Nuit Debout: Reflections in movement

Nuit Debout, Place de la République, Paris, is a political space of many voices, where no one view dominates, or can gain dominion, as long as the general assembly which lies at its heart remains an open, horizontal assembly.  Reflection and self-reflection are thus a permanent feature of the occupation.

Yet events in france continue to unfold (e.g., protest demonstrations, occupations, strikes) at a pace that makes any such exercise difficult.  The choice then of what we have shared and continue do so as regards Nuit Debout is hazardous, yes; but also we believe necessary.  

We share below one such reflection, in translation, a paper version of which was distributed during the weekend of May 7-8, was then carried in the Nuit Debout Gazette (12/052016) and was posted as a single page blog.

Address to the anonymous on the conditions for going beyond the movement of assemblies known as “nuit debout”

To situate what happened

From the point of view of history, of the human adventure in acts, the qualitiy of an event is measured, apart from the novelty that it engenders for humanity, by the horizon that it suddenly opens up where until then nothing seemed bound to profoundly disturb the habitual and known course of life.  It is always a matter of analysing a contradictory movement, a struggle between old forms of existence still everywhere in place and the dynamism of those who overturn them and thus revealing abruptly their caducity.  One of the decisive factors in this nascent and ever newborn conflict seems on each occasion to reside in the capacity to formulate this front line that traverses the event and separates the archaic and fixed beliefs constitutive of the world that refuses to die from that which, just only coming to reveal itself, is but in the beginnings of its formulation.  It is an angle of approach that may appear overly ambitious to judge this singular phenomenon that has taken the name of “nuit debout”, of which little would remain a priori once subject to the filter of a dispassionate critical analysis.  However, it has been some time in this quiet country that a protest did not appear to contain, even at so embryonic a stage and still at the simple level of intentions, such a need for novelty.  One must recognise the exceptional character that these meetings don, of hundreds, or sometimes of thousands, of anonymous people who do not now each other, who come from all possible backgrounds, and who find themselves in the street to speak from their insatisfaction, when a few days before nothing seemed to stem for a long time to come the growing development of social atomisation and separation.  And it is necessary above all to bring out what is essential in what is manifest, covered over as it is by debris, excrescences, folklore and parasitism relayed and amplified from the exterior by the media: an effort to organise speach by means of general assemblies whose form reveals the demand for direct democracy, an openness to everyone and horizontality.

Nevertheless, “nuit debout” inscribes itself in a relatively weak social movement which in its confrontation with the State has never ben able to gain decisive advantage in the street.  It has become customary then, given the significant similarities, to situate its real inspiration outside, referring pell-mell to the spanish indignados movement, that of Occupy in the United States or still the Greek assemblies, such as that of Syntagma.  The context of French politics certainly explains how such a copycat arrives here so late after these antecedents picked out from other western States.  It seems that the real origins of this emergence must be sought in the far more important social upheavals, though they are rarely cited today, of which the most significant expressions were separated by some ten years: the insurrectional movement in Argentina in 2001, that lead to the creation of a multitude of neighbourhood assemblies with novel forms and priorities that then seemed to usher in a surpasing of the limits of earlier insurrections.  Then a decade later, what was named tte “Arab Spring”, where the Argentinian “que se vayan todos” [“that they all go”] found a practical translation that the world had not seen for some twenty years at least, with the fall of various national leaders as a consequences of generalised revolts in a multitude of States.  It was effectively there, in the conquering assaults that shook the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi or Aden, where is to be found the genesis of what in the occident only seemed, a few months later, little more than weak defensive echoes where indignation replaced anger.  Five years later, and despite the immense repression deployed to overcome such an explosion, the conditions for the effective transformation of the world are still determined by this moment, and by the State measures and the media diversions tha were employed to eradicate it: war in Syria, war in Ukraine, war in Yemen, modernised planetary terrorism.

In view of such a global movement and the conservative recomposition that it required, the phenomenon “nuit debout” appears like a late expression of the unexpected insurrectional leap that lays down the first conditions for a free debate among human beings regarding their future.  The “dégage” [“get lost”] shouted in the squares of North Africa and the Middle East could be addressed to anyone who laboured for the conservation of existing society, the famous “nizam” [“ruler”] of which the “people demanded the fall”, existed beyond any State borders and their individual incarnations.

However this minuscule echo in the benumbed occident today makes itself heard without the protest in the streets having turned to the offensive, without even being able to discern a real riot, even less, an uprising or insurrection.  Which is what gives to “nuit debout” its artificial appearance, what renders these gatherings as confusing as they are undefinable.  If the radical intentions are there, they come from far away.  At the beginning of the formation of the general assembly of the Place de la République in Paris, the heteroclite mix of opinions, as diverse as they were contradictory, interventions oscillating between the pathetic and the stiring, or the fervour of a new experience sufficient to render the situation alive, appeared first as the welcome sign of new dispositions, notably the capacity to listen, of kindness and tolerance.  It was then a matter of benefitting from this space, that very early on escaped from those who initiated it, of appropriatng it by taking care not to close it in a premature definition of the practice of exchange that would have limited it.

After a month of existence, this attention given to not formulating more clearly a direction with the aim of federating as many people as possible, of not endorsing too quickly a threatening division, appears now to be what prevents such a federation.  Because it lacks a truly negative basis, the assembly did not know how to assume its radicalness and did little more than oscillate between outdated forms that pre-existed it and the openness that it signified with its creation.  At this stage, because the exigency for democratic self-organisation continues seemingly alive, and though the novelty of the beginning now reduces itself to a trickle, drowned out by the re-constitution of old forms of contestation, it seems necessary to carry out a sort of dialysis, a way of extracting the essential that remains of the backward looking cloathing that is quickly re-making itself.  It might appear vain to want thus to radicalise a phenomenon that is so little radical.  It nonetheless appears to us that the organisation here experimented with, by the criticism of a hierarchised world that it signifies, of speech usurped, contains the seed of a more profound questioning of the conditions of preservation of such a world, and for this to become reality, it is necessary finally for it to be formulated officially.

To break with the dead weight of a society at its end

The origin of “nuit debout” is a rupture, the rupture with the enframing by labour unions and their planning of protest, the rupture with the routine of bimonthly demonstrations behind CGT [Confédération Générale du Travail] trucks and their tired slogans.  This rupture gives place to a gain: the occupation of a square, the assurance of a continuity and a presence.  The functioning of “nuit debout” sustains another rupture, that with the dominant form of the organisation of society where power is always reserved to a few individuals at the head of States and companies, where the word is confiscated by the dominant media and their collaborators, from all sides.  This rupture opens onto an achievement, power belongs to the general assembly where everyone can speak, without unmandated intermediaries.  This, everyone can already agree with.  To open up other perspectives, further ruptures are necessary.

To break with the tendency of civicism that reacted to the project of the labour law with indignation, and as a consequence, that proposes for itself methods and means of symbolic and media seductive “action” such as their proposition of petitions, the modification of the constitution, the recognition of “blank votes”, calling upon elected officials, even initiating a dialogue with powers whose discredit has nevertheless been frequently recalled, including now envisaging the creation of a political party and participation in the elections.  From this perspctive, it seems to be a simple question of settings, of details, even if they are significant details, at the heart of a system of which the essential, the State above all else, is fated to preserve itself.  One is thus witness to the recomposition of a Left disappointed in no longer being represented, nor present in power, nor in the traditional political parties and who would like to re-animate the cadavre of politics in alternative forms, following Podemos, Syriza.  The powerlessness of the citizen, a simple voting or demanding machine, thus engenders a deplorable divide between word and deed.  In reducing the latter to a simple spectacular and demonstrative staging, what resembles more and more a civic framework has managed to stifle the most active, autonomous and negative part of the movement which, frustrated, ended up fading into occasional, peripheral and increasingly sterile sorties around the square.

To break with the militant myth of the “convergence of struggles”, with this erroneous vision that presupposes that a multitude of consistent struggles would pre-exist the movement and that this latter would be nothing more than the means of conjunction.  The convergence of a handfull of partial and sectoral struggles cannot have any result other than a simple addition of partial and sectoral struggles, each pursuing the satisaction of its own particular demands.  It would now be a matter instead of speaking of the overcoming of struggles; to not begin with the supposed strength that they embody, but rather with their glaring insufficiencies and with what separates them and consecrates their irremediable isolation in their poor, short term objectives.  The interest of what is happening today consists in no longer being subject to this step by step progression, to no longer being constrained to focus on particular consequences, to finally criticise their fundamental causes.

To break also with the corporativisms that one finds so present here, where different trades believe themselves to have finally found the opportunity to graft themselves onto a movement that constructed itself without them, to see their meager demands recognised by the State.  The manoeuvre of the cultural intermittents [precarious cultural workers in France] is in this regard exemplary.  One has to salute their skill in having instrumentalised the assembly, to the extent of having siphoned it off for numerous days, so as to preserve a regime that holds to the sacredness of cultural commoditis of which they are the proud and zealous employees.  They thus demonstrated everything that from their point of view the experience discussed here elaborates, the assembly reduced to a simple means of pressure within the framework of negotiations with employers.  What is postulated in the demands of such identities is the preservation of that at which they labour, while it is very probable that in the more or less long term, one wishes neither for spectacles nor intermittents.

To break with the stardom of protest, with these persons blinded by the lights of the media in search of leaders, who already dream themselves to be the providential theoreticians charged with bestowing a basic orientation, to the detriment of the ongoing debate.  These creatures of the media seem to have nothing but two priorities, first that of short circuiting the general assembly which they can no longer tolerate as it reduces them to the rank of the anonymous among the anonymous  and then to call upon the trade unions to organise a general strike.  Has a social movement ever been seen that after having left behind in its wake labour unions, then sets about to run after them?  Either these people have no sense of the role played by the unions these last fifty years, in everyday life, a buffer between employees and their management and in moments of revolt, a guarantor of the return to order and work, or they fantasise at this key stage of a hypothetical rejection by the famous “rank and file” against their hierarchy.  But nowhere today have the important strikes emerged from trade unions; it is always a powerful and offensive street movement which, at the height of its development, drives people to desert work, unionised or not, and usually to the great displeasure of the union hierarchy.  A whole essay would be necessary to dismantle the illusions contained in this strange return to grace of trade unionism, organisations whose marshals during protests have the habit of collaborating with the police to repress any transgressive actions, organisations which work with the police to assure the trajectory of demonstrations so as to facilitate the work of repression. It was necessary for the general assembly of the Place de la République to be transformned into a union meeting for the CGT, the 28th of April, via its secretary general, thus graciously invited there, to explain to a Lordon and a Ruffin, who tried to pick him up for weeks, to learn that the organisation of a general strike was both beyond his capacity and his competence.  A cold shower, putting an end to the episode of convergence.  Earlier in the afternoon, at the Place de la Nation, one could witness, for the first time apparently, a few labour unionists skirmishing, though still timidly, with the CRS [france’s riot police], pointing to what could eventually be a real convergence when the rank and file of the unions will no longer be satisfied with being paraded by its leaders and will support physically those who still fight alone against the forces of repression.

To break with the limits of the State of Law which constrains us into permanently worrying about our good legality.  There is the need to state that what is happening here is effectively an unmanaged, wild, invasion of public space opposed to its policed and commercial management, which is in effect the declaration of an open conflict.  It is necessary to leave behind this sort of double-dealing where the authorisation to be there is negotiated while the “public power” work daily to sabotage everything that is essayed, experimented, as during these last days with the blocking of the transporation of logistical material necessary for the holding of the general assembly and the eviction and destruction of all of the installations in the square.

To break finally with all of the parasitical presences in the squares which wreak and pollute what is essentially happening there: journalists who impose from the outside a respectability to which one must live up to, protest tourists who, in turn, attract petty merchants who, political or not, earn their keep on the back of an effort in organisation that otherwise pretends to condemn merchant and capitalist relations, micro-associations which have finally found a platform, a commission or a stand, from where to feed uncertain desires for petty hobbies, finally everything which in the end contributes to the kermesse and the spectacle where the humiliating position of spectator and consummer are re-constituted, that is, films, concerts, jugglers and the like, the importance of which is so imperative that the assembly is interrupted almost every evening so that everyone can watch/listen together, something to which everyone is already reduced to in their little home, in front of their television or computer screen, to watch the umpteenth documentary revealing a scandal or hear the umpteenth political song from a decrepit orchestra or a “protest” rap group.

This non-exhaustive list draws a front line that passes through the middle of us, in this soft occidental belly where for various decades now the marxist schema of a division in “social classes” was diluted in a large apathetic middle class.  There is behind each of these impoverishing alienations, that share the contempt for what is happening that is new, the sum of our renunciations that recompose themselves, the hideous resignation that everything continue as before under different forms.  To abandon such dead weights, is to abandon the beliefs that sustain them, the illusions that preserve them.  To endeavour to conserve them in the name of a consensual and tolerant moderation is no longer at this stage a condition for the extension of the movement, but rather more a restraint and marginalisation for those who are most capable of giving it life and profundity.

To pursue and reinforce offensive intentions

What remains afer this critical review?  What did not happen before the beginning of this movement, what did not exist: a mobilisation that does not bring together great many but which henceforth systemically gives rise to confrontations with the police, general assemblies, prolonged practices of cooperation, that persists in its democratic exigencies.  In these two parallel phenomena, of which the articluation appears to be the challenge of the moment, the same desire manifests itself: to begin from the power that is constituted, the exceptional and the possible openned up by the sitation, to translate words into actions, to translate actions into words, to move forward collectively following the logic of a clean slate barely indicated and of which no one can yet pretend to know the extent of.

We believe first of all, that despite all of their current flaws, that it is necessary to support the central role of the general assemblies and work towards the preservation of their horizontality and their openness, to demand the same time to speak for everyone, to impede that anyone speak in the name of a party or political organisation or union, to preserve their sovereignty against all of those who would like to decide in their place, to maintain them at the heart of the movement as a basis against the will to thematise them, to space them out, to render them peripheral, or simple instruments of mobilisation of the masses to be manipulated at leisure; to revoke and disperse to the winds commissions that are disconnected and infiltrated and that imagine themselves accountable to no one.  Even at the current experimental stage, which will demand a great deal of work of improvement, the assemblies are the antithesis of bureaucratic organisations that dominate elsewhere, everywhere, from the summit of the State to small extreme-left groups; they render all such examples antiquated, their hierarchical functioning immediately scandalous and shameful, obsolete.  That no one any longer shuts up, that everyone participate in criticism, that no one’s word is worth more than that of another!  Paradoxically, however, for that to remain possible, it is necessary for the assemblies to define themselves, declare an inclination, a bias, state that with which they break, and designate as well the conditions for participation in them: who to invite?  Who is a persona non grata?  Where does the line of demarcation pass that already excludes cops, politicians, Finkielkraut and other reactionaries?  We do not believe, as it may have been said, that the first signs of debility of the assemblies are associated with a slow and formalised practice that may repel participants, but rather with the civic/citizenship centred framework that theatralises and thereby neutralises their impact and their ambitions to make of them simple symbolic gatherings of a disgruntled people collecting their grievances so that they may be transmitted to the sovereign, whether s/he be at the Elysée [official residence of the president of the french republic], at Matignon [official residence of the french prime minister] or in the editorial rooms of newspapers and televisions.  It is known who benefits from the criticism of formalism: loudmouth ideologues who know before the others and who wait for them to reach their level of consciousness.  As for the slowness of the process, we have all the time in the world, or at least not less than when we become blighted, exiled in our respective hutches, without power over our lives, or anything.

The best manner to establish a minimal level of radicalness in the assemblies consists in aligning them with the most active part of the movement which has been referred to, at different times, under the names of “secondary school students” [“lycéens”], “youth” [“jeunes”], and then “rioters” [“casseurs”], whom we will name for our part, the “uncontrollable” and who characterise themselves effectively by the youthfulness of their actions, without there being any biological or generational identity encompassing them in a reductive community.  We are not speaking here of any ritualised gestures common to demonstrations described as unplanned [“sauvages”] where the simulacrum of a riot is played out between activists, without spontaneity, but of the enraged of the moment who come to understand the relation of forces and act in function of them.  Yes, the police are our immediate enemy in the streets, yes, it is against them that the beginning of each act is played out, here and elsewhere.  And no, the police of Tunisia and Egypt did not join the movements of rebellion in 2011: they were defeated.  Until now, the assemblies have tolerated from a safe distance such actions in the name of a “demagogic” diversity of practices.  But they should from now on assume them as an integral part of the movement and call on more people to join them.  The first possible victory of an assembly that debates under a police seige will be a victory against the police, within the immediate relations of force.  The future of the assemblies will depend on their capacity to pass onto the offensive, the future of the uncontrollables on their participation in the debate.  Between fire and ice, a link is possible: sabatoge, in its literal meaning and in its broadest sense.

Practical and immediate sabotage as it offers itself to us with the keys, the codes, the on-off buttons, the spaces to which we have access in the places that we occupy in our collaboration with this society.  Think only of what the employees of EDF [france’s principal electrical utility company, largely owned by the state] can do, to cite but this example.

The sabotage of everday life, as it continues to unfold around the squares, efectively disturbing it following each nightly assembly, thus tying ourselves to a common activity, completing the debate and preventing it from fixing itself in posturing, to make it breath, to distinguish those who are engaged from those who are mere spectators which the growing notoriety of the movement attracts more and more of and which paradoxically weakens it also.  That the banks, the politicians, the multinationals be targeted.  That these platitudes are repeated among the converted, so what; but the line of fracture that traverses this society runs through us as well.  In this part of Paris that gentrifies itself [“s’embourgeoise”] at great speed, all of the middle class people continue to take part in the perpetuation of everyday misery: advertisers, managers, managerial staff, petty office managers, satisfied artists of cultural merchandise.  It is more than likely that those from the periphery of the city [“les banlieusards”], whose rallying to the movement we so much desire, do not want to do so behind the slogan “the police with us”, nor behind principled, self-proclaimed pacificism.  And it is precisely those, whose struggle is exemplary, whom we want to join us.  And because there will be a debate around this matter, it must be repeated that the problem is not with things being smashed [“la casse”], the problem is how to render the smashing up ambitious, how to integrate it in a goal; the problem is not the violence, but how to use it so that it is not in vain, so that it brings us advantages.

The sabotage of the programs of state and media power, programs that will re-settle themselves very quickly on sporting events, vacations, political party primaries, elections, and all of the illusions that they will continue to diffuse and the attention that they will divert.  To render the living that is played out here more desirable than the deadliness of everyday life that is persued elsewhere, to not leave the game in the frozen version of the professionals of culture and other neo-artists, to not leave the breaking up [“la casse”] to these satisfied specialists, we think that the assembly should accordingly, via its commissions, put into place, notably at the end of every evening, occasions to divert/deflect [“détourner”] the urban landscape that surrounds us, to invade the authorised spaces of entertainment, to organise the general strike of satisfaction, all of what are sometimes considered excesses, but that they in the assembly should make a central element in its program.  The state wants henceforth to block efforts at direct democracy that are carried out in the squares.  Let us then block in turn its little pseudo-democratic parliamentary theatre, its parody of debate.

Sabotage finally of the dominant ideology, how the cooperation and collective intelligence that one tries to elaborate here can lead to a critique of the thought that structures existing conditions, how the old ideas of the past as regards work (yes, full employment is finished, and no, it will not return), as regards the economy (is it a matter of blocking it, if indeed such an abstraction can be blocked, until the abrogation of a law, or is it a matter of freeing our lives from it?), as regards the ensemble of enemy categories that govern our lives.  This movement still produces very few texts and little fundamental reflection.  It lacks for the moment any profound thinking, the elaboration of theories through the cooperative means that it has given itself and which the short moments in which the anonymous are allowed to speak render impossible, not more than the longer times accorded to specialists on this or that theme.

3rd of May 2016,
A nightowl

(The development of a point of view expressed during an intervention in the General Assembly of the Place de la République in mid-April).


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2 Responses to Nuit Debout: Reflections in movement

  1. AAA says:

    Merci pour le relais et le travail de traduction. Mon piètre niveau en anglais ne me permet pas d’en juger l’exactitude, mais, à quelques inévitables détails près, l’esprit et l’intention m’y paraissent fidèlement reproduits.

  2. Julius Gavroche says:

    C’était un plaisir de traduire ton texte, et j’espère n’avoir trop le déformer. Et jusqu’à maintenant, il reste un des meilliers reflexions que j’ai lu sur Nuit Debout.


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