Yellow Vest Rebellion Shakes Neo-Con Rule
18-12-2018 – “Act Five” of the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vest) demonstrations continued across France this past weekend. While the numbers were down compared to round four the week before – perhaps due to police violence against the demonstrators, tens of thousands across France again rallied in the face of the armed fist of the state. Some reports say that 3 000 rallied in Paris, while there were 66 000 across the country – compared with 125 000 a week ago. In typical French fashion, anti-government protests, when they erupt, continue for weeks on end. Whether it can keep its momentum remains to be seen.
The brave protestors have already won one of their main demands – the abolition of the fuel tax increase on petrol and diesel, which had been imposed by the government as a “green tax”. At the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron refused to abolish the scrapping of a “wealth tax”, which has earnt him derision as the “president for the rich”. If the Yellow Vest movement continues across France, and inspires similar actions across Europe, the French President will struggle to retain his post.
More than cost of fuel concerns
Yet the Yellow Vest movement is not just about President Macron, and not just about a concern about high fuel prices. The leaderless movement has nonetheless circulated a list of demands, with the vast majority about the high cost of living, heavy workloads for little or no gain, and general unease about an unjust order which favours the rich at the expense of the poor and the “middle class”. In other words, the Yellow Vest rebellion is an uprising against capitalism, but without saying so openly. The lack of pro-working class leadership somewhat restricts the goals of the movement, but at the same time this distance from the official “left” is what has allowed its launch and growth so far. From a distance it seems that in France, like Australia, what passes for the left is seen as too reformist, and the Union bureaucracy too concerned for the contents of their own pockets. In such conditions, revolt against neo-conservative government rule, had to take place outside of the “left”.
Some have claimed that amongst the Yellow Vests are right-wing or even fascist elements, attempting to drive it down their avenues. While the Yellow Vests have so far eschewed association with any political party or movement, left or right, the direction so far is much more left wing insofar as it is demonstrating against the immense inequality of a profits first system. Moreover, it possibly portends even a revolution to redress these rightful grievances, and many others, built up over several decades. It is a revolt against the elite which is not only enriching itself at the expense of the poor, but threatening the very existence of human civilisation. In addition, in stark contrast to the right-wing populism which has perhaps understandably produced Brexit in the United Kingdom, Trump in the US, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Yellow Vests do not have an anti-immigrant or a racist anti-European Union (EU) position per se.
In fact, the Yellow Vest’s stance towards the EU does call for a “Frexit” – a pull-out from the EU. According to some demands which have been circulating in their name, the Frexit is called for to “regain economic, monetary and political sovereignty”. Here there is perhaps a lack of class awareness, for if France was to exit the EU, French workers would still be subject to the oppression of “their own” ruling class. Nevertheless, the content does not indicate the arrant racism which compelled some Britons to vote for Brexit. The EU is an imperialist trading bloc, which seeks to drive down the living and working conditions of all European workers to benefit the wealthiest European ruling classes, particularly the French and German. Workers need a left-wing opposition to the EU, which the Yellow Vests provide.
Perhaps the most progressive Yellow Vest demand of all is the call for France to cease its participation in foreign wars of aggression, and for an exit from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). French imperialism took part in arguably the dirtiest war in history – the arming and funding of terrorist death squads to overthrow the Syrian Arab Republic from 2011 to 2018. Much of what passes for the “left” internationally backed this atrocious war of regime change against Syria, so in this sense alone the Yellow Vests are leagues ahead of liberal war-mongering. As for NATO, it is no exaggeration to say that it is threatening the world with global nuclear war. NATO was always an imperialist anti-Russian pact, whether in the form of the former Soviet Union, or modern Russia. Driven by the US Empire, it is an imperialist alliance pushing humanity to the brink of a catastrophic war. The Yellow Vest demand for a French exit from NATO fills part of the anti-war gap which flowed from the liberal non-opposition to the NATO wars against Libya and Syria. This should be complemented by similar demands to leave NATO by workers in NATO countries, and demands internationally for its abolition.
Similarly, the Yellow Vest demand for the repatriation of all French soldiers from “Francafique” – former French colonies in Africa, to cease interfering in the African countries, and for equal relations between them and France, is virtually a demand for the final end of French colonialism. Algeria was only the most well-known French African colony, after its battles for independence. But “Francafique” includes Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Benin, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Gambia, Chad and Cameroon. Direct military occupation by France is not entirely a thing of the past, to which the Yellow Vests draw attention.
The Yellow Vests were criticised in some quarters for ignoring environmental issues such as global warming, given that their central demand (which they subsequently won) was for the abolition of a fuel tax increase. But in fact, the Yellow Vests were well aware of the acute danger of climate disruption and agreed that measures must be taken to deal with it. Their only precondition was that the poor, working class and sections of the middle class should not be made to pay for it – while the rich elite get off scot-free. In Australia, while there was no open revolt on the streets, many people rejected the former Labor Party federal government’s “carbon tax” for similar reasons – despite right-wingers also opposing it on the basis of climate denial.
The Yellow Vest manifesto does contain significant pro-environment measures. For example, it calls for a ban on the production of plastic bottles, a call to weaken the power of Big Pharma (large scale pharmaceutical companies), and demands a ban on GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops, carcinogenic (cancer causing) pesticides, endocrine disruptors (cancer causing chemicals) and monocrops (the large scale growing of one crop over vast fields). It should be recognised that under a socialist system, with the profit motive absent, GMOs could potentially be used to increase crop yield to feed more people. Under private production for private profit, however, GMOs in the hands of corporate agribusiness contain critical danger. The Yellow Vests are on point here, as was the President of Syria – a target of imperialism, when he banned the use of GMOs in that country in 2012.
Perhaps the most remarkable environmental demand of the Yellow Vests is the call for all products to be made to last 10 years, and for spare parts to be available for them during that time. They explicitly call for the end of “planned obsolescence” – a hallmark of late capitalism. “Planned obsolescence” is of course where the manufacturing corporations deliberately manufacture products with a short lifespan, sometimes as little as 12 months. At a certain point, capital realised that making good quality products which had a long life span actually prevented the masses from purchasing new ones. Thus the “throw away” society was born, with people more or less encouraged to dispose of old things rather than have them repaired. And indeed, repairs became uneconomical or even impossible to come by. The throw-away society is just one aspect of the inherently anti-environmental practice of the profit system.
For state protection of the vulnerable
The Yellow Vest manifesto contains significant demands for the welfare and well-being of the masses. For example, it calls for an increase of 40% of the basic pension and social welfare. It calls for an increase in hiring in the public sector to re-establish public services. It demands a public housing program to house the 5 million homeless, and severe penalties for mayors that leave people on the streets. This is recognition of how the capitalist system has abandoned and turned against the working class over the last 30 years.
This drive is often referred to as “neoliberalism”, but this is a misnomer. “Neoliberalism” is not a policy choice, but the current phase of capitalism. From their perspective, the crisis in the rate of the profitability of capital has driven demands to release whole areas where previously the state organised and ran public services. Education, public housing, healthcare, legal aid, public transport, infrastructure – all of these areas and more had previously been undertaken by the capitalist state in order to assure the profitability of private capital. It did this by running sections of the economy where the capitalists could not obtain an adequate rate of return, and thus had no interest. Now, capital no longer makes an adequate profit from the industries it traditionally invested in. This is the basic reason for the relentless wave of privatisation.
Despite the progressive overall direction of the Yellow Vest manifesto, at the same time it contains demands which aid the oppressive system they rebel against. For example, it calls for the “prevention of migratory flows which cannot be accommodated or integrated”. This does not come across as an extreme anti-immigration position, but appears to bend in that direction. Mass migration to Europe in recent times has largely come about due to the wars imperialism has waged in the Middle East and Northern Africa – a fact recognised by other Yellow Vest demands. Yet it is a dangerous path to go down to play into the central divide and rule tactic the ruling classes use against workers. Capital says to unwitting workers, your enemies are “foreigners” – not the obscenely rich corporations. It should be recognised that there are some issues with the large numbers of migrants flowing into Europe in some areas. Yet these issues are minor in comparison with the error of throwing in your lot with the elite classes, which is the inevitable result of falling for an anti-migrant line.
In addition, the demand for the “quadrupling of the budget for law and order” could easily go in the opposite direction to that which is intended. The full demand does demand access to judicial procedures for all, which trends in a progressive direction. Under the rule of capital, the poor and working classes generally cannot afford to either defend a legal case, or bring one before a court of law. This is yet another injustice of the rule of finance capital. However, calling for a four-fold increase of the budget for law and order could very well mean four times the amount of riot police the Yellow Vests will face on the streets! The Yellow Vests appear to be somewhat unaware of the class nature of the capitalist state.
The treacherous role of the Trade Union bureaucracy was displayed in a statement released by six Union confederations on December 6. It denounced “all forms of violence”, did not ask anyone to join the Yellow Vest demonstrations, and effectively called for “negotiations”. The conservative officials risk being seen as at one with the government itself, which again increases the risk of workers turning away from Unions altogether, into the hands of the far right.
Despite the reformism of the hidebound Union officials, and despite the at times contradictory demands of the Yellow Vest manifesto, it is in the interests of workers internationally to join and/or come behind a general uprising against capitalist class rule. If a Marxist vanguard was to form, it could give crucial leadership to a movement which has thus far remained leaderless by necessity – given the reformism of the “left” and the conservatism of the Union officials. Clarity of the political role of capital and the role of the working class in fighting for its liberation is at a premium. The rule of the rich must end.
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 Ibid, 5.