2018 – a year to remember?

2018 – a year to remember?

This weekend was an historic weekend – the wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. The UK revelled in another Royal wedding celebrating the spectacle in typical British fashion. I have just returned from another wedding, this time in Manchester, held the day before the Royal wedding (which I and the father of the bride, who are dedicated Chelsea fans, were most grateful for as it did not clash with the FA Cup Final!) For both couples 2018 will be a year to remember (although perhaps less memorable for Chelsea fans!) I do wonder what 2018 will be remembered for in 50 years’ time – maybe the Royal wedding, perhaps the World Cup; or more likely it will be the more tragic events – the recent clashes in the Middle East or the gun violence in America. It can be hard to predict how events will play out in the future and how they will be remembered by generations to come.

If I had to choose one period of time to go back and visit, I think the 1960s would be high on my list. I acknowledge this may make some readers feel old, choosing a time period that some will remember first-hand (and some might like to forget!) It’s not for the party of the swinging sixties, nor for the rise of the Beatles, and it’s also not for a nostalgic “life was better then”. In particular I think 1968 (and perhaps 1969 too) is a fascinating focal point for capturing a significant shift in Western culture. In the following few paragraphs I wan to highlight two or three significant moments and suggest what they might say for today’s world.

Earlier in the year we remembered the life of Martin Luther King Jr, assassinated on April 4th 1968. For most of the 1960s MLK was a voice for justice, race equality, and socio-economic change in the USA. However, his legacy and his ideas reached far further than just the USA and 50 years later he is considered one of the most influential people of the 20th Century. MLK identified injustice and inequality and sought to change the cultural paradigm. Of course, one of the hallmarks of MLK’s action was his call to non-violent protest and change through peaceful means. MLK refused to cooperate with systemic injustices recognising the need for a radical overhaul of social systems for real change to occur.

May 2018 also marks 50 years since events in France including student riots and factory strikes known simply as “May 68”. I suggest May 68 is a relatively unknown part of 20th Century history that has had a bigger impact than often acknowledged. The background to the events is less significant than what May 68 stood for. The protests, riots, and strikes of May 68 were a turning point away from embracing capitalism and consumerism to beginning to unpick the influence they had in producing inequality in social structures. From May 68 onwards new theories of social systems were born. For me, this has come to land in the work of Jean Baudrillard who, influenced by the events of May 68, came to realise that despite Marxist theories of revolution capitalism and consumerism were so rooted within social systems that a whole new type of exchange system was necessary for real social change to take place.

In many ways, I’ve not done justice to either of these events – glossing over the wider social context as well as offering a vastly reduced precis of the thought of the main protagonists (never mind the difference in methods between the non-violence of MLK and the more violent clashes of May 68) . However, what I hope to have highlighted is that in both cases the events of April and May 1968 focused upon striving for real, lasting social change and ushering in systems of society that aimed to be fairer, more just, and inclusive of all. If we are to look for a couple of months that influenced the movements we see today – Black Lives Matter, MeToo, alongside several other measures to limit the power of corporations / uphold the rights of customers – then I would say 1968 is a good place to begin the search. Of course, we are far from solving these problems and social change can take decades if not longer, but perhaps we are finally seeing some kind of movements that are righting some of the injustices and inequalities of the past.

I mentioned earlier the potential significance of including 1969 and my thought for doing so is the historic moon landings (faked or otherwise!) in July 1969. The 1960s were the height of the space-race and the competition between Russia and America for supremacy in space reflected the tensions between these countries at the height of the Cold War. At one point, space was the “final frontier” and held out hope for a better world – maybe the human race could discover a habitable planet to migrate to a “new earth” or resources from another planet could “save” our own planet. Not only did 1989 mark the end of the Cold War but in latter decades the space-race has slowed to (still significant) scientific exploration rather than a holding out for a kind of salvific eschaton. I wonder too, whether the events of 1968 were the turning point here too – recognising that fixing the issues here might be a better answer than transferring them somewhere else. It’s all too easy to hope for and pray for a time coming that promises no more suffering and an end to injustice, but I wonder if the lessons from the Spring of 1968 is to realise that we can be part of the solution here and now.

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using graham.meiklejohn@uws.ac.uk or through social media if that’s where you see it!