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With the ‘gilets jaunes’, for a new hegemony

Decades of neoliberal policies have shattered the French economy and led to low growth, high unemplyment and increasing inequalities. In this article, Cédric Durand and Ramzig Keucheyan argue that the emergence of the gilets jaunes could serve as the basis for a new politics, one that provides an economically just and environmentally protective alternative to the status quo. 

Cédric Durand, Razmig Keucheyan18 December 2018

With the ‘gilets jaunes’, for a new hegemony

This article was originally published on Libération. It has been translated from French by David Fernbach.

The emergence of the ‘gilets jaunes’ on the national political scene could serve as the basis for a new alternative to neoliberalism, more economically just and more protective of the environment.

What Gramsci called ‘organic crises’ are recurrent in modern history, with their roots in a shattered economy. Growth is low or zero, unemployment at its highest level, public finances in structural deficit and inequalities increasing. For the majority of the people, living conditions are getting tougher, frustration is building. For a long time, the ‘subaltern’ remained passive. But suddenly they have come into action, and initially nobody understands what is happening. Commentators use categories from the past to discuss the movement. However, the past no longer exists, even if the future has not yet had time to emerge.

This protest lacks coherence: left- and right-wing demands, economics, politics, short and long term, a catch-all list of grievances. It is pervaded by a demand for respect and dignity, which boils down to a demand for economic justice.

The subaltern have organized themselves with few resources. Their networks are mostly local, in a city or district, which enables them to keep going for a good while. The media, and now the internet, give them a national resonance. The gatherings that are taking place have made everyone realize that their condition is shared by millions of others. Political and trade-union organizations, delegitimized by their inability to prevent the crisis, have been marginalized, at least in the first phase of the revolt.

‘Authoritarian statism’

The dominant classes, hegemonic up to now, are in a state of panic. They are divided. Some sections of these classes are calling for firmness in the face of the demonstrators. Others, with much to lose, demand immediate concessions from the government. The ruling coalition is hesitant. It sends out conflicting signals, makes mistakes. Soon it will start to disintegrate.

Meanwhile, state violence is increasing. Nicos Poulantzas, a disciple of Gramsci, used the term ‘authoritarian statism’ for the tendency of modern states to step up repression against their populations in times of crisis. Authoritarian statism is born within democracies. When these become unable to satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, as a result of economic stagnation, the state breaks away from them in an ever more authoritarian direction. States repress because they no longer have the means to redistribute.

The organic crisis was born from economics, so that is where the solution lies. Emmanuel Macron is our Tony Blair or Gerhard Schröder. Like them, he dreamed of administering the country a social-liberal potion: neoliberalism with a (thin) safety net. Except that we are no longer in the 1990s, the era of triumphant neoliberalism. Macron is twenty years too late. The great recession of 2008 propelled us into another world, both economically and politically. And climate change has continued to worsen, most often affecting already fragile sectors of the population.

To emerge from the organic crisis, we must respond simultaneously to the demand for economic justice expressed by the ‘gilets jaunes’ and to the challenge of the environmental crisis. This can be done by imposing a new tax on large fortunes, specifically to finance the ecological transition. The principle is simple: the state should confiscate all individual assets above 10 million euros. This would affect about 0.1 per cent of the adult population, or 50,000 individuals. These are the categories that have grown richer in recent decades, so it is only fair. The amount raised would be close to €500 billion, which is significant.

Planning means deliberation

What should be done with this money? It would fund a planning body for ecological transition. This would be responsible for developing and implementing an investment plan every three to five years. An ecological transition is inseparably economic. Polluting sectors would close, and sustainable sectors, the source of ‘green jobs’, would have to grow, and therefore receive massive investment. This double transition has to be managed; the market left to its own devices would not be able to bring it about. Better still: it must be planned. Employees affected by the closure of polluting industries would have to be financially supported by the community and trained for their future employment.

The governance of this body would be democratic. It would include elected representatives, but also representatives from civil society, trade unions, consumer associations and climate scientists. Its board could include individuals drawn from the citizens by lot. Planning means deliberation, in other words, subjecting the time of the economy to the time of democracy. Other sources of financing could gradually be added to this fund, whose importance in the functioning of the economy would increase.

It is abundantly clear that Emmanuel Macron is not the man for this job. The project will have to be done without him. It requires the emergence of a new hegemony, an alternative to neoliberalism, as the only way out of the organic crisis. The eruption of the ‘gilets jaunes’on the national political scene could provide a base for it.

Cédric Durand is an economist at the University of Paris 13. Razmig Keucheyan is a sociologist at the University of Bordeaux.