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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