Revisiting ‘Nights Of Labour’ (1): Jacques Ranciere

Today I want to map the multication of the intellectual landscape which – I think – characterizes the last decade. And the explain how my own work is inscribed both inside and again this evolution, and how hopefully, some suggestions can be drawn from it for rethinking some theoretical and political issues.


The first point is: how do we determine the transformation, the intellectual landscape of our world, as gone through since the turbulent times of the 60ties. And I’d like to call into question the dominant answer that has been formulated in terms of time. This answer has been encapsulated in a short world: end. And even in a prefix: post.

What we are said to have believed is the end of a certain historical period .Many things are said to have gone through their end. Not only the division of the world between a capitalist and a communist block. But also a vision of the world organised by class conflict. Not only conflict but politics thought of as a practise of division. Not only hopes, but ideologies in general or in the most comprehensive formulation: grand narratives and believes, about the destiny of human kind. Not only an opinion of history, but history itself, understood as a kind of promise leading to its completion.

As for the prefix: post. It was used to designate not only the time after the end. But a way of being after this end. Since post, means in fact to opposite things. Not only what comes when a time is over, but also what continues the time that is over. Such is the dominant way of characterizing the evolution that makes up the present we are living in.

My point is, that this description in terms of end and post, is itself a weapon designed to impose a certain view of our time. The statement about the end is part of the conception of history that it claims to dismiss. Statements about the separation of historical periods, and generally statements about the partition of time, are statements about the impossible. They say: time is over. Which means: we can no more… which means: you can no more. Which means: you cannot, so you must not…

So the statement about the end, ends up formulating a prohibition.

I go back over the use of time partitions later on. At this moment, I only want to bring out my own statement about the sequence of time, designated by the notions of the ‘end’ and the ‘post’. It reads at follows: the discourse over the end, the post, etc. is only a particular frasing of the continuation of the world, prescribed today by the ruling oligarchies. Roughly speaking it is part of the intellectual counter-revolution, which – I think – is a proper name for the evolution we are going through (at least in the western world) in the last decade.

A counterrevolution with Marxist arguments

The main threat of this period is not characterized as Europeans go through the erasing of old structures, forms of live and ideology. The grand narrative of modernity has not been dismissed. Instead, it’s elements have been recycled to construct a new grand narrative. What happens is not a process of vanishing of struggles and believes. Not some sort of levelling of the old oppositions, but an active attempt at construing an order of domination, able to dismiss any resistance, or any alternative, by imposing itself as self-evident and inescapable.

This intellectual counterrevolution has found the bulk of its descriptive and argumentative stuff in the recycling of descriptions, narratives and arguments that have formally been associated with critical and revolutionary thinking, and above all with the Marxist tradition. Of course we know that the dominant narrative about the contemporary world proclaims a global triumph of world capitalism and global liberal democracy over Marxism.

But this narrative has brought a forth at least two puzzling facts. The first one, is out of the scope of my talk today, is the fact that one of the leading capitalist powers today is lead by a communist party (China). The second, is that the discourse of the intellectual counterrevolution incorporates descriptions and narratives, arguments and believes borrowed from the critical tradition and the Marxist discourse in particular.

This reversal comprises four mayor themes that I will examine in order. The four arguments deal with:

1)      the economic necessity
2)      the process of dematerialization of solid structure
3)      serves a process of commodification of social relations
4)      through the mechanism of ideological inversion.

the equation between economic necessity and historical necessity

First point: economic necessity. Or more precisely the equation between economic necessity and historical necessity. Once upon a time this equation equated itself with so called Marxist determinism, to which the mainstream discourse in the western world opposed a freedom of people freely exchanging their products in the free market. Now, with the interweaving of all markets in the global economy. This freedom is clearly viewed by its champions as the freedom to submit to the necessities of the global market.

What was yesterdays necessity of the evolution leading to socialism, is refrased today as a necessity as an evolution leading to the triumph of the global market.

Not surprisingly, this displacement has been advocated – in Europe as least – by a lot of formerly Marxist, socialist or progressive, sociologists and economist who turned their faith of historical revolution into a phase into the historical achievement of reform. What reform means in the western world, since the time of Ronald Reagan and Margret Tatcher, is a reconstruction, not only of work relationships, but of ALL social relationships in accordance with the logic of the free market.

Secondly, all forms of destruction of the welfare state, social security, labor laws etc. are justified as necessities of adapting to historical evolution. Thereby, all forms of resistance to those attempts are deemed reactionary attitudes of part of the population afraid of the historical evolution. Much in the same way as Marx denounced in the 19th century denounced those artisans, petty bourgeois, and ideologues fighting against the development of capitalist forms, preparing socialism. In French for instance when big strikes burst out in 1995 against the conservative government, which set out to reform the system of tensions, most of the left wing intellectuals backed the government and basted those backward strikers as the short-sighted defense of their privileges. And from this time on, each social movement has more or less been accused by this progressive intellectuals of egoism and backwardness.

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Revisiting ‘Nights Of Labour’ (2): Jacques Ranciere

now the recycling of the logic of historical necessity.

It has taken on more philosophical turn, with the recycling of one of the main thesis of the communist manifesto: the thesis of the dissolution of all solid structures and traditional forms. All that is solid melts into the air. The wellknown sentence of the communist manifesto has become the slogan of the numerous postmodern manifesto’s that have blossomed at the beginning of the 80ties, to describe how everything was becoming more and more immaterial.
The most accomplished form of this narrative can be formed in the work of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. He sees himself both as a thinker and a historian of this becoming-areal of our world. So it describes a process of modernity as a process of anti-gravitation. anti-gravitation to the technical inventions of course, but more generally, it tells us that life has lost much of its gravity. This means: it has lost its weight of poverty, pain and reality. Our society is definitely released from what he calls ‘the definitions of reality, formulated by the ontology of poverty.’ And yet, we still cling to those formulas and phrase the lack of misery and gravity in the language of misery and gravity.  So we experience, he says, the contrary of the processs described by Marx: instead of projecting into an ideal sky, the inverted reality of an earthly misery, I will contemporize, project into a new solid reality, an inverted a process of escape.

This sketching of light, is one among many ways to turn cynical descriptions of a social world into the global way of petty bourgeoisie of narcistic individuals. This urges us to confess that all of our desires – including our dreams of subversion – are fancies. Indulging in the global market, experiencing ones life as a luxery commodity.

But at this point the melancholic, and all cynical views on the reign of narcism, is taken over by a less cheerful discourse: the discourse on the triumph the commodity and the spectacle. But in a sense, it is only a continuation of the critical discourse of the 60ties, denouncing the mythology of commodity, the fallacies of consumer society and the empire of the spectacle. But…forty years ago, this criticism was supposed to provide anti-capitalist fighters with new weapons. It has slowly turned to exactly the contrary: a form of knowledge of the reign of the commodity and the spectacle. Of the equivalence of anything with anything. And of anything with its image.

But this wisdom pictures the end of mankind as a population of idiots, fascinated by the spectacle of reality shows and merry consumers in their frantic consumption.

It pictures a law of domination as a force that permits noone to do anything against it. Now it is entirely overturned. Once it was meant to show how the capitalist machine could cheat those who have made it to its power. Now it tells us that the empire of the machines is only the project of the desire of those individuals to consume still more commodities, and forms of self-enjoyment. So the guilt of the system, has become the guilt of the individuals that are subjected to it. And capitalism is said to be nothing more but the reign of mass individualism of democratic individualism.

Now this critism has been taken a step further. It persuades us that those narcistic consumers are responsible, for the reign of the market, and for the totalitarian destruction of the symbolic order, structuring any human community. This is an interesting case of reversal of the old oppositions. Fifthy years ago, the dominant discourse in the western world opposed the democratic freedoms of the individuals to collective

The collaps of the soviet union was the triumph of democracy?

The collapse of the soviet union in 1989, was hailed in the western world, as the triumph of democracy  viewed as: human rights + free market + free individual choice. But, curiously, in the following year, notably in French, moralists and socialists and political philosophers, began to explain to us that democracy and the right of man, as Marx approved it, were merely the right of egoistic bourgeois individual, and in our time the right of consumers to any kind of consumption. A right to overstep all limits to their desired consumption. A right to destroy all traditional institutions and forms of authority. Imposing a limit to the power of the market, such are: family, school or religion. This is to say that democracy means in fact, the power of the individual consumer, who cares for nothing but the satisfaction for his or her needs and desires. So, the democratic individual wants only the triumph of the market in all the spheres of life, hence the destruction of all forms of traditional authority and transmissions, that constitute a symbolic order.

So, when the world trade centre was destroyed a well-known French psycho-analyst explained in a leading French newspaper, was a return of the repressed in western civilisation. It was a castigation for the western overthrow of the symbolic order an overthrow emblematized by same sex marriage.

Two years later, a French linguist and philosopher, [Jean-Claude Milner] gave a more radical turn to that interpretation in a book entitled: the criminal tendencies of democratic Europe. The crime that he imputed to democratic Europe was quite simply the extermination of the European Jews. As the Jews, are the people faithful to the law of kinship and transmission. It stood up as the only obstacle to the democratic desire of unlimitedness. That’s why democracy is to exterminate the Jews. In such a way the criticism of the market, consumer society and the spectacle ends up denouncing the so called: democratic individual whose thirst for consumption is blamed for all the evils in the world. The conclusion of course is that state powers and economic powers had better make their decisions without consulting these irresponsible individuals. But that is not the whole picture. According to his logic, the most dangerous democratic consumers, are first those who have the less money for consumption. And second, those who rebel against the empire of exploitation and consumption.


When violent riots broke out three years ago in the poor suburbs of Paris, populated mostly by families from the Magreb and black Africa. At this time the spokespersons of media intelligence explained that the desires of those rioters was to eliminated all what stood before themselves and the objects of their desire. And of course their desire were quite simply the images of consumer society, the images of the commodities they saw on tv.

So they embodied the narcism and hedonism of consumer society. And in parallel the anti capitalist student movements, and most specifically the French movement of may 68, were accused, in retrospect, to have paved the way towards the triumph of the market, through their critisim of authority and institutions, so the arguments goes, they allowed our societies to become free aggregation of unbound molecules, whirling in the void, deprived of any affiliation, entirely available to the empire of the market.

Historical necessity of the global market

The demonstration entails two last element of Marxist traditions, showing how the individual taken in the grip of the social machine only sees its inverted image and consequently do the contrary of what they think they are doing. This is out of an influential book, written by two sociologists. It explains that the antiauthoritarian movement of 68 had given to capitalism in a time of crisis fresh thinking and new weapons allowing for its rejuvenation. The book was called: the new spirit of capitalism. And the argument was that the movement of 68 developed what they call: an artist criticism of capitalism, claiming artistic values such as authenticity, autonomy and creativity, at the expense of two social claims: inequality and bourgeois egoism. Now these claims paved the way for new forms of management, based on individual necessities, collective creativity and overall flexibility. This came as supplementary evidence that those who rebel against the system, are unwillingly accomplishes of this system. Cheated by a mechanism of ideological inversion. Now in the Marxist tradition the opposite of the ideology of science, which enlightened the social machine and the future towards which is it heading.

Now what if the future itself is the triumph of the global market?

So, it turns out that the so called end of the grand narrative is much more a mix of its elements, and a reversal of its functions, and ends up proposing two alternative version of the same narrative 1) either the optimistic and progressive narrative mixing Marxist historical necessity with the economical triumph of global market or 2) the pessimistic narrative of democratic human kind, destroying itself, in its frantic thirst for consumption.

Change? No we can’t!

Both versions come to the same conclusion which reads as an inversion of the slogan of the new American president: Change? No we can’t.

Which means of course: no, you can’t. You can’t for two reasons:

1)      because you cannot and must not oppose the historical necessity that will draw the good from the evil

2)      because your way to change will add up to the disastrous way of democratic individualism, leading human kind to its destruction.

So, I tried to map, the mechanism of this reversal. Of the critical marxist tradition and incorporates it in the logic of domination. Now from my point of view this incorporation itself has been made possible, because that tradition holds some patterns of description and argumentation from the logic of domination against with it was struggling. And this reversal may well appear as the last form of the historical tension between two ideas of emancipation.

It turns out that the clarification of that tension has been at the heart of my intellectual journey, and notably in the Nights of Labour.

My dissatisfaction with the concept of ideology and the conception of ideological domination, was the starting point of this journey. According to this conception of ideological domination people are exploited and dominated by the system. The logic of this system, they cannot understand because the mechanisms are itself in the production of an inverted images. In short: people are subjected, because they think they are free.

The only thing that could free them is knowledge of the reasons of their subjection. Unfortunately, access to this knowledge is impossible for them, because subjections brings out the impossibility to see the reason for it. In such a way, the logic of the ideological mechanism is a perfect circle:

people are where they are, because they don’t know why they are, where they are. And they don’t know why they are where they are, because they are where they are. In short: they can’t because they can’t.

So the optical mechanism, appears to be grounded on the a priori distribution of positions. An a priori equasion between position and incapacity. What I tried to do then, is to strip the equasion of its scientific disguise: people are not unable because they ignore the reason for their being there. They are unable, because in this logic being unable means exactly the same thing as being there. So behind the Marxist explanation of the optical mechanism of ideology, we much hear the voice of a much older prescription, that dates back to the origins of western philosophy.

Plato’s cave

As Plato put it in The Republic, there are two reasons why workers must stay at their place. The first reason is that they have no time to go elsewhere, because work doesn’t wait. This appears to be a merely empirical fact.

The second reason is that they have the attitude, the intellectual equipment that makes them fit for this occupation, and for nothing else.

So there is a perfect equation between an occupation, and a mental equipment. Being a worker is an occupation that entails that you have no time to b elsewhere, then the place where you work. You have no time to chat in the agora, make decisions in the assembly or look at shadows in the theatre. This is what I called distribution of the sensible. A set of relations between occupation and equipments. Between being in a specific space and time, performing specific activities and being endowed with the capacity of incapacities: that is: seeing, saying and doing, anything about the system of activities. It means a distribution of positions, which is embedded in a framing of the visible, the sayable, the thinkable and consequently the past.

Well, now I can be asked about the difference between, the distribution of the sensible and an ideology. The difference is as follows: the distribution of the sensible is not a matter of illusion or knowledge. It is a matter of consensus or dissensus.

To understand what consensus means, let us go back to the platonic demonstration, and to what apparently is at flaw in his demonstration. It is easy to understand that when you are in a place you cannot be elsewhere. So far: okay.

But how do you recognize that the individual who is in this place has exactly the attitude to be there and nowhere else.

Plato of course has the answer: the latter, he says, is not true. People have to accept a story. The story that God mixed Iron in the makeup of the artisan, and gold in the makeup of those who are destined to deal with the common good. The story has to be believed. But what does that mean: to believe. Obviously Plato does not demand, that the workers get the inner conviction that a deity truly put iron in their soul, and gold in those of the rulers.

It is enough that they sense it. That is: that they use their arms, and eyes and minds, as if it were true.

And they do! Even more so as this lie, about fitting actually fits the reality of their condition.

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