Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The “yellow vests”: a people’s revolt short of breath, a long wave of people’s illusion

“Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat”.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              The Communist Manifesto (1848)

 

Today. Great surprise has been caused by the so-called “gilets jaunes movement” (the yellow vests), arising in France in mid November, apparently out of nothing, and, reaching its peak at the beginning of December, subsequently losing momentum and potential for mobilization after the Government concessions of 10 December.

The most striking “novelty” is represented by the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators blocking the thoroughfares and centres of the country’s most important cities and succeeding in placing the government and its “forces of law and order” in difficulty.

So let’s take a step backwards and run through the events that have affected French society over the past few years, up to the “sudden” appearance of the gilets jaunes, in order to explain how the latter come to be the outcome of a process that is still ongoing.

The first stage was the rallying of forces against the Loi Travail, which came into force in August 2016, despite the protests of the previous months: demonstrations organized by the Unions, general strikes, a movement which in March 2016 involved between 390 thousand and 1.2 million workers in street rallies[1], faced with which the French bourgeoisie had no second thoughts whatsoever. Finally, in spring 2018, came the long and exhausting battle of the railway workers (which we followed and have already written about) [2], concluding with the workers’ defeat.

 

What classes in action. Rather than report the sequence of recent events, which can be found in the bourgeois press, we are interested in grasping their political significance and revolutionary prospects.  The “people” is an indistinct mass of individuals, classes and social strata, with contrasting interests. We therefore have to understand which classes were involved in order to grasp the historical laws underlying the real movement: this is the basic method of scientific communism. Many people have wondered just who the gilets jaunes are but few have come up with a clear answer. The most thorough analyses are those that study the economic situation in France and the social position of the demonstrators in the context of the capitalist system of production. Let us read what the Italian Confindustria’s daily newspaper has to say about this:

“[In France] people at risk of poverty and social exclusion constitute 17.1% of the total, fewer than Germany’s 19% and Italy’s 28.9%. 4.1% of all families have “great difficulty” in making it to the end of the month. This is not Germany’s 2.1%, but nonetheless one of the best figures in Euroland. Moving on to those who have “difficulty” in making it to the end of the month, the figure rises to 14%, just over the average for Euroland, but constantly on the decrease since the 16% in 2013. Where France reveals some signs of stress is when the enquiry broadens to include families that encounter at least “some difficulty”. In this case the percentage (39.7%), though lower than Italy’s 47.8% (the second worst figure in the whole of the European Union), is fairly high, yet in this case too on the decrease (in Italy, instead, it is rising dramatically). In Germany, the percentage comes to 9.5%. […] in France food prices have risen by 10.4% since 2010, as against the 13.4% of Euroland, rents by 5.6% as against 12.8%, electricity by 10.8% as against the 15.8% of Euroland (and Italy’s +23%). […] However, the average income in France rose by 2.75% yearly between 1999 and 2017, as against 2.36% in Germany and 3.53% in Italy. Half of the French earn less than 22,077 euros a year, in Germany the “middle” point is 21,920 euros, in Italy 16,542 euros.” [3].

 

Curious! At times, when describing certain phenomena, the bourgeoisie seems to be more … materialist than us materialists and, involuntarily, applies economic determinism, whilst at the same time telling the fairytale of the “failure of scientific communism”! But let us move on.

Even from this brief analysis, it can be seen that those concerned come from strata of the petit bourgeoisie and working class aristocracy undergoing proletarianization, joined, obviously, in view of the constant onslaughts of the economic crisis, by proletarian sectors, as well as a considerable number of the petit bourgeoisie from the suburbs, the outskirts and small rural centres around big cities, as the Italian daily “Il Manifesto” reminds us:

“Nevertheless, poverty is more prevalent in cities than in the countryside: this is particularly true of the city centres, where one inhabitant in five is poor. At the other territorial extreme, isolated municipalities not belonging to an urban area also have a high poverty rate (17%) but these municipalities only account for 4% of the population. However, it is not the poorest of the French population (66% of whom, we should remember, live in the large urban hubs) that don yellow waistcoats, even though it is difficult to give a sociological account of them. In words, what is expressed is the anger of a France of modest incomes, the lower middle classes and the lower classes, which constitute a large portion of the population. 50% of the population has a standard of living rated at between 1,139 and 2,125 euros a month.” [4].

And so the minimum salary has been spreading constantly since 2010, and, whilst average salaries have risen over the years, the percentage of workers on a low wage has grown from 6 to 9 per cent of the total number of workers (Eurostat figures).

This is the explosive mixture: stagnation in the standard of living, the increase in the cost of essential spending for a family on a modest income... The increase in petrol prices, passed off as an “environmental measure”, is merely the spark that lights the fire.

But the class composition of the movement is not sufficient for a full understanding of it. We have to understand how these different social components act in their own interests: let us remember that we are talking about the world’s sixth industrial power, with imperialist political activities and a strong and numerous working-class aristocracy.  Before the gilets jaunes movement, the French government had succeeded in passing the Loi Travail without suffering any serious opposition from the proletariat, thanks to its being hemmed in by the Unions: this gives us a better understanding of how the proletarians involved in the movement acted  under the influence of a petit bourgeois ideology.

The demands. The popular, heterogeneous and cross-class nature can best be seen when considering the demands advanced, expressed in three different stages, with long lists of proposals, even highly ambitious ones, which, in their confusion, are full of sentiments of patriotism and national harmony. A first “manifesto” with 42 demands was sent to French MPs in mid-November. These are the most “telling” items:

  • Solution to the problem of the homeless. Around 200 thousand people are living on the streets in France
  • Strictly progressive income tax
  • Minimum monthly salary SMIC at 1300 euros
  • Small businesses to be favoured putting an end to the building of large shopping malls and free parking in cities
  • Large businesses (Macdonalds, Amazon, Carrefours) to pay a lot and small businesses very little
  • The same pension for everyone; an end to the discrimination of employees (RSI)
  • The pension system to be socialized with social support for everyone
  • An end to increases in fuel prices
  • Minimum pensions at 1200 euros a month
  • For all persons elected, salaries equal to the average, with a check on reimbursements for transport and the right to paid holidays
  • All salaries and pensions to be index-linked to inflation
  • French industry to be defended, relocation to be fought and specific know-how defended
  • An end to working away from home. All those who work on French territory must be subject to the tax regulations, contracts and national security applying to French citizens, with no possibility of disloyal competition to native workers
  • Fight for job security to be fought for against fixed-term contracts (CDD) and in favour of open-ended contracts
  • The implementation of a true policy of integration, so that immigration to France means becoming French, with certified language courses, history and civil education courses.
  • More resources for justice, the forces of law and order and the army, with overtime to be paid extra

These proposals were followed on 6 December, by a 25-point manifesto in the same spirit, called “Proposals for exiting the crisis”: increase in minimum salaries; building of five million units of social housing; exit from the European Union and the euro; campaigns against the big banks, lobbies, pharmaceutical companies; immediate exit from NATO; a stop to migratory flows; an end to “plundering and political or military interference in Africa”.

All these proposals failed to completely involve the demonstrators, least of all those who had expressed passive consent, without taking part in the clashes and roadblocks. The loudly proclaimed online debate with the collection of support remained far inferior to the number of demonstrators out on the streets. The movement’s real strength lay in its ability to block roads and place the forces of law and order in difficulty but without a clear, definite and shared programme. So much so that the concessions of 10 December were sufficient to considerably weaken active participation. The government won thanks to massive, organized policing and concessions to the lowest incomes and pensions: the 1,184 euros net as minimum salary rose to nearly 1,300 and detractions from pensions decreased. Another of Macron’s concessions was to end taxation on overtime: a highly intelligent move that reinforced the chains of salaried slavery, giving temporary satisfaction to the salaried slaves. Lately the government has been airing the prospect of not eliminating property tax.

After the concessions and a considerable reduction in forces out on the streets, the movement went on to demand “direct democracy”, “power to the citizens through the tool of the referendum”.

The nature of the movement is also confirmed by the opinion polls, which speak of 60%-70% of consensus for the gilets jaunes, without this translating into actual presence on the streets. The gilets jaunes thus speculate on the malcontent and economic-social difficulties of employed workers and nonetheless subordinate this to the interests of the nation – making it coincide with the common interests of “good entrepreneurs” and … “workers who do their duty.”

To sum up, a people’s silent majority.

The methods of the fight. The modality of mobilization and the use of information technology merely emphasize the fact that means of communication are not only a useful tool for capital but can serve to organize and respond in terms of opposition. Moreover, the tools of communication have made it possible, more easily and more quickly than before, to give voice and substance to the need to overcome the purely individual dimension in which these classes and social strata were bogged down and imprisoned up until now. But it is not the tool of communication that determined the phenomenon: the gilets jaunes arose out of the crisis and material living and working conditions, not out of the internet!  The communications network and IT merely provided a tool: their potential was mostly lost because of the democratic, popular and petit-bourgeois prejudices concerning organization – prejudices that are born out of a lack of confidence in bourgeois politics and the decade-long anti-proletarian work done by the national Unions, which encourage the movement to disown the need for any form of party and stable or structured organization, even if it is only to carry forward their economic claims… only to fall back into the parliamentary illusion and that of referendums and attempt to come up with the umpteenth electoral caravan!  For us, on the other hand, the organization must be at one and the same time the objective and the main result of the fight’s progression: in the immediate instance to support economic claims and those for an improvement in living and working conditions; in perspective, to consolidate and direct solid social opposition on a political level.

The popular nature of the movement was also revealed in the absence of methods of proletarian struggle, those as far as possible independent and rooted first and foremost in the territories where people live and work: tendentially long-lasting strikes, determined and widespread picketing, a halt to goods entering or exiting works – in a word, all that is certainly not exhausted in demonstrations and Saturday afternoon clashes.  The gilets jaunes mainly blocked roads on Saturdays only, thus wishing to demonstrate that it is impossible to live in the French “provinces” without a car: but as a consequence commercial traffic was only blocked on relatively quiet days…

Another aspect to reflect on is the use of violence. Unfortunately, without any organization, this, too, gets lost and does not enable any lasting results to be obtained. Yet, the capacity for mobilization and for creating difficulties for the “forces of law and order” may contribute to denting the myth of the bourgeois State’s invincible power: it’s already a fine result to show that it’s possible to react against the violence of the cops! The frustrating declamation of the unassailable power of Capital has been compromised and this will, in all events, serve to sustain the morale of the proletariat in the future.  In any case, the phenomenon of the petit-bourgeois reaction to proletarianization is not limited to France and France’s example may serve to give courage to those who suffer similar material conditions. But, we repeat: without organization, the movement of the gilets jaunes itself is destined to die out without a trace. There is negative proof of this, too: indeed, the State has managed to contain and absorb the rebellion thanks to its greater ability to organize itself and make use of the historical experience matured as a ruling class.

***

And so today we find ourselves at this point in the trajectory of history: with a proletariat influenced by the petit bourgeoisie and the whole weight of a century of counter-revolution weighing on its shoulders like a boulder.  Marx wrote, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852):

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue” [5].

Today we are a long way from an age of revolutionary crisis and for this reason the weight of tradition makes itself felt even more oppressively. But we communists have always repeated that we cannot wait for pure class recoveries: on the contrary, as well as by its volcanic nature, any recovery will be characterized by an inevitable mixture of positions, especially due to the inevitable presence in the “movement” of half classes undergoing proletarianization and their “half ideologies”. As a party, we, however, cannot give undifferentiated “leftist”, “proletarian” or “classist” political legitimacy to outbreaks such as that of the gilets jaunes: we must, instead, stress and reaffirm the autonomous role of the proletarian movement and work to enable it to make progress and affirm itself in the course of the inevitable present and future struggles.

It will therefore be interesting to see how parties large and small, and movements large and small allow themselves to be dragged into these popular and cross-class rebellions and enthused by them.

 

[1] Cfr. www.lemonde.fr/economie-francaise/article/2016/05/26/huitieme-journee-nationale-d-action-contre-le-projet-de-loi-travail_4926537_1656968.html.

[2] Cfr. “Dalla Francia. Lo sciopero dei ferrovieri: cronaca di un’ennesima sconfitta annunciata / From France. The railway workers’ strike: chronicle of the umpteenth pre-announced defeat”, Il programma comunista, n.4/2018. www.partitocomunistainternazionale.org/index.php/it/296-il-programma-comunista-2018/n-04-luglio-agosto-2018/2270-dalla-francia-realta-e-mistificazioni-dello-sciopero-dei-ferrovieri.

[3] “Gilet gialli, i numeri dell’economia raccontano un’altra Francia / Gilets jaunes, the figures on the economy tell the story of a different France”, Il Sole 24 Ore, 18/12/2018. Figures taken from Eurostat sources.

[4] “Stagnazione e spese, l’origine della protesta dei gilet gialli Stagnation and costs, the origin of the protests by the gilets jaunes”, Il Manifesto, 5/12/2018.

[5] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm.

 

 International Communist Party

International Press

 

                    

            

 

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