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To build or to demolish? Rethinking 1968

by Gabriele Nissim

Berkeley (1965)

Berkeley (1965) © Jim Marshall Photography LLC

In the introduction to one of her best-known books, Towards a sociology of knowledge of everyday life, published in 1970, Agnes Heller quoted a poetic sentence by Goethe: “When somebody is born, he builds a home, then he dies and he leaves this home to somebody else, who will keep on building it and nobody will ever stop building it (or demolishing it).”
The German word “to build” is ambiguous, as it also suggests the possibility of its opposite.
The philosopher who inspired the school of Budapest, which then summoned some of the best intellectuals of Hungarian dissent, wanted to underline this way that the human beings who are thrown into the world (an expression made famous by Heiddeger) inherit thoughts and behaviours, which in turn they work out to then pass them on to the following generations. And yet this construction never ends in history, because no one ever manages to reach the Truth and Good. It is a continuous path, where we can measure the freedom of the human being, but whose outcome can lead to a progress, but can cause a stepping back, as well. Nothing is ever granted nor definitive and everything can be questioned.

If today I look at the time of 1968 and my own particular experience, I realize how so many achievements of those times have entered people’s common sense, while some values that a whole generation had discovered, albeit among many contradictions, are not very popular right now. When a high school pupil asks me to explain to him the differences between his and my generation, I usually discuss the following points.

We lived with the hope of seeing a rapid world change. We used to nurture a great optimism. Everything seemed possible. The buzzword of French May was the following: it is just the beginning, let’s keep on fighting. By this vision, which made us believe in the opportunity of a great historic leap, there was also an ambiguity that led somebody to embrace terrorism. Because the goal was just behind the corner, the most extremist groups thought of accelerating the Jacobin conquest of the state apparatus. However, despite these contradictions, which cost a lot to the youth of those times, we moved on with the great trust of being able to rapidly change all our relationships in our daily lives, between men and women, at school as well as at the workplace.

Today instead, what seems to be dominating is the fear of an uncertain future. The courage to take risks that accompanied by generation seems to fall short now. For many people, it is not worth daring or hoping in change, but the stake is rather self-defence in the face of a world that can swallow us.
If you live with trust and hope, your approach to existence is the one of construction, openness towards the other, and possible change. When you are scared, instead, you can only think of destruction. To prompt change, say some interpreters of an apocalyptic vision – like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s ideologue who finds many supporters in populist movements -, you should get international relations, multilateralism, Europe, United Nations, and the very rules of representative democracy to explode. Maybe the correct explanation of the success of some political movements in Europe is a kind of nihilism according to which, nothing can be done and therefore we must destroy, then we will see.

In 1968, we felt we were taking part in every urge to liberation all over the world. Probably it was a kind of a naive internationalism, as we looked with hope also at dictators such as Mao and Fidel Castro, who built totalitarian societies, but in this universal approach, we felt we were world citizens. There was no international event, from Africa to Latin America, that did not concern us closely. Today, instead, we seem to fall short of any cosmopolitical world vision and get back to small homelands, sovereignism, and our backyard. It is the world around us, which becomes a threat, and imperils our identities. It is nearly an epochal upset. Before, the highest value was contamination, openness to the different, the taste of building a world together with the others. We travelled to go and see the factories, meet the workers, learn about the persecuted people, change ourselves, because this was the spirit of the journey; today, despite the social networks, the revolution in communication, the possibility to travel around the world at a low price, the preservation of ourselves and our ego seems to be the highest expression of freedom. As a consequence, we must put our interests above those of the others, as the slogans of the populists do. Thus, from Brexit, we passed to Trump’s American first, the self-centred forms of nationalism in Hungary and Poland, and Salvini’s defence of the Italians.

The idea of peace that, albeit with a lot of naivetés, had mobilized my generation, conveying the idea of the end of conflicts in Europe and the world, seems to fade. Today, instead, we see resurface the culture of enmity, force, and clash. Thus, in the name of the defence of one’s own interests, it seems again as legitimate to think of conflicts between the nations. A trend, which, unless blocked, can even re-propose the idea of war as a necessity. Who would ever have thought to see the majority of our Parliament applaud a minister who, instead of seeking cooperation with France about the migrant issue, suggests the cancellation of a summit between the two countries, with heavy words from another era?
Our generation had looked at the emancipation of the peoples of the third world, Africa and Asia, with the idea that we needed to overcome inequality and promote the development of that part of the world, which the West had colonized. There had been mistakes, as well, like when in the name of a Western responsibility, we justified anti-democratic regimes and were silent about human rights violations, or we accepted unacceptable violence along the liberation pathway. An example among many other was the justification of Palestinian terrorism.
Today instead, the Third World, which is entering Europe with its migrants, following wars and climate change, is seen as the threat that will lead to the destruction of our civilization.

The problem was no more that of the construction of a solidarity towards the poorer countries, but the one of cementing a European solidarity in order to stop immigration. This is why Salvini finds himself at ease with Mrs Le Pen in France and Orban in Hungary. We don’t think of acceptance with a shared responsibility that does not place the burden on Italy and Greece only, but to push back the refugees as a whole. We do not talk about what we should do to help Africa, but we discuss how to get rid of Africa.
Thus the human condition in the third world is no more an issue of conscience, but it is turned into the worst danger for our future.

Nothing in this contradictory image of the present time has to be taken for granted. The achievements of yesterday can be suddenly erased. But as Goethe grasped, it is in these moments that we decide whether it is the time to build or to demolish our home. This is why it is well worth rethinking 1968, without falling into rhetoric and nostalgia.

Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

14 June 2018

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