April 02, 2006

Against immobilization, against nomadology

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The Economist's response to the unrest in Paris is entirely predictable and intermittently hilarious but contains some points that need to be addressed.

On Friday, in a paradigmatic statement of neo-liberal ideology, the Economist repeated the acerbic observation it had already made (at least twice) in its previous edition. Whereas the events of Paris 68 were progressive and forward looking, it argued, the events in Paris 06 are reactionary and conservative.

'Certainly the students who kicked off the latest protests seemed to think they were re-enacting the events of May 1968 their parents sprang on Charles de Gaulle, it wrote in its lead article. They have borrowed its slogans (“Beneath the cobblestones, the beach!”) and hijacked its symbols (the Sorbonne university). In this sense, the revolt appears to be the natural sequel to last autumn's suburban riots, which prompted the government to impose a state of emergency. Then it was the jobless, ethnic underclass that rebelled against a system that excluded them.

Yet the striking feature of the latest protest movement is that this time the rebellious forces are on the side of conservatism. Unlike the rioting youths in the banlieues, the objective of the students and public-sector trade unions is to prevent change, and to keep France the way it is. Indeed, according to one astonishing poll, three-quarters of young French people today would like to become civil servants, and mostly because that would mean “a job for life”.'

A follow-up article in the print edition approvingly quotes Daniel Cohn-Bendit: 'Today's protests are based on the defensive, the fear of insecurity and change'. (What could be a more perfect illustration of Zizek's point in his recent LRB piece that 'liberal communists' - more on which shortly - love 68?)

That the Economist finds it 'astonishing' that 75% of the young French would want to work in the civil service (what? rather than in an EXCITING and FULFILLING career like branding! or marketing!) is more than a little amusing. As is its describing as 'startling' the results of another poll in which '71% of Americans, 66% of the British and 65% of Germans agreed that the free market was the best system available, [whereas] the number in France was just 36%'. And isn't it astonishing that, in France, 'left-leaning intellectuals, with a romantic communist heritage, are not derided but treated as national treasures. There is a lingering culture of suspicion of profit [no! m k-p], and a demonisation of business leaders, encouraged by a mainstream left that [for shame!] equates efficiency with injustice.'

The killer line, the very credo of Capitalist realism - try to read it while keeping a straight face - is this one: 'It is true that the forces of global capitalism are not always benign, but nobody has yet found a better way of creating and spreading prosperity.'

The Economist goes on to engage in some sneering at the 'hypocritical French'. It argues that the 'French' are less 'immobile' than they like to appear. 'Take a closer a look at what [the French] do rather than what they say ... When EDF was floated, over 5m French individuals snapped up the chance to become a shareholder. Vandals near the Sorbonne smashed the glass front of a McDonald's restaurant during the student protests, yet the French remain calm about eating 'le Happy Meal' with their children, and many students work their part-time. Indeed, the American group recently reported strong operating profit for the fourth quarter of 2005 based partly on its huge success in France... The French, it seems, condemn capitalism during office hours, but are quite happy to consume its products at the weekend.' Secondly, it goes on to argue, much of the French opposition to globalization takes place in the name of nationalist protectionism. For example, the Villepin-led government intervened when the French private company Suez faced a hostile bid from an Italian company, but there was no public concern when BNP Paribas acquired an Italian bank, or when L'Oreal bought Body Shop.

No doubt the statistics are selective, the examples hastily generalized to support a stereotyped image of insular French reactivity. Nevertheless, the Economist does highlight some of the problems that the left should have with unequivocally supporting 'immobilization'. It goes without saying that not all of what is happening in France can be characterized in terms of 'immobilization', but it is worth emphasising that an anti-capitalism articulated solely in terms of curbing or containing capitalism cannot be adequate.

For one thing, such a position it is too defeatist, too limited in its ambitions. It's striking how the practice of many of the immobilizers is a kind of inversion of that of the 'liberal communists'. Both assume that there is an irreducible core of capitalism which cannot be eradicated. It is either a case of opposing capitalism in the workplace but consuming its products in your 'free' time (the immobolistes), or fully identifying with capitalism in the workplace while protesting against it and/ or giving to charity in your free time (the Sorosites/ the Chabertistas). And as Padraig points out, there is another brand of liberal socialism, or philanthropic neo-liberalism: BoBonoism, which maintains that fully identifying with capitalism (or the 'right kind' of capitalism) as both a worker and a consumer is already, immediately, ethical. It is Bono, rather than Soros or Gates, who is the real inheritor of Smith. In one of its leaders last year, the Economist decried corporate attempts to fund ethical projects on the grounds that 'wealth creation' is immediately in and of itself ethical, which was Smith's point. Soros thinks that the intervention of a visible hand (his own) is still required to offset the effects of capitalism; Bono believes that capitalism can be reformed such that no offsetting will be needed. Kant argued that the 'Summum Bonum' or 'Highest Good' would be 'virtue crowned with happiness', but that this was impossible on earth and could only be guaranteed by God in the afterlife. 'Summum Bonoism' (there is a supreme good and it is Bono), on the other hand, is a kind of capitalist theology, with Bono and Saint Bob as its beatified advocates, which assumes that there will soon come a time when acquisitiveness and ethical responsibility will be one and the same.

In any case, if anti-capitalism is equated with 'immobilization', not only will it prove ineffective, it will actually serve as part of the ideological framework of Capitalism, much as the Soviet Union used to. Immobilization's own rhetoric concedes that there is no positive alternative to multi-national capital, confirming that Capital owns the future, and that the only option for any dissenters is to take a heroic, romantic but inevitably defeated Canute-like stance of willing back the tide of so-called historical inevitability.

Resistance to the 'new' is not a cause that the left can or should rally around. It is is not only the idea that neo-liberalism is New (the persistent association of neo-liberalism with the term 'Restoration', favoured by both Badiou and David Harvey, is an important contribution to this process) that must be challenged. What must but also be relentlessly attacked is the established consensus which holds that no alternative model of the 'New' is possible. Neo-liberals, it must be remembered, were more Leninist than the Leninists, using think-tanks as the intellectual vanguard to create the ideological climate in which Capitalist Realism could flourish. Now it is imperative for the left to think beyond - and therefore ahead of - Capitalist Realism.

Zizek's latest LRB piece is yet another example of his failure to rise to this challenge. Take, for instance, his characterization of the neo-liberal ideology of 'being smart':

'Being smart means being dynamic and nomadic, and against centralised bureaucracy; believing in dialogue and co-operation as against central authority; in flexibility as against routine; culture and knowledge as against industrial production; in spontaneous interaction and autopoiesis as against fixed hierarchy.'

Fair enough - but does Zizek want centralised bureaucracy, central authority, industrial production and fixed hierarchy? Surely not, but what is his positive political economic model?

The problem is by no means unique to Zizek, of course - and attests to the power of Capitalist Realism to make any alternative political economic model literally unthinkable.

If we are to think beyond capitalist realism - and we can because we must - a starting point would be to hijack neo-liberal rhetoric, in a gesture that would reverse how the neo-liberals recuperated the 68 critique of Fordist intransigence and the language of freedom and autonomy to legitimate their agenda. Two key terms cry out for redefinition: efficiency and wealth creation.

Naturally, the economistic agenda should be used as a trojan horse to re-introduce the extra-economic values into public, cultural and working life (the notion that activities have a social, as opposed to a merely economic, value, for instance) that neo-liberalism has eliminated or downplayed. Efficiency and wealth creation may be necessary, but they clearly aren't sufficient.

But few who have ever worked in a capitalist enterprise, or shopped in one of its emporia, could be under the illusion that capitalist institutions are efficient. Zizek has, rightly I think, drawn attention to the way in which the Deleuze-Guattari language of creative flows, deterritorialization and decentralization has been absorbed by capitalism (not that capitalism really runs on 'creative flows' of course). What he has ignored is the crucial emphasis, in Anti-Oedipus in particular, on antiproduction.

I think Dominic Fox was right a while back when he observed that the 'irruption of desire' in Anti-Oedipus, being perfectly timely in 1972, is now somewhat quaint. One of Anti-Oedipus' central problems - how will capitalism contain and absorb energies from outside? - is no longer current. Capitalism now, in fact, has the opposite problem; having all-too successfully incorporated externality, how can it function without an outside it can colonize and appropriate? Contemporary capitalism is scleroticized by antiproduction, clogged by an audit culture that is ideologically instantiated through rampant managerialism. Managerialism deliberately conflates itself with management, while claiming that managers (and entrepreneurs) who are essential to wealth creation. But managers do not create wealth; at best, they assist others (workers) to create it; at worst, they not only produce nothing, they are actually, literally counter-productive, imposing time-wasting non-work which impedes productivity by wasting time and energy. There is no opposition between efficiency and justice; on the contrary, an institution run by those who actually do the work is likely to be more effective than one run by interchangeable exploiters who often lack any specific expertise in what they are supposedly managing.

You know what, Stan, if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair ... why don't you make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?

Much of this is summed up by Mike Judge's unjustly undercelebrated Office Space, which, with its savage satire of a corporation blighted by managerialist metastasis (six memos from six different managers saying the exact same thing; corporate coffee chains which require serving staff to wear '17 pieces of flair' to express their individuality and creativity) is as acute an account of the 90s/00s workplace as Schrader's Blue Collar was of 70s labour relations.

What is positive about the France unrest is its coalescence of a proletariat that encompasses both students and the young of the banlieus. In this respect, Paris 06 is an advance on Paris 68, when any alliance between workers and Sorbonne students who looked forward to life-long, well-paid professional careers once they dropped back in, was bound to be short-lived. Now both the students and the banlieu youth are in a very similar objective predicament. British students, needless to say, are in an even worse position than their French counterparts. The challenge is to organize the vast numbers of dispossessed youth, the precarious young, around a positive vision.


Much of the above has a peculiar pertinence to me at the moment, since it has just been announced that in August I will be made redundant. I should stress now that the decision to dispense with my services is based on objective economic criteria alone and is in no way connected with my role in activating the union branch at the college. (btw, I work in a Further Education college teaching 16-19 year olds, not in university, as many readers have assumed.)


UPDATE: Reader Hugo Wilcken responds:

"What is positive about the France unrest is its coalescence of a proletariat that encompasses both students and the young of the banlieus. In this respect, Paris 06 is an advance on Paris 68, when any alliance between workers and Sorbonne students who looked forward to life-long, well-paid professional careers once they dropped back in, was bound to be short-lived. Now both the students and the banlieu youth are in a very similar objective predicament."

This is a terrible misreading of the French situation. What is remarkable about recent unrest is the direct opposite, a total disjunction of the "proletariat" and the student population. The riots in November were notable for happening exclusively in the banlieues, and virtually not at all in Paris. The current protests are notable for the exact inverse. There has been very little coverage on what the "proletariat" out in the banlieues think of the new "contrat de premiere embauche", and even less evidence that they are strongly opposed to it. Indeed, why should they care, since about 50 percent of young people in the suburbs are unemployed and are not being offered any type of work contract at all? You're misguided if you think the banlieue youth and the students are in a similar objective predicament. Students are the civil servants of tomorrow; banlieue kids are not. The former are concerned with holding onto "acquis sociaux"; the latter are concerned about being excluded altogether from a world in which "acquis sociaux" have any meaning whatsoever.

I've heard from people who have just come back from Paris reports which support the idea that - despite my and Bat/Socialist Worker's optimism - the banlieue youth are, on the whole, neither interested nor involved in the anti-CPE protest.

However, it is a mistake to claim that the students are the 'civil servants of tomorrow'. On this point the Economist should be heeded - it is quite simply a fantasy that, if the CPE is successfully opposed, 'jobs for life' will be available. In a society in which a student with the baccalaureate can attend university, over 64% of all 15-24 year olds are on a permanent contract. A study found that, two years after graduating, only 45% of Psychology graduates had acquired permanent jobs. The overall undergraduate drop out rate is 40%. Like it or not, the students find themselves in precarity.

It's certainly true that conditions for the banlieue youth are not even precarious.

So, empirically, yes, there remains a great difference between the students and the banlieue youth. But I think it is a mistake to oppose the 'authentic' proletariat (the banlieue youth) to the students, even if both groups themselves see it that way at the moment. The proletariat is not the actually existing working (or non-) working class, but a class transformed/ brought into being via subjectivation. My contention remains that 06's generalized insecurity is proletarianizing in a way that the situation in 68 was not. The challenge, precisely, is to politicize these two different struggles in a way that will produce a proletarian subjectivity.

Posted by mark at April 2, 2006 12:24 PM | TrackBack