Yes Country for Old Men


Frankly, I had been sick and tired of friends of my generation (in their early and mid-sixties now), repeating over and over again that we should “retire” from left-wing/revolutionary politics and make room for the younger generation. There was even one who suggested collective (literal) suicide. It is true that with our old habits and convictions, our experiences that we have interpreted and digested one way (but not in other possible ways), with our grudges and petty comforts, we usually acted as plugs, corks or stoppers, in short, pains in the ass. There seemed, on the other hand, to be no overflowing fountain of youth to be stopped or hindered by our old and worn off (but persistent) existence, at least for the last three or four decades.

Well, this sequence in history seems to be coming to an end.

We are approaching the 50th (Golden!) anniversary of one of the most significant anti-systemic revolutions of our time: 1968 is fifty years old next year. Immanuel Wallerstein called it a “World Revolution”:

For 1968 shook the dominance of the liberal ideology in the geoculture of the world-system. It thereby reopened the questions that the triumph of liberalism in the nineteenth century had closed or relegated to the margins of public debate. […] Liberalism did not disappear in 1968; it did, however, lose its role as the defining ideology of the geoculture. (Immanueal Wallerstein, After Liberalism, p. 139)

1968 was usually described as a “youth movement”; so much so that the radical wing of the movement in the US called themselves “Yippies” (not to be confused with “Yuppies”), the Youth International Party. Throughout these five decades we have exhaustively argued about the problems of positing the main conflict as “Young/Old”. Shouldn’t race, gender, sexual orientation or (as I should have argued as a Marxist) class be the determining divide? Can “Youth” be defined as the bearer of the revolutionary aspirations of an era? Well, yes and no. Of course age is not, cannot be, the determining factor in social change. But gender, sexual orientation or race are not, either—by themselves. Class seems to be such a factor, especially to those of us of the Marxist convinction, but the fates of various revolutions since late 18th century have shown us over and over again that it is not exactly the case in practice. Class actually is the main divide, but little does this determination help us in resolving revolutionary moments (and their aftermaths) in actual history. Class, to use a very shaky metaphor, is the explosive matter; say, gunpowder or TNT. It needs, however, a fuse to become active. Depending on the specific circumstances of an era and culture, this fuse can be women, queer people, immigrants, “inferior” races (the “subaltern” in general, so to speak) and definitely Youth. Without the fuse, the explosive matter remains inert. Without the explosive matter, on the other hand, the fuse just fizzles. For a revolution, we need both (all these potential fuses are, in one way or another, included in the explosive matter anyway). And even this is not enough: we also need an inability on the part of the ruling classes to rule, an inability to juggle the intricacies of class, gender, sexual orientation, race and age, to play them one against the other in order to keep the status quo intact. 1968 was one such event. It exploded and shone brightly for a very significant historical moment. It did not just fizzle, it changed things, it changed the ways we perceived the world, the ways we perceived each other, it changed our language and our way(s) of life in such a way that it can never go back. Then it withered away, and the ruling classes, licking their wounds, re-established the status quo pro ante. But it was not exactly pro ante either. Because even in cases of total defeat, revolutions change things.

Now, in its 50th anniversary, it seems to be coming back, and like every significant historical event, it is coming back full of contradictions.

As the unprecedented challenge of Bernie Sanders to the Democratic Establishment in the US and the June Election victory/defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK have amply proved, the youth, which was almost (but only almost) totally depoliticised and de-radicalised during these 50 years, is back with a vengeance. It is back in such a way that it will not take “No!” for an answer; it refuses to be “defeated”. It does not leave the arena and go back to the status quo pro ante, but stays there and keeps on fighting, inventing new outlets for “politics”, using language, the media, the most recent modes of communication, the streets and their own bodies in new and unprecedented ways. They use pavement stones and computer skills with the same ease and versatility to assault the Establishment.

To be sure, we had seen harbingers of this in the Occupy movements, in Syriza and Podemos, in the Gezi Event in Turkey and even in the Tahrir Event in Egypt. Now, however, this politicisation and radicalisation of the youth is more visible than ever: they now openly confront the Establishment everywhere they can, and force the existing, neo-liberalised, soft-core opposition movements into more and more radicalisation, into becoming agents of change. The Democratic Party in the US and Labour in the UK, which had been converted into agents, or at least spare-tires for the neo-liberal world order, are becoming, despite severe resistance from their own establishments, parties of change.

And this change, which came about by the constant pressure from rapidly re-politicising youth, is led by two old men: Bernie Sanders (born 1941) and Jeremy Corbyn (born 1949). Isn’t this a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron? Don’t worry, I am not going to repeat the tired cliché that they are “young at heart”! They are anything but. They belong, rather, in that very rare species of men who have managed to age past their adolescence. This, however, is exactly the reason why my friends (whom I mentioned above) are partially right: my generation (born in the 1950’s) has not experienced 1968 except as a kind of a myth, something so close but still beyond our reach. Our political vision is usually shaped by coveting and envy, a profound sense of inadequacy, of having been too early and too late at the same time, which tend to keep us adolescents. This is why we usually hinder rather than enhance and support the coming (hopefully revolutionary) generations, including the youth of today.

Sanders and Corbyn belong in the 1968 generation, having experienced its victory and its defeat at the same time, so they had the chance to grow out of it, learning from it and superseding it. They do not try to recreate the glories of their youth, nor do they revel in the grief of having been defeated after “all they have sacrificed”. They both are politicians (in the not-so-negative sense), licking their wounds and accepting temporary defeat, joining political organisations which are neither revolutionary nor in any sense radical, tolerating the neo-liberal surge with clenched teeth and patiently biding their time and waiting for the next tide. And we can now see that it is them who proved to be right, not my generation of so-called hard-core leftists, who constantly lamented after a defeat which was not theirs and gloated about glories for which they haven’t fought. We were the adolescents and they were the old men, and now they earn the right to lead the youth, precisely because they have accepted to grow old.

“Men, once initiated, never get the second chance. They never change again,” says Ursula Le Guin (“The Space Crone”), in the sense that they are usually stuck in adolescence. This is a true statement, albeit not an absolute, if considered through the elaboration of another wise woman:

As we age, changing year on year, we also retain, in one manifestation or another, traces of all the selves we have been, creating a type of temporal vertigo and rendering us psychically, in one sense, all ages and no age. ‘All ages and no age’ is an expression once used by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to describe the wayward temporality of psychic life, writing of his sense of the multiple ages he could detect in those patients once arriving to lie on the couch at his clinic in Hampstead in London. Thus the older we are the more we encounter the world through complex layerings of identity, attempting to negotiate the shifting present while grappling with the disconcerting images of the old thrust so intrusively upon us. (Lynne Segal, Out of Time, p.4)

Segal’s observation is true for many women but much fewer men, because men tend to calcify during (or constantly regress to) adolescence, the only truly life-changing transformation they are ever going to get. Women (says Le Guin) have another such transformation, namely, the menopause. So, after the menopause, they can safely grow old and embrace Winnicott’s “all ages and no age” existence more comfortably (and less regretfully) then most men. Therefore, as an apology for the apparent sexism of my title (sometimes an eternal adolescent may sacrifice political correctness for a clever twist), I must add that the world is now more of a “Country for Old Women”. I don’t mean, of course, Theresa May or Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton: they are not wise old women; they definitely don’t belong among Le Guin’s “Space Crones”. They rather have sacrificed the “complex layerings of identity” for a lead (male) role in the inhuman patriarchal/neo-liberal drama we have been watching on the world stage for the last half century.

The 50th anniversary of 1968 is less than a year away. The youth is getting ready for it. The old ones, who have accepted to learn from the youth and in return offered their experience are also ready. They are waiting for us, the generations in between, to shed our worn old skins of hatred, envy, undeserved disappointments and undeserved self-pity and join in the fray. The 2017 elections in the UK have already demonstrated that, if we proceed that way, there is no losing. Even if we cannot win overall majority, we win the possibility of change. If we persist, maybe both, tomorrow.