Frédéric Lordon addressed a meeting at the occupied Tolbiac faculty in Paris on Wednesday 30th March, ahead of Thursday’s national day of action against the government’s Labour Law. Translated by David Broder.
First of all, I want to tell you how impressed I am by what is happening here, by what you are doing. I’m one of those people who always thinks of the right thing to say when it’s already too late, and indeed just as I came into the auditorium something that I’d forgotten about popped into my mind – something which I think it’s worth talking to you about. They say France doesn’t export enough. That’s a fat piece of nonsense. We export high-value goods, and a lot more than perfume and Louis Vuitton handbags. In 2010, when Cameron came to power in Britain and massively ramped up the university tuition fees, there were huge demonstrations in London. And do you know what the British students chanted in the streets? ‘Tous ensemble, tous ensemble’ – in French. We export sedition, which is the most precious of all political goods. Let’s redress the balance of payments, let’s invent some slogans!
Schopenhauer said that you don’t expect a wooden horse to kick, and I’m none-too sure about getting an academic to address a meeting. But I’ve been asked to conclude this discussion, and I will do so, albeit in my own way. Perhaps I should start by excusing myself for that. But look who we have here [speaking]: a fierce lawyer [representing the Goodyear workers], students who have long since passed boiling point, railworkers in struggle, high-schoolers who are also really up for a fight, and, to crown it all, a South African student (not to say an explorer who’s lost his way)… So this panel is a fine old bunch. There’s something of everything – in fact it’s a Cour des miracles. It’s horrifying, a nightmare for the minister, the chief of staff, the advisers. And so, too for the RG [secret services] guy watching us round-the-clock, who’ll be somewhere in the room tonight, who we also say hi to. This is serious stuff!
And it is true that for them this is horrifying. Already the open sedition of the youth is enough to haunt the authorities. But it haunts them to the second degree when there is contact between the youth and the working class, and more generally with the wage-earners – that is, exactly what is happening here this evening.
I’ll say in passing that we well know that ‘youth’ is one of the most incoherent of categories. Above all it is useful to the authorities, allowing them to create distinctions, and thus separations, where in reality there are great continuities. Not least the continuity that concerns wage-labour: the continuity between those who are being educated – or rather, formatted – to become wage-earners, and those who already have been. And these latter can tell us about how that was – they just have done, and it was highly edifying.
Indeed, it is better for the authorities that these continuities remain unnoticed. For as soon as these continuities enter into the minds of those concerned, they are always liable to transform into solidarities. But only liable to do so. In ordinary times, all sociology stands against such a transformation. Students are normally moulded to renew the ranks of the CSP+ [upper socio-professional categories], get a credit plan for their Renault Scenic car without any trouble, and maybe buy their own place – and, in any event, never meet a worker. As we have long known, the invisible borders of the social world are characterised by compartmentalisation, which the authorities take for one of their best guarantees of calm. Yet the problem is, neoliberal power – which is an inextricably both capitalist and state power, and one that nothing has been able to hold back for over three decades – logically ends up thinking that it can do whatever it pleases. So this capitalism, which no longer has any sense of wrongdoing, has set about mistreating everyone, indistinctly raining down violence on everyone, even among the populations who constitute its own social base: managers, future and present, thus also meaning students. Indeed, these latter soon get a rather clear idea of what their professional life will be like – starting with crappy internships, followed by precarious and underpaid short-term contracts, etc.
And that is how the great continuity ultimately gets the upper hand, winning out over the other sociological discontinuities. Behind the secondary differentiations, there now appears the principal commonality. And thus the conditions do indeed come together for the continuities to transform into solidarities.
It’s tough for the authorities who let matters come to a head like this! And they have indeed fallen on hard times: we are here, and the decompartmentalisation and convergence of once-separate struggles inevitably means the transcendence of those questions that each had posed locally, by themselves. We instead get to questions of much wider, more general importance – the questions pertaining to what these struggles have in common.
Given this nightmarish alignment of the planets, the authorities find themselves confronted not only with the meeting of people who it usually tries to keep separated, but with questions that it tries to keep forgotten. These are the questions whose answers have to be taken for given, as a prerequisite for the peaceable exercise of ordinary administration – which is perfectly able to reply when asked ‘how?’ but totally disconcerted when asked ‘why?’ And we have now reached some rather fundamental ‘whys’. Indeed, it should be clear that we no longer give a fuck about the El Khomri bill [i.e. the Labour Law]. Of course, the El Khomri bill is in place – I would almost be tempted to say, the better for us. For we had really been lacking that little something that could precipitate on a large scale everything that had been in suspension for so many years. In any case, if we don’t give a fuck about the El Khomri bill, it follows that we don’t at all ask for its amendment or rewriting. We are not asking for ‘our rights’. Indeed, we are not asking for anything. To ask is already to be submissive. To ask is to address ourselves to a friendly guardian power, to a good-natured benefactor. Children cry out for something; as grown-ups, they ask.
More’s the pity for the present benefactor, we are highly determined to break out of political infancy. But in politics, extracting oneself from underage status means beginning to make affirmative statements of one’s own.
Let’s be clear right away: it’s possible that this won’t go down too well with the state, which recognises itself alone as having majority status, and as having a monopoly on affirmative statements… The parental monopoly, the benefactor’s monopoly, doesn’t like it when it’s challenged, and even less when it’s broken up. Yet that is what must be done. The guardian-power, which believes itself alone to be an affirmative power, is in the habit of limiting its subjects to passive reception – that is, the right to say Yes, or, at a push, from time to time, the right to be a little choosy (do you prefer marching from Place de la République or Place de la Nation?). And the guardian-power is amazed when it discovers – and it can barely conceive of this – that people are indeed highly capable of affirming their ideas on subjects that concern them first-hand: their very existence, and especially their existence at work. And they’re even better able to do so when they receive unexpected help in clarifying their ideas, such as with the El Khomri bill, which proposes like never before to establish capital’s total dominion over labour. In fact, a good number of wage-earners already had a clear and distinct idea of this dominion: the ones who’ve spoken from this table know at first hand what it means to live under the sovereign will of the owner of the means of production.
But the ‘Labour Law’ – which could just as well be called the ‘Capital Law’ – has the wonderful power to give even more of the people preparing to become wage-earners an understanding of what’s in store for them. Of making us lend an ear to those who are already in that situation, and in the hardest conditions - people who no one heard any more, even though they have so much to tell us. In short, it will prove to have had the wonderful power of uniting us.
And not only of uniting us, but of uniting us around fundamental questions, and in particular this one: who needs whom? Between the owners of capital and the workers, who most needs the other? There’s nothing new in that question. The 1970s had already posed that question, indeed in a very intense way. And it’s certainly lost nothing of its relevance since then. Indeed, it is a lot more than just a mere question: it is a spearhead. It is a criterion, a weapon for making a decision.
Unfortunately for those who think they have the upper hand, this criterion does not rule in their favour. And indeed, on the day when everyone is clearly conscious of all this, such people won’t count for much. If what is happening at the moment has a meaning, it will be that of preparing us to forget them, and to begin right away collectively reflecting on how we’ll live without them. That is to say, how we will live for ourselves.
See you tomorrow, in the streets. And at NuitDébout! [the planned occupations of Place de la République and other squares on the night of the March 31st]