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On Yellow Vests, Unions, and Intellectuals

The gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) are breathing new life into an international scene brimming with “organic crises” but lacking hegemony. Similarities and differences are noted between Macri and Macron according to Argentine literary and cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo, and a comparison is made between Brazil in 2013 and France today with regard to the institutionalist “essentialism” of Brazilian philosophy professor Marilena Chaui.

Matías Maiello

December 17, 2018
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The New Winds Blowing From France

A woman interviewed during one of the demonstrations commented, “I hear [Interior Minister Christophe] Castaner say that these demonstrations have not been announced… What demonstrations? … This is not a demonstration; this is an uprising.” The images of the gilets jaunes have been circulated around the world. The eruption of anger in the streets, forcing the hand of the Macron government, constitute an international countertendency to the increasing Bonapartization of political regimes and the rise of right-wing governments, such as Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Over the last few years, several countries developed elements of what Gramsci called “organic crisis,” both in imperialist and semi-colonial nations. One of its characteristic features is a crisis of representation: a crisis of traditional parties of the “center-right” and “center-left”—what Tariq Ali called the “extreme center.” The content of these processes is the crisis of bourgeois hegemony.

Macron himself is the product of such a process. His presidency was a result of the collapse of the republican and socialist parties, but his stardom as a man without a party lasted for less time than a shooting star. Perceived as the “lesser evil,” he was exalted as the supposed savior from Marine Le Pen’s far right in the 2017 elections. However, Macron quickly became the prophet for the “modernization” of France, the neoliberal euphemism for privatization and attacks on retirees, workers, and the popular sectors.

Gramsci’s crisis of hegemony occurs because either the ruling class “has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses” or because “huge masses (especially of peasants and petty-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution.” Of these two variants, what we have seen lately is much of the first and only a little of the second. France is an exception. In contrast to the generally passive discontent, the spontaneous uprising of the gilets jaunes is an eruption of sectors of the masses in the very heart of Europe.

It is a heterogeneous movement in which the popular classes still intervene in an undifferentiated way. It is made up mostly of pauperized white workers and an impoverished middle class of self-employed workers, professionals and, to a lesser extent, small business owners. On this basis there have been all kinds of comparisons. There are those who, like Chantal Mouffe, state that “the nebulous and horizontal nature of the movement, with Macron as its sole opponent, recalls the origins of the Movimento 5 Stelle” (M5S—Five Star Movement). What Mouffe envisions here is the rise of a “right-wing populism,” as the M5S is currently governing Italy together with the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League).

Could the gilets jaunes movement strengthen Le Pen’s right-wing nationalist Front National (now the Rassemblement National [National Rally])? This cannot be ruled out. If, despite all the progressive elements of the current movement, the right is strengthened, it will not be the result of any ontological determinism. Rather, it will happen because the working class lacks hegemony over the impoverished middle and popular sectors.

The trade union bureaucracy, the representative of the better-off sectors of the working class, and part of the French left are trying to excuse their conservative approach to the movement on the “right-wing danger.” If such a tendency succeeds, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. To demonstrate this, we should examine Brazil’s example.

The Unions in Brazil 2013 and France 2018

While there are many differences between Brazil’s mobilizations in 2013 and those in France today, the comparison is useful for considering the problem of hegemony. In 2013, huge masses suddenly moved into action during Brazil’s organic crisis. We saw that if the unions do not fight, if they remain dependent on the state and under the command of the bureaucracy—no matter how reformist or “militant” they may be—and if there is no alternative that goes beyond them, then the possibility of achieving working-class hegemony is blocked. As a result, the door to the far right was opened in the following years. The rise of Bolsonaro is a testament to this.

As Trotsky said, “Naturally, the petty proprietor prefers order so long as business is going well and so long as he hopes that tomorrow it will go better. But when this hope is lost, he is easily enraged and is ready to give himself over to the most extreme measures. … To bring the petty bourgeoisie to its side, the proletariat must win its confidence. And for that it must have confidence in its own strength. It must have a clear program of action and must be ready to struggle for power by all possible means.” Proletarian hegemony is achieved when a movement is created around on a working-class program as well as working-class methods (strikes, pickets) alongside massive protests.

The opposite dynamic took place in Brazil during the days of June 2013. Large sectors of the masses in Brazil’s biggest cities took to the streets, with young people on the front line against the Workers’ Party’s proposed bus fare hikes. This was combined with the widespread discontent with the state of public services and the aspirations of the so-called “new C class,” composed of mainly low-income workers. But that designation also expressed the undifferentiated character of the intervention of the classes in the first instance, which was a function both of the nature of a spontaneous movement and the absence of the unions, particularly of the official United Workers’ Central (CUT) union federation. As a result, a right-wing “soft coup” ousted President Dilma Rousseff, and two years later Bolsonaro was elected President.

In the case of the current movement in France, the tax increase decreed by Macron on diesel fuel, which is used by 60% of the population, is combined with the dismantling of public services. In particular, local railway systems have been destroyed in favor of intercity high-speed trains (TGVs), which has forced poor and working-class people, many of whom have been pushed out of the big cities, to travel long distances by car just to get to work, attend appointments, and even get medical attention. Unlike Brazil in 2013, this is not a “new C class” in a relative ascent that is colliding with this reality, but sectors of impoverished white middle-class workers whose standards of living have worsened over the last 20 or 30 years.

Today in France the union bureaucracy, from the collaborationist French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT) to the supposedly “militant,” traditionally Communist-aligned General Confederation of Labor (CGT), remains hostile to the gilets jaunes and seeks to separate the unions from this movement as much as possible. On December 6, the CGT had issued an official statement denouncing the movement as violent, although they have since organized a mobilization. Back in 2013, the Brazil’s largest labor union, CUT, led by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT—Workers’ Party) classified the June 2013 movement as inherently right wing. They did not want these spontaneous actions infect their own social base and threaten their control of the labor movement.

But despite the unions’ characterizations, the yellow vest movement has brought to the forefront the demand for an increase in the minimum wage and pensions. These are issues that the union bureaucracy cannot resolve because it is more concerned with echoing Macron’s call for “responsibility” and quelling protests to ensure “dialogue” with the government. An opposing tendency has been expressed by the vanguard of the working class such as those who organized to converge with the yellow vests, including the militant Inter-gares group of cheminots (railway workers), the Truth and Justice for Adama Traoré Committee (Traoré was a young black man murdered by the police), anti-racist groups and sectors of the student movement, which on December 8 formed a contingent and took part in the mobilization in Paris.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

According to many of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) leaders, something akin to “fascism” began to emerge in 2013. We have recently seen one of the main defenders of this thesis, intellectual Marilena Chaui , harangue thousands of young people who wanted to take on Bolsonaro after he had just won the presidency: “I told them in 2013 that this was going to happen.” This is nothing but a kind of bureaucratic-institutionalist “essentialism” that opposes any spontaneous movement, which by definition can only ever be confused and heterogeneous when it begins.

But the real story is more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact is that the CUT in the workers’ movement and the National Union of Students (UNE), both led by the PT, put all their resources into containing the 2013 mobilizations. Add to this the sections of the left who categorized this movement as inherently right wing. All the while Fernando Haddad, then the mayor of São Paulo and later the PT candidate defeated by Bolsonaro, helped repress the movement in June 2013 alongside right-wing PSDB leader and São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin. During the following months, when the “contagion” inevitably spread to the workers’ movement in the form of wildcat strikes that went beyond the CUT bureaucracy, the PT government endorsed state police repression of the strike of the garis (sanitation workers) in Rio de Janeiro and the bus drivers’ strikes held in several cities, as well as directly sending federal troops to quash the strikes at the nation’s hydroelectric plants.
Despite all this, and contrary to Chaui’s ideas, the 2014 presidential elections saw the PT’s Lula and Rousseff promise not to impose austerity on the people. Many of those who had mobilized in 2013 and did not vote for Dilma in the first round, voted for the PT as “the lesser evil” in the run-off against the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) candidate Aécio Neves. That is how Dilma won the presidency for the second time around. Once reelected, however, she acted like Macron, appointing the former private bank chief, IMF and World Bank operative Joaquim Levy as minister of finance. This is the same man who the “fascist” Bolsonaro has announced will be the future president of the state-owned Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), and who first launched the proposal for pension reform back in 2015. Rousseff and Levy went on to impose austerity measures on the Brazilian working class. This move by Rousseff was the coup de grace that demoralized the PT’s own voter base.

The road was then clear for the right, which raised its own banners of hegemony with the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anti-corruption investigations and the mobilization of the middle classes, led by its more affluent sectors, and gave rise to the institutional coup against Rousseff’s government. The anti-mobilization fundamentalism of the PT culminated in the defusing of any fight against the coup itself and in the PT restoring its faith in the Senate and the judiciary to “save democracy.” Then came the strategy of placing all their bets on the 2018 elections in which the PT claimed: “We will return.” The PT held on to this strategy even in the face of the arbitrary imprisonment and subsequent proscription of Lula from running in the presidential elections. Simultaneously, the right wingers of the PSDB and Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) also ended up perishing at the hands of a more “radical” alternative. Result: Bolsonaro is president. So finally, Chaui today can lecture young people: “I told them in 2013 that this was going to happen.”

Working Class and Hegemony

Beyond these kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies in regard to the gilets jaunes movement or Macron, “the most cultured president in the world” (as Sarlo suggests), the truth is that today there are new winds blowing out of France. The yellow vests movement is undoubtedly in its first stages, but it has put the whole neoliberal program into question. Macron is now trying to fight his way off the ropes. But will the pre-revolutionary tendencies that this situation contains develop further? Meanwhile, the media attempts to frighten the population as both Le Pen on the far right and Mélenchon on the reformist left attempt to channel the anger back into the framework of the regime by calling for the dissolution of the National Assembly and for new elections. But the fundamentals that underpin the yellow vest uprising are much deeper and go far beyond conjunctural matters. The new winds blowing out of France are here to stay, and their development will have fundamental consequences for the situation both in Europe and internationally.

It may interest you: French Socialists Call for General Strike to Oust Macron, Abolish Senate

The streets of France are beginning to show us just how the programs of austerity can be confronted. But whether or not we move forward to defeat them will depend largely on whether the workers’ movement can overcome the conservatism of its current leaderships and act with its own methods. To defeat austerity, there must be methods such as a general strike, which really paralyzes the nation’s economy, and self-defense through workers’ militias that oppose the forces of repression and paralegal gangs, and act with the perspective of proletarian insurrection. As Brazil has amply demonstrated, the shortest road to the advance of the right is via a labor movement that has its hands tied and the unions are dependent on the state and are bureaucratically controlled. If they do not manage to get out of this situation, it does not matter whether the movements are yellow, reformist, “progressive,” or whatever. To revolutionize the organizations of workers, of students, of the women’s movement, etc., and prepare the conditions for the emergence of bodies of coordination and self-organization that can articulate a revolutionary hegemony when the “huge masses” do take action, what is needed is an alliance of the working class with the exploited and oppressed people, which is the only way that today’s neoliberal austerity and plunder can truly be stopped.

This article was first published at Ideas de Izquierda (Ideas of the Left) on December 9, 2018.

Translation: Sean Robertson

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Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).


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