Nuit Debout: What next and how?

We need to keep open not only our ways of thinking, but also the related methods of organising, the tactics, techniques and technologies we use – it’s a constant battle to ward off institutionalisation.  That sense of openness and movement seems fundamental to a different way of life.

The Free Association

On the night of the 12th of April, the french organisation Attac organised a conference on the movement Nuit Debout with David Graeber and Frédéric Lordon, at the Paris Bourse du travail/Labour Exchange , a stone’s throw from the occupied Place de la Republique.  The debate had the virtue of clarifying questions and crystalising positions.

For Graeber, Nuit Debout is best understood as part of a global movement, some 15 years old now, of re-inventing democracy.  “We are witness to a convergence of experiments that come from everywhere in the world, from the forests of Chiapas and Brazil to the villages of Karnataka in India, passing through squats from Lisbon to Quito.  All of these experiences help us to re-invent direct democracy.”  That Occupy Wall Street, with which Graeber was directly involved, did not directly change institutional politics is a secondary matter which can in no way serve to justify the creation of more centralised or vertical political organisations, supposedly thereby more effective.  “In 1848, in 1968 or in 2011, no one took power, but the world order was nevertheless changed.  Everyone criticises the Occupy movement because it produced nothing politically.  But in its continuity, similar movements of contestation developed in Turkey, in Hong Kong, in Bosnia, in Brazil and, at present, in France!  The explosion of Nuit Debout is the most inspiring version since 2011.”

Lordon however demands more from the movement, and understands its origins differently.  “History does not proceed by transfers … the catalysing factor was specific in each case, the real-estate speculative bubble and corruption in Spain, the financial industry in the United States, and issues of salary in France.”  If Spain’s Podemos is offered as an example not to follow, the classic game of elections being its sad fate, the movement is nevertheless confronted by the difficulty “that with the intransigence of horizontality, it is not possible to go beyond the stage of a permanent General Assembly.  There is no place for strategic debate.  The General Assembly is the first moment of political re-appropriation, but we cannot remain there.  A distinct organ is necessary to debate strategically, that will respond to the General Assembly.  Similarly, the General Assembly should have particular sessions, to avoid the movement falling into a self-absorbed and regressive dynamic.”  For Lordon, the path to follow is to set concrete objectives in the short term aiming at the long term goal of “constituting a Social Republic.”  “Between improductive occupation and a return to the electoral stables, there is a solution: to re-make the institutions to which we will return after.”

Both interventions invite numerous questions, questions having to do with the relation between spontaneity and organisation, a social movement and political organisation/constitution,  means and ends.  The questions are in fact old, or at least as old as the revolutionary movements of democracy, and their subsequent reincarnation in socialist, anarchist and communist movements.  And it is perhaps not without irony that we have an exchange between an anarchist and a marxist who re-rehearse a debate that seems to take us back to the very origins of these two political movements.

However, if there were nothing more to this than a re-rehearsal, then whatever interest the exchange retained would lie only in the sad realisation that we have learned nothing and in the cynical astuteness that we are condemned to repeat our tragic mistakes.

And yet there is more.  If Lordon remains blind to the history of the Left that has cyclically failed in the construction of any meaningful “social republic” and imperturbable when he speaks of the need for strategic organisation when such has only gained life in political vanguards and bureaucratic administration, Graeber deceives himself with an uncritical reference to and celebration of direct democracy.  In both cases, our two protagonists first fail to note the precariousness of the path between rebellion/revolution and political organistion/constitution and secondly, they seem to ignore the terrible ambiguity that haunts the notions of a “republic” or a “democracy”, an ambiguity that cannot simply be surpassed by pious appeals to move beyond the opposition of spontaneity and organisation, and which condemns any radical politics to failure.

In a short essay entitled Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy, Giorgio Agamben argues that “democracy” carries a double meaning, that of a constitutional form of the body politic, as well as a technique or method of government.  “The term thus refers both to the conceptuality of public law and to that of administrative practice: it designates power’s form of legitimation as well as the modalities of its exercise.”  This conceptual duality/ambiguity has profound historical roots.  The ancient greek political term politeia, often employed to designate different types of political regimes, is translated simultaneously as “constitution” and “government”, precisely because there is a kind of slippage, elision between the two meanings.  Aristolte’s Politics offers a manifest example:

when Aristotle declares his intention to enumerate and study the different forms of constitution ( politeiai ): “Since politeia and politeuma mean the same thing, and politeuma is the supreme power ( kyrion ) of cities, it is necessary that the supreme power be in the hands of one, of the few, or of the many […].” The standard translations give here: “Since constitution and government mean the same thing, and government is the supreme power of the State […].” Although a more faithful translation would have had to preserve the proximity of the two terms politeia (political activity) and politeuma (the political entity that results from this), it is clear that Aristotle’s attempt to mitigate ambiguity by means of this figure he calls the kyrion constitutes the essential problem of this passage. To employ modern terminology- not without somewhat forcing the link – constituent power ( politeia ) and constituted power ( politeuma ) come together here in the form of a sovereign power ( kyrion ), which appears as that which holds the two faces of politics together. But why is the political divided, and on what basis does the kyrion articulate this split, while stitching it together. 

In other words, a series of binaries mark the understanding of the political: politeuma/politeia, constitution/government, law/administrative practice, legitimacy/techniques of government, juridico-political forms/economic-managerial execution, constituted power/constituent power, and the like.  What holds the binaries together is the power kyrion, the power of the sovereign.  But what is the power of the sovereign, if not that of power of government unrestrained by law?  Or, is not government ambiguously both a power restarined by law and the maker of law?  And is thus not every constituted, and let us assume, legitimate form of power rooted in an act of authority that lies outside any law?  Herein lies the paradox and the violence of all sovereignty: while democracies have ostensibly sought to restrain sovereignty within law, law cannot exist without an initial act of imposition by sovereign power, and this regardless of the type of constitution.  The binaries are thus only falsely held together by by a power that escapes them.

The demand for more democracy, direct or participatory, thus fails to extricate political thought and action from the dilemma.  A direct democracy still bound by sovereign power will only repeat the exercise of inclusion and exclusion, as the experience of general assemblies has testified to in all of the “occupy” movements.   And the call for strategic organisation beyond such assemblies will only destroy that which the assemblies carry with them in embryo, namely, the possibility of a politics beyond sovereignty.

For Agamben, ann discussion of democracy which does not seek to undue the knot of sovereignty “risks lapsing into chatter.”  In the place then of yet another debate over organisation versus spontaneity, constituted-legitimate power versus constituent power, it is their disarticulation that should be sought, in the recognition that sovereignty itself as a legal power is a fiction. It cannot hold the two sides of the politcal divide together, and that therefore instead of insisting yet again to so, let us rather destitute sovereign of its power, thereby making “ungovernable emerge.”

In the disarticulation of the binaries that underlie the political, law would be freed of any sovereign origin and thus profaned, to become the plaything of communities no longer identified with government.  This would be an autonomy not of peoples or nations, but of porous, borderless collectives assembled and dis-assembled as needs and intentions vary. This would be a freedom not secured by possession and labour, but by sharing and mutual aid.  Our freedom lies in dis-order.


(The text above is a summary, collation and translation of the exchange, as it appeared in various french language newspapers: Les inrocks, Reporterre, Nouvelobs.  Giorgio Agamben’s essay, Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy appeared in english in Theory and Event, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2010 and was posted online by Pro Europa)

The debate, in video …


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