Interview. In an interview with il manifesto, the French philosopher Frédéric Lordon explains why Occupy Wall Street and 15M failed — and why Nuit Debout may not.

Frédéric Lordon: ‘Put an end to the empire of capital’

Frédéric Lordon is a French philosopher and economist, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). In recent weeks he has been the protagonist of debates at Tolbiac campuses, occupied as a result of the protest against the proposed labor market reform (Italian) and Nuit Debout Paris movement (“up all night”) that sparked the demonstrations. In 2015, he published “Capitalism: Desire and Servitude,” an essay in which Marx and Spinoza meet and explain the exploitation of contemporary capitalism.

What are the origins, the political roots and slogans of the Nuit Debout movement?

At the origin of this movement is the François Ruffin film Merci Patron! The film tells the story of a LVMH employee who had been laid off and for whom Ruffin and his team managed to extort €40,000 from [LVMH Chairman and CEO] Bernard Arnault, one of the leading French entrepreneurs, and to reinstate the worker indefinitely with the company. This film is so heartening and incites so much energy that people said, “We should do something.” That documentary was perhaps something like a detonator. The general situation seemed very ambivalent, sad and hopeless in many respects, but at the same time very promising: saturated anger, waiting for something that would make it leap out. The film was the catalyst of the groundswell.

So we organized one evening in late February to talk about what to do in film and what we could do in general. It seemed that politics was a hopelessly sclerotic institutional game. We needed a different type of movement, a movement of workers where people could meet without intermediaries, such as Occupy Wall Street and 15M in Spain. The idea came from a public screening of the film at Place de la Republique in Paris, and then spread to other places. Then the El Khomri law arrived and added momentum to our needs and initiative. The slogan has become, “after the demonstration, we don’t return home.” And we remained.

In Italy, the weak battle against the country’s Jobs Act was completely fragmented. In France, there’s talk instead of a “convergence of struggles.” What does that mean?

You’re already answering your own question. As long as the fight stays local, segregated and scattered, they will fail and are destined to start over again constantly. All our work is to permanently seek the common denominator in all the struggles in order to create critical mass. It is then possible to bring together workers — all situations, even painters — the unemployed, temporary workers, but also university and secondary students whose future is precarious. But we can also encompass farmers, who, although they are not wage earners, also suffer from the logic of capital, and also for the same reason the “ZAD” activists of Notre Dame des Landes who oppose local development projects, dictated by the same blind economic logic.

The goal is to hold meetings and discussions between the left-wing factions that are separated on a daily basis and view each other with suspicion: in short, on the one hand the urban militants, the cultural and highly educated young people, the often underemployed intellectuals, and on the other hand, the unionized working classes whose traditions are extremely different. Now, this convergence is crucial to the power of a social movement. And even more decisive is the convergence with youth in the suburbs, characterized by anger and their struggle, but who the other two groups completely ignore. I believe that this connection is the most critical because when it happens, the government will really tremble. By then the movement will have become unstoppable.

They say “we demand nothing,” because the subject of this demand is a few crumbs. What do you mean exactly?

Our attempt is to change the logic of the struggle. Clearly, we must continue to make demands everywhere where there is need to do so. But one must be aware that to make a demand is a defensive perspective that implicitly accepts the conditions of the framework and closes out the possibility of questioning the framework itself. It is therefore urgent to call into question the overall picture. That means to switch from demand-making to the affirmation of a general framework that we want to redesign. There is no one who can “demand” another reality. It’s up to us to seize it and do it.

Here’s how we articulate demands and assertions: We say “no to the law and to an El Khomri world.” We protest against the law, but also for another world than the one that constantly repeats laws like that. As long as we remain in a demand-making mode, we will only ward off the blows, one after another, in this exclusively defensive posture in which neoliberalism has detained us for three decades. We must go on the offensive, and going on the offensive means to stop saying what we do not want and to start saying what we want instead.

Podemos, as a movement that has managed to gain popular support, says we should not talk about right and left, but the up and down. The 1 percent against the 99 percent. Do you agree?

I totally disagree with this Podemos idea. In France, the degeneration of the left-right divide has some bad echoes. Those who talk about it are part of what I call the “general right,” that is, the classic right and the new right which is the Socialist Party — the party of undifferentiated neoliberal globalization — both on the extreme right. In France, those who say “neither right nor left” are invariably right, or will eventually be. At the same time, I do not believe that monetary inequalities (the way Podemos converts the left-right division into 1 percent-99 percent) is an issue politically very peremptory. Today, the theme of inequality is becoming a sort of soft consensus, one discussed even in the OECD and The Economist.

The real question is not that of income or wealth inequality, but the question of the fundamental political inequality of capitalism: Workers live in a relationship of subordination and obedience. The wage relationship, even before the origin of monetary inequalities, is a relationship of domination, and this is the beginning of a fundamental inequality that is the inequality of policy. People have now understood that this is the topic under discussion with the El Khomri law: This law strengthens like never before the sovereign will of the entrepreneurs, who can now do whatever they want with the workforce.

This is the real issue: the power of capital over individuals and society as a whole. The left is this: a project to fight against the sovereignty of capital.

To dismiss the idea of the left when the fight should instead be radicalized and call into question the true aims of power — wage as blackmail, capital as tyranny — means in my opinion to miss what is going on after decades of neoliberal pounding, and just at the moment people are starting to wake up and raise their heads. If that happens, I’m afraid, it would be a significant strategic mistake.

What is the purpose of this mobilization: political representation, the creation of a constitutional process?

This is what I believe fundamentally. The constitutional outlet imposes itself in my eyes for two reasons. The first is that it offers a solution to what I would call the contradiction of Occupy Wall Street and Podemos. OWS was a great movement but completely unproductive. Failing to equip themselves with political objectives and structure, the movement condemned itself to dissolution and uselessness. The exact opposite, Podemos represents the political outcome of 15M, but in an ultra-classic form, at the price of betraying its origins: a classic party, with a classic leader who plays the classic games of electoral institutions and finds himself in the mire of parliamentary coalitions, just like the classic traditional parties.

How do we escape the antinomy between non-productivity and the return to parliamentary chambers? The only answer in my eyes is not to return to the institutions but to remake the institutions. Remaking the institutions means rewriting the constitution. And so the second reason why the exit from the constitution makes sense: the struggle against capital. To do away with the wage relationship as blackmail, we must do away with the property-for-profit means of production, which is also enshrined in the constitutions themselves. Putting an end to the empire of capital, which is a constitutionalized empire, you have to create a new constitution. A constitution that abolishes private ownership of the means of production and establishes fitness for use: the means of production belonging to those who use them and those who use them doing things that are not for the development of capital.