Monday, May 29, 2006

On Successful Revolt in France

Ken Knabb over at Bureau of Public Secrets reflects on the implications and consequences of the latest successful revolt in France:


A new and in some ways unprecedented radical movement has emerged in France. Beginning in February as a protest against the CPE, a law that would have made it easier to fire young workers, it rapidly developed into a widespread and much more general contestation. Over the next two months millions of people took part in demonstrations, universities and high schools were occupied, public buildings were invaded, train stations and freeways were blockaded, and thousands of people were arrested. A compromise offered by President Chirac on March 31 was rejected by just about everyone. On April 10 the government backed down and canceled the CPE.

The American media reacted even more cluelessly than usual, solemnly scolding French youth for "resisting progress" and "modernization", i.e. for not realizing that a "healthy economy" requires us to return to the dog-eat-dog "free market" conditions of the nineteenth century. Behind the commentators' grumblings one senses their uneasy awareness that America's supposedly free-market system is hardly a model of success, and that the United States lags behind France and many other countries when it comes to health care, employment security and other social protections.

But in France as elsewhere those protections have been eroding in recent years, as the owners of society chip away at the reforms they were forced to accept during the last century (social security, unemployment insurance, labor regulations, and other social-democratic or New Deal-type programs). . . .

[long section comparing and contrasting this revolt with May '68 . . .followed by the conclusion below]

It was one of those rare moments when qualitative change really becomes possible; when everything is up in the air and the usual presumptions no longer apply; when people are shaken out of their habitual, spectacle-induced stupor and get a glimpse of real life, life as it could be if we weren't stuck in such an absurd social system. One breakthrough leads to another, and another, and yet another. While it's happening, the participants can hardly believe what they used to put up with in "the old days." Once it's over and they sink back into the "normal" state of mind, they can hardly believe what they dared to do during that magical interlude.

It doesn't last very long -- a few hours, a few days, a few weeks at most. Threatened with destruction, the ruling order brings all its forces into play, not only its obvious forces of physical repression, but also its vast arsenal of more subtle methods for confusing the issues, for diverting and dividing and coopting the opposition. Under such pressure, a revolt cannot stand still. Its only hope is to keep spreading and innovating. The only way to defend it is to extend it.

But even if the present movement goes no further than it has, it has already achieved two victories. The first is its success in forcing the government to back down. The second, far greater one is the experience of the movement itself. Its very existence is a refutation of the snide "conventional wisdom" that has prevailed for so long: "Revolution is obsolete. There is no alternative to the reigning system. There is nothing we can do except humbly beg for a few reforms. Don't be too radical or you'll alienate the general public." The uprising in France has shattered those myths. In the space of a few weeks a whole generation has been politicized. The participants will never again be quite the same, and their creativity and their audacity will be an inspiration to people around the world for years to come.

{whole essay at link above}


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