The ongoing protests in France lay bare the bankruptcy of the system Emmanuel Macron stands for. Radical change, however, can only be brought about in ways and from people many on the left would not expect it to be.
With the strikes of French public transport workers dragging on, some commentators even began to speculate that France is approaching a kind of revolutionary moment.
While we are far from that, what is sure is that the conflict between the state (advocating new unified retirement legislation) and the trade unions (which refuse any change of what they consider their hardly-won rights) leaves no space for compromise.
For a Leftist, it is all too easy to sympathize with the striking workers: Emmanuel Macron wants to deprive them of their hard-won conditions of retirement. However, one should also note that railway and other public transport workers are among those who can still afford to strike. They are permanently employed by the state, and the domain of their work (public transport) gives them a strong position to negotiate, which is why they succeeded in getting such a good system of retirement – and their ongoing strike is precisely about retaining this privileged position.
There is, of course, nothing wrong about struggling to retain the hard-won elements of the welfare state that today’s global capitalism tends to dispense with. The problem is that, from the – no less justified – standpoint of those who do not enjoy this privileged position (precarious workers, young, unemployed, etc), these privileged workers who can afford to go on strike cannot but appear as their class enemy contributing to their desperate situation, as a new figure of what Lenin called “workers aristocracy” – and those in power can easily manipulate this despair, and act as if they are fighting unfair privileges on behalf of the truly-needy workers inclusive of immigrants.
Furthermore, one should not forget that they are addressing these demands at Macron’s government, and that Macron stands for the existing economic and political system at its best: he combines pragmatic economic realism with a clear vision of a united Europe, plus he firmly opposes anti-immigrant racism and sexism in all its guises.
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 providing a new vision of progressive European identity, which brought philosophers as opposed as Jurgen Habermas and Peter 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 pro-Macron enthusiasm. Macron may be the best of the existing system, but his politics is located within the liberal-democratic coordinates of the enlightened technocracy.
What’s the solution?
So what political options are there beyond Macron? There are Leftist politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who advocate the necessity of going a decisive step further than Macron in the direction of changing the basic coordinates of the existing capitalist order, while nonetheless remaining within the basic confines of parliamentary democracy and capitalism.
They inevitably get caught into a deadlock: radical Leftists criticize them for not being really revolutionary, for still clinging to the illusion that a radical change is possible in a regular parliamentary way, while moderate centrists like Macron warn them that the measures they advocate are not well thought out and would trigger economic chaos – imagine Corbyn winning the last UK elections, and imagine the immediate reaction of financial and business circles (flight of capital, recession…).
In some sense, both critiques are right – the problem is just that both positions from which they are formulated also don’t work: the ongoing dissatisfaction clearly indicates the limits of Macron’s politics, while “radical” calls for a revolution are simply not strong enough to mobilize the population, plus they are not based on a clear vision of what new order to impose.
So paradoxically, the only solution is (for the time being, at least) to engage in the politics of Sanders and Corbyn: they are the only ones who have proven that they bring about an actual mass movement.
We have to work patiently, getting organized and ready to act when a new crisis will explode – with the growing popular dissatisfaction, with an unexpected ecological catastrophe, with a revolt against exploding digital control and manipulation.
Radical Left should not get involved in some dark plots and plan how to take power in a moment of crisis (as the Communists were doing in the XXth century). It should work precisely to prevent panic and confusion when the crisis will arrive. One axiom should lead us: the true utopia is not the prospect of radical change, the true utopia is that things can go on indefinitely the way they are going on now. The true “revolutionary” which undermines the foundations of our societies are not external terrorists and fundamentalists, but the dynamics of the global capitalism itself.
And the same goes for culture. One often hears that today’s cultural war is fought between traditionalists, who believe in a firm set of values, and postmodern relativists, who consider ethical rules, sexual identities, etc as a result of contingent power games. But is this really the case? The ultimate postmodernists are today conservatives themselves. Once traditional authority loses its substantial power, it is not possible to return to it – all such returns are today a post-modern fake.
Does Trump enact traditional values? No, his conservativism is a postmodern performance, a gigantic ego trip. Playing with “traditional values,” mixing references to them with open obscenities, Trump is the ultimate postmodern president, while Sanders is an old-fashioned moralist.