A Mother and Citizen Facing the Social and Climate Emergency: the French State Mobilised against the Right to Demonstrate

‘If they stop thinking, every human being can act as a barbarian.’ Hannah Arendt

(Originally published in French at https://blogs.mediapart.fr/refondation-ecole/blog/270919/l-etat-francais-en-marche-contre-le-droit-de-manifester, this English translation appears by permission of the text’s anonymous author).

There were tens of thousands of us in the street to denounce the state’s climate inaction, this Saturday 21 September 2019… In Paris, on Boulevard St Michel, the atmosphere is joyful, colourful, really creative. An intense breath of life, a communion faced with our anguish for the future of the planet and for the social climate that we will bequeath to our children. These fine young people, so much more aware than us, are not standing on the sidelines. My (pre-teen) daughters, wanting to act, have prepared their placards and outfits with care and are marching, crowned with ivy. In spite of this beautiful collective energy, one of them sighs, ‘you adults, you could grow up carefree but us, our future is rotten.’ I try to respond to this worry. ‘Look, there are so many of us, we will fight, we adults too will do everything to change the course of things and to support you in your struggles…Everywhere in the world, millions of people are marching like us today’. I rely on the so inspirational image of Greta Thunberg. I look for the right words. All day, the words of Hannah Arendt – who I read all summer – will resound in me, though it is so difficult: ‘Finding the right words at the right moment is action’. Continue reading

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Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (2008) and the crisis of republican integration (a way into the film for students)

Introduction: Made entirely with amateur actors, Entre les murs won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is Cantet’s most successful film to date. It provoked considerable debate within France and travelled widely abroad. It is one of a number of high profile films that have focused on the French school since 2000. These latter include l’Esquive (Kechiche, 2003), Les Choristes (Baratier, 2004) and Etre et avoir (Philibert, 2002).


  1. The French Republican tradition and education

The French tradition, going back to the Revolution and the Enlightenment, is to have an abstract and universalist understanding of citizenship. Whereas other countries, like the UK and the USA, are happy to bring intermediate communities within their national self-definition (one can be British Asian or African American), France defines citizenship in terms of free-thinking individuals not communities or social origins: one is not French Italian or Jewish French within the public or political sphere. One is simply French. Differences of belief or origin are perfectly acceptable as long as they are confined to the private sphere. Continue reading

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Žižek’s critique of Badiou’s response to the November attacks

In his recently published Against the Double Blackmail (Penguin, 2016), Žižek noted his response to Alain Badiou’s judgement (summarized here) on the Paris massacres of November 2015. He agrees broadly with Badiou’s analysis and especially that there is no emancipatory potential in fundamentalist violence despite its avowed anti-capitalism, a hatred in reality rooted in a frustrated desire for the West. He does, however, differ from Badiou on some significant points that are worth noting. Firstly, he disagrees with the latter’s reduction of the role of religion to ‘a secondary, superficial feature’ (p.88) of anti-Western sentiment. While he agrees with Badiou that it makes no sense to seek the roots of fundamentalism in ancient religious texts, he does not agree that religion can be seen as simply some form of superficial ideological clothing for ideas whose ‘truth’ lies elsewhere. Being part of the story people tell themselves about their situation, it plays a material role in shaping their outlook and can thus not somehow be stripped away to reveal some authentic core. Secondly, he is sceptical about  Continue reading

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Alain Badiou on the 13th November Paris massacres

Badiou laid out his reaction to the co-ordinated Paris terror attacks of November 13th in a seminar delivered in Aubervilliers ten days after the events. Since then, his thoughts have been transcribed and published in a little book entitled Notre mal vient de plus loin (approximate translation: ‘Our Troubles Have Deeper Roots’) (Fayard, 2016). What I will attempt to do in what follows is to give a brief summary of his analysis before offering my own brief comment. Badiou begins by explaining what he thinks are the three main risks generated by the events and the sense of trauma and the affective response that followed them. The first is that the State will seize on the events as a pretext for taking unacceptable and ultimately counter-productive repressive measures. The second, directly linked to the overwhelmingly affective nature of the response, is a strengthening of identitarian impulses and an unthinking mobilization of national signifiers (‘French’, ‘France’) as if these words had some self-evident meaning and as if justice could somehow be thought within a national or identitarian (rather than a universal) frame. The third danger, closely linked to the other two, is to play into to the perpetrators’ hands through an ill-directed, vengeful and emotion-driven response. The initial way to ward off these dangers is to think, not least because the defeat of thought is always a victory for irrational and criminal behaviours. What should we think? Standing back from the overwhelming immediacy of the event in all its horror, we first need to consider the longer-term context in which it arises.

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Building the Common: nine political propositions from Dardot and Laval

In an earlier post (here), I summed up Dardot and Laval’s position on how we should think the common. What I want to do now is focus on the nine key political propositions about how to build the common to which their thought leads them. I have inevitably had to condense their writings and leave out many of their key references but have done my best to convey the spirit of what they propose faithfully.

Proposition 1: it is necessary to construct a politics of the common: Although the politics of the common builds on the tradition of 19th century socialist associationism and 20th century workers’ councils, it can no longer simply be thought in an artisanal context or in that of the industrial workplace. Nor will it emerge from some sort of encirclement of capitalism from the outside, nor from some mass desertion. There can be no politics of the common without a rethinking of property rights concerning the land, capital and intellectual ownership. Rights of use rather than rights of property must be the juridical axis for the transformation of society. It is necessary to find the correct form for the common production of society by creating institutions of self-government (whose role will be the production of the common) in all its sectors. It must not be thought, however, that the existence of a common principle will simply abolish the distinction between different socio-economic, public or private, or political spheres. To prevent public deliberation being captured by the interests of any one socio-professional category, the sphere of production and exchange must be completely reorganized around the self-government of the commons. Each commons must also take account of all the ‘externalities’ of its activity so that the its governance includes the users and citizens concerned by the activity. The socio-economic arena thus becomes schooled in co-decision taking. Continue reading

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Thinking about the common with Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval

Best known outside of France for their important book on neo-liberal governance, Dardot and Laval have more recently (2014) added another important work to their output, a work whose breadth and ambition is clearly indicated by its title, Commun: essai sur la revolution au XXIème siècle (Common: An Essay on Revolution in the 21st Century). The use of common in the singular also casts light on one of the main thrusts of their argument. When one talks of ‘the commons’ in the plural one tends to view contemporary initiatives through the frame provided by the agricultural commons. At the same time, one tends to see the common(s) as a thing rather than as a set of practices. Both tendencies lead us in unhelpful directions for reasons that should become clear below. At the same time, and as the authors also note, we currently find ourselves in a political impasse and desperately need to find ways to move forward. While neo-liberal capitalism is seen to work more and more nakedly in the service of the few, alternatives, whether in the shape of a return to the old Welfarist, post-1945 model, or the authoritarian state socialism of the old Communist bloc, are either condemned to the past or radically undesirable, or both. At the same time, the self-governance and occupation of public spaces practiced by a range of recent protests (Occupy, the Gezi park protests in Turkey) shows a real hunger for more direct forms of democracy and a deep mistrust of traditional, state-centred, representative models.  Yet the fact that none of these protests were able to generate more durable or more widespread modes of action also points towards some of their limitations. This is what Dardot and Laval’s important book seeks to address. Continue reading

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Using the work of Maurizio Lazzarato to understand subjection in the contemporary British university

Previously on this blog (here), I provided an account of Maurizio Lazzarato’s elegant, concise and persuasive book on debt. What I’d like to do here is take some of the main insights from two later works, Governing by Debt (Semiotext(e) / MIT, 2015) and Signs and Machines (Semiotexte, 2014) and show how they can help us understand governmentality and subjection in the contemporary British University. I give a developed account of the two works in a forthcoming piece in SubStance, the North American journal of theory and criticism, so what I am doing here is necessarily and deliberately partial, an application of knowledge to a specific context rather than a rounded explanation. There has been a great deal of insightful analysis of the neo-liberal university. I feel, nonetheless, that Lazzarato’s work can help open up some productive new lines of inquiry.  Continue reading

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