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The Spontaneous Politics of the Masses: Slavoj Žižek and the Yellow Vests

The Yellow Vest movement dumbfounded not only the French ruling elites, but also the left intellectuals throughout Europe. This, to be fair, was always the case with every serious revolutionary movement in the last one hundred years. Not one successful revolution was ever “correct” according to the left intellectuals and politicians. The fact that the “Yellow Vests” are treated in a similar fashion could be considered the evidence of significance of the events we are witnessing, and of their potential to initiate serious change in the life of the French society and in the rest of the Europe.

The intellectuals treated the “Yellow Vests” with empathy, but at the same time with paternalistic skepticism or even condescending ridicule. Like: the citizens, of course, have a right to protest, but their demands and views are contradictory, while their potential to win this battle is not quite apparent. Moreover, almost all analysts announced that the program, which was put together by the grass-roots movement, cannot be accomplished.

One characteristic example of this critique is the appearance of Slavoj Žižek on Russia Today.

Žižek sees the mass protests in France as an indisputable symptom of the systemic crisis, but then he parrots the ideologues of the ruling class in their denunciation of the program of the movement. The Slovenian intellectual sees the resolution of the problems in the emergence of some sort of socialist bureaucracy (not clear if the bureaucracy has to be of a Soviet or a Scandinavian type), which would save the day. However, it is not clear who would create this bureaucracy, how, and why it would express the interests of the society and the workers.

It becomes apparent immediately that while accusing the “Yellow Vests” of inconsistency, the philosopher contradicts himself each step of the way. The reasoning about the demands of the protesters that are impossible to meet “within the existing system” is an abstraction, which is typical for the intellectuals. They see the system as something completely holistic and unchanging, and therefore any demands that contradict its current condition are declared unrealistic. Žižek condemns populism, but in doing this he calls into question any popular demands and needs expressed by the masses.

Even if we accept Žižek’s thesis about the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters “within the existing system”, the question remains: who and how will change this system? The same enlightened bureaucracy, which, by the philosopher’s own admission, exists only in his imagination?

The thesis about the need to change the system completely and at once sounds very radical, but it lacks political substance. Any change in the system consists of tens, and may be even hundreds of concrete steps and measures that simply cannot be carried out simultaneously and at once. Moreover, almost all serious changes involve multiple phases. Transition from one phase to the next could happen in a very short period of time given a revolutionary situation, but the next step is impossible without the first one. For example, creation of a complete system of democratic planning is impossible without taking control of the top levers of the economy. Likewise, implementation of a large scale social investment program requires reforms of the government institutions and changes in the finance laws. Of course, some steps in this direction can be taken, but we must understand that they will not be very effective until a certain critical mass of institutional transformations has been accumulated. This is why any reforms and revolutions, even if they eventually move the society forward, early on are accompanied by ambiguous results, and often by objective worsening of the situation. Most importantly, any transformative measures, any steps to change the society and the state can (and would) be considered partial, insufficient, reformist, and so on. A true understanding of their significance is only possible in the context of the process as a whole.

But let us return to the discussion of the “Yellow Vests”. Why cannot their demands be met? Yes, Žižek makes an important qualification: the demands cannot be met “within the existing system”. But even here he is absolutely wrong. Most of the demands have been realized in the past by Western capitalism, but after the victory of neoliberalism these social advances were abolished. In other words, the protesters are just trying to win back the gains of the working class, which they lost in the last 30 years. Of course, it is impossible to return into 1960s and 70s. The practical work on the restoration of the welfare state would be successful only if it creates new forms and new possibilities for its development. However, we are talking here about something else: the thesis that social reforms are impossible within a capitalist system is just not true. It’s a whole another story that these reforms never result from a good will of the ruling class, but are rather won through the working class struggles.

In order to support his thesis about the contradictory demands of “Yellow Vests” Žižek points out that it is impossible to lower the taxes on the working people and at the same time to increase financing of education, healthcare, social sphere, etc. It is quite telling that this thesis is borrowed from the neoliberal experts. It is famous in Russia as the formula offered by the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was caught on camera talking to the Crimean retirees: “Money is scarce, but hang in there”.

In reality, there are many ways for governments to obtain the money needed for social spending. There is no need to squeeze the working class by excessive taxation. One can create effective state enterprises, and use the profits for social needs. One can increase taxes on large corporations, or at least take away some of the tax benefits the transnationals enjoyed in almost all countries in the last decade. One can reduce the benefits for the upper layers of bureaucracy, and stop wasting resources on the meaningless “prestigious” projects, one can cut spending on the repressive apparatus, or one can fight corruption more effectively. One can stimulate economic growth and increase the wages, so that even when the taxes are cut, the overall budget revenue increases. One may even finance social programs at the expense of budget deficit: contrary to the opinion of liberal pundits, increase in government spending does not automatically lead to a proportional increase in inflation (currently, loans issued by private banks stimulate inflation to a much greater extent than government expences).

While repeating the falsehood of the ruling class apologists about the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters, Žižek does not notice that the danger for the elites from the “Yellow Vest” protests comes precisely from the fact that these demands can be easily met even today, even within the existing capitalist economy. However, these demands simply contradict the interests of the ruling elites. In other words, the impossible demands are not the issue; the problem is the class contradictions inherent to capitalism. Only the pressure from the masses on the ruling elites, who time after time were forced to make concessions to the outraged people, allowed any social progress within the existing system.

The same applies to the notorious “inconsistency” of the program of the “Yellow Vests”. Sure, the demands are somewhat contradictory. Nevertheless, this not only does not mean that they are impossible to meet, but, on the contrary, indicates the opposite. A completely consistent and absolutely non-contradictory socio-economic and political program can exist only in the mind of an ideologue, and even then, only if he does not realize the existence of objective contradictions within a socio-historical process or a social structure. Only a mass movement, which combines different social groups and somehow takes into account their diverse interests, is able to attract and mobilize the vast majority of the people. All movements, which managed to change societies, were populist movements. The Bolshevik slogan “Land to the peasants”, which motivated Lenin’s team to take power and win the civil war, originated not in socialist theory, but reflected the real needs of the “petty-bourgeois” peasantry. Without their participation, the revolution did not stand a chance.

A flawless “consistent” program can never be implemented by definition because it will never gather the support of the majority. Even if a “wise dictator” would try to impose it from above, in reality, he would still have to make concessions, given the inconsistency of public interests and the need to maintain the support of a sufficiently large mass of his subjects.

At the same time, the inconsistency of the demands of the “Yellow Vests” is also deliberately exaggerated by the propaganda of the powers that be. From the point of view of the left, the requirement of breaking up of the leading banks looks rather doubtful. Marxist or left-Keynesian economists will certainly say that nationalization of the largest financial institutions and their subordination to public control is much more reasonable from the point of view of the interests of the society. But first, this requirement is not only quite feasible, but does not contradict the logic of the market economy. And secondly, even if it is implemented, nothing terrible would happen. Moreover, the situation would still be much better than it is now, as breaking up the banks would weaken their political power and undermine the control of the government policies by financial capital.

Does everything mentioned above mean that Žižek is wrong about the systemic crisis? By no means. The movement of the “Yellow Vests” really reflects the fact that the system has come to a certain critical point. However, the transition of the society to a qualitatively different condition happens precisely through such “contradictory” uprisings of the people, which historians have been calling revolutions for three hundred years. If the “Yellow Vests” win, if their demands are met in general (and not a single program was ever completely accomplished, certainly, not at once), it will not lead to the abolition of capitalism.

This, on the one hand, will radically change the balance of class forces in the society, and on the other hand, will give rise to new social interests and demands that grow out of the new situation and the new opportunities it will allow.

In fact, we are dealing here with a kind of “transition program” (using the term of Leon Trotsky), with the only difference that it is formulated not by intellectuals and politicians, but spontaneously by the masses themselves.

We can criticize the spontaneous grassroots movements accompanied by inevitable excesses and mistakes as much as we want, but we have to admit that in the conditions of complete bankruptcy of the left political and intellectual community, the masses simply have no choice but to take their fate into their own hands. In other words, the spontaneous politics of the masses is better than the opportunism of politicians and the narcissism of intellectuals.

It is not surprising that for the left intellectuals, including the best (Slavoj Žižek is one of them), such a turn of events is unexpected and unpleasant. Intellectuals can criticize politicians as much as they want, putting themselves above political games, but at some point they may discover that their integrity and the depth of their statements do not give them any trump cards in the eyes of the masses. Moreover, the situation is even worse for public intellectuals than it is for the academics. The latter, at least, do not expect that the people, having seen the light, will call them as new leaders. On the contrary, public intellectuals genuinely confuse their media success and their popularity with public influence. These are not only different, but, in some cases, are the opposite things.

Any progressive mass movement needs intellectuals. The “Yellow Vests” also need them, but not as arrogant teachers and mentors, not as picky judges who evaluate other people’s actions, but as equal and useful comrades.

The right to qualify for leadership in a mass movement must be earned by a practical presence in this movement. Not by past achievements and clever publications, but by constant activity, direct participation in the events and willingness to share with people not only responsibility for the results of their struggle, but also risks (including moral) and failures. It is important to focus not on abstract theoretical correctness, but on the political efficiency and practical success here and now, on the efficiency in the interests of this movement and the block of social forces this movement represents. One needs not to judge or evaluate, but to participate, to struggle, to make mistakes, to correct mistakes and win.

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Boris Kagarlitsky PhD is a historian and sociologist who lives in Moscow. He is a prolific author of books on the history and current politics of the Soviet Union and Russia and of books on the rise of globalized capitalism. Fourteen of his books have been translated into English. The most recent book in English is ‘From Empires to Imperialism: The State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation’ (Routledge, 2014). Kagarlitsky is chief editor of the Russian-language online journal Rabkor.ru (The Worker). He is the director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements, located in Moscow.

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