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Class struggle or nationalism?

Le fond de l'air est jaune. Comprendre une révolte inédite
Forfatter: Joseph Confavreux
Forlag: (Seuil)
YELLOW VEST / The speed with which Macron burns out shows how deep a crisis the national democracies in Europe are in.


Since the end of November 2018, France has been the scene of widespread protests that raise fundamental questions for the political-economic system of the country. And there is nothing to suggest that the protests are not continuing. The state and the Macron government are doing what they can to prevent the protests. The anti-insurgency regime has been turned up – 12 people have been killed in fighting with the police, more than 1800 protesters have been injured, including around 100 seriously, and it is now prohibited to demonstrate in certain areas of Paris, Toulouse, Nice and Bordeaux and in 12 other cities.

At the same time, Macron has been forced to stage a large-scale debate series around France, where he has conversed with select mayors, young people and intellectuals. However, the hour-long debates that have been shown live on French television do not seem to have worked, but merely confirmed the image of politics as a spectacle. The protests continue.

Social justice

The French journalist Joseph Confavreux has compiled a number of texts on the Yellow West in the anthology Le fond de l'air est jaune. The book contains 15 texts. There are contributions by, among others, the philosopher Étienne Balibar, the economist Thomas Piketty and historians such as Pierre Rosanvallon and Sophie Wahnich. Most contributions understand the Yellow Vest as an expression of a claim for social justice. Macron's proposed gasoline tax hike became the drop that made the cup float, revealing Macron as the rich politician who lets the population pay for tax cuts and pro-employer labor market reforms, citing the climate crisis. The anthology texts are thus all "before" the protests, reading them as an expression of a legitimate criticism of a growing inequality and of an autonomization of the national democracy that has dissolved in the banks and business. Other voices on the French "left wing" disapprove of the Yellow West. For example, the old Maoist Alain Badiou sees the protests as reactionary. The old dividing lines of May 68 seem to reappear, on the one hand, those who are before the uprising and understand it as a return of class struggle, on the other, those who reject the protests and accuse them of nationalism or of being reactionary.

The events in France fill up remarkably little in Danish and Norwegian media, who prefer to cover Brexit or the Trump-Mueller case. There is otherwise enough interest in "The Yellow Vest". We are dealing with a four-month uprising in one of the largest economies in Europe. A riot like the political system and the Macron government seems unable to deal with and come up with a good response. Macron, otherwise considered by many commentators in Denmark and Norway to be the solution to the slow erosion of Western European national democracies. Here was finally a politician who could take up the fight with right-wing populists like Trump and Orban. The speed with which Macron burns out shows how deep a crisis the national democracies in Europe are in.

30 years of neoliberal politics have not only tarnished the post-war planning state and gradually eroded the welfare system, but have also obscured an underlying development that became visible with the financial crisis, namely that the advanced economies have experienced declining profit rates since the early 1970s.

Macron cannot solve the crisis, as there is no "political" response to the protests. Television debates and legislative changes make no difference. There is never a political response to a revolt, as it interrupts history and forces the state to crush the protests, rolling the tanks forward. Macron knows this well, and he is now making every effort to criminalize the uprising and hopes the images of burning cars will alienate the rest of the population, so as to distance themselves from the protests and accept an even more authoritarian and oppressive state. But the underlying socio-economic causes do not disappear for that reason. France is a deeply divided society, and the abyss between the political system and the street seems to be growing.

Climate & Environment

It is extremely important to be aware of the complex class composition of the protests, the outskirts and the metropolis, the self-employed, the workers and the unemployed, the middle-aged, the old and the young. Instead, we must try to analyze the protests in a longer historical course characterized by the gradual emptying of the political left-right logic and pointing out the revolutionary perspective that is always present in a revolt. Once there is an uprising, it is autonomous and moves continuously in different directions: There is an element of political-aesthetic creation in the uprising where a revolutionary community constitutes itself.

The climate crisis is being used as a lever for more authoritarian states and for more free wheels for business

There is no doubt that there is a nationalist temptation in the protests – as Walter Benjamin described it in the 1930s, there are no predetermined identities in the dialectic between mass and class or proletariat – but it will be a mistake to reduce them to a species of street right-wing populism. In doing so, one would overlook the revolutionary condensation taking place in the uprising, where solidarity dissolves subject and object. As the many photographs in the book of graffiti and posters show, much of the rhetoric of the protests is perverting anti-capitalism and black state criticism and not nationalism.

Rather, it is once again the state that represents the nationalist position. Macron's anti-insurgency strategy goes hand in hand with the EU's tough-handed migration policy, which will sort out migrant labor and keep the growing mass of climate migrants out of Europe. We can already see how the climate crisis is being used as a lever for more authoritarian states as well as for more free wheels for business. The state must keep the migrants out and deal with a climate that cannot be controlled, while at the same time the market for intervention is kept free and the population gets fuel taxes on top of that. This is what the Yellow Vest rejects. That's the perspective. A simultaneous criticism of the state and the market, but trying and stuttering, as no revolutionary language is available. After more than four decades of intense anti-revolutionary propaganda – what Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism" – the system-critical position must necessarily be composed and ambiguous as it is reformulated.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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