This month is the 50th anniversary since the events of Paris 1968 — and the ambition of those nights of cobblestone, barricade and teargas is something we must rediscover.
The rue Gay-Lussac still carries the scars of the ‘night of the barricades’. Burnt out cars line the pavement, their carcasses a dirty grey under the missing paint. The cobbles, cleared from the middle of the road, lie in huge mounds on either side. A vague smell of tear gas still lingers in the air.
There is a certain romantic aura to this post-riot description by Maurice Brinton, writing from the streets of Paris in May 1968.
The highest ebb of France’s late-’60s surge in social rebellion marks its 50th anniversary this year, when first students and then workers broke with the status quo to create a temporary bubble of resistance, not in the sense we are so used to today of a rearguard action defending our deteriorating conditions, but against the very root of capitalist alienation.
“Beneath the pavement, the beach”, rioters cried. Sloganeers graffiti’d the streets with a line lifted from the Situationist International: “Humanity will not be happy until the last bureaucrat is hung with the guts of the last capitalist!”
Barricades were thrown up, defying the city planning of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who had remade Paris 100 years prior specifically to stymie such tactics and secure elite dominance. The dream was not to nationalise, but to kill “the cop that sleeps in every one of us” — to embrace freedom and utopias yet to be.
It is a vision we’ve since seen recede over the horizon.
In the years before neoliberalism, the method of control and social reproduction was a State-led compact with capital, where the power of one underwrote and stabilised the aggressive expansionism of the other.
But with the consolidation of ever more powerful globalised business interests, and revisions of economic order entailed by privatisations and crushing victories over working class organisation, we have seen a retreat into rose-tinted visions of State protection as all we can achieve. A blessed relief from the revised compact in which capital’s aggression invades ever more of our lives.
The deal was altered, we pray only that it not be altered any further.
Today’s driving Left-utopian vision in Britain is as a result pathetically anemic. Far from hanging the bureaucrat, we imagine them as hero-surgeons cleaning away metastasized lumps of profiteering “service provision” embodied by the likes of Atos, Virgin and G4S. Rather than digging beneath the pavement, we demand only that it be cleaned by the council. Rather than kill our inner cop we shout to hire 10,000 more.
Such a retreat is of course understandable — since 1968 economic logic and political will have pushed us time and again towards the edges of survival. Jobs have lost their stickiness, welfare has been stripped and living costs gouged to the point that the old anarchist ideal of voluntarism has become nigh-on impossible for most.
Mountainous expressions of the cancer, made of glass and steel and concrete, have spread across our skylines, with giant FOR SALE banners covering streets where working people once lived and long shadows blocking the very light from our eyes.
The dominance of capital is so intimidating, so ever present, the squeeze is so tight around our chests that even the tiniest lifting of pressure is seen as a necessary first step towards something better while the dreams of the 20th century feel long faded. We chase State control, “enlightened” automation, and administered universal incomes within the status quo, then call it socialism.
But we cannot truly function without real utopias to draw on, it leaves us chasing least worst options within the capitalist framework, accepting their admonishments that ultimately There Is No Alternative to managed decline.
Corbyn first accepts nukes, then Nato. He accepts limits to his cherished re-nationalisation hopes and mouths platitudes about “managed migration” as though the inherent violence of such a position is merely a matter of balance sheets. One in, one out, no jeans or trainers. There Is No Alternative.
His borough councils wax electoral about their progressive values, before not only accepting developmental cancers, but clearing space for them because financially, There Is No Alternative.
This is the Real in the absence of utopias, a slowed process of rot, with excuses galore.
It is time for us to rediscover the great lessons of Paris 1968. Not of the art of throwing bricks (for we can learn that on the fly), but of the need which drives us to imagine and strive for more than simple grey certainties.
Below our feet, even now, that beach is still there. We need to start digging for it again. There are so many other visions past and yet to come, and it’s vital that we explore them.