French politics can seem pretty unfathomable to even well-informed Americans, probably because the mental leap involved with imagining youth that understand politics and actually take collective action drains our energy and leaves it with little brain power to sort out the details. Perhaps its a hangover of the nationwide hatchet job that a generation of American journalists and politicians have done on the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s-era American campus “radicals”—portraying them as smug, selfish, self-involved, naive, hedonistic, coddled Maoist wannabes whose main achievement was to shift culture even more toward the celebration of “non-conformist” individualism, the very thing that props up the consumer-capitalist system they railed against in the first place—that has me cynical that any kind of meaningful student protest, let alone taking down a government, could occur in America. Maybe if the military started drafting kids against their will again, it would happen; that seems the ultimate source of the energy behind the protests in the 1960s. The French protests reveal how much French youth expect from the society in which they live—the fundamental guarantee of job security along with the generous provisions for health care and time off. It’s only logical that they would protest for this kind of security (even if what they demand perpetuates the overall insecurity while protecting a fortunate few), as the blinkered French economy seems to do a poor job generating opportunity. I’m not qualified to opine on the righteousness of these protests, but I’m just struck by their very existence, the sort of hopefulness they are ultimately rooted in that’s utterly absent in America, where everyone sullenly confronts two and a half more years of corrupt incompetence, despite the ensuing midterm elections. The overwhelming amount of scandal seems to have an inverse effect on one’s propensity to vote against it—it seems so overwhelming, it feels like no change could begin to make a difference in the way the country has gone so far off-course. But then, that’s what the kleptocracy counts on. It’s political shock and awe of a sort—the sheer outageousness of the Bush administration shocks one into stunned impotence.
John Berger, in this article about the student protests, puts things into perspective and offers something of an antidote.
The rhetoric of today’s political leaders serves neither construction nor conservation. Its aim is to dismantle. Dismantle what has been inherited from the past, socially, economically and ethically, and, in particular, all the associations, regulations and mechanisms expressing solidarity.
The End of History, which is the Corporate global slogan, is not a prophecy, but an order to wipe out the past and what it has bequeathed everywhere. The market requires every consumer and employee to be massively alone in the present.
No electorate is yet prepared to accept such a dismantling. And for a simple reason. The act of voting, however manipulated or free the election, is a way of assembling memories in support of a proposed future programme. We touch here the profound contradiction between the tyranny of the world market and democracy, between so-called consumer choice and citizens’ rights.
It’s nice to see he retains faith in the electorate’s inherent collectivity. But fewer and fewer citizens in democracies are motivated to join the electorate. If Berger’s right, the degree to which we confuse freedom with consumer choice is the degree to which our voting becomes irrelevent, feels pointless, seems insignificant and unsatisfactory. This is probably why we’ll never see American students taking to the barricades anytime soon; why bother with that when it’s just as personally, individually satisfying to buy a new pair of jeans? They’ve started the real denim revolution.