Nuit Debout: At the banquet of intellectuals

Revolution is not ‘showing’ life to people, but making them live. A revolutionary organization must always remember that its objective is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation.

… the representation of the working class has become an enemy of the working class.

Guy Debord

“Nuit Debout has no need of intellectuals to reflect.  The production of ideas is immanent to the movement, in which each member is an intellectual, the ensemble a “collective” intellectual.”  These words appear in a collective statement published in Le Monde (04/05/2016) under the title, in translation, “Nuit Debout contributes to the invention of another world”.  However the collective author of the text is a collective of intellectuals!

The insistence with which intellectuals of the Left in france and movements/collectives with which they are associated, judge, propose and endeavour to speak for Nuit Debout, something that nevertheless largely surpasses their theoretical and/or political ambitions, augurs ill, for however fragile their voices are, their words as actions are not without resonance.

(The french mass media is also overly eager to serve as a vehicle for diffusing theoretical phantasmagoria, thus joining in the criticism and condemning simultaneously.  The questions are repeated incessantly: What next, after the occupation of squares?  When will the movement finally organise itself politically?  When will it issue a list of demands, a program or manifesto?  I suggest that such questions aim at domestication rather than clarification.  To persistently pose them is implicitly to demand of the “movement” that it define itself institutionally and according to the norms of legal politics, when Nuit Debout is above all a questioning of both.  Words of Jacques Rancière (Ten Theses on Politics), apropos of politics, are worth recalling here: “Politics is a specific rupture in the logic of arche [of rule].  It does not simply presuppose the rupture of the ‘normal’ distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it.  It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions ‘proper’ to such classifications.”)

After the occupation of squares, the question “What do we do now?” is posed with stubborn urgency, as if a single answer, a single “plan of battle”, is all that is lacking for the movement to surpass and impose itself, and thereby effect “real” political change (e.g., the abandonment of the current labour reform) (François Ruffin).  Occupy Wall Street and spain’s 15M are held up as examples not to follow: “Occupy was unable to mark the difference between activism and occupation … .  It is necessary to choose a small number of priorities and construct a struggle around them.” (Serge Halimi)  As for 15M, “the movement petered out, Spain did not change.”  The lesson to infer is one, and only one: there is a need for organisation and discipline; “the movement [Nuit Debout] cannot be allowed to break up between sterile introspection and the multiplication of an infinity of demands.”  (Renaud Lambert)

These comments were proffered at a gathering organised by the Nuit Debout Paris commissions “Convergence of struggles” and “General Strike”, behind which are the newspapers and associated intellectuals of Fakir and Le Monde diplomatique on the 20th of April, at one of the annexes of the Paris Labour Exchange. (Reporterre 21/04/2016)  What is telling about the interventions is the perception of Nuit Debout as a movement, in the singular, when it is a plurality not reducible to one space, moment, or unified collectivity; the insistence on vertical organisation and the setting of priorities, as if the many who animate the occupations of Nuit Debout agree on common goals, let alone priorities; that earlier “occupation movements” failed and the societies in which they arose remain unchanged, as if the criteria for success or failure of a political/social movement were evident and as if change were to be judged exclusively at the insitutional-legal level, when it is most often manifst in the constitution and proliferation of new social relations at more micro levels.

No better testimony can be given of the vanity of the exercise at the Paris Labour Exchange than the fact that for many in the audience, when finally given the chance to speak, they dismissed both the prognosis and the cure, refused to participate in any collective decision making with an assembly taking place simultaneously in the Place de la Republique, and simply walked out.  The intellectuals were left to themselves, awash in their own sad disorder.

The temptations of “organisation and discipline” however remain strong.

Marxist Voices

For those inspired by a marxist tradition, Nuit Debout is woven from a tissue of fictions that barely serve to cover over its petit-bourgeois’ origins.

The language of the “people”, of “citizens” and the “rights of citizenship “, of the “convergences of struggles” is purely mythical, for they do not exist.  What does are the singularities and situations of multiple subjects and subjectivities that constitute and are constituted by capitalism.  It is thus only in assuming these identities and the contradictions that they carry within capitalist social relations that oppositional, conflictual forms of politics can emerge.

To submerge everyone and everything under an abstract and illusory commonality of shared struggles disarms the movement, rendering it incapable of forging itself as an anti-capitalist agency.  Indeed, until now, there is nothing anti-capitalist whatsoever to Nuit Debout and to believe otherwise is to fall to the seduction of emotional enthusiasm.

… everything happens as if the inhabitants of France had chosen to free themselves from their impotence along the path of impossible action.  Convergence of struggles: the watchword of Nuit Debouts is nothing other than the apanage of the specialists in “changing the world” and the technicians of social transformation.  Each time a multiplicity in love with freedom expresses itself in its diversity and its complexity, these characters, more dangerous than the CRS [france’s riot police] and their batons, show themselves in the figure of the melancholy militant.  S/he, as always, pretends to make emerge from her/his consciousness the act of justice that will found a better world.  Always prompt to accuse the citizen of complicity by her/his passivity, s/he is convinced that change passes through the awakening of the sleeping masses, who must, like her/him, “become conscious”.  However, it is not consciousness that determiones life – nor even the world of tomorrow – but life which determines consciousness.

In her/his messianic vision of struggle, the melancholy militant considers that life and women and men are simply not what they should be.  The world is therefore founded upon an error.  For her/him, it is not so much a matter of improving things as changing the order of things.

From this original abstraction, all the others follow, which paradoxically, operate according to the same mechanisms as the superstructures (financial, economic, political …) to which they pretend resistance.  In opposing to concrete and singular situations the abstract globality of a final convergence, they end up dissolving the real in a spectacular virtuality. One simulacre, that of capital, is replaced by another, of a universal brotherhood united in common struggle.  Tragically, only the first is real, thus condemning any universal politics of emancipation to failure.  To think from the vantage point of globality is a view from “nowhere”, an ideological projection that tries to reflect the world from a situation that does not exist.  Thus the current impasse of the movement confronted each evening by the same question: “What to do and how to act?”

The solidarity, freedom and justice claimed by Nuit Debouts do not exist as abstract universalisms.  They can all only exist in each part, in the heart of each situation where they are acted out … here and now.  … Each singular struggle expresses the universal in the particular without thereby eliminating the possible antagonisms and contradictions that their free expression raise.

To reduce the multiplicity of these situations to a common schema is to refuse the conflictuality proper to life in our societies.  This process of simplification represents without a doubt an easier path than that of accepting complexity. … This logic of confrontation is the fruit of a weak thought that always ends by distinguishing between means and ends.  In a simplified and polarised world, certainties help avoid having to make oneself and identities are easily distributed: the good on one side and the bad on the other, the pro and anti-system, the fascists and the others …   And as often happens, they end up adopting the same weapons as the “enemy”, who then reveals itself surprisingly similar.

(Miguel Benasayag and Bastien Cany, “La convergences des luttes est une illusion”, Le Monde, 04/05/2016.  All that is quoted is in italics.)

Nuit Debout traces its ideological roots and forms of action to Occupy Wall Street and the “movements of the squares”, giving rise to a mode of protest that breaks with traditional political action.  It does not deploy itself as the affirmation of particular interests or specific identities … It sees itself as a general movement: by the gathering together and the occupation of public space, the citizens create the commons, they construct a “we” that puts into play a popular sovereignty against institutions, powers, the oligarchy, etc.

Even though they are new in their form, movements like Occupy or Nuit Debout appeal to a traditional  conception of politics.  They articulate themselves around a certain number of concepts inherited from contractualism: “public space”, “citizenship”, “assembling together”, “we”, “community”.  They thus ground themselves in a bourgeois tradition against which social criticism defined itself since Marx.

To speak the language of the “people” and of the “community of citizens” is to speak the same language of the State.  Furthermore, in playing with concepts such as the “people” and the “commons”, the movement cultivates the fantasies of belonging and inclusion that originate in a largely moral criticism of neoliberalism that cites individualism, atomism and the destruction of social ties as the latter’s most violent legacy, as if what people suffered from was being individualised and not subject to collective forces and common destinies.  

More important still is that the categories that ground movements like Nuit Debout, such as the “people”, the “community”, the “citizen” are fictions … they do not exist.  And the idea according to which there could exist moments where all the people would be assembled in a square makes no sense.  It has never happened, neither during the “Arab Springs”, nor during the French Revolution.  And it will never happen.  A movement is always oppositional: it opposes classes of individuals to others.

It is on the condition that political subjects are produced who do not constitute themselves within the horizon of a people, but in their singularity, that one will be able to make proliferate the energies of contestation.  For Nuit Debout to be the debout [the standing up/the arising] of a new politics, it must reconnect with a certain heritage of marxism … .  If not, then this moment will remain that in which we will become conscious of the inefficacy of the political scene and the ideological frameworks that have imposed themselves on the critical left over the last dozen years.

(Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, “Nuit Debout, le myth du peuple”, Le Monde, 28/04/2016)

What is recurrent in the marxist criticism (I will use this expression, however reductive it is) of Nuit Debout and other occupy movements is the appeal to fixed, oppositional social categories/classes, which in turn are supposedly grounded in the fundamental contradictions of capitalism.  Any viable anti-capitalist politics, it is then deduced, can only be built on these contradictions and with the subjects who objectively represent their oppressed pole(s).  Paradigmatically, the latter is embodied in the working class.

Yet capitalism, today or in the past, has never been characterised by fatal contradictions.  What tensions mark it are internal to its very functioning and what subject-roles are assumed within it must be constructed and re-produced over the course of time and within the very modalities of changing relations of oppression and exploitation.  To then assume that a capitalist subject-role (e.g. worker, woman, racial “minority”, homosexual, and so on) somehow carries within it a radical questioning of capitalism, when it is itself a child of capitalist social relations, is the fiction of historical marxism.

There are no, and there have never been, inherently revolutionary subjects.  And when revolutionary moments have arisen (and not reformist moments, in which assigned subjects have struggled to improve their conditions within capitalism), they have done so in opposition to the subject roles created by capitalist social relations; they have been moments in fact of universalism, in the sense of refusing/rejecting the specific subject identities imposed by capital.  All becomes possible in revolution, not in the literal sense, but in the sense that the divisions that mark the rule of capital collapse/are overthrown, and what appears on the political stage are those who have been until then invisible, the silenced, the formerly not taken account of, the anonymous many; and freed of the former divisions, the many create a space-time where and when radically new subjectivities can emerge that are potentially open to all.  If there was one great political lesson of the Paris Commune of 1871, it was this.

What is correct in the marxist readings of Nuit Debout cited above, and simultaneously false, is the criticism of the political language of “citizenship”, “democracy”, “rights”, for such language remains exclusive, that is, bound by a State-centred discourse and thus beholden to State authority in the determination of those who are deserving and those who are not.  Equally probelamatic is talk of the “convergence of struggles”, if by this is understood a mere summation of already existing struggles.  However, Nuit Debout, as in earlier “occupy movements”, also harbours within it desires that go beyond “citizenship” and the State, something evident in the practices of collective self-management; a collective self-management that may succeed in bringing struggles together, but only through the forging of new subjectivities that both affirm and transcend previous agencies.

What is also possibly manifest in the “occupy movements” is the expanding and intensifying nature of capitalism that reduces almost everyone to the status of the superfluous, the expendable, the disposable.  Perhaps never before do the many share so much.  And in the commonality of our nothingness may reside new forms of collective oppositional and creative politics.

Post-Marxist Voices

Chantal Mouffe, in interviews with Le Nouvel Observateur (nº 2685: April 21-7, 2016), Le Monde (21/04/2016) and Liberation (15/04/2016) repeated a refrain that has become common to her and Ernesto Laclau’s work: that there is a need for a leftist populism.

To occupy a space is not sufficient.  If the demonstrators want to have a political impact and be in a position to change the real, it is necessary that they organise themselves in a manner that is a little more vertical. (Le Nouvel Observateur)

The idea that in the occupation of a place, that all heterogeneous demands spontaneously converge is not true.  For them to converge, a principle of articulation must be constructed. (Le Nouvel Observateur)

Another illusion is the search for consensus.  In Madrid, in 2011, during the movement of the Indignados, the watchword was to create a “face to face” democracy, symbolised by the general assembly.  The idea was to discuss until the obtention of a complete consensus.  But, above all, to obtain real changes, it is necessary to pass through an engagement with political and state institutions.  The Indignados for a long time refused all compromises and alliances.  The result was that after six months, the Popular Party won the general elections.  Some activists then decided to change strategy and created Podemos, which garnered 20% of the vote in the last elections. (Le Nouvel Observateur)

If Podemos is not the political party of the Indignados, it could not have existed without them.  For Mouffe, the logic of “organisation and discipline” translates into the necessity of a leader.

There is no democracy without representation, for it is it that permits the constitution of a political people.  There is not first a people that would first exist, and then someone who would come to represent them.  It is in giving oneself representation that a people is constructed.  It is in the crystalisation of a “we” around the leader that a people is made and I hardly see any example of a movement that has succeeded without a leader. (Le Nouvel Observateur)

In creating a “we”, there must be obligatorially an adversarial “them”, the necessary condition, with leadership and organisation, of creating strong political identities.  This is a “we”/”them” opposition furthermore divided by conflicting common projects.  It is not a matter of opposing struggles, but in the opposition, of articulating them in the name of a common project, the project of expanding and intensifying democratic forms of government, keeping alive synergies between social movements and political representation. (Le Nouvel Observateur)

Mouffe’s own examples of such articulations are however sadly uninspiring: the south american “leftist” governments of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, who all of them managed little more than, to state matters crudely, a modest redistribution of wealth (often devoured by rampant inflation) in the form of State welfare sustained by an intensification of economies of extraction; spain’s Podemos, mired in electoral politics; france’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon who can only hope that Nuit Debout allows for his election in 2017 as president (Le Nouvel Observateur: nº 2686, April 28 – May 4, 2016).  The examples however serve to unmask the fragility of Mouffe’s reading of radical politics.  There is nothing inherently anti-capitalist in the “power of the people”, for the latter is susceptible to multiple appropriations and is also bound to a vague opposition between those at the bottom and those at the top.  Furthermore, “leftist populism” risks falling into the worst forms of idolatrous authoritarianism without undoing the social and political relations that structure capitalism, including the centrality of the State in the maintenance and reproduction of those relations.

Mouffe is enamoured of Carl Schmitt’s notion that politics consists in establishing a frontier between friend and enemy. (Le Nouvel Observateur)  There is however an ambiguity in her use of Schmitt.

[P]olitics is precisely, by definition, the domain of antagonism, of conflict.  Politics consist in establishing a frontier between a “we” and a “them”, and all political order is founded on a certain form of exclusion.  Reflection on democracy should recognise antagonism.  A democratic politics should establish institutions which allow for the conflict to not express itself in the form of a confrontation between friend-enemy, but under the form that I call “agonistic”: a confrontation between adversaries who know that there can be no rational solution to their conflict, but who recognise the right of their opponents to defend their point of view.  If one denies the antagonism and if one does not try to give it an agonistic form, there is the risk that it manifest itself in the form of a confrontation between values, no longer political, but moral and non-negotiable, or in essentialised forms of an ethnic or religious nature. (Liberation)

Mouffe’s politics is then one of radicalising representative politics, within which political differences, as agonistic political differences, can be played out.  But in her appeal to Schmitt, to justify her adversarial conception of democracy, she domesticates his friend-foe opposition by constraining it within the parliamentary political game, when that opposition is one which characterises sovereignty as such.  The sovereign is the one who decides on the exception, who lays down the border of friend and enemy, including those who are to be subject to the power of the law, and excluding those who are outside it.  This divide does not exist within any parliament, but underlies it, precedes it and sustains it.  In this sovereign decision, we are confronted with the pre-political that grounds all political regimes; and this decision is inevitably ethical, for it sets down the basis for a political way of life.

In restricting the conception of the adversarial to the domain of already constituted politics, Mouffe not only dilutes Schmitt’s work, but also reveals her own blindness to the inherent violence of sovereignty of her politics: the leader, as sovereign, as both representative and constituent agent of the people, is of the people, while also above them.  In the liminal distance that separates the two lies the paradox of sovereignty and the hierarchy between leader and people that plagues it.  The latter cannot simply be remedied by more democracy, for the extent to which democracy is indebted to sovereignty, it can in no way assure, indeed it is incompatible with, autonomy; with the autonomous self-determination and self-government of communities.

What Mouffe does not see is that the politics of occupation pushes potentially beyond sovereignty, not for some illusory consensus of all, but for the possibility of autonomous affinities that articulate multiple forms of life.  Autonomy is foremost an ethics, a way of being in the world that contests the sovereignty of any political form, democractic or otherwise.  To then chain radical movements to it, in a comforting, soporific language of synergies between movement and representation, is to destroy what is precisely radical in the movements.

To close the banquet, a video interview with Alain Badiou, for whom the central question remains, how do we organise the rebellion?  If Badiou poses the question from his own heterodox marxist perspective, it is also a question that anarchists and libertarians cannot ignore …

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