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Revolution Never Sleeps: Nuit Debout in France and Beyond

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The movement Nuit debout—‘night on our feet’ or ‘stand up night!’—is a potent reminder of the existence of an indefatigable global struggle against the neoliberal credo and all of its devastating consequences. Although it has deep roots, like all sociopolitical movements, it has come into its own since the prolongation of a March 31st general strike (grève générale) and mass protest against French labor reforms, which aim at further consolidating class power and rendering the status of the labor force even more precarious. It quickly mutated like so many other recent movements from a circumscribed protest into an extended and rapidly spreading occupation. Opening the night up to a rêve général (popular or common dream) replete with general assemblies and prefigurative experiments, it sends a clear message to the powers-that-be: the space of struggle is everywhere and the time of resistance is always.

This movement stands up—through the night—against the one force known for its worldwide insomnia: capitalism. If it is praised for its supposed productive forces and consumer options or condemned due to its debilitating alienation and environmental degradation, it is generally recognized that the time of capital is 24/7. Although stores or stock exchanges might occasionally close, the sleepless juggernaut of capitalist expansion never tires of extracting profit from the four corners of the globe.

Resistance to the night guardian of this shadowy world, on the contrary, is too often presented as fragmentary and intermittent, when it is not simply ignored as if it were non-existent. Indeed, the latter has been the preferred tactic of the overwhelming majority of the Anglophone media, whose paltry coverage of the events is a testament to their role in promulgating obscurities. When there is attention paid to radical insurgencies, the mass media, professional politicians and well-paid pundits revel in stories with clear beginnings and ends, thereby securing closure in terms of a simple narrative logic that commonly juxtaposes dawning aspirations to dusk-like disappointments. In the beginning, we are frequently told, there was light: individuals in a specific location like Paris suddenly ‘awakened’ one day in order to come together in a collective act of protest. After battling for a specific goal and attracting the supposed daylight provided by corporate media coverage, they then sink back into the abyss from which they came, perhaps leaving things worse than before. Spectators are subtly encouraged to wonder why there was even a protest in the first place, the implicit message being that it is best never to try and change things at all (since they are ultimately unchangeable).

The space and time of insurrection are thereby divided and conquered. Individual instances are separated out in space and terminology: the Indignados Movement, the Arab Spring, the Pots and Pans Protest in Quebec, etc. They are also condensed into precise and circumscribed flashpoints, as has been the case with the problematic reduction of the Occupy movement to Zuccotti Park. They are then inscribed within a temporal framework of original aspirations and final consequences. Everything becomes a question of means and ends: what is the goal and was it attained? The only possible success is thus defined in terms of ‘productive’ results within a delimited space and time, as if the revolutionary transformation of society in toto could be reduced to the same logic as capitalist profit margins. This is indeed the spatiotemporal divide-and-conquer strategy that seeks to narratively incarcerate revolutionary insurrection: the condition of possibility of success is its own failure! To have a so-called productive outcome, it needs to hastily vanish into the instrumentalist logic of striving to reach a single industrious goal within the system in place.

The subliminal message inherent in this narrative structure is that whereas so-called capitalist productivity never sleeps and its tentacles hold the entire world in the loving embrace of fierce competition, resistance to it arises—and can only arise—in brief instances and circumscribed locations with the explicit goal of making minor adjustments to an unquestionable reality. The felicitous label Nuit debout suggests, however, a different story, which concerns the sleepless titan that is worldwide insurgency against the death grip of imperialist and colonial capitalism in the supposedly beneficent age of ‘globalization.’ Like so many of the other movements, it rejects punctual and instrumentalized space-time in favor of a continuous time of occupation and an open space for the convergence of struggles (including those for popular education, the dismantling of the patriarchy, the overcoming of the refugee and immigration crisis, LGBTQ rights, the preservation of the environment, social welfare, and so forth).

Nuit debout is thus, among other things, an important reminder of the deep and ongoing battles against 24/7 global capitalism and all of its far-reaching consequences. It is certainly inscribed in very specific sites, and its vernacular nature gives it its substance and force. Its life is on the ground, and we must never lose sight of the central roles played by local agents and institutions. There is also a diversity of activities that is irreducible to a single set of concerns or even a singular movement. At the same time, it is important to recognize that Nuit debout is part of a broad and intense worldwide concatenation that refuses to submit to the imperatives of partial reforms or pre-delimited objectives. It rejects the dogmatic slumber of productive results and attainable goals in the name of the tireless transformation of the world as we know it, including the battle over the very meaning of productivity and goals. From the entire Mediterranean region to Asia, Latin America, North America and beyond, a global wildfire has been spreading that is ultimately irreducible to discrete outbursts or delimited events. The space-time of these movements—as multiple and variable as they are—cannot be contained. There is a general uprising as we edge closer to the midnight hour of capitalist Armageddon and ecological collapse.

This does not mean in the least that we should be content with the current forms of resistance. Nuit debout should be understood as a call to arms for a struggle on all fronts that will inevitably have different resultants. In shaking us from the sleepwalking of complicity, complaisance, quietism or cynicism, it appeals to an open horizon of time for the confluence of struggles, the invention of new strategies, the building of real material alternatives, and the need to push the envelope on all fronts. Let this not be one more ‘springtime of the people in Paris,’ followed by summer burnout and autumnal demise, as some would surely like to have the story told (if they do not simply ignore it entirely, like much of the international press at this point in time). Let us break the cycle of narrative incarceration by rending linear time and merging disparate spaces. The spring is never truly behind us since it is always springtime, or soon to be spring, somewhere in the world. Let us unite and reignite, collectively forging new narratives for a global night uprising in which the space of revolt is uncontainable and the time is now!

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Gabriel Rockhill is a Franco-American philosopher and cultural critic. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and founding Director of the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne. His books include Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (2016), Radical History & the Politics of Art (2014) and Logique de l’histoire (2010). In addition to his scholarly work, he has been actively engaged in extra-academic activities in the art and activist worlds, as well as a regular contributor to public intellectual debate. Follow on twitter: @GabrielRockhill

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