French Strikes in Retrospect

I’m an American student (temporarily) living in France, by complete chance at the time of the (g)rève général(e) strike movement against pension reforms. I got sick of the American media either framing France as a caricature of progressive awesomeness or as a hedonistic people who would never make sense, so I wrote this up. Enjoy.

Those French –they’re at it again, storming the streets at the prospect of working another two years. As if thirty-five hour work weeks, five weeks of paid vacation per year, and hour and a half lunch breaks weren’t enough. Their retirement –the youngest retirement age in the western world, mind you, is about to be lengthened by two years. Naturally they respond by striking and protesting.

They must be a lazy, hedonistic people with an extreme case of the terrible twos. Or maybe they just really like to protest.

In reality, they are neither (actually they are a little bit of both, but that’s not the point). Like most of the world, the French labor force is being asked to make greater and greater sacrifices due to the financial crisis and globalization. As productivity increases with the demand for global competition, wages stagnate to maximize profits. Globalization becomes an addictive bourgeoisie betting game, played by investing as little money as possible while turning increasingly higher profits by treating the working class as their expendable pawns. This results in fewer jobs, greater unemployment, and a general feeling of economic despair.

Enter Nicolas Sarkozy who proceeds to announce that since France can, “no longer afford the current pension system,” it must be reformed so that workers work an extra two years, spending a total of forty-one years in the work force to realize a full pension. It is not acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to work for a solid forty-one years in the current job market. Neither is it acknowledged that in actual labor –labor that most debutante legislators could not dream of doing—working an extra two years legitimately lowers ones life expectancy. The threats of “dying before enjoying retirement” that the American media scoffed at are all too real on several levels.

France can no longer afford the current pension system because it used money intended for the people to pay off debts from globalization gone awry. Naturally the privileged classes take their cue to sit back, light another cigarette, and draft responsibility-evading legislation to have the working classes clean up their excess mess.

France is not the only country that is facing these reforms. However, unlike the rest of the world, France decided to raise Hell in the streets and try to quench the backbone of the economy that the bourgeoisie consistently takes for granted. Unlike so much of the world, France has an understanding of, and disgust for immorality in politics that is too toxic to swallow with a spoonful of cynicism. So this is why the French are carrying signs in the streets that say, “We Aren’t Carla, You Can’t Fuck Us” –not because they are particularly hedonistic, revolutionary, or anti-establishment, but because they are sane.

 

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While I’m on a meta…

Just wanted to note this post by La Lubu from last year, about Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.  It is this last bit that works as a general statement, something I find truly bewildering when I encounter Americans who hold that raw social Darwinist selfishness is “human nature” (which is why they have to constantly argue for it, to produce the very behaviour they consider “natural”):

To be real: the commentary that my daughter and I raised back-and-forth with one another throughout the film? That’s how I was raised, too. Old-school labor union democratic socialism, the kind referenced in the film as FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. As is pointed out in the film, other nations enjoy this “second bill of rights” while people in the United States did and do not. While I was raised with an ethic of solidarity, the outside world, the world that feared unionism treading in its space, taught that capitalism is “human nature”. That looking out for “number one” was the way of the world. That people were fundamentally selfish and lazy, and that given any opportunity to cut corners or abandon others, they would. The philosophy of the gabbillotu, the overseer. Another legacy of the U.S. history of slavery; the recognition that oppressed people would resist in any way possible, no matter how limited their means to do so—but this time, extended to reference the entire character of people at large.

Unreferenced in this capitalistic worldview is the call to Craftsmanship. Creativity. The will toward artistry, imagination, virtuosity as a province of the common people. Capitalism holds that these qualities are rare. I disagree. Seeking craftsmanship, taking pride and ownership in one’s work, is as human as language…and as widespread.

La Lubu points out the ways in which craftsmanship is devalued (which ties in interestingly to the William Gibson post about how craftsmanship often disappears with mechanisation), and it’s long been a source of Leftist resistance to capitalism–think of William Morris’s utopia News From Nowhere, which imagines a world of pure creativity and craftsmanship.

Also is interesting in the context of the profound lie that is “austerity measures” and the recent decimation of the UK’s social services is the second “Bill of Rights” referred to, which is summarised aptly on Wikipedia:

This just seems like basic common sense, but it is a measure of how rapidly neoliberal dogmas have become dominant that in the United States today to argue for any of these things (or the gutted, monetised neoliberal versions Obama prefers) is to court criticism from the Right as Socialist, a traitor, and so on..  This is just odd if you come as I do from a country that has had in your lifetime free universal education and healthcare, and progressively cut those things and made the country worse, but nevertheless there it is.  Still, it is worth remembering that in 1945 an American President declared that these things were basic human rights.  And they still are.

While Britain’s social net burns..

the French are continuing their rolling strikes and protests.  Get out there and protest now, while you still have a chance to pull apart this precarious coalition, before the country turns into the scorched earth capitalist nightmare that is the US….

… and you know it’s serious when even the chocolate makers are on strike!

Moving forward…

In my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And so for the last ten years, I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement.

— George Orwell – Preface to the Ukranian edition of Animal Farm, as published in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell : As I please, 1943-1945 (1968)

yoinked from Marxist Feminism

Whither Socialism?

Originally posted at GlobalComment.com

The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood…Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.

-George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?” 1943

I start with Orwell because people often forget that he remained a socialist even as he mounted critique after critique of the U.S.S.R. and other totalitarian-Communist states. Because the first argument one often faces in the U.S. when one suggests socialism as an alternative to the current political-economic structure is that Communism failed. But reading Orwell’s essays from the 40s, from an England struggling against Nazism on one side and yet learning of the brutality of Stalinism, is to remember that it is possible to have an intellectually honest critique of the states that called themselves socialist and to still advocate for socialism.

Also because in this essay, Orwell noted that it was impossible to know what would happen under the socialism he wished for, only that it had to be better than what we had.

And so, here I am, nearly 70 years later, ruminating on the word “socialism.” Because more and more it’s a term I identify with, claim, am turning over and over in my head. As words and phrases like “feminism” and “anti-racism” mean something to me, but are contested, nebulous, strange, I return to Orwell’s goal of a socialist society and wonder if it’s possible, still, to hope.

The U.S. right now, of course, talks about socialism a lot. But most of the people talking about it know very little of what it really means. Socialism is a catch-all term for “big government,” which lately seems to mean any government program that helps people of color–even if that program also helps white people. Tim Wise notes that when social services began to be seen as programs that helped nonwhite people, rather than, as the New Deal had, explicitly privileging white folks, they began to be much less popular.

Socialism now, then, is used as an epithet by people who hate one another–or perhaps fear one another would be more accurate. The Tea Parties are full of hateful language, from Sarah Palin’s “reload” to the chants of “Take our country back.”

But as an old friend asked me the other day, just how far back do they want to go? To Nixon? The fifties? Slavery, perhaps?

Sarah Palin, argues John Nichols, in her rush to throw insults at Barack Obama, inadvertently brought socialism back into the political discourse in the U.S. In her extended stay in McCarthyism (between Goldwater and the Klan), Nichols notes:

“Palin’s determination to present socialism as the alternative to casino capitalism had a remarkable impact. In the spring of 2009, a survey by the Republican-friendly Rasmussen Reports polling group found that one in five Americans viewed socialism as a preferable system to capitalism. Another 27 percent of Americans said they weren’t sure whether they preferred socialism or capitalism. A bare majority–53 percent–was still rooting for the system that Americans had for decades been told was ‘the only alternative.'”

My colleague (comrade?) Erik Loomis has argued here that the American Left has failed to articulate an alternative to the casino capitalism Nichols describes, and I agree. Americans seem only capable of seeing the world in binaries: capitalism as we have it, perhaps with a few modifications to support the poor, or Stalinist communism. If you’re lucky, you only have to argue about Cuba.

But the fragmented Left is scrambling for ways to organize across silos. This weekend’s One Nation march drew more people to the Washington Mall than Glenn Beck has, but it remains to be seen if the coalition between organized labor and old Civil Rights organizations like the NAACP can ignite a movement that crosses generations.

Which is what leads me back to Orwell’s definition. Like Orwell, I have no clear picture of what my ideal world looks like. But I want it to be one where we organize around love and compassion for one another, not fear and anger. I want understanding that racism, sexism, homophobia are not individual failings but systemic crises that require social solutions. Social justice. Social.

At the blog Questioning Transphobia, Queen Emily notes that many of the problems facing the transgender community are not problems unique to transgender people–they’re problems that are shared across oppressed groups. She writes:

I highlighted Anne’s on-point needs assessment: “decriminalization, housing, education and employment.”Full employment, universal health care and universal education would address a lot of that. A lot.

Of course, employment and health care and education won’t do away with all the ‘isms, but combined a more equitable distribution of wealth could do a lot to break up the structural racism and sexism that have continued to leave communities of color poorer and leave women making 77 cents to men’s dollars.

Read the rest.

Resentment and its alternatives

cross-posted from Questioning Transphobia

Jam, “School Competition” skit, Channel 4, UK, 2000.

[Warning]: This skit is not safe and is extremely disturbing.

What I’m also keenly aware of as we discuss the austerity measures is the keen sense of resentment that is allowed to drive public discussion and policy. But it’s resentment only of a certain licensed kind.

What I mean is, whether you’re talking about “dole bludgers” in Australia or “welfare cheats” or immigrants in the US or “lazy postal workers” or whatever in the UK, the resentment is levied at public programs. What are universal forms of human rights are instead refigured as selective drains on the public good in ways that the subsidised finanical sector is not.

The grotesque Jam segment I’ve posted above (recently posted on Nina Power’s blog) shows the ways in which Baby Boomers who benefited from free education programs have a false sense of scarcity and an overwhelming sense of resentment that fuels their behaviour and their politics. Only I deserve what I have earned, and in order to safeguard it I will do whatever I can to destroy the lives of those others I resent. In contrast to me, they have not earned it and thus I must exert my efforts not in making more opportunities for everyone but in preventing the illegitimate from accessing the ever-diminishing options.

The quite obvious example of this is the response of the Tea Party in the US, who as this recent Rolling Stone article showed, ignore those forms of government support they receive whilst whole-heartedly resenting those they do not. Needless to say, this is hypocritical, base politics at its worst.

But there’s other forms of resentment that we should make politically viable. I resent that the people who had free educations now expect me to have a debt, and that this is ever-increasing, I resent that financial markets fail and receive golden parachutes while poor people get squeezed even harder, I resent that corporations are not held accountable for wrecking the earth and that governments are more afraid of regulating them than hurting the people they are supposed to serve. I resent how trans people are almost always not protected by law, society or business. The invisible hand of the market will not protect us, it allows more discrimination and legitimates our oppression. I resent the politics of resentment, the people who will leave systemic institutional inequity aside in order to get their own small slice of the pie, no matter the cost to others.

Those are legitimate resentments in my opinion, and they can and should fuel political solidarity and social change. As the amazing Sarah Jaffe said recently at Global Comment:

The U.S. right now, of course, talks about socialism a lot. But most of the people talking about it know very little of what it really means. Socialism is a catch-all term for “big government,” which lately seems to mean any government program that helps people of color–even if that program also helps white people. Tim Wise notes that when social services began to be seen as programs that helped nonwhite people, rather than, as the New Deal had, explicitly privileging white folks, they began to be much less popular.

Socialism now, then, is used as an epithet by people who hate one another–or perhaps fear one another would be more accurate. The Tea Parties are full of hateful language, from Sarah Palin’s “reload” to the chants of “Take our country back.”

Sarah articulates a hopeful alternative to the politics of resentment. Resentment can be useful in channeling political anger, but it must be supplemented with more, with alternatives to the world-as-it-is – a world that can and should be better. Defeating pessimism is its own self-fulfilling prophecy, and leads us into the ever-diminishing returns of the neo-liberal state. Sarah says that:

I want a world in which people are doing things they love because they love them. Imagine what people could accomplish if instead of bosses who make us feel like shit in order to get away with paying us less, we could spend that time truly doing what we love and getting good at it. Rather than wondering what happens if we don’t have money as an incentive, why don’t we think about the things we could do if we didn’t have to worry about money?

I don’t want Stalinism or Castroism. But I do take inspiration from the democratic shifts in Latin America, from countries moving without violence toward a better society for all. Despite the anger and the attempts to reinstitute a hierarchy–through violence, of course–Latin America perseveres with its experiment.

Global capitalism is crumbling and people are angry. They’re taking to the streets around the world, and they’re looking for a solution. Isn’t it the time now to think about real, long-term changes? About not “taking the country back,” but taking the country–the world–forward?

I know humanism was discarded for some good reasons and some extremely bad, but perhaps it is time to more strongly use a language of human rights, which are universal. Because it seems to me that the problem is articulating things as compelling outside of a capitalist framework wholly determined by current or future moneymaking capability (something I slipped into even in the post). We must have spaces that are not wholly commodified, that are not wholly determined by exchange, power and violence.

We have an inherent, universal right to not only survive but flourish, a universal right to learning (education), to be in as little pain as possible (health), to safe roads and jobs and fulfilling vocations, a universal right to imagination and creativity, to literature and thought and art and life and love.

These things are not always measurable by money, but sometimes that means they are more valuable for that very reason.