This is a good time for me: I turned 30 last year. As a middle-class professional in India, 30 marks the age where you get taken more seriously at work, where you get some of your money into an SIP if you haven’t already, where your family finds some nice girl for you to settle down with and the days settle into a rhythm of loan repayments and anniversary celebrations. Its like the afternoon of our lives. Time to stretch languidly, burp and settle into a nice comfortable position to stream the latest release on Netflix; except this movie runs the rest of your life.
In our new world, everyone believes in their hearts that whats good for the economy is whats best for the world. Here, everyone is middle class: from the tea vendor to the stock broker, everyone is an entrepreneur. The older generation remembers socialism well: they’ve never had so much money in their bank accounts before, Coca-Cola on the shelves and flight tickets cheaper than trains? If this isn’t progress, they don’t know what is, they tell us. And we buy it.
Onward! We demand more: more access, more equality, more economy; more productivity, more enterprise, more profits. Sure we have vague worries about climate change, poverty, civil rights, but its Monday morning and we’re on the clock: there are bills to be paid, vacations to be saved for. We can save the criticism of government policy for our Facebook breaks. We are proud citizens of this
sovereign, socialist, liberal(?), secular(?), democratic(!) republic and we’ve elected some seriously studly fellows into office this time. They look good in the news anyway.
News of civil unrest sits beside stock market reports in our inboxes. There is the Maoist column, the terrorist column, the feminist column, the transgender column, the Dalit column, the revolutionary students column, the farmer suicides column, the rape column, the climate accords column, the anti-Pakistan column, the beef column, the military strikes column, where previously we had only the local, national, international and sports pages. The abundance must be trickling. Everyone is super busy and there is so much to be done.
When I was 27 I had a new kind of daydream for the first time: of taking off to spend the rest of my life working for a cause. Possibilities and enthusiasm were everywhere (are everywhere): ‘Be the change!’ ‘Disrupt!’ But I had no idea where to begin. Should I get a new degree, join an NGO, work in social innovation, hop on a train to the nearest, biggest protest march? What would be the most useful point of entry? What did I want to protest about? All I knew was that I was restless. It was the strangest thing, waking up to my own ignorance of how our world is put together.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.” I think a lot of us start in small ways: taking Beauvoir to heart, I began to read about our world. About alienation, exploitation, over-consumption, poverty, race and caste discrimination, political history, sexism, femininity, masculinity and on and on and on. I discovered that there is no end to the complexity. What a fantastic thing to discover! And yet. And yet, this in itself is a worry. With time ticking by I have to remind myself that doing something begins with thought, but must be followed by movement.
As I begin to make my first moves, a vague unease persists at how smoothly oiled the world machine is for some, and how Kafkaesque for others. Am I half-heartedly settling into this afternoon of my life? I read some strikingly similar thoughts recently in an article titled ‘Reflections at Thirty’ (originally published in New American Review, January 1969) in which a white, middle-class American radical writer reflects on his own privilege. For while the world is made anew faster and faster each day, some things endure- like the fears and the worries of privileged beings who, once they wake to their privilege, can sleep but fitfully for the rest of their lives.
THE CONTEXT: May 1968. In America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has just been assassinated; the Vietnam war is at its peak. France has come to a standstill – the capital city has been paralyzed because of a student revolt that has set off one of the largest general workers strikes in history. Jay Neugeboren writes from the South of France
Memorial Day. May 30, 1968. Here in Spéracèdes the effect of the national strike is slight. There is no mail, no gasoline, no sugar, electrical service is erratic (nothing new) – but life goes on much as usual. We are about four hundred people in Spéracèdes and not that dependent on the outside world. The butcher has his own flock of sheep, most people have their own small farms or gardens. Jeannot and I will plant tomatoes, beans, squash this afternoon. All our friends in Spéracèdes – some of whom, like Jeannot, may be ruined by the strike – are hoping it will continue. It is the only hope of changing the government and they know it.
The students took the lead. They went into the streets, battled with the police, and the workers joined them… The government along with officials of private companies, has offered a raise in the minimum hourly wage (to sixty cents an hour), a 10 percent raise in all salaries, more social security benefits, a reduction (over a year’s time) of the work-week to forty hours – but the workers continue to occupy the factories. The sticking point: they want substantial control of the process of management. They know that nothing will change unless they get this – the raises in salary et al. will soon be wiped out by inflation…
Though I will not court jobs, status, money – they will probably come in adequate amounts … I did not need, in my own life, a revolution. I merely wanted one.
In the local stores we receive credit until the banks open again. People have not, as they have in the cities, ransacked themselves… The students declared yesterday that the strike should end only when an end will benefit the workers, not when it will benefit the patrons. The students also have what the Communist Party does not: coherent, published plans for the changes they demand … At any rate, it is clear that the workers in the factories are further left than their leaders in the conference rooms.
Downstairs my wife is laboring to make me a birthday cake with the small amount of sugar we have left. I am thirty years old… Those under thirty are just – I am a case in point: I would like to to consider myself radical, revolutionary … I have committed civil disobedience … I have organized demonstrations, I have taught the poor and the black, … I have sent my own draft card back to the government, I have fought against the police – but I have not done what a young man of eighteen or nineteen or twenty does when he sends back his draft card, when he devotes his life to organizing in a ghetto: I have not risked my position and my prospects in society.
I have not done what a young man of eighteen or nineteen or twenty does when he sends back his draft card, when he devotes his life to organizing in a ghetto.
I have begun to try to change my style of living. The possession of property is the beginning of my slavery …Here in Spéracèdes, I risk nothing: neither death nor jail. Who knows – perhaps if and when I become a father, I will, like friends, become conservative: I will begin to possess, by instinct, a desire for calm, for stability. I will have, in my bones, a vested interest in the status quo, in protecting what life and property is mine. Who knows? But this is why I am not to be trusted. For no matter what I write, no matter what organizations I organize or participate in, no matter how many times I say no to my government – my future is not endangered the way the future of a twenty-year-old is. I have already been twenty, and twenty-one and twenty-two. I spent those years in nonpolitical activities, and my future is, therefore, barring catastrophe, the unseen, fairly secure. Though I will not court jobs, status, money – they will probably come in adequate amounts…
I was urging direct action against the war several years back … I was aware of the inadequacies, the silliness of more advertisements by professors, more peace marches, more peace candidates, more antipoverty programs. There were all sops, I said. They all bought off the poor, the protestors. What was needed was a movement which did not request change, but demanded it – and which was prepared to disrupt society, to overthrow the government…
Still, I did not need, in my own life, a revolution. I merely wanted one. The difference is crucial. Young people – those I leave behind from this this day on – need a revolution. Black people, poor people – they need revolutions because the conditions in which they live – the young, the poor, the black – are literally, insufferable. They cannot, if they are poor and black, move on or change – they cannot, as I’ve done, simply give up America for a year or two.