The Courage of Nuit Debout


This letter was first published in Le Monde. Translated by David Broder.

(via Wikimedia Commons)

As a rule, crises open up the terrain of the possible, and the crisis that began in 2007 with the collapse of the subprime market is no exception. The political forces that upheld the old world are now decomposing — first among them social democracy, which has since 2012 entered a new phase in its long process of accommodation to the existing order. As against these forces, the National Front has diverted part of the anger in society to its own advantage. It has adopted the pretense of an anti-systemic stance, even though it challenges nothing about this system, and least of all the law of the market. 

Such is the context in which Nuit Debout was born — a movement that now marks the first month of its existence. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall the opposition to neoliberalism has taken various different forms: the “Bolivarian” governments in Latin America in the 2000s, the “Arab Spring,” Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish indignados, Syriza in Greece, the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns in Britain and the USA…. Future historians delving into our era will doubtless say that it was particularly rich in social and political movements.

France does not stand outside this. From the great strikes of November–December 1995 to the current mobilisations against the El Khomri bill [Labour Law], passing by way of the alterglobalisation movement — notably the creation of Attac in 1998 — the opposition to the Contrat Première Embauche in 2006 and the pensions anti-reform in 2010, there have been a number of opportunities to contest this “new world reason.” They were not decisive, because the crisis has not marked the death-knell of neoliberal policies, which are today being implemented worldwide, more aggressively than ever.

Strategic stakes

Despite the difficulties and sometimes even setbacks, the creation of organisations seeking to incarnate this anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist Left have each offered opportunities to forge coalitions and to accumulate experience and collective intelligence. 

Nuit Debout is a sui generis movement with characteristics of its own. But it is also the heir to this sequence, to the — positive or negative — balance-sheets that networks of activists have drawn from these past experiences. History advances through conjectures and refutations. A young movement like Nuit Debout offers cause for enthusiasm, even if it is inevitably sometimes confused. Nonetheless, the striking thing is the seriousness of its discussions of the strategic stakes confronting it. Through one of its axes — “against the El Khomri bill and the world it represents” — it succeeds in articulating an essential need — the withdrawal of a law that brings serious social regression — and the radical critique of a whole system. One perspective spreading across the movement, indeed one which it is now working towards, is the general strike. This seems decisive to creating a junction between the square occupations and workplace mobilisation, bringing what would be a fundamentally important victory.

The movement’s critics have chided its social composition and the over-representation — real or supposed; no one knows at this stage — of individuals with sizeable “cultural capital.” These same critics have also noted the absence of the inhabitants of poor and working-class districts, and in particular of postcolonial immigrants.

Anyone who has spent even one hour in the Place de la République or the other occupied squares will know that a considerable part of the current debates is devoted precisely to the question of the movement’s limits and the way of overcoming them. How can we better link up with the unions and the working class? On what bases can we encourage the mobilisation of the victims of socio-spatial segregation? What “political expression” should the movement take on — if it should even do so? In the general assemblies as in the specific commissions, these questions are ever-present.

Social transformation

Without doubt, the responses are hesitant and sometimes awkward; certain disagreements have also crystallised around these responses. But something real is at stake in these disagreements. Nuit Debout is a movement that demands much of itself, and it does not under-estimate the extent of the challenges ahead of it. If the emancipatory potential of a mobilisation depends on its consciousness of its own limits, and its will continually to transcend them, then we have reason to expect that in the coming months and years Nuit Debout will give rise to a far-reaching social transformation.

As Gramsci said, we are all intellectuals, but we do not all exercise the “function” of intellectuals. Serving its own needs, capitalism has created a class of individuals who make a career of reading and writing. As academics we belong to this class, even if we are also activists. When capitalism has been overcome this class will disappear, and intellectual elaboration will thus cease to be a social privilege.

Nuit Debout doesn’t need intellectuals in order to reflect. The production of ideas is immanent to the movement. Each member of it is an intellectual, and the whole movement a “collective” intellectual.

Those of us who exercise this “function” professionally want to tell this movement how much we admire it. How we admire its courage — which it needs in order to resist the constant intimidation coming from those who uphold the existing order. How we admire its capacity to identify the strategic challenges of the moment, and to try and offer innovative responses to these challenges. If this movement manages to combine with sectors of the workers’ movement and associative networks in the poor and working-class neighbourhoods, then nothing can stop it.  

Crises open up the terrain of the possible, but there is a great risk that it will immediately close up again under the pressure of reactionary forces. Nuit Debout is contributing to expanding this terrain, thus allowing revolutionary forces to converge. We call on all people and organisations not resigned to the world such as it is to come to the square occupations, and take part right away in constructing another world!

Signatories: Tariq Ali, writer; Ludivine Bantigny, historian; Cédric Durand, economist; Elsa Dorlin, philosopher; Annie Ernaux, writer; Bernard Friot, sociologist; Razmig Keucheyan, sociologist; Stathis Kouvelakis, philosopher; Frédéric Lordon, philosopher; Leo Panitch, sociologist; Wolfgang Streeck, sociologist