Something’s happening here…
The “yellow vest” (gilets jaunes) movement has upended French politics, at least.
It has delivered a sharp and refreshing smack in the face to the smuggest of smug, entitled neoliberal brats, Emmanuel Macron, forcing him to retreat on substantive tax and minimum wage issues. It has also raised a raft of issues from wealth inequality (including demands for higher taxes on the rich) to a rejection of austerity and the dreaded Frexit.
Most importantly, it has acted outside the gatekeeping of traditional opposition parties and institutions–including those of the left, which have all been thoroughly decaffeinated and beguiled by the fantasia of Third-Way EU becoming “Social Europe.” The Yellow Vest movement is millions of people out in the street, engaged in militant, confrontational protest, talking to and acting with each other unsupervised, telling the governing elite: “Va te faire foutre!”
A self-mobilization of the working class: This is the specter of Europe past, which Third-Way politicians and intelligentsia thought they had once and for all banished to the netherworld a few decades ago. The Yellow Vest movement, now spreading to other counties, is striking a new body blow to the teetering edifice of neoliberalism that has been built on the bones of the working-class lives in Europe and America over those decades.
This explains why the American mainstream media has avoided focusing on the Yellow Vest movement. The left, on the other hand, must be overjoyed, right?
Well, it’s more like: Comme-ci, comme ça.
Why? “Identity politics” is, of course, the term that immediately comes to mind, though that term oversimplifies, particularly regarding the French context. As C. J. Hopkins put it: “Nothing scares the Identity Politics Left quite like an actual working class uprising.” Scares and confuses.
Historically, the core definition of the left has been solidarity with the working class (everyone who depends on wages to live), which includes the majority of people of all races and genders. But a new definition has taken hold among American/Western/college-educated liberals and progressives, as well as socialists and Marxists, who are perceived and think of themselves as on the “left”, and it has given rise to a new pattern of solidarity. These leftists have trained themselves to quickly embrace movements defined in terms of race and gender. Critical interrogation will come from within an assumed position of solidarity, and it will usually be in terms of those categories: Does your racial justice movement x have the right attitude and/or demographics in terms of gender?
Much less frequently and urgently, and virtually never as a condition of support, will a race or gender movement be interrogated regarding its position—its attitude and demographics—in terms of class.
There’s a different default setting for working-class movements. They will almost always be looked upon with suspicion, until and unless they prove their attitudinal and demographic race and gender bona fides to the satisfaction of American/Western/college-educated “leftists.” That interrogation has effectively become a prior condition of solidarity for working-class movements. Leftists have adopted a kind of checklist of concerns, and class has moved way down.
So that’s been affecting the slow uptake of left support and coverage of Yellow Vest movement, which is, centrally and unashamedly, a working-class movement. Though the spark was a hike in the diesel gas tax, the flame quickly engulfed a wide range of issues. Far from being an “anti-tax” revolt, as some on the right and the left rushed to characterize it, Yellow Vest has called for the re-imposition of the wealth tax that Macron had so kindly abolished for the French elite. Fundamentally, it’s an eruption of a lot of people who are rightly raging about economic inequality.
Diana Johnstone sums it up well:
The gasoline tax was the last straw in a long series of measures favoring the rich at the expense of the majority of the population….Briefly, the message was this: we can’t make ends meet. The cost of living keeps going up, and our incomes keep going down. We just can’t take it any more.
And the French people make it clear repeatedly:
— The Intercept (@theintercept) December 14, 2018
The Yellow Vest movement is a widespread working-class revolt against economic injustice and the neo-liberal state. Exactly what the left should embrace.
I don’t understand why any progressive is cheering French protesters who are amassing against a carbon tax.
— Neera Tanden (@neeratanden) December 8, 2018
When we see a “Center for American Progress (CAP), progressive, feminist,” like Neera Tanden tweeting, from the checklist: “I don’t understand why any progressive is cheering French protesters who are amassing against a carbon tax,” and a correspondent for the “leftist” French publication Libération ,calling Yellow Vest a “movement of hicks” or a “band of polluting oafs, addicted to their cars, who need to be dealt with by the police,” we are seeing the sorry, degraded, utterly clueless state of what passes for the left.
Neera should talk to, or have clue one about, Colette, age 83, who “doesn’t own a car, but explained to whoever would listen that the steep raise of gasoline prices would also hurt people who don’t drive, by affecting prices of food and other necessities. She had done the calculations and figured it would cost a retired person 80 euros per month.”
Or the young woman in southwestern France who “cares for elderly people who live at home alone in rural areas, driving from one to another, to feed them, bathe them, offer a moment of cheerful company and understanding. She loves her vocation, loves helping old people, although it barely allows her to make a living. She will be among those who will have to pay more to get from one patient to the next.”
Another “polluting oaf.”
As commentator O Societyr astutely put it: “The Paris protests aren’t over a fuel tax any more than Colin Kaepernick is about the American National Anthem. Kaepernick is protesting police brutality and the Gilets Jaunes are protesting their ‘Let them eat cake’ government.”
The ability of leftists to reject the diversions and cut through to the crux of the matter in one case, while quickly succumbing to them in the other is a perfect example of the left’s diminished attention to, and concern for, class.
As Tanden and Libé remarks indicate, it’s not just “identity” that’s up there in the hierarchy of the checklist. As I’ve said before, the left has succumbed to deprecating a politics of class solidarity in favor of a politics of solidarity based on like-mindednesson a checklist of issues.
But this has things backward. Solidarity is not a matter of prior agreement. It’s bedrock socialism that you can only build a movement with the working-class we have, not the one we wish for. Which means solidarity must start with material interest, not like-mindedness, You don’t have to agree with me for me to defend your interests.
Agreement doesn’t precede, it results from, solidarity. You get—earn and build—popular support for progressive, socialist, and revolutionary ideas and programs by defending and fighting for people’s material interests, not by interrogating people who are in actual revolt against the neo-liberal state to see whether they have the correct ideas regarding everything on your checklist, and insulting and attacking them if they don’t. That’s the approach of the liberal intellectual, not the left socialist.
Agreement will come from respectful engagement in a common fight for a dignified life for everyone. Or it won’t. There are no guarantees. Because everybodyin a capitalist society gets “taught wrong on purpose,” a lot of people with a lot of half-assed ideas—whether kinda-sorta racist or sexist, or kinda-sorta authoritarian, or kinda-sorta in thrall to liberal capitalist politicians, or kinda-sorta self-righteous, or kinda-sorta skeptical of global warming—must get together and learn what ideas, attitudes, and actions help the movement, and what kind of bullshit will guarantee defeat and has to go. Or they won’t, and the movement will fail, or turn nasty.
Furthermore, the change from “normal” opposition to a radical, insurrectionary, or revolutionary movement always starts with an abrupt, unforeseeable explosion over a relatively minor “final straw” slight. And it never starts with an agenda of all the correct demands. What that explosion does, precisely, is initiate a process of struggle and learning, through which the working classes, acting outside of any preconceived agenda, and joined by those who have had the time and privilege to study history and politics, can define not only an agenda of specific demands, but a new type of polity.
I certainly have my pessimism of the intellect about where this movement can go without more clearly defining itself politically and organizationally. And it must and will do that, through the work and influence of someone(some persons or groups), if it doesn’t disappear or get destroyed by the repressive and ideological power of the neoliberal capitalist state.
It’s not that, because it’s a working-class movement, Yellow Vest is sure to be socialist and successful. Given the actual socio-economic, ideological and political state of neo-liberal capitalist societies, it would be foolish to think such a thing.
It’s that: that someone can only be a participant. Rather than hold its nose in pre-judgement, for the self-satisfaction of “Tsk, tsk,” and “I told you so,” any self-respecting left has the responsibility to support and participate, as it can, in a working-class uprising, in order to make a better outcome more likely.
The Gilets-Jaunes is clearly a movement of the rightfully pissed-off working classes against the smug capitalist elite. it deserves our solidarity.
Across the West, the left has struggled to know how to respond to the populist uprisings of recent years. There is a tendency on the left to denounce any shock to the status quo as driven by reactionary forces. The revolting masses are often written off as fascists.
For some two or three hundred years, people one could call “left” hoped that popular movements would lead to changes for the better. Today, many leftists seem terrified of popular movements for change, convinced “populism” must lead to “fascism.
Let’s also dispel the elitist liberaloid night in which all populisms are black. Enough of ceding popular democracy—including combative, even insurrectionary, democratic movements (i.e, those seeking to really—socially and politically—empower the majority of people) to the right.
Sure, Yellow Vest, the Brexit vote in England, and the vote for Donald Trump in the United States are all expressions of politically-amorphous class anger. But, A) That’s not intrinsically “fascist”; and B) The social overdeterminations and political alliances differ from each other in Important ways, Particularly as Americans, we should have the humble good sense not to confuse the politico-ideological situation of the French working class with our own.
Unlike its American cousin, the French working class is not steeped in libertarian, casino capitalist, market-worshipping, Shark Tank ideology. Yellow Vest is precisely fighting against the encroachment of that ideology. Indeed, that’s what Macron has been trying to foist on France, as the agent of the neoliberal finance globalism in which he sincerely believes—and which has, just coincidentally, netted him “a few quick millions during his passage through the Rothschild Bank.” ($31.5 millionin four years, in fact. Nice Work.)
Macron, known as “the president of the rich,” has been “on a mission… to change things across the board in a way that I consider right.” That has involved introducing “a raft of tax reforms in a bid to dispel France’s reputation as a country that soaks the rich and stifles enterprise.”
As a result of his zeal, the French can now celebrate that “Paris has overtaken London for the first time in a global league table of the world’s ultra-rich.” Mission accomplished.
That is what the French working class is protesting against. It is not taken in by this market-worshipping crap, and never was. There was no wave of enraptured workers who thought Macron would make France great again for them. He was elected “only because a majority felt they had to vote against the ghost of “fascism” allegedly embodied by his opponent, Marine Le Pen… the French voted two to one in favor of a man whose program most of them either ignored or disliked.”
Macron has been trying to impose the American paradigm, promoting “a profound ideological transformation of the French ideal of égalité, equality, from a horizontal concept, meaning equal benefits for all, to the vertical ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’, meaning the theoretical chance of every individual to rise above the others.” Fortunately, “The French have traditionally been logical enough to understand that everyone can’t rise above the others.”
Like many of its counterparts throughout Europe, the French working class, including its unions and political parties, has historically been infused with socialist and communist ideologies. Though capitalist ideology has been making inroads, French workers are far from persuaded that casino capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. The core understanding of class struggle remains, and is a primary engine of the Yellow Vest movement. This is left populism.
It is nothing like the American working-class—the exceptionalism of which is its thorough and consistent saturation with capitalist social ideology, which leaves so many of them with the fantasy that they are, as Steinbeck (apocryphally) put it: “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
That ideological formation sets the American working class up for capture by the two proudly capitalist parties—today, by Trumpian right-wing faux populism through which working-class anger is eaten by the reactionary Republican party; yesterday and tomorrow, by kindler, gentler, “we’recapitalistand that’s just the way it is” Clintonism, through which working-class anger is euthanized by the Democratic party.
In the Yellow Vest movement, the French working class is defending its social state, a form of social democracy that doesn’t exist in the United States. Their fight—actual fighting in the streets—is forrobust, publicly-funded public services, to defend them againstbeing privatized. As Diana Johnstone explains Macron’s attempted neo-liberal healthcare “reforms” they are fighting:
France has long had the best public health program in the world, but this is being steadily undermined to meet the primary need of capital: profit. In the past few years, there has been a growing government campaign to encourage, and finally to oblige people to subscribe to a “mutuelle”, that is, a private health insurance, ostensibly to fill “the gaps” not covered by France’s universal health coverage. The “gaps” can be the 15% that is not covered for ordinary illnesses .., or for medicines taken off the “covered” list, or for dental work, among other things. The “gaps” to fill keep expanding, along with the cost of subscribing to the mutuelle. In reality, this program, sold to the public as modernizing improvement, is a gradual move toward privatization of health care. It is a sneaky method of opening the whole field of public health to international financial capital investment. This gambit has not fooled ordinary people and is high on the list of complaints by the Gilets Jaunes.
Meanwhile, in the home of the brave, establishment liberals are trying to prevent the American people from getting anything close to what the French working class is fighting to defend, as Adam Cancryn writes in a Politico article, sharply titled, “Establishment looks to crush liberals on Medicare for All”: “The private-sector interests, backed in some cases by key Obama administration and Hillary Clinton campaign alumni, are now focused on beating back another prospective health care overhaul”.
The Yellow Vest movement is not a repeat of, but a model for, American working-class populist protest. A few million working-class Americans out on the street busting things up to get Medicare-for-All is exactly what we need. It got the French people some major “impossible” concessions right quick, and it’s probably the only way we’re going to get even the one social-democratic advance of Medicare-for-All. Wonking with the Neera Tandens and other Clintonite Democrats is certainly a waste of time.
So the Yellow Vest movement is a protest against international a neoliberal, sometimes called “globalist,” project to destroy European social democracy. The Yellow Vest protest is demonstrating, if not entirely recognizing, that the European Union—and especially its capstone, the Euro—isthat project.
Too many Western leftists, including among the working-class, bought the idea that the European Union was a progressive project. This was understandable, as it was sold as a prophylactic against the recurrence of the kind of horrendous wars among European nations that ravaged the continent.
Leftists let themselves be persuaded that it could also be the foundation of a new, united “social Europe” that would spread and strengthen the achievements of progressive social democracy andthe values of new identity, diversity, ecology, and human rights movements. It would be a project for overcoming both military conflict and archaic social attitudes. All good things. Through one good thing to rule them all.
But that was, and is, hogwash.
For its architects—the ones who had real power in government, business and finance, not the professors in their post-modern symbolic-exchange seminars—the primary purpose of the EU was always clear: to increase the power of capital over labor.
European capital (in conjunction with and under the tutelage of American capital) needed to find a way around the power of national labor movements embedded in strong unions and allied socialist and communist political parties.
European capital didn’t give a damn about diversity and human rights, but was happy to use those tropes as needed to marginalize class-based politics. Anything that would promote the idea that class was passé, and thereby help hasten the victory of the European capitalist classesover national labor movements, was fine by them. (Ecology is a little trickier, but they have some workarounds for that.). Wrapping class disdain in the patter of progressive, universal vs. backward, local values was a shrewd tactic that helped capital misdirect the attention of liberal intellectuals.to what the trick actually was.
Comes the reveal.
The real point of the EU was to force the member states into the neo-liberal austerity program dictated by international capital (and now particularly finance capital), from its headquarters in Washington/New York through its satellite in Berlin/Frankfurt. With leftist eyes fixed elsewhere, capital proceeded with its economic “reforms”—i.e., elimination of labor protections and capital controls. the privatization of public goods and services, budget restrictions that force the state to take loans from private banks, “competition” rules that favor private and foreign capital over public investment, etc.
It’s the program to which, international capital and Third-Way politicians have decreed, There Is No Alternative. And the EU is there to discipline the various states with rules and regulation of political economy that ensure that, indeed, there can be no alternative for them
For capital, it’s moving from public constraint to market freedom. For the working-class, it’s moving from secure public services to sauve-qui-peut. Every incipient entrepreneur for him or her self.
And the extra-special reveal: the left discovers the card in its own pocket, discovers that it’s been recruited, with various degrees of wittingness, to move from its historical place with the working class to up on the stage as “the left-wing of neoliberalism.”
In a specific example of how the imposition of the neoliberal TINA regime has played out in France, Macron’s government abandoned a Tidal Energy project because it wasn’t profitable—because new industrial projects rarely start out profitable, and need government subsidies to succeed. At the same time, General Electric came in and bought a big energy company.
De-industrialization provides another example. France has lost 40% of its industry as capital moves to lower-wage EU countries like Poland (The dismantling of the post-capitalist Soviet bloc was another huge boost for European unitycapital freedom). Auto-workers in central France, desperate to save their jobs, threaten to blow up the plant if the government doesn’t intervene. But workers have lost their greatest weapon, the strike, the power to shut down an industry, when capital has beaten them to it.
The EU’s real mission was to forge this single neo-liberal political economy to which all its states and all their citizens are subjected. Johnstone sums it up nicely for France, where all the ruling parties “have followed European Union directives requiring member states to adopt neoliberal economic policies. Especially since the adoption of the common currency, the euro, a little over fifteen years ago, those economic policies have become tangibly harmful to France, hastening its deindustrialization, the ruin of its farmers and the growing indebtedness of the State to private banks.”
Thus, the neoliberal austerity offensive of the EU is a war on social democracy, That’s what the yellow vests and other European populists and “nationalist” movements are responding to. What’s also taken so many on the left and in the working class too long to get is that it has been a war on social democratic economic arrangements, carried out by the Social Democratic political parties.
When asked to name her greatest achievement, Margaret Thatcher said instantly and correctly: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour.” Similarly, Reagan’s greatest legacy was Bill Clinton and the Clintonite Democratic Party. And Mitterrand became the best bud of Reagan and Thatcher, creating the Socialist Party of Hollande and Macron. Turning the Socialist Party of France into one of the midwives of neoliberalism in Europe. Rinse and repeat throughout Europe.
For thirty years, the ostensible Social Democratic parties steadily but surreptitiously–under false pretenses–introduced elements of the austerity project, until austerity was all that was left. It’s been a neat trick of political-economy substitution—switching social-democracy with austerity right before your eyes.
And one day—after a gas-tax hike or whatever—the working class woke up to realize that all the incremental changes had added up to a qualitative difference. The great post-war social democratic arrangement–whereby the capitalist classes agreed to provide a set of essential public services and decent-life guarantees, in exchange for being allowed to maintain their decisive control of society’s capital wealth–was gone. “Macron is a bubble that has burst.”
There are a few conclusions to be drawn from all this that are severely discomfiting to, and have been assiduously avoided by, too many leftists who have been entrenched in anything-but-class discourse.
One is that the European Union itself (with the Euro) was one of the main weapons, and falsest of pretenses, in this flim-flam. The EU was the pretty box the rabbit went into, and came out cooked.
The EU is, and always was, a project of capitalist globalization, which, despite much wishful thinking, is not—in fact, is the opposite of—proletarian internationalism. It’s a nasty simulacrum thereof, that pushes European society in the opposite direction.
Many leftists, grounding themselves solely in a humanitarian and altruistic paradigm, resist thinking about the disruptions and depressions of labor pools and markets, and the transfer of cheap labor around the continent and the world, as part of a process of capitalist globalization, as a complement and enhancement to the “free” movement of capital, as a process created and managed by capital in its interest and antithetical to the interest of proletarian internationalism. In so resisting, they are again forgoing the critique of the political economy of capitalism and resting within a paradigm of concern shared with wealthy elites. Angela Nagle’s argumentdeserves to be taken seriously. There are many difficult things to unpack here, but altruism is not solidarity, and we have to start thinking the difference.
A corollary conclusion is that it turns out the European nation-state is now the last redoubt of social democracy.
As Michael Hudson frequently points out, we have to think of what the EU (especially through the Euro) has been doing to European nations—and especially to the working classes of those nations—as war with financial and economic weapons: “It’s a financial war. And finance really is war by other means, the way it’s being conducted today, because the objective of finance in Western Europe is the same as that of war.”
It’s not a metaphor; it’s a war of the bankers and capitalists to wrench the public wealth of European nations from the political control of their working-class populations, with deadly consequences. The working classes are besieged and are fighting back, for social democracy, from the territory in which they are cornered, and in which they still have some power: the national polity.
If leftists can’t think of it this way, and only see the expressions of nationalism as “fascism,” if they decry the Yellow Vests for singing the Marseillaise…Well, all I can say is: If it was good enough for Rick… The important thing isn’t what song you sing, it’s whom your song is defying.
A crucial point about the EU and the key role of the Euro is perfectly summarized by Greg Palast (echoing Hudson): “currency union is class war by other means.”
Palast explains: “The euro is doing exactly what its progenitor – and the wealthy 1%-ers who adopted it – predicted and planned for it to do.”
Palast’s “progenitor” is University of Chicago economist Robert Mundell, who “produced the blueprint for European monetary union and a common European currency.” Mundell hated the fact that, in his words: “It’s very hard to fire workers in Europe,” so he designed a tool that would make it easier. As Palast says, the Euro was designed specifically to “remov[e] a government’s control over currency.. [and be] a weapon that would blow away government rules and labor regulations.” And Mundell, its architect, said it himself: “It [the Euro] puts monetary policy out of the reach of politicians, [And] without fiscal policy, the only way nations can keep jobs is by the competitive reduction of rules on business.”
Diana Johnstone explains that this is exactly how the Euro has ravaged France:
it has become more and more obvious that EU monetarist policy based on the common currency, the euro, creates neither growth nor jobs as promised but destroys both. Unable to control its own currency, obliged to borrow from private banks, and to pay them interest, France is more and more in debt, its industry is disappearing and its farmers are committing suicide, on the average of one every other day.
This is the result of the EU and the Euro, and the “eco-tax” that provoked the protest has everything to do with it: Johnstone again:
Indeed, it is perfectly hypocritical to call the French gas tax an “ecotax” since the returns from a genuine ecotax would be invested to develop clean energies – such as tidal power plants. Rather, the benefits are earmarked to balance the budget, that is, to serve the government debt.
This “ecotax” is a fraud in every way. Macron’s “ecotax” is nothing but a means of restricting spending and balancing books—zeroing out numbers—at the insistence of the banksters running the EU. As Johnstone points out, it does not “pay for” anything.
And, really, think about how utterly silly that would be. The premise is that the tax a measure to stop catastrophic global warming. So: “We’re facing an apocalyptic disaster that will drown half the earth in a few decades. What should we do?” Answer: “Levy a tax.”
That’ll do what? All it will do is stop people who can’t “pay for” the tax to stop driving (or be driven deeper into debt). Everyone in the 1%, who can afford it, will keep on destroying the earth. That’s all “pay for” can mean in this context: The wealthy will pay a few more euros; the working class will pay with even more degraded lives. The problem will remain.
If you’re a serious political authority facing a global apocalypse—if the asteroid is heading for Earth—you don’t sit around trying to figure out: “What should we tax?” You decide what you have to do, and you do it, paying for it with your sovereign currency. If you have one.
You’d also need world-wide, cooperative public planning unconcerned with profit—something like, you know, socialism. Taxes, along with their obverse, profit “incentives,” are precisely the capitalist workaround for pretending to tackle the complex, global and systemic ecological problems that can only be solved by a socialist commonwealth.
So, while the masters of the EU universe are pushing us away from that, the Yellow Vests are perfectly right to say: “I’m more worried about the end of the month than about the end of the world.” That’s the succinct, populist version of Pepe Escobar’s observation:“Why is it easier to imagine the total destruction of mankind, from nuclear war to a climate catastrophe, than to work on changing the system of relations spawned by neoliberal capitalism?”
This also has everything to do with the point about money and taxes that I’ve made in a previous essay—namely, that taxes do not fund government spending, and that monetary sovereignty, which France and other European countries fatally surrendered to the EU and the Eurobank, is an indispensable tool for progressive policy initiatives. The Yellow Vest revolt is implicitly, and must be explicitly if it is to succeed, a revolt against the Euro. And leftists need to understand why that is so.
Finally, a point alluded to above is worth reprising: Social Democracy killed social democracy. And it wasn’t by accident. The Social Democratic parties and politicians (like Macron) that spent 30 years undoing social democracy, and now firmly perceive their identity as uber-State stewards of global finance capitalism, are not going to bring it back. Willingly.
The only reason we had post-war European social democracy in the first place was because of the threat of socialist revolution. The only thing that could get it back is precisely the same threat.
We are in a conjuncture—the Social Democratic parties have brought us here—where: If you want social democracy, you have to fight for full-on socialism.
But, hey, if you succeed so well as to threaten a socialist victory, why stop short? If you again leave the capitalist class with their control of the capital wealth of society, they will again use it relentlessly to erode whatever social democracy they concede, and you’ll repeat the same cycle. That’s what a classanalysis tells you.
Of course, the Yellow Vest movement, though it may be in that conjuncture, is nowhere near that choice. And I do not know, and have serious doubts about, whether it ever will be. This percolating crisis of European neo-liberalism has been throwing up a lot of disappointing false-hope movements, like Syriza (which I critiqued sharply at the time here and here). As the song goes: “What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
But what’s happening here, with the Yellow Vests, is a self-actuated working-class movement against austerity, inequality, and the neo-liberal uber-State. It’s a hell of a start, and deserves the support of the left.
It’s the classic scene, where the detached American decides to take the risk of siding with a movement that’s not what he asked for.
Play the Marseillaise.