Gasping for Breath: Democracy à bout de souffle?

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In 1947, Winston Churchill looked out on the ruin in which Europe lay after the experience of totalitarian rule the continent had just survived and famously remarked: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (1). This commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of SubStance‘s founding offers an opportunity to reflect on the perils of our contemporary world where we are seeing actual and aspiring autocrats assailing democratic rule with a vigor not seen in the Western world since the interwar years. Here in the US, concerns about the erosion of democratic norms and institutions have been heightened by the Ubu-esque ambitions of a singular political personality who has worked intently in recent years to bend a 246-year-old constitutional republic to his will. Upon closer observation, though, it becomes clear that democratic principles and the notions of equality and social solidarity that undergird them have been eroding for decades. These values are now being openly spurned, not just on the margins of political life but in the mainstream as well where, in some quarters, minority power-grabs are the order of the day and a whiff of autocracy hangs in the air. Is it not time to ponder whether the aspirations that spurred the imagination of masses of youth the world over a half century ago have been slowly but surely asphyxiated by an emboldened far right whose ambition over the past five decades has been to quash the “spirit of ’68” and its expansive vision of what life in a true democracy could be? With respect to the topic at hand, clarity of historical hindsight reveals that at the very moment SubStance and other like-minded sites of inquiry were setting out to challenge orthodoxies of all intellectual sorts, the seeds of this now resurgent authoritarianism had been planted and were already beginning to sprout.

The rupture in the status quo which the generation of ’68 introduced was impelled by its fervent desire to reinvent democratic life and to imagine bold new forms of human emancipation, expression and collective self-actualization. Consider, for example, the throngs of Czech protesters that poured into the streets of Prague in early spring 1968 clamoring for an authentically democratic form of governance which Alexander Dubček, the movement’s figurehead, memorably dubbed “socialism with a human face.” Dubček and his followers’ vision of fully participatory self-rule in a reimagined system of resource- and power-sharing was a mode of governance this Soviet satellite had never been allowed to fathom in the decades that followed the country’s liberation from Nazi rule, becoming a prospect so menacing that in the end, it would take an army of invaders from the East to snuff it out of existence. Just weeks after the world’s attention was gripped by the happenings in Prague, French masses also took to the streets. In abandoning workplaces and classrooms by the millions, they threw into immediate question the grip Charles De Gaulle had held for the previous decade on the levers of state power, yet they were also contesting the unaccountable authority reigning in the rigid hierarchies that ruled numerous other arenas of French public and private life. From the Prague Spring to the “Mai ’68” uprising in France, the generation of ’68 injected an immense breath of fresh air into the political life of the capitalist West, the Communist East and into numerous other societies around the globe where young activists sprang into action, forming novel notions of self and society that invited the kind of continual remise en cause that is the bane of authoritarians of all political stripes, and the lifeline of vibrant democracies.1In 1968, progressive-minded protest movements also erupted in Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Sweden, West Germany, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Northern Ireland, Egypt, and Tunisia.

When it launched in 1971, SubStance found a publishing home at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an institution with a storied past of spurring social reform in service of the common good. Early in the twentieth century, the University’s President Charles Richard Van Hise, joined forces with the state’s legendary Progressive Era icon Robert La Follette to offer a new vision of robust democratization in which hefty public investment in the state’s educational infrastructure would open what was then the exclusively elite province of higher education to the state’s ordinary citizenry. Scores of faculty members offered expertise that shaped the “Wisconsin Idea,” a doctrine that aimed to ensure just, transparent governance and equal access to vital resources and political decision-making. The Wisconsin Idea’s commitment to enabling progress for all drew admirers from across the country and around the world, making this unassuming Midwestern locale widely known for its remarkably open social outlook and political vision.

By the early 1970s, when SubStance arrived on the intellectual scene, the University was once again drawing national attention, this time earning the distinction of being the first US campus where students encountered brute police force while protesting the war in Vietnam and confronting the corporate entities that proved more than eager to furnish its scorching weaponry. The award-winning documentary film The War at Home (1979) offers a vivid reminder of the violence that erupted on the Madison campus during the Fall 1967 semester, setting off a half-decade of intense and nearly ceaseless combat that radically altered the learning environment, turning it into yet another bold experiment in social, political and intellectual invention. In documenting the heat of this extraordinary moment, The War at Home features campus activists recalling how the collective action they mobilized and the force of circumstance it created led them, for a time, to the breathtaking conclusion that “anything was possible” (Brown 50:14). Those who participated in organizing the protests later recalled that their sights were not fixed solely on ending US military involvement in Vietnam, but on creating the conditions of possibility for expanding democracy well beyond the ballot box so that the society they sought to remake lived up to its promise of ensuring equality and justice for all.

In its own visionary way, SubStance participated in forming and purveying knowledge that called into radical question the monologic structures and systems of thought that the powers of the day were desperately seeking to uphold. Founded in the tumult that continued to rock the UW-Madison and other campuses around the world in the aftermath of the 1968 uprisings, SubStance contributed to the transnational flow of ideas and insights formed in the roiling waters in which French intellectual life flourished in this period. SubStance’s inaugural issue in Spring 1971 illustrates how deeply entwined the era’s intellectual energies and political drives were. The first text that readers encountered in the opening issue were warm wishes from Roland Barthes cheering on the new initiative. The terms in which he endorsed the vision Sydney Lévy and Michel Pierssens had formed in launching their project reveal much about Barthes’s keen awareness of the political situation at hand and of the importance of place in seizing the possibilities of the moment. “It seems necessary to me,” he wrote, “that there exists a site of reflection [lieu de reflexion], especially in the United States [my emphasis], where in the same movement and the same language discourses of political consciousness can speak to symbolic concerns, by which I mean everything involving the signifier, desire and writing.”2Translations are my own. He goes on to observe that in Europe, these two spheres–the political and the symbolic–had rarely intersected (“one [was] always censured to the detriment of the other”), but at the time of writing, Barthes saw that something new was afoot:

Today, in light of certain events and efforts, this joining [of the political and the symbolic], however hard fought, is finding a language. This involves, as you know, real work [Barthes’s emphasis], that must be undertaken in both the theoretical and tactical realm, and well beyond, but by beginning here, [working] with recognized sectors of subversion: the university and the avant-garde. Going forward, you will be a part of this concerted effort by continuing over there [in the US] the moves [we have] begun here [in France].

In obliquely referencing “certain events” of recent occurrence, Barthes was likely pointing to the upheaval that had rattled French elites during and following the May ’68 rebellion, particularly those perched atop France’s authoritarian educational system, which had become a prime target of fury for the student wing of the movement. In identifying universities as fertile ground for cultivating forms of political consciousness that also grasped the unsettling powers of “le signifiant, le désir, l’écriture” (v), Barthes may have been showing his awareness of the anti-war protests at the UW-Madison and the rippling effect they had had on campuses across the US. Yet, in forming his comments on the role universities had as a privileged site of politico-symbolic action, Barthes may also have had in mind another “site of reflection” (lieu de reflexion) much closer to home that was enabling avant-garde forms of political analysis and critical thought.

In his illuminating essay “An Apprenticeship in Resistance: May ’68 and the Power of Vincennes (Université de Paris VIII),” Rick Dolphijn recalls how within months of the May uprising, student demand for sweeping change in how French universities delivered instruction led to the creation of the “Centre Universitaire Expérimental” (Experimental University Center). Thrown up in haste on the eastern edge of Paris near the Bois de Vincennes, the Center (later named L’Université de Paris VIII–Vincennes), sought to provide emphatically egalitarian modes of learning that were open to all. The ramshackle setting of this experimental site drew some of the most renowned and influential thinkers of the day who were ready and willing to do the “véritable travail” (v; Barthes’s emphasis) of coupling theoretical practice with tactical moves aimed at dislodging deeply entrenched institutional structures and systems of thought. Performing that blend of the political and the symbolic that Barthes calls for in his comments above, those who lent their talents to the Vincennes experiment were seeking alternative, barrier-busting ways of forming resistant subjectivities that were capable of critiquing, and thus and continually challenging those who don the robes of unquestionable authority. In the early years, students from every walk of life could join classes offered by Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Hélène Cixous; Noam Chomsky was a regular fixture on the scene. But Dolphijn focuses special attention on the intellectuals who gathered in what, to his mind, was the most venturesome of the units that formed at Vincennes, the Department of Philosophy, which was headed in the early years by Michel Foucault. Foucault was joined by Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Jean-François Lyotard, who each set out to rethink how philosophy could be taught in ways that meaningfully engaged a contemporary world thrown into revolutionary flux. Dolphjin’s discussion of the pedagogy they invented makes clear just how radically democratic (Barthes might say subversive) the teaching practices these young philosophers developed proved to be, becoming an ongoing expression of “the creative revolution of [May] ’68 itself” (8). What dismays Dolphijn now is how far removed the teaching experiments these world-renowned thinkers conducted at Vincennes have become from the settings in which their writings are now studied in academic programs around the globe.

Dolphijn turns to the prophetic vision he saw Lyotard forming in The Postmodern Condition for insight into how, fifty years on, memory of the spirit of ’68 and the legacy of the resolutely egalitarian teaching practices these philosophers sought to introduce at Vincennes have been largely erased from the critical framework in which their writings are now studied. In this 1979 treatise, Lyotard understood that the universal right to education, and to higher education in particular, to his mind, a cornerstone of all social democracies, was being seriously undermined as this public good was coming more and more to be seen as an appendage of the market economy and a resource for private corporate interests. Lyotard’s grasp of what we now know was the free-wheeling form of capitalism already ascendent just a decade after the 1968 uprisings appears nearly a half century later as strikingly prescient and his comments on where universities were then heading were spot-on. But Lyotard was not the only or even the most well informed of the members of the founding faculty at Vincennes who discerned that something ominous was in the making and about to take the global economy and the societies it dragged along with it in a new, profoundly destabilizing direction.

In the fall of 1978, Michel Foucault took to his podium at the Collège de France where he had since been appointed and began a year-long series of lectures on biopolitical power, a topic that raised expectations he would be extending the work he had been doing for some time on historical shifts in forms of governmentality and the types of power they engendered (pastoral, sovereign, disciplinary) that he had mapped across time as far back as the Middle Ages. However, in these lectures, Foucault pivoted away from the distant past he had studied in Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish, for instance, to fix his critical sights on the contemporary world and a truly revolutionary form of socio-economic thought known as German Ordoliberalism that had taken shape in Europe in the late interwar years. Across the academic year, Foucault examined the formation of this doctrine of free-market fundamentalism and mapped its migration across the Atlantic where it found a prestigious home and policy launching pad in the so-called Chicago School of Economics at the University of Chicago, an institution whose political scientists, François Ewald recently recalled, worked ardently in 1979-80 to see that Foucault would not be invited to debate economists on that campus.3See G. Becker, F. Ewald, B. Harcourt’s “Becker on Ewald on Foucault on Becker: American Neoliberalism and Michel Foucault’s 1979 ‘Birth of Biopolitics’ Lectures” in Law and Economics Working Papers, no. 614, 2012, p. 7. But from today’s perspective, the most striking feature of the analysis Foucault conducts in his lectures on the rise of neoliberal thought (later published under the title The Birth of Biopolitics) is the granular knowledge he possessed about what was happening in real time to advance an ideology and body of socio-economic thought whose ultimate ambition was to reverse the drive for greater economic equality and social justice that had been pursued in Europe since the nineteenth century and launched in the US as far back as the Progressive Era. Foucault’s awareness of the existence of right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute is remarkable, showing that he grasped early on how crucial privately funded US entities such as the AEI and other like-thinking organisms such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute (the latter founded and funded by billionaire Charles Koch) would become in channeling neoliberalism’s radical free-market agenda into the political, economic and, perhaps most important, cultural mainstream. In one particularly halting passage, Foucault explains the essence of that agenda, describing the dim view neoliberal ideologues take of policies that aim to level the economic playing field on which the social order is constituted:

Social policy cannot have equality as its objective. On the contrary, it must let inequality function and, I no longer recall who it was, I think it was Röpke who said that people complain of inequality, but what does that mean? “Inequality,” he said, “is the same for all.” This formula can seem enigmatic but it can be understood when we consider that for the ordoliberals, the economic game, along with the unequal effects it entails, is kind of a general regulator of society that clearly everyone has to accept and abide by.

The ordo- and neoliberal notion that social inequality is a necessity that “everyone has to accept and abide by” carries with it an implicit repudiation of the basic democratic principle that the governed should have some say in forming the conditions of their existence. Today, it is clearer than ever that the neoliberal order Foucault analyzed so precisely has entailed in the intervening decades not just a dramatic upward flow and concentration of global wealth in the hands a few, but also an accompanying assault on the institutions and norms that allow democracies to survive and, one would hope, thrive. For observers such as Henry Giroux, what has occurred over the last half century is a slow-moving slide into a new kind of authoritarianism where economic imperatives of the neoliberal kind cannot not engender recourse to autocratic rule. Remarkably, Giroux’s thoughts on how we might obstruct neoliberalism’s increasingly apparent fascist drives recall Roland Barthes’s comments in the opening pages of SubStance’s inaugural issue. Giroux urges us to “ask and [to] act on what language, memory and education as the practice of freedom might mean in a democracy” (25). Giroux is calling here for the same blending of the political and the symbolic, the theoretical and the tactical that Barthes advocates in the above-cited missive. Giroux further asks: “How might language and history adopt modes of persuasion that anchor democratic life in a commitment to economic equality, social justice and a broad shared vision?” (25). Echoing comments Barthes made about his own times in the immediate aftermath of May ’68, Giroux is asking readers to participate in unraveling a particularly noxious symbolic order that for decades now has saturated public discourse and consciousness with a neoliberal doxa that celebrates the virtues of naked self-interest, an ideology ill-suited to the concerted effort that will be needed to stem the tide of ruthless authoritarianism he sees storming our way. In essence, Giroux is asking us to breathe new life and a sense of hopeful possibility into the work, in Barthes’s sense of the term, of ensuring a democratic tomorrow.

In May ’68 and Its Afterlives, Kristin Ross argued that today, public memory of the May movement obscures its central driving ambition: the quest for “‘equality’” (10). This claim is certainly validated by the steadfast commitment that Dolphijn shows the faculty at Vincennes had to inventing modes of teaching whose central aim was “getting rid of hierarchy” and offering students a kind of education that amounted to “an apprenticeship in resistance” (4). Today, this vision of radical democratization and political empowerment has been overwhelmed by the change that Lyotard and especially Foucault saw coming in the late 1970s when neoliberals began initiating what Giroux identifies as “[t]he shift from a market economy to a market-driven society [that] has been accompanied by a savage attack on equality [and] the social contract […]” (5). One of the consequences of this shift has been the neoliberalization of universities, and particularly public universities, which no longer resemble the sites of subversion that Barthes believed they were in the early 1970s. Massive student debt and the precaritization of academic labor have had the disciplining and punishing effects that are more likely to breed caution and conformity than bold political action. The pressing question that arises, though, is whether higher education today can remain a site where resistant subjectivities can be formed and fortified for the struggles ahead. If current circumstances are any indication, this struggle could be ferocious and sustained, requiring a “travail d’ensemble,” a concerted effort as serious and robust as the one millions of young people around the globe joined a half century ago. We are now, after all, not talking about expanding democracy in the imaginative, far-reach ways the generation of ’68 envisioned decades ago, but, more urgently, of preserving what remains of the forms of democratic life which the neoliberal age has left behind. Substance‘s steadfast commitment to embracing the new in the ways Roland Barthes saw it doing a half century ago will be a vital resource in the years ahead. Its legacy of firing the critical imagination in uncertain times will also be invaluable; the journal’s long history of spurring creative and capacious thought ensures that we will still have within reach the power of the signifier, that is the socio-symbolic means of fending off a future of narrowing intellectual horizons which the authoritarians of our day are only too eager to see darken before us.4For a summary of the unprecedented move state legislatures across the US are now taking to snuff out critical discourses and theories inimical to their world view, see R. Ray and A. Gibbons, “Why Are States Banning Critical Race Theory?” Brookings, July 2021, Accessed 25 September 2021.

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