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1968, a libertarian and libertine movement

by Salvatore Natoli

We publish below the translated transcription of the speech by Salvatore Natoli to the presentation of the book "Che fine ha fatto il '68. Fu vera gloria?" (What happened to 1968. Was it true glory?), by Giovanni Cominelli (Ed. Guerini), on Friday 8 June in the Sala del Grechetto of the Sormani Library of Milan.

I had already had the occasion to take part in a similar meeting, the presentation at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore) of the book Il ’68 in Cattolica, that was constructed in quite the same way. That book though did not stem from the protagonists of those times, like the stories we will mention today. It rather stemmed from a collective of 19 years old boys who turned to us for information about their fathers. There are people who tell about their stories to appraise their lives and others who do it because someone asks them to: they interweave beautifully all through it.

The book Che fine ha fatto il ’68 (What happened to 1968?) is formed by several different stories. It would be interesting to identify the common features between them, as well as acknowledging the unrepeatability of the biographies that build the book, in which each author gives his or her own version of 1968, telling about his or her appraisal of those years and how their awareness changed over the following years. We ask ourselves what is left of that past, what was right and what was wrong, and every appraisal is radically different from any other, even if there are some common traits.

If I had to characterize 1968 as a whole, I should start from an assumption, which may sound as obvious, even if it is often forgotten: 1968 is an outcome, a transition, and also a beginning. It is a mixture of these three things. Saying 1968 is like saying 14th July for the French revolution, an emblematic day, an explosive moment. Lives though are not like this, history is certainly made of ruptures, but also of great stability. And one of the alleged reasons for the failure of things is because continuity has kept up with discontinuity. The protagonists of that moment believed they had “broken” history, but history is “resistant”. I have always preferred the historiographical cut of so-called long period history: it gives better explanations and it makes room for a more victorious attitude, it does not deny change, but it also shows how ruptures can be re-absorbed within the course of events. For example, Stalin’s Russia, which was materialistic and anticlerical, in order to mobilize for the fight had to summon its Orthodox past. That because history existed and it did not suffice to declare yourself a materialist to delete it: there was a remembrance identity that needed to be interwoven with the new ideas and events.

1968 can be interpreted as the ultimate outcome of the post-WWII time, the outcome of the 1950s and 1960s. With it, the revolution of hunger and the great migrant flows, the myth of redemption from exploitation came to end. Great and emblematic of those years was the movie “Rocco e i suoi fratelli” by Luchino Visconti: the land of olive trees that becomes the industrial working class, the great migration from the South. In 1968, students were largely sons of this migration, they were not Milanese. There already had been a bio-anthropological transformation of the Italian society, with all its different ways to conceive redemption: the sons of the middle class saw it differently from the sons of the workers. The latter, after toiling all life, did not understand their son’s rebellion: “how comes that I overcame hunger, I want you to study, and you waste your time. How can you do this after all I have done for you?”. So stemmed a misunderstanding between the elders and youths, a tension between past and present, as a consequence of the exit from exploitation, of the reconstruction, of the experimentation of wealth and the following economic boom. Still in the late 1950s, at Fiat there were the Yellow Unions: workers felt privileged if compared with the others, would never think of clashing with the patrons, as they were precisely the people that came from the peasant South, for whom that job was as worth as a bank position.

It was with the beginning of the Sixties that the big rebirth of the Italian trade unions started, with the great strikes for the wages, the qualification of work, the shifts – no more “better wage” but rather “better quality of work”. Once I took part in one of the first worker strikes in Piazza Mercanti - there was also a great man, Pierre Carniti of the Fim of Milan. And by chance, I appeared on a newspaper. By the way, in 1968 I had a beard and I looked like Lenin. “But alas, we sent him to the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and he appears like this, an agitator, on a secular newspaper”, was the reaction of my father. Then there was the explosion of the access to consumption. If on the one hand there was a criticism of elitist, offensive and snub consumerism, on the other hand, there was the demand for the broadening of average consumption to improve one’s own wellbeing: economy cars, Fiat 600, the big boom of electric appliances that freed people from toil. We were not against consumption but against the elite’s show-off consumerism.

1968 was the outcome of an emancipation movement demanding more freedom. With the surfacing in the society of a new libertarian demand, old codes looked like a limitation to free consumption. The idea of a broadening of opportunities was already breaking through: once there was a Topolino for each family, while over the 1970s there started to be at least two cars for each household, and so on. People thought of consumption as of a form of independence: people liked having a “small car” or a motorbike, it was a small consumption that coincided with an experience of freedom.
The discussion on the great ethical and moral codes in the Catholic world, especially sexual morals, then produced a total upheaval. The emancipation of women and feminism can be discussed in plenty of ways, as they have been a watershed, like the workers’ movement in the 19th century. We must emphasize a key element: the contraceptive pill, or the technique that becomes a factor of liberation, the “having the right to pleasure without consequences”, which means that at least in the sphere of biology, science had created a pattern of freedom and independence.

The Sixties were also the years of the crisis of the family, the freedom of partnership. While the idea of family as a prison – also thanks to British literature – started spreading, the traditional family disgregated, letting the subjectivity of the individual emerge. And this individual, albeit condemning elite and snobbish consumerism, felt he was entitled to a right of consumption as pleasure. One of the canonical books of those years was Eros and Civilization, by German philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse: a combination of Marx and Freud, for which Togliatti would turn in his grave – he who had published in the italian newspaper l’Unità an editorial against Psychoanalisis as perversion and bourgeois individualism.
1968, which produced such a contamination, can also be defined as the outcome of the libertine and libertarian movement. Libertine as the unconditional right to pleasure: luxury consumption was criticized, but at the same time proletarian expropriation was encouraged. And what is this, if not the use of something, without paying for it? Consumerism conceived as a right. Libertarian, as a claim of a right to command, at universities and in factories.
The word that comprises 1968 is protest: “I protest against what you say because you must prove your authority to say it”. A key feature was then the Marxist language: in Italy, communists represented the opposition, so whoever wanted to protest could only use the terminology of the left, which was the only force allowed to expressed dissent. This was blatant for instance in some Southern villages, where those who left their wives, to legitimize this act that went against the traditional morals, said he was a communist to make an ideology out of his behaviour. The language of the left thus became also the one of personal freedom.

Has this outcome of 1968 failed? I would say in its libertine dynamics it has not failed, it has become the hedonism of the 1980s. However, from a pleasure conceived as universal, of all and for all, in the 1980s society moved to “everybody seeks his or her own pleasure and the more he or she reaches it, the best it is for him or her.”
Thus the process, from propulsive has become degenerative: the right to pleasure has become a privilege, rather than a libertarian benefit. The sexual liberation has de facto become the energy machine to produce subjection, through a permanent excitement of society. The critical desire against has become the energy used to establish a new power. The whole fashion system has been built on this basis: the elusive sight, a pervasive eroticism, sex that causes no more shame. We are ashamed only of sorrow and death and a pitiless society emerges from this. Volunteers think of the serious issues, but all others just lead their own lives. The right of speech “that disputes arrogance” becomes, 20 years later, the “arrogance of the ignorant”: the professor loses his authorities, he is slapped, there is no more “word of liberation” but rather the “right to ignorance”.

It is in the political sphere that 1968 really failed: it clashed against power but did not pull it down. It failed because the Italian society was not a political society, but rather a society divided into political parties, the democratic apparatus of the State was weak and unable to stop terrorism – as opposed to France and Germany. A weak politics unable to stop a provocative and perverse terrorism, together with a corruptive system that led to 10 heavy and bloody years, whose apex was the Moro Affair.

To this, we may add a corruption system, in which also some leading groups of 1968 were involved, who in the meanwhile had divided between terrorists, repatriated into the Communist Party out of resignation and co-opted into power by the government.

The protagonists of this book still manage to be libertarian and sane, despite all, have remained uncorrupted. That political mechanism, which had reined in the very 1968 movement, would then collapse upon itself when the food chain did not feed everybody anymore and Tangentopoli exploded (a big judiciary case whose name can be translated to “Kickbackopolis”, exploded). We are still in that drift: the Second Republic is the outcome of the First one and today, while we ask ourselves whether there will still be a Republic, we are the first European laboratory of populist parties on power, as well as we were the first laboratory of the fascist parties running a country.

Analysis by Salvatore Natoli, philosopher

22 June 2018

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