Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nuit debout: Movement or Stasis?

As Jean-Claude Monod disarmingly admits at the outset of his "impression" of Nuit debout in Libération, it has become something of a cliché for graying philosophical heads to mingle with the crowd on the place de la République to try to glean from the assembled masses some inkling of what is going on. Is this a social movement, despite its apparent lack of ... movement--after all, its distinguishing mark is that it stands still, going nowhere, rather than marching on some Bastille of the imagination? Or is it yet another sign of social stasis--an indication that people are fed up with the way things are but have no idea where to go from here? Monod seems to come down, gently, on the side of the latter interpretation:
Ce mouvement est bien l’expression d’une «crise de gouvernementalité», selon l’expression de Foucault dans Naissance de la biopolitique, c’est-à-dire d’une façon de dire «nous ne voulons plus être gouvernés de cette façon». La crise de la gouvernementalité néolibérale est aujourd’hui patente, la subordination de la politique aux intérêts économiques dominants manifeste, le roi est nu… mais les contre-propositions sont peu lisibles, les alternatives économiques peu élaborées, l’organisation en mouvement durable incertaine, bref - «il se passe quelque chose», mais tout reste à faire.
I'm 3000 miles away, so it's hard for me even to form an impression of the movement, let alone an analysis. I hope that along with the philosophers, from Monod to the unfortunate Alain Finkielkraut, who was jeered by some of those gathered on the place when he tried to sample what was on offer, a few sociologists are at work among the demonstrators. I have seen very little about the social composition of the crowd: even basic data such as age, class and educational background, and employment (or lack thereof) are absent. We know that the movement has spread from Paris to dozens of other cities around France, but we, or at any rate I, have little information about how sustained the presence of demonstrators is elsewhere or whether the social composition varies from place to place.

Commentators remark on the similarity to the Occupy and Indignados movements, but we know that in the case of Occupy the social composition of the crowd changed over time, tensions arose among the participants, and there were conflicts with authorities in some places but not in others. We also know that these earlier manifestations of inchoate discontent found political prolongations in some places (Podemos in Spain, for example) but not in others, or at least less visibly in others (the extent to which Bernie Sanders, say, or Jeremy Corbyn drew on veterans of Occupy is not well understood). In short, there is work to be done on Nuit debout, and I hope there are chercheurs in the field doing it. In the meantime, testimony like Monod's is valuable for what it is--the impression of an intelligent and sympathetic but skeptical older head, wondering, as older heads must, what all these young people are on about.

ADDENDUM: A reader calls attention to this article on the social composition of the movement.