Sunday, December 2, 2018

What should we make of the Yellow Vest movement ? by OCML Voie Prolétarienne,

We have seen the movement that grew up around the 17 November take off over the last few weeks, both in terms of media coverage and on the ground. At work and at home, on the streets and on public transport, the “yellow vest” movement is on everyone’s lips. The time has come to take stock of the situation.

What happened on 17 November (and the following days) ?

It is clearly is a far-reaching movement, enjoying considerable media coverage from the outset unlike other social movements and making a show of its apolitical character has played in its favour. But the media have still tended to underplay the number of people involved, setting the figure at around 300,000 when even a quick estimate easily reveals that the true figure is considerably higher.

Unsurprisingly, most of the people involved come from the commuter belt of large towns and cities, rural areas, and small and medium sized towns because they are the ones with the furthest to travel to work.

In social terms, the movement is a mixed bag of owners of small companies, farmers, workers, pensioners and unemployed people, making it difficult to arrive at a clear analysis of the movement. What is clear, however, is that it is not a movement made up exclusively of small business owners as certain reports have tried to make out. Many workers also took part in the initiatives and in several places accounted for the bulk of the participants.

The slogans used have been wide-ranging, although many did centre on spending power, pointing the finger directly at Macron’s government. The main discourse of those taking part is to portray it as a David against Goliath movement. But the role of David lumps together workers, small business owners finding it hard make ends meet, middle-class employees worried about the possibility of being downgraded, etc. It is equally unclear who the Goliath refers to exactly, often reduced to simply berating politicians.

Apart from the rise in fuel prices and disgust towards the current government, there is nothing else that unites this movement, bringing together people who apparently believe that they have shared interests despite the fact that they are in fact diametrically opposed.

The slogan “too many taxes” is a prime example, where professionals, shop owners, business people and other owners of small companies end up defending the same “too many taxes” as the workers, whereas what are taxes for some may well be indirect salaries for others ! (employers’ unemployment and social security contributions). Even in a bourgeois democracy, taxes still have a class dimension. 

And while it is true that the owners of small business do bear the brunt of the crisis and pay higher taxes than the big corporations, that does not make them comrades in arms of the proletariat !

Sexual, racist and homophobic abuse have been recorded at several roadblocks and at one blockade in the Somme the demonstrators even handed over migrants hidden in the tank of a lorry to the police. 

Things like this are totally unacceptable and must be fought resolutely. It might well be down to the apolitical and blurred nature of the movement itself together with the wide social base it draws upon. 

The lack of a political leadership, albeit a reformist one, also leaves the field open for reactionaries of all kinds.

Be that as it may, however, it is not by sitting on the side-lines looking in that we will be able to effectively combat reactionary ideas and behaviour.

What are the issues raised by the 17 November Movement ?

Worsening living conditions

This is at the heart of the movement. Many people can’t make it to the end of the month, with everything rising expect wages. This applies to workers of course, but also to a sector of the farmers and small business people and the wage earning middle-class. 

At the same time, unemployment, employment blackmail and increasing competition are all on the rise. Yes, it’s the crisis. It’s nothing new, but the effects are being felt harder than ever. 

To make things worse, our lives have been shaped around the car in order to generate ever more revenue for the big automobile companies and oil monopolies.

The ever-increasing impact that using a car has on the household budget has become a real problem for many workers. Meanwhile, for several decades successive governments have continued to pass the rising tax burden on to the working classes, while providing greater relief for the bourgeoisie and big business.

The environmental crisis

The movement sprang up from a legitimated feeling of injustice. In order to justify an environmentally-friendly policy, the government piles more taxes on diesel, considered to be more polluting, leading to a higher bill at the pump. But they’re really just taking us for a ride. Yes, we are in the midst of an unprecedented ecological crisis which will only get worse. 

For Macron’s government, it’s up to everyone to sort it out. Everyone has to dig into their pockets. But who actually causes all the pollution ? Who pours chemical waste into the rivers and the water tables ? Who generates most of the greenhouse gases ? Who demands more and more energy (petrol, electricity, gas, etc.) ? It’s Capitalism, a mode of production which literally devours energy, destroying the planet (and its inhabitants) at breakneck speed.

The bourgeoisie are the true culprits of the ecological crisis !

There is also a need to combat the snobbery of the part of the ‘progressive’ petty bourgeoisie who look down their noses at this movement as just a bunch of ‘anti-green oafs’. Of course some of those taking part in the blockades are petrol guzzlers who couldn’t care less about the planet, tearing around in their sports cars and their 4-wheel drives. But they were far from the majority !

But whatever the case may be, workers have their own reasons to rail against the increase in fuel prices. They are slaves to this way of life built up around the car, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worried about the planet’s future : it’s just that their main concern is to keep themselves fed.

This movement also raises the question of where we live and movement.

Where do we live ? Where do we work ? Why do we have to travel so far to get to work ? What public transport is available ? Once again these are questions that lie at the door of governments past and present. The dismantling of the public transport system especially in rural areas means that there is no alternative but to taking the car. Wage insecurity together with the rising price of housing in the towns and cities has meant more long-distance travel for workers, many of whom have no other choice than to drive into work and to use their cars for everyday life. 

The concentration of economic activities in the big cities and the industrial desertification of certain outlying areas force their inhabitants to travel further and further afield.

What lessons can be drawn from the 17 November Movement ?

Firstly it demonstrates a failure of the left in general. Despite the pathetic attempts by reformists such as Unsubmissive France (FI) to win the population over, they quickly turned their backs on political organisation and unions. 

This is a general trend today, as we have seen in wake of the repeated failures of recent movements (railway workers, the labour reform, etc.). It is clear that so far we have been unable to halt the steamroller bearing down on us.

The reactionary tendencies have spotted an opportunity in this movement, providing an audience for their different scapegoats : it’s the fault of the ‘scroungers’, the migrants, open borders, etc., and the apolitical nature of this movement has sometimes enabled reactionaries of all kinds to take it over.

It is a muddled, inter-classist and at times contradictory movement.

The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and ‘Unsubmissive France’ have both issued declarations supporting it unreservedly, claiming rather too quickly that the influence of the extreme right has been kept at bay and that the workers and the progressive forces involved with the movement will spontaneously put it on the right track. 

At the other end of the spectrum, combative trade unions and anarchists have dismissed it out of hand, showing themselves to be too unyielding towards a spontaneous and inevitably unclear movement.

It would be unfair to expect a movement such as this to adopt a solid, progressive, proletarian line of its own accord without any active political intervention in that direction. And that is where we Communist militants come in, with the task of going beyond mere short-term demands in order to address the real underlying problems.

The question that remains then is the way combative working class movement on the one hand and the popular masses on the other can take part in what is an unclear yet nevertheless a real and legitimate revolt. 

Combative political and union militants have severely criticised the yellow vest movement, taking those involved to task for failing to fall in line behind the stance usually adopted by left-wing organisations and unions. 

We may wish that things were different, but what is at stake is to understand why the angry masses fail to identify with what the different reformist political and trade union organisations have to offer today, rather than reproaching them for their unforeseen revolt.

As we have seen, this movement raises a series of issues. At work, talking to our friends and family and in our unions, this question has led to discussions about the environment, the current economic situation, the relationship between urban and rural areas, etc. We has listened and engaged in a non-sectarian fashion with people involved in this grassroots movement.

Solutions will be found through organising on a clear, class basis by combating racist, sexist, homophobic and chauvinistic opinions.

Only an anti-capitalist, proletarian revolution will bring about the radical measures needed to effectively come to terms with the issues raised by this movement : the comprehensive roll out of public transport, the end of the individual motor car, collective control of the environment and its cost/impact and, above all, reorganising economic production in order to spread activity fairly throughout the territory.

The solution to the social and ecological crisis is to build a world free of misery, exploitation and the pillage of the environment.

OCML Voie Prolétarienne, 23 November 2018


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