Imagine if something impossible happened. Like if some five million Australians went on a general strike. Imagine if the strike spread to every sector of the economy, all across the country, from Kununurra to Sydney. Imagine if teachers and students deserted the schools, tradies downed tools on construction sites, workers occupied the factories, hospitality and retail servers walked off the job, even the professional classes abandoned their offices, and people (particularly women) refused to do unpaid and unrecognised domestic and emotional labour. Imagine if this strike had already lasted for an entire month and that there was no end in sight.
With a quarter of the population refusing to work, the economy would grind to a halt, and (re)production of existing society would simply stop. There would be no shopping, because the retail workers are on strike. No eating out, because hospitality workers are on strike. No public transport, no freight, no mail, and no deliveries, because strike. Mainstream media and all commodified cultural production would cease, because even the workers in these industries are on strike. With the roads blockaded, silence would descend over the country. Everywhere that is, except on those streets where the police battled protesters in an attempt to reinstate the status quo. But like when the curtain is pulled on the Wizard of Oz, the gig is already up. Government has already been rendered impotent.
A general insurrection of this nature is pretty much what occurred in France during the month of May in 1968. At its peak some nine million people took to the streets, not only in metropolitan Paris, but also in every other region across the country. No village was left untouched. Fearing revolution, President Charles de Gaulle fled to Germany. The protesters remained on the streets but did not seize control of the country or government. So de Gaulle returned – with the backing of the military – and refused to step down as President. He then dissolved the National Assembly, paving the way for fresh elections to take place in June. The French Communist Party – which at the time was among the largest political parties in the country – helped break the strike by going from factory to factory telling workers to go back to work, that it was all over. Over time, normalcy returned to France.
In her 2004 book on the subject, May '68 and Its Afterlives, Kristen Ross explores how over the following decades the country’s collective memory is encoded with an “official story” that works to dehistoricize and depoliticize the events that actually took place in and around May 1968. This official narrative first and foremost erases the fact that “May 68” was a movement taking place over the course of several decades. The general strike that occurred in May was not in any way a spontaneous uprising but was rather the result and culmination of many years of relationship building and community organising – since at least the Algerian War for Independence in the mid-1950s. Another misleading “official” memory is that May 68 was a cultural – rather than political – revolution. This characterisation only makes sense if we lose sight of the fact that participants had identified capitalism, Gaullism (French Conservatism), and American imperialism as their ideological targets. Protesters’ staunch opposition to the American War in Vietnam is papered over and the links they drew between the ongoing colonial project and consumer capitalism are made invisible. This official story is a conservative ploy – by thinkers on both the so-called left and right – to neutralise the radical potential of the movement we now call May 68.
The general insurrection began as a student uprising, but morphed into a general strike as sector after sector of workers walked off the job. Material produced during this time makes it clear that workers felt alienated and were fed up with the boring and repetitive nature of modern work. They began to question why their so-called democracy was limited to voting once every couple of years and why democracy was seemingly off-limits in the workplace, where people spent the majority of their waking hours. If democracy is all about voting, they asked, then why don’t we get to vote in our bosses? As Ross explains, May 68 “sought above all … to contest the domain of the expert, [and] to disrupt the system of naturalized spheres of competence (especially the sphere of specialized politics)." Participants demanded authority be distributed among the people, for more deliberation and group discussion, and to bring about an end to hierarchical bureaucracies where no one is ever really responsible for anything. As such, the antagonists of 68 were protesting against the rigid and hierarchical nature of established anti-capitalist groups just as much as they were protesting against capitalism itself.
It must be recalled that by 1968, news of the Soviet Union’s descent into an authoritarian dictatorship had reached the West. People knew about Stalin and his gulags. As such, the idea that a vanguard party could seize control of the nation-state, institute a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and lead the country through socialism into utopian communism had lost credence. It turned out that Soviet Russia could administer the colonial project and oppress her own people just as well as capitalist America could. This is why the nine million people who took to the streets in France during the month of May in 1968 did not attempt to usurp the existing power structures. They did not do revolution as they were supposed to do revolution because they realised that taking control of the state alone is a poisoned chalice; just as you win, you become the very thing you were fighting against. By not confusing the seizure of state power with successful revolution, the uprising of May 68 reveals both what a new society could look like and the means by which we could potentially hope to achieve it.
Rather than aiming to take control of the existing hierarchical system of government and simply replacing the people who occupied the structural positions of authority, the movement’s goal was to discredit the very idea of large hierarchical systems; to mock the small number of people – both “left” and “right” wing – who had the audacity to call themselves “experts” – people who seem to truly believe that they know better than the rest of us and therefore are the only ones who can be trusted to “lead the country” and “run the economy”. With the country on strike, people suddenly had a lot more time on their hands; so they activated the relationships they’d been building for the past decade or so, and through the communities they’d been organising, experimented with deliberative and dispersed democracy(s). As an anonymous tract written during the uprising explained, “It is not a problem of knowing who will be at the head of everyone, but rather how everyone will form one head." That the formal power structures of society did not change hands as a result of the events of May 68 is not evidence that it was a failed revolution, but rather reveals that it is a mistake to conceptualise of revolution as a temporal moment rather than a collective way of life; a long-term project that extends well before and well after what is typically taken as the so-called revolutionary moment. Revolution is as much about a collective way of being as it is about wresting control of existing institutions.
From the general strike of May 68 we learn that when enough workers stop working it is possible to shut down the entire economy of an advanced capitalist country. We also learn that state power and authority is contingent, rather than an inevitable fact. On the converse, in the premature conclusion to the uprising and the subsequent political defanging of the broader movement through collective (mis)remembering, we see the immense power and inertia of organised capital in action. At play is what decolonial scholars describe as the colonial matrix of power. To state the obvious: boring, repetitive, and exploitative work (capitalism), American imperialism, technocratic governance, and tokenistic democracy all still exist in France today; they exist the world over. As such, when anyone labels the uprising of May 68 as a failed revolution, it bears recalling the self-evident fact that no revolution has ever defeated capital and broken the colonial matrix of power. The discourse around “successful” and “failed” revolutions is distracting and obscures any clues that might be revealed by how May 68 played out: the uprising didn’t succeed or fail, it happened.
We can conceptualise the general uprising of May 68 as a rupture that took place in the dominant reality. What is revealed is that the dominant reality is really only a – particularly powerful and oppressive – reality that falsely masquerades as the reality. As such, rather than thinking of revolutions in terms of alternative realities which might win or lose, we could instead be better off thinking of revolutions in terms of optional realities that coexist, coproduce each other, and are always already entangled in power dynamics. The problem with using the language of alternatives is that it forces you to accept the logic that there is a dominant reality “to which nothing but alternatives could exist. You lose the match before starting the game.” What is particularly powerful about the uprisings of May 68 is that they showed the impossible is indeed possible. May 68 reminds us that what bell hooks describes as the imperial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is neither an inevitable fact nor the natural way for society to be structured. Now that capitalist realism – described by Mark Fisher as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”* – has taken hold, a decolonized collective memory of the uprisings of May 68 is perhaps more important than ever before.
Speaking of less exploitative and coercive ways of organising society, in this place we now call Australia, the continued existence and resistance of First Nations communities is an ever-present reminder that society in this country was not always structured as an imperial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and that it need not always remain one. As the chant, “always was, always will be Aboriginal Land” reminds us, multiple realities always already coexist in this country. Because the dominant (colonial) reality masquerades as the only reality, the very existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is conceived as a threat. This is partly why so much energy has been put into genocide and driving First Nations people off their lands, and why so much effort is expended today in an attempt to render invisible those First Nations people who continue to survive the ongoing colonial project. Large gatherings of First Nations people and their supporters – especially overtly political gatherings such as Camp Freedom, which was part of the recent Stolenwealth Games protests – are especially threatening; this is why, out of all protest actions that take place in so called Australia, First Nations led protests in particular are targeted for violent militarized police repression. As Dr Aunty Mary Graham reminds us, “Indigenous Australian philosophy is more than a survivalist kit to understanding nature, human or environmental, but is also a system for realising the fullest potential of human emotion and experience." Not only does the continued existence of First Nations communities disrupt the myth that colonial society is the only reality (it is merely the dominant reality), there is also much First Nations people – through the knowledges and philosophies they carry – could teach non-indigenous people the world over (particularly settlers) about organising society so that everyone can flourish.
Both the uprisings of May 68 and First Nations peoples’ continued existence and resistance help us answer the crucial question of what happens the day after the revolutionary moment. They provide a clue as to how we might ensure the political goals of a mass uprising are not lost in what comes after. We see the emergence of a potential strategy, revolution-as-a-way-of-being: where the collective prefigurative enactment of a desired better world, by a significant minority of the population, paralyses and displaces existing power structures. The word collective must be stressed here. By prefigurative politics I do not mean individual lifestyle choices – although these obviously comprise a small part. Rather, I see prefigurative politics as many different collectives or groups forming webs of relationality and working out how to coexist in peace in the here and now. While this may sound utopian, it is not a possible future to be invented but rather a repressed reality(s) that already exists. We see this reality(s) not only in First Nations resistance but also in random acts of kindness, when your neighbour gives you flour, and when Maiwar (Brisbane River) floods and the entire city turns out to lend a helping hand. Although no reality can escape the effects of capitalism, capitalism is not a totalising fact. Small examples of non-capitalist ways of being take place all the time. If we build on these non-capitalist instances and organise our communities over several decades, one day we might have the collective power to take to the streets and simply never leave.
Of course as with any strategy, there are lessons to be learnt and kinks to be worked out. Key among these is that prefigurative politics alone is not enough; the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is simply too powerful. If we wish to break the status quo’s stranglehold on our reality, then we must simultaneously engage with and infiltrate the formal structures of government while also encouraging and strengthening existing-yet-repressed non-capitalist realities and collective ways of being. It’s not a matter of arguing that prefigurative politics is more expedient than institutional politics (or vice versa). We need people pursuing both strategies – and other strategies too, such as co-opting the system’s knowledge factories (universities). In terms of an emancipatory movement’s engagement with institutional politics, any position of power at any level of government is ostensibly beneficial, but for me municipal power and taking control of local city councils seems to hold particularly transformative potential. We see this in the rise of the new municipalist movement which took off with the election of Barcelona en Comú in 2015. At a moment when all hope for a better world seems lost, we might remember what Jean-Paul Sartre wrote shortly after the uprisings of May 68: “What is important is that the action took place, at a time when everyone judged it to be unthinkable. If it took place, then it can happen again."
* Even though Fisher attempts to disrupt capitalist realism, by using the discourse of alternatives he ends up reinforcing capitalism’s colonization of reality
Taylor writes, works, and lives on lands stolen from the Jagera, Yugara, Yugarapul, and Turrbal Nations. They pay their respects to elders past, present, and emerging. As a disaffected student of philosophy, their goal is take up Aimé Césaire’s invitation “to see clearly, to think clearly – that is, dangerously.”