May 68 and the politics of desire: Amador Fernández-Savater

(photograph by Jean-Claude Seine)*

It is difficult, if not impossible, to close political debate, even for ourselves.  And therefore our announcement of the end of our series on May 68, with an essay by Tomáz Ibáñez, was premature.  Below, we share a further essay, this time by Amador Fernández-Savater, in which May 68 is read through a new politics of desire that breaks with earlier, radical opposition to capitalism.

Politics of desire: to take up again the intuition of 68

(Lobo Suelto! 12/05/2018)

What can 68 give us today to think about, to those of us who want a substantial transformation of the order of things? It has to do with an intuition that appears then and with which it is urgent to resume contact, if we want to free ourselves from reactive positions with respect to neoliberalism and take the initiative again.

The intuition of 68

What is the meaning of 68 in the revolutionary history of the twentieth century? We could say that it is the beginning of a crisis and a decline: the decline of the hypothesis of revolution through the seizure of power, hegemonic since the Russian revolution of October 1917.

68 was not only the French May, but a long wave in time and space that went through the US, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, etc. In none of the examples was there an attempt to take the State by means of a vanguard party. An intuition is thus expressed: society is not changed (only) by taking power, nor even, the means of production.

What happened in the Soviet Union after 1917? No doubt there was a great change in political power. No doubt there was a great change in the relations of production: the disappearance of the market, of private ownership of the media, competition, etc. But the deepest logic of bureaucratic capitalism was also reproduced: the rigid division between leaders and executors, the vertical concentration of decision-making power, the cult of the “science” of experts, the taylorisation of work, growth and productivity as ultimate ends, etc.

I call it an “intuition” because it was clearly formulated at the time, though still somewhat confusingly and stammeringly, with many different formulations. There were still those who criticized the USSR from within the Marxist-Leninist conceptual framework, those who thought that the seizure of power must be complemented by a cultural revolution (it is the message of Mao or Che), etc. But a general hunch said: a political revolution was not enough. So?

Political economy, libidinal economy

The 1970s in France are years of great philosophical productivity. The Argentine thinker Leon Rozitchner used to say: “if the peoples do not fight, philosophy does not think”. That is, philosophy is not a bubble that works in a closed circuit, but instead feeds on the impulses and problems that society poses. But if peoples fight, philosophy strengthens its effort to the fullest. And that is what happens in the 70s in France.

I propose to imagine this philosophical productivity as animated by the different attempts to take charge, on the plane of the ideas, of the intuition of 68. In the 70s, complex elaborations are deployed on power, knowledge, sexuality, the imaginary, symbolic exchange, etc. It is a general reconceptualization that goes beyond Marxism as an exclusive or privileged theoretical framework. And from which we continue to be nourished to this day.

One of the thinkers who tries to take charge philosophically of the intuition of 68 is Jean-François Lyotard, who during the 50s-60s had been active in the autonomist group Socialism or Barbarism and who lived the storm of 68 from its epicenter: the University of Nanterre and the March 22nd Movement.

The figure of Lyotard has remained trapped today in the notion of postmodernity, but during his life, he made many other journeys of thought. In the 70s, for example, he develops a complex philosophy around desire, in dialogue with the better known theory of the same, of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

What form does Lyotard give to the intuition of 68? I summarise his approach in a single sentence, following which I offer an explanation: Lyotard says “there is no political economy without a libidinal economy”. What does this mean? Very briefly: there is no mode of production that is not sustained by a certain position of desire; by a type of attitude, motivation and disposition toward others, the world and life in general.

There is no macro without micro. The revolutionaries who tried to introduce radical social changes without taking into account the question of subjectivity failed miserably. The contents were changed without touching the forms.  And the evil of domination was reproduced in this way, which is not only outside but also very much inside of ourselves.

The change in the position of desire

We must imagine then social transformation, says Lyotard, as a radical change of the position of desire.

Why “position”? Because it is not only a change of one object of desire for another, but a change in the very way of desiring, of the place itself from which it acts; not only of a change in what one wants, but of how one wants what one wants; not just other politicians, but another relationship with the political, not just another job, but another relationship with work, etc.

Other things are wanted, things are wanted differently. The mutation we are talking about means a radical redistribution of the desirable and the undesirable, of what matters and what does not matter, of what moves us and of what leaves us indifferent; this at the level of the body and the flesh, and not only at the ideological level.

In short, social change according to Lyotard is a problem of metamorphosis, a mutation in the very configuration of the human. The bursting of certain anthropological seams, the production of a different humanity and other possibilities of existence: a change of skin.

A metamorphosis that it would be completely wrong to see as a happy, linear or necessary process, because it is happy and painful at the same time, is crossed by cramps or contractions, by ups and downs and detours, by leaps and regressions, full of dirt, blood, clay, impurities … It is loved, assumed, but also feared and rejected. Sometimes the two things, for the same people, at the same time.

1968: a regulatory regime of energy

What is the dominant position of desire in the 60s, in the era of Fordism and industrial society? Lyotard speaks of a “regulating” regime of energies that tends to “normalise” bodies and produce only mediocre, average intensities.

In the field of work, there reigns Taylorism, according to which “the worker must be a mixture of gorilla and robot”, as Taylor himself said. The standardised definition of tasks, the exclusion of all forms of participation or affective involvement in the work process, the absolute submission to a hierarchy or pyramidal structure. The capitalism of the 60s is highly repressive and disciplinary: it exercises an authoritarian power that fixes bodies to places and functions. In the factory of course, but also in the family, the school, the hospital, the army, etc.

In the field of consumption, there is the absolute triumph of exchange value: any object can enter and circulate in the system, if it is susceptible to exchange for money. Nothing is sacred, there is nothing “untouchable”, everything can be profaned: sell, buy, market. Money is the absolute mediator, which destroys all others: the old pre-capitalist codes that once ruled the production and circulation of goods. In the end, there are no things, there are no people, there are no activities, there are no knowledge or beliefs: there are only different masks of exchange value.

The “human type” that is produced and reproduced is then the “homo economicus” that saves, calculates, negotiates, defends his interests, works, is docile, sober, serious, moderate. It is not a being “without desire”, but with a willing and obedient desire for the abstract.

The shift of desire in 1968

How to understand, from our own time, the movements of the 1960s? They are not social movements, localized and limited, with their appeals and demands, but rather shifts of desire, movements in the tectonic plates of society.

On the one hand, they suppose a gigantic withdrawal of desire that empties the sap from established channels and objects: the traditional family, factory work, serial individualism, authority, money, consumption and property, the love of a couple as proprietorial, etc.  This was a gigantic and invisible erosion: the human type proposed by bureaucratic capitalism is not criticized or denounced, but deserted en masse, through a displacement of libidinal investment.

What was wanted before is no longer so. Desire does not allow itself to be organised through the established institutions, disciplinary power is not able to produce and reproduce a certain type of body, young people do not recognize themselves or conduct themselves as “homo economicus” and the system seizes up.

On the other hand, desire arranges itself differently, it begins to function in another way, invests different things and other “values”: autonomy in the face of discipline and authority; the intensification of passions in the face of instrumental links with the world; the community against the hermetic individualism of social atoms. The political and countercultural experiences of the 60s shape a true parallel society composed of community spaces and projects, support networks and passionate links. Social desire leaks towards an “outside”.

To erase the intuition of 68

How are the 1960s read today? For the Right, they are the “scapegoat” upon which to project contemporary fears: thus, it is the 60s – and not the politics of precariousness and of the vulnerability of life – that are responsible for the decadence of all values, the generalized disorientation and the “chaos” of today’s society.

But the movements of the 60s are also subject to criticism from the other side. In a curious complicity with the Right, we read today Left critics lash out against them. We are told that 68 was basically a liberal movement that accelerated the emergence or consolidation of consumer society and of “modernity”, fragmenting the working class, promoting individualism, rejecting all tradition and all discipline in the name of narcissism, etc.

These analyses usually have neither head nor tail. But the important thing is to read the subtext of the criticisms: we must abandon the politics of desire and return to the forms of classical politics: the Party and the (electoral) conquest of power, the representation of the people identified as victims, identity or morals as springs and levers, the Left, etc. The only possible horizon for the politics of emancipation would be, according to these critics, the defense of the Welfare State, presently in the process of being dismantled.

The aim is thus to erase the intuition of 68.

My idea is just the opposite. If neoliberalism today is so strong, it is due not only to what or who it deceives and represses, but also because it presents itself as obvious and desirable. It is necessary to read the neoliberal counterrevolution of the last decades not simply as an attack on the make-up of the working class and salaries, but as a counter-coup in terms of desire.

In the 1960s, movements raced ahead and power chased them, catching young people who ran away and returning them home, etc. Today it is just the other way around. Think of the Airbnb (one example among a thousand): neoliberalism takes the initiative and the politics of the Left is limited (at best) to “regulating”. Capital reads the deep social currents, captures desire, knows how to translate all energies into money, invents and creates. And the Left often only aspires to imposing this or that tax on market flows.

If today the forces of emancipation are so effectively weak, it is precisely because they have lost touch with the intuition of 68. They no longer dispute the desirable and undesirable forms of life. Instead, they limit themselves to critical opinion, communicative politics, the resistance that resists nothing.

Taking the initiative again can only consist of raising anew the contest on the plane of desire: what kind of human being are we and do we want to be? But we must do so in changed conditions, because today we live in another economy of desire, very different from that of the 60s.

2018: a predatory regime of energy

What is the dominant position of desire today? Lyotard speaks in 1974, in a few visionary pages, of a “predatory” regime of energies.

The “predator” is not simply the vampire who sucks blood. The figure is different, more complex, more interesting: the predator exalts the energies (to steal them), it feeds on overexcited energies.

This resonates powerfully today with the capitalism of finance, the politics of extraction, unregulated speculation, the penetration of capital into layers of living beings (human and non-human) that had remained untouched, pillage, looting and sexist violence as forms of conquest: in sum, what is known as neoliberalism.

And desire? Neoliberalism not only represses or disciplines, it also intensifies energies: it mobilizes, agitates, stimulates. The “human type” that produces and reproduces is no longer the “homo economicus”, but what we might call the “maximizer”, animated by the desire for always-more. The maximizer does not seek savings, moderation, sobriety or seriousness, but indefinite self-improvement: continuous training, maximum flexibility, constant evaluation, permanent competition, etc.

It is the “wolf” of Wall Street: deranged, always doped, wasteful, predator of sexual contacts, over-accelerated, without measure, impatient, immodest, shameless. Always high: the kind of intensity proposed by neoliberalism is the rush.

From boredom to stress

Neoliberalism no longer tells us no (“you can not”), but yes (“you can and should”). It does not force us as an external power, but as an inner and voluntary one. It does not suppress jouissance (or does not place jouissance under repression), but arouses it. It is a modulation of desire, from which it seems much more difficult to escape.

But this also happens: neoliberalism, by taking over desire, mistreats it and causes enormous suffering. We have to start from that discomfort, that suffering. What do I want to say?

The old regulatory regime repressed, disciplined and rigidly fixed bodies to places and functions, massively producing boredom.

Boredom, as a dispassionate life, as a minimisation of enjoyment, was a major force in the revolutionary response of the 1960s. “We do not want a world in which the guarantee of not starving is the guarantee of dying of boredom”, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem wrote, a phrase that became a popular slogan.

The predatory regime mobilizes, forces and demands, thus producing what we colloquially call stress. A mixture of anxiety and stress due to the overload of tasks, the uninterrupted mobilization of mental energies, the constant stimulation of attention, the unlimited working time confused with life.

From boredom to stress, from the repression of life (channeled, reined, corseted) to the mobilization of life (overloaded, overexcited, overstimulated). From the burden to the “fatigue”, an exhaustion that is spoken of in a thousand daily conversations and that would not be that of the worker turned into an “intelligent gorilla”, but the mental fatigue of stress, anguish and guilt for not “always being up to the task”. And from fatigue to depression: the radical fall of energies, the loss of motivation, the other side of the predatory regime.

Desire today is electrocuted and segmented. Electrocuted, when pressed and stretched by external requirements. Segmented, in interruption and constant discontinuity, the fragmentation and corrosion of all duration.

The shift of desire in 2018

At the end of One-Dimensional Man, his famous critical essay on the society of the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse cited the following passage from Walter Benjamin: “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us”.

It remains that way. Hope is in the discomfort generated by the performance imperative, among those who say “I can not anymore”, “I do not want more”.

The anguished, the suffocated, the exhausted, the dejected, the crushed, the saturated, the overwhelmed, the burned out, the burdened, the electrocuted: they are the ones who can (we can) prick the dominant position of desire today: the always-more.

But, what interrupts today? How do we avoid the performance imperative? How do we desert the figure of the “maximizer”? A new attack is necessary on the “libidinal economy” of neoliberalism, on its organisation of desire; a kind of blackout of our desiring energies.

This “struggle” is not necessarily epic, heroic and collective. One should not underestimate slow, drop by drop, desertion and personal blackouts.  David Le Breton has examined for example subtle ways of disrespect for the imperative of “being oneself”, of being permanently connected and available, of always being up to the task.  He speaks of “silence” and “walking”.  He proposes that these be seen as forms of political resistance, as active forms of flight from the noise of the permanent connection, as ways of making contact again, not with the Self, but with one’s own desire, as exercises to attend to one’s own strength (rhythm, body, breathing), as non-commodified enjoyments, that are not “capitalised”, that are not means to ends.

There are also moments of collective blackout.  Some fragments of society then begin to vibrate together.  Sometimes they claim something and sometimes they do not, sometimes they have an elaborated discourse and sometimes they do not: the important thing is that they organize themselves in such a way that the neoliberal way of life is questioned.  Life is lived differently, a taste for a different existence is seized.  For a period of time, the anguish, the anxiety, the hamster’s mad path is brought to an end.  The energies are transferred from work and consumption to support a moment of collective life.  We no longer want to be somewhere else than where we are.  We have all the time in the world: maximum concentration of energy, exhaustion, but happy exhaustion.  Many of the pathologies of everyday life vanish and desire regenerates.

To live without dead times and enjoy without obstacles

On the walls of Paris, someone writes: “vivre sans temps mort, jouir sans entraves”.  It was a slogan against boredom. But today we can no longer simply oppose life to death, liberation to repression, the new to the old, intensity to boredom, the outside to what is inside. The blackouts are just dead times in which we stop to think and recover contact with our desire as a center of gravity. It is not about breaking – with parents, with work, with the environment -, but about interrupting the predatory logic in relationship to everything.  It is not about leaving society towards the “liberated zones”, but about pushing the transformation wherever we are.  It is not about living in a permanent high, but about affirming other intensities (more subtle, with ups and downs) and other relationships with them.

The only thing that can substantially change things is to start to live differently.  This is the intuition of 68.  Today, only the conditions and terms of the challenge have changed.

A few references [which we have left unchanged]:

Algunas referencias:

Derivas a partir de Marx y Freud, Jean-François Lyotard, editorial Fundamentos, 1975.

Dispositivos pulsionales, Jean-François Lyotard, Editorial Fundamentos, 1981.

Economía libidinal, Jean-François Lyotard, Siglo XXI, 1991.

About the regime of “always more”, see, for example La nueva razón del mundo,Christian Laval y Pierre Dardot, Gedisa, 2016.

* Jean-Claude Seine was a militant photographer of france’s May 68.  For an online collection of this work, click here.  

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