The Yellow Vest Movement: How Neoliberalism Ends

The Yellow Vest movement that has convulsed France owes its origins to developments and processes unique to French society, however it also owes its origins to factors and structures operating at the global level. A ready indication of this is the solidarity and support that the movement has attracted across the world, and signs of its spreading beyond France to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Iraq.

What began as an insurrection against rising fuel taxes has morphed into an uprising against neoliberal capitalism. Those fuel taxes were justified by an appeal to ameliorating global warming, but they were instituted by a hyper neoliberal administration that has at the same time cut the tax burden on the rich and moved toward deregulating the French labour market in the interests of capital. Emmanuel Macron, long dubbed “the President of the rich,” shares an interest with Donald Trump, and the broader corporate media, in portraying the uprisings as movements against measures that are required to transition society to an ecologically sustainable future.

That is a lie.

The uprisings began as a movement demanding that the transition be a just transition, a transition where the proletariat does not pay for the consequences of the avarice of the bourgeoise while at the same time the rich are permitted to perpetually unburden themselves from wider social obligations. Neoliberal capitalism to no small degree is a revolt of the elites against the idea that they should temper their greed a little in the interests of the common good. The French proletariat are saying that they have had enough of that shit, and the widespread indifference indeed relish with which the trashing of the bourgeois boutiques of gay Paris has been greeted shows that the sentiment is widely shared the world over. The corporate media has done its usual to drumbeat sympathy for the plight of property when subject to the wrath of people but this time those attempts have landed like a damp squib.

There are two aspects to the Yellow Vest insurrection that I seek to pass comment upon. The first is about the relationship between reform and revolution under globalised capitalism, and the second is about the relationship of insurrection to class struggle. Both take us well beyond the immediate events in France itself, which have been extensively commented on both in the mainstream and elsewhere. For an anarchist perspective see here.

What really interests me is this. Much has been written about the theory, history, and practice of neoliberalism but very little about how it ends. What, then, might the Yellow Vest movement inform us about how we should end neoliberal capitalism?

I suspect that the uprisings, and the widespread expressions of solidarity for them, have much to do with the repeated, failed, attempts to reform neoliberal capitalism through the established means of electoral politics and the established form of the political party. Revolution usually arises after failed moves to reform a system of social and economic relations. When the political system inhibits progress, society turns to revolution to make right what is wrong, and that process crucially relies upon widespread consciousness that the political system is blocking progress. The uprisings in France are a response, in part, to the failure of electoral politics to ameliorate the inequities and injustices of neoliberal capitalism. Despite the election of an administration hailing from the left of the Socialist Party, those inequities and injustices only advanced, and France has Macron only because a neoliberal “centrist” such as himself was able to block the far right whilst staying within the ambit of established politics.

But this is not unique to France. The failure of the pink tide in South America, especially in Brazil, the treachery of Syriza and the significant hurdles faced by electoral movements in the United States and Europe that are out of power, despite real albeit limited successes, show that bringing the neoliberal order to an end through electoral means has just about hit its limits.

In the case of South America and Greece, but also France under Francois Hollande, we saw left wing parties in power that failed to institute enduring reform. In the latter cases we see political movements striving to attain power, and should they succeed in that endeavour they will face the same barriers, although not to the same degree, that were faced in South America, Greece and France. That’s because globalised capitalism constrains with a tight leash. Much of what we call neoliberalism is just a fig leaf that legitimises globalisation or better still globalised capitalism where capital holds significant structural power over labour. With globalisation capital possess power that extends beyond the borders of the nation state, yet the working classes remain organised, if at all, at the national level. That structural power is too readily converted into capital strikes or the threat thereof and this puts a ceiling on the possible, or more accurately the permissible at the national level. That means that even when successful at the ballot box attempts to reform neoliberalism, much less end it, are subject to the structural power of capital. The rise of the alt right, a demagogic movement that channels popular anger in the interests of further neoliberal reforms, Macron and Merkel style “centrism,” and the strangling of reform in Brazil and Greece show the extent to which the rich remain uninterested in the needs of humanity and their determination to prevent electoral movements from ever so slightly slimming down their offshore bank accounts. In much of the world, France included, dissatisfaction with established political systems is at historically high levels and I put it to you that their failure to stem the neoliberal tide accounts for this.

This understanding that electoral politics has hit upon structural limits surely has much to do with the Yellow Vest movement and the international support for it. The Left has been fighting the globalised capitalism of the 21st century with the same methods as the Second International but with a programme that demands much less.

I should say that I tend to think that an even deeper dynamic is also at play. I believe there to be a growing awareness that capitalism has taken us as far it can go. It is just not the ecological crisis that is responsible for this. The main enlightenment justification for capitalism is that economic growth and industrial innovation would not only free us from hunger, so free us from a life of toil on the land but would progressively free us from a life of enforced labour as the technical instruments of production continue to advance. Yet despite all the innovation and all the economic growth we continue to live a life of forced labour much akin to a cog in a machine. This is because capitalism is a perpetual motion machine whose only purpose is to serve itself, any social benefits arising from its operating are incidental, and that follows on intrinsically from the profit system. Neoliberalism both celebrates and seeks to enforce this vulgar conception of life, but it is a mode of life that is contrary to the needs and desires of a creative human being. It is the desire of people to live a free and creative human life that underpins revolutions and insurrections, this is the deeper well spring that sits underneath the surface expressions of material anger.

To what degree can insurrection end neoliberalism? Clearly, given the forgoing, whatever insurrectionary movements spring up need to mushroom and develop roots beyond the borders of one nation. To make lasting dents into global capitalism insurrections must have an international character across disparate societies as they did in 1968. But that is not enough. Insurrections are a step toward the end of revolution, but they cannot substitute for it. One aspect of insurrectionary uprisings that we need to be mindful of in the current context is their highly fluid nature. As the exceptional classical anarchist, in my view far too underestimated, Errico Malatesta argued although insurrections have their place, they are unpredictable, can veer in many possible directions, and can be coopted by power. This is a danger with the Yellow Vest movement as the far right is seeking to use the street to overcome the barriers to its rise posed by the political structure of the Fifth Republic. Thus far, the movement is resisting this. The most obvious indicator is the continued insistence that the movement be organised horizontally, rather than hierarchically, and its rejection of established representatives entrusted with negotiating with the state. The far right provides a brand of politics arising from a highly authoritarian and hierarchical ideology. The insistence upon horizontality is a good sign but is easily reversed by groups of determined and well organised hijackers. The emphasis on horizontality and direct action whether knowingly or not is an expression of anarchism, and it is crucial that both anarchists and the wider movement stick to nonhierarchical anarchist structures and a positive humanist platform. Participation is warranted to help ensure that remains the case, to try prevent its hijacking by the right, and to advocate within the movement for taking the struggle to the means of production.

There is another failure beyond that of electoral politics that could be said to undergird the insurrection, namely the failure of the Nuit debout movement of 2016 to achieve any lasting change to the neoliberal order. Nuit debout saw the proliferation of Occupy Wall Street type urban occupations and popular assemblies across France. That too was inspired by anarchist ideas, especially the libertarian municipalism of Murray Bookchin. But the failure of Nuit debout to bring about fundamental change to the system of capitalist relations showed up the limits of Bookchin’s vision. That vision very much flowed on from Bookchin’s latter day rejection of class struggle anarchism, which holds that capitalism can only be overcome through horizontal direct action at the point of production leading to a series of general strikes where the working class seizes the means of production using its own autonomous and nonhierachical organisations.

Capitalism is a system of relations that needs to be abolished at the workplace, and an insurrection no matter how vigorously it is pursued alters the basic nature of capitalism only after it seizes and deploys political power. But then the movement returns not only to the dilemmas of overcoming neoliberal capitalism from the position of the individual nation state but also the dangers of state socialism, which anarchists and libertarian Marxists know not to be socialism at all, but also state capitalism should matters head toward a nationalist response to globalised capitalism out of a desire to reconcile with national capital through force of circumstance.

It could be possible for crisis committees acting as workers councils to occupy workplaces across France in a sit in general strike. Such a movement could readily spread beyond France. This is doubtless the main danger that the French ruling class fears, there appears to be discussion of farmers organising to express their own concerns parallel to the Yellow Vest movement, and for the transport worker union to also do something similar. That the spreading of the Yellow Vest movement to the means of production is an obvious fear shows what the ruling class in capitalist society is concerned about the most. The capitalist class is best compelled to act by organising the strength of workers directly at the source of its power and profits. It seems that the capitalists of Europe want Macron to pacify the Yellow Vest movement before events head in the direction of a general strike.

Malatesta well summed up the essential difference between insurrectionary anarchism and class struggle anarchism. As he stated, “It is a general opinion that we, because we call ourselves revolutionists, expect Anarchism to come with one stroke – as the immediate result of an insurrection which violently attacks all that which exists and which replaces all with institutions that are really new. And to tell the truth this idea is not lacking among some comrades who also conceive the revolution in such a manner.”

However, Malatesta continues, insurrections are to be supported through solidarity and participation because “every weakening of whatever kind of authority, each accession of liberty will be a progress towards Anarchism; always it should be conquered – never asked for; always it should serve to give us greater strength in the struggle; always it should make us consider the state as an enemy with whom we should never make peace; always it should make us remember well that the decrease of the ills produced by the government consists in the decrease of its attributions and powers, and the resulting terms should be determined not by those who govern but by those who are governed. By government we mean any person or group of persons in the state, country, community, or association who has the right to make laws and inflict them upon those who do not want them.” We should remember the every weakening of authority part in the above passage, for a triumphant far right strengthens authority. But we should not allow ourselves to be made timid by the Macron et al line that we must choose between neoliberal “centrism” and the far right.

I see the Yellow Vest movement, for now, as an evolution toward revolution, as a step that brings us closer to revolution, and so we can view it as a via media between Nuit debout and the seizure of the means of production. I tend to think that the anarchist insurrectionary activities in Greece also act as a type of via media as it contributes to socialist revolution but without seizure of the means of production it cannot consummate it. The failures of the established political system and bureaucratically organised social democratic political parties to reverse the neoliberal wave are increasingly seeping into the consciousness of the working class and it is searching, groping, for the method that will slay the beast. Anarchists, especially in the advanced western industrial states less so in Spain for historical reasons, tend to adopt either the libertarian municipalist ideas of the latter Bookchin or the insurrectionary anarchism of a Bob Black. The limitations of both can be seen in France, but also elsewhere, and as this seeps further into the consciousness of anarchists we shall see, in my opinion, a revival of class struggle anarchism. Leszek Kolakowski in his Main Currents of Marxism described western Marxism as “Marxism without the proletariat,” and post 1960s anarchist currents in the West come from the same philosophical millilux as western Marxism and for much the same reasons those being a pessimist, defeatist in my view, dismissal of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. The time will soon come when anarchism without the proletariat shall have had its day.

For, returning to Malatesta, “to arrive at Anarchism, material force is not the only thing to make a revolution; it is essential that the workers, grouped according to the various branches of production, place themselves in a position that will insure the proper functioning of their social life – without the aid or need of capitalists or governments.” Insurrections cut against this because,”if we should want to substitute one government for another, that is, impose our desires upon others, it would only be necessary to combine the material forces needed to resist the actual oppressors and put ourselves in their place.”

For me the case for class struggle at the point of production as the best, if not only, means of overcoming capitalism in favour of a socialist system of social relations is indeed partly based on all the usual arguments. But I should say for myself it is really based on the following supposition. When the workers themselves seize the means of production and begin to administer and manage the system of production through dint of their own democratic action and will then we shall see the unflowering of a spiritual awakening in man. Humanity would so begin to overcome its own self imposed ignorance and when that spiritual awakening is unleashed then would it be realistic to speak of not just demanding the impossible but of making the impossible possible.