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aotearoa / pacific islands / anarchist movement / debate Wednesday February 12, 2020 13:04 byLAMA

This article defends the established Anarchist position of not voting for political parties. It arose as part of a dialogue with a self-declared Anarchist who claimed this view is "unhelpful and extreme".

This year Aotearoa will be experiencing an election. The various political parties will be expecting people to vote for them and many will. Aotearoa Worker’s Solidarity Movement (AWSM) members will not be doing so. We hope that other anarchists will decide not to either. However, we are aware that some avowed anarchists don’t agree with us. We recently interacted with such a person who argued our approach to this issue is “extreme and unhelpful”. We feel this is wrong and since there may be other people who have that view, we would like to address this point with a wero/challenge in the form of a few initial considerations and questions:

1) Calling our position extreme depends on what you’re comparing us with. Looked at next to the current crop of political parties our stance is extreme. Though…so what if it is? ‘Extremist’ is used pejoratively by the mainstream as if the established centre is intrinsically the best position to be in. We prefer what we see as the appropriate position regardless of how anyone may categorise it. It is what it is, regardless. In addition, the extremist tag is often applied with the assumption it obviates the need to engage in any debate once you have attached that label to somebody. It’s an attempt to use words as a weapon by those who currently wield authority over us. That it can be adopted even by somebody claiming the anarchist name, shows how effective unacknowledged assumptions can be. Fish don’t think about water…but with the literal and figurative water becoming more polluted, perhaps you should?

If you stand outside the dominant paradigm but within anarchist theory built up over centuries, our position is very much the middle-of-the-road, orthodox one. Traditionally nearly all anarchists both as individuals and organisations, theorists and activists have abstained from voting for political parties. There have been historical exceptions. For example, the Anarcho-Syndicalist union in Spain, the CNT did have supporters who voted in favour of the Popular Front in the early 1930s, in order to obtain the release of its militants from prisons. While we are aware of such examples the more relevant point is, such instances are rare enough to highlight that their opposite represents the norm. So, calling for a non-vote is the normal, long-established standard view, not an extreme position.

Therefore, we have to ask our interlocutor and like-minded folks whether they are arguing from outside the anarchist perspective in reaching their claim by accepting the view pushed by the political parties regarding non-voting? If they are claiming on the contrary, that they have reached that point while still being an anarchist, we would like to know how the fundamental, long-held position has failed and theirs is preferable, while still being consistent with anarchism?

2) On a daily basis in order to survive, there are all sorts of compromises that have to be made in accommodating to the current system. It’s not hard to think of examples of times where we put up with shit just to be able to eat and pay rent. Not voting is one of the few times you can opt-out and make a principled protest and not suffer punitive legal sanctions (try not paying your taxes and see what happens!). So why would you not take the opportunity to do that? Why would you commit an unforced error?

3) There’s also a slippery slope argument. If you can find enough in what the parties are doing (whatever that would be?) to vote for one of them, then why stop there? You can use the same justification to begin canvassing for them, donating money, becoming a member and a whole bunch of other unnecessary compromises. It’s no accident that we have had two ex-anarchist Green MPs (Metiria Turei, Nandor Tanczos) in this country and a whole bunch of anarchists who have ended up doing work for the party in its administration. So this is not a point of exaggeration, it has happened.

4) Epistemologically, on a practical basis what criteria would you set to establish which political party is ‘better’ than the others to the point you are prepared to vote for them? For each ‘good’ point a particular party may adopt, it is sure to have a ‘bad’ one that would cancel that out. And there are points that the ‘bad’ parties make that are sometimes ‘better’ than those the ‘good’ ones adopt, such as the Centre-Right National Party increasing unemployment benefits under previous PM John Key. Labour improves funding for roads (good?) while increasing the number of cops (bad?) while the Greens have banned plastic bags (good?) while accepting Labours increased road funding (bad) etc. What about policies they all agree with across their spectrum? The more policies you compare the more complex and contradictory it becomes. So how do you finally determine that a) you should vote and b) for which party? What method can you apply to reliably identify what the ‘lesser evil’ is in the first place?

5) Add to number 4) the short-sighted approach of voting for a particular party based on the current, single election. In doing this you can fool yourself that the differences are somehow crucial and your action in voting will make some kind of historical earth-shattering effect because “this election will decide the future of the planet” or some such politician’s rhetoric. However, if you stand back and look at the overall effect of the alternating parties over the past 100 years you see that there isn’t much between them. The conservative ones have always been upfront about supporting capitalism. The Left -wing ones have eventually given up all pretence of trying to overturn the system, in preference for sharing power with their Right-wing colleagues. When does it reach the point that you can no longer keep making excuses for them and decide that a better way is worth exploring? By voting, you are doing your small but important part in helping prolong the current system. It’s like claiming you are trying to help a meth addict by repeatedly ‘only giving him/her a small dose this time’ and expecting a different outcome from the last time he/she took a hit of the drug.

6) We are not advocating a no-vote for negative “unhelpful’ reasons. If that was the sole extent of what we were about, there might be an argument there. We aren’t anti-social nihilists. Not voting is only one component of a deeper, well-considered, positive political theory. Anarchism works practically to offer a way out of the fucking mess capitalism and all its parties have put us in and that we as anarchists haven’t actively contributed to. We do lots of helpful stuff, on a daily basis. For example, by helping people understand we can work together to get out of this system on a theoretical level through websites, pamphlets and so on, or by practical mutual aid and volunteer work in our community etc on a material level. You have to look at the action of not voting in a broader, fuller context of what we are doing and why we are doing it. If we are unhelpful to anybody, it is the various power mongers and their parties and their system that we are being unhelpful towards. We think that’s a good thing.

mashriq / arabia / iraq / imperialism / war / non-anarchist press Saturday February 08, 2020 22:27 byAndrew G Jones

A US strike which killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January, and the counter-strike by the Iranian military on US targets in Iraq, raised serious questions about the legitimate use of force. When military force was used against targets within its territory, Iraq’s sovereignty was breached.

As a country caught in the middle of the long-running feud between the US and Iran, Iraq has already suffered a great deal in this latest escalation. A senior Iraqi militia commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the US strike.

In the weeks since, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Iraq. While some continue to demonstrate against the government, others – many of them supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – are demanding the withdrawal of US troops from the country.

The continued US military presence in the country, against the wishes of the Iraqi government and parliament, is a breach of international law.

Force and intervention

Public international law maintains a tight grip on the rules surrounding the use of force. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the use of force, except in self-defence against an armed attack or collective action authorised by the UN Security Council.

Beyond this, there are very few truly accepted justifications which a country can rely on to legitimately use force within another’s territory. One exception is a doctrine called “intervention by invitation”, where one country is given express permission to take military action in another country by that country’s government.

Alongside other rules that govern this kind of interaction, there are also rules on when a state overstays its welcome and becomes in breach of its international obligations. For example, the Definition of Aggression, a text adopted by the UN which outlines what is considered aggression under international law, sets out that if the state intervening breaks the conditions, or extends its presence on the territory, this counts as an act of aggression.

This was put forward as a claim in a case between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda in 2005. The DRC claimed that Uganda’s ongoing use of force on its territory, after it had stopped giving consent, amounted to aggression.

Although in this particular case the International Court of Justice did not find Uganda’s actions were an act of aggression, the court did rule that Uganda had breached the UN Charter’s basic prohibition of force. As a result it was clearly established that a country cannot maintain a military presence within another country after it has been asked to leave.

US refusal to withdraw

The presence of US troops in Iraq dates to the invasion which overthrew Saddam Hussain’s regime in 2003. Whatever the legal status of that conflict, the presence of US forces has been legitimised since that point through the consent of the Iraqi government. In more recent years, American and Iraqi forces have maintained friendly relations, working together to fight the threat of Islamic State.

The closeness of Iraq’s relationship with the US is part of a wider balancing act. Iraq also needs to maintain its relationship with Iran, to which it has become much closer since the fall of Hussein. But since the drone attack which killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis, this balance has shifted. The country’s alliances have been put under increased strain amid growing anti-US sentiment.

In the aftermath of the US strike in January, Iraq’s parliament voted on the future presence of US troops in the country. MPs passed a non-binding resolution stating that the Iraqi government should: “Work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason.”

During a subsequent phone call with US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, requested a US withdrawal. But instead of heeding the Iraqi authorities’ decision, the US State Department declared that it would not discuss the withdrawal of US troops as their presence in Iraq was “appropriate”. It claimed that there was instead a need for “a conversation between the US and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership.”

Implications under international law

Despite the undeniable power and influence the US has over global events and international policy, the country remains subject to international law. By refusing to withdraw its troops as the Iraqi government requested, the US finds itself at least in breach of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. A case could also be made that this amounts to an act of aggression.

There is a very real danger of Iraq becoming the battleground for a fight between Iran and the US to which it is not a party. In a country already scarred by decades of conflict, Iraq urgently wants to avoid such a circumstance. As such, it’s now for the US to heed the country’s request and to withdraw its troops in line with its international obligations, and for both the US and Iran to avoid further escalating an already tense situation.

It is up to the international community as a whole to ensure respect of the rule of law. But as the world’s most powerful nation, the US must demonstrate its willingness to comply with its responsibilities and uphold the ideals of international law.
mashriq / arabia / iraq / imperialism / war / non-anarchist press Monday February 03, 2020 20:22 byAlan Macleod

The three sites chosen for the news bases, Erbin, Sulimania and Halabja are all extremely close to Iran, with Halabja just eight miles from its border.

Less than a week after millions of Iraqis took to the streets demanding the U.S. military leave for good, the United States announced that is planning to build three new military bases in Iraq, according to military news service Breaking Defense. The three sites chosen – Erbin, Sulimania and Halabja – are all extremely close to Iran, with Halabja (the site of the 1988 chemical weapons attack) just eight miles from the border.

The news will come as a shock to the Iraqi parliament, who earlier this month voted overwhelmingly (with some abstentions) to expel American forces from the country. But the U.S. government has flatly refused to leave. “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East,” said State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, adding, “We strongly urge Iraqi leaders to reconsider the importance of the ongoing economic and security relationship between the two countries… We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together.” Earlier this month the U.S. decided to send an extra 3,000 troops to the region.

President Trump responded by threatening sweeping mass punishments against the Iraqi people. “We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it…If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever,” he said. U.S.-led sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s are thought to have killed over one million people, including over half a million young children. Successive U.N. diplomats in charge of Iraq during the sanctions denounced them as genocide against its people. Trump said his sanctions would make the ones on Iran look tame by comparison.

“If there’s any hostility,” he said, “we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions.” Trump also threatened to commit genocide against the people of Iran, destroying their cultural heritage sites in a move condemned by many and compared to the Taliban’s destruction of the world-renowned Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan.

Despite the president’s threats, enormous numbers of Iraqis heeded Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s call for a “million man march” in Baghdad last week. While Time magazine claimed there were only “hundreds” in attendance, drone footage told a very different story. Some estimates put the total at over 2.5 million. And despite Bloomberg Quick Take originally claiming that they were “anti-government demonstrations,” the huge banner on the main stage reading “GET OUT AMERICA” in uppercase English letters suggested otherwise.

Hostilities between the United States and Iran threatened to spiral out of control after the January 3 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani had been invited to Baghdad by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi for regional peace talks. Abdul-Mahdi asked Trump for permission for Soleimani to enter Iraq. Trump accepted, then used the opportunity to kill the general with a drone strike, something the Iraqi parliament declared a violation of their national sovereignty. In retaliation, the Iranians fired ballistic missiles at U.S.-occupied bases in Iraq, causing pinpoint damage, but no fatalities, as the U.S. was warned of the impending response. The Pentagon has said that dozens of troops have suffered brain injuries as a result, but the president disagrees, claiming they amount to little more than headaches.

The plan to build new bases will be seen in Iran as an attempt to tighten the noose around it more tightly. There are already over 65,000 American military personnel in neighboring countries. The U.S. continues to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan since the invasions launched in the wake of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Since 2003, an estimated 2.4 million people have been killed in the U.S. war on Iraq. One of the consequences of the wars in the Middle East was the rise of the Islamic State, which itself has led to further conflict. The U.S. military also operates from a network of bases in Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and many other states in the region.

The move to establish three new U.S. military bases on Iran’s borders will not be a welcome move to those who wish to deescalate tensions, least of all by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who moved their Doomsday Clock to just 100 seconds to midnight, citing a possible regional nuclear catastrophe as a factor.
international / history of anarchism / other libertarian press Friday January 31, 2020 19:04 byKSL

KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 100-101, January 2020 [Double issue] has just been posted on our site.

Contents:
Looking back at the back issues "It seemed a simple idea: look through back issues of the Kate Sharpley Library’s bulletin to find some interesting articles, and then encourage people to read them and think about anarchist history..."
December 2019 message from the Kate Sharpley Library "Particular thanks have to go the comrade who sent us historic copies of War Commentary and Freedom."
Mini-reviews: Biographies (anarchist lives from around the world)
Death of a good comrade [Daniel Mullen] by Jack Wade (1942. From the First World War to the Spanish Revolution, via the fight for Irish independence)
The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism by Ruth Kinna [Book review] by Sonny Disposition "This is a book devoted to ideas, rather than a history. I found it thought-provoking: some is good, in some places I disagree with the analysis and in others I think ‘oh dear me, don’t go there’."
Beyond a footnote: ‘Class struggle anarchism’ "When and why did the phrase ‘class-struggle anarchism’ come into use?"
Something should be done (or How to revolt) [book review] "Freedom is its own reward, and is exhilarating. And even when you lose, you know that freedom is possible. That’s why you should read this little book."
Miguel Garcia: a personal appreciation by Gerfried Horst "Regarding his own life, he said he felt satisfaction to have always acted according to his principles. He told me that nobody could live without an ‘ilusión’, which is not ‘illusion’ in the English sense, but a ‘hopeful anticipation’, a dream that may become true."
Dialogue in the form of soliloquy by Louis Mercier Vega (1946) "there is a sensible need to come up with a practical solution to the painful contradiction between the dynamism of the young and the slightly amorphous wisdom of the old."
Extras on the website (just because we can't fit it all in the bulletin, doesn't mean you shouldn't have a look)
Speaking and Writing (Comment) by Albert Meltzer "This piece sheds a little light on how Albert’s style of discussion was formed in a movement where dealing with hecklers was a necessary skill, one where humour could be used for defence or attack."
Albert Grace by Joe Thomas "I have a vivid recollection of being rescued by Albert Grace in the course of having an ‘altercation’ with a mounted policeman."
W. A. Gape Half A Million Tramps (1936) [Review] by Barry Pateman "Half A Million Tramps constantly articulates the tension between what an individual tramp may feel to be their rights and what charity, religion and the state decide these rights actually are."
Our Masters Are Helpless: The Essays of George Barrett edited by Iain McKay [book review] by Barry Pateman "You might disagree with him at times but his striving to reach those who are not anarchists, using language that is clear and effective, is important and impressive. In a time of apparent madness his assertion that anarchism is common sense remains an important message for us all."
The Trouble with National Action [Book Review] "This is not a book which is particularly concerned with government policy, nor with maintaining ‘business as usual’."
Liz Willis Obituary of the Solidarity member and historian, "she remained a ‘free rebel spirit’ to the end."
Ken Williams (ex-East London DAM) has died. We hope to have an obituary in a future issue
Biographies by Sergei Ovsiannikov (links to Russian anarchist lives including Anarchist Women in Maltsev Prison 1907–1908)
france / belgium / luxemburg / workplace struggles / non-anarchist press Thursday January 16, 2020 06:59 byRichard Greeman

The nationwide general strike in France, now entering its record seventh week, seems to be approaching its crisis point. Despite savage police repression, about a million people are in the streets protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed neoliberal “reform” of France’s retirement system, established at the end of World War II and considered one of the best in the world. At bottom, what is at stake is a whole vision of what kind of society people want to live in – one based on cold market calculation or one based on human solidarity – and neither side shows any sign of willingness to compromise.

On one side, the Macron government has staked its legitimacy on pushing through this key “reform” intact as a matter of principle, however unpopular. On the other side stand the striking railroad and transit workers, who are bearing the brunt of this conflict and have already sacrificed thousands of Euros in lost pay since the strike began last December 5. After six weeks, they cannot accept the prospect of returning to work empty-handed, and they have set their sights high: withdrawal of the whole government project.

Now or Never?

This looks like a “now or never” situation. Moreover, it seems clear that the transport workers mean business. When the government (and the union leaders) proposed a “truce” in the transport strike during the sacred Christmas/New Year vacation period, the rank-and-file voted to continue the struggle, and their leaders were obliged to eat their words.

Nor are the transport workers isolated, despite the inconvenience to commuters and other travelers. They have been joined by emergency-room nurses and doctors (who have been on strike for months over lack of beds, personnel and materials), public school teachers (protesting undemocratic and incomprehensible “reforms” to the national curriculum), lawyers and judges (visible in their judicial robes), and the dancers at the Paris Opera (visible in their tutus), among the other professions joining the strike.

Strikers and “Yellow Vests” Together
Alongside the strikers, and quite visible among them, the so-called Yellow Vests (Gilets jaunes) are a crucial element. For over a year, they have been setting a “bad example” of self-organized, largely leaderless, social protest, which captured the public imagination, and through direct action in the streets, won some real concessions from Macron in December 2018. This victory impressed the rank-and-file of the French organized labour movement, which after three months of disciplined, but limited, stop-and-go strikes in the Spring of 2018, failed utterly to wring any concessions and went back to work poor and empty-handed while Macron pushed through a series of neoliberal privatizations and cuts in unemployment compensation.1

Although their numbers diminished, the Yellow Vests continued their spontaneous protests throughout 2019 despite savage government repression, distorted media coverage stressing Black Block violence, and snubbing on the part of the union leadership, but their “bad example” was not lost on the union rank-and-file. January 13th’s general strike was originally sparked last September by a spontaneous walkout by Paris subway workers, who, contrary to custom, shut down the system without asking permission from their leaders and management.

Meanwhile, the Yellow Vests, initially suspicious of the unions but isolated in their struggle with Macron, had begun to seek “convergence” with the French labour movement. Finally, at the Yellow Vest national “Assembly of Assemblies” last November, their delegates voted near-unanimously to join the “unlimited general strike” proposed for December 5 by the unions. Reversing his previous standoffishness, Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT labour federation, immediately welcomed their participation.2

Government Provocation

The January 13 intractable nationwide confrontation over retirement – a sacred cow, like Social Security in the US – is best understood as a deliberate provocation on the part of Macron, both in its form and its substance. There was no urgent reason for pension reform, nor for abolishing the venerable system outright and hastily replacing it from above with an abstract neoliberal plan based on “universality.” The pension program was not in debt, and the alleged need to replace the twenty-odd “special” retirement funds – negotiated over the years with the representatives of different trades and professions – with a single “point system” in the name of fairness, efficiency, and rationality was only a smokescreen.

In fact, these “special funds” cover only about one percent of retirees – a million or so miners, railroad workers, transit workers, sailors, ballet dancers, and such – who get to retire early because of the physically or mentally taxing nature of their specific labours. (Even if you include the four million public employees as “special,” the figure rises to under 25%). Moreover, Macron has himself recently violated this principle of “universality” by giving special exceptions to the police and army (whom he cannot afford to alienate) and the ballerinas of the Opera (whom no one can imagine toe-dancing at the age of sixty).

Behind this confusing smokescreen of “fairness to all” is an old con: equalize benefits by reducing them to the lowest common denominator. Indeed, according to independent calculations, under Macron’s point system the average pension would be reduced by about 30%. And since these “points” would be calculated over the total lifetime number of years worked before retirement, rather than on the current criterion of 75% of the worker’ best or final years, Macron’s point system would particularly penalize those whose careers were irregular – for example, women who took off years for childcare. Yet the government brazenly claims that women will be “the big winners” in this so-called reform!

A Pig in a Poke
However, the biggest con embodied in this point system is that the actual cash value of each accumulated point would only be calculated at the time of retirement. The sum in Euros would then be determined by the government then in power on the basis of the economic situation at that moment (for example in 2037 when the plan goes into full effect). Thus, under the present system, every school-teacher, railroad worker and clerk can calculate how much s/he will receive when they retire at 62 and plan accordingly (for example, opting for early retirement). Macron’s point system would leave them in total darkness until it is too late. His system resembles a gambling casino where you buy 10 chips for a certain amount (say 10 Euros each), place your bets, and later take your winning chips to the cashier’s window only to discover that your chips are now worth only 5 Euros each. Surprise! The house wins!

Today, thanks to their existing pension system, French people live on the average five years longer than other Europeans. Moreover, according to the New York Times: “In France the poverty rate among those older than 65 is less than 5 percent, largely because of the pension system, while in the United States it approaches 20 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In France, life expectancy is increasing, while in the United States it is diminishing in significant sectors of the population.” And although the pro-government French media have presented Macron’s confused and confusing reform in the best possible light, it is a hard sell. So why change it?

Not an Ordinary President
When Emmanuel Macron took power in 2017, he vowed he would not be “an ordinary president.” From the beginning he has openly proclaimed his iron determination to revolutionize French society in order to bring it into line with the neoliberal Thatcher/Reagan revolution of the 1980s, and his methods have been authoritarian. He has imposed his program of privatizations and counter-reforms from above, mainly by decree, deliberately circumventing negotiations with “intermediate bodies” like the parliament, the political parties, the local authorities, and above all, the labour unions, who have traditionally been the “social partners” (official designation) of government, along with the employers’ associations (who are Macron’s main base of support).

Backed by the mainstream media (controlled by the government and three big corporations), Macron has so far been largely successful in steam-rolling through his neoliberal program, openly designed to improve French “competivity” (i.e., corporate profits) by lowering living standards (thus increasing inequality). If successful, his proposed “reform” of pensions would open the gates to his ultimate goal, the “reform” of France’s socialized healthcare system (Medicare for all), already on the road to privatization.

Naturally, all these moves have been unpopular, but until now, Macron, whose executive style has been characterized as “imperial,” has been successful in dividing and destabilizing his opposition – if necessary, through massive use of police violence. This has been the fate of the spontaneous movement of Yellow Vests, who have been subjected to routine beatings and tear-gas attacks as well as hundreds of serious injuries (including blindings, torn-off hands, and several deaths) – all with police impunity and media cover-ups. Now the government’s savage repressive methods – condemned by the U.N. and the European Union – are being applied to strikers and union demonstrators traditionally tolerated by the forces of order in France.

This repression may turn out to be like throwing oil on the flames of conflict. On January 9, at the end of the peaceful, legal mass marches (estimated half-million demonstrators nationwide), members of the particularly brutal BAC (Anti-Criminal Brigade) in Paris, Rouen and Lille were ordered to break off sections of the marches, surround them, inundate them with teargas, and then charge in among them with truncheons and flash-ball launchers fired at close range, resulting in 124 injuries (25 of them serious), and 980 sickened by gas.

These brutal attacks, which focused particularly on journalists and females (nurses and teachers), were captured on shocking videos, viewed millions of times on YouTube, but pooh-poohed by government spokesmen. Far from discouraging the strikers, this deliberate violence may only enrage them. And, what with the “bad example” of the Yellow Vests, the labour leaders may not be able to reign them in.

The Center Cannot Hold
Why is Macron risking his prestige and his presidency on this precarious face-off with the labour leadership, traditionally viewed as the compliant hand-maidens of the government on such occasions? Historians here recall that in 1936 Maurice Thorez, leader of Communist-affiliated CGT (General Confederation of Workers), brought the general strike and factory occupations to an end with the slogan “We must learn how to end a strike” and that at the Liberation of France in 1945, the same Thorez, fresh from Moscow, told the workers to “roll up your sleeves” and rebuild French capitalism before striking for socialism. Similarly, in 1968, during the spontaneous student-worker uprising, the CGT negotiated a settlement with De Gaulle and literally dragged reluctant strikers back to work.

Not for nothing are today’s government-subsidized French unions officially designated as “social partners” (along with government and business), yet Macron, loyal to neoliberal Thatcherite doctrine, has consistently humiliated the CGT’s Martinez and the other union leaders, and excluded them – along with the other “intermediary bodies” – from the policy-making process.

Something’s Got to Give
France’s “not-an-ordinary-President” has from the beginning remained consistent with his vision of an imperial presidency. Although seen by many abroad as a “progressive,” Macron, like Trump, Putin, and other contemporary heads of state, adheres to the neoliberal doctrine of “authoritarian democracy,” and he is apparently willing to stake his future, and the future of France, on subduing his popular opposition, particularly the unions, once and for all.

Thus, what is at stake today is not just a quarrel over pension rights, which would normally be negotiated and adjudicated through a political process including political parties, elected representatives, parliamentary coalitions, and collective bargaining with labour, but a question of what kind of future society French people are going to live in: social-democratic or neoliberal authoritarian. The seasoned Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, Adam Nossiter, put it simply in his revealing January 9 article: “A fight between the rich and the poor amplified by 200 years of French history.”

A technocrat and former Rothschild banker, Macron rose to power unexpectedly in 2017 when the traditional Left and Right parties fell apart during the first round of the presidential election, leaving him alone as the lesser-of-two-evils candidate in a face-off with the proto-fascist National Front of LePen. Considered “the President of the rich” by most French people, Macron must remain inflexible because he has nothing behind him but the Bourse (Stock Exchange), the MEDEF (Manufacturers’ Association), and the police.

Second Thoughts

On the other hand, as the struggle enters its seventh week, it occurs to me that if this were a true general strike, if all the organized workers had walked out on December 5, if the railroads, the subways, the buses, the schools, and the hospitals – not to mention the refineries and the electrical generators – had been shut down, it would all have been over in a few days.

But this is not the US where in September-October 2019, 48,000 members of the United Auto Workers shut down 50 General Motors plants for more than six weeks, and where not a single worker, not a single delivery of parts, not a single finished car crossed the picket lines until the strike was settled.

In France, there are no “union shops,” much less closed shops, few if any strike funds, and as many as five different union federations competing for representation in a given industry. Here, picket lines, where they exist, are purely informational, and anywhere from 10% to 90% of the workers may show up on the job on any given day during a strike. Today, for example, seven out of ten TGV high-speed bullet-trains were running as many railroad workers returned to the job to pay their bills while planning to go back on strike and join the demonstrations later in the week. How long can this go on?

“When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, something’s got to give,” goes the old saying, and a showdown seems to be in the offing. With his arrogant intransigence over the retirement issue, Macron is apparently risking his presidency on one throw of the dice. Only time will tell. And Macron may be betting that time is on his side, waiting for the movement to slowly peter out so as to push through his reforms later in the Spring.

Update: French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s much ballyhooed January 12 declaration of a “provisionary” withdrawal of his proposal to extend the “pivotal” age of retirement from 62 to 64 is yet another smokescreen designed to divide the opposition and further prolong the struggle, as suggested above.

Although denounced as such by the CGT and other striking unions, the government’s promise was immediately accepted by the openly class-collaborationist (“moderate”) CFDT union, to their mutual advantage. The CFDT will now be included in the negotiations over the financing of the proposed point system, which the CFDT, having collaborated with previous governments in earlier neoliberal reforms, supports.

Philippe’s declaration is obviously an empty promise, as there are only two ways of increasing the retirement fund: either by extending the number of years paid in or by increasing the amount of annual contributions, which are shared by labour and management. And although labour has signaled its willingness to raise its dues, the MEDEF (manufacturers’ association) has adamantly refused to pay its share, ruling out the obvious solution to this manufactured crisis. Even if the official “pivotal” retirement age is retained, if the value of their pensions is reduced, employees will be obliged to continue working past age 62 in order to live. •

Endnotes

For details on 2018 strikes, please see my “French Labour’s Historical Defeat; US Teachers’ Surprising Victories.”
Please see “French Unions, Yellow Vests Converge, Launch General Strike Today” by Richard Greeman.

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