Proletarian Nights (Jacques Ranciere, 2012)

The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France

Proletarian Nights The Workers' Dream in Nineteenth-Century France by Jacques Rancière 478 pages, April 2012, 9781844677788, Verso
Proletarian Nights The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France by Jacques Rancière, 478 pages, April 2012, 9781844677788, Verso

Politics occurs when those who do not have the time, take the necessary time to live as a resident of a common space, proving that their mouths do not only speak with a voice but with a language, which signifies the pain. […] Politics consists in the division of the sensible, the ‘commons’ where a community defines new subjects and objects.  Within this, we make visible what is not visible. Speakers who make those voices heard are perceived as noisy animals. – From The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (page 75)
A glamorous Neo-Communism has conquered the thinkers of the world in recent years. This proves that radical political philosophy can have its quasi-celebrities.  Aside from this, we noticed a trend in the Neo-Marxist re-theorisation of old and new protest movements, as well as a revival of the “utopia” quality of the political.

This is a rather practical development in the the radical-chic jet set of continental philosophy. Slavoj Žižek lectures on social class; Alain Badiou is the metaphysical- religious savior; and in the Italian faction, we have Antonio Negri and Giorgio Agamben, who have become more Catholic than the pope. Jacques Rancière plays the role of meticulous and strict philologist. With his book “Proletarian Nights ” he now enters into intellectual light beyond postmodern political philosophy and aesthetics.

The common belief is that Rancière is mainly a historian. Anyone who asks about the content of his political utopia, will most likely find the answers in this historical work. Rancière reports on “a few dozen, a few hundred proletarians, who were twenty years old around 1830 and who, during this time, have decided not to bear the unbearable” (p. 7). The “night” in the poetically beautiful title of the book is not to be taken literally.  It refers to the nights when Rancière’s heroes do not sleep to reproduce their labor (the ruling order for them), but instead assemble to discuss their ideas.

Rancière’s book is devoted to workers, artisans and small-scale craftsmen, the 1830 June revolution and Saint-Simonism. He reflects on the teachings of Charles Fourier and Étienne Cabet’s travels to Ikaria. He pores through mostly short-lived workers’ magazines by literary and philosophical circles. The book tells the tale of intellectual adventures and reconstructs a situation in which a (political) self-awareness forms among those who had been excluded from social participation until now. Rancières proletarians are the “anteilloses”, which now demand their share in the company s society—a theme which is expressed in later works when Rancière becomes more prominent.

He describes the non-representative ways of life of tailors and writers through the minutely drawn sketches they left behind. He presents mini-biographies of working-class philosophers and worker- writers, whose fate had been, “to become workers but to speak like the bourgeois “(p. 9). The book is devoted to the articulation of the labor force as a collective but not as homogeneous subject.  He asks: what is the relationship between “the extravagances of these ‘artisans’ and ‘bourgeois’ and the solid realities of exploitation and class struggle?”(p. 37).

“The Night of the Proletarians” does not provide a decoupled idea of ​​early socialism. More than that, it traces the formation of concrete utopias ‘such as the workers’ association. In the center of working life during the first half of the 19th century, Rancière writes, there wasn’t so much poverty and misery as one would assume, but precarity. Some craftsmen or small-businessmen proved that it was quite possible to achieve a certain standard of living. “The smallest chances together with irregular work and the off-season were enough to [allow these workers to] live (or create) from these fragile positions” (page 51).

Rancière reconstructs a world in which physical strength, dexterity or professional qualifications “are worth as much as a lottery ticket” (p. 56) and are therefore of little use, for the workers to find their (own) dignity”. Rancières Workers’ Movement is not a professional skilled workforce, not a movement in which “work” and “diligence” are mythically exaggerated. On the contrary: “The word taken in the name of the working class presupposes an internal revolution, the reversal of the hierarchies of power and dexterity. For these hierarchies, which ultimately point to the coincidence of birth or the arbitrariness of social distinction, represent in the heart of the world of the workers, the law of castes, which establishes their subordinate position: “Therefore, the privileged role of the strange avant-garde stems from the mastery of the needle and the small soldering lead”(p. 64).

Rancière brings the work of the early and middle nineteenth century on the formula of “common experience of precarity with heterogeneous origins”. Theirs is a “working class,” which provides “in each stage the impression that is temporary in which the conscious eye loses its focus in wanting to distinguish the true proletarian from the backward craftsman or the unqualified service provider” (page 47). Only, and here lies Rancières pointe: This temporary stage is permanent, it is the ‘real’ feature of the workforce.

A central topic of the book is the analysis of the ‘concrete utopias’ of economic and social self-help. Both their organizational forms as well as their intellectual foundation conceive Rancière as a reflex and intervention in a specific social and economic situation. According to Rancière, Saint-Simonism appealed because it did not preach “the material and moral omnipotence of labor,” but “on the contrary, because of the practical perspective of the association,” which gathered workers, their qualifications, resources, and ways of life that are connected by the same feeling of precariousness and the same will to try out a form of social relations which at the same time offers to the individual a  way out and a model for a solution to collective precariousness “(p. 182).

Jacques Rancières “The Night of the Proletarians” is a pleasure to read. It is a book of literary splendor, not in the least thanks to the excellent translation. The insights that might be expected come in at least three directions. First, there is a need to rediscover the history of labor, which is based on the heterogeneity of historical living and working environments as well as on the plurality of political ideas and forms of organization. In the 1980s and 1990s, this has been done several times, but was not sustained. Second, the challenge of reevaluating the history of the nineteenth century from the point of view of a contemporary social history, for example along the idea of ‘precarity’ (the analytical potential of which has already been suggested some 20 years ago in works on the history of prehistoric craftsmanship). What seems possible here is a renewal of the once-productive alliance of social history and social theory. Thirdly, Rancière’s book can serve as an exemplary case study for an innovative approach for the present: for a social history of (utopian-political) thinking, which conceives ideas as ‘processing’ and ‘appropriation’ of socio-historical situations (and not, Ideas, only as their ‘image’). Rancière’s social history is always a history of experiences and emotions, specifically, a genealogy of the “(worker’s) brotherly camarderie”. Rancière, however, knows that in the sources he finds no ‘real’ feelings, but only their articulation. This articulation, rather than the supposedly ‘authentic’ emotions, is where Rancière declares his position to take on social relations and political programs; such as in the report of a Saint-Simonian missionary, who wrote on April 22, 1837, about a German tailor living in Paris: “A vague nagger who loses himself in a multitude of hypotheses which he spices with old philosophical biographies. Another one who is bored to death. […] I still like him very much, perhaps more, if he listens, which does not happen often” (page 34).


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