In the last issue ofInternationalist Perspective, we discussed the movement against the “First Hiring Contract” (CPE) carried out by French youth. Today we wish to return to this movement more broadly, while reconsidering the general questions that it posed in connection with the current class struggle.
For IP that movement was unquestionably a movement of a part of the proletariat and, as such, it was a reaffirmation of the fundamental antagonisms between the classes. On the one side, there is a capitalist system which more and more openly shows the reality of its crisis, its functioning and its perspective: the total submission of each part of society to the law of the value entailing that labor power loses its human character and becomes an object that one uses, which one displaces, that one devalues and which one throws out according to the immediate needs of capital; a need to attack and to adapt labor power in an increasingly direct way to the urgent economic imperatives, with the consequences of insecurity, exclusion, impoverishment and flexibility which that implies. Modern capitalism no longer simply needs labor producing material goods, but also requires the production of immaterial goods and innovating projects on the technological and scientific level, which further increases the flexibility and the insecurity of a part of living capital. We are seeing the constitution of a stratum of highly trained proletarians, often working in an isolated way and engaged for only the duration of a precise project. The last bill on immigration presented by Sarkozy, perfectly reflects this increased insecurity and this flexibility. Against this system, we find a proletariat that refuses to subject itself to capitalist logic, through social movements, which, if they are unable to shape a common perspective, nonetheless reflect the development of a climate of tension and social agitation that is perceptible throughout the world.
In positioning itself directly in terms of a rejection of insecurity, the student movement marked its refusal of submission and adaptation to the ineluctable logic of capital. The ruling class has clearly understood this: in the commentaries of the bourgeoisie of other European countries, the point which was, and which continues to be emphasized, is the need for adapting to the changes that have transpired, agreeing to say good-bye to the old forms of work, “comfort” and social protection... In this way too, the ruling class shows how it more and more intends to treat its living capital and the student movement was a protest against that intention. With respect to the anti-CPE movement itself, I would like to tackle four questions:
1. Class Nature:
The appreciation of the nature of class of the student movement has been debated within the revolutionary milieu: do the students constitute the future ruling elite, are they a part of the middle class, and, in a more general way, how to appreciate the class nature of a movement?
Modern capitalism needs educated workers to use new technologies and we are far from the illiterate worker who extracted coal underground in a mine or even from the semi-skilled worker (the famous “OS” who had primary know-how). For example: Japan's Toyota is proud to have an educated labor force, with, at least, its diploma from high school. This need of modern capital involves a widening of the base of recruitment from higher education and in France the universities accommodate young people from all strata, amongst them, the proletarian milieu.
But, posing this question in a very general way, what does this term “middle class” still mean? The organization of the labor process has changed in a major way and the composition of the social classes as well. The proletariat saw its ranks swell by workers formerly a part of the middle class, but today proletarianized.
We touch here on the question of the recomposed proletariat, a class that was profoundly transformed in tandem with the transformation of capitalism. This gives us the image of a very heterogeneous class with respect to its sections and its forms of activity, as well as its status. The process of re-composition, while it is a global process, does not transform the proletariat in a homogenous way, that simply gives it another uniform shape, but rather has the effect of dividing the class into multiple segments adjusted to the total process of production. This extreme heterogeneity is a basic given which revolutionaries must take account because it makes an appreciation of the nature of the class more complicated, and makes the sense of belonging to the same class more complex for this agglomeration of proletarians with multiple “faces.” Meanwhile, the “middle class” that formerly constituted a very important intermediate social layer, especially in the rich countries, has been reduced to a significant degree in both number and social importance.
Moreover, it is not so much the social origin of these youth which gives them their class membership, but also the fact that they constitute the proletariat of tomorrow: the proletariat able to use new technologies, the proletariat shaped to the needs of capital, this last being, moreover, increasingly present in the definition of teaching curricula and research projects joining together private universities and private enterprises.
2. Characteristics of the movement:
Even if France - which seems, in this respect, to be in a particular dynamic - has already known several student protest movements, youth, in a general way, has shown little inclination to express itself on the level of reflection, of engagement and of action in opposition to the system. It is rather like a product of modern capitalism: individualist, immediatist and in hyper adaptation to socio-economic conditions. And if the period of adolescence was previously that of total revolt and total struggle, today’s adolescents seem often less inclined to dream of another society. This youth has undergone the full impact of the historical break with the massive proletarian struggles of the past, with the great revolutionary movements, and the communist project is now more likely to be linked to the welcome bankruptcy of the old Stalinist societies than to the hopes for a society based on new economic and social relations. The loss of illusions, the disgust expressed towards the political class, are not the elements that favor any kind of political engagement.
The first characteristic of the anti-CPE movement is that it hurled this new generation into the arena of politico-social confrontation. And even if, in France, it is not the first time, it is a fundamental experience that will leave traces in the lives of these future proletarians. Moreover, this movement was covered by the media in other European countries, thereby impacting the youth of those countries. For example, in Belgium, on the periphery of the May Day demonstrations, a group of young people demonstrated against insecurity.
A second characteristic, in direct connection with this, was the attempt to find a link to the work world. And even if this extension were not concretized, the students showed their capacity to identify their community of interest with the whole of the proletariat. When one knows the great difficulty that the class has in re-appropriating a common identity, beyond the very great heterogeneity of this re-composed class, we can only stress the importance of the capacity of these youth to have established a link between their struggle and the struggle of the remainder of the proletariat.
This experience was also that of self-organization. And, beyond the weaknesses, the naivety and inexperience of which the movement gave proof, there was this exercise of autonomous collective organization, of self-organization rather quickly and rather spontaneously put in place. And, once again, if one must emphasize the weaknesses and the difficulties of self -organization, nonetheless the attempt to keep the movement separate from the political parties and, related to the control of the movement, separate from the trade unions, the latter having unfortunately been present as the movement gathered steam, should also be emphasized. The question of self-organization is a fundamental question for the development of a strike movement, not as a question of principle or a theoretical question, but as a concrete means to deploy the dynamics of opposition to the ruling class, a concrete exercise of confrontation and of its autonomy i.e. the organization of assemblies, a permanent mobilization, the manner of making decisions, the eventual material solidarity, etc. In self-organization, the workers overcome their status as isolated and passive individuals as well as their positions as objects of exploitation, which are those that capitalist relations of production assign to them. Indeed, it is the weight of alienation induced by the dominant social relations that explains the difficulty of any movement to be self-organized. This element of autonomization thus makes it possible for the strikers to realize in a concrete way the break with the logic of relations of domination, and permits daily lessons to be drawn from this collective and interdependent class activity: it is a fundamental element for the development of class consciousness. Workers are temporarily no longer subject to the law of the enterprise, to the specter of unemployment or to any other part of the capitalist socio-economic system; nor to the division of labor between specialists and non-specialists in the running of a strike -- a logic closely related to the maintenance of capitalist social relations. The question of self-organization is thus not just a condition of the success of a movement, but is also a fundamental political experience.
A third characteristic was the radical character of this movement: in their great majority, the student strikers did not yield to the fear of a degeneration of the movement which installed itself for the duration or to the legalist temptation of negotiations over changes in the modalities of the CPE, regularly proposed by the government and the trade unions. The demand was a straight “no” to this new contract and even after the withdrawal of it, certain students wished to continue the movement to obtain the suppression of all measures of insecurity for young workers.
This radical character and this determination were also equally expressed for a minority of the movement by direct action (blocking of rail and bus stations, sections of road, occupations of buildings) and, again for some, by a direct confrontation with the police force. This is not about praising violence for its own sake, but rather of seeing these expressions as the manifestation of an irreconcilable antagonism between the classes.
This also marks an absence of illusions: many young people knew that the CPE was only the tip of a deeper social iceberg. And whereas the young people of May '68 could dream of a better future in the restructuring of capitalist society, the young people of 2006 have under their very nose each day the reality of the crisis, the absence of perspectives and the inexorable destructiveness of the ruling system. It is an element of differentiation between May '68 and March '06. A second element being, of course, the formidable worker’s movement that developed in '68, whereas that was not the case this time.
It is necessary to emphasize another characteristic, the type of demand proposed by this movement: although organized mainly by students, nothing specifically “student” was asserted, like better quality of teaching, more profs, larger classrooms, etc. The young people opposed a contract governing their future conditions of work and thus placed themselves directly on the terrain of the class struggle.
A final characteristic of the movement was the popular support of the majority of the population from which it benefited, thereby indicating that it revealed a much more profound social dissatisfaction, going way beyond the framework of the CPE and situating it in the general context of working class struggles. And even if we did not see a social movement of great breadth, it is necessary to point out that the direct actions, as well as the demonstrations, mobilized up to 3 million people. This is well beyond a trade-union demonstration or a single-issue mobilization, but is indicative of a profound social strain.
It is always difficult to make an “objective” assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a movement. The appreciation that one in fact makes, depends on the political positions which one defends and thus, in a way, on what one thinks of the historical perspectives at stake, as well as on the expectations and hopes that we place in the working class in response to our anguish about the future. This can generate two very different visions: the tendency to misinterpret the movements, to see them as an immediate forerunner of a period of revolutionary confrontation; or, on the contrary, to be permanently disappointed by a class which would not do what it was supposed to do, to save us from the inexorable descent into the hell that capitalism has prepared for us.
For IP, a protest movement, the entry into struggle, constitutes one moment of rupture with the capitalist logic of functioning and, in that, contains a potential dynamic which must be pushed as far as possible. It is also in this moment of rupture that proletarians leave their isolation and undergo the experience of collective action and collective reflection. It is thus a privileged moment for the assertion of a class identity, a community of interest and for the development of class consciousness.
To emphasize these aspects does not mean uncritically praising the movement, but consists in acknowledging a dynamic which is only present in this space of open confrontation between the classes. This is, in a more general way, linked to the conception that we have on the role of revolutionaries.
From this point of view, if one comes back to the student movement, it is necessary especially to insist on the traces that this experience will leave in the memory of these young proletarians. Whereas the capitalist system imposes its logic like a steamroller, crushing any tendency to challenge it, the student movement has made us feel, together with its participants, that one could oppose that logic, attempt to organize an opposition movement, and to win a battle that at the outset seemed hopeless. We can also imagine that the hours spent in discussions during General Assemblies or all the moments of mobilization, despite all the weaknesses that marked them, were fertile moments of reflection about general social perspectives.
Among the weaknesses of the movement, one must be particularly emphasized: whereas an important mistrust was expressed related to the trade-union organizations, a refusal to entrust the direction and the organization of the movement to them, when it was a question of meeting with workers, the students left that to the trade unions. We know this tactic well, 1000 times re-used by the trade-union organizations of going in the direction of the movement – in this instance, the quest for solidarity with the workers – so as to once again seize this dynamic for their own purposes and to empty it of its initial meaning. The trade unions succeeded in taking over that link with the workers, thus creating a true cordon sanitaire around the student movement, in spite of the sympathy of an important segment of the population. If the students did not give the organization of their movement to the trade unions, they nevertheless were trapped in the dynamics of extension. As in many social movements, this strategy made it possible for the bourgeoisie to prevent a social spillover. Just as in the movements of striking workers, trade unions, if they are subject to mistrust, even to rejection, nevertheless still have, unfortunately, some good days ahead of them.
The trade unions were not the only ones to try to isolate the movement and the whole of the ruling class deployed all its ideological weapons to that end. As usual, the bourgeoisie used the good old formula of “divide and conquer”, also trying to prevent any understanding of the underlying causes at the origin of the movement. Thus, it presented the CPE as a necessary evil badly presented by an awkward politician, pointing to the passage of similar measures in other European countries; it tried to shift the issue onto the electoral terrain, and the opposition between two potential presidential candidates, so as to create an artificial tension around the CPE; it permitted violence around these movements, playing on the legalist concerns of some and trying cause a drop in general sympathy for the students; it played up the oppositions and brawls between pro and anti-blockers to try to divide the movement; it finally counted on the passage of time to try to blunt the determination of the students.
3. The violence of the capitalist system/class violence and the violence of the “breakers” [casseurs]
When one speaks of violence, it is first of all necessary to point to the fundamental violence exercised by the ruling class – a violence that has two components: on the one hand, there is the economic violence, that transforms living capital, in an ever more flagrant way, into a commodity that can be used and abused for the immediate needs of capital; on the other hand, there is the violence exercised in the service of social control, in the use of which the ruling class has made great strides. The ruling class has, in this respect, multiple tools at its disposal: it can wield the direct violence of the police force, permanent humiliating controls against those with swarthy faces, curfew measures; or it can have recourse to its legislative arsenal, or to an increasingly thoroughgoing commodification which transforms labor power into disposable tools; or, in a general way, in the profound transformation of a so-called free and democratic society into a police state where the surveillance cameras, wide-spread police operations , phone-tapping, become standardized state practices supposed to protect us from terrorism, insecurity and drugs. Against all that, class violence expresses the irreconcilable antagonism between the two classes and marks a rejection of any social consensus. Class violence has taken forms and assumed expressions that compel us to rethink its parameters, and to contemplate the very diverse forms that violence can take in the future, all within a common perspective.
We have already evoked the increasingly heterogeneous character of the proletariat. The evolution of capitalism implies the increasing presence of masses of proletarians completely marginalized with respect to the circuits of labor, and for whom life and demands are not about the defense of a status, of prior gains, of a job, but whose refusal of their condition of being exploited is expressed by a violent rejection of the system that excludes them. What joined together all these parts of the proletariat is their refusal of their conditions of existence. But, different tendencies express themselves within this class, which has several “faces.” Thus, if “traditional” demands assert their resistance to the degradation of their conditions of existence and work (maintenance of employment, wages, the withdrawal of new legal provisions, etc.), there are also, especially amongst the most marginalized strata of the proletariat, an expression of the brutal rejection of their current conditions of existence, a brutal rejection which is expressed by the violent appropriation of what they do not have access to, or by the violent destruction of that which excludes them. But, whatever the type of violence, it is the product of the fundamental opposition to the functioning of capitalism, expressed on the specific terrain of these proletarians and with the means at their disposal.
During the anti-CPE demonstrations, certain students clashed with the police force, even if it we have to emphasize the minoritarian and isolated character of these confrontations. Suburban youth again expressed their violence and attacked at the same time both the demonstrators but also the symbols of wealth and the representations of their exclusion: cars, stores... That violence too was also relatively minoritarian. The action of the “casseurs” around the anti-CPE movement must be situated in this context because; even if it is apparent that certain violent acts were due to agitators, plain clothes cops, or petty delinquents, we must not allow the trees to hide the forest: those riots and that violence express the general social malaise and constitute a response to the daily violence exercised by the capitalist system.
Even if the two types of violence (riots or confrontations during movements) are the expression of the same malaise, they fit in two very different dynamics: the destructive violence of the suburbs is not about the advancement of a project, the violence of a class movement often expresses (but not only) a determination and a radical character in the will to reach a goal. Once again, if these two types of violent confrontations are expressed in different forms and on different terrain, they have a common origin and both indicate the perspective for confrontation between the classes. It is clear that the going beyond the separation of all these scattered expressions of dissatisfaction can only occur in the concrete development of the class struggle. As long as we do not have great social movements as a springboard, we are likely to witness the continuation of the scattered and heterogeneous actions of the various parts of the proletariat and the multiplication of violent actions without precise goals.
4. Perspectives There remain many things to add and to discuss related to the anti-CPE movement. But significantly what will remain are the traces of this experience, especially in the consciousness of the youth. They are:
* That this movement is a movement of young proletarians refusing the insecurity and the impositions that capitalism imposes in an increasing way on their future. In that, this movement must be situated in the continuity of the fundamental opposition between the classes.
* Even if it is necessary to underline the weaknesses of this movement and, in particular, the fact that it could not extend towards other sectors of the working class and let itself be trapped by the tactics of the trade unions; that this movement, in spite of its determination and an unquestionable clearness, stopped after the withdrawal of the CPE law, it is especially necessary to underline its strong points, which are the experience of open struggle, of concrete and collective action, of self-organization, which will leave a fundamental trace in the dynamic of the advance of class consciousness.
* That this movement must also be linked to the riots in the suburbs last autumn, which we have analyzed in the last issue of IP, even if the radical character and acts of violence expressed very different dynamics.
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