The gilets jaunes: Resonances

We no longer wish to live as before.

From lundi matin#207, 09/09/2019 …

Une juste colère – Interrompre la destruction du monde/A just anger – Interrupting the destruction of the world, by the historian and anthropologist Jérôme Baschet, will appear on September 12 with Editions Divergences. We publish a few good pages and therefore this good chapter, among others.

A just anger: Jérôme Baschet

When a yellow vest declares that it is no longer a question of living as before, it shows how much collective mobilisation constitutes a moment of truth. By causing a sudden enrichment of experience and having other ways of bonding with others, it reveals the lie of an adulterated life that commodity civilisation usually succeeds in selling us under the cover of material comfort and individual freedom. Once the deception is unmasked, it is difficult to go back, because it is then the very foundations of the world of the Economy, housed in the heart of subjectivities and daily routines, which began to waver.

***

What we do not want anymore is first the individualistic atomisation that forces everyone to withdraw to their home, a refuge from the misery of the world and a private compensation for all the sacrifices consented to. It is a way of life so made that we do not talk between neighbours and we are suspicious of all others, perceived as potential threats or probable nuisances. In the best of cases, individual lives are still supported and enlivened by some family or friendship solidarity. But we can not say too much about how many depressive solitudes, willingly accentuated by the tendency to sink into the depths of virtuality, this form of existence is paid by, nor of how many psychological flaws, for so many children and young people of the world’s metropolises, delivered to the surrounding emptiness and deprived of support by the unavailability of overworked and stressed adults.

In the neoliberal age, individualist atomisation is further exacerbated by a demand for generalised competition. Competition: this is the key word of the world of the Economy, with that of performance that accompanies it as its shadow. To companies facing the competition of an open and globalised market, are added public administrations increasingly subject to similar rules. In addition, the reign of the Economy also implies a mode of production of subjectivities, which carries them into competition in all circumstances and trains them for it.

In a social universe where we quickly learn that there is no room for everyone, where the fear of not having work and more widely the anguish of declassification and exclusion dominates, competition is the very form of the struggle for survival. It is the reign of everyone for himself and of all against all. We must therefore be more efficient and more adaptable than others. It is necessary to be animated by this requirement of success which one learns from school on and which perspires through all of the pores commodity civilisation. One has to worry about being constantly more efficient and aim for excellence. The life of homo economicus, in its neoliberal variant, is caught between two extreme poles: on the one hand, the competitive obligation and the ideal of excellence; on the other, the anxiety of sinking into the void of social death. It is this truth that Macron’s shocking remark made the mistake of saying bluntly: in the world of economics, there are indeed those who succeed and those who are nothing.

The exigency of maximum performance resulting from the competitive logic has important consequences in terms of temporality. In the economy itself, the productivity requirement is a fight against the time factor: it wants to maximise available time, produce more and faster. But the same logic is gradually extending to all aspects of life. The ratio of quantity of activity to unit of time (what one can call the Q/T standard) continues to increase, resulting in a quantitative densification of time. There are more and more things to do, messages to read, information to swallow – from which comes a very strong temporal pressure for ever more hurried beings, whose lack of time is a litany. The tyranny of measured time is exacerbated by a dictatorship of urgency, favoring generalised zapping and deep concentration deficit. In the world of the Economy, the pathologies of time are the other side of a constant constraint of performance and quantitative maximization.

Finally, the logics of the world of the Economy favor a quantitative and mercantile evaluation of oneself. We are invited to develop our human capital and, in the end, everyone is worth what his bank account is worth. Billionaires measure their power by their place on the Forbes list, while at the bottom of the social ladder, we learn from an early age that we are nothing if we do not have the necessary brand of shoes. Through multiple aspects that range from the conquering spirit of a Promethean techno-science to the springs of advertising propaganda, the commodity civilisation inflates a narcissistic ideal of omnipotence whose immoderation condemns it to confront, one day or another, the emptiness of its disappointed illusions. A world based on a pure set of quantities – the value and the demand for its valorisation – can only produce a vacuum in being. This is the lugubrious source of ill-being that manifests itself in so much intimate suffering and diffuse pathologies, to its most terrible expression in the murders and killings that young adolescents commit for no other reason than to finally feel a sense of existence that usually escapes them.

***

What one may desire to substitute for this madness that gnaws the human from within is quite clear. Contrary to the competitive individualism which raises invisible walls between beings, what is experienced on the roundabouts, in the struggles as in the liberated spaces, is willingly called solidarity or fraternity. It is the taste of sharing, the sense of mutual aid, the joy of doing together. In place of competitive subjectivities, reared to the quantitative evaluation of oneself and others, co-operative subjectivities rediscover then that there is no need to override others to experience one’s own existence and that it is rather by contributing to the collective power of doing that it can flourish fully.

What one thus finds, thanks also to a greater temporal relaxation, is the sense of community and it is through this that a post-capitalist art of living can flourish. Not a community based on an essentialised membership criterion (ethnic or religious), and therefore inclined to close in on itself and exclude. But an open and unconditional community of belonging, which is nothing other than the space in which the experience of a shared existence unfolds, in a common relationship to the places where we live. This community is not an entity that would exist by itself and to which one would belong by the fact of possessing such or such a quality. It exists only because it is made and remade constantly by those who are aware that a good life for themselves depends on it. What is common can certainly have a material basis – all that is deemed to be inappropriate -, but it is above all a common-doing, a common that is always to be made, as a space for sharing modes of perception and ways of doing things.

Of course, to fortify the cooperative dimension of subjectivities is not easy, as it runs up against deeply embedded individualistic habits. What can be done when so many hypertrophied egos, certain to be right against all others, crushing them without even realizing it? And what to do when so many social wounds and psychic flaws fuel a need for recognition that is impossible to bridge and undermining efforts at collective construction? Despite everything, common-doing and co-operation are relearned, and mutual aid heals the wounds. The art of listening is essential because it allows you to suspend your own point of view and opens up the possibility of being transformed by the other. The sense of proportionality, unlike boundless commodification, is no less decisive: it invites us to recognise our own limits, that is, the extent of what reverts to us and where begins what reverts to others. It is, according to the Zapatistas, the condition of a commons which is built in heterogeneity. Because we are not aiming here at any homogeneous community. The we in question is not unified, but multiple. This supposes learning to do together with our differences, which makes the art of listening and the sense of proportionality even more necessary.

***

We must go a little further. The world of the Economy could only have imposed itself because it was also a mode of production of subjectivities and ways of being, implying a certain conception of man and her/his relation to the world. Leaving the world of Economy thus presupposes not only radical transformations concerning the material and political organisation of collective life, but also implies a real anthropological revolution. It is the civilisational foundations of the commodity society – in other words, modernity – that must be radically challenged.

Individualism is one of these essential bases. In the conceptions which emerge in Europe from the 17th century, the individual can think her/himself alone and begin from her/himself (the philosophies of the subject pose that consciousness is to itself its own foundation and the myth of the state of nature postulates that the individual pre-exists social ties). If we want to break with individualism, we can look for a useful point of support in the many societies before modernity that developed a relational conception of the person. The person in this instance is not in-itself self-defined, but is rather a knot of relationships – with other people, as well as with a language, a history, a shared culture or still with non-human entities. It is the ensemble of these relationships that make up the person and it is through them that she or he enters into existence, in contrast to a modern conception based on the denial of these inter-dependencies.

It is therefore a question of making place for, in an original and creative way, new relational conceptions of the person. We then realize that it is no longer a question of choosing between the individual and the collective, as the conceptions proper to modernity make us believe (the individual can not be such except by freeing her/himself from all dependence; the collective can only be considered as a renunciation of individual freedom and singularity). Such a choice is quite impossible, since the very fabric of which individualities are made is collective. The I is not only I; it is woven of multiple threads which run beyond itself. I am an us. Therefore, taking care of the collective dimension of existence and the milieu that makes it possible is not self-sacrifice in the name of a higher interest; it’s intrinsically taking care of oneself. One can then aim for, in the very same movement, greater individuality and greater collectiveness. And we can envisage a necessary convergence – even if it is not devoid of friction – between the cooperative capacity, the art of making the collective live and the blooming of individual singularities.

Another foundation of modernity is the great partition which, from the 17th century, separates man from nature. Previously encompassed in a universe conceived of as divine creation, human beings now appear completely outside a nature that Descartes simply identifies with matter. Subtracted from nature by its exceptionality as thinking being, man is also superior to it, which legitimises both his ability to know a nature reduced to the status of object and his right to exploit the resources. To break with the foundations of commodity society supposes the rejection of this exteriority between the human and nature. The options to move in this direction are diverse. One of them is to reintegrate the human in what it would be appropriate then to no longer call “nature” (because to do otherwise is to risk maintaining the externality which must be overcome). The decisive change occurs when one admits the belonging of human beings to a larger entity than them. The Amerindian peoples call it mother earth, but what matters, beyond the name, is to be able to affirm: “the earth does not belong to us, it is we who belong to it”. Then man ceases to conceive of himself as “master and possessor” of the world. He no longer occupies the center of the universe. The “Man” of Western modernity has lived out its time. Without denying the particular fraternity that can unite them, humans are then able to fully experience their belonging to the community of all human and non-human inhabitants of the Earth, of all terrestrial beings.

***

If it is a matter of destroying the very foundations of capitalist civilisation, there is no question of replacing it by a global society based on other unified and homogeneous norms. It is important to accept the idea that the post-capitalist world will be anything but ONE and that there is not one path to emancipation. To put an end to the world of commodity abstraction tending towards the One is, precisely, what can allow the unfolding of a true multiplicity of worlds. As the Zapatistas say, it is about bringing about “a world where there is room for many worlds”. Such a multiplicity is anchored in the very principle of autonomy, as a situated politics that is constructed from singular places and specific ways of inhabiting them. In fact, living well is in no way a principle of uniformity. If it affirms the preeminence of the quality of life for all, it says nothing of the way in which each group defines what a good and dignified life is for her/him. Living well is a common principle that opens up to the multiplicity of its concrete forms, depending on the diversity of places and trajectories of the groups concerned.

Granting this multiplicity of worlds makes it possible to break with the ethnocentrism which, under the banner of an exclusively European universalism, accompanied the expansion of capitalist domination, while also impregnating most of the emancipatory projects of the 20th century. Since these multiple worlds do not intend to close upon themselves, but instead to coordinate and exchange, to assume their joint responsibility with regard to the biosphere and to enrich each other with the diversity of their experiences, it is highly necessary to deploy a real capacity for intercultural recognition, listening and translation. Far from the universalism of the One, the community of humans, inseparable from the other inhabitants of planet Earth, is then invited to think of itself as a community of differences, whose commons is elaborated in its very heterogeneity. It is in the shimmer of multiplicity, the relaxation of daily rhythms and the joyful experience of a common-doing that the joyful and festive construction of a good life for all, in the weft of the inter-dependencies of life, can be experienced.

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