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The yellow vest protesters revolting against centrism mean well – but their left wing populism won’t change French politics

The demands of the protesters aren’t possible to implement within the current capitalist system – and they aren't ambitious enough to provoke a change to a more egalitarian, ecologically sustainable system either

Slavoj Zizek
Monday 17 December 2018 11:04 GMT
Police deploy water cannons and rubber bullets as gilets jaunes activists burn cars in French capital

The ongoing protests of yellow vests (gilets jaunes) in France continue for the fifth weekend. They began as a grassroots movement that grew out of widespread discontent with a new eco-tax on petrol and diesel, seen as hitting those living and working outside metropolitan areas where there is no public transport. In the past weeks the movement has grown to include a panoply of demands, including Frexit (the exit of France from EU), lower taxes, higher pensions, and an improvement in ordinary French people’s spending power.

They offer an exemplary case of the leftist populism, of the explosion of people’s wrath in all its inconsistency: lower taxes and more money for education and health care, cheaper petrol and ecological struggle… Although the new petrol tax was obviously an excuse or, rather, pretext, not what the protests are “really about”, it is significant to note that what triggered the protests was a measure intended to act against global warming. No wonder Trump enthusiastically supported yellow vests (even hallucinating shouts of some of the protesters “We want Trump!”), noting that one among the demands was for France to step out of the Paris agreement.

The yellow vests movement fits the specific French left tradition of large public protests targeting political elites (more than business or financial elites). However, in contrast to the 68’ protests, the yellow vests are much more a movement of the France profonde, its revolt against big metropolitan areas, which means that its leftist orientation is much more blurred. (Both Le Pen and Melenchon support the protests.) As expected, commentators are asking which political force will appropriate the revolt energy, Le Pen or a new left, with purists demanding that it remains a “pure” protest movement at a distance from established politics.

One should be clear here: in all the explosion of demands and expression of dissatisfaction, it is clear the protesters don’t really know what they want, they don’t have a vision of a society they want, just a mixture of demands that are impossible to meet within the system although they address them at the system. This feature is crucial: their demands express their interests rooted in the existing system.

One should not forget that they are addressing these demands at the (political) system at its best, which, in France, means: Macron. The protests mark the end of the Macron dream. Recall the enthusiasm about Macron offering new hope not only of defeating the rightist populist threat but of provide a new vision of progressive European identity, which brought philosophers as opposed as Habermas and Sloterdijk to support Macron. Recall how every leftist critique of Macron, every warning about the fatal limitations of his project, was dismissed as “objectively” supporting Marine Le Pen.

Today, with the ongoing protests in France, we are brutally confronted with the sad truth of the pro-Macron enthusiasm. Macron’s TV address to the protesters on 10 December was a miserable performance, half-compromise half-apology, which convinced no one and stood out by its lack of vision. Macron may be the best of the existing system, but his politics is located within the liberal-democratic coordinates of the enlightened technocracy.

We should therefore give the protests a conditional yes – conditional since it is clear that left populism does not provide a feasible alternative to the system. That is to say, let’s imagine that the protesters somehow win, take power and act within the coordinates of the existing system (like Syriza did in Greece) – what would have happened then? Probably some kind of economic catastrophe. This doesn’t mean that we simply need a different socioeconomic system, a system which would be able to meet the protesters’ demands: the process of radical transformation would also give rise to different demands and expectations. Say, with regard to fuel costs, what is really needed is not just cheap fuel, the true goal is to diminish our dependency on oil for ecological reasons, to change not only our transportation but our entire way of life. The same holds for lower taxes plus better healthcare and education: the whole paradigm will have to change.

The same holds for our big ethical-political problem: how to deal with the flow of refugees? The solution is not to just open the borders to all who want to come in, and to ground this openness in our generalised guilt (“our colonisation is our greatest crime which we will have to repay forever”). If we remain at this level, we serve perfectly the interests of those in power who foment the conflict between immigrants and the local working class (which feels threatened by them) and retain their superior moral stance. (The moment one begins to think in this direction, the politically correct left instantly cries fascism – see the ferocious attacks on Angela Nagle for her outstanding essay “The Left Case against Open Borders”) Again, the “contradiction” between advocates of open borders and populist anti-immigrants is a false “secondary contradiction” whose ultimate function is to obfuscate the need to change the system itself: the entire international economic system which, in its present form, gives rise to refugees.

Does this mean that we should patiently wait for a big change? No, we can begin right now by measures which appear modest but nonetheless undermine the foundations of the existing system like a patient subterranean digging of a mole. What about the overhaul of our entire financial system which would affect the rules of how credits and investments work? What about imposing new regulations which would prevent the exploitation of the third world countries from which refugees come?

The old 68’ motto Soyons realists, demandons l’impossible! remains fully relevant – on condition that we take note of the shift to which it has to be submitted. First, there is “demanding the impossible” in the sense of bombarding the existing system with demands that it cannot meet: open borders, better healthcare, higher wages… Here we are today, in the midst of a hysterical provocation of our masters (technocratic experts). This provocation has to be followed by a key step further: not demanding the impossible from the system but demanding the “impossible” changes of the system itself. Although such changes appear “impossible” (unthinkable within the coordinates of the system), they are clearly required by our ecological and social predicament, offering the only realist solution.

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