Build your own big Other
She took off her T-shirt, then her bra, then her skirt, and as she did she pulled the most incredible faces. She twirled around in her skimpy panties for a few seconds more and then, not knowing what else to do, began getting dressed again.
— Michel Houellebecq
I’m reminded of this post at Long Sunday about student disengagement from politics every day as I walk through Sproul Plaza. I’m confonted by a bewildering collection of Asian Business Associations, Pre-law Fraternities, Campus Crusades for Christ; there’s even Students for In-N-Out Burger out there every day acting as unpaid shills for a fast-food company. “Is this,” I wondered, “what Mario Savio died for?” But the more I think about it, the more I think that the politics (or lack thereof) of contemporary students is an unintended consequence of the success of the radical students of the 60s; or to be more dialectical about it, of the failures of the successes of 1968.
CR and the commenters to the post above point out the effect of economic changes on students, who have increasingly little free time, or expectation that a university education by itself will gain them any kind of financial security, and of course these effects are in part due to capital’s response to the success of late 60s challenges to Keynesian managed capitalism. And perhaps the proliferation of professionalized student organizations on Sproul Plaza is a kind of psychic counterpart to the collapse of Keynesianism.
In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery.… Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.
Houellebecq makes the point (which seems to elude Tony Blair, among others), that formally free choice in the market always depends on depriving some people of choice. And if (as he shows in excruciating detail in Whatever) the model of choice is being extended to every sphere of society, we are increasingly confronted with both a demand that we exercise our choice, and a lack of anything to choose. “Not knowing what else to do,” as Houellebecq puts it, perhaps it’s not too surprising that students begin to construct hierarchies to which they can comfortably subject themselves. What else are fraternities and sororities, for instance?
The comparatively constrained pre-1960s social order provided an odd sort of comfort to those seeking radical change: they new their place, both in order to rebel against it and as an ultimate guarantor if this rebellion failed. The undergraduates I see on Sproul Plaza do not have this clarity or this consolation: political engagement, choosing a side and working for a political order in which one is ultimately responsible only to oneself, no longer looks like a liberation; it looks uncomfortably close to an infinite prolongation of capitalism’s terrifying, meaningless, demand: choose!