Lamenting the lost spirit of ’68

‘We want structures that serve people, not people that serve structures!’ ‘The revolution doesn’t belong to the committees. It’s yours!’ ‘The boss needs you. You don’t need him!’ ‘This concerns everyone!’

No, not the slogans of the Occupy movement – the self-styled 99% – but those of a previous uprising: France 1968, when students and workers took to the streets to protest against the established order. The established order remained intact, but for many on the left 1968 remains a talismanic date, standing not just for political revolution but for social revolution too – for sexual, chemical and musical experimentation. As Timothy Garton Ash has noted, it even has prophetic properties. Rotate 68 through 180 degrees and you get the number associated with the next great uprising of the twentieth century: 89 – communism’s annus horribilis.

Born in 1932, Sylvia Lawson is perhaps a little old to consider herself a true ‘sixty-eighter’. Nevertheless, her excellent book Demanding the Impossible is suffused with the spirit of 68, or, as she calls it, ‘that wild democracy’. Indeed, it even takes its title from another slogan from that year of upheaval: ‘Get real – demand the impossible!’

Subtitled Seven Essays on Resistance, Lawson’s book is a meditation on the varieties of political activism and journalistic and artistic endeavour that together make up the spirit of resistance. The essays venture far and wide: to Alice Springs, where the Aboriginal community struggles to cope with yet another set of regulations imposed on it from Canberra; back to wartime France, where Resistance heroes such as Jean Moulin and Germaine Tillion fight against the Nazi occupation; to East Timor, where the Balibo Five are cut down by Indonesian soldiers and where Australia’s ambassador Richard Woolcott pursues a policy of Kissingerian pragmatism, which is to say Kissingerian cynicism. In the final essay, Lawson juxtaposes France in 1968 and Australia in 2011. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she finds the latter deficient in revolutionary élan.

There is a strong note of elegy in Demanding the Impossible. At a number of points throughout the book, Lawson gives us a fictionalised account of what I’m sure is her own relationship with a group of older, unnamed women. These femmes d’un certain age (as she describes them) function as a kind of chorus commenting on the state of progressive politics. They recall past ideological struggles; and, like the good left-wingers they are, take up such causes as command their sympathy. But their tone is one of disappointment, a disappointment metaphorically figured by the faded MAI ’68 T-shirt one of them wears on demonstrations. Why, they wonder, are the marches so ill-attended? Where are the activists of yesteryear?

There is another, more direct, sense in which Demanding the Impossible is elegiac. The book begins and ends with tributes to the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006, and contains a number of moving passages on journalists killed in the line of duty. For Lawson, the freedom fighter and the crusading journalist exist in a symbiotic relationship: the one fights for justice; the other gets the story out. (Information, she writes at one point, is as important as ammunition.) Lowering her flag in the direction of those journalists to have paid the ultimate price for their craft, Lawson also draws on her skills as one of Australia’s best critics of film in order to show how artistic endeavour can keep the flame of justice alive. Her essay on the Balibo Five and the role of Robert Connolly’s Balibo in keeping their deaths in the public eye is exemplary in this regard.

Lawson, of course, is a journalist herself, and shares with the most serious practitioners of that craft a nose for the obfuscatory phrase. Thus, when she happens upon Richard Woolcott waxing political about the Indonesian invasion that did for those five Australian journos, she’s alive to the deployment of euphemism. ‘Fretilin’s continuing resistance,’ writes Woolcott, referring to the Front for an Independent East Timor, ‘was undermining the viability of incorporation.’ To this staggering sentence, which appears in Woolcott’s 2003 memoir The Hot Seat, Lawson responds with cutting sardonicism: ‘We can only wonder in what sense the diplomat imagines that “incorporation” could possibly have been viable, had Fretilin only been a bit less of a nuisance.’

It’s a source of regret that Lawson’s deadline prevented her from considering the Occupy movement. After all, that movement, it could be argued, is a partial riposte to the underlying tone of disillusionment in Demanding the Impossible. What, I wonder, would ‘the chorus’ make of this new and ostensibly unique phenomenon: not resistance to an occupation but occupation as resistance?

Before we can consider the importance of the movement, we have to know precisely what transpired, and in this sense Occupying Wall Street is a necessary document. The Wall Street protest was, of course, the one that caught the world’s attention. Inspired by the uprisings in North Africa and the Indignados movement in Spain, it began in response to a blog-post from Adbusters, the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine: ‘Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On Sept 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.’ The plan was for an occupation of a few months to protest against corporate greed in general and the influence of money in politics in particular. It was a brilliant piece of political branding.

Based substantially on interviews with protestors, and written by no one in particular (in keeping with the democratic, leaderless nature of the movement it describes), Occupying Wall Street charts the rise and evolution of the Zuccotti Park protest. As one who has doubts about OWS – Why the conspicuous lack of demands? Why this fetish of ‘horizontality’? – I admit to having been partly won over. The key to this change of heart is the recognition that OWS was as much a model of an alternative society as it was a program for a changed one; not a traditional protest movement but a miracle of self-assembly and self-organisation.

The problem is that a popular movement enamoured of its own organisation doesn’t make for exciting reading. It’s not that there aren’t interesting details. It’s an inspiration to hear of the ways in which the protesters outwitted the New York authorities with improvised solutions such as the ‘people’s mic’ (that ingenious method of human amplification). But the organisational detail grates. The opening chapters especially are an alphabet soup of acronyms; committees for this and working groups for that swim before the reader’s eyes. Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night this is not.

That book was published in 1968 and dealt with another kind of protest altogether: a march against the Vietnam War. There, the protestors weren’t demanding the impossible, though the US Government ignored them nonetheless. It remains to be seen if a popular movement that makes very few demands at all will have any more success in the future.

Sylvia Lawson, Demanding the Impossible: Seven Essays on Resistance
MUP; $32.99; 181pp

Writers for the 99%, Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America
Scribe; $12.99; 215pp

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First published in The Australian.