Symposium 1968: Robin Blackburn

Symposium 1968: Robin Blackburn

These last forty years, as each decade grinds to a close, there arrives the anniversary of 1968, with its invitation to nostalgia, the reconsideration of dashed hopes, or a pondering of the paradoxes of frustrated rebellion.

Already in 1978 Régis Debray argued that the revolutionaries of ’68 were as deluded and disoriented as Columbus arriving in the New World. They thought they were headed for the China of the “cultural revolution” when really they had landed on the beaches of “New Age” California. In the 1990s Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello put a different twist on this idea. The former soixante huitards, they argue in The New Culture of Capitalism, helped to break the dead hand of corporate bureaucracy and unleash a more entrepreneurial capitalism.

Madison Avenue has long heralded improbable “revolutions” in car design, clothing, and cuisine. Today it celebrates sixties counterculture. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher turned the tables on the New Left with a market revolution that took “power to the people.” David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, was, like José Manuel Barroso, the market-friendly European Commission president, a former leftist. A center-right or center-left cabinet today is not complete without a Joschka Fischer or Bernard Kouchner. Scratch a neo-con and he turns out to be an ex-Trotskyist or an ex-something else. Bernard-Henri Levy was student gauchiste in 1968.

Although these reversals have a sting, they don’t bury 1968. In the twenty-first century the actuality of ’68 is more palpable than ever. Indeed the Elysées Palace is now occupied by a man who launched his campaign for the presidency promising to exorcise the specter of 1968. There could have been no more telling admission, the more so since accompanied by a warning that this was a question of “hegemony.” Would France still be haunted by revolution or would it at last settle down to a transatlantic entente cordiale and Anglo-Saxon “business as usual”?

Nicholas Sarkozy’s honeymoon with the French public has ended, leaving his counter-revolution stalled. His attempted bonfire of social entitlements was dampened by a succession of concessions to well-placed groups of workers. The overtures to a lame-duck president in Washington failed to anticipate the mysterious sea change under way in the United States, with its own echoes of the sixties. As for Anglo-Saxon economics, it is mortally wounded, with billions hemorrhaging from its banks and insurers every week. In 2008, as in 1968, the French at least bring some flair, so we have Jerome Kerviel—a thirty-one-year-old investment banker dubbed the “Che Guevara of finance”—delighting the French public by bamboozling his employers, the country’s second largest bank, to the tune of a cool seven billion U.S. dollars.

Of course, 1968 was the beginning of the end of the postwar boom, with its protecte...