Frédéric Lordon: We are not friends with everyone. We do not come bearing peace.
On April 20th, Frédéric Lordon addressed a meeting at Paris’s Bourse du Travail to discuss what comes next for Nuit Debout. His remarks, translated by David Broder, are below.
We’re here in order to reflect, and ask ourselves a few fundamental questions: where are we going? What do we want? What can we do? So it’s worth picking up on every available spur to thought, even when they are matters of chance or seem anecdotal. Sometimes anecdotal happenings are of unparalleled revelatory power. Such is the case of the "Finkielkraut affair" [right-wing ideologue Alain Finkelkraut’s attention-seeking appearance at the Place de la République occupation shouting "fascists," leading to his expulsion from the square]. Nothing could better allow us to make clear who we are and what we want than this silly little story. It also allows us, a contrario, to see what the relatively favourable reception Nuit Debout has had in the media thus far owes to…and perhaps not get too deluded about how long this might last. Speaking of the media, I want to make clear the difference between the reporters on the ground at the Place de la République, most of whom are themselves young and precarious and have every reason to identify with the movement, and on the other hand the mediaocratic chiefdom that reserves itself the monopoly of authorised speech. And this chiefdom’s constant efforts seek to push this movement — which escapes its grip on all sides, and which it doesn’t understand at all — in a direction that it considers controllable, something that I would call intransitive "citizen engagement." By that I mean citizen engagement for the sake of engagement, debating for the sake of debating, but deciding nothing, not making anything happen, and above all not drawing dividing lines. It’s a sort of dream of a cotton-wool, inoffensive democracy, conceived with the precise aim of coming to nothing, and even making us forget — as soon as possible — the first reason why we rallied together: the overturning of the El Khomri bill [Labour Law] and the world it represents.
The media chiefdoms want to embroil us in a swamp of impotence whose central message evokes the pricing of the tourist processing-units of the Costa del Sol — it’s "all-inclusive." They call on us to be inclusive, welcoming everyone without the least discrimination because, as everyone knows, democracy could not bear there being any discrimination. And yet this country is ravaged by two large-scale violences: the violence of capital and identitarian-racist violence, of which Finkielkraut is perhaps the most notorious propagator. Yet in the name of all-inclusive democratism, the media — who would be the first to put us on trial for having become "Red-Brown" if our "Welcome and serenity service" [so-named as an alternative to "stewards," in French literally "Order service"] did not hunt out infiltrators — enjoin us to welcome in Finkielkraut, in the interests of democracy. Well… no!
We are not here to put on an all-inclusive display of an active citizenry, as [Libération editor] Laurent Joffrin and [education minister] Najat Vallaud-Belkacem would have us do. We are here to do politics. We are not friends with everyone, we do not come bearing peace. We have no project for unanimity: we even have to have serious clashes with one or two people. So yes, at the moment when the mainstream mediaocrats notice that we haven’t determined to lose ourselves in the impasse they want to lead us into, it may well be that their obliging tones will undergo a few changes. They will call us sectarians, just as they label as sectarian anyone who refuses to sign up to their sect. For if there’s been any harmful sect in France these last thirty years, really it’s been their one — the sect of the integrated neoliberal oligarchy. We have to prepare for this moment and not fear it: it could even be a rather good sign, the sign that we are truly beginning to worry them. And I’ll pose the question: have we ever seen a movement seriously challenging the social order being celebrated, beginning to end, by the organic media of the social order? One more comment on that point. I would like to tell those tempted to give in to the mirage of democratic unanimities that following their own project, remaking the world is bound to risk displeasing those who don’t at all want the world to be remade, and who may even have very powerful interests in it remaining exactly how it is.
Indeed, in this regard I want to return to one or two things that deserve further clarification. "We demand nothing." It didn’t escape me that trade union organisations were bound to look askew on this, given that their grammar of action is structurally, from the outset, a matter of demand-making. But I consider concerted action together with the great mass of wage-earners — and therefore with their organisations — so important to Nuit Debout that I am absolutely determined to get rid of this misunderstanding. Nothing would be more mistaken (and I recognise that there is every reason why one might be mistaken in this regard) than reading it as a sort of call for disengagement from, or abandonment of, actions around demands. Evidently it’s nothing of the sort. In very many situations, in local and defensive struggles, making demands is not an option, but a necessity — sometimes even a vital one. But with this formula, of evident provocative intent, I wanted to emphasise the limits of a purely demand-making register. These limits never appear so clearly as when we try to make demands global. We can march as much as we want to demand a rise in the minimum wage, the 32-hour week or the extension of social rights: but this has no sense when we do not simultaneously question the structures of neoliberalism, which have precisely the effect — and perhaps the project — of striking down these demands as impossible. Caught between financialisation, shareholder power, unchecked free trade and outsourcing, and the austerian euro, wage earners’ global demands have no chance.
When liberals say "There Is No Alternative" they are objectively speaking the truth. But it is a conditional truth. Yes, it is true that when the structures of neoliberalism are established as a framework, there is no longer any alternative — and the framework was made precisely for that reason, so that there would be no alternatives. Yet if there is no alternative within this framework, there remains the alternative of remaking the framework. But that is politics — which is something other than making demands. We well understand that we cannot submit the "demand" of changing the framework to the guardians of that framework. We have to chase them out and then rebuild, politically. And we will do so precisely in order to recreate the conditions of possibility for demand-making action.
Further: we not "demand" an end to property-for-profit. We do not "demand" the removal of the bosses’ arbitrary rule, or the democratic organisation of production collectives. We do not "demand" the social republic… For that is politics, in the highest sense of the term. Isn’t the constituent assembly of a social republic rather a distant objective? Well, thanks, I’d noticed that. We also have to tell things for what they are: in fact, the social republic would be nothing other the consecration of a revolutionary process. So why talk about that now, when none of the conditions for a revolutionary process are there? Precisely in order to start talking about it.
To speak of the social republic is to establish a problem in the middle of the public space, and to do so on the basis of concrete, shareable and universaliseable experiences: people suffer at work. They suffer the bosses’ arbitrary rule, they suffer their state of subordination and vulnerability. To speak of the social republic is to begin from that — which is something extremely concrete — and to establish the idea in public debate, giving it the force of an infuriating persistence that makes the problem impossible to ignore, and doesn’t allow people to look away from it. It is to make headway for an idea.
So that’s what I meant — and what perhaps wasn’t very clear — when I spoke of Nuit Debout as a "telescopic movement." At the one end, the energy of the general assembly, all the force of the spontaneous initiative in the Place de la République: like hurrying off to a police station where a comrade has been arrested. The day before yesterday someone said something very interesting in the square: he said "we have to put grit in the wheels, everywhere." Grains of sand like disrupting [Mayor of Paris] Anne Hidalgo’s talk two weeks ago, or the meeting the ESCP [private business school] students organised for [Front National vice-president Florian] Philippot. In short, it means derailing the current course of things, in a multitude of places — harassing them, and depriving them their sense of calm!
At the other end, there are key-ideas to hammer home, political objectives staggered according to their degree of ambition and remoteness. First of all, the idea of the juncture between urban activism, the working classes and the segregated suburban youth. And then there are ideas on the framework that has to be remade: banning the banks from speculative activities, neutralising shareholder powers, ripping up the murderous treaties like the European treaties or the TAFTA — now, those are objectives!
With its very wide spectrum of actions, Nuit Debout is here to put new things out there. Some of the ideas are remote, that’s true. But in order for them to make headway — and that is what we want — the least we can do is set them on track, and do so immediately.