Republican Citizens, Precarious Subjects

Why do we work? The obvious answer, for most of us, is that we do it for the money. Yet in acknowledgement of the fact that structural unemployment is (apparently) taken for granted, and that not everyone can work, at least not all the time, Western democracies provide economic assistance to the unemployed. But the level at which such benefits are set is designed to ensure that they are not to be seen as more than a fallback option. Still, these days recipients often have to show that they are actively seeking employment, and that they are not too fussy about the kinds of employment they may be offered, all of which perhaps betrays an anxiety that money is not motivation enough. Indeed, the jobless are regularly stigmatized, and there is a whole public discourse surrounding “benefits cheats” or “welfare queens” and the like, a more or less mythical (under)class of people who supposedly prefer not to work, or who (allegedly) put almost as much effort into not working as others put into negotiating the rat-race of paid employment. Though proposals for a “universal basic income” are increasingly popular, for diverse reasons, both on the Left and on the Right, one of the major obstacles that they face is the fear that a living wage paid to all would reward, and perhaps even encourage, laziness. Why would anyone work if they did not have to?

People work, or persuade themselves that they work, for many other reasons beyond the purely economic. Compensation comes in many forms. Some feel a sense of vocation or a desire to be of service, others pursue status, and many find–or at least seek–pride in whatever they happen to be doing. There can no doubt be satisfaction in a job well done, whether it be a wall well built, a meal well cooked, or a class well taught. There is surely something unbearable about seeing the world in unblinkingly Marxist terms, about agreeing that wage labour is simply exploitation and alienation, which is why most of us are hesitant to believe that, as workers of the world, we have “nothing to lose” but our chains. It is less a question of ideology than (more viscerally) a matter of affect, habit, and even our sense of self. Many of us spend so much time at work, or more fundamentally and unconsciously have invested so much in molding ourselves and our sensibilities to fit in with and progress within the workplace, that it is not clear who or what we would be without our job titles and all the routines that accompany them. Hence, however much we may complain about our conditions of labour, our bosses or colleagues or lack of perks, unemployment (and even retirement) can be felt as an almost existential crisis.

Yet this link between employment and identity is breaking down, and the crisis is upon us, imminently at hand. The assumption of a job for life is, for all but a tiny minority, no more than a distant memory. In place of long-term specialization and the accumulation of entrenched habits and embedded knowledges in durable institutions, we are now enjoined to be flexible and prepared to endlessly retrain for ever-new opportunities in increasingly transient and precarious conditions. The ideal type in the “new economy” is the “start-up” firm or the “pop-up” shop, and we are sold as a form of freedom the uncertain hours and unpredictable pay the go with becoming self-employed contractors dependent on Internet platforms such as Uber and the daily battle for “likes” and positive endorsements. As such, a new relationship between employment and identity arises, but one that has constantly to be renewed as we become, in Michel Foucault’s words, “entrepreneurs of the self,” free-wheeling mini-enterprises or incarnations of human capital whose stock prize is always in flux. YouTube influencers and the like may be the purest instances of the ways in which work has become permanent social performance, but we are all increasingly affected by the new forms of assessment and valuation are now all-pervasive: a wall should not simply be well built, but it must be built with a smile; a meal is only well cooked if the ratings on Yelp agree; and student evaluations are the test of whether a class is well taught.

The crisis that ensues is not simply individual, but also social. In his new book, Republican Citizens, Precarious Subjects: Representations of Work in Post-Fordist France, Jeremy Lane traces what he describes as the breakdown of the Republican contract in contemporary France as a result of transformations in the world of work and the meanings attached to it. Lane argues that this crisis is especially acute in France, given the specific contours of that country’s welfare state and the centrality of work to the conception of French national identity. “The French Fordist post-war compromise,” he tells us, “institutionalized a particularly close interrelationship between salaried employment, rights to social protection, and, through that, access to full republican citizenship” (8). Hence, he argues, the transformations brought by post-Fordism, increasing precarity, Uberization, and so on have led not only to sporadic but intense social protest, as for instance with the “gilets jaunes,” but also to widespread anxiety manifest in much recent cinema and literature. So although the changing status and meaning of work may well not be unique to France–on the contrary, they are part and parcel of a globalized neoliberal order–the symptoms of these changes are perhaps particularly legible in French cultural production, played out in many different political valences.

Indeed, what is at stake, according to Lane’s persuasive analysis, is a new set of relations between the particular and the general, the individual and the state, the national and the global, and so on. His book is interested in the uneven distribution of the effects of post-Fordism, or rather how they entail a redistribution of hierarchies between (for instance) masculine and feminine, white and immigrant, the metropolitan centre and the regions, and so on. Lane repeatedly enjoins us to refuse easy binaries, such that for instance he warns against nostalgia for the republican tradition, not only because it had its own exclusions and injustices, but also because (and contra a vein of Gallic complaint that imported Anglo American ideas are all to blame) within it were already implanted the seeds of the current crisis.

After a lengthy theoretical section, in which Lane tackles sociological and political theoretical debates about post-Fordism and draws not only on Foucault but also on Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” to consider the links between work and different forms of subjectification, we get a series of readings of texts ranging from Michel Houellebecq’s novel La Carte et le territoire to Kim Chapiron’s movie La Crème de la crème or Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, and many others. He covers themes such as the perceived feminization of the new forms of labour, as well as the rise of portrayals of so-called “femme fortes” (strong women), whether as executives with a mandate to introduce corporate changes or as working-class activists pledged to combat them. His chapter on “doomed youth” and the changing role of education is perhaps particularly interesting, as it shows how the sense of crisis not only affects those who might easily be identified as “losers” within the new (anti)social compact, such as second-generation immigrant young men in the (para)urban banlieues, but also it is represented as troubling the apparent winners, such as the business-school graduates who have lost any sense of public vocation. Paired with an account of the changing national frameworks of economic policy, employment law, and welfare brought in by governments of the Left and the Right alike, the book suggests that these cultural representations perhaps stand in for a public debate that has never quite got off the ground, or for which conventional political distinctions are no longer of much use. Indeed, despite (or because of) the fact that Lane draws on a wealth of French social and political theory, what emerges is a sense of disarray within the country’s fabled left-leaning intellectual field. As Lane notes, there has been “a proliferation of proposals emanating from left-wing thinkers and activists,” but little clear consensus or agreement among them (251).

Not that we are that much better off elsewhere. Lane’s perceptive analyses prompt reconsiderations of similar cultural symptoms in the UK and the USA: films such as The Full Monty or Made in Dagenham, say, also seem to address similar concerns about gender roles amid deindustrialization in Britain, for instance, though the latter movie projects them back into a somewhat nostalgic re-envisaging of what had been a high point of union organization. And the United States may at first sight seem to lack the republican tradition whose crisis is the focus of Republican Citizens, but we can perhaps see there must once have been some sense of social solidarity, sufficient to give Trump and Trumpism something to destroy. Moreover, both sides of the Atlantic, intellectuals are not simply in disarray, they are stigmatized as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no doubt in part because they (we) have allowed the university to be so thoroughly infected by, and indeed encouraging of, the kinds of “entrepreneurship of the self” that have provoked such anxiety and discontent.  

So why do we work, even those of us fortunate enough to be employed in relatively durable institutions (though we will see about that) and especially those of us who have that rarity that is a “job for life” (though who know how long tenure will truly last), when we find that those institutions have betrayed the compact that we assumed they held to when we first entered them, and when job security can feel like golden manacles, binding us to the wheel of a ship that has long since been set adrift? Perhaps because we still hope that there are parts of the job, the unsung and slightly subversive aspects that never enter the false calculus of merit and are if anything penalized by the powers that be, that still make things worthwhile. Or perhaps we are fooling ourselves, and it is only ever about the money.

Espoir: Sierra de Teruel

From the Encyclopédie Larousse:

Espoir est le seul film de l’écrivain André Malraux, par ailleurs auteur d’un roman intitulé l’Espoir, consacré au même thème.

Montré clandestinement en 1939, ce pamphlet sobre et lyrique n’est sorti qu’à la Libération, précédé d’un commentaire de Maurice Schumann. Plus que d’une œuvre de pure propagande, il s’agit de l’une des premières tentatives françaises (réussie) de cinéma-vérité. Auteur complet de son film, qu’il a écrit, dialogué, réalisé et même monté, Malraux use des images et des sons de la même manière qu’il se servait des mots dans la Condition humaine. Pour lui, le contexte socio-politique est un personnage à part entière. Il prend soin de décrire la guerre d’Espagne comme un catalyseur de passions vécues non pas par des individus isolés, mais plutôt par une communauté déchirée dans sa chair. En ce sens, il annonce le reportage tel qu’il s’est développé à l’occasion de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’instigation de photographes comme Robert Capa, fondateur de l’agence Magnum en 1939. En outre, Malraux évite le piège dans lequel tombent souvent les écrivains cinéastes : les grands discours moralisateurs.

Espoir est une chronique dépouillée qui tend à ressembler le plus possible aux actualités cinématographiques de l’époque, sans en reprendre le ton sentencieux. Les faits sont là et les images se suffisent à elles-mêmes, l’une des qualités primordiales de cette œuvre étant l’habileté avec laquelle les documents pris sur le vif sont intégrés aux scènes de fiction pure. La distribution composée d’inconnus renforce encore cet aspect et confère aux différentes anecdotes une authenticité qui sait ne jamais tricher avec la vérité des sentiments.

Cette osmose est sans doute due à la dérive d’un projet qui ne devait constituer initialement qu’un post-scriptum au roman écrit en 1937. Les deux œuvres n’ont d’ailleurs finalement que très peu de points communs, sinon cette passion de la liberté qui allait conduire l’auteur dans les rangs de la Résistance.

See also the film’s IMDB page.


Review of François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. Trans. Deborah Glassman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus surely has some of the most remarkable opening lines of any work of philosophy or cultural critique. First published in France in 1972, just a few years after the demonstrations of May 1968, its stylish bravado immediately reminds us of the attitudes struck by student agitators, and proclaims that their radical energies persist: “It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, as other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id.” The original French is even more striking, playing on the fact that “id” and “it” are both “ça” (“Ça fonctionne partout . . . Quelle erreur d’avoir dit le ça.”). “It” is a machinic unconscious that is defined not by what it represents, but by what it produces: “Everywhere it is machines–real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (Anti-Oedipus 1). The question “what does it mean?” gives way to “how does it work?” As Deleuze and Guattari go on to declare in their second enquiry into “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” A Thousand Plateaus: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (A Thousand Plateaus 4). They therefore refuse any attempt to derive meaning from biography, to reduce the work to its author(s). Indeed, they disclaim authorship as anything but a matter of arbitrary convenience and custom: “Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. [. . .] We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied” (A Thousand Plateaus 3-4).

Read more… (.pdf file)


FreeloaderThe Wednesday quotation, part IX: A traveller is shocked to learn that they speak foreign in France.

Not only did no one not speak the language, they had also seen us as just a bunch of freeloading backpackers, which is the complete opposite of what the pilgrimage is really about. (“Language Barrier Scuppers Walker”, BBC News)

This guy seems to have as much difficulty with English as with French. And how exactly was his “pilgrimage” “the complete opposite” of freeloading?

economy (stupid!)

I’m very pleased to present the following guest post from my friend Jeremy, on recent events in France…

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Both in France and in Britain, media coverage and commentary on the recent disturbances in the banlieues has focused on the perceived fundamental differences between the French republican model of “integration” and the so-called “Anglo-Saxon model” of multiculturalism. Commentators on either side of the Channel, or indeed the Atlantic, rarely miss an opportunity to point to problems in the other country as evidence of the inherent failings of the foreign model and the superiority of their own.

Peter Mandelson, formerly the architect of Blairism, currently EC Trade Commissioner, was recently featured on BBC’s Newsnight programme, preparing to meet the French Trade and Agriculture Ministers in advance of the latest round of world trade talks. As Mandelson walked to the meeting, an advisor suggested he should break the ice by expressing his sympathy for the problems the French government was experiencing in quelling the nightly disturbances in the banlieues. “So much for the French social model they’re always telling us must be defended at all costs!” came Mandelson’s audible, acerbic reply.

Such evident Schadenfreude was perhaps understandable given the eagerness of French observers to lecture those in the so-called “Anglo-Saxon world” on the inherent superiority of the “French model.” In their analyses of the riots, several French commentators have been unable to resist comparing race relations in France with the situations in both Britain and the US, predictably concluding that things are far worse “chez les Anglo-Saxons.” For example, in the left-leaning Le Nouvel Observateur, Jacques Juillard and Jean Daniel insisted that where the July bombings in London demonstrate failings inherent to the “Anglo-Saxon model” of multiculturalism, rioting in the banlieues is in no way a symptom of equivalent flaws in French republican universalism; such problems, they assure us, relate to the purely contingent failure to apply republican values properly.

The mistake, when confronted with such patent examples of self-serving chauvinistic myopia, would be to play the French at their own game, by trumpeting the superiority of our own national models or traditions. However tempting, matching nationalistic bad faith with nationalistic bad faith will not advance us far.

What is really significant about the tendency of so many in France to champion the benefits of their own “social model” is that such apparently confident assertions of national superiority merely reveal the deep anxiety at perceived French national decline that in fact lies at their root. Moreover, what lies behind the periodic, largely directionless outbreaks of violent protest in the banlieues is not the failure of one or other model for “integrating” ethnic minorities. Rather, what’s at stake here is the breaking of the link between such differing conceptions of national belonging and the mode of capitalist accumulation that used to underpin them.

It is commonplace in France to claim that earlier immigrant generations were integrated into the Republic relatively unproblematically. Too often forgotten is that such immigrants either arrived as adults or, if children, had a mercifully brief exposure to the French education system, that talismanic site of republican integration. Arriving as adults or leaving school at 15, such immigrants and their offspring were in fact integrated in the Fordist workplace, through both labour and the labour movement, thanks to the ramified political, social, and cultural networks of unions and the Communist Party. The role of republican institutions was limited to equipping such workers with certain linguistic skills and a fairly minimal sense of specifically French cultural values and traditions.

The banlieues were, of course, the necessary adjuncts to Fordism. Inspired, architecturally, by Le Corbusier’s “factories for living,” they were located close to areas of heavy industry to provide housing for workers in France’s booming post-war economy. The decline of the banlieues has thus precisely mirrored the decline of French heavy industry and the shift to a post-Fordist mode of accumulation. As unskilled and semi-skilled factory jobs have dried up, so the young French working class, ethnic minorities and others alike, have been encouraged to spend ever longer in formal education, to be confronted on a daily basis with evidence of the disparity between the republican school’s promises of equality and meritocratic social promotion and the reality it can actually deliver.

As the bases of Fordism as mode of both governmentality and capitalist accumulation disappear, so republican institutions, and the school in particular, are left to take up alone the task of integrating France’s most economically and socially deprived groups. Unsurprisingly, this is a task which such institutions are unable to achieve in isolation. The more such institutions fail, the more politicians and commentators across the political spectrum insist that their founding values must be safeguarded and reasserted. But reasserting the very republican values and institutions whose failings banlieue inhabitants confront on a daily basis can only produce effects opposite to those desired. The thousands of burnt-out cars littering the streets is depressing evidence of such unintended consequences.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s response to the rioting, which has included a plan to revive “pre-apprenticeship” schemes for young male immigrants, at least has the merit of moving beyond the traditional exclusive focus on republican institutions and the school. Indeed, his proposals might be interpreted as an attempt, doubtless vain, to suture the fractured link between republicanism and the Fordist mode of accumulation that had previously ensured the “integration” or disciplining of generations of French citizens into the body politic.

Another of De Villepin’s proposals, to introduce a form of “voluntary civil service” to replace the compulsory military service demanded, until a few years ago, of all male French school-leavers, is also telling. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in Multitude, the disciplining of bodies under mass conscription paralleled the disciplining of bodies in the Fordist factory. It is this parallel, they argue, that Céline explores in Journey to the End of the Night, as his narrator recounts his experiences on the Western Front and, later, as a worker at the Ford factory in Detroit. What Hardt and Negri neglect to mention is that between these two experiences, Céline’s narrator recounts his encounter with French imperialism, in French West Africa. What Hardt and Negri term Fordist “disciplinary governmentality” did not merely involve a parallel between mass soldier and mass worker: it also rested on Western imperialism.

In France today, the Fordist factory has all but disappeared, mass conscription has been abolished, and the grandchildren of France’s former colonial subjects have arrived in the imperial metropolis to confront residual forms of colonial arrogance and violence; the old mission civilisatrice will no longer be enacted in a primary school in Kabylia, but in one of the newly designated Zones d’éducation prioritaire in the metropolis’s all too proximate periphery, the banlieue – open to all French residents, universally, as long as they leave their Islamic headscarves at the door.

De Villepin’s attempts to return to a more certain age, through a reassertion of republicanism, a dose of national service, and precocious insertion into the workplace, will doubtless prove in vain. Yet this should not be cause for any Mandelsonian Schadenfreude. For it is precisely the failings of the nation state, its institutions and traditions, that is at stake here, so that any analysis that falls back on disparaging comparisons between the failings of “their model” as against the strengths of “ours” paradoxically becomes a symptom of the very malaise it claims to diagnose.

Or rather, what’s at stake is the failed articulation between the nation state and the economy, between national ideology and the contemporary mode of capitalist accumulation. The fact that the London bombers hailed from declining industrial communities of the Midlands and the North should remind us that, contra Juillard and Daniel, what was significant in the UK, too, was not the inherent failings of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon” multiculturalism but the disappearance of Fordist structures of work and socialisation – it’s the economy, stupid!

This has been a guest post from Jeremy.