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Frédéric Lordon: "We have to stop saying what we don’t want, and start saying what we do want"

Frédéric Lordon15 April 2016

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Marta Fana's interview with economist Frédéric Lordon was published in Italian in Il Manifesto and in French in ReporterreTranslated by David Broder.

What are the origins of the Nuit debout movement, and what are its political roots

It began with François Ruffin’s film Merci patron! This film tells the story of a worker sacked by LVMH [Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy], for whom Ruffin and his team managed to extract €40,000 from Bernard Arnault — one of France’s top bosses — while forcing the company to rehire him on an unlimited contract! This film is so cheering, and the source of such energy, that some of us said that we couldn’t let this dissipate — that we had to make something of it. Most importantly, we agreed that this could perhaps be a kind of spark. We thought the general situation was highly ambivalent; in many senses gloomy and despairing, but at the same time very promising — saturated in grievances, and awaiting something that might kick things off. The film was a possible catalyst for this. So we organised a meeting one evening at the end of February to debate what we could do using this film, and indeed what it was possible to do at all. Our view was that since the party-institutional game is irremediably fossilised, we needed a movement of another type, an occupation movement where people come together without any intermediary, as in the case of Occupy Wall Street and 15-M [the indignados] in Spain. We got the idea of doing a public showing of the film in Place de la République in Paris, and then to add on all sorts of other things onto that. Then came along the El Khomri bill, which provided our initiative with a powerful complement of élan and, indeed, necessity.  So the slogan then became "After the demonstration, we’re not going home." And we stayed there.

In Italy the battle against the Jobs Act [prime minister Matteo Renzi’s labour market reform] was weak and completely fragmented. There was some small protest by short-term contract precarious workers and "autonomous" workers, but above all it was division that reigned. Can you explain the basic meaning of the "convergence of struggles" — and indeed, why it is necessary?

You answered your own question. When struggles remain local, sectional and dispersed, they are condemned to defeat, or constantly having to start all over again. All our work consists of a constant search for the common denominator uniting the various struggles, in order to give them the force of numbers. And then we can very easily bring together all wage-earners — of whatever conditions, even managers — the unemployed, the precarious, but also students and high-schoolers, the precarious of the future. But we can also involve, for example, farmers who — even if not wage-earners — no less suffer from the general logic of capital. Or, for the same reason, people like the zadistes [ZAD: Zone to Defend: earlier this year so-called zadistes occupied the site of the planned Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport] opposed to absurd local planning projects dictated only by blind economic logics. Above all, we took to heart the need to encourage unity and dialogue between factions of the Left that ordinarily remain separate, and which look at each other with a certain distrust. So on the one hand the militants of the city centres — young people with a relatively high level of educational and cultural capital, who are quite often precarious intellectuals; and, on the other hand, the unionised working classes who have extremely different traditions of struggle. And for a social movement to be powerful, it is decisively important that they join together. It is even more decisive that they join together with the segregated youth in the banlieues [suburbs with mainly poor and ethnic-minority populations], which has grievances and struggles of its own, but which the two other blocs completely ignore. I say that this is the most decisive juncture, because when that happens the government will really tremble: at that moment, the movement will become irresistible. 

You say "we demand nothing" since the object of all recent demands were mere crumbs. So things are turned upside down, from demand-making to affirmation… but of what, exactly ?

Our whole endeavour is aimed at changing the logic of struggles. Evidently we have to continue making demands wherever there is place to do so! But we have to be conscious that making demands is a defensive stance, which implicitly accepts the presuppositions of the framework we’re trapped in, without any possibility of questioning this framework itself. And it has become urgently necessary to challenge this framework! Not by making demands, but by affirming the framework that we want to draw up. Necessarily, there is no one from whom we could "demand" a different framework. It’s up to us to take up this question, and do it ourselves! So this is how we should articulate demand-making and affirmation: we say "no to the El Khomri bill, no to the El Khomri world." We make a demand — to get rid of the bill — but we affirm that we want a world different to one that incessantly produces bills like this. If we remain within the register of making demands alone, we will never be done with having to parry their blows, one after another, within the exclusively defensive register in which neoliberalism has trapped us these last three decades. We have to go onto the offensive; and to go onto the offensive is to stop saying what we don’t want, and start saying what we do want.

Podemos in Spain has repeatedly said that we should no longer speak of Left and Right, but rather of top and bottom, the 1 percent against the 99 percent. Do you agree ?

I completely disagree with this stance of Podemos. In France the denials of the Left-Right split have had very bad echoes. We hear this in the mouths of both what I would call the general Right — namely, the classical Right and the new Right that is the Parti Socialiste; if you will, the general Right is the undifferentiated party of managing neoliberal globalisation — and the far Right. Someone in France who says he is "neither Left or Right" is unfailingly right-wing, or will end up being so. Similarly, I don’t think that monetary inequality — on which basis Podemos converts the Left-Right split into the split between the 99 percent and the 1 percent — is a very incisive political theme. The topic of inequalities is, in any case, becoming a kind of flabby consensus — we even find the OECD or a liberal magazine like The Economist talking about it…

The true question is not the inequality of incomes or wealth, but the question of the fundamental political inequality that capitalism itself establishes: that wage-earners live under relations of subordination and obedience. The wage-relation is less a principle of monetary inequalities than a relation of domination, and this is the principle of a fundamental inequality — a political inequality. And as people have perfectly well understood, that is what the El Khomri bill is about: it deepens like never before the sovereign will of the bosses, who can now do whatever they like to the workforce. That is the true question: the empire of capital over individuals and over the entire society. And the Left is a project of fighting against capital’s sovereignty. To get rid of the idea of the Left, at the moment when the struggle must radicalise and name its true targets — wage-labour as a relation of blackmail, capital as a tyrannical power — is, in my view, completely to bypass what is now being born after decades of neoliberal bludgeoning, at the very moment that people are getting up from the canvas and starting to raise their heads again. And I fear that this is to commit a considerable strategic error.

Even if we can conceive of a "permanent mobilisation," overthrowing the relation between capital and wage-labour requires a certain power over resources and a governmental project with enormous participation. Should the Nuit debout mobilisation aspire to be a constituent process?

That’s fundamentally what I believe. In my view there are two reasons why we need a constituent perspective. Firstly, because it offers a solution to what I would call the Occupy Wall Street/Podemos contradiction. OWS was a very fine movement… but it was completely unproductive. By not equipping itself with political objectives and structures, the movement condemned itself to dissolution and futility. At the exact opposite pole, Podemos represents the political outcome of 15-M, but in an ultra-classic form — indeed, at the price of betraying its origins. It’s ended up as a classic party with a classic leader, which plays the classic game of electoral institutions; and finds itself in the hodgepodge of parliamentary coalitions like the most classic of classic parties…

How can we break out of the antinomy between unproductiveness and the return to the parliamentary stable? In my eyes, the only answer is: in structuring ourselves not in order to go back into the institutions, but to remake the institutions. Remaking the institutions means writing a new Constitution. And so we get to the second reason why the constituent way out makes sense: the fight against capital. To get rid of wage-labour, a relation of blackmail, we have to stop the means of production being owned for the purposes of profit. And such ownership is sanctified in constitutional texts. To finish with the empire of capital, which is a constitutionalised empire, we have to make a new Constitution. A Constitution that abolishes private property over the means of production, and establishes the property of usage: the means of production belong to those who use them, and who will use them to some purpose other than the valorisation of capital.

Filed under: france, labour, nuit-debout