Frédéric Lordon: Imagining revolution and the problem of scale

To share, in translation, a critical essay of “micro” revolutionary politics, by Frédéric Lordon …

Lordon may be accused of simply reenacting the old marxist-social democratic criticism of anarchism: that the latter’s anti-statism ignores the inevitable role of state power, both as a force to be reckoned with and as an instrument of political change.

But his argument is more complex than this. For Lordon, there is a problem of scale in the ideal of radically changing capitalist society ignoring the dimensions of power intrinsic to the contemporary, global division of labour and neglecting the necessity of institutionalising those changes. (There are echoes of David Harvey‘s criticism of anarchism here). In other words, a simple hollowing out of capitalist social relations by flight to create a “network” of communes, until capital collapses upon itself, is illusory. And such a network would remain both fragmentary and fragile if it failed to constitute itself into a political body.

The division of labour and the relations of power which it sustains and which is reflected in them exist at a “macro” level, and these cannot be simply undone by “micro” resistances and rebellions. The States born of and promoting of this division and these relations will see to that. When the “micro” radical politics finally appear threatening, they will be crushed.

The latter also fail to address the “macro” scale of oppression and exploitation which permeate the whole of our many “micro” realities; capitalism is a total system of social relations of power and its end can only be imagined at the level of mass insurrection. However much “micro” actions may be conducive to fomenting dissidence, they are finally insufficient to bring the system to an end. And even if they could, what arises in its place must have some relatively solid political form, which is only possible with sovereignty and law.

However incisive one takes Lordon’s argument to be, there is a sort of prophetic arrogance that haunts it, along with a blindness to the dangers (repeatedly confirmed) of sovereignty. (See, for example, the work of Giorgio Agamben).

Our suggestion is that the “macro” and “micro” scales are not so easily identifiable or separable, that what constitutes the “macro” are a multiplicity of “micro” gestures and actions of social reproduction, and that the disruption of the former by “micro” rebellions is always unpredictable.

The ZAD of Notre-dame-des-landes was physically crushed manu militari, but was it thereby defeated? Can one know beforehand that defeat is unavoidable? And what does defeat or success mean when speaking of insurrections and revolutions?

The dismantling of capital would be of global consequence, but it is by no means obvious that it must be the work of a singular, global movement or organisation. (This by no means excludes internationalism). And before the multiplying and permanent crises of capital, there is no reason to assume that capitalist State or para-State institutions will always have the means to intervene effectively at the “micro” level.

As for creating a political body, Lordon leaves open the actual form that this might or should take in a non-capitalist future. Our belief though is that his talk of sovereignty, of the need for some kind of “borders”, law, authority, will in all likelihood generate the conditions for new forms of hierarchical authority, new kinds of oppressive inclusion and violent exclusion; the very things that a robust anti-capitalist movement must contest.

For the debate …

And the ZAD will save the world … ; To marry realism and utopia

Frédéric Lordon (Le Monde Diplomatique – October 2019)

To put an end to the capitalist order, some propose to generalise individual and local defections, along the lines of self-managed communities or areas to defend [zones à défendre -ZAD]. Such a remedy threatens those who take it up of remaining minorities and isolated. However, a multitude of individual disengagements could also diffuse the desire for a mass overthrow – by employing other means …

But with what influence do the material norms of capitalism not hold us? Already George Orwell, with the perfect intellectual honesty that was his, confessed that he could not see himself without his minimal comfort: “I am a degenerate modern semi-intellectual who would die if I did not get my early morning cup of tea and my New Statesman every Friday. Clearly I do not, in a sense, ’want’ to return to a simpler, harder, probably agricultural way of life.”(1) One will note that the passage is from The Road to Wigan Pier, written four years after Down and Out in Paris and London, the chronicle of his experience of life in the street. It seems then that after this experience, that Orwell would not have gone to the ZAD.(2) Or would he have gone? Because he also adds: “But in another and more permanent sense I do want these things [to return to a simpler, harder, more rude life], and perhaps in the same sense I want a civilisation in which ‘progress’ is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men.”(3) And the front of the contradiction passes through him. But a contradiction of what nature?

Capitalism holds us. It holds us by its material norms, which are norms of the body, norms for the body and placed in the body. Not wanting, or being able to want, a “simpler, harder, more rude” life is in our bodies. Capitalism trapped us by pampering us, it caught us in the most powerful manner: it captured our bodies. If the only desirable proposal before us is of the generalised ZAD type, it will not be easy …

An epidemic of desertions

By comparison, the advantage of a proposal such as a salary for life(4) or some form of communism – in other words, some form of the abolition of structures of lucrative property which sustain the logic of profit – is double. On the one hand, it immediately refers to the scale of the problem which is macroscopic. That is, contrary to a popular belief, a sum of microscopic solutions does not add up to a macroscopic solution. A social formation is not made just with a collection of ZAD, or of “communes”. Something more is necessary, something which transforms the collection into a certain kind of totality – a certain kind, because the modalities of its internal integration, and its external porosity, are wholly to be defined. In any case, I maintain that a form of relative closure is necessary: there will not be a world (of) ZAD “without margins”; this does not make up a political form. It is for this reason that a juxtaposition of ZAD without relations that stabilise their coexistence, thus within a certain perimeter, is doomed to decomposition – incidentally, I will recall that the quality of being kind or good does not belong analytically to the concept of the ZAD, that one can very well imagine racist or homophobic ZAD, or ZAD structured around any other distressing principle, and one will have to deal with them, probably not without difficulty.

The second advantage of a communist solution, as Bernard Friot speaks of it, or other related views, follows immediately on the first: so much as it is macroscopic, it preserves “globally” the division of labour. From the point of view of the heights to be descended in terms of the level of material life, this makes a considerable difference. I understand that this very fact brings up major problems, which Friot moreover has not entirely addressed; because, in the division of labour, there are certain positions that are agreeable and many more that are painful. Who will go where? According to which principle should individuals be distributed between different segments of the division of labour? Qualification, as a principle, is not a sufficient answer. A communist perspective certainly cannot envisage preserving, such as it is, the apportionment of drudgery and gratifying or fulfilling tasks, but must imagine solutions of sharing; knowing moreover that there is no substantial definition of how this is to be done and knowing equally how social position conditions in many ways how individuals evaluate differently what is drudgery and what is gratifying, and all of the incorporated mechanisms of censure which lead some to find desirable or acceptable what others find repellent (and leave them aside willingly), etc.

And this of course without speaking of the political event which will bring about this new mode of production, an event which will undoubtedly have a revolutionary character, as everything which proposes to put an end to lucrative property. Tautologically, however, a revolutionary event presupposes mass political energies of an extreme intensity and, for starters, the primacy of the political in heads and bodies, which will make the exceptionally reduced material conditions of life acceptable. The question is of course the duration of the period during which this reduction is affectively sustainable, and furthermore, the level at which the material norm is readjusted, once the moment of exception is passed. Of course, to these questions, there are no predetermined answers.

Certainly, the mass overthrow is prepared underground by a series of individual defections. This occurs first in silence in people’s minds, and the epidemic of desertions spreads all the more quickly with the abundance of surrounding examples. It is equally certain that, all things being equal otherwise, the climatic disaster will accelerate the displacements – necessity will become law. In this sense, the spring of the desire to put an end to the capitalist order will gain consistence; it is on this side that the desire will find expression more and more.

What follows, I say anyway, even though it is a somewhat bitter remark which cannot but with difficulty be avoided: the urban and cultivated bourgeoisie will not see the least problem in the silent massacre of the working classes; liberal globalisation will not become suspect until the moment that it concerns “the planet”. It is sufficient to say this to see why. Job firings in peri-urban areas were not its affair; swimming in a sea of plastic, the heatwave in Paris and the brochiolitis of their children, are. Pierre Boudieu recalled that the improvement in the sanitary infrastructures of Amsterdam in the 17th century only occurred because the miasma of the free air ignored class barriers, and because the bourgeoisie began to worry for itself. There are social-passional laws of life which are strikingly stable. Until very recently, every proposition restricting free trade, hence, let us say the words, every protectionist proposition, made you out to be a fascist – to protect the working class from savage restructurings, that was not a sufficient reason. The same proposition poured into a justifying grammar (moreover, well founded) of “the planet” suddenly becomes admissible for the elite journalists and publicists, and the bourgeois class, and soon, it will almost be common sense, and this because the temperatures are going up for everyone.

With this parenthesis closed, political realism demands that we see that there is a collective affectivity in the process of formation here, that it is a resource, and that to ignore it because of its sociological turpitude would be a mistake of the first order. What the massacre of women and men did not permit in public opinion, the massacre “of the planet” may do so; that’s the way it is, let’s then do something with it. It is in any event certain that what one could call the climate affect can become a real agent of displacement, and that it may weigh in the global passional balance which for the moment supports capitalism. Moreover, this new element in formation is susceptible, as such, of carrying one or the other of our two solutions of bifurcation, the “ethical” and the mass revolutionary. It nourishes both grand individual existential transformations, as well as the collective sentiment of the impossibility of “continuing as we have”. However, I continue to hold to the second.

At the end of the ends, a social order only disappears if a sufficient passional energy is formed to make it disappear – that is, if affective determinations have worked at the macroscopic level. To place the development of this passional energy under the condition of heroism is too much to ask, I believe, and it is to not give it much of a chance. And, furthermore, I continue to not believe in the drop by drop solutions of continuous defection: we evoked previously (5) the fate of these experiences, from Lip (6) to the ZAD, when they threaten to become convincing.

It is also rather interesting to compare these two experiences, for if they have in common that the ruling powers of their time saw them as “menacing” and to be destroyed, they are nonetheless quite heterogeneous as types, and metonymically heterogeneous with our division or distinction. For my part, as a model to follow, the Lip experience is more convincing than that of the ZAD, in the sense that it demanded less. To marry the ZAD-life is an exigency that will remain beyond the reach of most for a longtime. To have Lip’s proliferate is not. For all that, the emulative affective value of the ZAD should not be underestimated: the example is striking, one can wager that it will promptly enter into the relation of ideas which together form those who begin to say that our way of life cannot last very long, that it will be necessary to think of revising it. Could however these relations go so far as to push one to give up everything so as to join a ZAD? I doubt it, but that is not very important: it sows effects, it hurries modifications, regardless of their scale, and all of this will be found somewhere, in the grand passional ensemble that will begin to say that capitalism, well its just okay.

If at that moment, it is necessary for the figuration of an alternative future to emerge, I believe that it will be less a ZAD figuration than a Lip figuration – and even though the ZAD will have there part to play. By “Lip” figuration, I mean something that will revolve around an ensemble in which the following will be combined: preservation of the “global level” of the division of labour, but under all of the perceivable reasonable reductions, and above all freed from the intoxication of the logic of profit, the establishment of the sovereignty of workers’ collectives through property as use, and by the restitution of the desire for a “job well done” to work – a passional force of great power. Here, however, the designation “Lip-figuration” is deceiving if it leads to imagining a series of local experiences. Because in fact property as use, property as defined by use, must be juridically institutionalised – and one has to recall the scale of the subversion that would be necessary before assuming any social control over the orientations of production, so as to arrest the consumerist, existential and environmental massacre. One always comes back to this: the question of scale, the question of the macroscopic, the question of re-institutionalisation. In the absence of juridical institutionalisation, thus at the macro-social level, nothing was easier for the ruling power than to kill Lip.

The lyricism of cabins is not enough

I will summarise: I do not believe that capitalism will fall by a movement of flight towards “communes”, which would empty it of its substance and leave it an empty shell, collapsing thereby on its own; I also do not believe that a juxtaposition of “communes” constitutes a complete political form. I believe that one must begin anew from this problem: to agree that the division of labour is a macroscopic phenomenon, and consequently, that to restructure its orientations or ends, as well as the social relations under which it operates, and that therefore the division of labour is a macroscopic affair that must be addressed at that level. It is also an institutional matter, implying the transformation of the right to property. In these conditions, we are necessarily confronted with a problem of number. In the passional dynamics of number, everything is good, including limited, local, even unmanageable experiences, which contradict them less than emulate them, in one way or another, by producing displacements in peoples’ heads, rearrangements, new formations of desire, and this provided that these experiences do not pretend to exhaust the problem. The lyricism of cabins, forests and ZAD no doubt whisk our imaginations, but it does not sustain a political perspective for the many.

1. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

2. “Zone à défendre”, a term popularised by the opponents to the construction of the airport of Notre-Dame-des-Landes.

3. George Orwell, op. cit.

4. The reference here is to a proposition made by Bernard Friot in L’Enjeu du salaire, La Dispute, Paris, 2012.

5. NDLR. In the work from which this passage is taken.

6. In 1973, the Lip employees occupy their factory, then retake it under self-management.

For an exchange of parallel interest between Lordon and David Graeber around Nuit Debout, see here.

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