The “Indignés” Multiply - and are better understood
The “Indignés” Multiply - and are better understood
John Wilson believes the “indignés” are quite understandable in terms of the history of ideas. In particular, the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Youth has become the personification of social exclusion and the movement of the “indignés” is spreading. The civic behaviour of youth, the unemployed, the new poor – all who are recently alienated – have transformed public spaces around London, New York, Athens, Cairo and other major cities. This generation demonstrates the extent of lived inequalities. They say, “We live the loss of direction of ideologies which no longer function.“1
In needing work, the right of decent housing, and an end to cuts in public services, the Internet is used as a weapon to fight for the growth of a new participative democracy. The new gatherings are mobilised by social networks. The effect is contagious and countries are experiencing localised rebellions:
Disputes are flying everywhere: riots in London, fomentation in China, unemployment demonstrations in Spain, marches in Chile – the now violent Arab spring– protests against inter-connected economic elites hidden from the ordinary citizens who feel life no longer has direction. Lower down, the inhabitants of disinherited shantytowns find their voice.
Well-known by the French, the world was similarly shaken by a vast youth movement in revolt in 1968. Are we watching a similar event?
In the second phase of his thought, Jean-Paul Sartre sought a sufficiently integral model to explain human association, in particular during revolutionary times. Initially, he contrasted altérité (otherness) with human connectedness. The condition of altérité can be demonstrated by the lone individual. One is outside the world - a floating subjectivity without connexions with others - the famous existentialist condition that, now, each unemployed person must live by force. If these altérités do not have social connexions, they remain impotent, invisible; excluded by the comfortable majority. But when the altérités form gatherings and discover their otherness as equally shared, they discover simultaneously their condition as a group en fusion (in fusion). 2
A gathering is a presence but not a firm association. For example, the crowds which spontaneously protest the cost of living on the streets of Tel-Aviv, those who insist that education must not be treated as a commodity in Chile, who loot shops in London, are united in as much as they share the same complaints, but, obviously, are not the institutionalised groups which can cure them.
According to Sartre, the making of such an amalgam `by seeing oneself in the other', these collectives are able to make pacts—agreements, which develop towards more sophisticated governing associations. But in particular, these ‘blossomings’, according to Sartre, are born strictly according to free individual relations, one to the other. In small localities, the international gatherings of today have done this. They are awakened to the idea that they all have highly significant things in common and they want to upset the hegemony which maintains their exclusion. But in this period they avoid leaders and the implied hierarchies. In the Western press we often have a problem in discerning their exact goals, independently of the individual quotations arriving from the streets. Well known spokespersons are rare.
For Sartre the group is the penultimate associative classification. The group is the solidification of a gathering (either historical, or contemporary) where individuals becomes joined together, highly self-conscious of the serious requirements for reversing the old hegemony by means of their communal values, their avowed constitutions, and their acknowledged goals. Much for the worse, the conventional parties of today do not achieve their mission and, among the "indignés", nobody mentions existing parties. When electoral conventions consolidate an oligarchy replete with a generalised corruption, institutionalised groups are discredited, and opened up to an attack by the new gatherings. Yet, by contrast, the "indignés" of today lack the stability of conventional parties. The rioters of London are short of a constitutive ideology – they lack a clear voice.
The principal problem for the "indignés" is that the transition between disorganised gatherings and structured groups are always unforeseeable, weak and precarious. In time, a group can easily degenerate, as with the en fusion and such amorphous gatherings can be thrown back into their unaffiliated otherness.
On the other hand, they can accumulate, little by little—power. This we have seen by watching Iranian women who are fighting for change. Evidently, their semi-stable constitution is, through force majeure, hidden and comparatively ill-composed in comparison with the conventional parties. But the perceived requirements are stronger than the forces of dissipation, which defy – by force of individual will – the fall into ‘re-othernessing’ and its consequent powerlessness. The formation of a group from a gathering is precarious, hard and long.
And, at this point, we are quite able to understand, in the manner of Sartre, the condition of our contemporary ‘indignés’. They are indirect gatherings, coagulations, about to form into groups.. En fusions are unstable, effervescent and often too early to be merry. In what exact form will they soon coagulate? We do not know. But within this uncertainty lies the complexity of a Sartrean comprehension. Can we guess the next beginnings? We have, surely, some good signs.
We mentioned the Internet has been playing a strong presence. Twitter and Facebook never cease. Often declaring a total independence, they do not need a Che Geuvara nor an Ulrike Meinhof. The new well-educated daughters of the middle class, who speak English well, are well informed of corruption in the governments and the large inequalities between wages, but they are not interested in Marxism, or the formal ideologies of the left. The young, confronted by an empty future, live perpetually in a notional vacuum. Provided with a sufficient comprehension, but without political affiliations, their anger explodes of a sudden. Their gatherings form everywhere, sometimes blind, chaotic and seizing. They are not interested in the economic arguments of the system. Simply, they have had enough of it.
But without clear arguments, without evolved ideologies, they will remain without specific aims – and the firm rules of association necessary to make a group that can seize power. The "indignés" have an amazing consensus to reject the current situation but not, so far, to replace it. And here we can see the weakness of spontaneous gatherings: they have much energy, but not the organisation to establish a new permanence. For the latter, one has need of sober formations, often those which manifest a previous conservatism. This was exactly the problem for the soixante-huitards (1968ers) which were also spontaneous gatherings but now long disappeared. Perhaps, in the campings around Westminster Cathedral, Zuccotti Park against Wall Street, will develop a formation of better organised groups, even proto-institutional, which will better defy the established order. We will see.
Because of hated extreme-left position of Sartre, we can easily remain unaware of his extraordinary capacities to analyse common situations running outside of this polarity. The Criticism of the Dialectical Reason was not mainly a defence of Marxism, but, in the first place, an analysis of human relations in association. The Sartrean existentialist alienation is, now, a too well-known reality for those who live in an economic vacuum. And less known is Sartre’s penetrating articulation concerning the dynamics of association in our time. Such a comprehension would help us to manage a future increasingly more disconcerting.
Concerning French philosophical thinking, Sartre was insistent that each one of us is completely responsible for themselves, our attitudes, and, somewhat bewilderingly—for the whole world. The other is me as another. This implies that one cannot say, `Ah well, it is not my problem'. Do the "indignés" have something in common with us? The answer is clear—Do we have jobs? ■
A graduate in philosophy, John Wilson works overseas as a specialist in applied linguistics. One can contact him at email@example.com
1. Courrier international, du 15 au 21 septembre 2011, p 25
2. see Critique of Dialectical Reason; the genesis of groups