By Adrian Kreutz
Lamenting the loss of the student revolutionary.
Have you ever encountered a true rebel? I have, though just once. He was one of my best friends in high school. He would read Lenin at night and be on the barricades by day, for causes I only understood the magnitude of much later. My rebel friend was an oddly solitary figure, with an almost sinister appearance. But then again, he radiated with an unstoppable joie de vivre. I remember I always felt attracted to his life-affirming presence and his crackling kindness. I was fascinated by his seeming detachment from the forces of early adulthood that I felt working so strongly on me. I also remember how I tried to get to the bottom of his unwavering political convictions. What had politicised him so early in life, so profoundly? When asked, he would probably respond with a two-liner that he stole from Walter Benjamin, but you never quite knew where exactly he had picked it up. As a function of his politics, he would never quote or name-drop the authors he was reading, as is common practice in the academic debate chambers that I today inhabit. (Did you know that philosophers can have entire conversations with a vocabulary limited to surnames and publication dates? My rebel friend, to the contrary, lived in a world in which arguments and opinions are public property.)
He knew well that the deliberative sphere cannot survive without active contestation. ‘Down with the classroom-Nazis!’ my friend once wrote in white emulsion on the classroom walls after our teacher had made a racist joke. He was expelled. I complained to the head teacher about the unfair treatment of my friend. I was expelled, too. I lost count of how many times we’d spend the day meandering deserted industrial parks, hanging out on park benches rather than school benches. They never found out who ‘embellished’ the school’s entrance with a gigantic quote from Dante (it was us). We shared a deep, strong contempt for the carceral complex that was our school. He was much better at breaking the chains than I was, or so it seemed.
Later, tragically, I found out that he suffered from severe depression. He failed the final exam and never finished school. He committed suicide when we were only twenty-one years old. I am grateful for the little time we spent together. Although I cannot claim ever to have known him well, looking back, he was the spark that ignited my own autodidact political re-education. Better than any book I’ve ever read, he made my brain flicker and spin with possibility and confrontation. In all his bright, rich generosity, he showed me that our shared social reality is nothing but a fiction. He was the first and only true rebel I have known.
I started to notice that rebellion is a dead pose while teaching political philosophy at Oxford. In my experience, most of my students present themselves as the unbendable voice of conventional wisdom. Every deviation from common sense is at best considered unworthy of their attention, at worst it is deemed a dangerous career-killer. I sympathise with my students. After all, I know of not a single HR manager enthusiastic about an imagined recommendation letter reading, ‘Lucy has an extensive knowledge of radical political literature and an excellent command over Marxist dialectics. Her feminism is firmly materialist, and she despises the woke crowd. Lucy embodies her inflammatory politics with an admirable dogmatism in both theory and praxis.’
Tame students, one might think, are a function of the stifling, conformist, and elitist university at which I teach. While that is true to some extent, alone it is an over-simplified assessment of the situation. I consider myself one-foot-in-one-foot-out of this institution, and I have taught political philosophy elsewhere, at what the higher-education business would call ‘mid-tier’ to ‘low-ranking’ institutions. There, my experience has not been any different. Most students are tame. When I show my students some of the most ingenious lines in Marx, usually what I get is a shrug and an incredulous stare. Don’t get me wrong, some students are super enthusiastic about radical social theory. When theory talks to us, can tell us something about our own lives, and our own lives flow back into the theory, that’s when the joint endeavour of learning suddenly gets exciting. That’s when the seminar room suddenly start to shimmer for a moment. But even the most enthusiastic (including me on most days of the week) can’t seem to imagine how this chalkboard-optimism of the intellect could be transformed into a schoolyard-optimism of the will — or in any case, we’re too scared about the opportunity costs.
Maybe the stories we tell each other about the punk generation, the 68ers, the hippies, or the goths are unwarranted glorifications, communicating to us that politicised youth culture is something of the past. Frankly, given a fair assessment, most youth rebellions have left the world largely unchanged. But the rebellious spirit of the young still lingers on in public consciousness — we expect the young to be rebellious. Youth culture in the context of revolution has inspired generation after generation of filmmakers, artists, musicians, and writers. As Wes Anderson says in his latest film, The French Dispatch, ‘the kids are grumpy’. Looking at my students, all I can tell you is: they aren’t anymore.
Punks, I’ve been told, understood that being young meant rebelling against social norms and conventions. It was something of a truism that the young had to be on the barricades to affirm their youth, and that universities were their habitat. Some subcultures were outspokenly political. You could become a Maoist, walking up and down Greenwich Village, spitting out quotes from the Little Red Book, or you could become a slick, turtleneck-wearing Left Bank communist, shouting ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’. Outspokenly political or not, what unified those youth cultures was their antagonistic attitude towards the conventional wisdoms of the society around them.
My grandparents’ generation treated their rebel kids unfairly. They would mock the young and obstreperous for believing they’d never abandon their political convictions and questionable aesthetic deviances. Soon, the narrative went, they’d get old and join the bourgeoisie, buy a house with a garden, a sports car, and mock their own children for their idealistic postures. The comical truth is that almost the opposite is now the case. The kids aspire to a bourgeoise life (or is it not really stability in an unstable world we need the most?). It is them who have mellowed, and its them who now mock their parents of their past Maoist leanings. The fault lines are biographical, not generational.
My students and I are caught up in the predicament of repeatedly swinging back and forth between challenging and reaffirming the status quo. Digging for the reasons of this anti-utopian impetus, all I can really offer is to rehearse an oft-affirmed materialist explanation: we crave stability in a world that feels increasingly out of kilter. Since the 60s, unemployment rates in Western countries have risen again. There were still plenty odd jobs for the young when my father was looking for employment, in 1980. The knowledge economy, to which my students and I must adapt, barely existed back then. If I am to believe my dad, you could rock up in the morning, work ‘hard’ for a couple of hours, and then do your own thing in the late afternoon. My dad wasn’t reading Lenin in his spare time — he was riding his motorbike, playing football, and listening to Cat Stevens — but he could have. If the stories about Germany’s post-war glory days are true, nobody cared about your political opinions or what you read at night as long as you put in the right effort at work. (My best guess is they are only half-true.)
My students, by contrast, are no longer rewarded (only) for putting in the right effort at work. They are rewarded for striking the right ‘pose’. They know about the importance of ‘the pose’, and they’ve learned how to assume it. ‘The pose’ is a conglomerate of habits, dispositions, and attitudes. Your pose is effectively your politics stripped off its more immediate political content so that only a shell remains. The shell does all the communication. It’s subtle, but it works: tiny symbols of conformity, the ‘right’ internships, the ‘right’ words at the ‘right’ time. We all see through the shallowness of ‘the pose’, still, we cannot abandon it — as if life depended on it. ‘The pose’ is the reason why my students don’t want a reference letter like Lucy’s.
The destruction of the separation between private and public, and intellectual and material life is so pervasive that the young are no longer granted their own little ‘pockets of interiority’ — their park benches — those subcultural milieus that draw a line between the outside world and allow for a temporary escapism that revolves around friends, music, art, and their very own distinct poses. If there are remnants of ‘pockets’, they’ve been moved online. But remember that those
‘pockets of interiority’ were once supposed to guard those inside them from the alienating outside world, and in turn alienate them, in a therapeutic sense, from it. What’s the use of online escapism if you cannot take the ‘pocket’ with you into the physical world? That’s just escapism in the pejorative sense. The active and lived alienation from the outside world, to the contrary, is a form of escapism in the best, political sense. I imagine my students perceive the attempt to alienate oneself from the outside world (by anything other than recreational drugs) as both petty and unsettling. I don’t blame them for panicking about the chance of maladjustment — the opportunity costs are high.
There’s a certain lot of people — overeducated, riding the wave of economic security, but insecure about how the educational apparatus has damaged their identity-formation — who speak a lot about ‘experiments of living otherwise’. You will notice that it’s those who never had to, for material necessity, ‘live otherwise’ who are most verbal about their radical imagination. They will sell you every minor deviation from institutional orthodoxy as a grand gesture of radicalism. They use a lot of words, like ‘circling the square’ or ‘edging the circle’, to describe their feeble acts of compliant non-compliance. A nominal antipathy to the ‘edge’, to the ‘squareness of things’ — that’s their ‘pose’. They will lecture you on the importance of positionality and use every opportunity to reaffirm the objectivity of truth: truth is fragmented into social perspectives and everyone can get to the truth. This is the other side the conformist coin described above, but it is no less conformist for that.
What distinguishes the conformist conformists from the non-conformist conformists? Could capital be the difference-maker? Believe me, some of us can see the smoke rising from the factory chimney when we look out from the windows of the Bod, while others seem to see the turquoise waters of Bermuda, or dinner parties on the Upper West Side. To those who have escaped the assembly line, don’t let them fool you that it’s not all about class, that it’s not all about power.
My rebel friend was happiest in his own pocket of interiority, with his friends, their music, their politics, their own poses. The ‘pocket’ was the only place where he could find happiness. Only from that base could he summon the strength to challenge the outside world — that strength that I so admired in him. Only from inside his pocket could he point at the world’s grave infelicities, injustices, and shortcomings. He needed his pocket as the pocket needed him. I assume it made him feel safe and at home in an unhomely world — and isn’t that what we all want?
I don’t really know what made you become a rebel in the first place, but I know very well that not a single one of your causes have been solved since I last saw you seven years ago. I hope you have found a new pocket, wherever you are. I, meanwhile, will be on the park bench, forever skipping detention, until I join you.
Adrian Kreutz is working on a DPhil in Political Theory. In a previous life he was the mascot for a major department store.
Art by Izzy Ferguson.