Thursday, 23 February 2012

Paris Match: a spectator’s irrelevant comments from the sidelines (written March 16th, 2006)

One in a series of old texts that I am retrieving and collecting together, and sometimes reworking. Often this renewed effort exposes deeper, unworkable, internal contradictions. Sobeit!

First, let’s take a moment to remember Haussman. The French 
state planned the layout of its capital city assuming the 
inevitability of street fighting. The landscape is tilted in the 
state’s favor and so the street is not denied to revolutionaries.  
On the contrary, the "people" are almost invited to stage their 
"manifestations". Whereas in the UK rioting is seen as an 
unforeseen event and policed as an aberration, the French tend 
to view 'the street' as an irreducible cost borne by its national 

Here are a number of preliminary comments on the nature and 
function of French street politics so as to better investigate what 
we might call popular insurgent forms.  

All that is included: 

1. The dominant culture in France likes to portray itself as a 
domain of ideas. The advantage of this is that all positions tend 
towards expressing themselves as ideas because there is a vast 
and grandiose arena for them to do so. Radical ideas are much 
more prevalent on French national TV and radio than on their 
equivalents in the UK and the US. The anarchist federation for 
example takes advantage of the state guarantee for the 
distribution of ideas; Le Monde Libetaire is found in every 
newsagents across the country because of this guarantee. It is 
also officially sanctioned for the AF to participate in debates on 
political ideas before students in schools and universities.  

2. There is still a predominant 'popular front' mentality within 
radical positions, and all left positions tend towards agreement 
on issues and are prepared to mobilize together... this gradation 
extends into the state and official bodies. 

3. Demonstrating, occupations, even rioting, is generally viewed 
as an element of political and cultural reproduction. There is an 
established model, it is “68", and because the French state easily 
survived those evenements it is now able to strategically gauge 
all subsequent occurrences, the national media also compares 
and then dismisses events as being 'not 68'. The state apparatus 
therefore, and unlike in the UK, has a very wide margin of 
comfort and with studied savoir-faire is able to merely raise its 
eyebrows at even extreme conflagrations. 

4. This modeling on 68 has become a curse; the not-68 element of 
protests is reproduced at every bar and dining table across the 
land. Every other year there are major street events: it has 
become a culture. 68 has replaced 'I was in the resistance' as a 
measure of le coq gaulois. And if nothing lives up to the big one 
at least everyone is able to casually drop into their conversation 
over aperitifs how they participated in 78, 88, 98. They too, all of 
them, because they were there, are authentically of the French 
left. Now, it is 2006, and in the photographs here is the girl on 
her boyfriend's shoulders, she is punching the air. Here is the 
girl with non scrawled on her face. Here are the serious young 
men in the lecture room passing resolutions in Palestinian 
scarves. In short, here is the manifestation

5. If idea driven events have their place, the Haussmanised 
streets, then they also have their temporality. The state knows 
exactly how long demonstrations and rioting last... it has its 
stopclock running on your marks, get set, go: first there is the 
cause, then there is the outbreak, followed by the wildfire, then 
there is the street fighting, then there is the consolidation and the 
mass mobilization, then there is the defiance and movement for 
continuation, then there is the full-stop mass demonstration, then 
the melting away to other matters. In all, the fever takes about 
two weeks to pass.  

6. Certain sections of the state, ie the unions, will be weakened 
by employment deregulation... on the other hand if these 
measures are passed there will be advantages for workers (which 
is the reason so many Europeans come to the UK to work). 
Casualisation cuts both ways, it undoes the state power of 
unions, and removes the 'left' interest from social management 
but it also increases unpredictability in the economy. When there 
are no brakes a social crisis can rapidly escalate. 

Escalation and what exceeds the boundary: 

1. There is something unreal about issue based protest, an 
element that refuses escalation. However, it is hardly the 
students' fault that their impeccable behavior, their honed 
gestures, have been anticipated and contained, perhaps even 
condoned, by the old foxes of the establishment. In truth, there 
are few other options open to them as a social sector, they have 
no special leverage on the economic mechanism. Accessible 
radical forms and their effects are set by conditions and that's it; 
there is nothing to be done to overcome these limitations of form, 
and after all it is not for participants to decide the impact of the 
measures they have taken. Students, even whilst rioting and 
occupying, do not cause major upset to the running of the state. 
Perhaps their impact would be much greater in the UK than in 
France (see my co-authored leaflet “Some Notes Concerning the 
Future Proletarian Insurgency"  about the UK fuel blockades); 
on the other hand, the UK state does not facilitate popular 
manifestations so spontaneous mass eruptions are inevitably less 
frequent anyway.  

2. Nevertheless, it is important to explore the question of what 
might prove excessive, and what measures might cause 
escalation. Evidently, the spread of protest to industrial 
production is the most certain means of causing genuine crisis 
within the relation of production. It is interesting to note why 
this spread into other sectors does not often occur... perhaps 
precisely because protest is manifested in those sections of 
society whose protesting has the least impact on society and 
contrariwise, protest rarely occurs within those sectors that 
would have most impact. The Swedish communist group Riff- 
Raff talk of the 'cynical subject', that is of the capital- 
ised/anthropologised human beings who already have 
consciousness of their situation but see no way past it. The 
cynical subject in fact, is in advance of the consciousness that the 
left wants to bestow upon it, unlike the left it can see the process, 
and that there is nothing to be won. The cynical subject will not 
participate because its participation is decisive, it will not 
participate until forced by its own circumstances. That is how it 
should be.  

3. Related to this, Riff-Raff also use the apocalypse fanatic 
Oswald Spengler's divergent concept of spiritual communities 
and cosmic entities. For riff-raff, a spiritual community is a 
protest movement which aims to participate in the present as 
fully as possible, they spread and grow within existing conditions 
by drawing as many people to themselves as they can but never 
grow out of the conditions which created them. The cosmic 
entities by contrast mark genuine events and shifts in the 
productive relation, they have that aura which speaks of new 
possibility, they are caused when humanity is presented with the 
opportunity for a new relation to the world (cosmos). If 68 was a 
cosmic entity (and who knows now whether it was or wasn't) 
then the facsimiles of 68 are decidedly mere spiritual 

4. Thus a radical transformation of the protest dynamic would 
depend upon (i) the participation of other sectors of society 
(most importantly industrial workers); (ii) the distribution of 
protest from out of its Haussmanised geography; (iii) the 
extension of protest's temporality beyond the two week/month 
fever. Most importantly however the uprising must cross the 
cultural boundary and leave behind it the terrain of political 
campaign issues and enter instead the intimate and troubling 
matter of being able to directly articulate alienation and thus 
formulate demands to address this. In short, protest will be 
escalated when it engages the participation of capitalist society's 
'cynical subject'.

First published in Letters Journal 3

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