Is obedience dead?

Carlos Zilio, THE MOMENT OF THE HURT, 1970, felt-tip pen on paper, 47x32,5


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The list of countries that, since 2019, have had massive street demonstrations against the established powers is impressive: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Algeria, Sudan, France, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Hong Kong, to mention only the most emblematic cases. It would be tempting, but unwise, to see a kind of world revolution underway, with insurrections that, under different local colors, head in the same direction. This perspective, which proved to be illusory, was the reaction of countless observers in 2011 to the contemporary apparition of Primavera ÁArabs, the Occupy Wall Street movement, in the USA, and the Indignados, in Spain, movements that were imitated in several countries.

Indeed, each of the current protest movements was born out of different contexts. However, common elements are well known. The first characteristic that unites them is the rejection of political “elites” and local governments, both elected ones, as in Chile and France, and openly dictatorial ones, as in Sudan or Iran. The main criticism addressed to the “elites” is their corruption: political power and economic power coexist to form a closed world that monopolizes the resources of countries for itself, leaving a large part of the population in a situation of unjustifiable poverty given their wealth.

In this case, mass youth unemployment has been the most visible aspect. Evidently, this accusation is not, as such, particularly new. What is really original is that often the different factions of power, apparently opposed to each other (religious groups in Iraq or Lebanon; right and left in France or Latin America; reformers and military in Algeria, etc.), are rejected in block, and their antagonism is considered a fiction that hides a division between friends. “Let everyone go” is, in fact, a slogan that sums up the claims well.

This means that these protests are not driven by a major party or a union or other powerful association. On the contrary, every organization that existed before the beginning of these struggles it is seen suspiciously and has paid dearly in its attempts to take advantage. It is the case of Yellow Vests[Yellow vests] in France, who repudiated without exception all parties, from the extreme right to the extreme left, passing through the center. These parties, in the beginning, tried to participate in the demonstrations with their Slogans, their symbols and their representatives.

The Shiites in Iraq, for example, disowned their traditional leaders when they came to terms with the central government. Therefore, protesters do not carry the portrait of their leaders, nor do they found new organizations. There is a rejection of every leadership figure, even a simple spokesperson. Frequently, no negotiation with power is sought, and few demands are put forward: it is demanded, first, that the power in question disappears, because it is completely discredited and, therefore, irreformable.

All this can have a “libertarian” air and almost constitute, in rejection of the representation of leaders and parties, a revenge of anarchism against the Leninist currents that dominated the protest movements for a long time. Some attribute a large role in this evolution to new communication technologies, such as the cell phone, Facebook or Twitter, which would be favoring horizontal structures, communications between all participants and last-minute meetings. But it is unlikely that these technical data alone can explain these anti-hierarchical moods.

It is often claimed that these revolts are all directed against “neoliberalism”, that is, the rule of a transnational financial elite that operates a particularly aggressive dismantling of what remains of public services and workers’ rights, which are subjected to an increasingly precarious regime. On the contrary, here is also the problem. Not every revolt is automatically good.

A close look at its contents is necessary. Its forms – peaceful, bossless, horizontal – are not necessarily linked to content. It is evident that these movements, in their diversity, react to the global crisis of capitalism. One might even wonder under whose name they react, as this crisis can produce both outbreaks of social emancipation and populist reactions. And sometimes these trends can blend and intertwine.

It is not easy to make a radical critique of capitalism and its foundations – merchandise and value, money and work, the State and patriarchy. It demands a preliminary effort of theoretical clarification and that each one puts himself into question, both as a subject who benefits from capitalist and industrial society and as one who submits to it. Mercantile society is a form of (anti-)civilization, governed by the “automatic subject” (as Marx said) of value and its accumulation, an anonymous and automated system in which power and wealth are only the “performers” ( who, of course, get all the advantages) from a mechanism that no one really controls, but in which everyone participates in some way.

A truncated anti-capitalism

Given the complexity of the problem, it is easier to limit yourself to personalizing those responsible for the global disaster and blaming “the elites” as solely responsible. O slogan of Occupy Wall Street, “We are the 99%”, is beyond dispute. It creates an opposition between the “good” people, who participate in the progress of capitalism under duress, and a small portion of “parasites” – traceable above all in the financial sphere – who devastate the world to satisfy their greed. Just chase that “one percent” and everything would be fine.

As long as we are not dazzled by everything that moves in the social sphere, we cannot close our eyes to a possible displacement of this “left” populism (which is explicitly claimed by authors such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the newspaper The Diplomatic World and political movements like the We can in Spain, or Insubordinate France in France) to a “right-wing” or far-right populism. What unites the different forms of populism to such an extent that we can now speak of “transversal populism” is, above all, a social critique that is limited solely to the sphere of finance, banking and speculation.

The rest of capitalist society is often spared all criticism, even sanctified in the figure of the “honest worker” and saver. Such a view of capitalism, even when it is sincerely believed to be of the “left”, is a “truncated anti-capitalism” that shows more than an objective coincidence with the historical discourses of the extreme right, which opposed good “creative capital” to bad “ raptor capital”, and then identify it with “Jewish finance capital”.

Indeed, anti-Semitism is a risk that regularly appears behind populist discourse. And even here where this is not the case, there is always present in populism a discourse that does not intend to change capitalism in its essence, but that first identifies it with its most extreme form, neoliberalism, and then dreams of a simple improved management, without corruption and with more social justice (in the left version), or without corruption and without immigrants (in the right version). The same refutation of “globalization” shows these two sides: it can be a refusal of globalized capital, but also a refusal of migration and a desire to recover an (illusory) “national sovereignty”. Moreover, this last demand currently unites a part of the left and the extreme right, at least in Europe.

That's why we should consider each social movement in detail, rather than giving them a blank check. Let's see the Yellow Vests in France. They appeared in November 2018 quite unexpectedly, first to protest against rising fuel prices. In addition to the demonstrations – which since then continue every Saturday in numerous French cities, with participation fluctuating a lot, but never completely disappearing –, the most notable actions are the blockade of inter-municipal “roundabouts”: this movement is characterized by its implantation in rural areas. It presents itself as a protest from “forgotten France”, from modest people who the powerful don't care about, except to raise their taxes.

The history of Yellow Vests and of its different tendencies is too long to be told in this space. We will, therefore, confine ourselves to mentioning some of their characteristics that distinguish them from all previous movements in France. First, the very popular and interclass character; here we find people of all types and of all ages: the young are relatively few in number, while the number of middle-aged people, often with a job and a family, is as high as the number of retirees. Many of them had never participated in a demonstrationdog in life, nor in politics.

Next, we notice the clear refusal of any structure other than the assemblies. Those who tried to step up as spokespeople were quickly disowned. Party representatives who wanted to express their solidarity were ignored. No relation to power: when the Prime Minister asked to meet a delegation of Yellow Vests, almost no one came forward; and when President Emmanuel Macron, after the first month of the demonstration, announced economic measures that he thought would satisfy the demonstrators, they were received with indifference. No clear political orientation prevails and, if a leftist sensibility seems to be in the majority, there is no lack of people from the extreme right, sovereignists and conspirators. However, curiously, everyone tolerates each other, and almost no one displays symbols of an organization at demonstrations.

Much has been said about the "violence" of Yellow Vests (which in any case was very minor compared to the continued brutality of the police, which even shocked bourgeois observers); this classic opposition between a violent, “nasty” minority and a large, peaceful, “good” majority – an opposition that the state has used so many times in the past to divide and frighten protesters, isolating “radicals” and pressuring others to go home – no longer serves.

Most Yellow Vests, of all ages and backgrounds, has shown herself to be very determined towards the police and does not repudiate those who act. These people, quite “normal” at the beginning (they weren't leftist students!) gradually lost their respect for the law and the State, traditionally strong in France. Releasing toll booths on highways, for example, has become a recurring practice.

In December 2019, all that was left of the movement mixed with union demonstrations against the “reform” of social security, despite the reciprocal distrust. They could be distinguished from afar by their much more militant air than those of the union ranks, but also – unfortunately – by the French flags that many of them displayed. After a long time, it is no longer only displayed by the right – indicative of a great ideological confusion.

The number of participants in its actions has undoubtedly dropped a lot. But other social groups entered France in tough and lasting opposition: employees of the railroads and train lines in Paris, who went on strike for a month and a half; health professionals, who are on the move; school teachers, who refuse to apply the new modalities of Bachelor (a type of final evaluation of basic education); the lawyers who no longer participate in trials…

While the fight against pension reform, in late 2019 and early 2020, failed to weaken the government through its strikes and demonstrations – which followed the old models based on the participation of large masses, but with little reach from each one –, now it is the well-decided ("radicalized") minorities who establish themselves in an attitude of lasting opposition and quickly change their focus, as they express a generalized refusal of the progress of that society.

The strong opposition of a minority, supported by a considerable portion of the population, seems to be the characteristic that unites movements around the world. We can remember the phrase of Guy Debord: “This is how, slowly, a new incendiary era appears, which none of those living in this moment will see its end: obedience is dead.” It is necessary that they free themselves from their populist vices and that they prefer to join the “Fridays for Future"And à “Climate Strike”: relatively amorphous and discontinuous movements, but which pose absolutely essential questions that cannot be resolved within the framework of capitalism, pointing, therefore, unlike populism, beyond the society of value and money, the market and of State.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).

Translation: Ricardo Festi, professor of sociology at Unb


Left margin, no. 34, 1st. half of 2020.

edit summary
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Is obedience dead?
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