Yellow Vests: The search for a “collective Robespierre”, for a new Incorruptible!
“We need time,” says Etienne Chouard, one of the intellectual “gurus” of the Yellow Vest movement. For years, he has been campaigning in favor of citizens’ right to hold referendums. Now, he sees his ideas finally being embraced by people. The demand to provide people with the possibility of calling Referendums (on adopting or annulling bills or revoking elected representatives) has become one of the three main demands of the Yellow Vests (the others being Macron’s resignation and the rise of living standards among the popular classes).
All of France is now debating its destiny in various ways… it is living through an explosion of new possibilities in communication and rapidly acquiring consciousness. It would be impossible to try to present a general picture of these debates. This is perhaps a typical feature of any country in the throes of revolutionary “fever”, but Social Media has dramatically transformed the situation by providing nearly instant communication between a practically limitless number of people.
The Yellow Vests describe the situation – almost puzzled by their own success – as the sudden emergence of “collective intelligence”. They would boast about the developments, but they feel a bit uncertain and insecure – as if they fear that talking about it might jinx things.
You have a whole people, or at least its mobilized minority, maybe one-third of the total population, trying to find a way to collectively define its goals and the means to fulfill them.
In fact, this “collective intelligence” has been proven to be a key asset of the movement in many respects, in that it filters out all the nonsense which at some point went around Facebook, by bringing to the fore the things that unite it and brushing away the things that divide them, by isolating provocateurs and by dealing with the political counter-attacks and the continuous provocations of Macronites.
The French popular classes have proven that they possess enough accumulated social intelligence and political experience, on the one hand, to demolish the arguments of the Neoliberals and, on the other, to articulate their demands of radical control of the political system, long ago bought and controlled by the Financial Oligarchy. (Referendums, the abolition of the privileges of elected representatives).
Notably, this element of the movement is exactly what many “intellectuals” of the country do not seem to possess, and the same seems true of the bourgeois “radical left” and “revolutionary left”!
Problems begin to arise in their approach in the movement’s attempts to define an alternative economic model, and in their approach to the European question. This is in part due to the fact that the people avoid speaking much on these topics at all, likely out of fear it might split the movement.
The crucial European and international dimension
A characteristic of the movement, which may prove to be its Achilles’ heel, is its French character which accompanies a surprising lack of understanding about the strong interrelationship between European countries. In every meeting of Yellow Vests I have been to, including their Assembly of Assemblies in Commercy, there were too few references to the fact that the French crisis is an integral part of a broader European crisis. Very few people, if any, take into account the fact that behind the Greek Crisis, Brexit, the rise of far-right in continental Europe and Corbyn in Britain, there is a single unifying cause: the attack of Financial Capital against European democracy and social welfare.
It is a Regime Change operation on a continental scale.
On the fringes of the movement, we hear more and more calls for a Frexit, but I feel this is escaping from the problem than facing it. Even if a country leaves the EU or the Eurozone, it won’t end up some kind of paradise or attain independence but will remain very much a space dominated by hyper-financialized Late Disaster Capitalism.
To criticize the EU and Euro is quite easy and justified nowadays. It is much more difficult to try to open the way for a new democratic, social, ecological, independent European order to replace the existing one.
Even if you begin from one country, in the long term, you cannot achieve such a goal in the context of one medium-sized nation state like France, let alone in the majority of European states which are rather small. Leaving the EU has meaning only if doing so decreases national dependence on the “markets” (otherwise known as the Financial Dictatorship).
My personal impression from many discussions in different countries across Europe about various “exits” is that often many of those who propose them don’t actually believe in Europe resisting the Financial Dictatorship; they are simply trying to get the best deal possible for their own country. They prefer to forget that behind the little monsters, the European Commission, the European governments, even the Treaties, there is a much larger and more fearsome one, rising Financial Totalitarianism.
Whatever one believes regarding the EU, all French revolts since the 1789 Revolution faced European Reaction almost immediately. Now, the totalitarian Global Financial Empire has greater means to intervene against the people of a given country. European states have nearly ceased to exist, having become the unequal provinces of a sui generis super-state structure.
It is long proven that dreams of national socialisms, socialisms in one country or national capitalisms are impossible to realize.
European anti-neoliberal revolts are developing nearly exclusively in a national context. The European elites, however, have a regional strategy and continuous coordination. Financial Capital has a global strategy and coordinating control, economic forces, states and the media across the earth.
Remaining isolated, it will be extremely difficult for European countries to win.
Only by developing a challenge equivalent or superior to that of the Financial Empire can grant nations of Europe the possibility to succeed.
Perhaps a number of revolts will be needed to construct the international social and political subject of a European Revolution, which is more necessary than ever to counter rising Totalitarianism and war.
French “National-Popular Ideology” wins over Facebook!
Facebook has been used in many cases as a formidable tool of manipulation, of provoking color revolutions or imposing virtual realities. The election of the neo-fascist Bolsonaro as President in Brazil is the latest example.
But in the case of France and up to now, we have proof that the people can still use the Internet for their ends, and not always the Internet the people!
This is possible because French society has managed, despite decades of Neoliberal domination, to preserve the core of the democratic, popular “socialist” culture which has been developed by its grass-root classes from the time of Lumières and passed to next generations through their social struggles and narratives.
The nucleus of the “French National-Popular Ideology” is nothing other than the slogan of the 1789 Revolution and French state motto, “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity”. By bringing the battle to the level of the fundamentals, people have already moved instinctively where Macron and the Finance cannot win politically! They feel deeply the problem is one of Regime and Civilization; they understand they have to bring it to this level… this is why they sing the Marseillaise and they demonstrate with national, not red flags.
It is true that Macron cannot win on this level… but he also cannot concede without reversing the entire financial totalitarian project. This is why there will be no quick and easy win, this is why the “battle” risks evolving into a war, this is why intermediary forces like the Left, the Trade Unions and the Intelligentsia are not very useful.
Such forces are needed to reform the system, but the system, for the time being at least, refuses to change. As for the Radical or Far Right, it does not seem to have any serious strategic outlook. It is useful only as a Plan B., the Emergency Exit of the system, in case of real danger for its survival.
Internet and Physical Human Contact
Social Media, however, does not suffice to build a movement. Physical contact and the development of emotional bonds between people are also needed. This has been happening across France over the last four months and constitutes an enormous source of power behind the Yellow Vest movement; it’s their unique weapon. The people gathering in crowds do actually enjoy talking about their problems, debating forms of struggle and solutions, crying and laughing together, finding some sort of new family and becoming comrades, having fun together and clashing with the police, treating their wounded and mourning their dead.
They also, through this process, gradually acquire the self-confidence necessary for their struggle. One of the reasons Macron and his servants were portraying the populace as “illiterate”, “lazy”, even “bricks”, is they wanted to smash their self-confidence. But by pushing the people to the corner, essentially denying them the right to have an opinion, the Macronites finally provoked the opposite reaction. They persuaded people they have to become adults, thus permitting the unfolding Revolution!
They are rebuilding their country’s broken social fabric, they are re-humanizing, they are starting to heal the deep wounds in society’s body and soul caused by decades of harsh and socially insensitive economic policies, decades of media brutality and organized contempt for the popular classes, the corrosive effects of deception and betrayal from their politicians, intellectuals, journalists, trade unionists etc.
It took them two months to call their first “national assembly”, the “Assembly of the Assemblies”, which was held on 26-27 January in the small provincial city of Commercy, and they are already preparing their next one at the beginning of April. Despite the fact that they wish to steer clear of any leaders and representatives, they also feel, more and more, the strong need for coordination and structure.
“We are not interested in elections”
“Elections,” says Chouard, “leave me completely indifferent. They do not concern us. What is at stake here is to make the citizens adults.” This position, for the time being at least, is dominant in the overwhelming majority of the Vests. They don’t want anything to do with elections.
For Chouard, this seems to be a matter of principle, but, for many in the movement, is a precondition for its unity and survival, because among its ranks are people of various ideological backgrounds, from radical leftists to radical right-wingers and apolitical citizens. The prospect of elections would break them apart, plus, if they were present themselves as Yellow Vests in the elections, they would enter into competition with the opposition parties.
On the other hand, one wonders if the Yellow Vests will be able to keep this position as the May European Elections approach and the pressure to take a position mounts. After all, the movement has to begin delivering at least partial results and the victories are only continuing.
It is characteristic that, since we had the above discussion with Chouard, his own position has evolved. He expressed his support for Francois Asselineau’s UPR party, which is asking for the immediate exit of France from the EU and NATO. When I returned to him for a clarification, he told me that he will vote himself for the UPR but he is not calling for the Yellow Vests to vote. Anyway, he added, elections are not important.
Revolt or Revolution?
“It is undoubtedly the most significant revolutionary movement in France in the fifty years since May 1968,” says Xavier Renou of the Yellow Vests, when I put my “standard question” to him, whether he thinks that what is happening is a revolution.
Another economist, who specializes in the analysis of the role of financial capital in the structure of power (and does not come from a Marxist background) does not rush to reject the comparison with the Russian revolutions of 1905 and of February 1917. The comparison lies mainly in the spontaneous emergence of the forms of self-government and direct democracy, which were also present in Russia in the spontaneous creation of Soviets: this is the main characteristic of most of the deepest revolts and revolutionary movements of the 20th century.
And what came of all that? she asks me, but I have the impression she is asking herself.
Somehow, the situation has become rather funny.
Thirty years ago, as the Soviet Union, the fruit of the Russian Revolution, was collapsing, Francis Fukuyama made headlines by his assertion that History had ended. By ending History, Fukuyama proclaimed Revolutions impossible and Capitalism the eternal, only possible economic and social regime. By neutralizing the threat of Revolution, Capitalism felt free to take actions which are now provoking new Revolutions!
There is no doubt that the expectations of the workers of St. Petersburg and the Russian socialist intelligentsia were never realized. Still, the man is yet to be found who could convincingly prove that Russia and the world would have been better off if Russian workers and the most radical of Russian intellectuals did not do what they did.
All great revolts and revolutions have some similarity. They represent the quest of the human being for freedom, dignity and justice.
But conditions may differ. The French popular classes today have access to an incomparably larger array of intellectual resources and communication tools than the Russian or Chinese popular classes had when they were storming the heavens. They also have the experience of the degenerations and manipulation of previous revolts and revolutions.
The historian Jean-Jacques Marie, a great scholar in the field of Soviet and leftist History and the author of two fair-minded biographies (a rarity), one of Lenin and one of Stalin, hesitates but doesn’t want to reject altogether the comparison to the Petersburg Soviets.
The accumulation of direct and historical experience. The people, the Left, the Intellectuals.
There is no doubt that many Yellow Vest activists, although they don’t shout about it, draw their inspiration from the “direct-democracy” traditions of the French and Russian revolutions, and this is evident in the way they are trying to “build” their movement, trying to exorcize any form of representation and leadership in order to avoid bureaucratic degeneration and betrayal.
This method of organizing seems most appropriate given both the nature of their demands and the historical juncture in which they act. It has been almost mandatory and, so far, has proved very successful. But at some point, as history teaches us, it needs to be complemented by other forms of organization, even if doing so carries other risks.
Many thousands of people in France over recent decades have been socialist, Trotskyite, environmentalist, “alter-mondialisation”, “orthodox” communist, trade union activists and militants. They were rallied and mobilized behind various causes – the most significant example being the “No” campaign in the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which was a fight against Neo-Liberalism dominating Europe.
The vast majority of those people quit their organizations. They did it not because of a disagreement over their ideas, but because the action of the organizations did not match the words. Now, rich from their experience and reading, they are emerging again, gathering in the motorways, in the assemblies and in the “People’s Houses”, helping younger people with their experience and living memory.
They are the invisible and unheard “leaven” without which a movement with the characteristics of the Yellow Vests would have been unthinkable. A massive avant-guard which does not claim to be one.
On the contrary, most of the official organizations of the left – even of the “radical” and long ago “bourgeoisied” left – and most of the somewhat famous “intellectuals”, seem worried, occasionally even frightened, by these developments, which they didn’t anticipate and they had neither foreseen nor wanted, because these developments do not follow the prescribed forms and structures they are familiar with and seem to surpass them, if not threaten them.
Some of them had almost succeeded in turning “revolution” or “radicalism” into a profession and now that a revolution seems to be trying to come to life before their very eyes, they seem to say “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole!”
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