Under the Paving Stones I: Sadly High Probability, A History Boy, 12/03/2018

I’m Canadian, not French. So Utopias isn’t going to wade into all the different interpretations, causes, conditions, effects, and affects of the Paris revolutionary riots of May 1968. But I have to bring in a little history.

Because my own political thinking uses a lot of the concepts that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari developed in the 1970s, May ’68 is a touchstone, a material condition. Anti-Œdipus was a product of the Paris popular uprising, so the social dynamics that brought it about conditioned the creation of the book and its concepts.

Paris’ May uprising was a unique event. Its uniqueness was in how remarkably unlikely the movement’s coalition was – not only the radical communist activists, but also business management students and all the factory workers in the city.

Growing up in Canada, the American narrative of 1960s protests
dominated cultural discussion of that era. The cultures of Europe
were so different that they didn't get much airtime.
That massive improbability was a product of unique and complex conditions that are practically unrepeatable in their exact form. Activists – a primer in two parts on how to learn from history.
• • •
I first learned about May ’68 in an undergraduate political science course – specifically about political behaviour, an introduction to how political scientists investigate how people vote, protest, and get involved with government. It was introduced to me entirely in its dimension as a student movement.

At the time, I worked for a campus newspaper. So part of my job was to report on the activities of the university student union. I found the whole institution* a mess of hypocrisy and self-delusion.

* Yes, that is seriously still their website. It's really sad.

I couldn’t take seriously the idea that a student movement could organize anything sanely, let alone offer up a genuinely inspirational new form of politics. Here was the environment where I was building my first fully self-conscious political conscience, at least regarding student movements.

It’s 2003, 2004. The Iraq War has mobilized a lot of people to fight the myopic imperialism of the W Bush Administration. Among my student union is a sizeable plurality of folks who are dedicated social activists, for whom the campus activists of the 1960s – Abbie Hoffmann, Angela Davis, Daniel Cohn-Bendit – were role models.

Unfortunately, the sudden end of the oil boom three years ago returned
austerity politics to the governance of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Tuition rose again, as rural Newfoundland returned to mass
unemployment, making those CFS messages about increasingly
inaccessible education or unsustainable student debt levels
finally relevant to people's real concerns there. Not exactly how
I would have liked to see the CFS and Newfoundland harmonize.
They worked to put the student union on the progressive side of a revolution against empire and militarism. They did organize some quality anti-war activism. But most of their economic activism was hamstrung by having to stick to a strict script provided by the Canadian Federation of Students – “Students are hurting from high tuition rates! Grants, not loans! Lower tuition!”

Fine for Ontario, reeling from public service cuts after a decade of Mike Harris’ austerity policies. Ridiculous in Newfoundland.

Newfoundland was kicking into an oil-driven economic boom, and Roger Grimes’ governing Liberal Party was reversing its own austerity policies from the Brian Tobin years. My tuition rates went down 25% in the first three years of the century and stayed frozen for a decade.

Social conditions like this couldn’t even unify a students’ union. The dedicated revolutionaries were a vocal minority in a union dominated by residence hall party planners, and middle-of-the-road nerds who wanted to make sure the food court and convenience store kept running smoothly. Plus a couple of man-children and one or two hyper-conservative extremists.

This taught me that there was nothing special about the student movement. So I thought that the paradigm Student Movements™ – France’s May ’68 and the USA’s protests against the Vietnam War – were similar chaotic messes and failures.

The idea of “the student movement” in popular culture is that universities are inherently subversive spaces originates from the Paris Uprising and Antiwar Movement’s model example in Western culture today.

But in real life, the circumstances that made those remarkable movements possible were unique and improbable processes.

The Paris Uprisings of 1968, for example, were made possible by the Algerian War. Ian Buchanan taught me that.

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