Remarks at the Open activist Mic – Come and Provoke event arranged by Globe Art Point at Amos Rex 20.9. 2018


One of the most widely quoted slogans of the 1968 Student Revolution was: Be realist, demand the Impossible!

This slogan captures the spirit of the times when everything and anything seemed to be possible. Of course we, the political activists, never were the majority in our generation anywhere, but 1968 was not only about political radicalism and naïve idealism. It was also a cultural and social movement which reflected the demographic pressures of the children of the war generation.

Politically 1968 was followed by a backlash: we saw Richard Nixon elected in the US, later also Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher coming to power and the sclerosis of Communism under Brezhnev, Tito and Mao, while people like Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Alexander Dubcek were eliminated by reactionaries. Later we saw many of the 1968 generation move away from the anti-authoritarianism and liberalism of the movement to espouse Stalinism or even terrorism.

In a way the first severe blow to the idealistic dreams of the 1968 movement was the occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. In my immediate reaction to the invasion I put a brave and optimistic face on the event reminding that “All imperialists and reactionaries are paper tigers, and the leaders of the Soviet Union are no exception to this rule” and maintaining that “freedom is a contagious disease”, finishing my remarks with the prediction that “Brezhnev and his ilk” will be swept by “the revolutionary storm of the world’s youth from power to the dustbins of history.”

As it happens I was not that wrong, although it took another twenty years before the collapse of Soviet Communism did sweep these people to the dustbins of history.

The seventies backlash notwithstanding the 1968 movement as a social and cultural movement did leave irreversible and lasting changes which opened up and liberalized closed societies, brought with it sexual freedom and women’s lib with an emphasis on liberating the sphere of personal life-style choices.

The sixties culture flourished and has become unique and lasting force in literature, arts and music, with names like Dylan, Baez, Lennon-McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin; a new wave of film makers, writers and theatre producers; people like James Baldwin, Vaclav Havel, A.S. Neill, Harold Pinter, Stanley Kubrick, Gore Vidal, John Irving– one could continue this listing of people associated with sixties culture for the whole evening.

The emphasis on personal freedom of choice has made most societies more free and humane places to live. These changes have not come about immediately, but gradually, and it is in many respects still an ongoing process – after all it is only a little more than three years ago that legislation on same-sex marriage was adopted in Finland. We will also have to be prepared for backlashes – and none so threatening as the one posed by Islamic and other forms of religious fundamentalism – but I am confident that we will not see a return to that kind of society with its norms and rules which was the case before the sixties.

Many changes were seen as utopian and impossible 50 years ago. Nevertheless it was realistic to demand them! But we need to take a closer look at what has and what has not changed.

Matters pertaining to personal lifestyle choices have been easiest to change, such as acceptance of different sexual orientations, the right to make one´s own lifestyle choices, the possibility to use your own free time as you want without the kind of National Prayer-day restrictions which were still in force in the sixties, to dress the way you want regardless of etiquette and to read and follow any media without out prior censorship.

A huge change is that is no longer neither legal nor socially acceptable to discriminate people on the basis of their exterior qualities, ethnic background or gender, as was still common 50 years ago.

The rule of thumb is, that restrictions which do not affect other people’s lives and restrict their freedom have been removed.

What has not been accomplished is fulfilling the dreams of the sixties radicals about a more equal and just world, which would no longer be driven by consumption and economic interests. On the contrary we have in some respects moved further away from this ideal.

The sixties dreams of freedom have been realized in many ways contrary to what we expected and wanted. The prevailing ideology in the eighties was neoliberalism, and its program of privatization and freedom for markets and capital was enthusiastically implemented. Instead of freedom from want we have freedom from regulation, instead of protection for human rights we have protection of property rights.

As both human and market freedom has increased, so have also the tensions between the two.

The result has been an enormous growth of inequality with the richest one percent of the world’s population owning 50 percent of all the wealth in the world.

The freedom to choose your own poison, be it alcohol or drugs, the right to polygamous marriage and the still revered “right to bear arms” as written in the US Constitution fall somewhat between human and market freedoms.

The problem with these rights is, that they cannot be used with consequences which threaten other people’s rights and entail great costs for society as a whole.

The right to bear arms is easiest to address. Restrictions on access to and use of guns are not restrictions on the kind of fundamental freedoms, which would justify acceptance of gun incidents and deaths which correlate strongly with the number of guns held by the civilian population in all counties.

More difficult is to take a stand on should we do away with remaining restrictions on alcohol, when we know that this will also increase the number of alcohol-related deaths. And what about drug control? Prohibition does not work but a touch of freedom, not license – to quote the name of a book by one of the sixties gurus A.S. Neill – could work better.

It is also challenging to achieve the proper balance between freedom and security. 50 years ago tightening speed limits and making the use of seat-belts obligatory were contentious issues, but unlike restrictions on alcohol these are not contested any longer – perhaps because traffic deaths have been halved in Finland compared with the situation 50 years ago, although mobility and the number of cars has continued to grow.

And how long are we prepared to go in accepting infringements on our right to privacy and secure communication, which are increasingly demanded by countering terrorism and other threats to our national security?

I also want to pose the question: what are the issues where we today should demand the impossible.

This is of course relative: Americans may regard free education and health-care as totally impossible, even if they are guaranteed already on the other side  of the US Northern border and in most European countries.

And would decriminalization of cannabis be impossible in Finland, as it has been possible most recently in Canada?

And what about a total global ban on Nuclear weapons? Should we not continue to demand this even if our governments declare it to be impossible.

And finally, what would be the means and methods that we should put to use to achieve the impossible?