Faced with the neoliberal machine, trade unionists, artists, farmers, associations and various groups have launched « the actors of the present times », a new social front. From April 22 to 26, they organized more than 14 marches throughout Wallonia. These (un)steps are challenging in themselves. But beyond this action, it is the need to create bridges between actors to imagine the social and ecological transition that is posed.
It’s 9:30 in the morning on Tuesday, April 22. On the Place du Marché in Liege, a hundred people are gathered, coffee cups in hand. The atmosphere is calm, people are attentive to the speech that marks the beginning of the Liège march. Three days later, in Namur, place Saint-Aubain. After a week of marches in all the provinces, a few hundred actors of the present times meet. Many recognize each other, greet each other or kiss each other, after walking together for a few hours or days. The enthusiasm is there.
In his closing remarks, Paul Herman, a journalist and columnist involved with the organization, exclaimed, » On the way we ruminated. We did the job between people of iron and people of earth, between people of culture and agriculture, working on associations of ideas. How do we talk to each other between steelworkers and social workers, between actors and welfare recipients, between workers and the unemployed… How can we associate these associations and these workers visiting a cooperative vegetable garden and asking: « How do you explain that we, who live a few kilometers away, were not aware that this existed? These workers asked the right question from the start. How is it that we have accepted to live and make a dissociated society, where we spend our time building walls and erecting more and more watertight categories so that the struggles and fights of some are ignored by others? ».
…BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
At the center of the approach, there is this desire to create bridges. The story begins a few months ago, when the metalworkers of the FGTB launched a call to form a new social front that would go far beyond the classic structures. » We were tired of doing North-Mid and Midi-North, with 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 people and seeing that it didn’t change anything. When we pass somewhere, we realize that the farmers pass behind us, then the firemen, etc. Let’s keep going to the front alone, and we’ll all be beaten. So we wanted to bring people together, but also to build. It is good to talk about the need for alternatives, it is better to build them together. In the congress of the metalworkers, we had this idea of « actors of the present times », explains one of the leaders of the metalworkers of the FGTB of Liège.
They were soon joined by several dozen organizations and collectives. Together, they form alliances that break with the usual logic of pillars or sectors. It’s actually quite rare to see collective vegetable garden users, trade unionists, welfare recipients, artists, peasants and autonomous activists sharing a common space, let alone trying to build new collective paths to emancipation.
The « Actors of the present times » also challenge by the means of action chosen to make themselves heard. They decide to walk. They want to travel the roads of Wallonia to meet each other and the people. The initiative recalls old actions (Gandhi, the march of the beurs in France…) or more recent ones (the marches of dignity in Spain) and tries to shake up the habits a bit. » We wanted to do something different, hence the steps, to take our time. Today, for example, we talked a lot with each other and it’s really important. Because even though we are all socially committed, we evolve in parallel worlds. We need to break down the walls between us, to create transversality. We may see each other sometimes between leaders in meetings or demonstrations, but afterwards each one goes back to his corner », explains the same activist.
The 14 marches organized in four provinces (Hainaut, Liège, Luxembourg, Namur) were all different. Focused on local realities and actors, they are on a human scale. Sometimes 40 people, sometimes a hundred. Symbolic barriers have been falling throughout the week. As we walk together, everyone ends up talking to their neighbor. Conversations that make it possible to become aware of the reality of others and of the singularity of each person. These same conversations allow us to realize that we are far from being the only ones to be revolted by an unjust system.
… THAT BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN LOCAL AND GLOBAL
The organizers wanted to make the link between resistance to a global system and local action through the construction of alternatives. The itineraries were punctuated by actions of protest and denunciation on diverse yet connected topics: from unemployment exclusion to land grabbing to overconsumption. But other stages also highlighted concrete alternatives that invent other ways of living every day.
The concept works. Fred is an autonomous activist and squatter. He actively participated in the preparation of the Liège march. He knows the alternative world. » What was interesting was to be able to bring actors like unions to see other ways of fighting, in other logics. I tried to make sure that the day also contained this dynamic. We brought in slammers [pour une action contre la consommation] and tonight we organized the evening in the theater « A La Place » which is squatted by a collective of artists. We are going to show a film about self-management… ».
Art and culture, debates and discussions, citizen initiatives all have their place in the marches, as necessary ingredients to build a new broad social movement. Because that is what it is all about: being able to reinvent new rails of militancy for social transformation beyond the divisions.
TOWARDS A PARADIGM SHIFT?
These meetings between organizations with different activist backgrounds were therefore rich. It is not uncommon to hear trade unionists and young activists talking together about degrowth and the peasant struggle.
For actors from different sectors and with different objectives, coming together under the same banner implies compromises. Perhaps some will not go as far as they usually claim. In order to agree, others will need to focus on what is common to all. But in the end, the puzzle is built, pieces are joined.
Together the actors represented in the walks complement each other. They are organizations that question the system or fight against capitalism through their own axis. If we take the French sociologist Philippe Corcuff’s inspiration, it is possible to identify four axes: the capital-labor axis represented by the trade union sections whose basic lines have never questioned the productivist logic; the capital-nature axis embodied by the peasants and citizens, such as those registered in the Liège food belt; the capital-democracy axis following the example of all theaters and cultural associations as well as former members of the Indignant movement or the collectives of actions in support of migrants and finally the capital-individual axis in which social organizations (medical houses) but also the alternative environment with the initiatives called « of transition » which will consider the militancy through the care brought to the individual (health care for all) or the progressive change of its way of life thanks to daily alternative choices.
There are issues with this new paradigm. On the one hand, some see the possibility of politicizing initiatives that for the moment create alternatives without necessarily having a political vision behind them (the Common Purchasing Group movement, for example). On the other hand, there is the implicit hope of connecting new actors of social transformation with those of the social struggles of the 20th century. Because no struggle can be sufficient on its own to fight against a globalized neoliberal capitalism, the convergence of struggles seems indispensable to build new common rails.
The first objective was to gather within the various networks a few hundred marchers, it is already a success according to Thierry Bodson (FGTB). For him, it doesn’t matter if it works or not. » The only thing that matters now is to start a process and say to yourself that you are going to try something else. Because for the past five-six years, what we have tried to implement based on the solutions usually used in previous years has not worked. For the last five or six years, it hasn’t worked..
The range of actors who responded to the call is diverse, but could be much more so, as Christine Mahy ( RWLP ), chanted in her final speech. « There were a few artists, a lot of action theater, so much the better! Where is the rest of the cultural world? We’ll have to go get them. There were actors of the professional training, a little bit, where are the others? We’ll have to go get them! There were people from the self-employed sector, small businesses, where are the others? We’ll have to go get them. There was one union mainly, where are the others? We’ll have to go get them! ». Later, the coordinator of the Walloon Anti-Poverty Network will add that it is necessary to strengthen the presence of those who are most crushed: « To these we must give more voice, we must proportionally give more tools to restore the conditions of equality to the participation, and this does not fall from the sky ».
For despite the rhetoric, openness still has its limits. The initiative came from the FGTB, only a few isolated CSC activists had come on their own. It seems obvious to all that the movement needs to gather even more. Notably in ecological, anti-productivist and transitional circles, but also and especially in the long term among citizens who are a priori less committed.
Edith Wustefeld, Johan Verhoeven, Jerome Van Ruychevelt and
Laura Van Binsbergen
TUESDAY 22 APRIL CORK
Beginning of the day on the market place in Liege. Small groups of people here and there. The four words that bring people together, the real metronomes of the marches, are already on the caps and flags of the marchers in the making: « Actors of the present times ». It is the CADTM (Committee for the cancellation of the Third World debt) which launches the dance and the day with its wheel of fortune. Instead of the usual sums of money, titles such as: « Multinationals: Welcome! », « IMF: money at your service », « Only one solution: privatization! The first participant proposes himself, the wheel turns and explanations are given in an ironic but above all playful way about the money spent by the State in the rescue of the banks. Just before setting off for the CPAS of Liège, the marchers combine their voices and sing together a song against the debt to a background of Édith Piaf. « No, nothing at all, no, I won’t pay anything! Because my life, because my rights, are worth much more than their profit, believe me. « . The march is on. After a lunch break at the association of socialist women, the marchers cross the median shopping center. A slammer precedes the group and it’s a verbal attack on consumption that is launched in front of the big brands.
« Let’s block the exclusion machine. This is the banner that the Stop Art. 63 §2 collective is hanging »
to the balconies of the NEO building, the next step of the walkers. New speech around the exclusion of the unemployed and the disastrous consequences of this same paragraph 2 of article 63 of this law which limits in time the benefit of the insertion allowances. The walkers cross the Meuse river again to join the association café l’Aquilone. The afternoon of the walkers will be punctuated by the presentation of two alternatives: New B and the Liège food belt. The first day of the march will end with concerts at the thêatre « à la place », a self-managed cultural place that takes up residence in the former thếatre de la place
WEDNESDAY APRIL 23 COUVIN
The march « of the actors of the present times » takes on a particular dimension in Couvin. In February, the region saw the closure of the Thermic Distribution plant, causing dozens of job losses. For the workers concerned, the future is uncertain. Among the marchers that day, some of these workers are present. All of them are marching against a system where profit is too often the law.
The day is marked by two highlights. The first one takes place during the visit of the Thermic factory: when one of the former Thermic workers speaks, the emotion is palpable. Many of them are looking at the closed doors of their former workplace. A hopscotch is drawn in front of the factory building by the walkers. A hopscotch as a symbol of a path strewn with steps towards a better life. A hopscotch that begins with the box mourning and then gradually, the word sacrifice comes out, struggle, … And one word is unanimous for the last box. Hope.
The group then went to Camp Royal, a residential park located in Mariembourg, the second highlight of the day. The walkers met with residents who had been without water for months. It is an opportunity to exchange ideas and above all to listen to the difficult situations of everyday life of each and every one of us. If the walk achieved one goal at the end of the day, it was to take the time to stop and look at each other to learn and understand.
THURSDAY APRIL 24 WALKING REGION
8:30 a.m., Sacred Heart School in Barvaux, the day’s walkers mingle with the rhetoric and the fifths, led by young unemployed workers from the area. Then the march starts, broom truck behind, which displays a sign: « Attention to the marchers of the present times. They are in front ». In Barvaux, the walk, a real 15km walk, is not just a pretext to stick together. The proof is that the ladies of the walking club joined the adventure with their sticks.
The miles are an opportunity to get to know each other. Bertrand and Bryan are unemployed workers, from the Luxembourg collective, they have been marching since the beginning of the week. By dint of this, they were assigned both flags. On the way, they talk about their hardships and mushroom picking. Bertrand finds the steps important, but a little slow for his taste: « I would like to connect a lot of people, we leave at 30, we return at 20″.
The local associations lead the way, from the collective of unemployed workers to the Miroir Vagabond, via Lire et Écrire, who came with a dozen of their learners. Among them Stéphanie and Nabila, who understood that it is important to be there, « for the CPAS, for the unemployment, for the job »… The afternoon is punctuated by slave auctions where workers are sold for what they are worth, which is not much. And the day ends in Bourdon…with the first citizen cabaret in the world!
In a corner where everything can sometimes be far away, but which does not escape the hard knocks of austerity policies, it is already important, as one participant, a doctor in a medical home, says, « to be together and to say it, and not to believe that there is only the monolithic voice of the current decision makers « .
SATURDAY 26 APRIL NAMUR
Place Saint-Aubain, a few dozen arbors, many gray and red flags, gray caps « actors of the present times ». People greet each other, meet, chat. The speeches begin. And there, a red thread is necessary. Paul Herman, columnist, takes the floor. He talks about Kevin and Steven, two young people from Marche who walk ten kilometers to the CPAS. He talks about the workers of Thermic Distribution, in Couvin, a stove factory that closed a few weeks ago. He talks about his encounters, about these examples and punctuates: « And then you know why you walk ». Everywhere, stickers: « the goal of the society is the common happiness ». Simple as walking? On the square, the atmosphere is good, Radio Bistrot takes care of it. After the reunion and the speeches, it was time for dancing in the middle of the afternoon, and time for more discussions, about the present, about what’s next, about the possibilities. The bodies are swollen with a week of hopes and encounters. Confident for the continuation, even if not convinced that it will be so easy…