For the fourth consecutive week ending with 9 December 2018, Paris reverberated with the march of the Yellow Vests, angry protesters denouncing the government, asking President Macron to resign, smashing shops, cars, and vans, erecting barricades, and setting them on fire. The protesters came repeatedly in thousands, confronted the brutal police, and refused to baulk. The protests emanated in Paris where the Yellow Vests had gathered from all around. It then spread to other cities, and even after the protests got decentralised more than one hundred thousand Yellow Vests gathered again in Paris on last – the fourth - Saturday. The President has appealed for calm and dialogue; the order for additional fuel tax has been temporarily withdrawn; and Ministers are moaning the violent nature and the lack of order and discipline of the crowd.
Police brutality has been severe. At the same time the appeal for peace is being issued by the government. It says it wants to talk to protesters, but does not know whom to talk to. For apparently the Yellow Vests do not have a set leadership, and they do not want to talk! On the other hand, the political class is afraid to condemn the street gatherings through these weekends. It condemns what it calls “the extremist fringe”, and asks the Yellow Vests to shun them. But the Yellow Vests do not have any mode to shun the “fringe”, for every gathering would have a fringe, and fringe makes the impact of a gathering telling.
The grievance list is significant – not because what it has, but because of the very ordinary nature of demands, demands that from ages have drawn crowds to the streets. The Yellow Vests call for: (a) No one be left homeless; (b) end of the austerity policy; cancellation of interest on illegitimate debt; end of taxing the poor to pay back the debt; recovery of the 85 billion Euros of fiscal fraud; (c) creation of a true integration policy, with French language, history and civics courses for immigrants; (d) minimum salary €1500 per month; (e) giving privilege to city and village centres by stopping building of huge shopping malls and arcades; (f) more progressive income tax rates; and finally (g) more taxes on big companies like Mac Donald’s, Google, Amazon and Carrefour, and low taxes on little artisans. These seven demands although echoing our time resemble many, indeed scores, of street protests of the past.
Taxes have been always sources of discontent and uprising. That is why the neoliberal mode of governance tries to avoid imposing harsh taxes directly on the people, and let the market do the job of robbing. But at times governments foolishly, or forgetting the past, or finding no other way of raising money to placate the rich or pay back the debt, take the path of taxation. Then hell breaks loose.
Think of the long list of the historical acts of resistance to taxation, which possibly began when in the ancient past rulers began imposing taxes on their subjects. Tax resistance played significant role in the collapse of several empires. Tax revolts became what we know as the Magna Carta, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. We may also refer to Gandhi’s march against the Salt Tax. But think also of English Civil War, 17th century tax rebellions in France beginning with wine tithe, Italian tax revolts in 1640s with residents destroying tax offices and homes of tax farmers, peasant uprisings in Japan against oppressive taxes in the eighteenth century, excise tax riots in England with mobs invading the House of Commons in 1733, mass strike in Varanasi in 1810 against house tax, the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania little earlier, the refusal of residents of Bermuda to pay their church tithes, tax resistance in Indonesia in 1820s, around the same time tax resistance in Bulgaria, then the famous Corn Law protests, Poor Law protests, protests in Jamaica against imperious tax collectors in 1848, passive resistance to taxation in Egypt, in Samoa in 1887 refusal to pay taxes to the German colonial occupation government, the Welsh miners’ strike in 1919 against imposition of income tax on those with incomes below GBP 200, the famous Guntur tax refusal in 1921, down to our very day such as a multifaceted tax resistance campaign by Autonomists in Spain 2012, a tax resistance movement in the same year in Indonesia in protest of the government’s prioritizing of payments to bankers and other large bondholders during the economic downturn, and now the uprising against a petrol tax in France…
Two things are apparent in this unending list: first, tax resistances are global, and they come in hordes, around the same time. Possibly there is something global in their timing, occasioned by the evolution of governmental administration of economy. Second, in spite of this known history, tax resistances are ignored by the neoliberal Left. One commentator, Richard Greeman, said of the current movement in France as, “ignored by Macron, distorted by the media, courted by the Right, snubbed by the Left, the self-organized mass movement known as the Yellow Vests…”
Why does the Left ignore such tax protests? Precisely because of the popular nature of the tax-resistance movements, its relatively non-class dimension, its nebulousness, its suddenness, its “misfit” nature in the Left schema of resistance, its potential to become populist, and the Left’s own realisation of its incapacity to deal with populism, and thus frustration. The Left does not know but is engrossed with speculating “What comes after”, while everyone knows that, in this case, Paris is at war. Fear of agitation benefiting far right paralyses the Left, who shun populist agitations and mobilisations, and say echoing the Sage, “Wait and see!”
On the other hand, the question as to what comes after is crucial. Such kind of crossroads happened in the past, when the Left remained convention and routine bound, busy in philosophising, and missed the bus, or if you like, the moment. What is happening in France is a classic populist protest. And, it is not inevitable that populism has to give way to proto-fascist movements. It may become relatively durable as in many countries of the South, giving birth to democratic coalitions. Of course we do not know as yet if Europe will take that way. But one thing is sure, the old liberal way of doing politics is over, and the institutions have lost legitimacy.
Perhaps we have to go back to Carl Schmitt, who wrote of a similar moment when either the fascists would win or the revolutionaries. Incidentally, one cannot fail to notice, all the pundits in recent times were focusing on populism as a form of crypto-fascist politics, and ignored the people, the lower classes, etc., and the Leftist scholars too remained wary of such autonomous mobilisations and shied away from them lest they become facilitators of fascism. Any call to rethink Leftist politics was reviled as unwise and extremist!
Meanwhile the State’s reaction has been militarised. The rebels donning yellow breakdown-safety vests required to keep in their cars by the government have spurned political parties. They got organized on social media, and began acting locally. The movement spread in this way on successive Saturdays. Saturdays, because on working days women raising kids with their precarious jobs cannot strike. Thus, women receptionists, hostesses, nurses, teachers have come out in unusually large numbers. It is not the banal strike that the Left engages in, but something more. The Left in France as elsewhere has surrendered before the neo-liberal, pro-business counter-reforms. The union leaders are eager to keep their place at the table. They only go through the motions of carrying out strikes. Workers were fatigued.
In this background, Saturday mobilisations on the street, jamming life, and then the “fringe” becoming active, became a new way. After all, urban riot has a long history. Rioters have long desired to take over towns. And as indicated above, like today’s Yellow Vest rebellion, these urban riots – almost all – began as protests against what was thought as excessive unfair taxes. Then too as now class prejudice played a major role in depicting the “rioters” as illiterate, inarticulate, vandals, and intent on destruction. The organized Left showed little sympathy for this self-organized, amorphous but autonomous mobilisation, while the government is at a loss as to how to pacify the crowd. But there is no need to worry. The crowd has always found from its ranks “good thinkers, good talkers” to articulate their ideas. This time the Yellow Vests have retrieved from the past call for a kind of democratic constituent assembly, and create “grievance notebooks” like the ones in 1788 listing all the people’s complaints and proposed remedies.
These two calls tell us of what we find in populism: demand to end all intermediation between state and the people and the urge for direct democracy.
We may say much of it is understandable, and may ask: Why did not the State understand it was coming? This is where we must recognise the symbiotic relationship between neoliberal reforms and populism or populist movements. Tax reforms for various reasons (like history of taxation modes and levels, deep roots of taxes in social structure, entanglements of taxes, etc.) are the most dangerous and unpredictable element in the grammar of neoliberal reforms. In India we can witness the widespread discontent against the GST, to which the Left had agreed. Yet the French President went ahead with grand ambition of restructuring society, making it responsible, “future-oriented”, and his vision for such a future appeared increasingly disconnected from anything France or Europe, had known. The vision appeared to the Yellow Vests as the French daily Le Monde quoted a young protester saying, a “little political world which functions only for itself”, and must be removed. In this situation, the Yellow Vests have swarmed the streets. Their fringes, the “hooligans” or “casseurs” (breakers) act like “pilot fish”, occupying the centre of weeks of unrest.
This then is the unpredictability. Already thousands had stayed away from the polls in France because they found hardly anything to choose. Streets beckoned. In this condition, even a slight change of direction spells danger for the government. Recall how in 1968 President Charles de Gaulle had to face protests occasioned by the narrowest change in direction, and the protests quickly turned into rebellion. Neoliberal rulers often have little real understanding of the nations they try to transform. So is the case with Left parties. With their grand vision of social transformation they care little for tactical awareness. People discard them because they are like zombies, who have no sense of the crossroad the nation is in. Engaging with popular mood requires besides a strategic vision keen tactical awareness, which for instance Lenin showed throughout his political life vis-à-vis Russian populist politics. The Left in neoliberal time is singularly unfit for a Leninist grammar of politics.
Thus consider the way the signals of the Yellow Vests movement were ignored. The Red Caps (bonnet rouges) began in 2013 in Brittany. It was a protest movement against a new tax on truck transport (called by the government an “ecotaxe”). Signs were to be put up on highways to detect vehicles carrying heavy loads and notify the presence of the required billing apparatuses. Many of these signs were destroyed. Demonstrations and violent protests forced the French government to rescind the tax. The protesters considered the tax harmful to Breton agriculture. The agitators put on red caps, recalling the seventeenth century revolt that too was marked by the rebels putting on caps. This time thousands of red-cap-wearing demonstrators protested against the highway tax depots. In one month 46 tax radars and depots were destroyed and other anti-tax groups had their own direct action with farmers and equestrians disrupting traffic to Paris with their tractors and horses. Finally the tax was abandoned. The loss to the exchequer was huge (nearly one billion euros) with loss of anticipated revenue from the tax (390 million euros per year), property damage, plus the compensation paid to Ecomouv, the quasi-private company contracted to administer the tax. And around the same time, in fact one year earlier, in 2012, similar protest had broken out in Sicily once again in logistical operations – led by “Shock Force”, which organised a five day blockade of roads and seaports and brought Sicily’s economy and life to a standstill. The blockade was strengthened with the support of the workers and small businesses in other sectors like the fishing industry, the construction industry, also support of the students of Sicily. A former Socialist councillor led the movement. The movement presented itself as “non-political” and “against party politics.” Reports tell that the protest was joined by members of both far-right and far-left political groups.
Possibly, as seen this time also, the curious simultaneity of neoliberal reforms and populist protests against the former has to do with the fact that these reforms besides being primarily tax reforms (raising resources by the State) are also concerned with roads, trucks, ports, ferries, etc., which relate to all kinds of people, and hence affect all groups. These reforms elicit quick protests because they are seen as attacks against long established mores, against the morality of economy. They are like seeking exorbitant rent. People come down on roads immediately, they flock in thousands, they vote with their feet against the politics of establishment, and they show that politics can indeed be conducted in another way. It is in such times we can see the established Left in dire straits, for the Left characterised by disregard - bordering on contempt - of unorganised labour fails to understand the logistical overhaul of the economy in the neoliberal time, the role of finance and particularly public finance in such circumstances, the nature of the global counter revolution in the form of neoliberalism, the depth of popular anger, and the timeless accounts of how people converge on the streets.
Ranabir samaddar is the Distinguished Chair, Calcutta Research Group