Battle in Print: Radicalism then and now: what’s changed since 1968?

Maria Grasso, 29 October 2008

Hailed by some as one of the great liberating moments of history; condemned by others as the source of all modern evils –1968 has a contested legacy. Some see it as the beginning of a new era, others as the culmination of a series of political and social trends dating back to the Second World War. One thing however is clear: politics has changed a great deal in the forty years between now and then.

For some, the change is simply that young people ‘have lost the knack of protest’. But student politics has always fed off the broader political conflicts in society. The onset of the European student revolts of 1968 was closely linked with working-class unrest; in America, student mobilisation began with the civil rights movement and only later broadened out to opposition to the Vietnam War. Even in the Soviet Bloc, Jan Palach’s desperate gesture was preceded by Dubček’s attempt at reform.

The idea that we could and should change the world was the stuff of politics in the past, and students’ or workers’ radicalism expressed this in a radical form, calling for revolution or at least some kind of radical societal upheaval. Today that politics has lost its meaning, and all that’s left for so-called radicals is to call for a more extreme version of what ‘politics’ is about today. The form is still there, but the content has changed. So how has politics changed?

Politics is no longer something people do, but instead has become ‘an external world which people watch from outside: a world of political leaders, separate from that of the citizenry’ (Mair 2006: 44). The traditional empirical indicators of political involvement lend credence to this conclusion. The 1990s recorded the lowest ever turnout in any post-war decade in Western Europe; 11 out of 15 advanced Western democracies recorded their lowest ever decade averages in this period. The secular decline in voter turnout has been especially acute in the United Kingdom, but the 2001 elections in Italy, Norway, and the 2002 elections in Portugal, France and Ireland were also marked by all time low turnouts, as was the 2000 election in Spain.

Party membership also fell markedly between the 1980s and 2000, leading some theorists to argue that since the 1990s parties have been ‘haemorrhaging members’ (Mair and van Biezen 2001). Even amongst those who still choose to vote, traditional party allegiances have almost disappeared (Clarke and Stewart 1998; De Sio 2006). It hardly comes as a surprise then that participation in other activities such as party work, contacting politicians, and attending political meetings has also declined (Parry, Moyser et al. 1992; Dalton 2000). But what matters most here is not just the magnitude but the universality of the decline: ‘the similarity of trends for so many nations forces us to look beyond specific and idiosyncratic explanations… for public opinion trends to be so consistent across so many nations, something broader and deeper must be occurring’ (Dalton 2000: 29).

Mair (2006: 25) has argued that we are witnessing ‘the twin processes of popular and elite withdrawal from mass electoral politics’. The idea here is that the new political context, characterised by the absence of radically competing visions of how to organise society, causes political competition to diminish both substantively and in perceived importance. One of the most important aspects of this change in political context concerns the form and ideological content of political parties. Political competition declines substantively because the ideological differences between parties become smaller and smaller as both settle for the middle ground.

By moving to the centre, and divesting themselves of ideological content and the articulation and representation of socio-political interests, parties become more and more removed from social groups. This leads people to perceive electoral outcomes as having little or no impact on their daily lives in two ways. Firstly, because none of the parties or coalitions competing for power seem to represent their group-based interests, and secondly, given the narrow differences between party platforms, voters do not feel that the consequences of electoral outcomes will have much impact on their lives.

As parties which reflected specific interests in society, traditional mass parties were immersed in the complex networks of trade unions, churches, business associations, mutual societies and social clubs in civil society (Walsh, Jennings et al. 2004). They were rooted in society, and their electorates were relatively stable and easy to distinguish (Evans and Andersen 2004). While parties were usually understood to integrate and mobilise the citizenry (to articulate collective interests, translate them into public policy and organise the institutions of government), now they are seen as acting: ‘not as agents of the people but simply instead of them… They are professionals, entrenched in office and in party structures. Immersed in a distinct culture of their own, surrounded by other specialists and insulated from the ordinary realities of constituents’ lives, they live not just physically but also mentally “inside the beltway”’ (Pitkin 2004: 339).

Historically, it was taken for granted that political involvement would be higher when ‘issues of vital concern were presented’ (Boechel 1928: 517). This is true today as it was yesterday, if politicians do not present the electoral contest and political debates as things of essential importance to the future of society, people will not engage in politics. In other words, if there are no ‘issues of vital concern’ presented in the political sphere then it is reasonable that people should not care about the contest between different brands of PR or managerial styles and as a result rightly feel that the electoral outcome, and by extension, contemporary politics, is irrelevant to their lives.

Much has been made in the literature of young people’s disengagement from politics (Wilkinson and Mulgan 1995; Blais, Gidengil et al. 2004; Franklin 2004; Norris 2004). According to the Electoral Commission (2006) young people are the least likely age group to register to vote and only 37 percent voted in the last General Election. Interviews with young people have also revealed a profound cynicism about politics: politicians are perceived as sleazy and untrustworthy, parliament is seen as obscure and ritualistic, and political coverage is said to be incomprehensible and dull (Coughlan 2003). One author describes young people as ‘an age-group who are largely distinctive in their lack of interest in traditional politics’ (Park 1995) and others have said that for this generation ‘politics has become a dirty word’ (Wilkinson and Mulgan 1995).

What is most significant about political disengagement amongst young people today is that study after study shows how political allegiances and voting habits tend to carry on through life (Butler and Stokes 1974; Jennings and Niemi 1991; Plutzer 2002). While older generations were socialised in a highly political climate, the end of class politics and the historic defeat of the labour movement meant the loss of any kind of serious challenge to the system based on independent interests of any kind, so that young people today have been socialised into what is an apolitical climate - one no longer characterised by competing radical alternatives in terms of how to organise society.

Some theorists have however suggested that participation today, and especially young people’s, is being rechanneled through new forms of engagement associated with new social movements, consumer politics, lifestyle issues and the environment (Van Aelst and Walgrave 2001; Henn, Weinstein et al. 2002). This argument is often accompanied by a call to broaden the realm of the ‘political’ – anything, can be a political act, they say. In fact, the number of people involved in these sorts of movement is incredibly small, and rather than a universal rechanneling we find the usual suspects: white, highly educated, middle class people, acting as political omnivores. The same people who still vote are also the people who get involved in the ‘new politics’. In this sense, protest, like other forms of participation, has simply become another way of mobilising public opinion and influencing governmental agendas (Tilly 1975).

What’s more is that this sort of engagement is minimal: it is enough to show up at a yearly demo, or send Greenpeace a few pounds a month to be ‘involved’, while the professional activists, separate from the atomised ‘base’, do the ‘real’ (lobbying) work. This is qualitatively different from the levels of involvement associated with traditional mass parties or trade unions. But what is perhaps most significant in terms of how politics has changed is the content of these so-called ‘new causes’ – it is here that the real death of political, revolutionary, radicalism is most clearly expressed. Today’s ‘radicals’ aren’t calling for radical social upheaval, and thus they aren’t actually radical in the traditional sense of the word at all.

There is no attempt today to break out of the contemporary predicament, let alone to dream of a radically different kind of society. It is not that people have completely lost the desire to be politically involved – but if the goal of politics is to change the world, then we need to set the bar higher. Ideas such as the end of work that have historically been the mainstay of radical thought have almost completely evacuated the sphere of politics, never mind its student variant. We’re in a state of communal loss of what C Wright Mills called the sociological imagination - the process of linking individual experience with social institutions and one’s place in history. Instead, we are stuck in today’s vacuum – at odds with the idea that we could ever radically change the present state things.

While there is a risk in romanticising 1968, the contrast with today is stark. In 1970, four out of ten American students thought revolution (not Barack Obama’s vacuous ‘change’) was necessary. Compared to today, 1968 was an incredible mobilisation of young people kicking against the establishment of both left and right. International solidarity was strong – there was a sense that peoples were involved in their own struggles at home but were still part of a common war against the few lording over the many. Vietnam was the trigger, but soon protests spread around the world – through Asia and Europe there was a sense that people were in it together. Ten million workers went on strike in France, and all over the world the politicisation of vast numbers of people took place in a brief period of unrest. We can criticise the sell-out 1968ers all we want, and yes, they didn’t crystallise their aspirations in any kind of lasting institutions of their own; tell me what you like, but ultimately, the dream of another world was alive.

Nothing like that today. Forget the numbers, the countries, the violent character of the protests and revolts; it’s the content of politics that’s changed. Today’s ‘radicalism’ is ‘radical’ only insofar as it represents an extreme version of what is already in the mainstream. So the Iraq protests only came about when public opinion was already against the war. The environmental radicals want even more cutbacks on our consumption and living standards than the government already demands of us; let alone the obvious observation that it makes little sense to call a movement which espouses ideas already popular with all three main parties radical. When movements in the past called for revolution, governments did not say ‘What a fantastic idea, we’ll include it in our policy programme’ – but Make Poverty History was quickly espoused and co-opted by the government.

Today, politics is less about toppling governments and seizing power and more about holding politicians to account in implementing their own agendas, most obviously on climate change and the environment, but also lifestyle issues such as binge-whatever-ing. To that extent, politics has become a lobby game, not something which engages the people. In fact, the contemporary way of seeing things sheds some light on the problem. We talk about politics failing to engage the people as if politics had a force of its own. But politics is nothing but the actions of men in pursuit of their interests. In the past, it was the people who ‘engaged’ themselves. Today, politicians are desperate to connect with the public, but the people don’t care. We have moved a far way from a time when the political elites were so fearful of the masses that they wouldn’t even concede formal political rights such as universal suffrage without a good fight. Now they’re making it so easy we’ll soon be able to vote from our mobiles, a big new happy political X Factor.

Politicians today are worried that with decreasing political participation and less than half the British population turning out to vote, their legitimacy will crumble – and with good reason. They are trying to cover their own backs. But for us, participation in the political sphere makes little sense where there is no set of clearly articulated interests to be fought for and won. It makes sense for people not to participate in politics today as there are no ideals, no real meaningful choices. Forget the days of the Reds and the Blues, ‘politics’ today is about equivalently uninspiring shades of grey. (And grey isn’t this season’s new red either.) Even the so-called young rebels today don’t want to change the world, but just want to apply short-term patches here and there. In the past they wanted to transcend capitalism in its entirety; today they just want small changes to make the system more humane.

The future of Politics lies with us and our ability to rediscover our sociological imagination – to start thinking about what kind of world it is that we want to create and live in. For once, a bit of utopia wouldn’t be misplaced. Marx wrote that ‘people make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing’ – we may not be able to choose those conditions, but we must still choose to make history. Giving up on this task would be far a more serious problem than the low participation levels politicians worry about. We’d be surrendering that very thing which makes us human: our historic ability to improve our lot by moulding our own destiny.


Maria Grasso is Stipendiary Lecturer in Politics at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford and she is completing her PhD on the decline of political involvement and activism in Western Europe at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Her research interests include political involvement, radicalism, civil liberties and the sociology of political action. She co-convenes the IoI Postgrad Forum and co-organises the IoI Current Affairs Forum.


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