Article by Roland Simon, published on 03/05/2016, on the Nuits debouts and the movement against the (El Khomri) reforms to labour law in France, translated from the French from Des Nouvelles Du Front
From outbreaks to ‘inbreaks’ until exhaustion - Roland Simon
(on the demos, the thugs and the “Nuits debout”)
The “outbreaks” [débordements] within “demand-based demonstrations” have become their own end, violence is no longer a question, an exteriority or an after-thought; the “outbreak” is the nature of the movement itself, the overflow [débord] goes back into the thing itself until it becomes its known and expected nature; we could call this an “inbreak” [imbordements]. The question of violence is gone, it is abandoned as a question at all. Only TV news say “the demonstrators” and the "thugs”; not even the cops or their spokespersons use this sort of language.
“Neither law, nor labour.” One thing links the demonstrations against the Labour Law and the “Nuit debout”: the illegitimacy of worker demands. If they fashion this illegitimacy differently it is simply because this illegitimacy functions differently among the whole of society and this will always arise in conflicts. You cannot decree a “convergence,” it’s not even a goal: the segmentation of the labour force, the racial and gender divisions cannot be merely tacked onto class belonging, since it is the very way class is experienced and within the same situation the divergences are not merely different point of views, rather they are real points of antagonism. It is impossible to create an economy of real conflicts and of the multiplicity of contradictions by merely recognizing them and tacking them on.
For the capitalist class, it has been evident for a while that for them demands, demonstrations and negotiations have stopped being legitimate (at a systemic level, one could say) within an internal conflictual process of accumulation. It has not been as evident that the proletariat has recognized this situation as its own and not just one suffered, or in other words it has not recognized capital as its raison d’être, its very existence facing it, capital as the sole necessity of its existence. The movement now kicking off in France has yet to define itself, to understand itself, for it is the first movement to feel that is constituted by the structural change in the mode of accumulation and reproduction of capitalism which fell into crisis in 2008. The illegitimacy of the demand within this period of crisis in the mode of capitalist production is in the process of internalizing this illegitimacy into its very pores and it knows it very well. For better or worse. This is where the refusal of demands and negotiations comes from, but then alternatively seeks to create a “Community” which is already losing itself in its formalism.
“Nuits debout” is the social froth of this situation. The “we demand nothing” of Frédéric Lordon could be as politico as we imagine and his desire for us to write a new constitution “all together” calls upon no less strangely an old radical slogan that says to “make a demand” is to establish the legitimacy of the power you are addressing. The numerous palinodies to be found at “Nuits debout”include: the expression of a social class whom imagine themselves the general abstraction of society itself, but the expressions of this class have not always taken this form. But if today the expressions are not marked by the general situation of the current class struggle, the natural penchant of this class lends to national sovereignty, “the good productive capitalism,” “the welfare state” and “real democracy.” Other disastrous musings are not entirely unimaginable. The “Nuits debout” are not just limited to this one class, but it is the dominant one; for the others of the same plumage, with their desire to make demands, they find that when pedaling over the void empty formalism serves as their parachute.
Since 2010 (remember the retirement law) something fundamental has shifted. A certain circumstance, that “materialists” would be in the wrong to down play, has accelerated this shift: a profound moral crisis which France finds itself today. The State is no longer recognized as this huge machine which transforms all its machinery, institutions, iterations and forces of repression from the interests of a particular class into the general interests of the whole of society because it no longer works. An apocalyptic mood reigns. It is because the machine is sick with “Luxleaks” and “Panama Paper.” No one believes anymore in a state power which does the opposite of what it claims to do. Sarkozy stirs up hate, Hollande provokes laughter and mistrust. Speechless violence is the response of he who is despised and has been so from the beginning, without any frills. When the corrupt state machinery transforms the particular into the universal, then of course people realize what it was hidden behind this universalism: the billy club.
Among the systematic, normal, expected, accepted and definitive outbreaks in the demonstrations, in the “Nuits debout” and even in the union marches flanked by the cops we have seen for the first time in France (it seems?) the illegitimacy of the worker demand as not just a “no” from the ruling class and the State, but also the very essence which the struggle itself has realized. This is essential. Worker identity is not lived in a sort of phantasmal way as it was in 2010: illegitimacy is on its way to become interiorized and not suffered, it is taken on, “claimed,” and a constitutive force. All of this is very limited, marginal even, which is evidenced by the way this all has had trouble in becoming a massive movement whether in its many demos and outbreaks, or in its “Nuits debout” assemblies. If it is normal that this movement not know what to do with itself, it is because it has no other content than that outlined here and it is this which defines it as marginal. In the absence of a practical affirmation of the multiplicity of contradictions which constitute the proletariat, the absence of an acknowledgment of production as the matrix of social classes, an acknowledgment which can only be at the practical level (one which is cruelly absent), then for now this content floats like a consciousness which seeks to emancipate itself, supposing for itself that class belonging is a exterior constraint which can be surpassed with the constitution of a self-referential Community, somehow surpassing class struggle which produced it. This has deep consequences on this consciousness and the practices it puts into action in its name. The outbreaks will continue until they are exhausted and the Community of “Nuits debout” will fall into a series of declarations more or less ridiculous.
Outbreaks, inbreaks and exhaustion (follow-up) - Roland Simon
Follow-up article by Roland Simon, published on 24/05/2016, on the Nuits debouts and the movement against the (El Khomri) reforms to labour law in France, translated from the French from Des Nouvelles Du Front
(still on the movement of struggles against the Labor Law)
Our position on “exhaustion” of the movement [against the Labor Law] has received the attention of some readers found in our small text, published on Dndf, “From outbreaks, to ‘inbreaks’ ad nauseum.” A few recent events, blockades and strikes seem to invalidate this view. It’s true, the movement is rebounding but how so? It’s not surprising that this “exhaustion” has caught some attention because at the end of the day what matters are the practices, the issues, actions and the views and that we have and/or make and the ways these views act. Despite its garnered attention, this position on “exhaustion” was not the “central thesis” of the text.
The central theme of those few lines was the illegitimacy of worker demands which by way of a simple imposed situation (the minister Sapin just recently declared that “the demands were never legitimate”) becomes in a partial, stammering and spasmodic way the proper comprehension of the movement. The problematic limit of all this was a content which “floated like a consciousness freeing itself of its limits,” as though this consciousness “surpassed the proper conditions of its production.” It’s the famous “glass floor” of production which many current general struggles clash against, which now find themselves within the realm of reproduction.
Something is about to change from the above mentioned. But we must refrain from seeing this as a simple, linear and unilateral thing. Strikes and blockades punctually arrive, disappear and then reappear. Again and again as if the movement were seeking out its raison d’être. We must first note that that which is on the move and which seems to contradict our position on exhaustion is based on sectoral demands. Thus at first glance, nothing seems to stop us from thinking that this course of action and the movement’s bouncing back could be the disappearance of what has already appeared and has only characterized the first phase of the movement. In fact, that which has already appeared remains the base tendency, but does not calmly remain within the goal of crossing through this “glass floor,” which is to say it goes beyond the formation of the conditions of its existence.
In this crossing over, the “we demand nothing” of the outbreaks, the collectives in struggle and the “Nuits debout” leave behind their abstract generalization. Of course within this abstract generality were brought up the unemployed, the undocumented, the non-white banlieues, women, work conditions, housing, the invasion of commodities into our lives, sexual orientation, peasant agriculture, etc. But none of these “causes,” no matter how real, did not have in their finitude any existence of their own, none were there as a moment of a totality that is to come, as a moment which should already usher in a final convergence, either virtually or potentially, if only they were to be included. Notions of citizenship, of being “the people,” of “being together” saturated their discourse. Who was the enemy? The police: held as the enemy because they prevented all of this to function on its own as everyone had the desire for. “Everyone hates the police,” but it serves no purpose to hate the billy-club if you do not hate the power that wields it. Generally this point of view was in the end a point of view from nowhere, without opponents, without enemies or either this point of view just superbly ignored them. But the point of view from nowhere does not necessarily express a situation that does not exist.
According to a survey done by the sociologists with EHESS (as an indicative consideration), the social composition of the “Nuits debout” is more diverse than as first described: there are included the unemployed, banlieue residents, workers. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the participants are college graduates (as noted in the survey and by our own visit to one of the gatherings). If all this does not interfere with your being unemployed, then it definitely defines the particular social profile from which the language of general society, of “the common,” of justice and of injustice comes from. The middle-class college graduate, finding themselves in community life , is an incarnation of the abstract norm of republican citizenship. The “Nuits debout” know very well how to speak of themselves and were photogenic in the media, who finally were able to find their own kind there. The phrase “we demand nothing” was an abstract generality appearing and sometimes acting as a recuperator of the socially particular effervescence. According to the same survey, 2/3 of the Parisian participants in “Nuit debout” had not participated in any demonstration against the Labor Law.
Now the demands have returned and they play their role but it is an ambivalent role. That’s where we are right now. The direction of the movement and its passage to another level form a rebound, but this is not necessarily a contradiction to the exhaustion-disappearance of that which could have appeared as a fundamental determination of its first phase; which could also be described as the non-demand-based abstract generality with all its ideological limitations since this generality was itself ideology. The passing over of this abstract generality passes through the particular and currently the particular takes the form of demands. But we must refrain from thinking that the whole must exist in every part, that the whole cannot exist without being at the heart of every situation where it plays out not in terms of power but in terms of acts. We will pass from abstract generality to an “expressive totality,” the entirety of the capitalist mode of production expresses itself in a hierarchical structure with fundamental determinations and dominating powers, which its determinations designate (it is not an impossibility that theoretical reflection, even the very abstract, could be very useful). It is by way of this that appears the crossing over of the glass floor as a determinant for no matter which general movement of struggles.
Class belonging as an external constraint is a situation, an upsurge within class struggle, in which the particular and the demand are present and play their role. This situation and upsurge are a result of certain forces and they depend on the relation between the practice of the proletariat and the practice of the State and the dominant class. So that this practice takes form, the practice of demands, the crossing of the glass floor, must already be used, so that the demand becomes a series of fault lines. These fault lines can be seen by the fearless way some throw themselves into minoritarian actions, with blockades that go beyond their sector or a certain business, the will to strike a whole group of local businesses, the porosity between strongarm union marches and the “informal marches,” the non-marginalization of demos and outbreaks by the so-called “thugs” [casseurs] and also with the cascading relation which unites all the levels of struggle. The entanglement of all demands end up calling into question The Demand.
Over this base, a “dialectic” between demands and the reactions of the dominant class play within the conditions of the appearance of the realization of class belonging as an external constraint (albeit fleeting). The mark of its appearance could become (beyond the strike and outbreaks) a set of practices modifying the use of public transportation, refineries, etc. with the goal of extending and modifying the struggles already in process; beyond all managerial worry and also beyond any particular demands. The seizure of the tools of struggle is not a form of ownership. This seizure is never an activity which institutionalizes itself, rather it falls into the communal definition of its use.
The practical possibilities of such a situation must highlight, in the crossing of the glass floor, the faults of demands and then a subsequent dive into those demands, because it is those demands which have kicked off the movement once more. We must work towards, by strongly highlighting and underlining, the appearance of the absence of other faults within the demands made including the weak affirmation of autonomous women within the movement as well as the quasi-absence of any talk of the racialization of work in its daily existence under capital and its world. Highlighting the weakness or absence of these faults within demands made is to already highlight the current instability because convergence is not necessarily (unfortunately perhaps) the highroad which leads the proletariat to call into question its very existence and its contradiction within capital. In this sense, the call for or even the realization of a “general strike” could be as ambiguous as any convergence.
Inserting and highlighting the relation of these faults with the practices of the dominant class, we must wager on the intransigence of this class. Facing looming blockades and strikes at the refineries, Total S.A. (French multinational integrated oil and gas company) announced that they will revise their investments in France. Do I exist? Am I necessary as a worker of Total or not? – could be the thoughts of a worker at Fos-Sur-Mer. We must also equally wager also on the specific crisis of the French State which has become a menacing windbag. It also within the relation between the capitalist class and its State that the declaration that class belonging is an external constraint is found; which is to say this relation comprises situations where there is created a distancing between demand-based practices, a distancing where within the demand-based practice the agent who makes the demands is called into question because this agent only exists because of the class he sees before him. We pass from the illegitimacy of demands that is imposed to an illegitimacy which is claimed, where its very bearer begins to question who they are. It is not necessary, as the tendency already exists, that the practices which could construct this dynamic, become autonomous from their raison d’etre (acting as a class, making demands) and try to forestall the dynamic they seek to construct.
As far as the “Nuits debout” are concerned, it is evident that the general change in the nature of the movement, which they are but a moment of, will either transform the “Nuits debout” or make them disappear. This will reveal more clearly how heterogeneous the participants are in requiring them to reformulate their position vis-a-vis political, democracy and citizen-based solutions. Either this will be their end or either their social composition will change. The present ambivalence of practical demands must become their central prerogative. Or rather, either their assemblies will completely fall into pure self-referential ideology of a Community in construction (along with the mirage of digital devices securing their virtual existence) under the cover of the ideological expansion of the “common”; or either they will enter the political reconstruction a la Podemos (which is not really foreseeable in France; Syriza is another thing altogether).
To finish we’ll go back to the beginning, as we must to the question at the introduction: the crossing of the glass floor which was the way the first part of the movement constituted itself to find its own conditions for existence, to no longer “float,” could also very well be its burial. The exhaustion of that which constituted its first phase could also halt its reaching a higher level. Nothing is linear or unilateral, but these are the issues and positions we must define.