Excerpt: 'The Intellectual and His People' by Jacques Rancière


From Chapter 6: Factory Nostalgia (Notes on an Article and Various Books)

All those big posters stuck on the walls, showing a strapping worker rising to the sky against a background of factories, dissolve into shreds, in the sun and in the water. Masino furious at seeing his face so proud upon the walls of the streets, while he has to go out looking for work.

– Pavese, ‘Idleness’

But the worst enemy was the people. They didn’t want to be people. ‘People yourself!’ they said to Monsieur Beaulieu. We’re just as good bourgeois as you.

– Romain Rolland, Le Théâtre du people

‘I don’t see myself as a prole. And I don’t see myself as a super- intellectual, not like a student. I’m not . . . Well, I’m here’, Christine says on the steps of the Beaubourg Centre. And Eric explains, ‘We walk about one way and another, sit on the benches and watch people pass by.’

The mute voice of a subjectivity seeking to assert itself in the abbreviations of a rarefied vocabulary? A look returned from the great voyages of proletarian self-consciousness to the zero degrees of palpable certainty: ‘That’s it, we’re here, it’s like that?’ Or rather a new trick of the dialectic that underpins the look of the observer in this apparent return to the simplicity of its origins, that little nothing that, at its birth, is identical with its being?

Beaubourg, according to popular wisdom, is like a factory. Is that the reason why this is the place to come today, to seek among these ‘non-workers of the non-working class’ those voices of alienation and rebellion that Sorbonne students looked for at Billancourt twelve years ago? At that time, as a bourgeois break- ing ranks and an activist breaking with gauchisme, this was where he saw the miracle: the working class, the concept in flesh and blood. Enough to sicken those petty bourgeois whom Marcuse, Gorz, Mallet and Belleville had led to dream of a new class of auto- mated white-collar workers, or manual workers trapped by credit and bourgeois comfort. A CGT secretary who hailed from the old Faubourg Saint-Antoine had turned the key to the fortress: the key of the evident identity of the worker in his labour and his struggle.

‘An identity lost, an identity rediscovered’, he proclaimed. But no sooner rediscovered than lost again, since to be honest, the proletarian is defined only by being alienated: fashioned by capital, but also, himself as Other, present to himself in his alterity. The inventory of conditions of his alienation, in other words the enumeration – in capital letters – of the characteristics of exploitation (work rhythm, noise, accidents, etc.) was enough for this identity to be recognized, and thus virtually reconquered. Knowledge of the conditions of exploitation immediately opened the way to emancipation: the science of capital, the organization of workers.

Existence was thus adequate to the concept, and labour adequate to capital – existentially painful but theoretically fortunate. As for the factory – it was as the Atelier des Beaux-Arts drew it in 1968, with its gear wheels and tall chimney. The factory-centre, where the epic of alienation and emancipation was played out, from where the torpor of civil-bourgeois society was to be shaken. So the order went from the factory to the city, the neighbourhood, the home.

Our activist (Frémontier), in his way, believed this. He made his Maoist-style long marches, from the Concarneau packing plants to the citadel of Sochal, by way of the building sites of Grande-Synthe, the spinning works of the Nord and the steelworks of Hayange. Today, disabused of his certainties and disgusted by his party, he shares with us his investigation of ‘working-class culture’.  And the clearest sign of the trajectory undergone is that this word has changed its meaning. Working-class culture, he previously told us, was neither Sophocles, Brecht, nor the popular theatre of ‘gauchiste boy-scouts’, it was ‘a system of historical and philosophical references – more or less well formulated’, that made it possible for proletarians ‘to analyse the world in which they live, to interpret the dust of daily events, to modulate their struggle to the scientifically elaborate strategy of those who exploit them’.5 Today it is still neither Sophocles nor Brecht, but philosophy has evaporated on leaving the factory. The experience of political activism already made us sense this: the embodiment of concepts does not resist at all well the extension of commuting time. What then remains are representations, images, fantasies, designating dietary, sexual or clothing practices. Workers today are people who prefer meat cooked in sauce and utilitarian clothing, who leave birth control to male vigilance, with the strap for those offspring who escape such vigilance, and are happy to leave their health care to quack remedies – which include homoeopathy (apologies to Hähnemann).

Stories, ultimately, of potlatch and physical techniques: the primitive culture of ethnologists, the peasant culture of historians of mentalities, the lifestyles and popular habitus of cultural sociology . . . We are certainly far removed here from the certainties of Marxist science and working-class struggle . . . Is it simply political disenchantment if so much discourse and examination of the people is now readjusted into this register of a sociology of the popular ethos, a people who are here and like that? Is this the paradoxical product of the anxiety of discovering that the theorists of the ‘new working class’ were not totally wrong? Of abandoning class struggle to prevent a struggle over class? Unless there is also something else involved in the maintenance at all costs of a robust popular identity: a separation between good and bad intellectuals, the mark of recognition of the person who knows that things are not as they are believed to be – who opposes true knowledge of the conditions and manifestations of working-class identity to the empty phrases of the ideologues of the ‘mode of production’, but also makes the self-sufficiency of the popular body, its ‘plain speaking’ and ‘plain eating’ and taste for bad reproductions, the ironic referent of the ‘good cultural desire’ of the ‘new petite bourgeoisie’.

A substitutive function of sociological discourse, and the reason for its present success? If he maintains that ‘the members of the popular classes . . . expect that each image will fulfil a function’, or that they ‘refuse to apply the utilitarian calculus of pleasures and pains’, in the same peremptory tone that used to mean that workers were ‘big enough’ to manage their affairs for themselves, is this not because his status is assured by the same condition that legitimized the words of the Marxist theorist or official? Namely, that the people have to remain identical to themselves in order for the scientist to distinguish himself from the ideologist, as the workers’ representative from the petty bourgeois? They are that, they can only be that: a double legitimization for the social scientist, whose position implies a privileged relationship to two concepts (two classes?), the popular class of the existing-concept and the petty bourgeoisie with its inconsistent ideology. A three-way relationship that could never upset the refinements of analysis, which distribute to each social fraction its hallmarks of recognition, according to the dialectical moments of the process of distinction. For the very form of the questionnaire will always have as its main effect the distinction between two identities correlative to the position of the investigator: there are those who do not know how to use it, and so deliver the unaffected simplicity of their popular ethos; and there are those who, familiar with the thing, believe they can choose freely to be philosophers or café waiters – the anonymous soldiers of amor fati, and the grotesque Don Quixotes of the ‘new petty bourgeois’.

This position of knowledge, however, present in the perspective of Frémontier’s interpretations, is not the one he would like to adopt. His rage even at exhibiting in the proletarian heroes of yesterday the stigmata of racism or phallocracy, sexual bragging, or the vanity of overpriced furniture adorning an unused front room, suggests that the disappointed love of the political activist cannot be satisfied with the sociological positivity of this proletariat fallen from its pedestal. His very complacency when hearing the little secrets and fantasies of kitchen and bedroom also expresses a certain repentance at having reduced his interlocutors strictly to the factory and political dimension – for the sake of the cause. In the somewhat posing identities of his interlocutors, and their often exaggerated discourse, he wants us to sense the shell necessarily formed to tolerate the intolerable, in terms of robbed time, crushed dreams and an identity that is no longer lost – recoverable at least in the ‘lost concepts’ office – but irredeemably stolen. This procedure, attentive to the repressed but indestructible dream that underpins popular identity, would command acceptance if the ‘letting speak’ that it presents as a duty did not rapidly deliver its crushing obverse: ‘hearing interpret’. An ex-miner, retrained as a roofer, mentions the toughness of the mine and that of his new apprenticeship, and the investigator does not let the opportunity pass to make us aware that he has been able to move on from Marx to Freud (not to Adler?): ‘We could translate this as: I had a tough job, but it was tough to retrain, so I’m still a tough man (and the sexual connotations of this term are readily apparent) . . .’

Launched on this course, the investigator does not stop translating and interpreting working-class culinary language, from the ‘big feed’ of stew and potatoes with which a young tiler from Quimper punishes himself for having murdered his mother – the Breton language – to the only too obviously phallic brochettes whose name escapes the lips of a miner’s wife for the same reason that her pitiful husband, who ‘works with Moroccans’, invests in them his spicy dreams of sexual revenge. The praiseworthy desire of listening to the worker’s dream is in no way enough to free oneself from the pleasant Freudo-Marxian dreams of ‘it’s no accident that . . .’ It is also true that the great unravelling of sexuality still reveals an honest intention: to confront the parades and fantasies of male overcompensation with this struggle for a reconquest, an authentic self-assertion for which women – who, deprived of the prestige of male revenge when they are not themselves its victims, can only radicalize their desire to be others and themselves – give the model. A new myth, therefore: woman, the proletarian of those whom the proletariat has disappointed, representing a dominated identity that can at all events not disappear in the way that proletarians are sometimes bourgeoisified, Bretons often assimilated, and young people always grow old.

Despite often offering a caricature of itself, this trajectory is not derisory for all that. Evidence of this is supplied, in different ways, by the present research and uncertainties of those who despair neither of Marxism nor of the workers, who persist in wanting to understand the present and future of the working class in the ‘capitalist’s lair’, the labour process and the formation of surplus- value. How can they not be both fascinated and provoked by the new units of production where the contours of the factory and the mechanisms of exploitation are blurred: in the refineries and petro- chemical plants where automated operation maintains a margin of chance that gives the practical knowledge of the worker back its function, and where bunches of workers in subcontracting companies, with various skills, revolve around the organically working-class core, how precisely to recognize what is the company and what isn’t, what work comes under ‘manufacture’ and what under maintenance, who gives orders to whom?

Undoubtedly the social scientist will also find here an extra nuance, rather than simply a mystery we know all too well. But the political activist who pursues this must explore at the same time what then happens to the classical relationship between the ‘correct ideas’ drawn from the technical knowledge of production and the ‘correct ideas’ that have to inform the class struggle. For this worker’s knowledge, rehabilitated by the very gap between the official functioning of the production unit and its actual functioning, is not simply a factor of ‘responsible’ integration into the company, but also a demanding awareness. It also increases the division between the skilled working-class nucleus and the generally immigrant workers in the subcontracting firms, whom the sense of responsibility and risk of the former leads to survey, even to command, for the common good of the company and its workers. An internal break- up of the factory, following the same principle and producing the same effects as its external break-up, distributing its production, by way of subcontracting, until this reaches the ‘archaic’ forms of the rural workshop and home-work. Is it absurd to believe that exploring the consequences of this process is perhaps what gives a book such as L’Établi its ambiguous necessity? Namely, the evidence – in relation to those who have returned from it – that the despotism of the factory and the class struggle have lost nothing of their ‘archaic’ actuality; an exemplary record of a certain idea of struggle against working-class alienation, from the denied knowledge of the old worker or the crushed culture of the immigrant, through to the recognition/recomposition of identity and unity in struggle; but perhaps also a memory of a factory that has precisely disappeared, swallowed up today in a forest of towers . . .

This is the problem that was more starkly posed – more naively, in a sense – by those observers of what eleven years ago was the exemplary fortress of the ‘new’ workers’ movement: the Fiat factory at Mirafiori, reduced today to the function of a largely automated assembly of components subcontracted at various levels across the whole territory of the ‘diffused factory’.11  In the relaxation of the direct power of the hierarchy and the reduction of work rhythms that are characteristic of the new operation, as in the behaviour of young workers taken on in the wake of this restructuring, they see disappear, along with the classical figure of factory despotism, the correlative concept that had found its adequate embodiment in the uprooted peasant from the Mezzogiorno who became the rebellious pariah of the great Turin factory: the mass-worker, bearing against the despotic apparatus of the factory – the whole weight of his asociality after being transplanted, parked, and frustrated in every way; at the same time exemplifying the pure negativity of the anonymous crowd, identified and collectivized by the productive machine; being constrained, by the very absence of any ‘civil society’, to find any possibility of socialization simply in the space of the factory; and supporting, in his struggles, the whole rage of his dereliction and the whole radicalism of his needs:

. . . the factory of productive despotism of the 1960s, then the factory of the workers’ revolt of the early 70s, functioned not simply as strategic site of the valorization of global capital, but also as a privileged site for the formation of working-class social identity and socialization . . . In this privileged moment of the exercise of a directly social power, the factory was immediately posited as the space of socialization, as the moment of organization of the collective workers, for whom the collective dimension was directly the condition and process of transformation of each person’s individual life, of the formation and reproduction of a new identity.

This relationship between the individual and the collective is evidenced, depending on how weak or strong the conflict situation is at the time, by the transition from individual absenteeism to participative strike. Today, however, the relationship is the other way round: the highest rates of absenteeism go together with moments of maximum conflict, and the veterans of the struggles of ten years ago are bitter at seeing the new employees identify striking with deserting the factory. This reaction is typical of a new, young proletariat born in the urban context, sent to school for longer, and more highly skilled than their elders, who rather experience the factory as a transition site where they have found themselves by accident; and this is also the effect of shorter work- ing hours and work rhythms that permit or impose the addition of a supplementary occupation and merge the factory wage into a more general ‘income’ – thus stripping it of its character as a political instrument of workers’ power. The factory is then denied, work divorced from capital:

If, in the previous phase, it was possible to read the productive behaviour of labour power as an articulation of the technical class composition, the expression – mediated if need be – of the class’s way of being within Capital, things now seem obscured by the penetration of the ‘social’ within the sphere of production, whose normative power over working-class behaviour is accordingly limited.

Here again, we see the end of a certain miracle, of an embodiment of the concept that was too perfect to be honest: the miracle of a mass-worker that Italian operaismo had fashioned as the double of the official workers’ movement, opposing to this the radicalism of the ‘other workers’ movement’. This rebel, by the very wildness of its extensive needs, supported the primacy of the wage demand, championing the socialist management of productive labour as opposed to the Communist ‘refusal to work’ – but at the same time it could act as support for the old discourse of socialist emanci- pation by which the positivity of the productive class gathers the legacy of the bourgeois power of the negative. A collective prole- tarian was thereby revalorized in theory as the motive subject of the very development of capital, but one whose subjectivity and capacity was forged in the ‘school of the factory’ alone:

The productive centrality of the large factory . . . was reversed under the form of the political centrality of the labour-power employed, the political subject whose capacity to exercise power was directly bound up with its productive role: the emancipation of labour.

‘The centrality was reversed . . . the factory was posited . . . this worker becomes conscious . . .’ Didn’t the secular synchrony between the capitalist factory and the machine of the concept ulti- mately break down in this inverse movement, this ‘eruption of society into the factory’ that characterized the new relationships between labour and capital? And the overly functional substitu- tion of ‘metropolitan culture’ for ‘factory culture’ as the educator of rebel identity is not very convincing, with its voluntarism that confers the ancestral weight of the second on the ‘solid baggage of models entirely structured by the centrality of reproductive prac- tices external to the productive world of the factory’.15  In detail, the ‘solid baggage’ of this trompe-l’oeil centrality tends to refer us to two kinds of explanation, two modes of identification whose nature – and limits – have already been tested: a gap between the requirements of production and the characteristics of a cultural identity formed in the context of an extended school attendance that is ‘overqualified’ in relation to jobs available; and an appeal to ‘new collective identities’ that are also the oldest divisions of existence:

‘It is always more up to young people as such, to women as such, to old workers with their “wisdom”, to constitute the contours and material of collective subjects.’16 But perhaps something more fundamental is involved in the to and fro between the inadequacy to itself of the capitalist state and the self-adequacy of sex and age classes to which the unending pursuit of an undiscoverable ‘new class composition’ condemns us. For this quest is also the perpetual tension of return from the operaisto current to a tendency indefinitely opposed to it: that which formerly proclaimed the necessary ‘struggle of the working class against itself as capital’, and recognizes today, in the ‘objective’ separation between the working class and capital, the occasion, the necessity, for a subjective process of uprooting that confirms the most fundamental principle of the Marxist approach – the search for a ‘method of social transformation’ based on antagonism and not simply on contradiction. The dialectic is hereby returned to capital, so that materialism becomes ‘the sole horizon entirely innervated by the logic of antagonism and subjectivity’, and the Communist paths of proletarian assertion and destruction are radically opposed to the more dialectical paths of the factory school, at the end of which socialism awaits the legacy of capital.

The ambiguity of such a reversal, however, is still manifest in the use it has to make of the very concept of confusion between the two processes: that of the ‘productive labour’ whose universality is to serve to transform the ‘rejection of work’ into a new kind of productive force, the force of a working-class self-valorization shifted from the production of capital to the invention of a new world – from steam power to flower power.19 Is it necessary here to follow so many others in denouncing this conversion of Marxism into a discourse of absolute subjectivity? Or rather to recognize in this the limit of a process of duplication that is constitutive of the very utterance of Marxian discourse, sensitive right from its origin to what was to remain its master-word for posterity? Namely, that development of the ‘productive forces’ applied to give the muddy furrow of the Feuerbachian plough the aerial trajectory of Hegelian negativity – but also to bury the obsession, the original remorse, the ‘I = I’ of Stirnerian subjectivity under the tables and statistics of Baron Dupin, the common ancestor of both workers and of these ‘productive forces’?

Is this an original duplication that can only be filled in the look that indefinitely makes shadows into statues and in the discourse that tirelessly gives speech to the hoarse voices? From the factory searched for, to the mirror found . . . perhaps the misadventures of identification could lead to raising again the question of the relationship between those who are sought for who they always are, and those instructed in the science who are always elsewhere. And if the relationship was reversed? If it had always been the reverse? If, in relation to those ‘masses’ that it alternately pleases or displeases us to treat as ‘heroes’, we had always displayed, in any case, ‘a ridiculous naivety’?

Excerpt republished with the permission of the publisher. Excerpted from The Intellectual and His People: Staging the People Volume 2 (Vol. 2) , the second in a two-part volume of essays, Staging the People © 2012 Verso Books and Jacques Rancière.