A standard account of the events of ’68 in France might focus around the release of potential; there was no classic revolution but the emergence of a culture of self realisation, one with important ethical and political impact. These same events were criticised at the time and since as self-indulgent and a threat to social stability. Such commentaries were, largely, the terrain of the right. Today, whilst such a critique still exists in some senses, by and large the right has assimilated the major part of the ideas that might be identified as of ‘68 (leaving aside one: that it is a threat to social stability although this still functions as a good marketing device).
Discussing the legacy of ’68 in debate with Bernard-Henri Levy, where Levy makes a series of comments which display pride in the legacy of ’68, Zizek makes the point that the invasion of the Russians into Prague during the ‘68 Prague spring was, in a sense, the saving of the hopes of the libertarian left. Similarly that in France, the failure of ‘68 was in a sense the same, it protected a particular dream whereby the free thinking revolutionary state of mind, if nothing else, could overcome, at some point, the state of things as they are.
I think, by extension, this state of achieving what became a personal liberty (to be a socialist/gay/whatever) is now included in the state of things as they are. While this latter point may appear to offer a notional efficacy to personal liberty, such an interpretation avoids facing up to the profound strength of the state of things as they are. If more proof could be wanted, the war against Iraq took place, against all of the counter movements of the liberal left, many of whom indeed supported it.
Levy becomes uncomfortable at this discussion. It is a challenge to him because as a ‘man of the left’, a public intellectual, his work and reputation emerges across his involvement at some level with the events of ’68 in Paris. It was for him, as for many, a stepping off point from when onwards different sorts of agency, political, sexual etc., became not permissible but possible. He comments that there is a clear break in ‘68, a turning upside down of philosophical, political, gender possibilities.
Zizek doesn’t disagree with this, he acknowledges that there has been clear ethical advance from ‘68 onwards; this is visible and admissible as positive. What he insisted on was describing were the ways in which the features of ’68 had become essentially conservative, that what we observe through this knowledge is the working of contemporary ideology, one that includes the positive benifits of self discovery, being true to yourself. It is well known that Bosnian Serb wartime president Radovan Karadzic when arrested was an alternative medical practitioner and wrote poetry. Zizek makes a very important observation that we must be aware of the dark side to a post-’68 legacy, conscious that such journeys of self-emancipation can go two ways.
Watching the debate I felt that what Levy was missing, or didn’t want to acknowledge, is that precisely in the way ‘68 changed things, the dialectical reversal that Zizek explores, is a another point at which possibilities are upturned. Levy finds himself upside down. Categories of thought that he has known as of the left, of being constructive, radical at some level, are emerging as being, above all, now included in the way things are, a set of relations that were the target of ‘68. This is not just a critical point but of critical importance as the legacy of ’68 is an expression of the dominant ideology to which duty is paid best of all by the consumer, capitalist order.