As has been widely reported, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the tumultuous events of 1968, where – if only for a brief moment – it appeared that Western capitalism was about to be toppled by the various riotous and revolutionary efforts of students, political activists and disgruntled workers. Much effort has gone into evaluating the impacts of 1968, not least by the BBC in John Tusa’s recent Year of Revolutions radio programmes.
One area of life which 1968 appears to have had a profound (but largely unacknowledged) influence upon is the realm of work. I recently finished Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello's much-praised (and exhaustingly thick) book The New Spirit of Capitalism which takes up this theme and argues that, in the wake of 1968, employers and governments began to carefully manipulate emerging desires for individual freedom, creativity and autonomy raised by the counterculture. Thus, traditionally conservative capitalism began to take on board (rather than reject) radical values, absorbing them into the world of business, in order to provide disaffected populations with opportunities for more meaningful and fulfilling kinds of work. This had the effect of ‘buying off’ the counterculture; so tempering revolutionary impulses while also protecting established corporate and governmental interests.
Thus in the 1970s and 80s, in order to appeal to desires for ‘individual freedom’ work became more personalized, and was placed more under individual control. Indeed, what we refer to as the ‘individualization’of work came to the fore, realised in the increased use of personalized contracts, performances, tests and rewards, the promotion of flexible and portfolio working, the growth of an ethic of self-responsibility in the workplace and the disavowal of collectivization, unionization and the idea of ‘shared’ interests - all of which proved seductive, not just to revolutionary artists and political agitators, but young people more generally inspired by the possibilities of ‘creative freedom’, ‘selfhood’ and ‘autonomy’. The concurrent growth of various kinds of cultural, informational and knowledge based occupations (in public services, in media, design, technology and science) also gave rise to the idea that work could become more ‘creative’, choice-laden and personally ‘expressive’. The old idea that work is intrinsically boring, functional, alienating or oppressive was soundly challenged by the growth of a new discourse that promoted work as the principal route to personal freedom and individual growth. Work became, not the barrier to freedom, but freedom’s provider.
A Raoul Vaneigem quote on a bus shelter
Thus for Boltanski and Chiapello, capitalism hijacked the values of 1968 and inserted them at the heart of economic life – and the social and artistic critiques that flowered in the 1960s have now been incorporated into the management ideology and textbooks of contemporary capitalism. Take for example Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life, published in 1967 as a searing indictment of the inauthenticity and alienation induced by capitalism, highly valued at the time as a must-read text for any budding Left revolutionaries, and strongly condemned by the Establishment - yet as Boltanski and Chiapello point out, with its emphasis on free expression, self-directedness and choice there is little in there that would now be out of place in any contemporary corporate training manual or management textbook:
"The problem then is how to organize, without creating a hierarchy; in other words, how to make sure the leader of the game doesn't just become 'The Leader'"
"Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders"
Tom Peters – contemporary management guru
I realise I’m being a bit selective. But while we often think of the counterculture as being a glorious failure, it was in some sense a huge success. The demands of the revolutionaries were not ignored – on the contrary they have been absorbed and contained into the heart of the economy, embedded in organizational life, and workers in all kinds of service and knowledge based, creative and artistic, advertising, marketing and media, public service professions have been rewarded with some semblance of the kind of freedom, authenticity and enchantment that the counterculture so vocally demanded. Ironically, then, the revolution has occurred – but inside rather than outside of capitalism. But is work really the new freedom? Maybe for some – doubtless not for many more others.