There is always something intoxicating in the spectacle of a popular revolt, whether it be in Istanbul, Frankfurt, Athens, Madrid or London. Deep down, everyone passionately encourages the vigorous fight for justice, because from our position, as affluent citizens, we deem the world to be unjust – even though, in Germany, for the most part we no longer suffer from oppression and hardship. We are eager to be beguiled by a romantic vision of revolution — like the German radio journalist who, led us onto the wrong track, when he enthusiastically announced that the demonstrators in Taksim Square were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Che Guevara.

In recent years, our enthusiasm for unrest has quickly been transformed into frustration. The troubles that broke out in Greece, Spain and the United Kingdom fizzled out relatively quickly, as did the the international Occupy movement. They were lacking the revolutionary glamour that sparks momentum. But all of this has be viewed in the context of a point of reference. Even in the 21st century, the enduring romantic image of revolution is of May 1968, the year when everything changed.

It is hard to escape this romantic image of insurrection. Of course, 1968 is only a symbol, which in the collective imagination has come to be associated with all exciting events from 1954 to 1973: from Bob Dylan’s coffee house concerts to the jungle battles in Latin America, and from the Parisian barricades to the orgies that (supposedly) went on in German communes. Even now, pop culture is still marked by a strange nostalgia for this revolutionary epoch, which most of today’s adults never experienced, or at best witnessed through a child’s eyes. But because they exerted a real influence on the course of events, the popular uprisings and the civil rights movements of that era still remain the current model for comparison with today, and that also applies in politics.

Preserving the past

Having said that, 1968 and 2013 are fundamentally different in terms of their orientation. In 1968, the goal was to break with the past and to change the system. In 2013, it is to preserve the past and to ensure that things change as little possible. In Europe and the United States, it is a fight for the entitlements of the 20th Century. In 1968, no one wanted to resemble his or her parents. In 2013, we would do anything to live like them – only not in their home, if that is at all possible. This is effectively the fate that awaits too many young adults, who cannot count on the professional stability enjoyed by previous generations. Whenever there is a crisis, the freedom offered by a nomadic professional life quickly morphs into poverty.

But this is not a new phenomenon. Not living as well as one’s parents is a complaint that was already voiced by Generation X in the early 1990s. Internships, temporary contracts, self employment, and also the culture of start-ups that is still in vogue are so many signs of the rapid deterioration of bourgeois prospects. Among them, all of those things that the insurrectionists of 1968 saw as the shackles of the petite-bourgeoisie: pensions, getting on the property ladder, insurance, employment contracts, union cards, and keeping the family safe from need. But let’s not forget, the middle class and the workers fought for an entire century to obtain these entitlements.

Pure survival

In Spain and Greece, this bourgeois life is no longer truly possible. In England and the United States, it is endangered. The context for the unrest that that has broken out in Turkey is much more complex than the situation that prevails in other Mediterranean countries. Alongside the Che T-shirts, there were conservative Kemalist banners as well as the flag of Islam. But nonetheless, here too the goal was the preservation of entitlements and not the overthrow of the establishment.

The striking parallel with the opposition prompted by plans for the Stuttgart 21 railway station is no coincidence. Structural change is by no means as dramatic in Germany. The costs of the euro crisis can be kept under control. But nonetheless, here too it has begun to dawn on us that this revolutionary furore is only an expression of despair, and that the uprising does not aim to do away with the system, but is simply a fight for survival. All of this speaks volumes about the effectiveness of protest, because defence, which lacks the triumph of conquest, can never be as powerful as attack.