom only a few could be helped. Kindness and practicality were the essentials for the ethical human who was forced to use triage amongst those encountered. The blinded doctor saw this immediately and decided terminally against himself. The majority of the blind became either relatively helpless and dependent on others' organisation, or cunning and coercive over other victims, or prey to disease or the flesh-eating Triffids.

greywarbler said...

I'm reading a bit of Cicero at present and the problems he wrestled with in his mind sound very like the ones we still are, now.

He didn't believe in the repudiation of debts which was being strongly pressed for at that time. He said that private debts should never reach proportions which will constitute a natural peril...

"...the nastiest vice in the whole world is greed, and when this occurs in prominent citizens and leaders of the government it is nastiest of all."
He liked the advice to a man who didn't know whether he should give his daughter in marriage to a rich, disreputable man or an honest poor one. The answer was "I like a man without money better than money without a man."

In Robert Harris's book on Cicero 'Dictator', he writes that he followed his principles and gave evidence against Clodius who had been his friend. His friend then carried out a vendetta against him, forcing this principled politician out of Rome then causing his house to be demolished, and pursued him still when he returned till he was forced to flee again. But the promise of safety extended was broached, and Cicero chose to offer his throat to the sword like a wounded gladiator. Would he have done better not to have given evidence, and gone on to be a powerful and good politician assisting his country and people, even if not perfect in his own conscience?

Is this an example of your recent line Chris: "In politics there is nothing more dangerous than a man of integrity who has become wedded indissolubly to an unwise policy."

Tiro Cicero's faithful scribe remembers a quotation, 'Nor will any man's reputation endure very long, for what men say dies with them and is blotted out with the forgetfulness of posterity.'
All that will remain of us is what is written down.

What will remain of 21st century memories when all we leave is shiny discs with their riches of thought and image and music only available to the special scribes who can unlock them? We already know everything important there is to know and yet we reprise the turbulent times of ancient Rome!

peteswriteplace said...

Eastern European communism wasn't socialism - it got lost over the decades. Just communistic dictatorship.

Andrew Nichols said...

Anything to thwart Macron this pompous phoney progressive neoliberal poster boy clone of Tony Bliar will do. Vive la France! Vive la revolution!

sumsuch said...

The self-interest of rich people as a governing system has failed comprehensively. But the people must tha-rumph their rumps before they are gone, and that is another thing.

They've used up the world's excess in the now where it didn't matter so much and cushioned their shit. Witness the emirs in Arabia. If demo-cratist governments had been in power, as they have been in Scandinavia, we would have salvaged breathing space for our grandchildren at least.

Rationalisation, which our minds were always best at, is about to kill us before our rational eyes. Cilled by komfort.

Nick J said...

This emancipation Chris is I assume from joblessness and/or precarious employment; chronic indebtedness; unaffordable housing; rising poverty and in-your-face social inequality

There is rich irony here, in 1968 the West had an industrial proletariat, now we have a bloated middle class that educates itself up the wazoo in ever more specialist ways in order to fill the halls of corporate and government bureaucracy. The workers are no longer industrial, and they subsist, fractured into ever disparate roles.

So to solidarity, I contend that the whole issue is that the educated class are happy to sup at the table with the tiny capitalist elite. They are the apparatchiks of corporate capitalism, something that abhors competition and price discovery.

I'm afraid the the philosophers of 1968 who espoused Marxism were also free riders at somebody else's feast. To keep supping Foucault, Derrida and their like disguised themselves in ever more obscure nonsense to perpetuate their privilege. Post modernism and identity politics resulted with the assumption of victimhood for identified groups. All very academic, all very middle class, none of it an assault on corporate capitalism. The elite subscribe to it as an item of fashion that will never threaten their share holding or bank accounts.

Forgive my cynicism but this whole charade helps no really disadvantaged worker. Note I don't call them victims, their dignity is better than that. Students doing gender studies in "safe spaces" before they end up salaried policy analysts in a government department.....well they are never going to have the life experience of and solidarity with the toilet cleaner. And I'd wager Derrida never cleaned one in his life.

Currently I'd put emancipation on hold.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Post modernism and identity politics resulted with the assumption of victimhood for identified groups. "
The fact that some identity groups were (and some still are) victims of society might have had something to do with that. Remember 1968, when Maori were out of sight in the country in the main, when women couldn't get a bank loan without their husband's permission, when black people were fighting to get the vote in the US, when you could beat up a gay person and people just chortled and congratulated you, when you could hit your wife and the cops looked the other way because it was none of their damn business.
Let's return to that time, when there were no inconvenient social justice warriors, and none of that political correctness bullshit, so you could make racist jokes down the pub and nobody gave a shit. FFS – we've had white identity politics, old identity politics male identity politics for hundreds of years now. But of course nobody sees that as identity politics – it's just politics. I think it's time we admitted that it is. And if we truly want radical change in this country, we are going to have to get away from it.

Victor said...

I was a 68-er and, for some years, wore it as a sort of badge of pride. But looking back half a century, I'm not sure what I was protesting about.

My US contemporaries had the Vietnam War and, in many cases, the possibility of being drafted. My German friends were understandably concerned about the "continuation thesis", which (rather excessively) stressed the continuities between Hitler's Reich and the post-war Federal Republic. My Czechoslovak friends wanted their country restored to democracy and free to decide its own destiny. And my South African friends in exile wanted an end to Apartheid.

But what did I, a pimply recent graduate from suburban London, want? Strip back the self delusions and radical-chic posturing and I suspect that all that was really bugging me was the end of my taxpayer-financed years of laziness and irresponsibility. Yet the world of work for a young bourgeois of those years was hardly onerous or repressive by today's standards.

Meanwhile, all around me, the British working class was enjoying what was probably the best decade it ever had and it's pervasive lack of interest in the ponderous phrases of the lumpen-intelligentsia was ostensibly quite sensible.

I never made it to Paris in '68 but I did get as far as Brussels, where I stayed with my cousin, a highly attractive forty-something woman, who was something of a local celebrity. Young men can be callow and, if the crowd in my cousin's favourite cafe wrongly concluded that I was her "toy boy", that was alright with me

Anyhow, one day, as we hurtled past some official buildings in her snazzy Mini-Cooper, she snorted at the sight of the student masses parading backwards and forwards with their "Make Love Not War" placards.

"What a stupid slogan!" she expostulated,

"What do they know of war or of love? When I was their age, I was in the woods with the maquis. They taught me how to handle a sten gun and how to walk away when one of us was taken by the Gestapo. So, please, Cherie, tell me what can they say to me about war or about love!"

I wasn't quite sure what point she was making. But suddenly I felt like a child.

jh said...

Thus, the original protest led by prominent soixante-huitard Daniel Cohn-Bendit had been for an end to the prohibition on male students entering the dormitories of the women at the University of Paris in Nanterres. A Marxist and a Christian, Cohn-Bendit believed that sexual oppression was a symbol of political and spiritual oppression. In a stunning reversal, we now have student activists across the West demanding universities regulate and police relations between men and women, a switch noted with disbelief by Camille Paglia and other veterans of ‘60s activism. Cohn-Bendit, meanwhile, is safely ensconced in the EU Parliament, leading a group seeking to convert Europe into a single federated state.
What Candice Owens said about blacks -"it wasn't you it was your Grandparents"

Nick J said...

I did say years back I wouldn't answer you GS. I will however ask a relevant question. Who assumes victimhood, the victims or another party? And if it's the latter what's in it for them? Answer that and you might understand that I don't disagree with your examples, and you do say that it's just politics.

greywarbler said...

The problem with identity groups is that as soon as a genuine one springs up, there are the me-toos. Women have improved their situation immensely, viewed as a whole, but the toilet cleaner gets repressed by the female manager who talks about 'these people'. Give an inch to people with a grievance, and they want a mile and don't know when to stop, where fairness lies. (We are lucky that Maori have decided to accept what they have, though they know it is of much lesser value than the market would allocate.)

It's part of that splintering into disparate roles that NickJ talks about. The females who have been sexually abused, who know others who have, who know women's disadvantage still at the lower income end, they are in a state of female grievance all the time and can't be appeased. They have difficulty considering ill-used men's problems and vice versa. The general matters of a fair economy and better deal for all the ordinary people in society tend to get pushed off the lifeboat.

At present it is all the environment, health, cleanliness - there is always a cause that has to be studied, and counted, checked and monitored and agitated for or against. Nothing can be done until the problem is quantified and a budget and target set, and it has to be best practice, high expectations. Just doing better, aiming for reasonable standards isn't satisfactory, there must be great improvement, otherwise there may be slacking. Then the system is set up at great expense that allows for people outside government to carry out the work, with likely slacking, but not being government that is acceptable. People get words when they need firm and responsible and principled government action.

There is a lack of kindness for each other in general, some problem types are adopted as being paramount, and others aren't fashionable or right.
The environment is all now. Also keeping people healthy is the catchphrase. And pursed lips from the middle class, always aspiring to meet their peculiar conformist standards, and criticism of anything different. There is a lot of enjoyment in running down others, life's problems would be solved without the burden of the drop-outs and low achievers. Another more concentrated wave of dislike and disdain and it reaches a level where I glimpse the horrid photos of dumped naked bodies in mass graves from the Holocaust.

I don't find a lot of consideration among the middle class for others, though they will have their favourite causes to donate to. So society can
protest but will they join together with both tolerance and firmness being applied regularly to maintain a solid political entity that offers fairness concern for others, but also responsibility to each citizen to play their part.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Nick. I guess we both get to choose when to engage. I've just chosen not to.

Victor. Your aunt may have been in the resistance, but it doesn't give her any special insight into the Vietnam war or anything else they were protesting about in 1968. My father served in World War II, and for some strange reason – I suspect the idea that the government could do no wrong on foreign policy – he was for the war. We fought about it like cats and dogs. And he never once referred to his war service as an explanation of why he must be correct. He was willing to listen even though we disagreed sometimes very loudly. So I don't think you should necessarily have felt like a child.
And I certainly wouldn't use my experiences in 68 or 80 whatever to put down for instance – the young people who are fighting for gun control in the US. We might feel we can teach them, we might feel they have nothing to teach us, but it's all there's to learn. :)

greywarbler said...

David Stone 8/5
How come we here now? Flower power - idealistic, fantastic, protean, changing in form from mind impulses to real outcomes.

I have of recent years been involved with people with bright ideas for the future planet and people; apparently good systems, but no respect for others when they do not fit or conform to the pattern devised by the in-group.

They lack kindness, generosity, courtesy, and form a clique of like-minded individuals that press forward with their own ways and their own goals and can not be counted on to co-operate or defer to the others. They form a splinter group within the organisation using its resources as much as possible. (It would be similar in a political party where some are doing waka-jumping or breaking off to present as individuals.)

They are two-faced, give the impression of being in agreement, but actually follow their own paths which may be diverging. They will also bend financial guidelines to suit themselves. Eventually it is realised that they cannot be relied on to be good buddies, trustworthy and direct, and considerate. They are separate in their minds not connected and supportive. They cause a lot of time to be wasted, exhaust the goodwill of the activists, cause disappointment and anguish; need to be watched out for and their behaviour noted so that there is a record to unfold as explanation to others when there is a showdown. They can adopt winning, positive attitudes and are manipulative. They don't feel shame, because they have a goal of achieving something noble, unattractive aspects are eclipsed, the end result is all. This by Kant states the case against their behaviour.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that rational human beings should be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else. The fact that we are human has value in itself.
BBC - Ethics - Introduction to ethics: An end-in-itself

Victor said...


She was my cousin.

My comment was about 1968 and the somewhat vacuous attitudes of people such as my then self.

I acknowledged that there were others of my generation with different and more valid corners to fight and I certainly acknowledge that today's young people have these in spades.

In fact, most of the latter group would love to have the security and hope of material betterment that people like me then took for granted and affected to despise.

Victor said...


Rereading your post, you make an obvious point with which I concur. I apologise for responding with insufficient thought and clarity.

I too spent much of the later 'sixties arguing with be-medalled elders about Vietnam. In my view, I was right and they were wrong and that's still my view. I also think I succeeded in injecting considerable doubt into my old man's perception of matters, which says a great deal for him.

But my original post was more about the vacuous, ill-thought-out and essentially emotive views on society as a whole that permeated middle class youth in those days and certainly affected me.

As I say, at this distance, I can't think why all the blather about "alienation" et al mattered to me, let alone how I started to believe that the "Lutte Finale" was about to happen and that I could be part of it.

Do I regret protesting over the Vietnam War? Certainly not! Similarly, the extinguishing of the Prague Spring, the Greek colonels, Apartheid etc. etc.

But, in my case at least, the rest was just hot air, youthful self-importance and a overwhelming emotional self-indulgence and intellectual flatulence.

That moment in Brussels helped me see my day-dreams in a broader human and historical context and may well have been the start of my long-drawn-out divorce from what I now view as my political infantilism. That's why I mentioned it.

Geoff Fischer said...

greywarbler said "Give an inch to people with a grievance, and they want a mile and don't know when to stop". This goes to the nub of the problem with identity politics. If the focus is on the identity of the victim of injustice, rather than the injustice itself, it is very easy for that group to be labelled or label themselves "victim of injustice" without reference to any specific injustice, and thence difficult for others to call the victims to account when they themselves seek to perpetrate injustice. The main thrust of the women's movement these days seems to be to give women the right to exploit and afflict others through positions in the top echelons of the state and capital. No doubt there are much more positive things happening in the women's movement which don't come to attention through the mass media.