Frédéric Lordon: "Youth and wage-earners joining together is the authorities’ worst nightmare"
This interview was published in French in Le Comptoir. Translated by David Broder.
The figure of the engaged intellectual is definitely not about to disappear, as the economist and philosopher Frédéric Lordon has been reminding us these last few weeks. This disciple of Karl Marx and Baruch Spinoza, visibly lifted by the enthusiasm that followed François Ruffin’s film Merci Patron hitting the big screen, is in the forefront of the movement opposing the El-Khomri bill [the Labour Law]. We briefly spoke to him during the first Nuit Debout [night of occupations] on 31 March, after he gave a fiery speech on Paris’s Place de la République.
Le Comptoir: You are one of the few intellectuals we see side-by-side with the demonstrators. Has the role of the intellectual changed?
Frédéric Lordon: I don’t know if that role has changed, or if it was the people who were previously called ‘intellectuals’ who changed. Since the late 1970s, which were years of high-level theory and intense political engagement, academics have retreated into their ivory towers. They even reached the point of thinking that taking part in political debates is itself something shameful. I think that this is deeply mistaken. That doesn’t mean we have to get into just any political engagement. Saying that, I’m very well aware that some might accuse me of doing ‘just anything’… though I couldn’t care less about that. But we have to try and conjugate the two: theoretical work, and attention to what is happening in society and such movements as do emerge. Still, there weren’t a lot of them in recent decades. Something is happening, here, and I think it would be a political — and even intellectual — sin not to intervene.
Can this movement lead to a new May ’68, or are we still far from that?
I don’t know. In general I am wary of collapsing the present into historical references. But I must tell you that last night at the Tobiac [Faculty, on 30 March] I was very impressed by the mood, the sense of things simmering, the collective engagement, and the whole atmosphere — including the things written on the walls. It was as if the generations were in dialogue, across some fifty years’ distance. That was rather fun.
But as Marx notes in his Eighteenth Brumaire, history always repeats itself "first as tragedy, then as farce."
It would be nice to disprove Marx’s prophecy — with history repeating itself, but not as farce. Indeed, maybe looking back we will be able to say that the first time — May ’68 — was the farce, and not this time round. Well, no, I’m exaggerating a little saying that. We can’t chuck out May ’68 simply on account of a few clowns who’ve betrayed its spirit and its intentions. May ’68 really was something, and not a farce. That’s what we have to recover from it.
You are calling for something more than the abrogation of the El-Khomri bill. So what should we be arguing for? For the government to resign? Euro exit? The abolition of wage-labour?
Indeed, I think we have to finish with defensive battles. The last thirty years have seen us running around like crazy trying to avoid being hit. But each time the bosses and the government land a blow against us. And this keeps happening. We have to break out of defensive battles. That is why I emphasise the need to abandon making demands. Obviously, demands still do have some meaning, particularly those that regard very concrete, prosaic things, which are worth fighting for. But we can’t stop there. What is now offered to us is the moment of reappropriating politics.
You want a convergence of the various struggles: Goodyear, railworkers, Notre Dame des Landes airport, etc. How could that come about? With what forces, and with what class alliances?
That is exactly what the people organising this evening’s event are working to produce. How can that be done? We don’t know: we’ll try, and then we’ll see! We will see what that produces.
A woman demonstrator: “Do you think we have them running scared?”
When I see the violence with which the authorities sent the pigs to the Tolbiac auditorium or to beat up high-schoolers, I understand that they are losing control. They have started to get scared, and are flailing around. I think youth joining together with the working classes, and with wage-earners in general, is the authorities’ worst nightmare. And that is what all of us are together trying to achieve.
Do you think at the moment we can envisage Paris joing together with the rest of the country?
I think that this is very important. Of strategic importance, even. At this very moment there are similar events taking place, organised in other towns like Rennes, Lyon, Toulouse, etc. This is not a particular, isolated Parisian event. What has shaken us up is shaking up all society. And indeed all the different towns have to establish a network among themselves. I don’t know how far this first beginning will go.
But isn’t that a bit of an illusion? Doesn't this movement only concern the city centres — without the suburbs and peri-urban areas?
I think that one of the great junctures that we need to build, and probably the most difficult one, is the one adding the segregated youth of the suburbs to the joining-together of the youth and wage-earners. We shouldn’t kid ourselves: the suburban youth is either absent, or else has very little presence here. We missed that opportunity in 2005. Something happened which we immediately disqualified by slandering it as a "riot," as if it was a kind of blind revolt. Yet it was a revolt whose deeply political character was beyond question. It was necessary to work to politicise it. Well, I say that now — I didn’t do so myself. But some did try, with more or less success. That’s the work that we have to continue. If I were up to the task of what I am telling you now, and if I were able to meet words with actions, then I should go and make my interventions in the suburbs.
The parties are discredited. The unions in their great majority are boxed into a kind of reformism. What is the appropriate organisation for this movement?
For the moment, there is no organisation. All the institutional forms of the present political order are totally disqualified. A whole institutional order is dying, and the only thing we can do is trample on its corpse.
But the state — strengthened by the state of emergency —, the EU and the bosses are very powerful. How can a clutch of people like us resist them, without organisation?
By working to extend a movement like this one. That’s how we must act. And we will indeed see what our real power is, and if we are going to produce some effect, or fail. It is very possible we will fail — such is the lot of political activity when you’re in a minority condition. But if we fail, that’s is not the end, because something of this will remain.
And at least we tried…
And we will try again in ten years, etc. For the same things will continue to produce the same effects, until all this cracks.
Interview produced with the help of Noé Roland, and the demonstrators.