[Author’s Note: This piece was initially published some weeks ago; however, due to the ongoing nature of the Yellow Jacket protests in France – and the attempted neo-liberal-hijacking of anti-neoliberal forces occurring across the globe, it has been republished here for your consideration]
A thought that’s been gestating in my head these past few days about the Yellow Jackets “political moment”, is how … I guess you could say that “populism” looks like *very* different things to different people.
And, more specifically, how any genuine upswelling of ordinary-people political sentiment which is not *vigorously* (self) branded, will find itself seemingly inevitably co-opted by people far-removed from the context in question.
Often in *direct contradiction* of anything actually being advocated/agitated for by the relevant Movement.
If “populism” is “the politics of opportunism” – then it is both the mass-collaborative art [a ‘flash mob’ we might have said, ten years ago .. if those are still a thing] of seizing an opportunity, creating an opportunity
in order to be heard *en masse* where you’d previously been ignored as individuals …
… but it is *also*, apparently, a politics beset and bedevilled by “opportunists” seeking to coast or I suppose to “surf” [and then, with regrettable commonality, to “serf”] the ‘wave’ of the onrushing tide of the Body Politik to their own advancement.
Now, if all of that seems a bit abstract … allow me to proffer an example.
The below-linked screencap is from a young American conservative commentator by the name of Charlie Kirk. If you haven’t heard of him, or of the organization he represents – “Turning Point USA” – then I do apologize most deeply for (dis)abusing you via this introduction.
Suffice to say, he’s of that peculiar flavor of American who has concluded that anything he doesn’t like is literally “Socialism”.
And, correspondingly, with the certitude of one only possessed of hammer-(and sickle) shaped glasses, that anything he *does* like is therefore inherently “anti-socialist”.
Now, we shall leave aside for the moment the fact that Kirk appears to have – whether inadvertently, or intentionally – confused a bunch of *English* protesters chanting something about Trump … for Frenchmen (a situation of ethno-political confusion, given that that flare-point captured on the video referred to, was a #Brexit demonstration, which *both sides* should find endlessly egregious!).
The key element that has defined the Yellow Jacket protests has been what it is opposed *to*. The Neoliberal technocratic-elitism which Macron is the emblematic standard bearer for, these days. And not least because he was literally elected, and then hailed, as “the antidote” or “the barrier” [but apparently, really rather more of “the speed-bump”] to “populism”, to “democracy” which might produce “the wrong outcomes” …
Perhaps French politics might be viewed like a steam-engine. Either the building pressure when there is fire under the body-politik – either it gets dissipated as hot-air through ‘safe’ release valves, or it builds up until the mighty ‘locomotive of history’ [to reference me some Marx] begins to chug inexorably, ineffably forwards. Or the whole thing explodes, which is always fun.
But to return to the reasoning behind this potential naescent “revolutionary moment” (yes, I’m wildly over-egging things there. How else to varnish?) – Kirk has seized, no doubt, upon the fuel-tax and upon the fact that France is relatively to the left of America on economic matters … and decided, based on these limited two data-points that this therefore means it’s a “squeezed middle” uprising against “SOCIALISM!!! ™”.
Yet it is, in point of fact, the exact opposite.
As many people have, by now, pointed out, the fuel-tax hike proposed by Macron is not exactly a “socialist” policy. Indeed – it is a fundamentally *neoliberal* one. Which seeks to continue the long and woefully disappointing legacy of neoliberal-right political figures attempting to ‘pass the buck’ for internalizing the externalities which have produced runaway climate change … from those *actually largely responsible for it* in various parts of the private (and, yes, to be fair, public) sectors of the corporate-driven world , to ordinary consumers and citizens. Which often, not at all coincidentally, entails a shift in the burden of paying for the ‘cleanup efforts’ from some of those *more* able to pay, in globe-spanning firms … to some of those *least* able to pay, in those same firms’ lowest-paying jobs or on the unemployment bread-line. And which, again entirely uncoincidentally, means a shift from those who have a disproportionately *loud* voice in the polises and the politics (psephological or *actually-influential*) of the world , to those who have the disproportionately *unheard* whispers upon its margins.
Further, despite France being – by any objective measure – a country that has spent much of its history to the “left” of America on matters economic … the protesters thronging the streets of that former country are *not* demanding the Great Dismantlement of the French welfare state, or of the ‘Continental Capitalist’ economic model. Indeed, quite the opposite.
It’s *Macron* who’s been doing that – with all of his utterly ridiculous rhetoric about ‘running France like a tech-industry “start-up”‘, et cetera.
The general trajectory amongst the “grassroots” of French politics, meanwhile, has been to push *back against* that, and do the demanding of the *reinstatement* of those state-directed protections which Macron and his wealthy associates have been attempting to strip away.
Indeed, phrased in these terms then , if we are to talk about the overall tax-situation of France … it isn’t just that Macron has been attempting to impose this significant tax-hike upon ordinary French citoyens. It’s that he’s doing this immediately after having *slashed* the taxes of the most wealthy, and of large firms.
That is to say, he’s simply once again *shifted* the burden on to those who are *less able* or even *least able* to afford it, from those who could better do so – both socially and economically.
It’s also, on a side note, why I’m appalled every time I see the Washington Post attempt to frame the Yellow Jackets’ demands for the rollback of the diesel tax-hike as illogical and self-defeating on grounds that – again, in the WaPo “Voice of the Resistance” ‘s view – it’ll necessitate spending-cuts in welfare and other areas of state spending in the economy (which, to WaPo’s credit, it acknowledges are services the Yellow Jackets are *also* pretty keen on).
Because not only are said curtailments of service and of state *already happening anyway*, in order to pay for (in part) the *previous* rounds of fundamentally regressive tax-cuts and to directly facilitate Macron’s odiously pro-business, pro-Eurozone agenda … but instead of attempting to pretend the choice is simply between “fuel tax plus services [that’re disintegrating *anyway*]” or “remove fuel-tax but also remove services” – the reality is there really *is* an alternative, “another way” (that of *restoring* the revenue-streams from other areas which Macron has slashed). However rhetorically inconvenient it might be for Macron’s various technocratic-elitist backers across both the political and the media worlds.
The point here, is that it is a very curious form of “socialism” indeed which seeks to put the screws on ordinary people at the bottom of the heap in order to support the finance-sector, and private enterprise from both one’s own country and more especially, from abroad. Admittedly, it *might* be viewed as an adequate encapsulation of many of the problems of the present-day People’s Republic of China … but despite the previous popularity of Maoism in, say, 1968 France, I do not think that one can conceivably refer to Macron as a Maoist, still much less as a Post-Maoist with Deng-ist Characteristics.
Yet leaving aside the litany of actual French people boldly proclaiming it … I suppose we might be being a bit too harsh on poor old Charlie for apparently being unable to perceive that the Yellow Jacket movement is, in point of fact, a sustained assault *on* the technocratic-neoliberal Western “order”.
You see, Kirk and his beliefs cannot even really *see* this aforementioned “technocratic-neoliberal” edifice … for the exact same reason that, to quote messers Gaiman & Pratchett, “people in Trafalgar Square can’t see England”. (And having referenced that most excellent work of apocalyptic fiction, Good Omens, I should also perhaps note the French protester who boldly proclaimed that while Macron was busy talking about “the end of the world” [in reference to the admittedly pressing issue of global climate change] , the Yellow Jackets themselves were speaking of – and fretting over – “the end of the month”, i.e. how to get by and survive to then, on a month-by-month and week-by-week basis].
He’s also pathologically, categorically unable to acknowledge the idea that … accepting for a moment that the French political-economic system falls under the rubric of “socialism” [it doesn’t .. not really .. but for Charlie, we’ll humour him, just this once …] … people might actually *voluntarily choose* to live under a “socialist” system – or even, more especially, *having* lived under such a system previously, that they might *voluntarily choose* to do so *again* if and when it starts being undermined and eroded around them.
A similar phenomenon can be observed when Neo-Neo people and other defenders of a certain sort of potentially partially post-modern Liberal Triumphalism , are completely unable and unwilling to accept the idea that reasonably large numbers of Russians might want to go back to the Soviet system, having seen just how bad things went under Yeltsin etc.
So it’s no wonder, I suppose, that he insists that people wanting to move – relatively speaking – back *towards* the economic left, and *run screaming for the hills* [well, for the barricades, really – France is bold like that] from more-monetarist-more-problems Financier’s Neoliberalism …. that these people are somehow attempting to overturn “socialism”.
Although I nevertheless find it highly amusing that he’s *also* chosen to label this as an attack on “Cultural Marxism”.
Not simply because, as I’ve capaciously argued elsewhere, there really is no such thing [there are another set of trends observable in a number of societies that *do* somewhat correlate to what some people mean by “Cultural Marxism” .. it’s just that these almost invariably turn out to *actually* be “Cultural Capitalism” and/or “Cultural Liberalism” – with these actual-antagonists employing the age-old distractionary tactic of “HEY LOOK OVER THERE AT THAT OTHER THING!” in order to neutralize and defuse the potential for dissent against them in the broader populace].
Rather, it’s because if you get right down to it .. if ever there *were* such a thing as “Cultural Marxism”, I am *pretty sure* that Article One, Paragraph One of its charter and its depiction would be groups of ordinary people getting together with torches and cobblestones and other implements and carrying out some sort of *seriously unruly* and not-easily-dispersible mass-protest in the streets against their overly-capitalist political would-be masters who’ve been putting the screws on the ‘common man’ overly more than usual, lately.
Or, phrased another way … particularly because this is literally how Marxist theory kinda operates (i.e. crises of capitalism, in escalating magnitude and severity, until eventually somebodies either tear the whole thing down or alternatively introduce a “reformist” (or “Bismarckian” if it goes further/more principled in ambit/intent) policy-suite designed to ameliorate the situation in some lasting, significant manner) …
Charlie Kirk has somehow managed to identify a broadly pro-“socialist” [in his sense of the term] “Cultural Marxist” [in the *proper* sense of the term .. i.e. the one you’ll almost never hear used] movement …
… as being the exact opposite of this all the way down.
This tweet and line of reasoning is also why you can tell that Charlie Kirk and his ilk are not in any way, shape, or form “populists” or otherwise on the side of The People.
Because it shows that when you get right down to it – they do not want an *empowered* people, a critically engaged citizenry.
Instead, they just want – at worst – to replace one set of out-of-touch, technocratic-neoliberal elites with another.
Remember that, at all times.
The word for that, I believe, is “Opportunism”.