The coronavirus pandemic is severely straining governments around the world because of their lack of preparedness, lack of health equipment, and the structural crisis of public hospitals after decades of neoliberal reforms. These are all common features that characterize, to a greater or lesser extent, the vast majority of countries that make up the capitalist world economy. Therefore all capitalist governments will be hit hard by the consequences of the current storm, given the magnitude of the health crisis coupled with a looming economic recession whose only point of comparison is that of the Great Depression of 1929.
As for France, it has its own additional problem: the crisis is unfolding on a political and social terrain that has already been severely undermined over the last several years. That terrain is characterized by the narrowness of Macron’s social base over a five-year period, coupled with most people’s image of Macron as a “president of the rich,” along with an absolutely unprecedented succession of historically significant protest movements. These ranged from the Yellow Vests uprising — France’s biggest crisis since 1968 — to the strike movement against the government’s proposed pension reform and the longest transit strike in history. Combined, these actions by the masses forced Macron to put the pension reform on hold.
All this is proof of a boiling social climate, but also of the emergence of a new cycle of class struggle that began in 2016 with the movement against the Labor Code reforms and that deepened under Macronism.
A Façade of National Unity That Cannot Hold Back the Accumulating Social Frustration
At the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in France, Macron’s popularity briefly rose. This is an almost physiological mechanism in times of crisis; it is not, however, a reflection of national unity. And more generally, communications from the government about the crisis have not inspired confidence. It is clear that the government has not been transparent in disclosing information related to the public health emergency and the measures it has taken have been very divisive. Today, after nearly a month of quarantine that is likely to extend into the following months, there has never been such distrust of the executive branch over its management of the crisis — it has reached 56 percent by some polls.
The bourgeoisie and its government are endangering the lives and health of millions of people. People are called upon to confine themselves, and that confinement is enforced through police methods. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of wage earners are pushed into returning to work, fearful of contagion and the lack of protective equipment.
In other words, the pandemic is exacerbating inequalities and, more than ever, creating resentment against the ruling class. The Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps put it this way:
A new detonator was needed — a good reason to reconnect French anger and resentment to a loudspeaker. Then along came COVID-19, and the proliferation of anxieties flowing from the strict confinement ordered by the government beginning 16 March. There is anger over the lack of protective equipment for the foot soldiers of the public health emergency — not only the caretakers, but also the garbage collectors, cashiers, delivery people, and postal workers. Increasingly, CGT members demand their right of withdrawal, 1Translator’s note: The French Labor Code gives workers the “right of withdrawal” — meaning they can cease working in any situation they consider to be a serious and imminent danger to their life or health. along with calls to strike. Politicians at every level are decried for having wasted the months of January and February focusing on the pension reform — now suspended — rather than on essential preparations for the coming pandemic.
Fear of Proletarian Retaliation
This combination of an unprecedented health crisis and a major economic depression, all within the framework of strong geopolitical friction among the major powers and between them and the other countries in their periphery (which is evidenced by the major powers’ efforts to monopolize health equipment and resources), could very well lead to social explosions on a global scale.
In France, all the warning lights are flashing. Fear of contagion and anger at the decisions taken by the “higher ups” are beginning to give “essential workers” and “first responders” and those “in the trenches” — to use the words of the bourgeois press — a sense of the power that could be theirs. It will be difficult for them to forget all of this once the worst of the crisis is behind us. These are the kinds of potential changes in the balance of power that led the Portuguese government, for example, to waste no time in suspending the right to strike.
In France, the government is very worried — at least that’s what the daily Le Monde newspaper seems to think. It wrote, “At the very top of the state and the ruling party, some … fear that the health crisis will lead to a social crisis, evoking a sort of ‘Yellow Vest-ization’ of the crisis overall.” One deputy from Macron’s party remarked, “The current ordeal could resurrect the class struggle,” noting that as France’s vital functions are handled exclusively by workers in the most precarious job categories. Because they are “essential to the smooth running of the country,” they become those “most exposed to the health risk of the virus. This will legitimately sharpen their demands.” It’s a situation some Macronists see as “perilous.”
Another deputy from Macron’s party said, “We cannot allow this idea to take hold that there are two Frances, one of those who can work from home and one of those who cannot; one of those confined to low-income housing and others in their second homes; one of small- to medium-size enterprises and one of big conglomerates.” There is a real risk that the divide between these two Frances will be exacerbated.”
In other words, the current health crisis is not only strengthening the social position of the most exploited sectors of our class, but at the same is generating widespread opposition to the upper echelons of society and their businesses (reflected in the CAC 40, the leading index of the French stock market). Pollsters are unveiling this sentiment. One described strong grumbling among workers that is “reactivating resentment against the technocrats…who are accused of not having sufficiently prepared the country to face such a crisis. We’re finding the Yellow Vest syndrome — the idea of collective failure by the political class.”
Traps Set by False Friends of the People
It is very likely, therefore, that new large-scale revolts are brewing. They may break out over food shortages, higher prices for basic necessities or, most probably, because the economic crisis is likely to hit the “first in the trenches.” This could generate a wave of tremendous anger among the most precarious and exploited sectors of the working class, even among some workers who at first enjoyed a bit of symbolic recognition of their importance roles or may even have gotten some of the “Macron bonuses” introduced in September 2018 to deal with the Yellow Vest uprisings and that have been slightly increased in the current crisis.
Of course, none of the bosses are talking about wage increases, especially given that in several of the companies that remain open there have been work stoppages to demand payment of the “Macron bonus” even for workers still on the job. This is a sign that even in the current climate, radicalization continues.
The issues of wages and employment could be the decisive ingredient in an explosive social cocktail fueled by an acute mistrust of the politicians and the ruling elites. It could even lead to a prerevolutionary or revolutionary situation like the one sparked in Russia by that country’s World War I ordeal. At that time, the Bolsheviks were better prepared than any other party or faction in the working class: they responded to the impending catastrophe awaiting the proletariat by raising the demand for “Peace! Land! Bread!”
Class-consciousness is clearly maturing. To materialize and crystalize it fully, it must be translated into a clear proletarian program. It also requires unmasking some of the false friends of the people who are revitalizing all manner of class collaboration within the framework of a French capitalism in full-blown decline.
This class collaboration is being implemented within the framework of a French capitalism in full decline. There’s the Macron-compatible environmentalist Yannick Jadot, for instance, from Europe Ecology-The Greens, who is advocating discussion between the Left and the Right, and defending the idea that we can “persuade our country’s stakeholders that we can repair society, respect and protect women, men, and nature, and promote a resilient, innovative, powerful, and just economy…That we are capable of bringing the French together and mobilizing them around a new hope, a project of solidarity that propels us more peacefully into the future.” He argues that “the ecological path is the only legitimate one” to counter nationalism and populism.
Jadot’s program is even to the right of the old institutional Left, the French Socialist Party. It lays claim to the idea that we can “produce and consume differently” without any mention whatsoever of the social convulsions wracking the current economic system. It is all about setting aside class struggle. It is aimed at the “middle class” that wants a “green, organic” urban environment in which to live and wants to keep all the advantages of globalization it enjoys, such as travel and tourism — services that have collapsed as a result of COVID-19.
Then there is Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, one of France’s social-democratic parties. His statements have a more radical tinge. He’s even calling for “revolution” — but of course, not proletarian socialist revolution to overturn capitalism. Instead, he explains, “We are fighting no other enemy than our mistakes, our abuses of our way of life. The time has come for radical change. That is the revolution human civilization must now accomplish.” What form this revolution should take is left unclear.
Mélenchon advocates “planning,” but not the socialist sort aimed at resolving the inherent anarchy of capitalist competition that is exacerbated in times of crisis. Rather, he wants planning within the framework of the bourgeois state. For him and his party, it is a matter of replacing free trade and neoliberalism with a return to the Gaullist-era dirigisme — more direct state intervention in the economy to influence where capitalist investment goes.
At the very moment proletarian forces should be planning to confront the brutality of the capitalist crisis, Mélenchon — just like Bernie Sanders in the United States — is calling on us to lower our guard rather than preparing for major class struggle.
These are sham solutions. There is no way out of the disaster that lies ahead without confronting the interests of the CAC 40 — the conglomerates that rule the country and whose fortunes amount to 30 percent of total French GDP and the 500 wealthiest families that have tripled their assets over the last 10 years. It is their money we should take to rebuild public hospitals and to establish a vast building and renovation program targeted at France’s seedy, cramped housing complexes that ring the cities — where the living conditions make confinement particularly awful.
Of course, all that should be done within the framework of a planned economy that respects both people and the environment, and that offers some prospects for the hundreds of thousands of small producers and farmers, skilled workers and tradespeople, who are being held by the throat by the major retailers, large companies, and the banks. Radical change is unthinkable without first expropriating and nationalizing the giants of the CAC 40 and placing them under the democratic control of the workers. That is a first principle for genuine democratic economic planning.
Proletarian Internationalism, Now More Than Ever
What Mélenchon proposes in the face of the uncontrollable excesses of neoliberal globalization goes hand in hand with a return to good old economic patriotism. He praised what Arnaud Montebourg, France’s Minister of Industrial Renewal (Macron’s old job) from 2012 to 2014, said in an interview with Libération. Montebourg, who while in charge of “productive recovery” was responsible — among other things — for shutting down basic steel production in Florange, attacked Macron sharply in the interview. He wondered aloud whether the president was “best suited to talk about economic patriotism,” while at the same time calling on the state to undertake an “ecological reconstruction” that would involve “as few imports as possible, an economy more oriented towards the continental domestic market, with good wages and better prices to remunerate those who produce here.” Mélenchon tweeted about Montebourg’s words: “I note our convergence of concerns, sometimes down to the last word! Bravo.”
In the face of the crisis of capitalist globalization, these false friends of the people defend a return to the narrow conception of sovereignty — that is, a return to the absolutely outmoded and obsolete framework of the nation-state — at the very moment when the pandemic and the capitalist crisis demand more than ever international coordination and solidarity. They support each of the great capitalist-imperialist states and their bourgeoisie’s plans to save themselves by trampling on the legitimate demands of the weakest countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia by waging a ruthless war for masks and other medical supplies. The ways in which the more powerful countries such as France are monopolizing the purchase of tests and masks is nothing less than modern-day piracy.
Moreover, these false radicals only seek to salvage national production. They give themselves a left cover by “planning” and mentioning the involvement of trade unions. That’s how they aim to compete with the reactionary sovereignty promoted by Marine Le Pen of the National Rally party. From a structural point of view, their economic patriotism is no different than the positions taken by many of the largest employer representatives right now. For instance, Philippe Varin, president of the France Industrie confederation, has stated, “The fundamental issue is to resettle activities in France. This crisis affords a real opportunity and highlights some major trends: an inevitable carbon tax that will make transport more expensive; the importance to our sovereignty of raw materials and intermediate goods; digital technology that allows us to manufacture in smaller batches; better response to the demands of closer customers.”
Meanwhile, others are demanding more solidarity from European capital. A group of German intellectuals, economists, and artists has petitioned the European Commission to create “corona bonds” with which to take on, at the European Union level, the debt this crisis will inevitably generate.
The current crisis demonstrates the powerlessness of the authorities and of nation-states in general to deal with the spread of the health crisis. The pandemic has raised universal awareness that the life or death of millions of people depends on our collective decisions, and that putting our lives in the hands of a state and a class capable only of brutally defending their own national interests will only lead us to a dead end.
The bourgeoisie’s impotence at warding off the coronavirus crisis makes Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ definition of proletarian revolution, which distinguishes it from all previous revolutions, particularly resonant:
All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air. 2Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, chap. 1
Only the working class, the proletariat, on the basis of international solidarity — that is, proletarian internationalism — is capable of rising to the challenges we face today. Faced with the universal awareness that both the ecological crisis and the pandemic are creating, only the proletariat, based on its international solidarity can get us out of the current crisis. Any other “solution” is sure to lead us, sooner or later, to barbarism.
First published on April 12 in French in RP Dimanche.
Translated, adapted, and abridged by Scott Cooper