Overturning a World

Frédéric Lordon
David Broder

France's Nuit Debout movement has the potential to not just defeat a single law, but to move beyond defensive struggles.

Interview by
Stathis Kouvelakis

After a month of occupations, France’s Nuit Debout movement is beginning to confront crucial questions about its political goals and how to move forward. Among other issues, debates have developed over horizontalism, how to broaden the movement’s base, and its relationship to established trade unions. Both the future of the “El Khomri law” — which seeks to severely weaken France’s labor code — and the fate of the country’s left more generally are at stake.

In this interview, translated by David Broder, Stathis Kouvelakis talks with economist Frédéric Lordon about the origins and future of the Nuit Debout movement.

Stathis Kouvelakis

Nuit Debout is often presented as a leaderless, entirely spontaneous, and horizontal movement. Does this image correspond to reality? More specifically, what role did collectives like Fakir and Convergence des luttes play in setting off the movement?

Frédéric Lordon

In a recent debate I had with David Graeber, who — no surprise — was full of praise for horizontalism, I told him that those who celebrate things coming out of nowhere spontaneously have everything in common with those who believe in the immaculate conception. In truth nothing comes from nowhere — it’s no truer of Nuit Debout than anything else.

At the beginning of Nuit Debout there was a small number of people who agreed that the situation was less depressing than it seemed, that there was a welter of grievances that just needed a spark to set them off, and that François Ruffin’s film Merci Patron! might well serve as a catalyst. Then there was a slightly bigger number of people who took it upon themselves, really decisively, to combine words with action.

Then along came the El Khomri bill (the Labor Law) whose explosive potential was even more remarkable. And then the slogan “After the (March 31) demonstration we’re not going home” took shape. But if people were going to stay overnight, that really couldn’t just come from nothing: we needed sound equipment, tents, stuff to eat and drink, a screen for the unauthorized “wildcat” projection of Merci patron! in Place de la République, communications about the event — things that don’t just come about thanks to the operation of the Holy Spirit.

Rather, they came through the dogged efforts of a few dozen people — who were indeed people around the paper Fakir and the Convergence des luttes collective. The launch of Nuit Debout would not have seen the light of day — or at least, would not have happened as it did – if it weren’t for the determined action of a quite small ultra-mobilized collective.

Then the movement took flight — in a way that surprised us, and — need it be said — left us overjoyed. Soon it mutated and entered into a new phase of its existence: daily general assemblies, commissions, inter-commission meetings etc. For most people, this is a model of horizontalism.

But it should also be said — even if, at first sight, this point seems to be of theoretical interest — that when people demand pure horizontalism and reject any form of verticality (an aversion that we can understand and, at least partly, also share in) — they refuse to see verticality at work even when it’s right in front of their eyes. And that’s also the case with Nuit Debout.

Even the general assembly, the supposed supreme expression of horizontality, does not conform to their pure model. It has authoritative rules — rules on taking turns speaking, rules on the length of interventions, rules on hand signals, rules for respecting the moderators, etc. — and the mere fact that they are authoritative, or more simply, the fact that they are rules, makes them displays of verticality.

But is this anything other than picking up Rousseau’s classic idea that being free, in politics, does not mean living outside of all constraint, but living according to rules we have set for ourselves? That is, living according to verticality such as we have chosen to institute it, in the form that we have chosen to give it.

What should we take from this analysis? That there is nothing collective that does not combine and articulate the horizontal and vertical in some way, and that consequently the horizontal versus vertical debate is totally inane. Really what we have to think about is this articulation.

And we couldn’t go too far advising collectives to look square in the face at the degree of verticality that they do have, rather than deny its existence. For that is the only way to stop it expanding out of control. It is also the only way to structure themselves in some measure, which is a condition — like it or not — of being productive politically.

Stathis Kouvelakis

In your interventions you have forcefully underlined the need to give the movement some political orientation, in order to avoid it becoming a mere in-group or case of inoffensive “citizen engagement.” Could you define more precisely what you mean by political orientation?

Frédéric Lordon

Things were perfectly clear to start with — it was the succession of events, and the tendencies toward falling into in-groupery, that ended up obscuring them. The original slogan the Fakir team suggested was “Make them afraid.” Then the movement cohered politically around a determinate objective: “overthrowing the El Khomri bill and the world it represents.”

You can see what this borrows from an appropriate formula of the Notre-Dame des Landes zadistes (ZAD standing for “Zones to Defend”; direct-action zadistes recently occupied the site of a planned airport at Notre-Dame des Landes, in opposition to its construction). For here we have the means for setting out a scale of political objectives, from the most concrete to the most ambitious.

That is, it allows us to hold together a classic demand-making register — we want the bill on the labor law withdrawn — and a much more political register that breaks us out of defensive struggles, projecting us somewhere beyond demands.

It takes us into an affirmative register, through which we stop doing what we have been doing for three decades; we stop saying what we don’t want, and start — finally! — saying what we do want.

If we do not make this more properly political transition, we will soon face a fresh equivalent of the El Khomri bill. That is why we have to start right now fighting the very world that engenders a whole series of El Khomri bills.

Stathis Kouvelakis

In the struggle against the El Khomri bill, the question of the joining-together of Nuit Debout and the union movement has been posed with some force. How could that be achieved?

Frédéric Lordon

That’s what we’re trying to find out! One thing is sure: it is vital that we do join together. There is a simple reason for that, almost a syllogism: overturning a world (and even simply a bill like this) demands a mass, popular movement; and there is no mass movement without the engagement of a great number of  workers: ergo we have to pass by way of the workers’ organizations.

Obviously there are all sorts of obstacles to such a convergence. Firstly, sociological ones: the unionized working classes have their own forms of struggle and organization. Which are not the same as the forms of militancy among the educated youth in the city centers. You aren’t going to get unionized workers to sit cross-legged on the ground and wave their hands like the indignados in order to participate in a general assembly.

In turn, there is also the horizontalist movements’ distrust for the organizations they see as ultra-verticalized bureaucracies, suspicious that they will recuperate or swamp movements. All these clashes are real, and yet we must overcome them.

We can say that the May Day demonstration was large and combative, that Nuit Debout continues although there are attempts now to clear the square every night at 10 PM, leading to further clashes with the police. The labor law reforms are being discussed by the National Assembly this week. Also, the leader of the CGT, the main trade union confederation, Philippe Martinez came down to address the ND protesters on Thursday April 28 and was faced with pressure to call a general strike.

We know that we have to twist their arm — it was the appeal that the YouTubers of the #OnVautMieuxQueCa (“We deserve better than this”) movement launched on March 9 that forced them to call for mobilization: they were forced to follow along! But plenty of other actions are possible: the general strike commission has organized delegations of students to visit railworkers, and leafleted a Renault plant.

These are extremely concrete actions encouraging joining together, setting an example. Trade unionists were invited to speak at a meeting organized at the Bourse du travail on April 20. We have to multiply our contacts of all kinds, whether formal or informal, so that we can meet and discuss together.

Stathis Kouvelakis

It seems that educated and graduate youth make up the active core of Nuit Debout’s participants. The presence of other social sectors, starting with the youth in the working-class neighborhoods, does also get mentioned — but is this rather more of an incantation? How can the movement expand to other social sectors?

Frédéric Lordon

There are major invisible social barriers that we need to break through in order to join educated urban youth together with the unionized working classes. Indeed the barriers separating each of them from the segregated youth in the suburbs are nothing less than fortifications.

In that case, we’re having to start from scratch. In the 2000s there was the beginning of a political construction, particularly with the the Mouvement Immigration Banlieue (MIB). But everything fell apart. The so-called riots in 2005, which were in fact an uprising of an eminently political character, had doubtless created the conditions, or let’s say the potential, for wider politicization. But we collectively missed this opportunity.

The generalized abandonment has allowed only two alternatives to prosper in these neighborhoods: the individualism of drug dealing, or else what religion has to offer. That speaks to the immense obstacles we face. We have to start again right from scratch.

Perhaps first by systematically showing our solidarity with these districts’ inhabitants every time the police attack them. And above all by avoiding trying to politicize people in the manner of missionaries! People are fighting there now, or have been doing so for a long time, and no one can go and teach them what they have to do. And yet, amidst all these difficulties Banlieues Debout are starting to arise. So something is possible.