There is already a vast literature produced on the Gilets Jaunes since the beginnings of their mobilization in November 2018. This literature focused either on the theoretical or empirical aspects of the Yellow-Vest mobilizations by taking into account the problems arising from within, ranging from the ideological and political character of the protests to the social basis of the protestors to the question of strategy and mass-organizing. In what follows, I will first delve into the both parts of this literature, and emphasize crucial points regarding the social basis of the Yellow-Vest mobilizations and the question of political strategy; then I will situate the mobilizations within the disruptive social reproduction scheme of French social formation; following this, I will go on to search and examine the dynamics leading that social reproduction model in the relations of production—hence class relations; and I will continue with underlining what I see as the two essential contradictions concerning the movement—the differences and inequalities within the low-income earning strata in France; and finally, in the light of this empirical analysis, I will finish with a return to the discussion and critique of the political strategies at stake which claim to organize the ‘popular’ demands for a substantial political change.
‘[T]o adapt the pace of transition to socialism to the hopes and fears of [middle and small urban French kulaks] is to advocate paralysis or to prepare for defeat. Better not to start at all. How to deal with the problem is a different matter. But it is important to start with the fact that as a class or social stratum, this element must be reckoned as part of the conservative forces.’1
The Gilets Jaunes in France have brought to life the dynamism of a reinvigorated mass mobilization that challenged, for more than 8 months, the ‘ultra-liberal’ presidency of Emmanuel Macron and the reforms attempted and made under Eduard Philippe government. Since the 2008 economic crisis, France has been particularly a fragile case as regards the mass mobilization vis-à-vis the economic reforms developed in order to cope with the crisis; but Yellow-Vest mobilizations, with their symbolism, spatiality and persistent fury, have merited their worldwide fame. But what lay beyond the performance of the protestors, how could the historical roots of this social phenomenon be elaborated and what constitutes the social basis of the mobilizations remain as crucial questions.
The strange course of French neoliberalism ever since the ‘socialist’ Mitterrand took power in 1981, and under liberal and socialist governments in the following period,2 put the economic stability of the large masses in a precarious situation, and, in this regard, the coming to power in 2017 of the ‘centrist’ Macron administration now poses a much serious threat of a coup de grâce that would sweep what has left behind the welfare state.3 But this final blow must have come, ideally, at the moment when the death whistles of the welfare state have already been blowing.4 Ever since the economic crisis of 2008 and during the following recession, several attempts have been made to blow that whistle, each resulting with a strong response from an amalgam of mass organizations and political parties, leading to the widespread strikes of 2010 and, more recently, the Nuit Debout protests of 2016. In these cases what was at stake was the government reforms on pensions (during centre-right Fillon government, under Sarkozy’s presidency) and the labour law (during centre-left Valls government, under Hollande’s presidency), and government attempts were met with organized labour and political opposition. However, as Kouvelakis rightly underlines, in the case of Gilets Jaunes the government attempts in undermining what remained from the welfare state were met by the uprising of the popular classes, without any clear ideological discourse and significant organizational role of the unions or political parties, but by forming themselves ‘from below’ the assemblies (‘assembly of assemblies’) based on ‘self-organization, direct democracy and expanding participation’5—leading many observers to closely deal with, and at times solely focus on, the aspect of ‘political subjectivity’ of the Gilets Jaunes, albeit through occasionally over-reading historical comparisons with French Revolution (e.g. the Sans-Culottes),6 or revolutionary situation comparisons by coining terms such as ‘counter-power’ in reference to ‘dual power’.7 Such features rendered the recent Yellow-Vest mobilizations substantially different from the preceding mobilizations, both pre- and post-2008, not necessarily in terms of underlying motivations and reasons, but the protestation forms developed by protestors.
Although there certainly is an intrinsic, dialectical relationship between the form and the content, it is important not to be dazed by the attractiveness of the form-analysis to the detriment of neglecting the content. The content inevitably refers one to the social basis of the Gilets Jaunes and the underlying motivations and reasons behind their mobilizations. Observations from the field and empirical studies on Yellow-Vest mobilizations and its social basis both show that the Gilets Jaunes actually stand for a mass movement of the ‘lower middle class’8 whose economic stability has for so long time been under threat and now in the face of a final blow. But the sign of this Macronian blow did not appear in the way those of the previous ones used to do: the initial protests by the Gilets Jaunes were triggered not as response to some government assaults on redistributive mechanisms (such as pension reform or labour law, as is the case with the previous moments of mobilization) but by the fury occurred against the increase in indirect taxes on fuel—the carbon tax. Directly influencing hundreds of thousands of people’s daily consumption practices, this new tax policy was to add extra cost over many households all over the Hexagon, especially those in the provinces and countryside,9 which are under the grip of low-income receiving. It was those directly threatened by this tax policy who first took on the roads and highways; among them were the small business owners, artisans, farmers and smallholders along with workers in different sectors, most notably transportation, such as truck drivers;10 they then became the ‘vanguard’ of the wider array of protestors coming from other sectors of the society who feel the threat of the ‘ultra-liberal’ economic reforms that would undo what has been secured so far under the welfare state. In that, the relation of the Yellow-Vest mobilizations in times of economic stagnation and ‘long downturn’11 to the workings of capitalism is all the more obvious; yet what is of determining character is its relation to French capitalism’s social reproduction scheme. In other words, the social character of this government attempt (a political intervention to economy) lay not in the relation between capital and wage-labour, i.e. at the point of surplus production, but at the point of surplus realization which takes place in the sphere of circulation of commodities.12
Now, one might argue that transportation is an essential part of the production process; this is certainly true. Indeed, as Marx once put it, ‘[t]he transport industry forms on the one hand an independent branch of production, and hence a particular sphere for the investment of productive capital’. But he also emphasizes that it actually has a dual character: ‘On the other hand it is distinguished by its appearance as the continuation of a production process within the circulation process and for the circulation process’.13 Throughout the sections he wrote on the costs of circulation as well as the reproduction of the total social capital in Volume 2 of Capital, he draws on the distinction between surplus production happening at the site of production and surplus realization during circulation, of which the latter is adding extra costs on the value of the commodity when it is brought to the point of consumption—in both cases where the commodity takes part of the production of means of production (Department I) or that of consumer goods (Department II). To the extent that these tax reforms add extra weight on the enterprises in the transformation business, and threatens the stability of the working class employed in this sector, it is directly related to the total social capital; but to the extent they are effective on the total costs that increase the commodity prices, they are essentially related to the process of the realization of surplus value which takes place in the reproduction of the total social capital. And this brings us to the dynamics of a particular social reproduction scheme adopted by a particular social formation.
This analysis related to capitalist social reproduction gives way to a set of intertwined questions: How is the agency of class at work in the case of Gilets Jaunes, boldly defined as a lower middle class movement? Do analyses, especially Marxist ones, based on social reproduction fall into the trap of hiding the class divides? And what could be the effects of such tendencies vis-à-vis the necessity of a profound analysis of the real mechanisms behind social and racial inequalities? In order to deal with these questions, we need to delve into the concept of lower middle class.
Indeed, the Yellow-Vest mobilizations brought on the incessant actuality of what the Marxist historian Arno J. Mayer has once discussed under ‘the lower middle class as historical problem’.14 In this celebrated article, Mayer elaborated the fluid and unstable character of the lower middle class, both in political and social terms, and lay out the underlying reasons for this characterization through recourse to historical evolution of the social groups that fall under this category of ‘social class’. Informed by Poulantzas’s theory of class,15 particularly regarding the petty bourgeoisie, Mayer went on distinguishing within the lower middle class essentially two fractions which belong to traditional and modern petty bourgeoisies, while the course of capitalist development and the imposition of market forces put both fractions under a great economic distress, resulting in them occasionally producing similar political responses to rapid social change. As is the case with Poulantzas’s theorization, Mayer, too, treated the lower middle class as essentially different from the industrial proletariat which then constituted the bulk of the working class—a distinction established by one or more of the following features: mental labour (as opposed to manual labour);16 salary-earning status (as opposed to wage-earning); property-owning status over means of production (self-employed business owners, craftsmen, etc.); relative control over production processes (primacy of low-skilled workers over the non-skilled)—the parameters which had been systematically absent in traditional Marxist theories of class prior to Poulantzas, and since then became part of more refined approaches in labour and class studies.17 The articulation of such social groups, therefore, results in the formation of a wider lower middle class that is best identified, perhaps, with the status of low-income receiving, which in turn puts these strata in constant anxiety especially in economic downturn periods.
Despite its analytical value and conforming to the articulation the Gilets Jaunes involves, lower middle class, however, stands rather as a category of what is described as ‘gradational’ class approach in that it is defined most visibly on the basis of income status.18 While Mayer and especially Poulantzas intended to view this social class in a relational way, counting on the extra-economic features of the production processes as the complementary determinants of the economic features, that they defined two distinct strata—the traditional and new middle classes—and categorized both within the same social class of petty bourgeoisie is to concede in fact that its basic, underlying determinant is the income status, rather than their places in the production processes.19 Moreover Mayer’s contribution to this middle class theory by identifying a ‘lower’ layer from within is even more broadly highlighting the gradational character of his class analysis. If in historical materialist tradition class is a relationship in the same way capital is a social relation,20 then the gradational character must be stripped of its determinant role and pushed back to a subordinate position.
But also it is from this subordinate position that emerges the analytical value of the concept of lower middle class. Mayer’s lower middle class—whose political character is understood in a way in fact quite similar to that understood by Miliband in the epigraph—is the social profile of the Yellow-Vest protestors in that they are low-income earners; they are seriously threatened by the lifting-off of the barriers set by the welfare state that prevent them from the full imposition of free-market dynamics.21 This is the common ground for the lower middle class that is at stake; by this token, it is a useful category while describing both the profile of the protestors and the social basis of the mobilizations. Lower middle class, however, is not a social class in the Marxist sense of the term for that it does not designate a shared position of the social strata involved within itself under the same social-property relations. What this means is that the various strata making up the lower middle class in fact belong to different social classes; therefore they actually undergo fundamentally different class experiences. All of these component strata might have swung in a given historical momentum under the same threat, but the point is that each stratum goes through a different process of social change when their ‘rules for reproduction’ are fundamentally challenged in their own ways and according to their own peculiarities.22
This brings us to the problem of tackling the mode of production–class agency–social reproduction nexus. In the particular case of the Gilets Jaunes what is at stake is a discussion around the different class components of the movement and the class divides within the ‘unity-in-action’ of the protestors, and the changing mechanisms of capitalist social reproduction in which the role of the political—the state, or the French model—is involved, all placed in the wider picture of the actual workings of capitalism. Let us start with the latter.
What led to the Yellow-Vest mobilizations was the latest link of a chain of systemic attempts according to the project started by the neoliberal programme towards dismantling the many benefits of the welfare state. This welfare state was particularly strong in France; but its fundamental role was, in order ‘to cushion the transition to industrial economy’, functioning as ‘a welfare state aimed toward social insurance for the middle classes … rather than redistribution’—unlike other advanced Western capitalist economies.23 So that, given the state’s greater size in economy relative to its counterparts, the French neoliberalism, characteristically, has showed up dominantly in the sphere of privatization, rather than taxation and social costs. But this trend seems to have changed course since late 2000s: as response to the economic crisis of 2008 and conforming to the conditions of the following stagnation, successive government attempts (from centre-right via centre-left to ‘centrist’ presidencies) have rather focused on reducing the social expenditures and reforming the already non-progressive taxation structure—all to the detriment of the growth of low- and middle-income strata, for which the economic stagnation in the post-2008 period has stabilized their shares in the total household income, and to the advantage of the rich and the super-rich whose economic dominance has been secured (see Chart 1). Moreover, this underlying inequality in terms of redistribution has been consolidated by the enormous increases after 2008 in the household debts as well as the private consumption expenditure accompanying that development (see Charts 2 and 3). In other words, while there has been little change, if not regression, in the structure of income inequality, the French households have been subjected to a significantly growing indebtedness due to exigencies of the private consumption hungry economy (Chart 4).
Here it is important to note that recent studies on private debt found that the situation of French households vis-à-vis their European counterparts depicts a relatively positive portrait.24 This could be considered in a way that the French model is yet to be broken completely, but at the verge of it. Whereas the French model, designed to protect the citizens from the harms of market dynamics, supposed to present its social-insurance instruments especially for the small-propertied classes, which is potentially unstable if exposed to free-market, joined by a fraction of the working class with privileges (both manuel and mental labourers) whose subsistence has been a central matter for the post-war French polities, it now appears to be failing as a viable social-reproduction model in that its firm presence and intervening capacities in French capitalist development is dislocated—it is to the extent the French state withdraws from its role as a key player in economy and for economic growth that it has been going through a disruptive process which bears the incentive to transform the ‘rules for reproduction’ specific to French social formation fundamentally.
Chart 1. Evolution of the income share by deciles and quintiles in France, 2009–2015. Source: World Bank.
Charts 2 and 3. Household debt in France, 2000–2018 (USD and percentage of GDP). Source: CEIC Data.
Chart 4. Private consumption expenditure in France, 2000–2018. Source: CEIC Data.
These data suggest that, under capitalist social-property relations, several social classes and strata within the French social formation have, in their own class ways, been experiencing the hardships of the transformation of the rules for their social reproduction. Wage-labourers (including salary-earners), especially those in the rural areas, whose jobs are dependent to small and medium-size enterprises, are particularly vulnerable in this process; this stratum of the working class is followed by the small-propertied classes, who are actually running their SMEs under quite unstable conditions and whose dependence to bank credits in order to remain in business is increasing consistently; these strata have been reinforced largely by those on retreat whose living is dependent on social insurances granted by the state; and finally a considerable segment of the urban working class, both manual labourers and lower- and middle-income strata of non-manual labourers, has been under the threat of being stripped off of the privileges and protections they benefit from the welfare state, which upheld the standard of wages high by taking role in negotiations between corporations and unions, and losing the privilege of being employed to the creation of precarious labour market based on low-wage economy.
It is the compulsion of these circumstances that undermines the French model and its adopted mechanisms of social reproduction, and that has led to the unity-in-action of a large array of social bases; yet, although it is the same root of disruption that applies for each of these social groups, the way how they have been experiencing the disruption is essentially and fundamentally different from each other—therefore, what is at stake vis-à-vis not the root-cause of their actions but the way how they engage with social reality is the fact that different class agencies are set in motion. Moreover, although under their yellow vests ‘popular classes’ are brought together as the profile of the protestors, the social function of mobilizations is not limited to these popular classes but it actually incorporates the agency of certain fractions of the dominant classes.
I will emphasize three cases in point concerning the problem of class agency: (i) albeit conceived as a crisis of capitalist social reproduction where the root-cause of Yellow-Vest mobilizations is originated, the disruption of capitalist social reproduction cycle specific to French social formation is a consequence of stagnant labour productivity as well as the profitability of the French firms in which an entire set of relations of production is involved—i.e. multiplicity of class relations; conforming to this point, (ii) the social function of the mobilizations is not only a tendency towards preserving the past privileges of the social strata that belong to popular classes, but also those of a fraction of the capitalist class, along with the cooperating political elites at the ‘heights of the state’—it is those privileges granted by the French model that undermine the economic incentive for them to invest in new technologies so as to develop the means of production, and instead lead them to rely more on ‘outmoded’ techniques and means, as symbolized in policies over carbon fuel versus new energies; (iii) the privileges which benefit some fractions of the working class25 do in fact cause intra-class division on the basis of ‘privilege-of-being-employed’ as opposed to a large ‘reserve army of labour’, a product of France’s acute unemployment problem—whereas the objective class interests of these different strata or fractions are naturally common, for they all are dependent on wage-labour and hence take part of the working class, their short- and mid-term interests derived from this or that economic model (social-reproduction model) are fairly diversified, resulting in the political division of the working class and instead creating an amalgam of social groups belonging to different social classes that gives way to theorization on the basis of the political subjectivity of categories such as ‘the people’.
(i) Productivity, profitability and class relations
If social reproduction models are conceived as politically-constituted systems by which different social groups—from the propertied to non-propertied classes, from capitalist to working classes, also comprising the middle strata such as small-business owners, traditional petty bourgeoisie, and so on—are benefitted according to their shares and roles in the political edifice, then it logically follows that they are subject to change to the extent class conflicts and class struggle in a given social formation pressure the existing status quo. Therefore, the French crisis, understood as a disruption in its social reproduction model (the French model), is firmly rooted in the sphere where class conflicts and class struggle take place, not reduced to that between two polarized but multiple parties of the social formation. In that sense, in order to understand how class struggle takes place it is necessary to understand in what terms class relations are subject to change—and, in that, it is imperative to understand how the relations of production are changing. For that matter, I will briefly overview labour productivity rates in France and the profitability of the French firms.
Chart 5. Labour productivity growth in France, 1979–2018. Source: CEIC Data.
In the first place, it should be noted that Macron’s attempt at raising the carbon fuel tax is a consistent move with the ‘decarbonization’ policies adopted by successive governments from Hollande to Macron, notably the 2015 law related to ‘Energy Transition for Green Growth’ as a historical milestone which has the long-term aim of reducing energy demand as well as introducing effectively decarbonized energy by 2050.26 This was, in turn, consistent with European policies on low-carbon transition, the EU’s role in the agenda on global climate change, and its soft-power strategy as represented by the Paris Conference, and Paris Accord, in 2015.27 However, apart from the evident fact that the ecological crisis threatens the survival of capitalism in the longer term, what underlaid these efforts was a rather structural problem related to productivity. Both in France and Europe, the productive capacity of the economy during the long downturn has fallen well below the levels of the long boom; and the stagnant productivity, or the ‘falling productive capacity’, poses a threat for the further economic growth of France—a country experiencing acute stagnation (see Chart 5). Therefore, decarbonization policies throughout France and Europe must be understood as a possible reformative attempt on raising the organic composition of capital: on the one hand, it should be the case that the value of the constant capital increased; on the other hand, that of the variable capital decreased. If, as understood by a certain fraction of the capitalist class and the policy-makers in-line with them, the French economy is in such a quagmire of falling productive capacity that prevents it from further growth and French firms from further global competition, then decarbonization could actually stand as a strong incentive to French capital to invest in newer, less carbon-dependent, more sustainable and, of course, more effective means of production which could in turn increase the returns to labour—hence, labour productivity.28
(ii) Market competition, profitability, and class conflict
But this projection could not have been realized without resistance, particularly from the side of business-owners themselves. What actually has been at stake was Marx’s prophecy: the expropriation of the expropriators. For this to be understood in historical perspective, the causality relation between profitability and productivity should be underlined.29 According to Brenner’s historical analysis, a possible explanation to the economic crisis of the mid-1970s lies in the period that was underway since 1960s, when the profitability of the capitalist enterprises had begun to fall due to intense market competition. This competitiveness in turn should be read as the class conflict intra-capitalist class. If, by the same token, we take market competition as a determinant factor of falling profitability under the conditions of stagnant productivity, then the incentive towards raising organic composition of capital and labour productivity in order to increase profitability is an expression of the class conflict within capitalists. For it is not always easy, even profitable, from the point of view of the enterprises to invest in new means of production in order to increase their productive capacities; since under increased conditions of competition their short- and mid-term profits would have been in a precarious situation if such investments have been made vis-à-vis the firms with better capital-structure and new players in the game. Therefore, what appears to be the case is that the well-entrenched enterprises in the French economy behave rather in a conservative manner than reformative, and, however big their sizes, they tend to take a position as against the more innovative, and seemingly progressive, fractions of capital, both national and multi-national.30 No wonder, then, the Macronian understanding of the future francité is based on a ‘start-up nation’, which supposes to take over the place of the old-fashioned, obsolete capital.
(iii) Political division of the working class
On the other side of the coin, the rising organic composition of capital also requires the reduced costs in variable capital—i.e. labour force. This, in turn, is consistent with a labour-regime reliant more on automation as well as the prevalence of low-skilled labour, as anticipated in many future characterizations of capitalism.31 The development of new techniques here puts an important fraction of the working class in contradiction with the means of production, leading them to resist against not only ‘machine-produced machinery’ but, more importantly, the deskilling of labour. Deskilling, on the other hand, brings forth the creation of a ‘surplus army of employed’, as against the reserve army of labour, which functions in a way that transforms the labour market into a ‘low-wage economy’.32 This development strips off the employed from those privileges—privileges as defined on the basis of being employed in an increasingly-precarious job market and in a country like France which suffers from chronic unemployment rates but provides its working class with a higher growth in real wages than, say, in Germany—and equates the employed and the unemployed vis-à-vis the same low-waged, underemployed, precarious jobs. Such transformation of the labour regime shows its effects more on non-manual than manual jobs, further boosting the expanding of the services economy as the main site of job openings.
By this process, there arises the differentiation in the short- and mid-term interests for different fractions of the working class, which in turn brings forth the division of the working class on political grounds and choices. While some fractions of the working class, in a social-reproduction system like the French model, benefit from the privileges of the old labour regime, the rest have no particular interest in its continuation but actually suffer from the structural barriers imposed over them; hence, they tend to remain indifferent to the deskilling of the labour force and the accompanying process of the creation of low-wage economy, in which they would survive relatively better compared to the previous labour regime. This is particularly the case with the migrant labour force (both first and second generations), especially of North-African, Sub-Saharan and Turkish origins, whose intergenerational reproduction is met by systemic barriers in terms of access to education and lower income in comparison to other population groups.33 This fact is also relevant as to why immigrants have not endorsed the Yellow-Vest mobilizations; and, while greatly exaggerated especially by pro-Macron pundits such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, it also partly explains the undeniable existence of racist and far-right elements in the mobilizations. Whereas the Yellow-Vest movement as a whole is not racist, far-right or reactionary protestors, their unity-in-action is certainly not immune to such elements to prevent them from within—and not necessarily so, as it is concrete conditions that precede ideological leanings, not vice versa. Here, it is noteworthy to make a contrast with the Gilets Noirs who appeared in a somewhat alternative, if not contradictory, position to that of the Gilets Jaunes and are attempting to claim their civic rights—the lack thereof constituting a further inequality within the working class, and preventing the unity of the working class on the basis of their objective class interests.34 Although at the grassroots level such a division could be surpassed in cases when joint actions take place,35 it remains a crucial matter whether those are enduring unities organized on the basis of a political programme. For what sets the Gilets Noirs separate from the Gilets Jaunes is an urgent issue that cannot be confined to the dichotomy of recognition vs. redistribution, as the civic demands of the former are discernibly alien to the redistributive demands of the latter.36 This point brings us to the problem of strategy.
What has been discussed so far had the aim to outline the background for the Yellow-Vest mobilizations and to show how a multiplicity of class relations and, therefore, different class agencies have been at work regarding the mobilizations. But analysing the workings of these class agencies is one thing, and making use of them politically another. The latter requires the specific relationship between theory and political strategy—strategy to be informed by theory, and theory not to be distorted by the necessities of some ‘realistic’, even ‘possibilist’, political strategy. As shown in the first section, the political-subjectivity aspect of the mobilizations has been the most widely discussed topic on this matter. Here I have no interest in engaging those discussions—some of which are brilliantly thought-provoking—but I will finish my account with pointing out some of the basic contradictions and problems on the nexus of political subjectivity/class agency.
Any socialist strategy of taking power would naturally be relying on the anti-capitalist elements of a social movement, uprising, mobilization or protest. Marxism, on the other hand, with its distinguished historical-materialist approach, provides a methodology for political strategy, which would rely on class agency and be named as class politics; it surely is the philosophy of praxis, the task of changing the world, but it also assumed that this task would not be achieved without a proper methodology and theory. Now, Marxist philosophy of praxis is also, by its nature, strictly anti-capitalist; but what underlies its distinguished character from other anti-capitalist political visions is the scientific way it interprets the world, and it is at this point that the notion of class gets into the picture, according to which the workings of the existing world is on the basis of the class agency. This is what sets Marxism so radically apart from other anti-capitalist, even socialist, projects. And while class agency traverses all the spheres comprising both the sites of production and social-reproduction, the point where it is originated is uniquely the site of production, where the specificity of capitalism emerges: the separation of the economic and the political.37 While the economic involves the relations of production, and therefore exploitation, the political involves all the extra-economic relations of domination—two essentially distinct type of relationships that characterizes the workings of capitalism both at the sites of production and reproduction. This is what makes class a social category defined on the basis of relations of production and exploitation, not on extra-economic relations of domination.
That said, it is not intended here to undermine the importance of extra-economic relations vis-à-vis class agency; what it is intended instead could be expressed as follows: (i) underlining that exploitative relations of production (the economic) are essentially different from oppressive relations of domination (the extra-economic), i.e. that they are in different natures; (ii) in so far as they are historically separated in capitalism, it is necessary to make this distinction to understand the true nature of capitalist relations of production; (iii) it is this latter point that gives the basis of class determination, made on the relations of production, and it is strictly a relationship between capital and labour under capitalist mode of production; (iv) while it is true that class(es) undergo(es) extra-economic processes, which might be defined as ‘class formation’, this—the point of social reproduction—is in fact where the class agency is set in motion: social classes interact, they oppress and are oppressed, dominate and are dominated, and they establish political relations among each other, in the same way do the other social groups defined on the basis of race, gender, nation, ethnicity, etc.; (v) if it is accepted that the extra-economic relations could also be variables in class definition it would give way such concepts as ‘women’s class’, and the like, which obviously loses the rigour in analysis. Now, Poulantzas’s class conception did not go as far as this of course, but his formulation led to the famous conclusion that an important part of the wage-earning class actually belonged to the new middle class instead of the working class on the basis of these extra-economic determinants, and there is a point in Wood’s description of Poulantzas as ‘the forerunner’ of the historical ‘retreat from class’, according to which, in late 1970s and early 1980s, the proletariat was to bid farewell for the reason that the manual working class has already shrunk in the North and therefore was incapable of leading the revolution. This understanding paved the way not only for the Eurocommunist strategy in the 1970s, resulting with the abandon of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but also for the left-populist strategies of later decades in which the class aspect has more and more lost sight.38
Therefore, the totality of the social-property relations under capitalism which involves both the production and realization of surplus value (the sphere of the latter process involves the relations of domination, not exploitation) within an integrated unity39 should not be conceived as the bedrock of a ‘left-populist strategy’ in which the class divisions are blurred and treated identically within some melting-pot category of ‘the people’, conforming to the logic underlying such formulations: ‘A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into a collective will to construct a “we”, a “people” confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy.’ Thus theorists such as Mouffe offer a cross-class alliance in which not only ‘the establishment of a chain of equivalence among the demands of the workers, the immigrants and the precarious middle class’, but also ‘other democratic demands, such as those of the LGBT community’.40 Then she goes on to tell, quite rightly, that ‘[p]eople do not fight against “capitalism” as an abstract entity because they believe in a “law of history” leading to socialism’, and underlines the ‘importance of the “social question”’ along with ‘the specificity of the various democratic demands’; by way of referring to David Harvey’s ‘accumulation by dispossession’, she relates the demands of the people concerning the social question to the workings of capitalism, especially its neoliberal model, and makes her case for a left populist strategy that is realistic in counter-hegemonic struggle grounded on both economic and extra-economic demands.41
Mouffe’s recent contribution to the theoretical position launched by ‘post-Marxism’ can be understood as a remarkable sign of shifting the emphasis from ‘the ideological’ to ‘the economic’ via a reconsideration of the social question as the underlying condition for political strategy. In this turn, the effect of the economic crisis of 2008 and stagnation afterwards over the re-emergence of the social question as an urgent political matter has been undeniable. As a ‘Marxian-inspired’ political theory, however, the left-populist case à la Mouffe suffers at two fronts. First, it lacks a rigorous class conception which affirms the specificity of capitalist relations of production; second, by taking into her account Harvey’s influential concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’42 she underscores the totality of capitalist social-property relations but, as is the case with Harvey, does not distinguish the nature of the social relations that take place at the sites of production and realization of surplus value, therefore the nature of the social relations of production from the nature of the relations of social reproduction. As a line of continuity, therefore, ‘the autonomization of ideology and politics’ from class remains as a determinant factor in the dynamics of social change. In that manner, concepts such as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ or ‘primitive accumulation’, when taken out of their contexts and not put in their place in relation to the economic, are used as deus ex machina, considered enough to stress the connection between, or the integrity of, the economic system and the political edifice. As a result, though the demands related to the ‘social question’ are distinguished from democratic demands, this remains only a verbal distinction: class becomes a non-specific, almost ordinary, category among different identities, which are in reality the products of political relations of domination; therefore the relations of exploitation—the economic—become indiscernible from the relations of domination—the political. The practical result of this strategy is, naturally, its neglect of the class relations and class agency, as well as its indifference to the class struggle between classes and class conflict within classes, and ends it up with either the complete failure of coherently articulating social and political demands and their defence down to the last member of the organization, or the dissuasion of this or that social stratum taking part in the cross-class alliance through compromise by what actually is ‘the enemy’ of the populist movement—the oligarchy. In Miliband’s words quoted in the epigraph above, advocating paralysis or preparing for defeat—are the Marxists in an epoch of populisms really caught at this pincer?
Indeed, a mass mobilization like the Gilets Jaunes is what a (left) populist movement would have dreamt of. Informed by the post-Marxist position of building counter-hegemony and taking power, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist La France Insoumise and its relation to the mobilizations has been considered by Mouffe, an inspirer of LFI, as the ‘populist moment’.43 It is clearly opportunistic for Mélenchon’s LFI to invest politically in mobilizations driven by popular classes, since it targets both the Macron-style liberalism in defending lower-middle classes and the EU-style globalism in defending souverainisme and Euroscepticism, blended with nationalistic appeals especially in immigration politics, all subordinated to a malleable parliamentarism headed by a charismatic leader.44 It is important here to note that this political line has quite some international resonances in the guise of ‘politics of the 99%’ symbolized, and intended to be organized on a world scale, by the Progressive International on the both sides of the Atlantic, encompassing politicians from Sanders to Varoufakis to Corbyn to Mélenchon.45 Of course, the differences among them are evident. Though all retain the outlook of electoral politics as the main road to power, there are cases where the role of working class as the transformative subject is given primacy compared to other cases where that role befalls to ‘the people’: an immediate comparison between DSA and LFI suits well to the case. And especially in the French case, the core of political strategy—the social basis—is a cross-class alliance in which the dominant elements are tending to be the relatively privileged fractions of the working class along with small-propertied class, whereas in the US case the politics of 99%, though led by the working class, treats the masses as if they are primarily opposed to the super-rich, the oligarchy, or the 1%. This is to concede that the determining contradiction that gives rise to heightened class struggle is not between the capitalist and working classes, or not even the propertied and non-propertied classes, but between the super-rich and the rest. This eventually leads to rupture/revolutionary strategies adopted or not by the party that is led by the working class.46
This is hardly a sound strategy, especially for the French case: the aim of popularity diffusion among masses is subject to very unstable waves of conjuncture, and never a self-sustained organizational development; it gives so much place to ideology and so little room to concrete interests that the assumed common ground for a populist cross-class alliance could in fact be more illusionary than realistic; even though an electoral campaign becomes successful enough to take offices, since it readily accepts the autonomy of the political from the economic and does not minutely elaborate the power balance, i.e. how this autonomy actually takes place, at the political level in class terms, it remains exposed to external pressures from different political quarters—leaving the decision-making processes paralyzed and, worse, rendering the fragile alliance self-sabotaging. Such was the lesson taught by the Syriza experience in Greece, which after yielding to the neoliberal agenda throughout their term in power has eventually lost the ‘radical moment’ to the centre-right New Democracy in the 2019 elections.47 And if the lesson was learnt well, the remedy should have been sought elsewhere: in the political unity of the working class—a class that is free from privileges and hierarchies which constitute its political division and function a role in alienating away the immediate interests of different fractions of the working class so as to undermine its class consciousness—by radically demanding that the remaining part of the working-class privileges, including the civic ones, be expanded to the whole working class, and by organizing this social basis, under the leadership of the more class-conscious, better-organized, and militant privileged fraction of the working-class, immediately around the programme of expanding privileges. Provided this condition that a cross-class alliance could only take its place at the table of Marxist political strategy.
1 Ralph Miliband, ‘The Coup in Chile’, The Socialist Register, 10 (1973), p. 457.
2 For a historical account, see: Chris Howell, ‘The French Road to Neoliberalism’, Catalyst 2:3 (Fall 2018), pp. 83–121.
3 Perry Anderson, ‘The Centre Can Hold: The French Spring’, New Left Review, II/105 (May–June 2017), pp. 5–27.
4 It is a defining moment of Macronism that this ‘Merciful Blow’ comes along with the perceived fact that ‘the Merciful State is already dead’: ‘Pour Emmanuel Macron, l’état de grâce est déjà fini’, Le Figaro (23 July 2017), URL: http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/2017/07/23/01002-20170723ARTFIG00131-pour-emmanuel-macron-l-etat-de-grace-est-deja-fini.php.
5 Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘The French Insurgency: Political Economy of the Gilets Jaunes’, New Left Review, II/116–7 (March–June 2019), pp. 83–6.
6 An important historian of the French Revolution makes the case in the comparison with Sans-Culottes: Sophie Wahnich, ‘The Structure of Current Mobilizations Corresponds to that of the Sans-Culottes’, interview by Joseph Confavreux (trans. David Fernbach), Verso Blog (4 December 2018), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4160-the-structure-of-current-mobilizations-corresponds-to-that-of-the-sans-culottes. This was followed by a piece from Le Monde editor: Sylvain Cypel, ‘From Sans Culottes to Gilets Jaunes: Macron’s Marie Antoinette Moment’ (trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman), New York Review of Books Daily (11 December 2018), URL: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/12/11/from-sans-culottes-to-gilets-jaunes-macrons-marie-antoinette-moment/; and then by a piece from a magistrate: Vincent Sizaire, ‘Maintien de l’ordre, les faux-semblants du modèle français: des sans-culottes aux “gilets jaunes”, histoire d’une surenchère répressive’, Le Monde Diplomatique (April 2019), URL: https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2019/04/SIZAIRE/59748.
7 Toni Negri, ‘French Insurrection’ (trans. Bethan Bowett), Verso Blog (8 December 2018), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4158-french-insurrection. In fact Negri makes his historical reference for Gilets Jaunes essentially to the jacquerie revolts of the French peasantry during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period. This is not surprising at all. For the jacqueries appear to stand for to him a permanent case in point for literally any form of mass mobilization and protest marked by ‘indignation’ and ‘spontaneity’, paving the way for the insurrectionists to constitute a counter-power, or dual power. In this scheme, the Maoist Long March and even the Bolshevik revolutionary situation are all corresponding to rural or urban jacquerie moments. Cf. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA 2009), pp. 236–40, ff. Also see Negri on Gilets Jaunes and counter-power: ‘Gilets jaunes: un contropotere?’, EuroNomade (21 December 2018), URL: http://www.euronomade.info/?p=11461. A more ‘moderate’ usage of the term ‘counter-power’ in relation to Yellow-Vest mobilizations can be found in: Etienne Balibar, ‘“Gilets jaunes”: le sens du face à face’, Mediapart (13 December 2018), URL: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/etienne-balibar/blog/131218/gilets-jaunes-le-sens-du-face-face. For some other notable pieces on the political subjectivity of Gilets Jaunes, see: Cédric Durand, ‘Le fond de l’air est jaune’, Contretemps (11 December 2018), URL: http://www.contretemps.eu/gilets-jaunes-macron/; Jacques Rancière, ‘The Virtues of the Inexplicable — Apropos the Yellow Vests’ (trans. David Broder), Verso Blog (12 February 2019), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4237-jacques-ranciere-on-the-gilets-jaunes-protests; Enzo Traverso, ‘Understanding the Gilets Jaunes’, Verso Blog (15 February 2019), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4242-understanding-the-gilets-jaunes.
8 The initial results of an empirical survey can be found at: ‘“Gilets jaunes”: une enquête pionnière sur la “révolte des revenus modestes”’, Le Monde (11 December 2018), URL: https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2018/12/11/gilets-jaunes-une-enquete-pionniere-sur-la-revolte-des-revenus-modestes_5395562_3232.html; English translation: ‘Gilets jaunes: a pioneering study of the “low earners” revolte’ (trans. David Fernbach), Verso Blog (14 December 2018), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4180-gilets-jaunes-a-pioneering-study-of-the-low-earners-revolt. A comprehensive coverage and analysis of the mobilization and the movement based on field observations can be found in: Kouvelakis, ‘The French Insurgency’, pp. 75–98. Note that although it carries the subtitle ‘Political Economy of the Gilets Jaunes’ this article, a synthesis of the author’s three previously published articles in Contretemps, too, is rather focused on their political subjectivity.
9 Ivan Bruneau, Julian Mischi and Nicolas Rehany, ‘Rural France in Revolt’, Jacobin Online (24 March 2019), URL: https://jacobinmag.com/2019/03/gilets-jaunes-rural-dispossession-macron.
10 ‘Gilets jaunes: a pioneering study …’, op. cit.; Bruneau et al., op. cit. One leader of the Gilets Jaunes, Eric Drouet, is a full-time salaried truck driver while another, Prisciallia Ludosky, is a small entrepreneur.
11 Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945–2005 (London 2006).
12 Here I am drawing on the distinction made by Marx himself and emphasized in various occasions by David Harvey, most recently in his Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (London 2017), based on his interpretation of Volume 2: A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2 (London 2013). Whereas Harvey uses this distinction to highlight the ‘totality’ of capitalism, I will stress the differentiation of processes in the following sections.
13 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 2 (London 1992), p. 229.
14 Arno J. Mayer, ‘The Lower Middle Class as Historical Problem’, The Journal of Modern History, 47:3 (1975), pp. 409–36.
15 Especially see: Nicos Poulantzas, Les classes sociales dans le capitalisme aujourd’hui (Paris 1974); but also: Pouvoir politique et classes sociales (Paris 1968).
16 In Poulantzas’s theory, this artificial separation of mental and manual labour reflects the most the ideologically different leanings of the waged and salaried labour, which in turn determines their class positions within distinct social classes as the working class and the new middle class. At the political level, it reflects the hierarchically distinguished control mechanisms of different social classes within a process of production. In that, the ideological and the political hold their autonomous powers in the determination of social classes.
17 Probably the most notable example is Erik Olin Wright’s Class, Crisis and the State (London 1979).
18 Erik Olin Wright, Class Structure and Income Determination (New York 1979), pp. 5–8.
19 For a critique of the ‘boundary’ theories and an emphasis on the centrality of exploitation, as opposed to status, see: Peter Meiksins, ‘Beyond the Boundary Question’, New Left Review, I/157 (May–June 1986), pp. 101–20.
20 For a detailed argumentation of ‘class as relationship’, see: Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Class as Process and Relationship’, in her groundbreaking collection of essays Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge 1995), pp. 76–107. For Marx’s overarching theoretical position on ‘capital as social relation [of production]’ and his reference to E.G. Wakefield as the discoverer of this formulation, see Capital, Vol. 1 (London 1990), p. 932.
21 This is the case particularly, and historically, with small farmers and shopkeepers (i.e. the traditional petty bourgeoisie) in France, whose existence was systematically preserved by the hand of state regulations against free-market—see: Roger Price, A Concise History of France, third edition (Cambridge 2014), p. 325.
22 For the concepts of ‘social-property relations’ and ‘rules for reproduction’, see: Robert Brenner, ‘The Social Basis of Economic Development’, in Analytical Marxism, edited by John Roemer (Cambridge 1986), pp. 23–53.
23 Monica Prasad, ‘Why Is France So French? Culture, Institutions, and Neoliberalism, 1974–1981’, American Journal of Sociology, 111:2 (2005), pp. 360–1.
24 François-René Burnod, ‘What’s the Matter with France? The French Corporate Private Debt Binge, 2008–2016’, Private Debt Project, URL: https://privatedebtproject.org/view-articles.php?What-s-the-Matter-with-France-The-French-Corporate-Private-Debt-Binge-2008-2016-30.
25 The notion of privileged fractions within the working class reminds, of course, the concept of ‘labour aristocracy’. But I do not tend to use this concept as an analytical tool, not only for that it is not sufficiently theorized in Marxist literature, but also contrary to the concept’s aim of distinguishing a small fraction of the working class (the skilled labourers) from the rest (the non-skilled), the privileges here at stake actually are benefiting a much larger portion of the working class; therefore the threat of their loss provokes a wave of social mobilizations such as the Gilets Jaunes, but not some behind-the-scenes sort of negotiations among workers/labour unions, capitalists, and the state. For a powerful critique of ‘labour aristocracy’, see Charles Post, ‘Exploring Working-Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of the ‘Labour-Aristocracy’, Historical Materialism 18:4 (2010), pp. 3–38.
26 Sandrine Mathy, Patrick Criqui and Jean Charles Hourcade, ‘Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in France’, Research Report, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (2015).
27 Michel Aglietta, Etienne Espagne and Baptiste Perrissin Fabert, ‘A Proposal to Finance Low Carbon Investment in Europe’, Studies and Documents no. 121 (English version), Department for the Economics, Assessment and Integration of Sustainable Development (March 2015).
28 See the case made in Michel Aglietta, The Reform of Europe: A Political Guide to the Future, trans. Gregory Elliott (London 2019), especially chapters 4 and 9. Note that the book was originally published in 2014 in Paris with the title: Europe. Sortir de la crise et inventer l’avenir. Also see his more recent book, co-authored with Nicolas Leron: La double démocratie: une Europe politique pour la croissance (Paris 2017).
29 This causality was underlined and examined most effectively in Robert Brenner’s historical work on the long boom and long downturn: The Economics of Global Turbulence. For a résumé of his thesis and argument and a comparison with the contemporaries, see: Moishe Postone, ‘Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey’, in Political Economy and Global Capitalism: the 21st Century, Present and Future, edited by Rob Albritton, Bob Jessop and Richard Westra (London 2010), pp. 7–23.
30 A hesitant, if not conservative, position is explicit in a recent report published by the Institut Montaigne in Paris: ‘Pour réussir la transition énergétique’, Institut Montaigne (June 2019), URL: https://www.institutmontaigne.org/publications/pour-reussir-la-transition-energetique. The IM is particularly important: a giant of the French civil society, it brings together the representatives of a number of the most powerful French institutions—corporations and public institutions alike—in order to influence the policy-making processes at the political level. Also note that corporations like Renault or Total which have invested heavily on carbon-fuel technologies are contributors to the institute.
31 Francis Green, ‘Employee Involvement, Technology and Evolution in Job Skills: A Task-Based Analysis’, Industrial and Labor Relations Review 65:1 (January 2012), pp. 36–67.
32 Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence, p. 254.
33 This fact is revealed by the data presented in the Trajectoires et origines survey of 2015, edited by INED demographers Cris Beauchemin, Christelle Hamel and Patrick Simon. I am currently undertaking a research article on the intergenerational reproduction of the migrant labour force and the systemic barriers they face, not only erected by the political edifice itself but also as consequence of their own social-reproduction strategies vis-à-vis the labour market.
34 See the following statement made by the Gilets Noirs: ‘The Gilets Noirs are coming for the Prime Minister’, Verso Blog (1 July 2019), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4367-the-gilets-noirs-are-coming-for-the-prime-minister; this statement originally appeared with the title ‘Gilets Noirs cherchent 1er Ministre’ on change.org as a petition: https://www.change.org/p/edouard-philippe-gilets-noirs-cherchent-1er-ministre. Also see the following piece: Luke Butterly, ‘The “Gilets Noirs”: The Undocumented Migrant Movement in France’, Verso Blog (4 June 2019), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4341-the-gilets-noirs-the-undocumented-migrant-movement-in-france.
35 For example, see: ‘Gilets jaunes, gilets noirs et employés s’unissent à Geodis’, Mediapart (6 July 2019), URL: https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/france/060719/gilets-jaunes-gilets-noirs-et-employes-s-unissent-geodis.
36 In that matter, the symbolic act of occupying the Panthéon by the Gilets Noirs has been extremely powerful. See: Luke Butterly, ‘The gilets noirs occupy the Panthéon’, Verso Blog (15 July 2019), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4379-the-gilets-noirs-occupy-the-pantheon.
37 On this point, see, of course, the seminal article by Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism’, New Left Review I/127 (May–June 1982), pp. 66–95, reprinted in her Democracy Against Capitalism, pp. 19–48.
38 For a critique of Poulantzas, see E.M. Wood’s classic The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism, revised edition (London 1998), pp. 25–46; of Laclau and Mouffe, see: ibid., pp. 47–74.
39 See the last paragraph of the Section I above.
40 Chantal Mouffe, For A Left Populism (London 2018), p. 24.
41 Ibid., pp. 50, 59–62.
42 Harvey for the first time uses this concept in his The New Imperialism (Oxford 2003), pp. 137–82. For an important debate around this concept, see the contributions of Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Logics of Power: A Conversation with David Harvey’, and Robert Brenner, ‘What Is, and What Is Not, Imperialism?’, both published in Historical Materialism 14:4 (2006), pp. 9–34, and pp. 79–105, respectively.
43 Chantal Mouffe, ‘The “gilets jaunes”: A reaction to the explosion of inequalities between the super-rich and the middle classes’, interview by Simon Blin (trans. David Fernbach), Verso Blog (6 December 2018), URL: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4149-the-gilets-jaunes-a-reaction-to-the-explosion-of-inequalities-between-the-super-rich-and-the-middle-classes.
44 Some sort of left-wing nationalism has always been instrumental in the post-Marxist, left-populist strategy drawn by Laclau-Mouffe ever since Laclau’s essay on ‘Fascism and Ideology’. See: Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London 1977), pp. 81–142. The official position of the party on migration can be found in: Bernard Féraud and Elisa Senon, ‘Respecter les migrants, régler les causes des migrations’, Booklet no. 32 of L’Avenir en commun, the political programme of LFI (2017), URL: https://avenirencommun.fr/le-livret-migrations/.
45 For an account and discussion of the ‘democratic socialist’ political strategies and their problems in US, British and Greek cases, see Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Socialist Challenge Today (London 2018).
46 For the case with DSA, see Chibber’s take on political strategy in a critical issue of Jacobin on the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, where a rupture/revolutionary strategy is explicitly rejected: Vivek Chibber, ‘Our Road to Power’, Jacobin 27 (Fall 2017). As a counter-position, see: Charles Post, ‘What Strategy for the US Left?’, Jacobin Online (23 February 2018), URL: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/02/socialist-organization-strategy-electoral-politics.
47 For a self-reflection and criticism of the Syriza experience, see: Panagiotis Sotiris, ‘Defeat and Recomposition: Thoughts on the Greek Elections’, Historical Materialism Blog (12 July 2019), URL: http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/defeat-and-recomposition-thoughts-greek-election. Also see from the same author: ‘Is A “Left Populism” Possible?’, Historical Materialism 27:2 (2019), pp. 18–9.