Liquidate '68, or, The Obscure Subject of French Politics
"In this election," Sarkozy proclaimed, "we’re going to find out if the heritage of May 68 is going to be perpetuated or if it will be liquidated once and forever." While the voicing of political principle and its antagonistic distillates may be an increasing rarity in our world, where enmity is naturalised (and racialised) by the imperatives of “national security” or violently, if antiseptically, outsourced to lands failed and threatening, it is heartening to see our Gallic neighbours revel in the performance, if not always the reality, of political struggle. Far from interest rates or pensions being mobilised to prod the swing voter into action, Sarkozy has seen it fit to evoke the spectre of 68 to dramatise the stakes of the upcoming second round. As if the tiresomely descried stagnation, or worse degeneration, of France rested on the inexhaustible effects of that fated date.
So much so that Sarko is now presenting his presidency as a chance, forty years on, retroactively to karcheriser the mutinous streets of the Latin Quarter and all of the heterogeneously hideous effects they spawned. Whence the catchy slogan: ”I want to turn the page on May 1968”. His political biographers even tell us that only his mother held him back, at the age of 13, from joining in the pro-De Gaulle march against the students and workers. It might be tempting to simply regard this as an obligatory passage for reactionary politics within the context of France, and an attempt to swing Paris back, after the banlieue riots, CPE protests and mobilization against the Constitution, to its status as “the capital of European reaction” (Perry Anderson). But I think Sarkozy’s wish to liquidate 68 – to repave the French political imaginary and erase the very memory of those events prior to their (inevitably depressing) fortieth anniversary – bespeaks a harsher form of subjectivity than a merely reactionary one.
Despite the presence of the insufferable André Glucksmann, epitome of reactionary subjectivity in Alain Badiou’s recent Logiques des mondes, alongside Johnny Hallyday and, alas, Charlotte Rampling, in Sarko’s entourage, the figure of the reactive subject is still too mild to properly identify la singularité Sarkozy. Taking François Furet as emblematic of this kind of subjectivity, Badiou sees reaction as a manner of starkly denying the necessity of rupture embodied in a political event (e.g. the French Revolution) but nevertheless incorporating some of the novelties it carries in a narrative where radical subjectivity and collective action are simply hysterical and catastrophic gestures that, at best, give rise to changes which the gradual and reasonable unfolding of historical development would have led to anyway. The event, and the implacable fidelity to its consequences, are futile, obstacles to the very principles they seek to realise (in this respect, the American pragmatist hostility to John Brown and anti-abolitionist politics is a perfect example of reactionary subjectivity).
Now, the obscure subject is made of different mettle. Its aim is not to neutralise novelty by incorporating some of its effects and despairing of its needless excess. Rather, political obscurantism is aimed at radically negating the new present that a faithful subject has arduously brought into being. As Badiou puts it, it “systematically resorts to the invocation of a transcendent Body, full and pure, an ahistorical or anti-evental body (City, God, Race…) whence it derives that the trace will be denied (here, the labour of the reactive subject is useful to the obscure subject) and, by way of consequence, the real body, the divided body, will also be suppressed”. In this case, Sarko’s gambit is that the very act of liquidating the divided body of 68 may help in conjuring up the full body of a morally rearmed French nation. His ultimately sinister “Ensemble, tout est possible” (insofar as the body of this ensemble is brought together by the exclusion of immigrants, soixante-huitards, racaille, and so on) is thus infinitely distant from the slogan of the 1995 French protests: Tous ensemble. While Sarko is still functioning within the ambit of reactive politics (capitalist parliamentarianism) his tendencies, following Badiou’s useful formalisation are obscure:
It is crucial to gauge the gap between the reactive formalism and the obscure formalism. As violent as it may be, reaction conserves the form of the faithful subject as its articulated unconscious. It does not propose to abolish the present, only to show that the faithful rupture (which it calls “violence” or “terrorism”) is useless for engendering a moderate, that is to say extinguished, present (a present that it calls “modern”). … Things are very different for the obscure subject. That is because it is the present that is directly its unconscious, its lethal disturbance, while it disarticulates within appearance the formal data of fidelity. The monstrous full Body to which it gives fictional shape is the atemporal filling of the abolished present. [It entertains] everywhere and at all times the hatred of any living thought, of any transparent language and of every uncertain becoming.
Sarkozy’s negationist hatred of course can’t be directed at political novelty itself – which in any instance has been squandered by much of the Left and systemically next-to-obliterated by years of neo-liberal Restoration – and much less at a living political subject, but, in a typical show of the obscurantist mindset, is directed at an eclectic set of noxious predicates and phenomena, a “divided body” indeed – inasmuch as division is the spectre that seems to haunt all political discourse around this election. Thus 1968 is the proverbial “quilting point” for “welfare dependency, fraud, thievery, egalitarianism”, “moral and intellectual relativism”. It is the deep cause of a "moral crisis in France not seen since the time of Joan of Arc”. In order to disinter and re-bury the body of political subjects in revolt, what better than to portray 1968 as the very absence of principles? Also Sprach Sarko: “The heirs of May 68 have imposed the idea that everything has the same worth, that there is no difference between good and evil, no difference between the true and the false, between the beautiful and the ugly and that the victim counts for less than the delinquent”. Values, hierarchy, morality – all moribund, all to rise again into the full body of the Republic once the canker of 1968 is finally excised. In order to mobilise the electoral hordes for his counter-revolutionary revolution he is even willing to depict 68 as a kind of ethical catastrophe that made possible the “excesses of financial capital”, “golden handshakes” and “rogue bosses” (alas, this take on 1968 has been put forward by less obnoxious sources: the otherwise excellent Adam Curtis, for instance, in his spurious attack on Laing’s anti-psychiatry in The Trap, or Debray, who in the NLR’s issue on the 10th anniversary of 1968 portrayed it as a vanishing mediator of sorts for American hedonistic capitalism).
This blessed rage for order does indeed seem to confirm one of Badiou”s hunches, to wit that an event and the faithful subject it catalyses do not just generate an independent trajectory, but reshape the whole of “subjective space”, forcing both reactionaries and obscurantists to develop their positions in relation to it.
But what of Royal, her camp, and the culprits of this decades-long moral malaise, the soixante-huitards? On one level, Royal seems to have responded by laying claim to that legacy, having earlier even flirted with the thought of Jacques Rancière. She responded to Sarko with a show of fidelity, saying that “May 1968 is 11 million workers who obtained the Grenelle accords, the right of women to access to contraception, a wind of freedom against a totally closed society”. Leaving aside the fact that the Grenelle accords, negotiated by Chirac, were held in contempt by much of the rank-and-file and all the Maoist and Trotskyst Left, another statement of Royal’s should also be kept in mind: she has in fact accused Sarkozy of trying to provoke “another 1968”. In this second sense, closer to the reactive one in Badiou’s terminology, 1968 stands in for disorder, social crisis, and a conflict that must be averted at all costs by the forces of reformism. It is not in any way the cipher for a moment of political invention, for the possibility of a radical restructuring of society. The tenor of the “Left” replies is also symptomatic. The irritating Cohn-Bendit predictably rehashes his long-time anti-communism to brand Sarkozy’s liquidationism as “Bolshevik” and, in perfect Euro-liberal form, praises 68 for its “liberation of the autonomy of individuals”. Many of the rest emphasise the “values” of freedom and autonomy, but in the guise of a salutary infusion of joy, pleasure and mobility into the polity, not in terms of a radical alternative to the status quo.
Alas, in the absence of real fidelity, it is to be hoped that soft reaction will prevail over venomous obscurantism…
UPDATE: Bensaid and Krivine of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire on "The Hatred of 68"