The Language of Global Protest

Dr2402c_thumb3Jan-Werner Mueller in Project Syndicate:

The protest movements that have flared up across the West, from Chile to Germany, have remained curiously undefined and under-analyzed. Some speak of them as the greatest global mobilization since 1968 – when enragés in very different countries coalesced around similar concerns. But others insist that there is nothing new here.

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, for example, has claimed that what we are actually experiencing is 1968 “in reverse.” “Then students on the streets of Europe,” he says, “declared their desire to live in a world different from the world of their parents. Now students are on the streets to declare their desire to live in the world of their parents.”

No name and no clear interpretation have yet attached itself to the movements. But how they describe themselves – and how analysts describe them – will make an important difference in the direction they might take. Such self-understandings should also influence how citizens generally should respond to these movements.

Nineteen sixty-eight was famously over-theorized. Student leaders, or so most people remember, were constantly producing convoluted manifestos that combined Marxism, psychoanalysis, and theories about Third World liberation struggles. What is easily forgotten is that even the most theory-eager leaders of the time understood that ultimately, the protest movements that helped to define 1968 didn’t come out of seminar-room discussions.

The German leader Rudi Dutschke, for example, insisted that the movement was driven by “existential disgust” – and anger, provoked by the Vietnam War in particular. Many putative “theorists” themselves declared that the enragés should let go of revolutionary textbooks and, instead, “practically problematize” inherited radical strategies. Put more simply: they were supposed to make it up as they went along.

In that sense, 1968 and today’s protests are not as different as some observers claim.