A background analysis of the yellow vests movement, after five months of mobilisation. A return to the salient points of this long sequence of struggle: the articulation strike-blockage and economic struggle-political struggle; the centrality of democratic issues; and the prospects of Commercy/Saint-Nazaire.
We propose here an abridged version of an article from the Plateforme d’enquêtes militantes (12/04/2019) that takes stock after five months of mobilisation. We have tried to highlight the elements which seem to us particularly important: the articulation between strike and blockage, as well as between economic struggle and political struggle; the centrality of the democratic stakes raised by the movement; and the prospects that emerge from Commercy/Saint-Nazaire.
The yellow vests movement is now moving towards its fifth month of existence and there is no doubt that it will survive the so-called “great national debate” that has just concluded. This moment corresponds to the launch of the campaign for the European elections of May 26, 2019. This is an important point of passage in the social and political sequence of events in progress: on the one hand, the government claims to be open to the citizenry and civil society; on the other side, with the new the anti-riot law [“loi anticasseur”: literally, the anti-breakers or anti-vandals law] in support, it feels that it has greater legitimacy to radicalise the repression against those who continue to demonstrate in the streets, by constantly widening the political spectrum of the movement, as illustrated by the historic day of March 16 (March for the climate, with the unifying slogan “end of the month, end of the world, same fight”; March of solidarity against police violence, mainly in the peripheral, “popular” neighborhoods, but that the yellow vest demonstrators have only discovered since November; the riot on the Champs-Élysées, mixing yellow vests and black k-ways, in ways far from the discourse of the media).
Faced with such a popular resolution, the government – short of maneuvers to bring the movement under common criminal law – ended up simply prohibiting demonstrations. And the repression continues to be beyond any measure, on the side of justice as much as on the side of the police: about 10,000 arrests, 6,000 held in police custody and 2,000 court judgements; more than 200 seriously wounded in the head, 22 with loss of eyes and 5 hands sheared off (a minimal and constantly updated record, but which already far exceeds what has been witnessed for several decades). We can therefore put forward the hypothesis that, in the class struggle, current neoliberalism prefers civil war – a further sign, if it were still necessary, of the accentuation of the current crisis (1)!
However, the deepening of the authoritarian features proper to all capitalist states is the flip side of the medal of the reconfiguration of the welfare state into a workfare state, the precariousness of the world of work and the neoliberal locking of economic policies. The highly political fact that the yellow vests have not only blocked the agenda of reforms (pensions and unemployment in primis), but also put into crisis the apparatus of government and the machinery of the state and police, tells us about its real strength and its possible wealth. The yellow vests know this well and they persist in destabilising he political system. Moreover, the specter of the questioning of what exists, of which this movement is capable, is very ample and varied. Work, in the multiplicity of its contemporary forms, remains at the center of the preoccupations of a class composition which exceeds the wage-earning and whose field of demands is not reduced to this question. But we are also dealing with a politicisation of several areas related to the “lifestyles” of today, whose potential for social and political transformation is unheard of. And again, more than the speeches, it is the practices and forms of organization of the yellow vests that show this to us. In this respect, we must consider three elements that distinguish the ongoing uprising: the redefinition operated by the yellow vests movement of the binomial strike/blockage; the re-articulation between “economic struggle” and “political struggle”; and the invention of new democratic forms.
The first point is decisive. The yellow vests are ingeniously redefining the relationship between the “strike”, in its classical form, and a motley ensemble of practices of “blocking the economy”. We know for the moment that these are experiments and that these experiments have not yet reached a decisive capacity for expansion. But we must insist on this phenomenon. In the first place, the Saturday demonstrations, called “Acts”: if in a traditional trade union perspective demonstrating on Saturday could appear as a political position outside the capital/labor conflict, it has revealed itself in fact to be a fully developed form of the socialization of the strike.(2) Faced with the failures of traditional forms of strike – determined by the crisis of labour unionism – the yellow vests chose, from the beginning, to break into the public arena and the urban space, every week. Far from constituting innocent parades, the Saturday demonstrations targeted the central districts of French cities, of all sizes. As was shown on the 16th March, the bourgeois neighborhoods are not merely material and symbolic places of institutional power, but also privileged spaces of mass consumption – and, in some areas, as around the Champs-Élysées, of consumption of luxury goods. The Saturday demonstrations in the city centres hinder the sphere of circulation and consumption of goods, as well as their symbolic exposure. Many shops and several department stores complain of heavy economic losses, and this not only in Paris, Nantes, Bordeaux or Toulouse, but almost everywhere in France. It is therefore not a coincidence that insurance costs for rebuilding shop windows increase after each Act. These demonstrations clearly show that the line separating the sphere of production from that of consumption is not so clear and that striking consumption is also a way, directly or indirectly, to hit production.
A similar discourse also holds for other forms of economic blockage, which also express a socialization of the strike: logistical strikes, traffic blockages, forms of non-payment at tolls, blockage of the international market of Rungis, repeated picket lines in front of Amazon, etc. The re-articulation of the relationship between the strike and the practices of blockage includes the recognition that the border which separates production from circulation, like that between production and consumption, is blurred. This does not imply abandoning the traditional forms of production stoppage, but, on the contrary, rethinking them at this level, which is that of diffuse social production on a metropolitan scale. From this point of view, it is not unimportant to recognize that, in the face of the demolition of local public services, the movement began with a protest against the increase in the price of gasoline. This refusal has brought to the fore a basic fact: when using a private vehicle, such as the car, to go to work, or when the car is the means of work as such (as for the VTC [voiture avec chauffeur/vehicle for hire], for example), it is a decisive element in the functioning of economic processes. It is for this reason that the emphasis on increasing purchasing power, in our opinion, does not concern the abandonment of the wage theme, but rather its requalification in the terms of its socialisation. Social wage which – in order to avoid any misunderstanding – has nothing to do with demanding a guaranteed social income, but refers to all the social protections financed by taxes on the products of the exploitation of living labor.
Economic struggle/political struggle
The yellow vests, by placing purchasing power at the center and therefore also socialised wages, have put us before the end of the “sectoral” nature of union action and, more broadly, of the sectoral structure of a certain type of economic struggle. From this point of view, they de facto re-articulated the relationship between “economic struggle” and “political struggle”. In the first place, the occupations of urban spaces, of the bourgeois districts of western Paris and of the left bank, the onslaught on luxury shops, etc., have always been accompanied by a constant reference to the symbols of the Republic, highlighting the hypocrisy and illegitimacy of an order of republican discourse that cut ties with social and fiscal justice, reducing itself to security issues.
Such a re-articulation between economic struggle and political struggle then goes through the combination of what the yellow vests call “economic justice” and what they call “democracy” (but we could also add “ecological justice”). If some on the Left see in the demands of the yellow vests, as far as tax justice is concerned, a “backward” stage in the political subjectification of the movement, we defend a radically different reading, which highlights the innovative aspects promoted by the movement, even in an impure, even contradictory, form. What, very often, is interpreted by some as an element of weakness, seems to us on the contrary to be one of its strong points.
Let’s take a closer look at this combination of social and fiscal justice. If, for example, the movement addresses itself to the State with respect to taxation, minimum wage, public services, etc. (and what about the demands that insist on “zero homelessness”, support measures for people with disabilities, the proposal to socialise the banking system?), it does so not because it has a clear awareness of all the social relations and the figures of capitalist command today, but because it identifies the contemporary state as a major economic actor that contributes to capitalist exploitation and domination. More precisely, it is the function that it fulfills in terms of “extraction” in the processes of contemporary valorisation that is refused. The extractive nature of the State, that is, its role in the extractive logic of current capitalism, manifests itself doubly: through the dispossession of public services and common goods (hence the centrality within the movement of the question of local and national services); but also via fiscal leverage (and therefore indebtedness). Fiscal leverage and indebtedness are two very concrete expressions of the redefinition of the logic of exploitation that today act directly on forms of life (consumption, access to public services, school expenses, university fees, health, holidays, etc.).
From this point of view, rather than reading the tax demands as the “Right” side of the movement’s demands, one should instead try to read these claims from the social condition of poverty that this movement has brought to light as that specific feature of mobilised subjectivities. A poverty that is fully productive. Poverty, class relegation, proletarianisation, in fact, emerge as a condition that affects all the social strata involved in the production of wealth. We are therefore not talking about “marginal” poverty, in the sense of a condition that characterizes subjects “excluded” from the circuit of wealth production. On the contrary, the poor correspond to the subjects which today have an essential productive centrality in the most disparate sectors: tertiary, public services, schools, town halls, hospitals, but also the logistics workers, platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, etc.
It is for this reason that the movement insists on the overall revaluation of work (“we want to live from our trades”), a revaluation that goes either by a direct insistence on wages or by indirect demands, such as tax equity, wealth sharing, end of privileges, access to public services, etc. This set of elements shows us how general the scope of the movement of the yellow vests is, by its capacity to invest both the field of production and the reproduction of capital (3), while initiating a reinvention of democratic practices.
And the democracy vogue
Given the irreversible crisis of social mediation and political representation, the yellow vests have increasingly emphasised the practices of horizontality and self-organisation. While the need for direct and participatory democracy was immediately seen as the salient feature of the movement – a formidable vaccine against any clumsy attempt to recover it – it is a phenomenon that not only can be translated in a practical and organizational way, but also signifies destitution and constitution. In this respect, we can retain three important dimensions: the criticism of Macron and the Fifth Republic; the proposal of the RIC [Référendum d’initiative citoyenne/Citizens’ initiative referendum]; the proliferation of local assemblies.
Much more than the “general will”, Emmanuel Macron represents the incarnation of the class contempt of the new rich. His speeches against losers, slackers, those who do not succeed, and so on, punctuated the electoral campaign and the first phase of his five-year term, dedicated to transforming the old France of social assistance into a start-up nation. Far from the discreet style of graying Brussels technocrats or anonymous officials of the deep State, his haughty figure of dynamic manager has long denied, in the most ostentatious way, the slightest legitimacy to a movement that demanded “more money” and “more participation “. On the contrary, he perfectly assumed his role as monarch at the head of a highly centralised and vertical institutional scaffolding, resulting from the military coup of 1958. If any of the characteristics of “the current crisis of democracy” is precisely a muzzling of parliament by the executive, now the formula Macron + V Republic has proved an explosive cocktail. No wonder, then, that the dismissal of Macron – and the criticism of the constitution in force – is so central to the yellow vests.
Secondly, the proposal of the RIC. Several elements of the Left, engaged in the movement, manifest a certain perplexity vis-à-vis such a demand. Despite the fact that it contains the real risk of a purely formal and procedural twist, it must be recognised that, until now, this danger has been postponed, because the RIC demand, much more than an abstract fetishisation of the democratic process, expressed the counterpoint to a material instance of re-appropriation of political power. This desire for the re-appropriation of political power is deployed in the terms of a decentralization of power itself, that is, in the affirmation of a non-monopoly conception of political decision-making. Although the concrete application of the RIC poses quite legitimate questions, it must be interpreted as one of the instances “discovered” by the movement, as one of the alternatives to its “becoming-party” and its participation in elections, but also as a “solution” to the erasure of intermediate bodies operated by Macron, as a distinctive feature of his populism from above. It must therefore be admitted that the RIC, in its contradictory and problematic nature, nevertheless allowed the yellow vests to refuse the path taken by the 5-star movement in Italy and by Podemos in Spain. The former became an establishment party that rules with Salvini’s far-right, while the latter tears itself apart in internal quarrels that completely separated it from social struggles.
The outcome of any referendum process, we know, still depends on the balance of power at stake. The referendum in California legalized marijuana, but in Switzerland it was used against immigrants and for Islamophobic purposes. In Italian history, it allowed the approval of the right to abortion, to push back the nuclear power and to defend the public service of water. In all these cases, the presence or absence of struggles and movements that “carry” and try to determine the referendum processes appeared decisive. Although the RIC no longer has the centrality that the movement granted it in its early stages, there is no need to underestimate another aspect: it represents the formal face of this power of veto and of revoking governmental decisions that the movement is experiments with effectively every Saturday on the streets.
Do you want Commercy/Saint-Nazaire with us?
The third point concerns the people’s assemblies, their local reinforcement, their proliferation throughout the territory and their networking. This question – which seems to us a very fruitful hypothesis – combines the concrete experimentation of a direct and participative practice of daily democracy with the reinvention of a form of democratic confederalism. The proposal from Commercy, revived by Saint-Nazaire and collected by hundreds of popular assemblies throughout France, is an original prospect and rich in potential. The multiplication of these foci of struggle and the consolidation of their connections represent an issue that could be the future of the class struggle in France. These assemblies embody embryonic forms of social counter-power that, for the moment, have not only halted the long march of neoliberal restructuring, but have also affirmed another way of hearing and living politics. Critical-destituent force and positive power, the yellow vests movement finds its vital organs in these cells to promote the knowledge and know-how of everyone!
In this respect, the assembly of assemblies of Saint-Nazaire has very clearly demonstrated the determination to structure the movement in the long term, by articulating the plurality of territorial levels through which it unfolds: rural areas (agricultural and tourist), small towns / peri-urban areas, large and medium towns. The proliferation of the movement throughout France and its constant and resolute presence in time are in fact the clear sign of a desire for the concrete re-appropriation of political power that goes far beyond anti-Macronism or the simple feeling of mistrust vis-à-vis the representation.
After escaping the threat of electoral capture, the yellow vests movement has the cards in hand to oppose the powers in place and impose its demands. In this regard, three questions seem to us to contribute to fueling its deployment:
first, the building of links between the various popular assemblies present at a local level;
secondly, linking these assemblies with the other centers of struggle (union, anti-racist, feminist, ecological, student, etc.) that exist alongside the yellow vests;
finally, the articulation between the antagonistic intensity peaks that destabilise the political system and the blocking capacity that de-structures the economic regime.
The combination of these three perspectives represents the challenge of the coming months: how to hold together the event irruption with the maintenance of process dynamics? How to make the movement root itself more and more in the social and geographical spaces and reproduce itself with even more power over time, without renouncing its own characteristics, which are its strength? A challenge that – if it is won – will put a lot of things into question, in France as elsewhere.
(1) In this respect, J.M. Apathie – an occasionally acute commentator as any reactionary worthy this name – speaks of “scattered elements of civil war”.
(2) In the history of the labour and revolutionary movement, the “economic strike” concerns demands with respect to wages and working conditions, while the “political strike” concerns demands that are related to political situations (corruption, change of government, etc.). Since the turn of the 1970’s – and especially with the global feminist movement since 2016 – the practice of strikes has also increasingly been adopted for struggles over a wider spectrum of issues: racism, sexism, gender violence, social sphere reproduction, etc. The expression “social strike” attempts to define from a theoretical and political point of view this plurality of struggles.
(3) Regarding the importance of the sphere of reproduction in contemporary struggles and those of the yellow vests, see our first editorial.