The Ambiguous Legacy of ‘68

The Ambiguous Legacy of ‘68
The Ambiguous Legacy of ‘68

In 1968 Paris, one of the best-known graffiti messages on the city’s walls was “Structures do not walk on the streets!” In other words, the massive student and workers demonstrations of ‘68 could not be explained in the terms of structuralism, as determined by the structural changes in society, as in Saussurean structuralism. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s response was that this, precisely, is what happened in ‘68: structures did descend onto the streets. The visible explosive events on the streets were, ultimately, the result of a structural imbalance.

There are good reasons for Lacan’s skeptical view. As French scholars Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello noted in 1999’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, from the ’70s onward, a new form of capitalism emerged.

Capitalism abandoned the hierarchical Fordist structure of the production process – which, named after auto maker Henry Ford, enforced a hierarchical and centralized chain of command – and developed a network-based form of organization that accounted for employee initiative and autonomy in the workplace. As a result, we get networks with a multitude of participants, organizing work in teams or by projects, intent on customer satisfaction and public welfare, or worrying about ecology.

In this way, capitalism usurped the left’s rhetoric of worker self-management, turning it from an anti-capitalist slogan to a capitalist one. It was Socialism that was conservative, hierarchic and administrative.

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on June 20th, 2008. (full text).]

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