I’ve been away altogether too long, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but between clearing up funeral arrangements at home over Thanksgiving break and then scrambling to finish everything I had missed at school, time hasn’t been my most plentiful commodity. My inability to find time for jogging is about to make me wax corpulent.
The question on my mind today was sparked by the student riots currently afoot in Greece. I’m interested both because Greece is the most amazing place I have ever been, and because I have an intense fascination with the “Maï 1968” uprisings in Europe. According to an article from the Chicago Tribune,
There is a consensus among Greeks that they witnessed a true social uprising this month […] but there is another realization bubbling up in conversations: the young, those who went first into the streets, appear to have no idea how to make the most of their demands. Hundreds turned out for peaceful and articulate demonstrations Saturday and Monday, but so far no leader has emerged.
As they say, youth is wasted on the young. Of course, not all of the demonstrations have been peaceful, and except in cases of blatant and continuing violence on the part of the state, we must condemn riots and property destruction. But what are we to make of these “peaceful and articulate demonstrations?” The spirit of revolution is extremely far from us, living as we do in a basically seamless system of votes and unobtrusive policies (although, of course, there are chinks in the armor, viz. 2000 election). So to ask the question of its appropriateness is academic for us. But it is hardly so for the Greeks, so we may as well ask it now.
Bernard-Henri Levy, the staunchest possible opponent of the “utopian” style of revolution (say, like that of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to turn the clock back to “year zero” and restructure society entirely), is still an admirer of 1968. Not every aspect, of course — but he sees the uprisings as an anti-totalitarian move, the time when the Left finally gave up the insanity of Stalinism (1968 was, after all, also the year of the Prague Spring).
Obviously, the uprisings were a complete failure, completely unable to upset the bourgeois status quo in the West, or to stem the tide of Soviet tanks in the East. The Vietnam War plugged on, the Soviet Union would peter out slowly over the next twenty years, and certainly The Young did not reform society as they hoped.
So, is the whole thing dead? Did 1968 silence the revolutionary dream forever? Is that dream always the same?
I would tentatively answer “no” to all those questions. The issue in Greece may be different, but the circumstances are similar: a center-right government, unremarkable for repression, nevertheless makes explicit its foundation upon a barely-restrained ocean of violence; students, being young and being students, take umbrage and begin to take action. This is qualitatively different from the riots in the banlieus of Paris a few years ago, where a cauldron of unrest simply overflowed into mass property destruction. Again, there has been destruction in Greece, but also the protests mentioned above.
So the defeat of 1968 was not necessarily forever. I would also argue that the revolutionary dream is not always the same. The much-reviled Hugo Chavez, for instance, makes use of revolutionary rhetoric but has honored democracy even when his personal governmental plans were rejected (and many of them were rejected rightly — if Chavez truly believes in Socialism for the 21st Century, he should be content to leave his movement with a successor). This is absolutely different from another revolutionary state, Cuba, where the media is utterly repressed and governmental change is impossible.
Ultimately, this does boil down to governmental change. Democracy ought to work by means of voting, absolutely. But nowhere is it written that democracy is identical to voting. There does come a time when governments must be overthrown. Certainly we are nowhere near that point, and I doubt whether Greece is, either. But I do believe that most of us, not finding ourselves too burdened or oppressed by the government, accept it even when it acts against our own, and against the nation’s, interests. It is not aberrant or criminal for democracy to burst out of its usual self-imposed limits and force its elected leaders (who can and must be recalled as soon as they betray the public trust) to wake up and listen to the people. All of our center-right, status-quo, middle class Western democracies tend to keep the peace and honor the vote, but they are also fond of showing the basis of their power: police sovereignty, the state of exception, state-sanctioned torture, secret prisons, harsh treatment of youth (as in Greece), and so on.
“Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” wrote the Nazi Carl Schmitt. This power — the declaration of emergency states, the placing of bodies into a perpetual status of arrest, the reduction of a human life (with all its attendant rights) to bare life, is a terrifying power. Who holds it? In our own country, the executive branch holds it, together with its department of justice, and congress has shown next to no interest in checking it (except for a few warriors like Chris Dodd, who’s increasing difficulties with the financial crisis prove that, as usual, it is money that will bring down those who could have been our best and brightest). In other words, you and I do not hold this power. In fact, were we unlucky enough to share a name or a skin color with a suspected terrorist, we could feel it ourselves.
I am not suggesting revolution here. Our president-elect has, thank God, promised to order a close to Guantanamo, one of our great national embarrassments. But when our government — especially the executive, or the unelected Supreme Court — makes reckless decisions in the name of “security” or what-have-you, decisions in which we should by right have a say, I believe it is our duty to use the voice — one of the few weapons held in common by all, and fortunately mostly unchecked in the US — to let it be known that we do not want to cede the “state of exception” to a unitary executive. This opposition to the hoarding of powers, I think, and the realization that liberty can be stolen piece by piece without anyone noticing, is the true spirit of the popular demonstration, the thing that we cannot afford to allow to lie dead with the other dreams of 1968.