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Frédéric Lordon: ‘The police force we have is fucked up, racist to the bone and out of control.'

Interview with philosopher Frédéric Lordon about his new book Police, recently published in French by La Fabrique.

29 July 2021

Frédéric Lordon: ‘The police force we have is fucked up, racist to the bone and out of control.'

Part One. 29 September 2020

On the occasion of the release on 18 September of the collective work soberly entitled Police, published by La Fabrique, we thought this was a good opportunity to talk to the economist and philosopher Frédéric Lordon about a whole range of things. Before asking him about the role of intellectuals in France (including his own) and a concept of the ‘republic’ that is sometimes hollow and overused, by both left and right, the first part of the interview is devoted to the police and its ‘legitimacy’, the question of its abolition and whether that does not play an overly dominant part in present struggles, to the point of forgetting the basic economic, political and social ones. Interview by Selim Derkaoui and Nicolas Framont.

In the collective work Police, you ask ‘What is ‘legitimate violence’?’, the expression regularly used by the ‘top’ hierarchy (prefectures, DGSI, government, political scientists, TV pundits, etc.), who speak of a ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’. However, from police violence in working-class neighbourhoods, which has existed for several decades, through to the repression of the Gilets Jaunes, French men and women are becoming increasingly distrustful of their police. Where does this ‘legitimacy’, which seems to be contested today, come from? 

Indeed, we have to start by asking what legitimacy – in general – is, since, when it comes to the police and its violence, it has become the subject of debate. Legitimacy is not what the Scholastics used to call an occult quality, or a substantial quality, acquired once and for all, for example through an electoral test. Legitimacy is the product of a collective imaginary, constantly produced and reproduced. Simply put, an institution is legitimate if, and for as long as, people consider it to be legitimate. One might say that is perfectly circular, which is true. But the social world constantly functions on the basis of this kind of circularity. It is the circularity of belief, and the social world is full of beliefs, it only operates in this way. Reproducing a social order, reproducing its institutions, maintaining them as ‘legitimate’, presupposes reproducing and maintaining belief – belief that these institutions are good, that their action is just and justified, etc. This is why any social order, with a view to its perseverance, must mobilise symbolic forces of order in addition to physical ones, the former being intended to minimise recourse to the latter, and make this recourse acceptable when it nevertheless has to take place. So social order and power continuously produce discourse and images about the police, the symbolic consolidation of which is a vital issue, since the police are the survival solution of last resort – this is what the Gilets Jaunes episode cast a harsh light on: we now know how things turn out when a regime is only held together by its police.

The legitimising discourse on the police is made up of the conjunction of a multitude of discourses, or symbolic productions, formally independent yet remarkably aligned.

This allows us to see what hegemony in Gramsci’s sense is: very far from the propaganda action of a single pole such as state power. Hegemony is the diffuse but penetrating effect of a multitude of instances of symbolic production, whose actions are apparently completely independent of each other, but whose coordination of views and messages is objective, and objectively adequate to the social order. For example, no one needs to formally bring together and coordinate [media personalities, establishment economists and politicians, head of the bosses’ organisation] Christophe Barbier, Jacques Attali, Emmanuel Lechypre, Philippe Aghion, Dominique Seux, Jean Tirole, Didier Migaud, Bruno Le Maire, Léa Salamé, Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, to obtain perfectly and objectively coordinated discourses – which in the end become one: the discourse of economic neoliberalism. 

Basically, Gramsci’s hegemony is the political equivalent of Bourdieu’s habitus at the sociological level: it produces orchestration effects without requiring any conductor (Bourdieu). Well, the same with the police. The legitimising discourse on the police is made up of the conjunction of a multitude of formally independent, yet remarkably aligned discourses, or symbolic productions, in which we find, obviously, the institutional discourses of political power and police administration, of justice also in its surveillance operations, but also of prefecture journalism, which is characteristic of almost all audiovisual media, plus all the justification work of ‘experts’ and editorialists, especially continuous news channels, and lastly, and perhaps above all, the long-term work, fictional or ‘documentary’, to imbue people’s minds with positive images of the police. Julien Coupat’s text on the Spiral series is exemplary of what I am talking about here. Spiral explores the ‘dark side’ of individuals – without any political consequences, we can reassure ourselves, it’s always about ‘personal problems’. But then look at other police fictions! A mixture of apologetics and perfect asepsis. It must feel very strange even to cops to see the image of their disgusting police stations transformed into start-up premises or high-tech labs, all under the guidance of a constant principle: police officers are fine people entirely devoted to the public good.

But there is worse in the order of symbolic bludgeoning. There are all these embedded journalism programmes, the height of false realism, and therefore in this respect infinitely more vicious than ‘fiction’, since this is supposedly ‘reality’. DTT, which is an open-air television sewer, pours out this flood of propaganda disguised as journalistic objectivity every day. There is not an evening of the week without one of these channels, sometimes several, broadcasting a ‘report’ with an embedded camera from the municipal police of Cap d’Agde or Toulon (‘Accidents, burglaries and hot nights’), the highway police, or the GIGN [anti-terrorist branch of the police]. With a unique script: in society there are good people, but evil is everywhere: irresponsible people who are more or less dangerous, hardened delinquents, but fortunately the police are there. They are always perfectly respectful of people, they want to arrest them by the law, they never get angry, they don’t even talk about it, they don’t even talk about blows. The falseness of these images can easily be compared to that of the star-studded police stations of fiction. This is the charm of hegemony in capitalism: we have films that might have been directly commissioned by police headquarters, but which are spontaneously made by a myriad of formally independent producers – the best of both worlds. 

Chomsky spoke the manufacturing of consent, and that is exactly where we are. And in relation to the police, and the production of the legitimacy of the police, when you look under the hood you see it all: from Darmanin and Macron to TV shows such as ‘Enquête sous haute tension’ (C8), ‘Enquête d’action’ (W9), ‘Au cœur de l’enquête’ (C star), ‘Urgences’ (NRJ 12), via Yves Calvi, Alain Bauer and the France Info presenters. This is how we consolidate the symbolic foundations of ‘a country that stands on its own two feet’, as David Dufresne would say.

Incidentally, this says a lot about the levels that police violence has had to reach in recent years to become at all visible. But there, hats off, it’s done. Moreover, one might think that the intensification of police propaganda work on all fronts, even daily beatings, is the sign of an order of domination forced on the defensive, of which all attempts at legitimisation (economic, social) have failed, so that the effort of legitimisation tightens around the last bastion to be protected: the police, a force of last resort, since here the intervention of the symbolic forces of order only works to support the intervention of the physical forces of order – that is to say, when it feels like it’s at the end of its rope. The function of the banlieues as a ‘laboratory’ for repression, a function which was only identified in the most conscious circles (and, it goes without saying, among those most affected), is constantly being revealed to ever larger sections of the population precisely because these sections are now experiencing real encounters with the police, not just on television. That was ultimately the symbolic shock of the Gilets Jaunes. 

The police repression of the Gilets Jaunes movement was an important stage in this progressive delegitimisation of the police in the eyes of the population. However, at the beginning of the movement, before the storm, there was a certain ‘entente cordiale’, because of a relatively close sociology and geography between the demonstrators and the police.

If you like, let’s talk about it in the categories of the press: ‘French people’, completely ‘normal’, with proper jobs, sometimes even a flag, in short the typical portrait of ‘good people’ according to main TV channel TF1 or a channel of the Bolloré group, have revealed their state of misery, disarray, complete abandonment. In desperation, against their very habitus, they take to the streets. That’s when they encounter the police. The important point is the disposition they find themselves in at the time of this encounter. Very few are inclined to ‘hate the police’, quite the contrary. On the one hand, they have been subject to the TNT [mainstream TV] sewer for years and get the flow of embedded propaganda in their heads on a daily basis; on the other hand, as you point out, there is a principle of proximity in the social space, intuitively perceived by them, which spontaneously disposes them to affinity, perhaps even sympathy, even hopes of ‘fraternisation’. Except that they directly get beaten up, gassed, arrested, the whole thing. One must measure the violent shock of stupefaction, and the symbolic collapse that follows. ‘Ah, okay, the police, they’re not what we’ve been told; the police, that’s how they are.’ In reality, there is a dynamic here that can only increase: as the neoliberal disaster spreads, as increasingly large sections of the population are affected, as they experience the absolute inanity of the usual channels of protest (electoral, trade union), they are bound to identify the street as the last possible solution, and therefore to encounter the police in the conditions that the general situation determines today.

Naturally, the question then becomes the following: can we definitively do without the police in France or, at least, can we deal with them, insofar as their sociology and social positioning (outside the hierarchy) makes them de facto members of the working classes?

If the situations are not strictly identical, they are close enough for the Portland-Paris conjunction to have produced the explosion we have seen. And in the transatlantic circulation of images and slogans, we have therefore seen the idea of ‘abolishing the police’ appear. Here I would like to say a word about the heterogeneous positions of the various authors in the collection Police, a heterogeneity which seems to me an excellent thing. Éric Hazan, for example, in line with the argument of sociological proximity you just mentioned, to which he does not fail to add a historical and strategic analysis, is the only one who brazenly holds a position of ‘the police with us’, against the ‘everyone hates the police’ which has become a matter of course in our circles. On the ‘abolition of the police’, which is sure to win the day in these same circles, since it can be presented as a sort of consequence deduced from the premise ‘everyone hates the police’, I think I will find myself in a minority not to share it. 

Now, in order for the debate to take palpable shape, it is still necessary to specify what we are talking about, in particular what we mean by ‘the police’. If by ‘the police’ we mean the police institution as we have it before our eyes, similar to the one we see in other countries, especially the United States, I think there is no doubt about it: this institution is fucked, racist to the bone and out of control. It is maddened with violence, locked in collective denial, and has to rely on episodes of terrorist attacks to put on a good image. The rest of the time it is simply adrift. It lives in such a state of separation from the social body, and of internal maceration, that we hardly need any specialist sociology. 

This is indeed what the episode of the Gilets Jaunes proved, and by an argument a fortiori: even in conditions of maximum sociological proximity, the confrontation between Gilets Jaunes and police taught us what we know. This police force cannot be saved. Or else it would first require a complete transformation of structures plus a transfusion of personnel... that is to say, first of all, near destruction. Followed by reconstruction from the ground up. However, an exercise of abstract institutional architecture would run the risk of problems if it forgot the heavy predeterminations that the police institution is subject to from the outset because it is part of the modern bourgeois state – the state of capital. Certainly, from where we are starting, there is room for improvement even within this framework, but not for transforming the pumpkin into a coach. It is quite clear that the abolitionist position must be situated in a post-capitalist social formation as an implicit presupposition. In any case, the debate begins at this point: to destroy the police, but leave nothing in its place? If this is the meaning of ‘abolishing the police’, then here I cannot agree.

Conceptually, the police is the set of means and (above all) people to whom a collective hands over a delegation of power to take over the function of interposition in the event of a dispute. The term ‘dispute’ should be understood in all its generality, it can range from a petty disturbance at night through to homicide. At any event, it is necessary to start from such an abstract characterisation in order to be able to re-imagine the immense variability of concrete forms that the police, thus redefined, might take – far beyond that which the capitalist order imposes on us. A neighbourhood committee with people recognised as mediators is a police force. It is clear enough that there is no comparison here with what we currently have as a police force – except, but importantly, that both forms fall under the same abstract definition. I found the interview with Kristian Williams, an anarchist writer and activist who lives in Portland and is at the forefront of the struggle for ‘the definition and abolition of the police’, very interesting. He was presented with the question or objection that is usually put forward against the abolitionist position: ‘How do you respond to those who predict or fear that in a world without police, chaos and personal vengeance will become the norm?’ Williams’s response differs significantly from what is spontaneously expected: ‘This concern is not insane. By this I mean that I doubt that we want to live in a world where absolutely no one would protect the weak and peaceful from the strong and predatory... The abolitionist agenda cannot simply remove the institution we oppose. It must also offer alternatives for resolving disputes, limiting conflict, securing peace and responding to crime.’ There’s no need to quibble, pointing out that this is an abolition that does not abolish, at least not everything; I support this completely. What I find insane is denial: denial of the possibility of violence. Not of its fatality, as those who see Hobbes everywhere distort it, but of its possibility. Man is essentially neither good nor bad (there is no ‘human essence’), but he is capable of being both. In what proportions? It is the general configuration of a form of life that essentially answers this question, and it is the particular configuration of ‘the police’ that tells how a community copes with the bad side.

We should probably not obsess about conceptual problems, but we should not completely neglect them either, otherwise we find ourselves led to say any old thing. To live without the police force we have today – of course we can. To live without the police at all, that is to say without some institutional form that takes over the police-function, the function of interposition delegated by the community – no we cannot. Therefore, in the same movement in which we seek to abolish ‘the police force we have today’, we have to think about what will come in its place, because there cannot be nothing. And we have all the more reason to think this, because we have to be concerned about what is a very general flaw in institutions of any kind, namely their tendency to start living a life of their own, separated from the environment that generated or required them. There is nothing to exclude the possibility that a form of policing that is ‘acceptable’ at the outset may become hateful through successive abuses. But on the imperative need to keep alert, or to guard the guards, much has been said for a very long time.

The question of ‘this police here’, of its abolition and of asking what to replace it with and under what terms, is gradually becoming an inescapable and necessary reflection on the left. Ok, but doesn’t it end up taking too hegemonic a place, especially in different social movements or in some independent media, to the point of forgetting our initial political objectives? Don’t we fall into the trap of this repressive state, fetishising the police as the main object of protest and struggle (demonstrations against police violence, rallies in front of a particular prefecture, etc.), to the detriment of systemic racism in a more global way, of the theft of labour in the capitalist enterprise, or of the permanent social control that weighs on poor people via the ‘welfare state’?

It is not illogical for the police to become a condensation point of the political conjuncture from the moment a regime can only hold out by armed force. However, I am less worried than you are: I don’t believe that the various sectors in struggle are being swallowed up, as you suggest, by the black hole of the ‘police question’, and losing sight of their primary reasons for being in struggle. This being the case, I am sensitive to your question because I feel very concerned about the risk of diversion, however much the behaviour of the police repels me. The risk of diversion, in fact, is to start thinking, as I sometimes do, that the police are ‘the number one problem’ of French society. But I pull myself together and I see the economic disaster of neoliberalism; I see, along with the Justice for Adama committee, that the problem is institutional racism and the segregation to which the decolonial populations are subjected; along with the Gilets Jaunes, that the problem is abysmal social injustices; along with (consistent) climate activists that the problem is the capitalist devastation of the planet, etc. And I don’t think that any of these sectors, which have all been confronted with police violence, have forgotten what made them take to the streets in the first place. 

Now, there is also a certain sense in making the police the question number one, a tactical consideration. Because the police are the real bottleneck. We have experienced long enough the definitive inability of institutional mechanisms, both political and trade union, to achieve anything significant – and in the present situation what we need is not just the ‘significant’. The solution of last resort – the street – makes the encounter with the police fatal. So, in a way, given its role as the ultimate bulwark, yes, the question of the police, of people’s confrontation with the police, or of the police being turned around, from Éric Hazan’s perspective, becomes central – but on a tactical level. I don’t think there are many people who are inclined to confront the police for the sake of confronting the police. People confront the police because the police are the obstacle that separates them from something that is politically desired.

I would add something else: in a situation of deepening organic crisis and the process of the collapse of institutional legitimacies, the hypothesis of a ‘takeover’ by the armed forces – let’s say a putsch – no longer appears totally fanciful. I don’t really see this coming from the army, but as far as the police are concerned I have the impression that everything has become possible at this point. Or rather at the point that the police have reached: the point of a totally self-centred militia, radically cut off from society, locked up in the fortress of denial and sure of itself, armed of course, and 50 per cent fascist if we are to believe the studies of their electoral behaviour. 

The last few years have shown how easily the police can be tempted into seditious behaviour – night-time demonstrations in uniform, with vehicles, etc. I evoke this hypothesis in the mode of slightly dystopian science fiction, but as a scenario whose probability, though perhaps not very high, is no longer strictly zero. (By the way, have you noticed how much the word ‘dystopia’, which was in very restricted, almost scholarly use, has acquired a considerably wider circulation? Isn’t that a sign of the times?) Either the official political power will be sufficiently fascist enough itself to make the police feel perfectly at ease, or a tacit balance of power will be established within the state apparatus, whereby the police will take the ascendancy over a government deemed rather too soft (an ascendancy based on the fact that the police hold the fate of all governments in their hands, that they know it, and that the government knows it too), or, alternatively, the government does not bend (we are here in the heroic hypothesis of a left-wing government) and anything is possible. In any case, the police are a very serious problem; not the central problem but, I would say, the bottleneck problem: the problem that all other problems come up against.

This second part is a reflection on the concept of ‘republic’ and the role of intellectuals, particularly during social movements and popular revolts. Interview by Selim Derkaoui and Nicolas Framont.

You explain in the book Police that ‘republic’ is a ‘signifier’, which is a matter of ‘fiction’. Representatives of La France Insoumise, for example, often appeal in their speeches or texts to the ‘republic’, or the idea of a ‘republican police force’. For what reason is this, according to you, a ‘fiction’? Could you expand on this? 

It’s always the same problem with words: there is their original meaning, and there is what they have become over time, through use – the gap is sometimes abyssal. Nothing guarantees a word against these drifts, since it is constantly being resignified in and by praxis. So the question arises: what to do with a signifier that was initially exciting but has become problematic, even toxic? Should we resign ourselves to abandoning it or choose to put it right? I don’t think there is a general answer to this question: there are only particular cases, which call each time for an exercise of discernment. ‘Communism’, for example. What do we do with ‘communism’? I’ve always had a great deal of esteem for those who, like Alain Badiou, defy general adversity and take up what everyone considers irredeemable. Not however without asking myself whether, from a tactical point of view, this is really the right choice: ‘we’ already have so many hostilities to overcome, is it really useful to add one more on the pile? The mass of spontaneous ideas, we should rather say reflexes, to be undone around the word ‘communism’ is colossal, it’s like lining up for a 100-metre race with a 20-kilo sack. Is this really necessary? Well, the more I think about it, and after having been unsure on this question for a long time, the more I tend to think that yes, it’s worth it. But then why not take the same position with ‘republic’, namely to maintain it and put it right against the deviations of contemporary custom? I can see that this is what someone like Thomas Brantome, for example, is trying to do, to hold together ‘republic’, ‘democracy’ and ‘sovereignty’ in the revolutionary heritage, and it’s certainly a worthwhile effort. But I confess that I am less and less able to believe in it.

Let’s take things in order: first of all the derailments. To know what we are doing with the signifier ‘republic’, we must first know how it’s used today. And I think that’s now very obvious: by the right of the right. We should ask ourselves whether a major political signifier has ever experienced such a slippage in so a short space of time. We lived through a long period when ‘republic’ was undoubtedly a left-wing marker; but, in thirty years, it has become a demand of everyone on the right, even the far right. The former UMP renamed itself ‘The Republicans’, Macron’s party before its fascist turn is ‘The Republic on the Move’, even the National Rally [former Front National] claims to be republican. But, above all, ‘republic’ is now the perfect false nose, I would even say the false nose of all false noses: the false noses of ‘secularism’, ‘feminism’ and indeed ‘universalism’, are sheltered and gathered under the big synthetic false nose of the ‘republic’. In fact, ‘republican’ is now a dog-whistle, a code word, a (barely) masked rallying point. For what and for whom? Essentially for the Islamophobes, we should rather say the anti-Arab racists, joined by all the partisans of ‘law and order’. 

The most typical manifestation of this degeneration is the so-called ‘Republican Spring’ [Printemps républicain], an informal grouping, somewhere between lobby, think tank and club, but firmly united by Islamophobia, obviously under the masthead of ‘universal values’. At least this has the merit, by its very name, of warning us of the way in which the meaning of ‘republican’ has been reborn: the way of the right-wing left, even of the far-right left. For we have known for some time that there is a right-wing left, but one of the lessons of recent times is that there is also a left-wing far right: the ‘left’ of Manuel Valls. You will tell me that, put into historical perspective, this is not completely new, and you will be right. It is no less spectacular. Obsessive Islamophobia, the sometimes unbuttoned racism of some of its members, the extremely violent, harassing form of its ‘interventions’ on social networks, are the trademark of the Republican Spring, itself a metonymy of the very particular way in which the present fascisation is taking place: under the signifier ‘republic’. 

There’s a lot to unpack here, at least enough to raise questions. Until a few years ago, I thought something could still be done with the word ‘republic’, even if it was mainly in a tactical-rhetorical register. The signifier is deeply rooted in the common political language, and as such it could be a powerful lever of legitimisation, provided that it was reinvested with an appropriate content. This content was signalled to us by history: it is the contents of the social republic. The social republic is the complete republic, the republic of the complete revolution: not the revolution stopped at ‘democratic’ political institutions, destined then to be only institutions of bourgeois democracy, but extended to its terminus, namely democracy everywhere, including (starting with) the sphere of production. The social republic is integral democracy, and if the deep embedding of the word ‘republic’ in the French political imaginary could help, by means of an adequate resignification, to circulate what finally began to look like communism, but without having to go through the problematic signifier ‘communism’, then there could be an interesting possibility of lexical and political subversion.

Alas, today this seems very ambitious, even almost impossible... 

The characteristic of times of great crisis – and undeniably we are in one – is that things evolve at a prodigious speed. This re-shifting of the signifier ‘republican’, which for my part I was already envisaging in 2016, has actually become an almost hopeless undertaking today, because of the things that have happened in the meantime, notably the full unveiling of the far-right left, the indefinitely renewable state of emergency, the forfeiture of nationality, the unheard-of police repression of social movements that began with the Labour Law, and then Macron, the state of emergency transformed into ordinary law, the frank entry into a police-state regime, the constant drumbeat of far-right themes (‘communitarianism’, ‘separatism’, etc.), all under the auspices – still more so, under the legitimising anointing – of ‘the republic’. Which becomes a bit of a burden to carry. 

As the domain of non-polluting uses of ‘republic’ and ‘republican’ shrinks like the wild ass’s skin, I came to see slogans such as: ‘the real lost territory of the republic is the police’ as helpful only in an ironic sense. With perhaps some residual effectiveness, as such patterns of reversal can have, given that there are still many people who believe in ‘the republic’, without having too precise a view of what the word ultimately means, but who have some chance of understanding that a police prefect who divides the population into ‘camps’, designates ‘protest organisations’ as targets, gives instructions to arrest simple wearers of union stickers or hi-vis jackets, allows fascists with banners to flaunt themselves on a rooftop, or targets journalists, is the head of a police force that one can hardly continue to call ‘republican’, even out of inertia. There would even be some pleasure in objecting to Lallement, on the basis of his own grammar, that his claim to be ‘republican’ is a sham – with the added benefit of internal criticism.

We’re back to the original question: to take up the ‘problem’ signifiers or let them drop? As much as I believe that ‘communism’, and I could add in another register ‘sovereignty’, deserves to be raised, I see ever less interest in ‘republic’. In the end, ‘republic’ is one of the weakest political concepts. By meaning simply ‘the public thing’, it qualifies politics only in complete generality. Of course, modern history has given it specific meanings, especially in France, but in Aristotle ‘republic’ is simply the name of the city constituted as such, prior to its particular forms of organisation – so there is no contradiction in the republic taking the form of a monarchy. Sullied as it was by majority adopters whom history will say were the leaven of fascism in the France of the first half of the twenty-first century, and finally without much content to defend – unlike ‘communism’ or ‘sovereignty’, whose substantial contents are quite rich – one searches in vain as to why one should fight for the ‘republic’. If fascism is coming in the guise of the ‘republic’, I don’t see much point in struggling for this lost signifier.

We’re thinking about concepts, their uses and misuses over time, whether we have to reinvest some of them rather than others. But what’s the point, in the end, of intellectuals in times when unexpected and more or less spontaneous periods of protest, popular revolts and class struggle in France occur?

I would say that intellectuals try first of all to counterbalance the majority side that the ‘educated class’, including the ‘cultural class’, spontaneously takes, its first movement being to rant against the riffraff. Obviously, in saying this, I implicitly apply a particular definition of the ‘intellectual’ as an agent who, in addition to having as a specialisation, and often as a profession, working with ideas (conceptual ideas or ideas of artistic creation) is quite explicitly against the present social order and has the perspective of radically transforming or even overthrowing it. In short, the intellectual also believes it is right to rebel. That is not exactly the wish of the educated class, which is sociologically linked to the present order. Still, some differences need to be made. Let’s leave aside all those graduates inserted into the division of labour as senior executives, whose adherence to the capitalist social order reaches maniacal extremes (though even on this side it’s beginning to waver), and consider only those in a position to hold the ‘intellectual function’ in society, i.e. those who have access to public debate to put forward ‘ideas’: journalists, editorialists, experts, media academics, etc.

Regular access to the mass media is itself an indicator of how those who benefit from it hold the ‘intellectual function’: in an artificial way that actually contradicts the intellectual function, since the intellectual function is essentially a critical function, and regular access to the mass media is implicitly conditional on holding only a ratification function, or a function of false criticism. Ratification is all the experts who maintain, in various forms, the general merits of the social order as it is, and the need to make some adjustments to make it even better.

There were ‘intellectuals’ who were gripped by fear when the Gilets Jaunes appeared, fear that their world, the world in which they are so well off, and which they criticise only in a simulacrum fashion, might be turned upside down for good.

But the specialists of false criticism, that is to say criticism that knows very well not to go too far, are almost worse, since they provide the hegemonic system of opinion with its alibis of pluralism without questioning anything fundamental – proof of which is provided by the fact that they are always invited back. A typical example: finding the rise in inequalities very worrying, or being alarmed by climate change, but never questioning capitalism. False criticism is criticism made of posturing, put forward from the heart of the system and without the least intention of touching it. Every time a political event happens with the potential to disrupt, and therefore with a strong class power, such as the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, the banlieue riots in the same year, or the Gilets Jaunes in 2019, we know exactly which side these ‘intellectuals’ will be on: the side of social order, against whatever takes it by surprise, radically disconcerts it, and is therefore a potential threat. To be a genuine intellectual, on the other hand, is to take the side of what disconcerts the social order, to side with the forces of rupture, against the media intellectuals, who know, with a very sure intuition, the intuition of habitus, at what point there is reason to be afraid. There are ‘intellectuals’ who were gripped with fear when the Gilets Jaunes erupted, afraid that their world, the world in which they find themselves so well off, which they criticise only in a simulacrum fashion, might be turned upside down for good.

But there is another, less polemical function of the intellectual in times of crisis, a function of putting things into words. Here I am essentially borrowing from Sandra Lucbert (with whom I also work) her own reflections on the effects of literature, reflections inspired by psychoanalysis, but which seem to me to be partly transposable to the discourse of social sciences or philosophy. There are moments of epiphany in the psychoanalytical cure, which Freud so strongly emphasised was a work in speech, moments of epiphany in which an unconscious formation that was still blurred and shapeless, that acted confusedly and painfully on the subject, is suddenly brought to light by the effect of an adequate putting into words. This catalytic moment in the analysis is the precipitate of the signifier, an unparalleled opportunity to see how deeply the human being is a being of speech, a ‘parlêtre’ as Lacan says, that is to say, a being that a single word can save (or destroy). This is what literature, or at least the practice of Sandra Lucbert, has the function of doing: precipitates of ‘resignifiance’, through which the simple fact of having put down words, new words obviously, which contradict (or subvert) the words of power, can be a prodigious relief.

In its own order, and with its own means, intellectual intervention can aim at the same kind of effect of dissipating the mists, or tearing the veil, so that suddenly ‘we can see’, so that we can finally make sense of what is happening to us, otherwise left to the oppression of a formless cause. There is nothing more accurately expressed than when people say to you, after one of your interventions, that ‘you put the words’. It probably doesn’t happen every time, but when it happens it’s good. And all the better because this ‘signifying’ or ‘resignifying’ function is particularly required in times of crisis, when the prison of meaning and structures imposed by the hegemonic order becomes unbearable to the point of cracking, but when a clear representation of what exactly the prison is all about is still missing. To intervene intellectually in times of crisis is to help produce this clear and distinct idea, as an effect of meaning. And then, to propose a completely different universe of structures and categories, of institutions and meaning, in the manner of Bernard Friot, for example, who insists very much on the need to reconstruct the very terms of the agenda: an offensive position imposes its own definitions of problems and tasks, and therefore its own words. And in this way it propels us into another world of signifiers.

But aren’t you afraid of the gap that can sometimes widen between the working classes and the intellectuals, due to a certain type of language, accompanied by concepts and references whose symbolic social violence can turn out to be quite strong? Is this something you have been reproached for and, if so, what do you say to it? 

Have I been blamed for this? Of course, I hear that every day! I can’t count the number of times I’ve been attacked for this reason, sometimes seriously. The well-meaning beg me to make a little effort to speak or write in a way that makes me understandable to a few more people. The more resentful ones wrap themselves up in the ‘working class’, to which they often don’t belong any more than I do, to explain to me that I am incomprehensible to ‘the majority’. I don’t think I needed them to be aware of this. But see how this debate is twisted: those lecturing me here are generally no more workers than I am, but seem to consider themselves perfectly placed to know what workers understand, or don’t understand. And to pass on admonitions on their behalf. On the other hand, I once met a trade unionist from the RATP [Paris bus and metro system] who questioned me about the philosophy of being and the event in Badiou, and at other times I’ve received e-mails from people who don’t fail to tell me their origins and their (modest) social condition but none the less question me very deeply about passages from some of my less ‘general public’ books. These are salutary experiences, which break down the over-simple ideas of those who have decreed that ‘the workers’ understand nothing if you address them with a vocabulary of more than three hundred words. In short, it is possible both not to completely forget the elementary teachings of sociology and not to give in to assumptions about the incapacity of the working classes.

But then, under these conditions, what line should be taken? My line is to have no line. I write as I write, it reaches as far as it reaches, and that’s it. Someone else would write differently, and perhaps it might reach further. Very well, but don’t see this as indifference on my part, or worse, contempt, towards people who complain about language that is closed to them. Everybody knows from experience that not understanding is a painful feeling, of being left out or excluded from something to which others (‘those who understand’) have access and you don’t. It is unpleasant. In the argument (the one addressed to me), no doubt topped off with general political arguments, I think a lot of that comes out. And that’s understandable. 

I believe, however, that one can at the same time both acknowledge this feeling and not let it stick to you. For to leave it the last word is to annul the intellectual function at the very moment it is needed – all this discussion being further complicated by the long history of intellectual arrogance that we inherit, which it is precisely a question of breaking with. A line of no line is my way of resolving these contradictions. I like to show what’s behind, and especially how those rigorous critics of ‘intellectuals’ in politics (we almost end up thinking that we’d have less of a problem with them if we abstained from everything) are themselves victims of the worst clichés about intellectuals, despite believing themselves to be the least duped. In general, their first move is to dismiss the intellectual who is the enlightener of peoples and the demiurge of history – in which case it is not too difficult to follow them, the door is wide open to be broken down. But, from this premise, now accepted by almost everyone, it is sometimes deduced, and most often by intellectuals themselves, that being an intellectual, since it is not everything, is actually nothing. So, as a sign of atonement for the social position and authority supposedly attached to him, the intellectual covers his head with ashes and declares that he offers no difference (since in this expiatory process he fears that to assert a specificity will immediately be recoded as a claim to superiority), that he will go ‘to the school of the working class’, ‘of the people’, or whatever. Let’s be clear: getting out of his sociological isolation, going out to get in touch with what other social classes, especially the working classes, are elaborating in terms of knowledge, reflections and political practices, is the least an intellectual can do, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we are talking about is a certain discourse to which this elementary requirement is attached. As we know at least since La Rochefoucauld, ostentatious positions of humility are nothing but an inverted form of extreme arrogance. The ostentation of self-denial is the feeling of the omnipotence of the self but censored and inverted. 

But then, what place would they occupy? 

In reality, one could wish for a little more simplicity on the part of intellectuals and the idea they have of themselves: they occupy a place that is neither zero nor demiurgic (we now understand that the same thing is going on in both cases); they occupy their place in the political division of labour, full stop. Their intervention will not overturn the world, but it does have its place, no more and no less, in the combined effort to overthrow it. In short, they contribute in their register, alongside so many others. In the political division of labour, there are those able to organise meetings, who get up and leaflet at dawn, who run soup kitchens, who agree to agitate in workplaces, or who have the talent (of Serge D’Ignazio) to take photos of street movements, or produce a paper that shows the creativity of the Gilets Jaunes (‘Plein le dos’), and then there are others who act according to their own specialisation, i.e. as intellectuals. And we throw it all together into the bouillabaisse. You see the idea: the intellectual is not the chef, he’s the scorpion fish if you like. He’s in the pot with the others.

The scorpion fish doesn’t make the whole bouillabaisse, but it has its own little taste. I don’t understand why intellectuals surrender their specificity, that is to say, their specialisation, to those who demagogically ask them to do so. To be specialised is to have learned to do a certain thing better than others. Only a long history of arrogance on the part of intellectuals can explain why, if the baker has no problem claiming to make bread better than the philosopher, the equivalent has become impossible for the philosopher in terms of his own work of thought. In reality, no one has anything to gain from the intellectual renouncing precision in his work, which admittedly comes with complications: of categories, language, expression, etc. You can’t ask an intellectual to produce an analysis that makes a difference, that upsets the common ways of seeing in which we’re stuck, and from which we precisely have to get out, and to do so in a form that is immediately accessible. You can’t ask him to do that because it’s contradictory. If the intellectual does not support having a specialised way of practising thought, one that does not cancel out the thought of others nor confer upon it any political eminence, in short, if he denies its speciality, then he denies himself as an intellectual. One should not be mistaken, therefore, about the ‘simplicity’ being asked of the intellectual. It is not the simplicity of his discourse, because of what he has to produce he can hardly be simple, but the simplicity with which he takes his place in the political division of labour. For, like any division of labour, the political division of labour is based on a double principle of specialisation and complementarity: it is through the coordinated bringing together of specialised contributions that the collective work is done. 

I would therefore like the reproach of ‘making things too complicated’ and of ‘speaking only to insiders’ to see what it still carries in the way of a demiurgic representation of the intellectual word – great masses should listen to him, hear him, and no doubt follow him – but also, and paradoxically, of a profound ignorance of the collective character of political activity. This is a paradox because we always trumpet ‘the collective, the collective, the collective’, but fail to draw the slightest logical conclusion, particularly with regard to the division of labour that the collective necessarily entails. Now, to situate intellectual intervention in it properly is to accept that, in the form it has chosen (which, moreover, can vary, as far as I am concerned), it produces... the effects it produces, no more and no less, and that this will be its contribution, that’s it. And it is this lack of knowledge of the division of labour that also prevents us from seeing that there is room within it for a wide variety of registers and levels of discourse, and that this is good. There is room for cutting-edge work, which is perhaps difficult to access, but which impels new ways of thinking that will percolate through, with time and the support of others; and there is room for discourses that send out shoots without circumlocution – the two things need not be asked of one and the same individual, by the way. I tell myself that those critics of ‘hermetic intellectuals’, despite carrying Marx on their shoulders, cannot have read a single page of Capital. Because Capital isn’t exactly a walk in the park, you have to get stuck in. Marx may well have expressed his concern that his book should be ‘more accessible to the working class’, even that ‘this consideration takes precedence over any other’, but it’s not certain (that’s an understatement) that many workers had the access he wanted. And yet this work hardly counted for nothing in the historical trajectory of the workers’ movement, did it? Works of thought, which are very difficult for the many to access, can therefore, contrary to appearances, end up producing useful effects for the many. Perhaps we should ask ourselves a little about this, don’t you think? Perhaps things are a little less simple than those people believe who would like to subject all intellectual interventions to the yardstick of being immediately accessible to all.

Translated by David Fernbach, originally published by Frustration.