The Movement of the Yellow Vests

(The article below is written by a comrade of the ‘Cercle de Discussion de Paris. The original text is on our french page)

Not so long ago it was often said that the class struggle was practically doomed, if not almost extinct. In fact, this reflected above all the reality of an exploited class which for decades has been under the steamroller of “neo-liberalism”, that is, the policy driven by the systematic and violent search of lower labor costs, the policy which uses unemployment and the threat of unemployment to impose social submission. It was as if the working class was laying on the ground with the foot of the ruling class planted on its neck. The movement of the Yellow Vests appears first and foremost as an awakening, a massive refusal of this situation. Everyone agrees today: the rising fuel prices were only the trigger.

 

Like virtually every major social movement under capitalism, it was born spontaneously. It was neither foreseen nor organized by the political and trade union apparatus that are usually charged with “commanding their troops”. What’s more, the rejection of any control by these institutions has not only been clearly, repeatedly and loudly claimed from the onset, it remains a major feature of its DNA nearly a month later. The May 1968 movement in France also started well outside and against the will of the union apparatuses, but the latter and their associated “workers’ parties” finally gained control of the mobilizations through, among other things, the need to formulate demands and negotiate with the government. It has often been said that the 1968 movement had its greatest momentum as long as it did not allow itself to be confined within the limits of “realistic claims”. The movement of the Yellow Vests, like that of Nuit Debout  1(some speak of the current movement as a “proletarian Nuit Debout”) and like the movements of occupying public spaces (Occupy in the USA, Indignados in Spain, etc ..) is characterized by a strong mistrust of all these systems of representation, of the appointment of delegates who speak and negotiate without control on behalf of others. It is a rejection of the “democratic” spectacle, of the electoral and union circus that for so long has pretended to represent the population while signing the agreements that submit it to the imperatives of economic realism, to the cruel necessities of the dominant system.

In the hundreds of roundabouts and other places where road blockades and other actions of struggle are organized, bonds of solidarity are discovered, people get together with others from their neighborhood whom they used to ignore. A unity is created, despite the sometimes significant differences between the participants (on the issues raised by immigration, for example) and quite naturally the question comes up, what the society could be like, if it would be organized differently. We re-imagine the world. We are stammering but we talk about “direct democracy”, “elected and revocable delegates”, the need to reorganize everything, to change the system. See for example “The Call of the Yellow Vests of the city of Commercy to popular assemblies everywhere!” 2 or the experiences of “The House of the People” in Saint Nazaire 3

It has been said that the Yellow Vests movement is only concerned about the “end-of-the-month” problems, the lack of wages, while the increase of taxes on fuels, described as ecological, was imposed out of concern with the “end of the world”. But the meeting in Paris between the Yellow Vests and the “March for climate” showed the opposite. A big banner said: “End of the world end of the month – change the system not the climate”. Both types of problems result from the same market logic which turns labor power into a commodity and makes the profit of capital the only objective of any productive activity.

The heterogeneity of the movement

One of the characteristics of the movement is the diversity of its participants. It includes diverse social strata and disparate concerns. In some regions there are anti-immigrant aspects, for example. However, extreme right-wing expressions remain a minority, contrary to what was put forward by the government at the beginning of the movement or by those who reject the movement because it does not identify with any left-wing party.

The social composition is also varied. But this is not a coalition between rich and poor. Even if we can see amongst them small bosses or shopkeepers, peasants, retired executives alongside workers, employed and unemployed, in its overwhelming majority it is a movement of the “poor” against economic measures of the government for the benefit of the rich.

And, if we look further, if one day a general uprising (of the 99% of which Occupy was talking) would come about, it will not only result from the struggle of “proletarians”, those who are directly exploited by capital, but also of a whole set of non-exploiting layers. It will not always be easy to hold meetings and make decisions together. But learning to do so is the first characteristic of a true revolutionary self-transformation.
The revolutionary movements of our time can only triumph if they are undertaken by “the immense majority for the benefit of the vast majority”.

The breakers

The government is doing everything to highlight the action of “thugs” and the spectacle of their destruction. This is an old tactic of governments facing mass movements. To achieve this they do not hesitate to throw oil on the fire sometimes introducing provocateurs. That way they seek to minimize the importance of all other aspects of the movement, to divide the participants, to justify the development of the repression and to frighten those who would like to join the movement.

But after a month of clashes, including four particularly violent Saturdays in Paris and most major French cities, the popularity of the movement remains intact in the population (according to polls, nearly 80% support it) and the number of participants does not decrease.
Most of the participants do not support the kind of violence of the “casseurs” (“breakers”) amongst the yellow vests, and sometimes try to limit it, but they know it is almost inevitable and say that at least they understand it. They also know that the actions of slowing traffic by filtering barricades, blocking fuel depots, letting cars for free on toll roads, are also violent actions that attack the established order. The interventions of the “forces of order” to prevent those remind them of that quickly. It is a movement of struggle and inevitably it contains forms of violence.

How far will this struggle go? What meaning can the phrase have that the participants say and repeat: “We will go to the end!”? Hard to say. But, for having raised its head, for having begun to dream again, the movement of the Yellow Vests has already brought a new breath to social life in France … a1 Square occupations in France in 2016, comparable to the Occupy movement in 2011nd perhaps in other countries.

Raoul Victor
December 10, 2018

  1. Nuit Debout: Square occupations in France in 2016, comparable to the Occupy movement in 2011
  2.  Appeal of Commercy:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfLIYpJHir4&t=8s ; English translation: https://pastebin.com/SdAVc4MA

  3. St. Nazaire: https://lundi.am/Les-Gilets-Jaunes-de-St-Nazaire-et-leur-Maison-du-Peuple. See also, in English: Call of yellow vests Saint Nazaire 

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