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Yann Moulier-Boutang, "The Art of Flight"

lazosubverto writes:

"The Art of Flight: An Interview"

Yann Moulier-Boutang with Stany Grelet

Part One: Exodus

Grelet: Since the introduction of your work De l'esclavage au salariat in 1998,
you have presented your central idea that, in the history of capitalism, the control of
the flight of workers would be the power of the constitution of the salaried worker.Moulier-Boutang: In the field of orthodox economics, this idea could seem a little
scandalous. However, there are a lot of things that, in economics, have been discovered
like that. What Keynes really brought to the analysis of economics is to have
realized himself that flight in the system and the control of this flight constituted an
absolutely decisive part of economic regulation. I think that for the regulation of work
in general, it goes the same way: to the fault of inserting oneself within the holes of
the system, of interesting oneself with the absenteeisms, the layoffs, the refusal to
hire people legitimately, etc., we do not come to understand either how this system
puts itself into place or -- and this is what interests me -- how it disarticulates itself,
destroys itself partially or metamorphoses into something else. We must never look
only to the tip of the iceberg: the institutionalized forms, or the word of the people,
the way in which they speak, supposing that, as soon as they aren't saying anything,
they aren't acting. On the contrary, it is the interpretation of the silences that interests
me: to seize the silences, the refusals, and the flight as something active.
In our relatively sophisticated democracies, the idea that conflict is a part of society
is habitually admitted. But we treat conflict as a simple sign of something that is
amiss: in principle, conflicts would render a service to the system, permitting it to
have permanent self-regulation. These are, we say, measures of security. To me, this
functionalist vision is false because it is antisubjective. When people refuse something,
there is a positivity. This positivity is not only constitutive of the subjects, who
often define themselves in a moment of refusal, but it is also terribly efficient toward
the system, supporting its evolution. This means that essentially capitalism does not
exert itself upon an incomplete material that would more or less resist it. I do not
think that our complex models function like exploding pistons, with some that would
be the pistons and others who would serve simply as carburetors and energy. I do
not think that the energetic model of work is the best: that of the muscle exerted,
easy to use and then to throw away, that produces value. Today the creation of riches
operates via cooperation, exchange, communication, and it is done to better exhaust
these actual resources that capitalism is trying to organize. Thus, this means that we
find ourselves facing a much larger field of resources -- intellectual, practical, subversive.
In this, I submit myself falsely to what has become vulgar Marxism, reduced
to an ideology of protest, and even of the single subaltern protest. In reality, this system
does not manage to move, to give itself rules and to transform itself in the measure
that it responds and reacts to acts: discontinuities, events, the inscription of a subject
who defines himself precisely by flight. This is a minority principle: those who do
not have power are not necessarily exterior to the determination of power; they manage
to modify it very profoundly.

It is thus about reading capital in the movements of work, rather than reading work
in the interstices of a capital that would define everything (rationality, norms, grand
transformations) and would give space only to the contestation of the slave or the functional
protest of the salaried worker, which would funnel further into capitalist rationalization.
Implicitly, there is the question of freedom. For Marx, capitalism has this
particularity, compared to preceding systems, of inscribing freedom in the initial equation,
in the structure itself. Therefore I do not think that this is the case: freedom results
from liberation, and liberation comes first -- it happens before capitalism. Capitalism
as avatar and controller of liberation: this is the general thesis of my book.

Grelet: The other scandal is this continuity that you trace, from the title of your
book, between slavery and the salaried worker: the salaried worker would be a ruse
of capitalism, not to liberate slaves but to prevent their flight. From which opens a
new history of labor struggles: basically, you substitute the slave in flight with the
striking worker.

Moulier-Boutang: The worker movement is not indifferent to slavery: after all,
the abolition of the salaried worker, conceived as slavery, has figured into the statutes
for some years, and has been suppressed only lately. However, Marx treats slavery
as one page of the prehistory of capitalism, as a moment in the primitive accumulation
of capital, before this absolute origin that he situates in 1789, or at the formation
of a working class. Therefore, if we bring up, like Wallerstein or Braudel, the formation
of capitalism toward the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, we brutally reintegrate
slavery into this history. This transforms our vision of traditional political economy.
For example, we can read the construction of labor-value with Ricardo, Marx, and in
all of economics as theorization not of free labor, but of slavery. Which economy
constructed itself with reference to the reproduction of the worker, calculating
labor-value, to the effect that all exchanges come back to an equivalent man-labor, if
not the economy of the plantation? In this, and in the absence of financial revenue
(as land had no value), all merchandise was expressed in the equivalent of man-sugar
or man-coffee, at a worldwide scale. The slave owner and the planter calculated the
price of sale of the slave, based on the life cycle of the slave: they knew what they
expected of the average duration of work; they calculated the reproduction of slaves,
including the expenses of raising them and assuring themselves property rights on
this reproduction, and so forth. This is the only economy that truly realizes its labor-value.
In other words, capitalism did not institute right away the free market in labor;
it first invented the slave market, the repartition of serfs, the subordination of freedom
to property.

The interesting point is that at the moment when political economy begins to think
of labor-value, everything begins to fall apart. Haiti, the island that produced half
the sugar in the world, initiated a decolonization that lasted two centuries, got rid of
the whites, and abolished the slave economy. Between 1791 and 1796, it was done:
Toussaint L'Ouverture defeated Napoleon Bonaparte. The plantation economy was
undoubtedly efficient; the problem was that it was unstable. If capitalism abandoned
slavery as a strategic perspective, it is because its own existence was menaced by the
instability of the market that it put into place: if there had not been the Jamaican insurrection
of 1833, the English Parliament would never have abolished slavery. The
struggles of the slaves in the two centuries of modern slavery are worth ten times
more than the struggles of the working class: they were more violent, more virulent,
more destabilizing than the worker movement. In the Jamaican insurrection, there
were tens of thousands of deaths, like the Commune.

Grelet: By inverting as you do the relationship between capitalism and freedom --
capitalism being a counterattack, a controller of freedom rather than the inverse --
you suggest to the "dominated" that we are made to be in a position that is more joyful
and less depressing than the one that the editorials of Ignacio Ramonet reserve
for us: to say to oneself that capitalism runs after us is less devastating than saying to
oneself that it overcomes us.

Moulier-Boutang: One must fight against the idea that we are facing a massive
process about which nothing can be done and that we endure by protesting. Effectively,
we are faced with a veritable cliff of domination. But what do people do when
they confront that? They take off; they flee. And this flight is active: it is not an insignificant
thing. It goes in tandem with the fact that there are minor things that have
an extraordinary influence. One of the illusions of democratic transformation is to
think that the majority is going to change things. Yet there are sometimes minority
movements that introduce ruptures, fractures, lines of flight -- that are also lines of

Elsewhere, I think that there is a great ambiguity about the critique of singular
thought and of liberalism. First, there is an underevaluation, typically French, of what
was political liberalism. If worldwide liberalism triumphed, up until having the skin
of the great communist utopia, it is not because it was more efficient. It is because at
the same time it left a place for liberation, it pulled its own substance from the push
for liberation. Evidently, it transformed it -- turned it to its own profit, as if from a
struggle. On the other hand (and this relates to what I was saying about slavery), to
say that capitalism defines itself by the market is a gross error. Capitalism does not
tend toward the market; it is a system of regulation to which it calls when it thinks
that it is managing things, but that it thanks brutally when this market menaces it.
For example, when liberalism has, like today, burdened the system with massive risk,
a speculator like Soros converts himself to the Tobin tax, saying that capitalism is
going straight into a wall, etc. Capitalism is thus less the market pushed to the extreme
than a mechanism of control that, at certain moments, uses the canals of the

What annoys me, in the Le Monde diplomatique vision of capitalism, is that we
forget a kind of shadow fighting; we forget that liberalism sucks out the little bit of
strength that it had, when it had some, from struggles for liberation. History works
from two sides. Today still, if capitalism can exercise its control only through money,
financial flux, etc., it is because it is confronting an enormous internal crisis -- a crisis
of legitimation, a crisis of the salaried worker, etc. We cannot reduce that to the
description of an infernal machine without provoking the sad passion of giving up
or an exasperated protest, without inciting a form of demobilization. Because
the stroke of genius of globalization, from the capitalist point of view, is precisely
this general demobilization: we do not know anymore to whom we address ourselves.
No more bosses to sequester or against whom we can fightСthe mechanisms have
become invisible; they are in society. That's the rule of the game: capitalism is not
going to offer on a platter a Bastille for us to take and cause to fall! It is thus necessary
to analyze seriously this invisibility of the relationships of power and domination.
But, and even if there are a huge number of things just in the struggle against
wild liberalism, one must not leave the market to capitalism, or liberalism, in what
carries liberation.

Part Two: Brakes

Grelet: Your histories of flight and of capture may interest some people who are
neither economists nor familiar with this Marxist tradition in which you situate yourself:
those infected with the HIV-virus dealing with the medical power, gays confronting
heterosexual norms, drug users harassed by social workers and the cops,
etc., even if those are the struggles that are generated as anticapitalist, that do not
enter directly into the field of work. That means that your reflection surpasses the
frame of a general labor economy?

Moulier-Boutang: I don't think, first of all, that we can make a general labor
economy by stopping at labor, because work is an avatar of the subject. When the
subject is limited by labor, it's already a mess. I am going to use the famous example of the master and the slave. In this confrontation, the slave is the incarnation of labor,
of strength, faced with a master who seems not to do too much, like a fat cat that
sleeps. But what the master did was to limit the inscription of the subject solely to
labor: he is nothing more in front of him than a puppet of a slave, a doll that works.
He controls the field, and the odds are already determined. Behind this reduction of
the subject to work, there is great fear of the revolt of the slave. That is apparent, for
example, in the hunt for maroons with weapons, hunting dogs, and so on. This type
of barbaric behavior is not due simply to the perversity of a few masters, but also
indicates the fact that the masters had an absolutely colossal fear of the slaves.
Some jobs were forbidden slaves, like preparing and distributing medicine, for
fear of poisoning. When a slave fled, they were afraid that everyone would do the
same. Slaves equaled wealth: when one solicited a banker to borrow money, the loan
was measured in heads of slaves. Therefore the heads took off! It is thus necessary,
before all, to control the field, evacuate minority desires, so as to have in front of one
only some wise puppets who are going to save to buy their freedom or, like today,
plea for raises in salary or stock options.

For minorities, it is precisely about breaking with this group of puppets. This rupture
supposes first that people determine their objectives, their positions, and their
needs, all alone, in autonomy. And so that they arrive at that, it is necessary that they
break away, that they retreat among themselves and determine the common ground
on which they are going to build something. In terms of the famous integrationist
thesis, "French/Immigrants, Same Struggle," I say no. A white French national has
his identification papers. The immigrant must acquire his freedom, he must first
conquer it. And also for sexual minorities: it is necessary, so that the interaction may
be possible, to acquire one's freedom, in terms of himself, his desire, and society. It
is impossible for a man, a white, a "national," a heterosexual, one of the majority, to
codetermine and coproduce the definition of the content of freedom for women,
blacks, Amerindians, foreigners, homosexuals, minorities. True democracy begins
with the preamble; after we discuss, we compose our energies and results follow.
This principle of composition of the differential forces (we find it admirably expressed
in the analyses that Gilles Deleuze did about the concept of the multitude that Negri
pulled from Spinoza in The Savage Anomaly) is the real figure of democracy in terms
of the contractualist republican model that supports itself on a dialectical conception,
unitary, of the majority and is, finally, repressive. I believe that the discussions
about parity, about PaCS, or about the Islamic veil have shown the emergence of a
conception of subjects infinitely less lugubrious than the abstraction of the citizen
that must self-flagellate, deny himself, in the concrete determination of his affects,
of his community, in order to submit himself to the existence of the citizen -- this
citizen that is only the opposite of the dependent worker. To the fault of this ethic of
diversity, we have the quid pro quo of a gigantic interloping of normalization and
assimilation, by the name of which the subject represses himself, accepts and internalizes
the law; the problem is thus that he does not free himself or free the others or
the group in which he is.
But I believe that we have to go further: the figure of the abstract worker must
also know this fecund division. Let's look at the struggles of the unemployed. With
Laurent Guilloteau, and with others, we defended the creation of the first unemployment
collectives first appearing in 1978-79, meaning a schismatic line given the dominant
idea that those unemployed should organize themselves for employment, and
under the direction of unions. To celebrate a revenue rather than a job was to disconnect
this reference to employment, to extract the struggles of the unemployed from
a struggle against unemployment that has not ceased losing for twenty-five years,
and that we always claim to put at the center (being a question of the dangerous, that
of immigrants, etc.). It is also, in a sense, the lesson of feminism. If feminists did not
want to hear men speak in order to determine their objectives, this is because men
objected that women, producing neither work nor value in the home, were not exploited
but simply oppressed and dominated. Because they were not salaried workers,
they were not a part of the working class. Thus: in front of the game of puppets
where the subject is stopped from working, all begins with a schism.

Part Three: Circulation

Grelet: To say that "struggles must be autonomous" from the position of an intellectual
is strange. As a theoretician of struggles, and of their autonomy, how do
you, for example, intervene in the movement of the sans-papiers or in that of the

Moulier-Boutang: I have participated in the movement of the sans-papiers for a
long time. Twenty-five years ago we were ultraminorities. The meeting at Montpellier,
the strike that had stopped during one or two days work at Citroen following the call
of the Movement of Arab Workers, I think that that was truly part of a superminoritarianism.
Act Up today is a mass movement! Let's look again at Cargo [2], the
struggles of the unemployed workers between 1980 and 1992: these were also minorities,
active groups. And then there was a moment when things became a lot more
massive: the movement of the sans-papiers is from then on happening, impossible
to eliminate, anchored in a European history that it is fashioning. From then on, the
problem depended on what we did: we can be militant; we can try also to understand.
I have lived a few things; by reconstructing them, I have also tried to return to what
was completely absurd or mediocre in traditional theses on migratory politics. The
two aspects, militantism and theory, are thus indispensable. But that must be natural:
a kind of bath in the social, without meditation. What must condition the posture of
the intellectual/expert/politically engaged individual, within and against, is not a moral
posture but a positive habitus in the sense of a corporal or intuitive ascension, a sixth
sociological sense without the pseudoscientific alibi of recoiling.

I think, for example, of May 1968. We participated in the surge of a stratum of intellectuals
and militants unencumbered by this awful complex that characterized the
preceding generation vis-a-vis the worker movement, vis-a-vis capitalist society and
vis-a-vis the media. Up until then, to be an intellectual, meant to think in isolation,
obligatory mediation, etc. But to transform the power and the state, this became: discipline,
unity, recognition, etc. -- in other words, the construction of an academic and
political micropower. The generation of Bourdieu and those before him had been submitted
to this blackmail in an exceptionally strong way, with the great difficulty of
navigating between the two. This brought them to define themselves entirely at the
interior of the Sartrian-Althusserian polarity: either the independence of the French
man of letters, like Sartre, often isolated -- I think of Pierre Vidal-Naquet who constitutes
one of the rare solid reference points -- or the Althusserian position, to be in the
machine, in the Communist Party or elsewhere; or better, the third way, straight and
combining the two: the way of the College de France. Therefore, in 1968, all that found
itself brutally discombobulated, in the forms of circulation and conflicts putting again
into effect the monopolies of production of ideas or of access to the bad or oppressed
part of society and investing all the instruments of existing communication: the universities,
mass media, etc. Today, for the generation of the fifteen following years, the
same thing has happened with computers and the Web. The first tract that I took, with
someone on March 22, was about a roneo in a small apartment in the Latin Quarter;
then there were tracts taken a la roneo from the Ecole Normale, from the Billancourt
factories: we were then in the era of the tract. Today, I see information of AC communicated
via e-mails, on list-serves! There is a use of technology, a way of countercapturing
the instruments of capital, that is extremely delightful.

Grelet: This form of circulation -- this "countercapture," as you say -- is it the
modern form of the flight of slaves?

Moulier-Boutang: Yes. Great is the power of circulation. For example, there is
an ordinance from the prefect of Rio de Janeiro, where the royal family of Portugal
had taken refuge from Napoleon, forbidding blacks from wearing the badge that they
all had and on which was written "Toussaint L'Ouverture, King of Blacks." Which
meant that the Haitian insurrection of which I spoke was known in Latin America,
even when Toussaint L'Ouverture had repatriated, was judged for treason, shut up
in Besancon (where he died) by Napoleon who, during this time, reestablished slavery.
All that was circulating. It was a rebel world, not a world on which slavery endured,
like an unquestionable horizon. If not, we would not understand why England,
in its divine goodness, decided to abolish the treaty in 1804, and then slavery. Let's
not make the same mistake today. Let's not internalize in our heads capitalism, the
forces of domination that exist in things -- certainly, that irritate everyone and by which
we measure power, strength, and arrogance -- by saying, "The horizon is there, and
there is nothing else." Because if that is the understanding of the relationships of
forces, we must not be surprised by the people no longer supporting politics. There
is more radical politics in Paul Celan than in the tirades of Brecht.

Grelet: How do we avoid redoing this mistake?

Moulier-Boutang: First, we have to hold onto our relationship to immediacy --
something that we want to do right away, and it's unconditional: all of a sudden, here
and now. This is not negotiable when the negotiation means demobilization, treason
of things, bad unity, permanent blackmail to civil war, blackmail to the consensus,
etc. To hold, also, a nonparanoid relationship to society; a relationship of pleasure,
without which it is not possible to construct the existing; a relationship to desire, to
the collective, the quotidian, etc. These are things that have not been exhausted by
the way in which the Socialist party has reused the slogan, "Change Life." One must
come to reconstruct a theory and a practice of social struggles that are at the same
time joyous, active, and not illusionist. We can have illusions, but we don't have the
right to be illusionist -- and if illusions produce happy, joyous passions, all the better.
And then, there is the nonhexagonal aspect: May 1968 is also Berlin, Mexico,
the anti-Vietnam War movement, etc. Something rather strong, that is happening
today, I believe, at the European level. To affirm, thus, the value of mobility -- not
that which consists of firing people: that of people who leave before we upset them
too much and who, in fact invent forms of activity, understanding, production, interaction,
ten times more promising than this type of order that is not even the art of

Grelet: Would this still be "the Left"? What invents itself there, in terms of
struggles (the guaranteed revenue, the legalization of drugs, the freedom of circulation,
etc.)? Can we call that "the Left" or not?

Moulier-Boutang: I believe not only that this is the Left, but I think that strong
divisions are going to appear. First, in terms of looking at productivism and valuelabor.
The Greens have already made a part of the way. Then, in terms of the state.
The state assures, certainly, some functions of redistribution. First, one whole part
of the Left claims that if the state is attacked, its functions go along with it. Therefore,
not at all.

To affirm that we must control the collective and administrative power of the state,
like the right to work controls the exorbitant powers of enterprise, does not mean that
we want to suppress Social Security, redistribution, etc. There is a cure for de-stateization
of the thought to realize, in taking support from both the local territory and from the
things that can be made in common between Europeans. It is through these two ends
that we must make this point of division. It's an explosive subject. Many object: "Yes,
but we cannot abandon the nation like that, that's like the game of the National Front,
etc." Certain people truly believe that: I think of the Chevenementistes, those dangerous
republicans that have never known what a democracy is. They live ideologically
in a feudal democracy and have a theory of order that is very passe, from the point of
view of control, on what liberal capitalism knows itself condemned to do to survive:
how to dominate a society agitated by a multitude of brownian movements, of an active
molecular and that acts on the molar level, to speak like Felix (Guattari). The
chevenementist theory of order thinks that it cannot have any global order if there is
local disorder. It is to us to reverse this schema. I believe that there will be a very profound
gap: the people who defend the nation, who systematically put the state before
all, who are outside control, are not only not of the Left but are clearly reactionary. In
the European Union where another politics will be constructed, those who, like Regis
Debray, sign manifestoes on the defense of the Republic, of the Nation, no longer have
much to do with the Left: they are public dangers.

This interview was conducted by Stany Grelet in May 1999 for the journal
in Paris. The interview and its themes refer to Moulier-Boutang's book
De l'esclavage
au salariat. Economie historique du salariat bride [From slavery to salariat: an economic
history of bound labor], PUF (Actuel Marx/Confrontations), 1998.