George Katsiaficas has been active in social movements since 1969. A target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, he was classified “Priority 1 ADEX” – meaning that, in the event of a national emergency, he was to be immediately arrested. For 11 years, he worked in Ocean Beach, California as part of a radical countercultural community. For years, he was active in the cause of Palestinian rights. He is the author of The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (South End Press, 1987) and The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (AK Press, 2006). With Kathleen Cleaver, he co-edited Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party (Routledge, 2001). Currently based at Chonnam National University in Gwangju, South Korea, he is finishing a book on Asian uprisings. AK Thompson interviewed him in February of 2008.
This May marks the 40th anniversary of the 1968 rebellion in France. For people who have not lived through a period of global uprising, the events that took place during that time are hard to fathom. Can you describe some of the key features of that period and why you feel they continue to be important?
The most important thing to remember was the global character of struggle during that period. Television brought major political uprisings taking place around the world to people’s attention. But something else was happening, too. There was a connection between the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the May events in France. The Columbia student strike was connected to the civil rights movement as well as the struggle in Vietnam. The global character of the uprising meant that many of us began to learn about places like Uruguay for the first time through the prism of social movements, political economy, and political culture.
In 1968, there was a kind of worldwide synchronicity. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, we began to get a sense of how the whole world was changing. African-American communities exploded. Many people living in American cities felt the need to go out and do something. Across the country, the inner cities went up in flames and insurrection. It was the worst crisis since the Civil War. There were machine guns on top of major government buildings. Civil unrest during this period damaged Washington DC more than the British managed to do during the war of 1812.
Pentagon reports from the time indicate that they thought they didn’t have enough troops to fight the war in Vietnam and to maintain order at home. Between the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the African-American uprising in America, they were facing a crisis of major proportions. But then, on top of that, there was the militant student movement on dozens of campuses, protests against the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and movements erupting in all these different countries. Around the world, people’s actions were beginning to have a huge impact.
In Paris, students declared a soviet at the Sorbonne. When the Sorbonne was occupied, people from all walks of life came to learn about what was going on and to discuss political strategy. It’s my understanding that the occupation of the Sorbonne was inspired by older activists from the marginalized anti-war movement against the French war in Algeria. They came up with the idea that the Sorbonne should be occupied and they led the occupation. This soviet, or council, became a transmission belt that spread the movement to the factories and to the outskirts of Paris.
The fact that they thought of their occupation as a “soviet” is also instructive. In moments of global insurrection, people actively grasp their connection to past revolutions. Similarly, activists in the United States instinctively identified with the Tupamaros and the struggle in Uruguay without really knowing a lot about them. Even though there were gaps in our understanding, we intuitively and instinctively identified with them. That year was a moment when there was a kind of global identification through the possibilities of struggle. Hearing about other struggles encouraged us all to continue.
As I mentioned, there were a number of objective reasons for this. Television played its part. And more and more people were reading about the increasing synchronization of world economic factors. But as important as these reasons were, I think the explosion of 1968 arose primarily from a subjective phenomenon. In 1848 and 1905, people didn’t have television or well-developed networks of global communication. Nevertheless, those years saw global waves of struggle. What caused them? I think it can be explained by looking to the human capacity to understand the promise of freedom contained in given situations and the corresponding desire to move beyond prior constraints.
In The Imagination of the New Left, you investigate 1968 through the lens of “the Eros effect.” What do you mean by this concept? How would you situate it in relation to the Marxist and Freudian traditions, and how does it relate to the work of Herbert Marcuse?
Marcuse had a profound influence on me. I met him around January of 1973, soon after Hanoi was bombed by the United States. Within a few months, we planned a series of events about Vietnam in San Diego. We were able to raise some money and do some interesting political education. By the time the US was expelled from Vietnam in ’75, Marcuse and I were working together. It was a very important relationship. He taught me a lot. But we were also friends. We would hang out and relax and talk.
I began to develop the ideas behind the Eros effect through these discussions. It was then that I came to see how social movements were a way that people sublimated their basic need to become better human beings. Marcuse emphasized how work and society needed to become forms of artistic expression. It was an idea that was in the air during the late ’60s and early ’70s. The White Panthers described revolution as a way of life. Similarly, the May ’68 slogan “Don’t beg for the right to live – take it!” made clear that revolution was a struggle of life against death. The Vietnamese struggle pitted individual human freedom against totalitarianism. It’s a struggle that continues today.
Marcuse convinced me to go to Germany to finish my dissertation. When I came back, I was sitting alone for days pulling together hundreds of pages of research notes. I had this moment of realization when I noticed that all these movements shared an important connection. It wasn’t just in Europe, where the Tet Offensive led to the Berlin student conference where a couple thousand Berliners and activists from France decided to do actions that led to others in Italy, Spain, and many other countries; there were also students in Mexico, Dakar, Belgrade, and elsewhere who were in open and concurrent revolt. I began to see how all of these pieces fit together. I lived in the same building as a friend of mine, Rick Nadeau, and I walked down the hall and knocked on his door. After I explained my realization to him and called it “political Eros,” he suggested that I call it the “Eros effect.”
If we look at the unfolding of life and struggle on this planet, we can uncover a logic of human action analogous to the logic of the historical-philosophical laws uncovered by Hegel in the 19th century. By uncovering that logic, we can see how the unfolding of social movements includes the Eros effect. Forces of life build upon each other. They have a direct relationship to each other through intuition, identification, and other processes. Along with the economy, the Eros effect is a key feature of the historical process and the struggle for freedom. Other dimensions of the grammar of contemporary liberatory movements include autonomy and direct democracy.
How does an analysis of the May ’68 uprising conducted in reference to the Eros effect coincide with or differ from other modes of analyzing social movements, like the autonomist Marxist notion of the circulation of struggles or social movement theorizing that emphasizes processes of diffusion? Why, in your view, is the Eros effect the best means of analyzing global uprisings?
The Marxist notion of the circulation of struggle and the concept of diffusion are valuable because they show that struggles impact each other. Diffusion – what Samuel Huntington called “snowballing” – can help us to trace how one thing causes another, which causes another in turn. But neither theory allows us to comprehend the simultaneity of struggles that occurs during moments of the Eros effect. It’s not just causes, not just A plus B equals C. Events erupt simultaneously at multiple points and mutually amplify each other. They produce feedback loops with multiple iterations. To put it in terms of a mathematical analysis, we could say that diffusion and the circulation of struggles describe the process of movement development geometrically. The Eros effect describes these same developments in terms of calculus.
In May of 1970, activists from all across the United States began to block highways. There was no central organization and no real news coverage. People didn’t block highways because they heard that people elsewhere in the country were doing it. It was just what people thought they should do. They said “society is corrupt and people are just going off to do their thing while we’re destroying hundreds of lives every day in Vietnam.” Activists on the West Coast clogged Route 5 while, at the same time, activists in other parts of the country were doing the same thing. People do learn from each other and tactics do move from point A to point B. But we can’t ignore how spontaneous tactical innovations can also happen simultaneously.
Political activity during the “anti-globalization” cycle of struggle between 1999 and 2003 seemed to share a bond with the dynamics you identify in The Imagination of the New Left. Spontaneity, self-management, and forms of social critique that called everyday life itself into question seem to have been as pervasive in 1999 as they were in 1968. How does the anti-globalization period fit into an analysis of the Eros effect?
The New Left was a world historical moment. People began to collectively recognize that they did not need vanguard parties. This was true in the United States, in France, and around the world. The New Left had the characteristics you describe – the emphasis on spontaneity, the political struggle for everyday life – because these were part of an overall ethics. They were part of the same grammar of struggle that reappears in world movements during different historical epochs.
The Zapatista uprising shared many of these characteristics. They were not a traditional working-class constituency; they brought questions of everyday life to the center of the movement; they did not try to seize state power directly; they tried to change their lives through counter-institutions. They even talked about the idea of creating a “new person.” These were also features of “New Left” politics in the anti-globalization movement. They were embodied in the forms of decision-making that emerged among many groups. The decentralization of communication made possible by projects like Indymedia allowed for the ethic to spread. All of these developments were extraordinarily important. They helped to highlight and intensify the globally interconnected character of struggle.
Many people say that Seattle was the beginning of the anti-globalization struggle. However, in 1999, Third World opposition to IMF programs had been going on for at least a decade. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people lost their lives in struggles against globalization a decade before Seattle. Nevertheless, Seattle was important for a variety of reasons. N30 was a powerful day of action in dozens of countries. From the grassroots, people mobilized in their own localities with a sense of connection to the broader struggle.
The Zapatistas and their encuentros helped to get activists to focus on Seattle. They emphasized the globally connected character of struggle. The Zapatistas called upon the people of Europe who responded by following their calls for action. It gives an indication of the effect that revolutionary activity in Mexico can have around the globe. People used to think that it took a vanguard party to pull off this kind of coordination. But these movements arose from a call to action that – in a moment marked by the Eros effect – resonated internationally. The multitude has its own intelligence. It’s the intelligence of the life force and the intelligence of the heart. It’s not an intelligence of Cartesian duality. It’s completely different. The Eros effect describes those moments when the intelligence of the multitude expresses itself on a global scale.
The Eros effect seems notable for its unpredictable and episodic historical recursions. If this is the case, and if the outcome of the political action it inspires has not always been social revolution, how should people committed to revolution relate to it? What tasks would you identify for revolutionaries living and struggling in periods not marked by the ascendance of the Eros effect?
In periods when there aren’t globally insurgent movements, one of the things we need to do is work to build the capacity to act in a collective fashion. In the United States, social conditions like racism and sexism work against people’s capacities and prevent social movements from reaching their potential. It’s necessary to ensure that the values of the system don’t creep back into our organizing. One way to prevent an elite from emerging within movements is to have magazines and newspapers that can encourage democratic communication and allow diverse perspectives to be heard even when they stand in opposition to each other.
But how do we create institutions in which new collective forms can develop and in which all people can play a leadership role? In order to develop these capacities, we also need to cultivate Eros. For me, Eros is not just about sex. It’s about all our real and living connections to one another. These connections are forged in struggle and help to build trust. They act as a guiding force and as a life-affirming principle. As people unite in political activism, a level of trust develops that provides a great resource in moments of crisis.
We know from our experience in the United States that police sent agents into the movement. Organizations like the Black Panther Party had dozens – even hundreds – of infiltrators in their organization. At a certain point, the Black Panthers had to stop admitting new members because they felt that many of the people joining were just police of one kind or another. Under conditions like these, building relationships of trust is extraordinarily important. However, I think we need to be clear – and it needs to be understood – that, in the long haul, some individuals show that they are simply not worthy of being trusted.
During the ’70s a group of radicals built a dozen counter-institutions in Ocean Beach, California. In a countercultural community of 15,000 people that had everything from Hell’s Angels and surfers to radicals and deadheads, we built a free school, a people’s food store with connections to organic farms, a community newspaper, bookstore, and childcare centre – as well as activist centres to counter police repression and rape. Several politically active collectives were driving forces within these projects. Some of us gravitated toward the work of James and Grace Boggs. We tried to understand how to build a solid base in the community. Other people gravitated more toward Prairie Fire and the Weather Underground. They were trying to build an immediate impetus for some kind of armed insurgency. Despite these differences, we all wanted to change the system. We all thought of ourselves as revolutionaries.
On February 22, 1974, Ocean Beach was heavily attacked in a shootout involving more than a hundred police. I was arrested along with a couple of others. For years, FBI and police attacks continued, facilitated in part by the work of infiltrators. I don’t want to be too specific. But one of the Free School children told a member of the Prairie Fire collective that his parents were working for the FBI and photographing everybody who went into Red House, the communal house where I was living. People from the Prairie Fire collective talked about this information but decided not to tell us because “we weren’t working together politically.”
This lesson is not something that’s comfortable to talk about. It highlights what we might think of as the death forces within the movement. Marcuse described these tendencies as a kind of psychic Thermidor. By this, he meant that there are impulses within every movement that lead people to actively work against their own interests. Psychic Thermidor is the name of the process by which the movement defeats itself before its enemies even have a chance. It is one of the key reasons that elites are able to maintain power through periods of revolutionary upsurge.
The Communist Party of France sold out the movement of ’68. The Italian Communist Party used the crisis of ’77 as a way to enter mainstream politics. Recently, I’ve been doing research on East Asian uprisings at the end of the 20th century and have found that almost all of the political parties sold out popular movements in order to gain a modicum of recognition or legality. In order to explain this dynamic, whereby the movement acts in ways that seem to be deliberately self-defeating, I think it’s useful to draw on the tools of psychoanalysis. In order to unlock our true potential, we need to look to our own experiences of struggle. Part of that process has got to be an honest assessment of the real history of betrayal.
You’ve noted that the movements of 1968 were not able to follow through on their revolutionary potential and that, despite the tremendous energies unleashed, they were eventually recuperated by the emergency maneuvers of bourgeois actors. Do you take this to mean that the Eros effect is a necessary but insufficient ingredient for social revolution? If this is the case, then what else is required? Do you think it’s possible to dialectically resolve intoxication and discipline – the two seemingly antithetical habits of insurgency – as Walter Benjamin proposed?
It’s not only a possibility; it’s a necessity. We need to cultivate our capacities to love and to act in an efficient manner – to combine love with mathematical logic, if you will. The Eros effect is about people continuously activating their inner desire for freedom, which is the greatest force for liberation on the planet. However, activating this desire is one thing and coordinating it is another matter entirely. Activating and coordinating this need for freedom is precisely what movements need to be about. Academic theorists of social movements have tended to focus almost exclusively on the question of coordination. This is important but it leaves out the discussion of inner desire. It asks how we fight without considering why we fight. However, the solution can’t just be to switch the focus. Inner desire is not enough. It needs to be channeled. As I mentioned before, the movement is a means of sublimating Eros.
Despite the failures of the movements of 1968, you indicate that they were nevertheless responsible for significant social transformations. Among these, you include the social spaces and countercultural practices that developed throughout the ’70s and ’80s, where people could experience moments of reprieve from the logic of capital. Some theorists have recently argued that these spaces have been harnessed to the production of new needs and, in this way, have been taken up by the market. Conversely, it seemed that the 1999-2003 cycle of struggle, especially in Europe, actively worked from these spaces as a social base for their insurgent activities. How should we relate to these spaces in the present? Is there a danger that they might as easily become ends in themselves as become the infrastructure for revolutionary action?
These liberated spaces are incredibly significant. Every instance, every bit of fighting for liberation, every millimeter of that space is important. It provides liberation from the state and allows people to envision their lives in terms that are not geared solely to subsistence. We know that the system encroaches upon these spaces and uses them to spread death and make profit. The greatest natural resource on the planet is the human need for freedom. It is tremendously seductive to capital. The East Asian uprisings that took place throughout the 1980s against dictatorship, repression, and, in some cases, even against capitalism, enabled the IMF and World Bank to broaden their markets. They used the new democratic administrations to implement neoliberal programs that permitted foreign investors to penetrate previously closed markets. They were able to discipline workforces of millions of people in order to extract greater profits.
Does this mean that all the democratic revolutionaries in history have contributed to the intensification of international exploitation? Absolutely. Look at the United States of America. In the 19th century, it was a great beacon of freedom. It’s still a beacon of freedom to many people. But it is clearly also a source of great death in the world. Everything that exists on this planet has more than one tendency. A beautiful flower contains deadly poison. I think it’s unfair to critique countercultural spaces on the basis that they’re harnessed to the system. Everything is. Name one thing that isn’t. The point is that countercultural spaces also contain opportunities for women, for minorities, for gays, and for youth. They contain opportunities for music, even though music has been transformed into a massive commodity.
Those spaces are essential to people building experiences. In parts of the world where people have these spaces, their everyday lives are profoundly different than the ones lived in the hierarchical, competitive, and patriotic spaces of the dominant culture. I think that it’s in those areas that the movement can begin to fight death. There, they can react to wars and other atrocities and create visionary new programs. Because of this, we can’t just understand them just as “countercultural spaces” in the way that the term gets used by the mainstream or by sociologists. At their best, they are spaces for the cultivation of the desire to live.
In the preface to The Imagination of the New Left, you describe how the movements of 1968 managed to “change the world without seizing political power.” Which is to say: although 1968 marked a radical break from the sensibilities of the past, the movement was not able to marshall the energies it had unleashed to usurp the political power of capital. Were you surprised, then, to find John Holloway turning your description of a partial victory into a political principle in Change the World Without Taking Power?
I was surprised and also felt validated. I am pleased that The Imagination of the New Left still resonates after the fall of Communism in 1989. I think this is because I was able to highlight those things that were more important than any specific party or political formation coming to power. The New Left essentially challenged modern civilization and rationality. It rejected the idea of armed nation-states with weapons of mass destruction, whether capitalist or Communist. It rejected the idea that competition between elite leaders was the best way for human beings to organize themselves. In the end, the movement was not able to smash the system. It was not even able to maintain its own momentum. One of the great disappointments of my life involved learning that movements could reach such great heights only to fall off.
But we have to be nuanced in our analysis of victory and defeat. New Left movements did not seize political power but they did open up spaces of freedom within capitalist society. They also helped to change the dynamics of global geopolitics and, for a while, it was difficult for the United States to engage in the kind of war that it tried to fight in Vietnam. Arrighi and Wallerstein have argued that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 was a continuation of 1968. This contextualizes the New Left’s global significance, not only in Europe but also in Asia, where we saw uprisings throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
On the other hand, the Leninist revolution – which was officially successful and which involved the seizure of political power – helped to produce a situation that actively worked against human freedom. But even then, the Russian revolution was probably the reason that workers in the advanced capitalist societies were able to win higher wages and better working conditions. Now, in the absence of this so-called alternative to capitalism, neoliberalism has been very successful in undoing those gains.
The idea of changing the world without seizing power is contradictory. But I think that the lessons of the Leninist revolution call for a sober reassessment of our understanding of political power. I think Holloway’s work is less about strategy and more about possibilities. Although the Zapatistas cannot objectively seize power they are having a profound impact on Mexican politics. Their activity seems to point not toward the seizure but rather the destruction of power. And I think that’s what many people are trying to say.
When, in 1970, the US New Left reached its high point at the Panthers’ Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention, more than 10,000 of us spent days rewriting the constitution. We would have loved to dismantle the standing army and police forces of the US and replace them with popular militias and community groups – and to redistribute the world’s wealth. I know that I would like to see the United States broken into many different states, none of which would have an army with nuclear weapons. I think we need to find forms of governance that can work to enhance all forms of life, including the natural environment.
In The Subversion of Politics, you argue that the Marxist left needed to adopt a less hostile position toward identity politics because the recomposition of capital in the post-Fordist era has led people to experience their class position in more immediate, embodied, and autonomous ways. To date, this proposed rapprochement seems not to have been widely adopted by the advocates of either orthodox Marxism or orthodox identity politics. In the present context, where even identity politics have begun to lose their place of prominence, how should radicals go about exploring and explaining the interrelation between class exploitation and lived experience?
The tension between Marxism and identity politics is an important one. In many ways, it highlights the more general tension between the universal and the particular. Marxism is often thought of in terms of universal truths that apply to any situation. Identity politics have arisen in a variety of contexts where people have rightly pointed out that the universal story does not include their experiences. Politically, these two positions are connected to the impulses toward dogmatism, in the case of Marxism, and sectarianism, in the case of identity politics.
Contemporary dogmatism and sectarianism are conditioned by the capitalist system. They have to do with the ways in which we are able to construct our understanding of the world and make our lives intelligible. One solution to this dilemma is to understand that particular identities are themselves expressions of universal truths. Hip hop started out as a black thing in the US but has now become global music. The feminist movement spoke to women’s particular desires for freedom but also changed global culture more generally. The women’s movement enabled me to free myself as a male from my own macho life. The things we normally think of as particular are actually universal. At the same time, we can see how the universal truths of Marxism only become meaningful in particular contexts.
It seems as though identity politics were an important corrective to the universal pretenses of the previous phase of struggle, where everything was subsumed under the category “worker.” This led people to argue that particular oppressions were problems arising in the “superstructure” that couldn’t be dealt with without first addressing capitalism, the “structure.” It was an analysis that led people to want to ignore difference in the interest of a kind of mechanical solidarity. At the same time, the way that difference has been understood by identity politics has sometimes been a dead end. Rather than conceiving of identities as situationally constructed, they have often been treated as essential categories of being.
When the impulse toward either the universal or the particular becomes rigid, it works against developing an understanding of truth. I wouldn’t want to formulate or frame my investigations in accordance with either principle without also considering the other. Your generation has begun to develop in a non-competitive, non-hierarchical fashion. Information technology now allows people to build instantaneous connections. All of these innovations allow people to develop new relationships between the universal and the particular. I suspect that, in the future, both your generation and my generation will look at the new radicals and say “wow, these kids really understand the importance of identities and the importance of universal truths.” It will be an organizational victory and a theoretical one, too.
Another change in the theoretical landscape highlighted in The Subversion of Politics concerns the demotion of dialectics amongst autonomist Marxists. This tendency, which finds its contemporary roots in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, is made explicit in Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx. Despite this turn, you’ve proposed that dialectical thought remains an important resource for revolutionary movements. Why is this the case? Is there anything to be gained from the work of radical thinkers in the Deleuzian tradition who have actively renounced dialectics?
The Deleuzian tradition’s focus on micro-dynamics is incredibly important. It grows out of the same impetus as the New Left’s desire to change everyday life. Despite this, we can’t surrender the notion of dialectics. This is because it enables us to see that what currently exists isn’t everything. No matter how good or bad society gets, we’ve not yet seen its full character. Looking at historical processes and locating the negation of everything that came before is the essence of dialectics. If we lose sight of this dynamic process, if we just focus on what’s immediately tangible, then we are left with a theory that basically says, “what you see is what you get.” It makes revolutionary social transformation very difficult to imagine.
The Stalinist Third International demoted dialectics in favour of what we can understand as a kind of vulgar materialism. In a way, Negri continues this tradition by flattening out revolutionary theory, by cutting out its radiant heart and arguing that Marx wasn’t dialectical, that reality isn’t dialectical. Now, Negri’s work is very important. His recent works with Michael Hardt played an important role in helping activists get a sense of the new terrain of struggle. Because of his importance, it’s necessary to take his attack on dialectics seriously.
When we look at the practical consequences of ignoring dialectics, when we conceive of ourselves as machines of struggle, when we imagine that we are cyborgs, the images go in the opposite direction to the ones required by revolutionary politics. Rather than thinking in terms of machines, we should endeavor to become more human. The capacity of human beings to love is what keeps us from death. It’s the impulse underlying our will to freedom. Machines don’t need to love. Machines don’t need freedom. Negri rejects humanism. He rejects Marcuse’s idea that Eros in an important force, that it is the basis of collective action against the forces of domination. But without these ideas, it’s hard to understand why people would struggle.
Dialectics proceeds through the negative. However, in order to create movement and change by negating the world, you have to first of all acknowledge that it’s there. Soviet Marxism argued that dialectics was a mode of abstract thought in opposition to the historical and the concrete. And we certainly see dialectics being used in that way by people like Frances Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. But a dialectical investigation of these thinkers reveals the extent to which the uses they make of the dialectic are extremely undialectical. If dialectics tell us anything, it’s that things continually change and that there’s no end. Everyday, you go halfway. As you travel, your needs change and your understanding of what freedom means changes. You go halfway and halfway again but you never actually arrive.
Your recent work focuses on the mass uprisings that shook East Asia during the 1980s, and especially on the 1980 Gwangju uprising in Korea. Although the uprising was smashed, the event – which you’ve likened to the Paris Commune – lived on as a beacon in the radical imagination. In your account, the dream of Gwangju was realized during the Minjung revolts of 1987 that called for and won direct presidential elections. What is the place of memory in revolutionary politics? How should revolutionaries respond to the systematic erosion of the capacity to remember in the present? How should we relate to its distorted and conservative forms like nostalgia or myth?
On May 21, 1980, the people of Gwangju expelled the military from their city and put it under people’s rule. Although the uprising did not last long, people developed important forms of self-governance. On May 27, the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan took back the city with US encouragement and support. Since then, the government has tried to suppress and destroy the memory of the Gwangju uprising. For years, the event only appeared in block prints, popular songs, whispered conversations and hastily performed public theatre sketches. The first book about the uprising only appeared five years after the event. It was published in secret and circulated through informal networks.
The June uprising of 1987 in Minjung was primarily motivated by the memory of Gwangju. “Remember Gwangju!” was one of the most popular chants on the street. After 19 consecutive days of illegal demonstrations, people compelled the military dictatorship to agree to direct presidential elections and expanded civil liberties. The struggle for the memory of Gwangju continued for nearly a decade after 1987. About a dozen people committed suicide demanding that the truth about Gwangju be told. Finally, after a million people signed a petition – and in the context of ongoing protests – a special act was passed by parliament. Two former presidents were sent to prison because of their role in the suppression of the uprising. Such was the power of memory.
This example might not be applicable to the global North, where memory seems to be in a state of shock. Nostalgia and myth are problems. But we need to remember how the glorification of slavery and of the massacre of native Americans – the stuff of Hollywood Westerns in the ’50s and ’60s – have distorted people’s fundamental values to the point that the function of memory is radically different in the US than it is in Asia. This is not to say that people in Asia have not endured centuries of exploitation. But, even with this history, the fact remains that common, ordinary people have values that make the place seem so civilized and enlightened in comparison.
The other night, I was walking through Chonnam National University after midnight. All but a few lights were out. I was walking alone and there were young people sitting on benches, walking in the street, and hanging out. The society is so safe. It’s often hard to imagine that this is how things could be everywhere, that daily life could revolve around basic values like cooperation, politeness, and respect for other people. I think people in the global North have a hard time imagining a life like that because the experience of slavery and genocide – for both oppressed and oppressor – is embedded in our psyche. People don’t really want to remember. Despite this, I think people will continue to learn from past experiences of the Eros effect, where the desire for freedom triumphs over death.