It has been Holy Unity week. The official ceremonies organized around the tenth anniversary of May ’68 brought together everyone in this country with a name, a status or a decoration and saturated every medium of communication. From left to right, yesterday’s enemies and tomorrow’s friends, the best and the worst—Libération to France-Soir, Séguy to Debré—were in agreement on the absurdity of excluding the main hero from the proceedings. (If an ordinary citizen may be permitted to add his voice to the general clamour: let Dany come home soon.) This unanimity was a good sign. It could suggest that the level of national idiocy is in decline, even a growth of liberalism. Everywhere else, revolutionaries are showered with hatred and imbecility: they are sour assassins, cold monsters, Gulag warrant officers, mass murderers. On the tenth anniversary of Che’s death there was no homage, no round-table discussion or memorial programme on Bolivian television. Nor anywhere else on a continent which once trembled before him, not just for a month or two either. Robespierre was not the toast of Paris in 1805; ten years after October, the name of Lenin still
Its exceptional nature also merits examination. On the left, piety is understandable. Recollection is always nice when you are no longer capable of making things happen. Unable to live on their income, a lot of people consume their capital of time-values: the very old are nothing but memory. The right, for its part, appears young and lively. Why this collusion in dwelling upon a ‘nightmare’? Doubtless the right is always happy to repeat that the old antithesis of left and right is outmoded. But it has plenty of other, more solid reasons for not stinting its pleasure. Not least that it is precisely to the May cult that it owes its youthful vigour.
May ’68 was the cradle of a new bourgeois society. It may not yet realize this, but it is time someone told it so. With a bonus in the form of a prediction. The Third Republic by conviction, and the Fourth through inertia, made July 14th 1789 their founding myth. The mature Fifth Republic, and its successors, will be able to declare the entire month of May a public holiday—with a little help from computer technology and productivity growth. The bourgeois republic celebrated its birth, the storming of the Bastille; one day it will celebrate its rebirth, the word-storm of 1968. This is not folklore or fetishism but, for the entire modern West, the paradigm of a long-sought legitimacy: its realized ideal, a future sublimated into legend.
In 1968 there were two Frances: an industrial and technological France, and a social and institutional France. The first was in quick tempo, dynamic, open to the outside: since the war, industrialization and the concentration of capital had been advancing rapidly. Never has humanity known such speedy growth of its productive forces as during the period which changed the face of Europe after 1945; never in its history has France experienced such an upheaval of its infrastructure in such a short space of time. The second France, the France of sentiments and behaviour, was wedded to the leisurely pace at which values and customs evolve. The cleavage between two layers of history during the same period is a common occurrence: in this case, and precisely because of the extraordinary rate of expansion and the brutal reorganization of productive labour, the cleavage became excessive, actually intolerable. French society became ‘anti-economic’, and was beginning to threaten the profitability of France s.a. When the time came to harmonize the first with the second, the gap was so wide that the job had to be attacked with crazy energy. A wind of madness was perceptible in this updating of the France de Papa; it was only the economic bringing the social to its senses, the compulsory submission of the old to the new. At Censier,footnote1 it was decided to ‘abolish the economy’. Obviously, since the hour had come for its enthronement in all the control centres—political, cultural, administrative and ideological.
As we know, there were three Mays: the student uprising (‘the revolt of youth’); the upsurge of demands by the workers’ movement (general strike); and the politicians’ May (crisis of the régime). Out of their meeting, rather than their fusion, was born the Movement. But what made this concordance decisive, or explosive, was a latent and suddenly-revealed discordance of which the ‘May crisis’ was at once the symptom and the cure. Three became one because one was becoming two.
This asynchrony produced a heart attack and called for the slow resynchronization of the two countries, now well under way. The phase displacement of two circuits required a change of voltage. One country was plugged into 110 volts, the other into 220: connect them up, short-circuit, blown fuse. Rewire the obsolete 110-volt circuit, change the meter, install new trip-fuses. And switch on again. You too must be modern. But don’t say modernization, say revolution. Any businessman will tell you you can make twice as much by using one word rather than another.
‘Chaos’? Not at all. The most reasonable of social movements; the sad victory of productivist reason over romantic unreason; the gloomiest demonstration of the Marxist theory of the finally determining role of the economic (technology plus relations of production). Industrialization had to be given a morality not because the poets were clamouring for a new one but because industrialization required it. The old France paid off its arrears to the new; the social, political and cultural backlog all at once. The cheque was a large one. The France of stone and rye, of the apéritif and the institute, of oui papa, oui patron, oui cherie, was ordered out of the way so that the France of software and super-markets, of news and planning, of know-how and brain-storming could show off its viability to the full, home at last. This spring cleaning felt like a liberation and, in effect, it was one.