Frédéric Lordon: ‘With Nuit Debout the fire didn’t catch hold’


Frédéric Lordon is one of Nuit Debout’s leading figures. Although he speaks to the media very little, the economist and CNRS research director did agree to answer Bondy Blog’s questions for this extended interview. On the menu today: Nuit Debout, the death of Adama Traoré, and the legacy of Michel Rocard.

Translated by David Broder. Interview by Jonathan Baudoin.

At the end of March 2016 the Nuit Debout movement took up position at the Place de la République and then spread across France, and even into other countries. Did it express ‘the power [puissance] of the multitude’, as you put it in your book Imperium?

Yes, indeed it is a very eloquent figuration of this power. My whole work in Imperium aimed at demonstrating, as La Boétie and Spinoza already said, that the state is not some external entity. On the contrary, in the last analysis – a very important clause, this – it is always something we ourselves produce, even though we do not recognise it as our own production. In fact, we could even say l’État, c’est nous, no matter what degree of separation it appears to us as having.

The state sustains itself and enslaves us with our own passional support, unnoticed by us. And that passional support is what Spinoza named the ‘power of the multitude’. But he did not fail to consider the conditions in which this passional support is withdrawn, stops irrigating the state, and by that very movement overthrows it. Sedition begins when a fraction of the multitude no longer identifies with the state’s norms – for example the norm that has us voting once every five years before shutting us up the rest of the time.  Thus the multitude becomes a threat to the state, which only in these circumstances notices that all its power is borrowed, and that without the power the multitude lends it, it is nothing.

In these moments the multitude in some sense takes back its possession of its own power, which had up till then been alienated in its capturing by the state. It is a potentially critical moment for the authorities [pouvoir, lit. power]. And without doubt something of that played out in Nuit Debout, even if at a very low level. At a very low level, but always with the risk that it was contagious, and could be emulated. The problem for the authorities comes when ‘this takes hold’ – when the whole prairie starts to catch fire. We’re not telling ourselves any tales, the fire hasn’t (or hasn’t yet) caught hold. But I believe that a lot of people who were far from the event did watch it with interest, and perhaps something happened in people’s heads whose effects we still can’t measure.

What is your analysis of the treatment the movement was given in the media?

It exactly conforms to what I described in real time, in my intervention at the ‘Convergence des luttes’ [‘Convergence of Struggles’] meeting at the Bourse du Travail on 20 April. The initial media reception of Nuit Debout was astonishingly good. It was not so astonishing, in fact, when you think about it: everything conspired for that to be the case, starting with the sociological composition of the square protest – essentially bringing together educated, precarious urban youth, well-made to awaken a both spontaneous and instinctive sympathy among the media class. This sympathy reached its height among the on-the-ground reporters sent there to hold a microphone or a camera, on account of their similarity to this milieu: they themselves are typical representatives of the youth they came to ask questions.

And, above all, this media reception owed to an orientation which I have termed citoyennisme [citizen-spiritedness] and even ‘intransitive’ citoyennisme – in that it was above all concerned with debate for debate’s own sake, while rejecting any cutting-edge or theme that might divide people, better to ‘bring people together’ and ‘be inclusive’. During this meeting I declared that things would change instantly when a combative and not citoyenniste line took hold in Nuit Debout, fully accepting the need for political and social conflict.  In the conjuncture we then had, we had to be determined to engage together with workers’ organisations in the movement against the El Khomri bill [Labour Law]. Incidentally, I’ll note that the very birth of Nuit Debout, such as its initiators brought it about from February onward, was intimately linked to the social movement, first of all by way of Merci patron! [a popular documentary film about resistance to lay-offs] and then because the slogan ‘We’re not going home’ only made sense as an extension of the 31 March demonstration. I will leave it up to others to determine which line won out, the citoyenniste line or the social-political one.

Rarely have we seen a movement that challenges the social order being celebrated by the guardians of that social order. And here, too, things were exactly the same. For the media reception totally turned around, with a generalised explosion of crazy editorials. Now there was no longer any question of leaving the story in the hands of the dogsbodies of news gathering. It became a matter for op ed writers. We should produce an anthology of the kind of things that it was possible for some to write at that moment, gratifying in their idiocy and their delirium. The disruptive thing, from the system’s point of view, was the fact that we put a question back on the agenda that all these people have been working to chase out of public debate for decades: the question of capitalism.

What’s extraordinary with all these guardians of order is that they are so settled in their dominant position, so unbuttoned, that they no longer even realise how clearly they say things that they ought to be keeping quiet about. As always at this level of ideas, Alain Finkielkraut proved best of all, with his cri de cœur on BFMTV [a right-wing news channel] laying out the deeper truth of the whole story as considered from the viewpoint of power (in the widest sense) [pouvoir lato sensu]. It was because of Nuit Debout, Finkielkraut raged, that ‘we’re not talking about radical Islam any more’. And indeed for all these people, that was something terrible. In truth it was a double loss, since their most heartfelt obsessions were downgraded at the very moment that their diversion strategies were thwarted: we were no longer talking about the thing they wanted all society to talk about obsessively, most importantly for the sake of not talking about anything else. Heading off the looming disaster before it spread demanded that they put all the available means of verbal violence into action.

We always have to reach institutions’ breaking points in order to know what they are capable of. And we were beginning to approach them. When an institutional order, a system of power, really feels endangered it can become capable of anything – by which I mean, all kinds of violence. To a degree – of course, a still moderate one – that was the experience of the social movement and the element of Nuit Debout identifying with that movement. Police violence, judicial violence, and the symbolic violence by editorial writers who were literally foaming at the mouth – they all made for one and the same thing, the system defending itself. We could not have given ourselves any more telling proof of the fact that we were in the right!

Do you worry that Nuit Debout is the ‘farcical’ repetition of May ’68?

I can respond within the terms of your implicit reference: May ’68 was not a tragedy, so even supposing that it was its repetition, Nuit Debout could not be a farce! Nuit Debout has its own characteristics which came to it from its very genesis: it developed around the Labour Law, meaning that like most great movements in France it developed around the social question, the wage question. And when all is said and done, that ultimately means the question of capitalism itself. May ’68 was about tearing apart old forms of authority. That was not a task that Nuit Debout had to accomplish. It could concentrate on other things, two in fact: the general question of political participation and representation, which is to say the question of the generalised institutional takeover within the framework of the Fifth Republic; and the question of capitalism as a system of oppression, so a question that was on the order of the day in May ’68.

So it is not a question of tragedy and farce, but from one case to the other there was the same difficulty in overcoming social barriers and truly bringing about the convergence of struggles. Certainly May ’68 did see some student deputations at the factory gates. Likewise, Nuit Debout would see a few similar movements, notably the student marchers joining the railworkers at Saint-Lazare. But all these initiatives remained embryonic, and seemingly the convergence went unaccomplished.

I say ‘seemingly’ because it may well be that the convergence was achieved where – as is so often the case – people didn’t expect it: in an unprecedented formation that without doubt represents the creation not of Nuit Debout but of… who else? No one in particular, but what was once called the creation of a process without a subject. This unprecedented formation is what they now call the cortège de tête [combative group at the forefront of a demo, often smeared in mainstream media as identical to ‘black bloc-ers’]. You’d have to be a BFMTV editorialist with your arse glued to your armchair to make out that the cortège de tête is simply a mass of ‘hooligans’. The reality of the cortège de tête is the diversity of its composition: totos [pejorative term for autonomists] and milis [Mouvement Inter Luttes Indépendant, a radical movement originating in lycée students’ struggles] but also entirely ordinary demonstrators infuriated by police violence over the course of the protests, trade union militants who’ve decided they’ll no longer tolerate being beaten or gassed without reacting, etc. That was where the true convergence of ‘those in struggle’ took place, and however small in scale it was, necessarily, the highest form of convergence: the one that takes place concretely, in a common confrontation. 

This also allows us to extend the comparison of the two events in a very direct way. As we might expect, the simplest means of delegitimising something – immediately within the grasp of no matter what media mind – resided in the maniacal treatment of ‘violence’. And the media worked to reduce Nuit Debout and the movement against the El Khomri bill to nothing but this. But let’s compare the respective levels of violence in May ’68 and spring 2016. Although May ’68 has now become an element of political folklore, and one which columnists look upon with stirrings of nostalgia and indeed indulgence, the level of violence it reached is on a whole different level to what we experienced in spring 2016. Remember, in May ’68 there were barricades in Paris. Barricades! The Palais Brongiart [at that time the Stock Exchange] was set alight. But BFMTV and France Info have gone hysterical because five windows were broken at the Necker [Hospital] – by an isolated cretin, by the way – when as it happens the true destroyers of the hospital are sitting in suits at the Élysée and Hôtel Matignon [the President’s and Prime Minister’s official residences]. Yet given a measureless but ‘abstract’ institutional violence and a ‘concrete’ physical violence of a hundred times less degree, we can count on media idiocy only to see the second violence and never the first. If the true parallel to draw between May ’68 and spring 2016 is indeed that one, then that gives us some food for thought.

On 20 April, speaking at the Paris Bourse de Travail, you spoke of ‘racist identitarian violence’ in France. Do you think that we can speak of institutional racism in this country?

That’s so obvious that I have to ask myself if it’s really worth saying much on this subject. Jacques Rancière has often shown the degree to which imputing racism to the people is often a way of dissimulating an élite racism and a state racism. Do we really have to mention cases like Brice Hortefeux [right-wing interior minister under Sarkozy] and his ‘Auvergnats’ [filmed complaining that Arab immigrants are troublemakers, Hortefeux then feebly claimed that he had in fact been talking about people from the Auvergne region] or [current prime minister] Valls’s sortie against the Roma people, deeming them impossible to integrate and doomed to being sent back? But we’d never finish adding more such examples! If we wanted to be fully aware of the horrors of what is commonly being said today, we would have to systematically take the discourse of certain politicians and columnists and methodically substitute the word ‘Jews’ for the word ‘Muslims’, ‘Roma’, etc.

Do we have to make a mountain out of a molehill just to talk about what everyone knows already – the racism of an alarming number of police officers, albeit a racism which, as is always the case, finds its very conditions of possibility in the implicit authorisation coming from the top, official speeches and the things they say implicitly, and the whole atmosphere established by pestilent opinion-makers? From this point of view we can’t help but mention the belchings of totally unhinged figures like Finkielkraut or Zemmour. At this famous meeting on 20 April I said that French society is ravaged by two macroscopic-scale violences: the social violence of capitalism and the identitarian-racist violence of which Finkielkraut and Zemmour are the most notorious propagators. As always, we will need the benefit of hindsight in order to weigh up the historical responsibilities, here. I hardly dare wish for that future moment to come, for when it does we will have been through terrible catastrophes.

What view do you take of the death of Adama Traoré [a young man who died in still-mysterious circumstances at a police station in July] and the statements of the Pontoise state prosecutor Yves Jannier?

It’s the most amazing coincidence – and indeed I’m astonished it’s been so little remarked-upon – that at the very moment when the prosecutor Jannier was sinking under institutional lies, Manuel Valls – speaking, as always, with the overplayed indignation to which he’s so given – expressed his outrage over the ‘constant questioning of the state’s word’. The very same day! The lie belongs to institutions – especially the institutions of the state and first of all the police, alas too often aided by ‘justice’. And between the Cahuzac affair [tax fraud case involving the Socialist junior budget minister] and the death of [ecologist protestor] Rémi Fraisse, Hollande’s term will only have given further proof of this – in total continuity, in this as in so many things, with Sarkozy’s term before him. It visibly has something to do with this mysterious surplus mortality in the police van and the cell, which "astonishingly" strikes one particular population category. This is some enigma for the social science of institutions!

What is sometimes frightening about the institutional canard is its crudeness. Suggesting that Adama Traoré died from the consequences of a spreading infection – which had nonetheless left him in rude health even just a few hours earlier – is a disgrace. It is an insult to people’s intelligence and even more of an insult to the respect owed to his family. And the highest perversity consists of saying nothing that is ‘technically’ false. I think that in state circles there is a strong tendency to believe that institutional lies about the racialised will not really have any consequences.

How would you analyse the political activity and intellectual thinking of the former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, who died on 2 July?

The respect we owe to the dead doesn’t stop us giving a political assessment. But with Rocard we’re almost talking about a syllogism: celebrated as the ‘soul’ of the Left and in reality one of the earliest agents of its rightward turn, he was thus the incarnation of the fact that this Left had become right-wing. In his very person, the ‘Second Left’ [Rocard’s idea of a Left detached from the ‘First Left’ that had been built on the Jacobin and Marxist traditions] was the historical operator transforming the Left into a second Right.

It was under Rocard that the final consolidation – the making irreversible – of the neoliberal turn of 1983 [as President Mitterrand retreated from earlier left-wing policies] was realised. Some will protest by invoking the ISF [‘solidarity tax on wealth’] restored [in 1988, after having been] abolished by Chirac and Juppé [in 1986], the CSG [a social security tax levied on income from wealth], etc. But that’s the trail of a dead star – we had the same thing with the 35-hour week and the CMU [universal health coverage] under Jospin, a ‘socialist’ government that accelerated the historic drift to the Right.

With Rocard [in government], the ISF and CSG struggled to chip away at the great structural consolidations of neoliberalism, with the 1983 economic policy fixed into an official doctrine – ‘competitive disinflation’  -, the deepening of financialisation (beginning with the 1986 Bérégovoy bill), and the negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty, which would lock neoliberalism in place at the European-wide scale for decades.

But I ask myself if really the worst thing doesn’t lie somewhere else. It resides in a sort of element of the atmosphere – something much more pernicious. Rocard is the incarnation of the reduction of politics to management. As inspector of finances, he prided himself on his economic and also sociological expertise, the better to mark his difference from Mitterrand, accused of having remained in the less-expert ‘humanities’. When we know what the economic culture of an énarque [former student of the ENA, the élite National Administration School] is, then even that gives us plenty to laugh about. But the essential point is something else: with Rocard, governing became an art of social engineering, first of all in an economic sense. He was one of the most characteristic figures of the economistic reduction of politics, a movement that would find equivalent representatives in almost all fields, including with the promotion of expert-researchers in the social sciences as surrogate intellectuals.

Very generally speaking, Rocardism is on the one hand a matter of fixing capitalism’s most visible defects around the edges, without ever questioning the structural causes that continually engender them anew, and on the other hand an abandonment of all society to an economistic dereliction – the submission of all aspects of social life to the economy’s criteria, and the colonisation of all practices by that same logic. And among wage-earners that means the neomanagerial tyranny of productivity, and everywhere else the shipwreck of nonsense, the disappearance of purpose, life emptied-out and disoriented, and thus, fatally, the triumph of consumerist stupefaction. Those are the political and civilisational legacies of Rocardism, and we should well recognise that it left a deep mark on French society.