A return of the repressed? Preliminary theory and evidence on France, 1968 and Occupy Wall Street

Only about 40 years ago the advanced, developed, democratic republic of France was very nearly overthrown by an egalitarian, non-Soviet, non-authoritarian, spontaneous, and mass-democratic political revolution. The most remarkable aspect of the events surrounding May of 1968 in France is how unfathomably distant its subjective experience seems from our own political consciousness today in a country such as the United States, considering how still extremely recent was 1968. Returning to these events, it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that between then and now there must have transpired some sort of deeply nefarious historiographical scandal.

On the one hand, many of the protesters as well as observers at the time were possessed of an authentic certainty that their movement marked the “beginning of the end” for modern capitalism and the modern state. Interestingly and perhaps most compellingly, it is well after the revolutionary insurrection fails that one finds some of the most confident testimony that nothing short of a new threshold of political history had been irrevocably crossed. From the International Situationniste #12 of 1969:

The movement was a rediscovery of collective and individual history, an awakening to the possibility of intervening in history, an awareness of participating in an irreversible event. (“Nothing will ever be the same again.”) People looked back in amusement at the strange existence they had led a week before, at their outlived survival. It was a passion for bringing everything and everyone together that included a holistic critique of all alienations, of all ideologies and of the entire old organization of real life.

…previously it was the subversion of the existing society that seemed unlikely; now it is its continuation.

The proof that it had established its own new legitimacy is that the regime reestablished in June has never, in its striving to restore internal state security, dared to prosecute those responsible for overtly illegal actions, those who had partially divested it of its authority and even of its buildings.

What is more, the activists of May ‘68 in France had very little doubt that their experiences were part of an unstoppable, international occupation movement. Almost unbelievably, this radical French journal of 1969 refers to an article from Agence France-Presse calling for nothing short of—it is almost unbelievable—the occupation of Wall Street:

This perspective is not limited to France, it is international. The total significance of the occupations movement must be understood everywhere. Already in 1968 its example touched off, or pushed to higher levels, severe disorders throughout Europe and in America and Japan. The most remarkable immediate consequences of May were the bloody revolt of the Mexican students, which was able to be crushed due to its relative isolation, and the Yugoslavian students’ movement against the bureaucracy and for proletarian self-management, which partially drew in the workers and put Tito’s regime in great danger…

It is easy to recognize throughout the world the new tone with which a radical critique is pronouncing its declaration of war on the old society — from the graffiti on the walls of England and Italy to the extremist Mexican group Caos, which during the summer of 1968 called for the sabotage of the Olympics and of “the society of spectacular consumption”; from the acts and publications of the Acratas in Madrid to the shout of a Wall Street demonstration (AFP, April 12), “Stop the Show,” in that American society whose “decline and fall” we already pointed out in 1965 and whose very officials now admit that it is “a sick society.”

On the other hand, the masses of the liberal democratic or “advanced-capitalist” world of only about 40 years later seem to have not the slightest knowledge that such an earth-shattering political development ever took place so recently, that revolution in the richest and most powerful countries of the world today is not only imaginable—a hard enough argument to even begin today—but that it had been arguably hours away from succeeding only a few years ago. Only 40 years later, almost everybody would affirm the proposition that today, in a country such as France or the United States, revolution is impossible. If asked to seriously think about it, even most educated Americans would probably think of Lenin at best, and even then only in the form of a little cartooned bald man running around a backwards country in another epoch, over where and back when people were just “kinda crazy” or something. One might try to account for ignorance of the French events of May ‘68 by noting the general and pervasive lack of historical knowledge among most people today, and in the United States, especially. But in the midst of the current unrest, the several direct, undeniable parallels between our own burgeoning movement and the movement of May ‘68 in France elevates its absence from public consciousness into something more. It demands a symptomatic reading of this current silence regarding what just a little bit of research reveals to be an ecstastically obvious historical continuity.

That is, I would like to stake out the hypothesis, first of all, that May ‘68 in France, as the high water mark for the revolutionary project in the Western world, and precisely because of how high the water went, and how recently, has been historically repressed. Just as in the traditional Freudian schema, an event that was intolerably traumatic for modern capitalism was pushed out of popular consciousness through specifiable mechanisms of ideological and material repression, and the evidence of this repression can be adduced in the form of clinically predictable neurotic patterns following the trauma. For instance, I can show that in the contemporary media chatter on the U.S. occupation movement, we find demonstrable patterns of repetition compulsion, textbook neurosis. This first position transitions into a second position, which is that the achievements of May ‘68, combined with ample and straightforward lessons gleaned from its failure, provide the strongest blueprint for the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism that modern political philosophy can elucidate at the current juncture. Some of these lessons were even elucidated by some of the French radicals immediately after their own failure for the sake of what they were certain would be widespread and confident do-overs around the world, lessons elucidated as if the revolutionary tradition after May ‘68 was in the position of a golfer who just missed a put by an inch and, hardly needing to begin all over, could now just tap the ball in with only one hand on the club! Finally, I close on some considerations of the significant differences, material and ideological, that distinguish our situation from that of May ‘68 in France, demonstrating not only that the true historical destiny of the occupation movement is revolutionary, but that despite skepticism or in a certain dialectical sense because of it, the revolutionary project has never been more excitingly poised for world-historical success.

Using rather extraordinary data made available by the Google corporation, it is possible to initiate an empirical consideration of the hypothesis concerning a demonstrable historical repression of the revolutionary demiurge of the late 60s. The following graphs depict the frequency with which the word “revolution” occurs in books published over the past two centuries. Obviously, the figures do not refer to all books published in this period, but a sample of roughly four percent of all books, or more than five million. Books being an index of the terms with which a society understands itself, this data permits an extremely powerful if only preliminary analysis of the long-term dynamics of social consciousness.

In fact, the data offers interesting evidence for an extraordinary claim. At the end of the 1960s, the question of revolution was farther to the front of the global mind than it ever had been for the preceding two centuries.  At the beginning of the 1970s, it begins a conspicuous plummeting until it is erased from the social text more thoroughly than at any previous moment in those two centuries. Hardly anywhere does it rise higher and fall more precipitously than in American English.

Of course, it could be argued that after ‘68, the prospect of revolution objectively receded (in other words, the events of May ‘68 stopped and the capitalist order was restored), and thus naturally our overall cultural concern with it decreased accordingly. But first, it is important to not limit our empirical reflections to the contemporary academic ideology that fetishizes linear causality between independent and dependent variables. Social scientists are typically undertrained in dialectical thinking. It is of course possible that the desire to remove something from the symbolic order is precisely what drives the political acitivity of repressing its conditions objectively, such that we don’t need to be Nietzsche to affirm that a long-term historical (symbolic) repression after the fact can, in a sense, cause the objective repression that precedes it—insofar as the long-term symbolic repression can be counted on in advance to insure the objective repression, an insurance structured precisely by the dominant academic ideology of linear relationships between things in the world and consciousness of those things. We should say that if there are good measures to gauge an objective receding of the revolutionary threat, and even if such objective developments preceded the cultural trends highlighted here, this would not mean we are looking at an innocent and natural shift of thinking in response to objective reality. For, since the capitalist order that was objectively restored after May ‘68 was motivated by a conscious political desire to literally repress the traumatic occurrence and its superficial material conditions, if at the same time the trauma recedes from the social text according to a pattern that is quicker and/or of a greater degree than the objective repression of the conditions for the emergence of the trauma, then it is perfectly fair and necessary to isolate and observe a distinct process that is the historical repression of the trauma.  Even if differences in the relative dynamics and intensities do not provide standout evidence of a distinct historical repression that can be separated from the objective repression, we nonetheless would not need to shy away from explicating and defending the distinct reality of an historical repression, given that objective and historical forms of repression should be understood simply as two aspects of one socially systematic process of the repression of traumas.

Further evidence in favor of a systematically repressive process in historical symbolic consciousness is found in the patterns of dynamic variation across corpora. It seems highly significant that in the American English corpus the sudden disappearance of revolution is quickest and most extensive, followed by England, Germany, and then finally France itself. That is, the theory of historical repression very well predicts that the sort of immediate, nervous reflex to simply act as if nothing ever happened is most likely to occur precisely where its material reality is least present. In short, it’s easier to forget the primal scene if you didn’t actually see it, it’s most difficult if you witnessed it for yourself.  This is indeed one possible story the data narrates.

Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2011. "A return of the repressed? Preliminary theory and evidence on France, 1968 and Occupy Wall Street," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2011/12/10/14483036324/ (April 24, 2017).