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The centre collapses - the Yellow Vests emerge
On the apolitical labelling of the movement
Many of us have been following the Yellow Vest clashes on the streets of France with great interest and trying to understand this movement that appeared to come from nowhere. It is another story of the pressures of late stage capitalism collapsing the center of politics, a center no longer able to fool more of the people most of the time. A movement made possible by social media but which also reflects the often chaotic ‘apolitics’ of such movements. And worrying in the context of the millions being poured into far right propaganda a movement in which the far-right have made some progress in infiltrating, even if our comrades in France are physically driving them out of the protests.
There is no such thing as an apolitical movement, all there can be is a movement with internal contradictions as well as internal struggles to resolve those contradictions.
There is no way for a movement to be both anti-capitalist and in favour of capitalism, anti-authoritarian and authoritarian, against borders and anti-immigration, anti-racist, anti-sexist and ‘’anti-SJW’’, anti-state and statist, anti-Europe and pro-Europe or neither. Saying that none of this matters is still an ideological statement because it suggests the economic insecurity we face is not related to any of the above.
Whether we hold one of these positions outside of any party affiliation doesn’t make these opinions less political. Politics and party politics are different things, and some political ideologies are fundamentally opposed to party politics as a strategy.
The implication for the Yellow Vest movement is that different ideological tendencies will inevitably try to influence the movement one way or the other. A better way to put it is that the collision of ideologies within the movement defines the course of the movement, it is the movement.. In this context, the claim that the movement is apolitical is simply an opportunity for different ideologies to wear a mask while trying to influence the movement.
This is why we will not shy away from labels. We also want to argue that influencing a movement is not the same thing as co-opting a movement (to co-opt is to influence, but to influence is not necessarily to co-opt). Co-optation is when the control of a movement is taken away from the original grassroots organisers and into the hands of party/group. Instead what we want to do is insist that the yellow vest movement push its core beliefs to their ultimate conclusions.
Yellow Vests and Anarchism
While we recognize the diverse nature of the French Yellow Vest movement, it is worth mentioning that the core realisations which gave rise to the yellow vest movement are very much aligned with anarchism in the broadest sense:
1) Anarchism rejects party politics. The blanket rejection of parties and electoral strategies is something that the French yellow vest movement shares with anarchism and with anarchism alone. No other political ideology on the spectrum rejects party politics as definitively as anarchism does.
2) Anarchism is anti-authoritarian. This term is admittedly rarely used by Yellow Vests to describe the movement. Yet the refusal to have spokespersons endowed with the power to make decisions or to negotiate with the state on behalf of the movement as well as the widespread critique of the French State as a violent top-down institution concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a few reveals a strong anti-authoritarian current within the movement. In the same vein, Anarchists argue that the worker-boss, the landlord-tenant and the lender-borrower relationships are also authoritarian. These authoritarian relationship are made possible because the State and its police force historically emerged as a means to violently enforce property rights (that is to allow concentration of wealth and limit redistribution to what is strictly necessary to avoid insurrection).
Perhaps the Yellow Vest movement, like Occupy before it, lacks an authoritarian center for reasons of tactics and spontaneity, there are no leaders to arrest and no need to wait for a founding conference before acting. But for anarchists such structures are not just tactical ways to act quickly and avoid repression. They are principles meant to defeat by design the corruption that comes when the authorities can buy off the leaders of a movement, or jail or assassinate the few who don’t have a price.
Anarchists also believe States and the authoritarian relationships they make possible could not have emerged without the creation of sexist, racist and ableist hierarchies, backed by law, which serve as divide and conquer strategies. These mutually reinforcing and intersecting hierarchies prevent workers from forming solidarity ties and from politically organising against the State and the capitalist system that initially was and still is imposed onto them by force. In other words, the social contract is a myth but some people like to believe in it because they don’t have the worst deal.
Knowing where to draw the line
It must be said that if anti-authoritarianism and the rejection of hierarchical top-down structures are a core principle of the yellow vest movement, then the far-right’s role in the movement can only ever be to try to co-opt it and drag it away from this core principle. The far right, everywhere and since ever has reinforced violent hierarchical authoritarian structures rather than dismantling them. This is what they do and this is where the movement should draw the line. This is all the more urgent that we have seen, in the last few years how the far right’s absolute disregard for truth (for the purpose of gaining power) has allowed them to win over social movements through mass fake news campaigns. If we do not want to follow the trajectory of Ukraine, Brazil and the United States, we need to have no tolerance for the far-right within the Yellow Vest movement.
The end of centrism
The influence of the far right is being bought with the millions of dollars a few super rich white men and pumping into personalities and social media channels. But while this is why they have now become an organised threat it does not explain all. Late stage capitalism is faced with crisis it cannot solve, in particular that of Climate Change which at its worst threatens life on the planet. Automation and the huge reductions being imposed on workers living standards through greatly inflating housing costs is another. For 50 years politics in the advanced economics has been dominated by technocratic centrist parties whose policy differences were not so much about the organisation of the economy but pace and the extent to which the liberation of oppressed groups should be allowed.
As capitalism proves unable to continue to deliver modest improvements to the many the hold of the centerists is collapsing. Unfortunately this polarisation is not simply pushing people to a genuine left alternative. As with the huge crisis of legitimacy capitalism faced after WWI a entirely false and reactionary ‘revolution’ is being promoted in the rebirth of fascist movements that, as before, seek to protect capitalist rule by instead directing anger at marginalised scapegoats. The false unity they seek to build is that of ‘the people’ rather than ‘the class’ - a people defined in opposition to those who are targeted for being different. A people that includes the billionaires who are the cause of climate and economic disaster facing us. Indeed it is the money from those billionares that funds fascist organising and outreach, all to protect their wealth and ability to pollute for a few more years.
As was the case in the 1920s fascism is a disastrous band-aid for billionaires to preserve their wealth and power that lasts only a brief while before it brings death and destruction down on all. Those who fell for the scapegoating lies of Hitler & Mussolini lived to see their children conscripted and slaughtered in the snows around Stalingrad, their cities levelled and their choice remembered, perhaps for ever as the most criminal moment in human history. The victims of their scapegoating were murdered in vast numbers. 80 million died in the slaughter that choice resulted in. This time the threat is such that there may be no history to remember, we cannot afford to allow the mistakes of the past be repeated in a new form, when it comes to the far right presence the Yellow Jackets must make a choice and drive them and their bigoted scapegoating out.
As the center collapses all of us face the choices outlined at the beginning - for or against capitalism, for or against social justice, for or against the authoritarian state. Which choice we feed will determine the future of the planet, indeed will determine whether humanity as we have come to know it has any future on this planet. The hour is late and the pressures become more intense as the months pass, we cannot afford to allow the rule of the wealthy few to continue much longer. Will the Yellow Jackets prove to be a moment of contradictory rioting in the twilight of a dying planet or a moment when contradictions are resolved and we set out on a global path to liberation?