“The subject of history can be none other than the living producing [themselves], becoming master and possessor of [their] world which is history, and existing as consciousness of [their] game.” —Guy Debord (1967: #74).
My dad and I argue. We haven’t fought for at least a decade, maybe, but we love to argue. I always imagined this, along with his capacity for physical affection with his sons, was some lingering tribute to the ‘old world’, where a piazza’s stroll or a café’s linger accumulate snippets of hard-fought conversations between old men about the failure of the Left or corruption in the government.
Before a series of deaths and subsequent dysfunctions, holiday dinners around my grandparents’ table were raucous wine- or homemade limoncello-nudged digestive exercises. Often my grandfather, a retired tailor, would slyly introduce a topic and, before anyone knew what had happened, there would be argument—he and my grandmother would smirk proudly as they stoked the conflagration. My grandmother, a retired seamstress, loves to argue too, about how men shouldn’t cook or what’s wrong with the economy. And her intellect is cutting—once, watching a segment on a TV travel show about Portuguese women who knit lace at lightning speed I said, ‘Wow, you have to be so agile’! And my grandma replied with an arched brow, ‘And smart’!!
I have never been able to recall how those debates began, exactly, or the bulk of the topics involved, for that matter, but I remember those smirks, or the rare moments of having won my grandmother’s agreement. I also recollect my dad’s hand-me-down smirk, which he would don so shrewdly, as he argued against any reasonable position you might muster—it was a victorious expression, evidence of a secret achievement, calculatedly unveiled at the exact moment when either you finally realized he had been toying with you all along, or he decided to reveal it to you himself. My dad, a now-retired cabinetmaker, relishes messing with people he loves, flipping your principles on you, and poking you when you’re taking yourself too seriously. It was maybe some adult version of his play with children, holding you tight and asking you ‘where you think you’re going’? After impassioned pleas and reasonable explanation, he would loosen his grip, only to snatch you up again as you began to run off, all to the child’s delight, so much so that the minimal efforts to escape exposed the mutual charade. The Italian-Syrian Rabbit, Anansi, or Coyote. My dad is a trickster.
Lately, my dad and I see each other much less. That table is now in his living room, but a family no longer gathers around it. And he’s also more serious these days. Often furious with “these jackass Republicans” or our political world in general, he calls to rant about it occasionally.
He called one day not too long ago, feverish about conservatives and mainstream politicians’ assault on education, or healthcare, or minimum wage increases—cascading contempt has bled all their colours in my mind—and the conversation progressed as usual. But this time he said something that stuck with me. Right in the middle of going off on Person or Issue X, Dad paused and said, in a most serious tone, ‘Lookit, people don’t realize how bad it’s gotten’! Surprised by his tone, but agreeing in principle, I thought he was making an abstract point.
‘I know’, I exhaled.
But he stopped me short: ‘No, you don’t’, he continued. I waited, self-consciously. ‘Look, when I went to California’—after dropping out of college in the late-60s, Dad hitchhiked to California, where he met my mom and, apparently, also attended the infamous Altamont concert—'I got there and, within a week, I enrolled in college for free, I got a job, and I got food stamps for being a student’.
I was stunned. He rarely interjects so directly and, in addition, he was right . . . I didn’t know! Everything is so austere and expensive now, that the contention was unbelievable. This story began as simply disquieting and served me well when quoted in political arguments and relevant conversations. But at some point, I worried that it was literally unbelievable, and began to wonder how true this oral history was.
I had to check it.
“I take my desires for reality, because I believe in the reality of my desires.” —Graffiti from May 1968, Paris.
As I triangulated the different pieces of the story (free college and welfare for students in California, the job part seemed too idiosyncratic), I started to understand the spectacular world we now live in—a ‘crepuscular’ or twilight world, as the French radical and filmmaker, Guy Debord, once described it, in which it is never immediately or visibly clear if the sun is rising or setting. In these last days of the 50th anniversary year of Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (1967) and the beginning of the same birthday of the May 1968 revolutions, in Paris and around the world, it seems worth remembering Debord’s description of the ‘Spectacle’: ‘The autocratic reign of the market economy’, characterized in its contemporary form by (among other things) ‘a perpetual present’.
How is one to know ‘how bad things have gotten’ in a perpetual present tense? Who can see progress or regress in the twilight?
In the tumult of the 1960s, Berkeley and other campuses around California emerged from the paranoia and repression of McCarthyism, enraged and radicalized. Berkeley, which had incubated anti-House Un-American Activities Committee and early civil rights activism, the Free Speech Movement (Fall 1964), growing radicalism and anti-war activism (e.g. Vietnam Day Committee), and the internationalism and ‘communalism’ of the Black Panther Party (1966), eventually gave way to The Third World Liberation Front Strike of 1968. Incidentally, only the Free Speech Movement is now prominently marked, by a sign near a popular campus café. It was this campus especially that Reagan targeted, in his 1965 bid for governor. Reagan proclaimed that he would ‘clean up that mess in Berkeley’ and (in proto-Trumpian style) transfixed his horror-struck constituencies with tales of ‘sexual orgies so vile that I cannot describe them to you’. The would-be governor’s revanchism against the freedom movements now echoes faintly, like clichéd jingles of bygone commercials: Outside agitators, left-wing subversion, and an entitled and spoiled pack of children wasting the state's resources by going to protests rather than class.
Reagan, in a sense, remade higher education by example in California. The low- or no-cost higher education policy in California was part of the Cold War-era space race and concerns about American competitiveness. But he turned things on their head, claimed that this luxury was too expensive and threateningly socialistic. Students were too free, dangerous, irresponsible, and Governor Reagan proclaimed that it was time to ‘throw the bums off welfare’ (e.g. see Paul Krugman’s, The Conscience of a Liberal). He proposed charging tuition in conjunction with cutting state funding, targeted sympathetic disciplines (Sociology and Philosophy), and colluded with J. Edgar Hoover to oust UC president Clark Kerr, who stood by the students, in order to squelch protests and put down what they painted as a rising menace. Let no one say radicalism was why the Left failed in the 60s—something at least as radical emerged from the backlash.
The protest slogan, ‘behind every fee hike, a line of riot cops’ did not just mark the violence that undergirded post-war consumer affluence. It was, further, a marker of a historical pathway to the future, where college debt is a youngster’s first mortgage, and where inequality has left the national community withered and bitter. This was, for many, a different, longer ‘road to serfdom’ than what F.A. Hayek imagined, a path to the kind of autocracy that only unquestionable rights to property can cultivate, covered in its putrefied correlates: Declining health, kleptocratic politics, almost daily mass shootings, and the return of Nazis.
History, in this sense, is not just memory—the traces and representations of events in the mind—but the accumulation of those traces and constructions on the ground, in the sea, in outer space; history is world-building, literally. And the world is built of struggle; moral, economic, violent, these are all the same. But it is here that my dad’s question comes to mean something else: To what extent do we, the everyday people (with little or nothing to sell but our work), recognize ourselves in this history? And, more importantly, to what extent do we see ourselves as our own ‘masters and possessors’? History is not just memories of the past but is, further, a long process of self-discovery and self-change that, in Debord’s words, ‘threatens this twilight world… and through which individuals and communities have to create places and events suitable for’ reclaiming the world itself, including their own bodies and minds.
“Be realistic, demand the impossible.” - Graffiti from May 1968, Paris.
We must remember how bad it’s gotten, and we must, moreover, recollect—and see the traces around us—of how it got so bad. But even as my dad and I are often prone to look backwards to repair the destitution of our times, perhaps we must be pessimistic, even hopelessly so, about that kind of nostalgia. There is failure back there! This is not to say we should not look back to look forward, but let that memory guide a utopia better than the past, with its Red Squads, and Black Lists, and lynch mobs, and Imperialists, and masters and slaves.
When my parents talk about Altamont, they recall a lot of music starting and stopping, and some commotion, but they recount that they didn’t know someone was killed that sad day until they got home and saw it on the news. For most of us, we are told what to make of that event, that moment in time; we are told how to feel about it and the era it represented—decadent, radical, tragic and foolish. But we learn something else when we talk about it and interrogate our memories. ‘Was it fun’? ‘Did it seem like the end of the dreams the 60s represented’? Yes, it was fun and the future it came to retroactively forecast was never perfectly clear.
Today, we see, with hesitant optimism, the rise of a new spirit on the Left. In the news, reports brim of the Democratic Socialists of America’s 300% increase in membership last year, and youth discontent with capitalism and its constituent wars of inequality. Old people say to me, ‘I am glad I don’t have much longer to live in this world’. And the youth rage against their mortgaged, polluted, hot future. The fucks we have to give dwindle. Perhaps this is cause for hope. Certainly it is cause for organizing! But to organize for a future beyond this twilight world, we must talk about—argue about—the road that got us here, and the better road ahead. Even as technologies disrupt our way of life constantly, we should remember that these technologies, our cities, and our life worlds are not preordained, they do not progress on their own. Freedom from this world demands, as Debord reminds us, and as my dad and I try to imagine applying to the little towns we live in, a ‘decision to reconstruct the entire environment’ to conform to the ‘enforceable dialogue’ of the people themselves, ‘…[a power] which can be effective only if it transforms existing conditions in their entirety, cannot assign itself a smaller task if it wants to be recognized and to recognize itself in its world’.
My dad and I argue, and maybe it is realistic to think that we change the world when we do.