YELLOW VESTS: PEOPLE OR PROLETARIAT?

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The Yellow Vests movement emerged in October 2018. The spontaneous mobilization is in its 23rd week and covers the entire French territory. It is mainly organized around traffic circles and blockades of communication routes. Unlike traditional demonstrations, organized by trade unions, the Yellow Vests movement was launched and is developing mainly via the Net, through social networks.

Nationwide protests have been held, every Saturday, in many cities, since November 17, 2018. The yellow vests find a strong echo in the peri-urban areas and, beyond, in the metropolises. Given the informal organization, as well as the fragmentation of the different actions, it is difficult to put a precise figure on participation. For the union Policemen in anger, the number of demonstrators varies, depending on the week, from 90.000 to 1.300.000. These figures contrast with those of the Ministry of the Interior, which speaks of 30,000 to 280,000 protesters. This last number is very largely underestimated, since sometimes the number of police officers mobilized would be higher than the number of yellow vests.

The Yellow Vests represent a spontaneous movement, singular by its social composition, based on peripheral layers of the proletariat, as well as by its mode of organization, based only on the territory and no longer in the company. It follows a series of defeats of the central layers of the working class, such as the railway workers. The strikes and demonstrations organized by the unions against the reforms of the labor code, contained in the El Khomri Law and the Macron Ordinances, have not slowed down the government initiatives. Today, it is other proletarian layers, with a much weaker immediate balance of power, who are demonstrating their opposition to the government’s offensive against the social wage.

THE PEOPLE AS A REFERENCE

With the French revolution and the notion of people as references, the discourse on the Yellow Vests denies more than 2 centuries of proletarian struggles. This view, taken by the media, designating them as a people and not as a proletariat, testifies to the context in which the movement is taking place. It is the result of a society that has lost all memory, all reference to its own history and therefore all connection with its present. The « qui-court  » forbids to think the opposition of the different social interests, so, the character of class of the movement. The demonstrators remain locked into the anhistorical notion of people. It is not the past which, here, substitutes itself for the present, for the concrete reality, but only its image, such as it has been manufactured by the official history.

The invocation of the French revolution is a myth, as it should legitimize the demand for the RIC. Indistinction reigns. The actors of the struggle, the urban proletariat and the day laborers, disappear behind the all-encompassing notion of the people. Historical reality is denied by the fiction of the image, that of the uniqueness of the nation and its state. The opposition between 1789 and 1792, between the revolution in the service of the bourgeoisie and the attempt of the proletariat to take over the leadership, is eliminated. Today, the confusion is repeated. The class composition of the demonstrators was also rejected in favor of the iconic notion of the people, a figure that should represent the entire French population outside the « oligarchy.

FROM CLAIM TO REPRESENTATION

By responding to the injunction of the authorities to pronounce, not on what the demonstrators want, but on what they are, the movement has placed itself on the ground marked out by the authorities. The response of the demonstrators was intended to answer the contemptuous command,  » Who are you ?  » What is your legitimacy ?  » Who are your representatives ? « Despite its interrogative form, the intervention did not expect an answer, it was simply an injunction to define oneself in relation to power and thus to recognize it as the master of discourse. The injunction to define oneself confiscates the word of the Yellow Vests. Instead of responding with their own demands, demanding  » Money « , the demonstrators responded to the presidential scorn by justifying the legitimacy of their actions, declaring:  » We are the people « . Thus, the movement abandons its own ground of struggle to place itself where the power wants to lock them up.

The demands, concerning wages and purchasing power, become secondary to the search for recognition of power, in which the demand for a Popular Initiative Referendum is included.

A double movement thus takes place. First of all, there is a shift from the terrain of demands to that of representation, from the wage struggle to the question of constitutional reform. Then, a reversal of a directly political wage struggle, of a movement that directly attacks the state management of the labor force, into an abstract project of reform of the modes of representation, of the procedures of political mediation, takes place.

THE RIC, A PROVIDENTIAL PROPOSAL

Before it was presented by the media in mid-December 2018 as the central axis of the struggle of the Yellow Vests, the demand for a Popular Initiative Referendum had remained marginal. It is presented as a turning point in the movement. The latter leaves its own ground, that of wage demands, to place itself on that of power.

For the employers and the government, the RIC has the advantage of relegating to the background the initial demands concerning the revaluation of minimum wages and the reduction of fuel prices, in fine on the value of the work force. As for the demonstrators themselves, they limit themselves, most often, to adding the RIC to their demands, without giving it any precise content.

At the same time, the media made Etienne Chouard, the emblematic bearer of the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum, known to the general public. This initiative has already been immediately received favorably by the Prime Minister, who immediately expressed on December 17, 2018, in an interview with Les Echos :  » I do not see how we can be against its principle . »

A discussion on ICR is much less expensive than a positive response to wage demands. The possibility of organizing citizens’ referendums already exists in Switzerland and Italy, without the organization of power having been upset. It is also worth recalling the referendum on the European Constitution Treaty in 2005 which, despite the rejection of more than 54% of voters, ended later with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, a text that incorporated the essential supranational character of the act, previously rejected by the French.

THE PEOPLE VS. THE PROLETARIAT

The Yellow Vests represent an important part of the population, but they have their own interests that are not those of the whole society. Thus, the evocation of the notion of people obscures the specificity of a social movement with particular demands, opposed to the interests of the employers.

The way the movement defines itself is problematic. If the demands expressed concern the question of salary and purchasing power, their actions are named as those of a citizen movement. While the wage issue is at the center of the demands, the employers are completely offside. The state can then pose as the sole interlocutor of the demonstrators.

The notion of people would cover an aggregate that includes almost the entire population, a gathering whose unity is presupposed, since it would not include the 1%, or the 0.1% or even the 0.01% of the financial « oligarchy ». Thus, it is not a concept based on difference, but rather an all-encompassing category, whose identity is deduced by a presupposed opposition to the ultra-rich. If social classes exist only in their relations of struggles, the notion of people neutralizes any class opposition. It is a psychotic representation, suppressing difference and rejecting any separation from the constituted powers.

In France, the promoters of the notion of the people refer to the Revolution of 1789, when the urban proletariat overthrew the aristocracy with the weapons distributed by the bourgeoisie and to whom they handed them over, once the work was done(1). Already, in the historiography of the French Revolution, the reference to the people is a screen hiding the real actors, such as the urban and agrarian proletariats. It has, here too, the same function of denying the class composition of the Gilets jaunes.

Thus, more than two centuries of social and political history, that of proletarian struggles, disappear in the name of an anhistorical reference of people, conveyed not by the real, but by the official history of the French Revolution of 1789.

DENIAL OF THE WAGE STRUGGLE AS A POLITICAL STRUGGLE

The dissolution of its own demands into an abstract demand for the democratization of the state can easily turn into its opposite, into a strengthening of the executive power. The denial of the class composition of the movement, the refusal to name themselves as proletariat makes them designated as people, as the imaginary base of a state that fights them.

If the demands are indeed about the question of wages, they are not presented as proletarian actions, intended to defend the value of labor power, but as a « citizen » movement, claiming to be in the forefront of the state in the reduction of wages.

This is a denial of the directly political character of the wage struggle which, at present, in a structure of very low growth, is confronted with an accumulation of capital based, no longer principally on the increase in the production of relative surplus-value, but on an exorbitant growth of absolute surplus-value. Thus, the development of exploitation is no longer particularly based on the growth of labor productivity, but by the increase of its duration, the flexibility of working time, as well as the decrease of the real wage.

The struggle over wages becomes directly political, because any valorization of labor power directly challenges a system of exploitation based essentially on the decrease of the absolute value of labor power. The function of the state as collective capitalist, as the El Khomri Law and the Macron Ordinances show us, is today central in the dismantling of the guarantees that allow workers to defend their wages and working conditions. Any struggle for wages becomes a directly political struggle.

THE POLICE STATE, A MODERN FORM OF THE NATIONAL STATE

The repression, suffered by the Yellow Vests, is of a level unknown in France for decades. However, it is a non-violent social movement that has no capacity or will to threaten the very exercise of power. Police violence is above all « proactive », its aim is to create fear and preventively dissolve any process of social recomposition.

Thus, throughout their demonstrations, the Yellow Vests were confronted with the only effective structure of the national state: the police. EU member states, even large countries like France, are today bodies that lack most of the prerogatives of government, whether political or economic. Most of these have been transferred to European and international bodies. Economic and social policies, such as the reform of the labor code, are mere applications of EU directives.

The police became the central apparatus of the national state(2). The prerogative of law and order remains within its competence, unlike war, currency or economic policy. If at this level, the national state retains autonomy, it is relative, because it is closely framed by the American imperial structure. For the past thirty years, European police forces have been structured directly by the FBI(3). Not only did the American federal police organize the joint intervention teams, but thanks to its initiatives, it also managed to strongly influence European legislation, both national and community, in the areas of interception of communications, control of the Net, creation of new incriminations specifying terrorism, as well as reforms of the police and judicial apparatus.

The centrality of the police apparatus at the national level was first made explicit in countries that had long since abandoned all national sovereignty, such as Belgium. It is now organic to countries like France. This is the result of a policy of abandoning all national independence and becoming more integrated into the US Empire.

A POLITICAL SUICIDE

If the police became the central body of the national state in France, it was first as an apparatus subject to imperial structures. This articulation explains the difficulties met by the proletarian struggles. The management of labor force is international and the struggles remain national. The opponent is globally elusive. Faced with the Yellow Vests, there is only the police as representatives of a state that has lost its regal prerogatives. Protesters face a power vacuum. They are confronted with a state that rules, but does not govern.

The violence of the police towards the demonstrators and the massive use of the procedure of immediate appearance, are revealing of the current form of the State, of a national State which has no other prerogatives than the functions of police and justice, the latter being reduced to a simple auxiliary of the repressive apparatus. The « immediate appearance » procedure is an example of this change. It is therefore the criminal law that is now at the center of the relationship between the government and the population.

At present, criminal law has acquired a constitutive character. Abandoning, as Etienne Chouard demands, the wage demands and not making the defense of fundamental freedoms a central axis of struggle, in order to concentrate all its efforts on the RIC, leads to the destruction of the movement. This leads to treating as the main, if not the only, objective the capacity to transform a constitutional text that has only a residual place in the current political and legal order. This tactic places itself outside of any effective reality. It leads to political suicide.

Jean-Claude Paye and Tülay Umay

Notes et références
  1. Henri Guillemin, La révolution française (1789–1794), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mh7DWUr_nyA
  2. Jean-Claude Paye, « Vers un Etat policier en Belgique ? », Le Monde diplomatique, novembre 1999, https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/1999/11/PAYE/3363, ainsi que Vers un Etat policier en Belgique, 159 p, EPO 1999.
  3. Jean-Claude Paye, « Europe-Etats-Unis : un rapport impérial », Le Monde, le 23 février 2004, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2004/02/23/europe-etats-unis-un-rapportimperial-par-jean-claude-paye_354079_3210.html
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