After the Arab Spring, Occupy, and Los Indignados, Nuit Debout is now the new social movement spreading across the world. It seems that the trend for a new form of social revolt is growing worldwide but what are the common factors and features behind these new movements?
It all looks like another regular Wednesday evening in London. Tourists are out taking selfies in front of the many attractions the city has to offer and Londoners rushed to the tube leaving work few hours ago already. Nothing out of the ordinary really. Except when suddenly a small group appears and gathers in front of the Prime Minister office in Downing Street.
Within few minutes, the members of this eclectic group composed of ten people of different ages and nationalities, take out colourful chalks out of their bags and start writing on the pavement. ‘Welcome to the pavement of truth’ says one inscription, ‘Nuit Debout London’ indicates another. It is now official, the French Nuit Debout movement has reached London.
Alex, who created the Facebook page of Nuit Debout London, explains: “I believe that it’s spreading across Europe. It’s a convergence of different facts, like the labour law in France, the Panama papers, it’s many things happening at the same time. So people actually awake and say ‘no, it’s enough. We have to do something on our own, it’s not the system or the politicians who will change.’”
Nuit Debout started in France on March 31st when street demonstrations led by students and unions members against the proposed changes to labour laws turned into a night-time sit-in in the Place de la République in Paris.
— Nuit Debout (@nuitdebout) March 22, 2016
“There were about 300 or 400 of us at a public meeting in February and we were wondering how can we really scare the government? We had an idea: at the next big street protest, we simply wouldn’t go home,” said Michel, 60, to the Guardian.
The movement has since been growing in France and beyond with Nuit Debout events inventoried as far as Brazil and the Philippines. Alex says about the UK: “We have Nuit Debout now in Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Liverpool, so it’s growing. It’s rising everywhere.”
Nuit Debout is far from being the first movement to occupy space. But even though the rise of this type of social strategy is often linked to the Arab Spring, the first to occupy space were actually from Ukraine and Georgia.
As explained by Professor Klandermans, social psychologist specialised in social protests: “It started in some of the Eastern European countries like Ukraine and Georgia. People started to occupy space and that became a strategy that was copied by many other movements like Gezi Park in Turkey, Occupy of course, and now Nuit Debout.”
All these movements represent a new form of resistance toward political systems that are seen as obsolete and unfair by the protestors. Occupation is also a way to detach the movements from traditional protests or mode of resistance.
In the case of Nuit Debout, occupying during the night can also be seen as a symbol by both “breaking with the space time allocated to by the media narrative and also confronting capitalism on its own terrain”, explains Gabriel Rockhill, French-American philosopher writing about revolutions.
“Meaning that capitalism as it’s understood today is the sleepless beast of the world. 24/7, it’s time never stops and it globally encompasses everything. “
Another feature shared by these recent social movements involving occupation of public spaces is the importance of horizontality. The idea behind this concept is that these movements are leaderless, in the sense that everyone’s ideas have the same weight and importance.
As Alex tells me: “In Nuit debout, everyone is a leader so everyone can say something to make this movement move on, move forward.”
“I guess many of these movements are anti-establishment movements, anti-existing power movements so they don’t want to copy the hierarchical models of other organisations in our society”, adds Professor Klandermans. “That’s an important element and that’s one of the reasons why they don’t want leadership and they don’t want hierarchical structures.”
This rejection of existing powers and hierarchical models is tightened with a global struggle against capitalism and the way it rules the world. Gabriel Rockhill explains: “there is clearly a global dissatisfaction with the overall economic and political structure that has come to dominance over the last years. And I see many of these movements engaging in various ways with a struggle against neo-colonial, neo-imperial modes of global capital.”
“I see a lot of these global struggles as diverse attempts to articulate alternative political practices, and imaginaries that are coming out of a rather complex history of the radical resistance.”
A common way to articulate this new political framework is through global participation and without geographical boundaries. That’s the strength of Nuit Debout right now and it was also the strength of Los Indignados in Spain and of the American Occupy movement.
“It doesn’t need to be Downing street, it doesn’t need to be Trafalgar square, it doesn’t need to be London”, summarises Alex. “It’s just to spread the message that: ‘Guys! Get together, make an assembly, and think about what would be the best way of making a change.’”
Nuit Debout wants no label and no affiliations to organisations, it defines itself as a ‘convergence of struggles’. The assemblies, organised every night in Paris and few nights a week in other places, are divided into workshops and themed discussions. More creative activities are also available through concerts and artistic workshops.
Of course, no way to keep running all night without food so Nuit Debout got its own canteen in Place de la République. Ran by volunteers, the canteen delivers fresh products from unsold items gained from supermarkets or local markets. The concept is that there is no price tag attached to the meals served so everyone is free to give whatever they want.
This idea of solidarity and cooperation was also crucial in the Occupy movement. Gabriel Rockhill remembers that even though the media often depict Occupy as a failure, it still had lots of positive repercussions. “Probably one of the single biggest one which is often under the media radar”, he says, “is the social success.”
“In Occupy Philadelphia, there was an unbelievable mobilisation that did things that the state apparatus and capitalism aren’t doing. Like feeding the homeless, providing homes for the homeless, providing first aids, providing legal advice, providing a public library… Enormous social services and in so many sites across the country and around the world. That’s an enormous, enormous success in itself.”
Questioning the success and more precisely the impact of social movements is no easy task. The Arab Spring, for example, can be considered as a failure by some but the situation is much more nuanced than that.
Professor Klandermans explains: “The Arab Spring, if you think of it in term of what it got into movement, that was enormous! It wasn’t in the direction or in the way the people started it and had hoped or dreamed about. It backfired, it became actually a disaster if you want to put it that way, but it had an enormous impact.”
Even for experts like sociologists, predicting the faith and future of social movements is a difficult task. One misconception about revolutions or social movements like Nuit Debout is that people expect -and potentially wish for- fast moving dynamics. They expect to change the entire political framework with one big successful action.
“There is too much of an insistence on a cataclysmic conception of revolution”, explains Gabriel Rockhill. “That it happens all at once and then there is big change and there is a new society that emerges. When you start studying the history of revolutions, you realise that it usually takes at least a few years or about a decade, often a few decades. “
One thing for sure is that Nuit Debout is growing fast and internationally. Proof of it is the setting of the first Global Debout event happening this weekend in Paris. Inviting people from the entire world to “construct together a global spring of resistance!”, the Facebook page of the event already gathered more than 10,000 interested people.
So let’s take few steps back and give Nuit Debout some time. Because as Gabriel Rockhill says: “What is at stake is a reconfiguration of our world and it can’t be done over night, it takes time.”