The yellow days of May

Since the following was written, protesters–including ‘yellow vests’–at the traditional May Day march in Paris have been confronted with a violent police crackdown. It is hard to read the course of the yellow vest phenomenon in France. Are we witnessing its slow decline? Or is its persistence a sign of a new proletarian movement? What is beyond doubt is that the conditions that brought the yellow vest movement into being have neither been ameliorated nor solved. Indeed, Macron–despite the spectacle of debating and listening to the yellow vests–has not only refused to roll back his pro-capitalist ‘reforms’ but has prepared the French state for further disruption by way of beefing up anti-protest legislation and policing. It is clear is that the capitalist crisis is not going away. The capitalist class know that their rule is precarious. Today there is less carrot and more stick, while the rich bunker down behind their wealth and their cops to watch the world slowly burn. We too must come to an understanding of what is at stake, and not retreat from the consequences of this clarity. The question then remains the same as the one faced in the 1840s: the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing.

–prole no prole

Sunday April 13–one week after their weakest mobilisation–‘Act 22’ of the ‘yellow vests’ (gilets jaunes) protests took place in Paris and regional France. Act 22 was the first since the ‘anti-rioters bill’ (‘loi anti-casseur’) came into effect. Despite being bigger than Act 21 on 6 April, it was far from the beginning of the hoped for ‘yellow tsunami’ wanted by so many of its participants as well as those supporting from the sidelines. A week later tension returned with ‘Act 23’: widespread footage of burning barricades, looted shops and more bloody confrontation between demonstrators and the forces of (dis)order. Undoubtedly fuelled further by the hypocrisy of the French elite’s response to the burning of Notre Dame. ‘Everything for Notre Dame’, cried a group of protesters, ‘but nothing for Les Misérables’.

Despite this heightened conflict, the yellow vests have nonetheless been losing momentum. This tendency is partly being driven by the repression from Macron and his supporters: the ongoing and intensifying police violence towards those demonstrating–pacifists and ‘casseurs’ (rioters) alike, and the persistent demonization of the protesters by the capitalist media and its allies. This has been topped off with another draconian measure: the anti-rioters bill mentioned above, which rules that that all masked demonstrators (as well as those carrying bags) shall be considered criminals. Additionally, the new law effectively bans anyone from assembling in any of the monumental public areas–and above all in those places important to capitalist valorisation, such as the battle ground on the Champs-Élysées which so many have witnessed over the last 23 weeks.

On the other hand, this loss of momentum is also linked to a perspective unfolding within the movement itself. Common to this perspective has been a vague opposition to ‘neoliberalism’, to ‘financialization’ and to the reduction of ‘purchasing power’. Regrettably, such an approach leads to the belief that the problem lies solely in the hands of a small, greedy elite. One sees here the re-emergence of the 1% vs 99% rhetoric so prevalent in the last decade of social movements–a rhetoric that falsely pits ‘bad’, ‘useless’, finance against ‘good’, ‘useful’, production. This simplistic view, apart from its dubious moral absolutism, is incapable of reckoning with the real entailment of finance and production in capitalism over the last century and more. Worse still, it reproduces elements of the fascist worldview, in which finance capital is bad to the extent that it is associated with a spurious Jewish cabal. It is hardly surprising then that a small minority of Nazis and Alt-right cave dwellers have tried–and largely failed–to hijack the movement. What is clear, however, is that the state’s recipe remains the same as it has been for the last 40 years: the fallout from capitalist crisis is dumped onto the majority of working people, who are then obliged to carry the burden of the crisis under the guise of ‘austerity’.

The point is, that in order to draw out a serious critical practice and avoid being derailed into the dead end of racism and fascism, we must target capitalism in its entirety. As long as such vague oppositions exist, all the fragmentary remedies which have thus far been proposed serve only as an impotent outcry against the symptoms of current capitalist barbarism. This theoretical disarray, coupled with the heightened repression from the state, limits the potential development of a more subversive movement. As long as the yellow vests confine themselves to embracing capitalism with a more ‘human face’, and/or concede to the increasing populism of the right and left, they will condemn themselves to being a part of the capitalist circus rather than its remedy.

Nonetheless, there exists a revolutionary proletarian tendency within the movement. The ‘East Parisian Yellow Vests’, associated with the GARPA group, are one instance of such. GARPA (Groupe d’Action pour la Recomposition de l’Autonomie Prolétarienne; Eng.: ‘Action Group for the Recomposition of Proletarian Autonomy’) have for their goal the redirection of the yellow vest movement towards the critique of capitalist production, the increasing precariousness of work, and the growing pool of proletarian labour which is no-longer necessary to the valorisation process–a critique, moreover, that avoids the pitfalls of nationalism, neo-liberal reformism and fictitious conspiracy (as opposed to the real conspiracies of the ruling class). Additionally, GARPA also recognises the heterogeneous nature of the protest up until now–manual and intellectual workers, government and office workers, small business owners, etc. This is just one of the reasons why the unions and workers’ parties haven’t been successful in co-opting the movement–yet. Such diversity is for GARPA an important step in restabilising a critique which targets the entirely of capitalist production (regardless of whether or not a revolutionary subjectivity is being constituted), and at the same time avoids the deadend of Marxist orthodoxy and anarchism that ignores the negative content of proletarian identity.

What follows is an English translation by prole no prole of an East Parisian Yellow Vests leaflet.

More information on GARPA–in French–can be found here.

April, 2019


Our yellow vests are no longer the uniform of road safety. They have become the rallying signal of the global contestation of the established order. If they reflect the light, it’s not to alert the authorities of some emergency or social distress. We do not wear them in order to demand something from the powers that be. The yellow of our vests is not what the labour movement traditionally connects to treachery. The colour of this vest is that of the lava of rage, which the long dormant volcano of social revolution begins to spit out. It is only yellow because it embraces the red.

Under the name ‘yellow vests’ a titan is beginning to awaken, though still groggy from the coma into which it fell for more than forty years. This colossus no longer knows what to call itself, no longer remembers its glorious history, and does not recognise the world into which it wakes . Yet as it wakes, it discovers the magnitude of its own power. Words are whispered to it by false friends, jailers of its dreams. It repeats these words: ‘French’, ‘the people’, ‘citizen’! But in pronouncing them, confusion prevails as vague images emerge from the depths of memory. These words have been worn out in the streets of poverty, on barricades and battlefields, during strikes and from the heart of prisons. Such words come from the language of a formidable adversary, from the enemy of humanity, which for the last two centuries has masterfully wielded fear, force and propaganda. This deadly parasite, this social vampire–is capitalism!

We are not a ‘community with a shared destiny’, proud of its ‘identity’, full of national myths, which does not know how to resist social history. We are not French.

We are not a mass made up of ‘ordinary people’ ready to ally ourselves with our masters, if only we were ‘well governed’. We are not the people.

We are not an aggregate of individuals who owe their existence to the State–whether by virtue of being acknowledged by it or defending it. We are not citizens.

We are those who are forced to sell our labour power to survive, those from whom the bourgeoisie extract their profits by dominating and exploiting us. We are those which Capital, by way of its survival strategy, tramples, sacrifices and condemns. We are the collective force that is going to abolish all social classes. We are the proletariat.

Conscious of our historical interests, we warn that:
• The yellow vest movement will be destroyed if it persists in believing that the interests of workers can be reconciled with those of the bosses. This illusion is already causing harm because Macron is using it to redirect the protest movement against the exploited. The poor capitalists– small business people, artisans and other self-employed people, opportunely depicted as struggling capitalists–are also victims of social ‘costs’, and share the same fate as their employees. Therefore, it will be necessary on the whole to spare them and be content with begging for money from the biggest amongst them. Such an approach allows the powers that be to insult us all, while pretending to respond to our demands. For instance, the supposed increase in the minimum wage (Salaire Minimum Interpersonnel de Croissance, SMIC) will only be paid for by wage-earners. And the cancellation of the rise in the social security tax (Contribution Sociale Généralisée CSG) hides the ongoing reduction of the pensions of the poorest retirees.

• From this flawed approach, a fraction of yellow vests claim that a state that spends less would cut back on the tax burden which is crushing businesses, and that economic activity would thus be revived and everyone would be onside. This approach is a bad fairy-tale. It’s not the state which suffocates small capitalists, but rather the law of competition, which not only allows them to exist, but also allows them to grow and take their share of the market. The social problem is thus so poorly posed by the movement–to the extent to which the ‘badly governed state’ is targeted instead of the capitalist system–that the government program of dismantling the ‘social state’ in the name of the ‘optimisation of public action’ is in fact strengthened. Ironically, the predatory social politics of abolishing the redistribution of wealth to the poor, which up until now has being carried out by means of social security and public services, is reinforced. Likewise, the measures to reduce overall wages through the compromises of deferred wages (e.g. retirement funds, unemployed benefits…) are now also justified. We give them the stick with which they beat us.

• According to this perspective–which gives pride of place to economic equilibrium as long as it’s well managed–what is ‘bad’ in the economy comes in from the outside: e.g. from the fiscal state, the European union, ‘finance’, ‘cosmopolitans’ (behind which are sometimes said to be ‘Jews’ and the ‘illuminati’) and immigrants. The inability to understand or the refusal to admit the blatant truth that it is capitalism (a system of the production of wealth based on the exploitation of human labour) that is in crisis, opens the door wide to reactionary idea which safeguard the established order. Ten years of far-right activism on the internet weighs heavily on this suicidal state of confusion in which a number of yellow vests believe to have found a solution to their misery.

• Amongst these ‘solutions’ the Citizens Initiative Referendum (Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne), long promoted by the ‘fasho-sphere’, and which the Mélenchon conformists eventually rallied to, is a farce which will allow the social question to be suffocated by institutional garbage. This alteration of democracy will solve nothing, even if it was to be adopted. It would only draw out the electoral elastic while maintaining the relationship between social classes–their conditions as well as their stakes–with the addition of the strengthening of legal reformism, the poor parent of the already illusory economic reformism. This would amount to condoning everyday servitude a little more directly.

Conscious of our tasks, we recognise that:
• The yellow vest movement stops at the doors of business–which is to say, where the totalitarian reign of the boss begins. This phenomenon is the result of different factors. Let’s restrict ourselves to three:
1) the atomisation of production, which sees a great number of employees working in (very) small businesses in which the close proximity of their employers makes the possibility of a strike very difficult.
2) The precariousness of work for many employees seriously worsens their capacity for conflict with their company.
3) Exclusions and unemployment place a great number of proletarians outside of production.
A large part of the yellow vests are directly concerned with at least one of these three facts.

• The other group of wage workers, those who work in large companies and who have greater employment security, seem to be isolated as if under glass, and upon which the powerful force of the movement breaks like a wave upon rocks. Special treatment, made up of managerial efficiency and shameful union collaboration, is reserved for this segment of the working population. The bourgeoisie well understands that this category of workers has the power to strike at the heart of capitalist production, by way of unlimited general strikes. This is why the bourgeoisie secures its pacification through the use of sweeteners like ‘end of year bonuses’.

Conscious of our goals, we maintain:

• The calls of the yellow vests of Alès, Commercy and Saint Nazaire (who refuse all hierarchical organisation, all representation, and target capitalists) signifies for us the path to follow.

• The desire to smash ideological, managerial and union barriers which keep the yellow vest movement outside of production. We must use the extraordinary force and determination that this movement is developing in order to achieve that which millions of the exploited have wanted for so long (without ever having been able to reach it): to paralyse production from within, to decide upon and coordinate strikes in general assemblies, and to unite all the categories of waged workers with the same aim of overthrowing the capitalist system and the reappropriation of the productive apparatus. Let’s put an end to hierarchical, capitalist and state oppression.

• Today, if you want to discuss these strikes, their triggers, extension and coordination, then contact us, and join us!