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The Challenge of the New Left
part 9

By the mid-1960s, both right-wing and left-wing governments across the industrialised world believed that the adoption of Fordism had removed the main causes of social discontent among their electorates. In national and local contests, the different political parties competed to offer higher wages and more social services to the voters. As their incomes steadily increased, workers were able to buy the consumer goods produced by the corporations, such as refrigerators, record players, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. From the early-1950s onwards, the ultimate consumer commodity became available to ordinary people: the television set. As the ownership of receivers spread, watching television programmes quickly became the most popular leisure activity within Fordist societies. Although they couldn't escape from the need to work, workers were now entertained and informed by sound and vision in their own homes.

Despite the rapid rise in living standards, the growth of the consumer society created its own social tensions. During the 1960s and early-1970s, this discontent led to the emergence of the New Left within the leading industrialised countries. Although initially inspired by protests against the American invasion of Vietnam, this movement soon challenged the cultural and sexual conservatism of its own society. In early stages of Fordism, the state and employers had encouraged cultural and sexual repression within the working class to reinforce labour discipline on the assembly lines. Yet, once Fordism was fully developed, the end of unemployment and the spread of mass consumption undermined this puritanical social order. Abandoning the morality of their parents, many young people adopted the hippie lifestyle, which championed sexual and chemical hedonism. By the mid-1960s, this cultural bohemianism had turned into social rebellion. Because they no longer respected the authority of their bosses, young workers instigated a wave of absenteeism, wildcat strikes and sabotage within the factories. While most activists were simply fighting for more wages and better conditions, a revolutionary minority rejected the entire Fordist compromise. While their parents saw televisions, fridges and cars as liberation from poverty, these young radicals believed that the desire for consumer goods had trapped society within the treadmill of wage labour. In their view, cultural liberation was only the first step towards a social revolution.

Although they were anti-capitalist, these young revolutionaries were also critical of the traditional Left parties. Instead of more modernisation, this new generation wanted an immediate revolution against the consumer society. In the early-1960s, this new form of politics was pioneered by the Situationist International, which had been started as a radical art group. According to its analysis, the introduction of mass production and consumption had ended the poverty of the past for the majority of the population. But, in the process of modernisation, the members of civil society had been transformed from individual property-owners into wage workers. Deprived of the ownership of private property, the majority of the population were now unable to control their time at work. With the creation of the consumer society, this alienation had been extended into everyday life. Under Fordism, the workers not only had to labour in factories and offices, but also had to consume the commodities produced by the assembly-lines. Because the large corporations tried to manipulate the patterns of consumption, the Situationists believed that the majority of the population was now oppressed in their leisure as well as their work. As passive consumers, workers could only respond to the decisions of others without being able to participate themselves. Using the metaphor of the Theatre, the Situationists denounced Fordism as the 'society of the spectacle'.

Rejecting the European Left's Jacobin traditions, the Situationists claimed that the alienation of work and everyday life could only be overcome by the creation of a direct democracy, which would end the separation of political and economic power from popular control. In the May '68 Revolution in France, this revolutionary utopia was temporarily realised by the nationwide occupation of factories, universities and other institutions by striking workers and students. Under the slogan of self-management, people from many different occupations demanded the extension of democracy into the workplace. But, despite the continuation of industrial unrest throughout the 1970s, the New Left never gained much influence within the labour movement. Instead, across the industrialised world, these young revolutionaries transferred their hopes for the implementation of direct democracy to the new social movements. During the 1960s, American radicals successfully established autonomous campaigns to champion the rights of women, lesbians & gays, ethnic minorities and other communities. Drawing from this experience, many New Left thinkers claimed that the traditional working-class parties and unions were now obsolete. In their view, with modernisation completed, the competing classes within capitalism had fragmented into different social groups. Therefore, individuals could only identify with organisations fighting against their own particular oppression as women, homosexuals or members of ethnic communities. Applying this analysis to western Europe, Felix Guattari called for the creation of a 'micro-politics of desire', which would express these new forms of popular struggle. According to his analysis, revolutionaries could only unite the majority of the population in the fight against capitalism by championing the specific demands of each autonomous campaign. Crucially, Guattari believed that close cooperation between the different new social movements in the revolutionary struggle was made possible by their common commitment to direct democracy within their internal structures. In his view, these autonomous campaigns provided a practical example of the end of the separation of politics from everyday life, which proved that a social revolution was imminent within Fordism.

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