Category Archives: Anarchism

Land and Freedom

From the genocidal aftermath of Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of the New World, to the ever-deeper encroachments of Israeli settlements into the West Bank — five hundred years of European colonialism has cast a long shadow over this world. Colonization, in its supreme arrogance, carved up the globe according to the imperial logic of accumulation, imposing artificial borders on foreign lands and seeking to subjugate restive native populations through religious indoctrination and force of arms. But despite their military superiority, ideological warfare and constant recourse to savage brutality, colonial regimes have consistently failed to crush the will of colonized people to fight back. And the reason for this is simple. Occupation breeds resistance.

Anarchists, especially those of us who have never experienced the sharp edge of colonization, have much to learn from those waging this resistance. We also have a principled imperative to align ourselves with those facing acute forms of state violence and dispossession. To this end, this episode of Trouble draws on two examples of contemporary anti-colonial struggle – those waged by the Palestinians and the Mohawks of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy against their respective oppressors, the Israeli and Canadian settler-colonial states, in hopes of drawing out lessons and increasing our capacity for producing meaningful solidarity.

The End of Anarchy and The Solidification of the Global Class

There once was a world where state actors operated in an anarchic international environment, where maximizing their overall power was their goal, and war was their means of achieving it. That world is now dead.

In its place we have the current spectacle of what were known as the “great powers” who are now, at least, formally if by no means fully, democratic and economically interdependent on one another and informally, if firmly, coordinated by transnational elites.

However, lest we be confused by their seeming historical similarities, this situation is very different than the one the world found itself in during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries.

Then, the world was both far from being even formally democratic and world capitalist elites were only beginning to form and more importantly were locked in lethal competition with older more parochial elites representing the still powerful aristocracies, militaries and agrarian concerns. For anyone who might want to learn more, Arno J Mayer’s classic The Persistence of the Old Regime is an excellent guide to this period.

Although much has been written about the “democratic peace”, a doctrine at least as old as Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant, we might wonder how much the current era also known as the “long peace” is a product of an increase in the total number of democratic or semi-democratic states, especially the most powerful ones or is rather the semi-surreptitious erection of an overarching system of global elites united by their global economic interests and disciplined by the military/state security apparatus of their universal pay master or locus primaria: the United States.

After the classical world of power politics gasped its last (1945), the United States found itself in an unprecedented world historical situation: it could mold, coerce, cajole, and most importantly penetrate an exhausted world economically, militarily, politically, and culturally. This it did with unexampled speed and skill relying in part on its aura of victory over Fascism. It built both visible and, most importantly, invisible bonds to its long term interests which both quickly and over time also became the core interests of its new client states and their local/”national” elites.

The second phase of American Hegemonic Expansion occurred throughout what was known then as the “second” and “third” worlds; the communist and non-aligned states. Through a careful policy of coercion and corruption (the use of criminal organizations often went hand in hand with the use of security forces) the United States was able to convince and ultimately co-opt much of the world’s remaining elites in their lucrative and superficially attractive skein of capitalist production and consumption and cosmetic democracy. It was and is the world’s most effective formula for world domination to have ever been devised. It is the very life-blood of Pax Americana.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the regions of the world that are not under firm American Hegemony such as some parts of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are the locations of the most violent conflicts. In part, these regions are still operating under the old Hobbesian conditions of anarchy and war. They either “suffer” from not being of sufficient interest to Superpower or are locally too costly to integrate into the world system at present. This, of course, could change at any moment when and if transnational elites hit upon novel ways of making these “war-torn” countries of benefit to themselves. The historical record says they, ultimately, surely will.

Thus, unlike the nineteenth century, the world system is far more stable under a tightly knit regime of interdependent elites dedicated to the pursuit of their own personal interests which are well served by their collective organization by Superpower or Empire. Ancient anarchy has been therefore drained from the international system, and as Negri and Hardt have pointed out in their books on Empire all conflict within the system is more of a local civil war rather than an ultimate challenge to the whole system.

It should not be totally surprising that the current international system represents the ever increasing homogenization of the interests of a group of people since the world is both materially and culturally expressed in the power of a Hegemon.  American hegemony reproduced itself through the expert use and production of Baconian power and knowledge (and some geographic and historical luck). It is a totality that came of age when the old elites (remnants of the feudal ages) were militarily eliminated and new elites (primarily communist and nationalist and oftentimes both) were unable to be successfully born. In a world of mass surveillance, hegemonic power, elite interdependence, sophisticated consumption, and democratic ideology; what contradictions, if any, could liberate humankind from the sweet bondage of ever growing economic prosperity and, at least for the Great Powers, international peace through the solidification of the directory of the Great Global Class of the Twenty-First Century?

Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire

Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire, written and directed by Scott Noble, continues the run of quality documentaries by Metanoia Films. The film provides the historical context that allows the viewer to understand why inequality reigns while social justice and peace lag today. The, at first blink, curious title stems from a quotation by the American labor leader August Spies, who was one of four anarchists hanged in 1887 after being found guilty in the bomb explosion that wounded and killed several policemen and civilians in what became known as the Haymarket affair.

Said Spies to the court:

But, if you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us!

Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up.

It is a subterranean fire.

Subterranean Fire documents historically how the capitalist class have nefariously accumulated wealth and power for selfish purposes by depriving working people of dignity and rights.

Subterranean Fire details at the outset how strike actions and popular revolts were put down by corporations through their cronies, including police, private detectives, vigilantes, and even the National Guard. In the Homestead strike of 1892, after workers had defeated the Pinkerton agency’s private army, the National Guard was brought out.

According to data cited in the film, in 1929, 60 percent of the population lived well below the poverty line. Despite large increases in productivity, there was no trickle down of profits. Neither was there a social safety net.

Labor historian Peter Rachleff tells how organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army were enmeshed in the capitalist pattern, categorizing the poor into deserving and undeserving of assistance based on what their “interrogations” uncovered about one’s life style. The unemployed were often blamed for being without employment.

Violence against workers was rampant, and the government was complicit in the violence. The über-rich industrialist Henry Ford hired armed guards to crush disenchanted workers. These armed guards shot and killed hunger marchers from the River Rouge plant.

Finally in 1935, unions were legalized. There was hope. A crafts union, the AFL was formed; also formed was an industrial workers union, the CIO. These two were to merge years later into the AFL-CIO.

Subterranean Fire informs how unions sought to end prejudice — an obvious sine qua non in the battle between the moneyed power of the capitalist class and working class.

A message that is compelling and clearly conveyed is that government (and hence “democracy”) is not a force for the masses of workers. Especially prominent in pushing for the dignity of labor were communist leaders.

Communism and Social Justice

Rachleff identified the communists’ goal as developing workers as human beings.

Of particular importance to communists was the inclusion of the Black masses. The KKK, who were supported by state power, warned against Blacks attending communist meetings.

The Scottsboro Boys surrounded by Alabama National Guard, 20 March 1931

Communists played a prominent role in the scathingly egregious example of racism meted out to the Scottsboro boys. African-American Studies professor Carol Anderson lays out how nine Black teenagers were falsely accused of rape by two White prostitutes. This raised temperatures to boiling among racist Whites. In a one-day trial, eight youths were sentenced to the electric chair and the other youth to life imprisonment. Eventually one woman recanted her false testimony, but it was 17 years before the last prisoner was released for a crime never committed.

Immigrants were also targeted for exploitation.

Stoop labor, such as farm labor where the worker was often stooped over while working in the fields, was considered undesirable. This provided work opportunities for those more desperate; Mexican workers were attracted by the opportunity for work. As immigrant labor, they were without rights and often mistreated. To avoid a labor shortage during WWII, the US-Mexico had reached agreement on the Bracero program, a massive guest worker program that allowed over four million Mexican workers to migrate and work temporarily in the United States from 1942 to 1964. Scandalously, many Braceros still seek to collect unpaid wages from that time. As Justin Chacon, author of No One Is Illegal points out, this form of captive labor has continued into the present. The current backlash against immigrants supported by the Donald Trump government augurs back to the Bracero program.

Resistance in the Arts

Artists, writers, and actors were centers of unionization and resistance against exploitation of people. Such artistic expression was opposed by the capitalist class.

Subterranean Fire features an excerpt from director Tim Robbins’ movie Cradle Will Rock, where the capitalist Nelson Rockefeller is questioning the artist Diego Rivera who was commissioned by Rockefeller to produce a fresco for the Rockefeller Center in New York city. However, the pro-communist display was too much for Rockefeller to stomach; he subsequently had the fresco destroyed.

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads, 1933, Rockefeller Center prior to destruction

The Importance of Solidarity

In Flint, Michigan, autoworkers occupied factories and conducted sit-down strikes. Historian Sharon Smith points out the ingenuity of such a tactic: while factory owners were readily willing to use violence against workers, they were loathe to damage their own factories.

Women of the epoch played an important role in supporting the labor rights actions of the men. Women auxiliaries sneaked food into the men; they broke windows to prevent men from being overcome by gas attacks; and they served as a distraction to police.

The strikers reached out to fellow autoworkers across the country and fostered much unity. These tactics helped workers win demands from Big Auto.

Sit-down strikes spread across the country. The film tells that in 1937 almost 5 million workers took part in sit-down strikes. It was a heady time for workers.

However, in the end, the grassroots organizing power of workers was undermined by the union leadership which sought an alliance between labor and capital. The Communist Party of America also failed the working class.

In another blow to workers, the Supreme Court ruled sit-down strikes illegal in 1939.

The demonized state of workers was epitomized in the summer of 1937 when Chicago police shot at a parade of striking steelworkers and their families. Fifty were shot and 10 died. President Franklin Roosevelt sat on the fence and blamed both sides for the violence.

Later, however, FDR appeared to have a change of heart, and in 1944 he backed a second Bill of Rights for all. Among the rights were such basics as “a right to a useful and remunerative job,” “the right of every family to a decent home,” and “the right to adequate medical care.” According the the documentary, FDR was no true friend of labor, and his expressed views were in anticipation of the United States entering WWII. Nonetheless, FDR died a year later.

Demonizing Workers and the Left

Capitalists, with media in tow, demonized communists and anarchists. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 aimed to preserve the status quo. Japanese-Americans were interred. Communists were targeted.

The FBI was involved. Edgar Hoover had leftists monitored and surveilled by tactics including wiretaps and break-ins. The anti-leftism was so extreme that a section of corporate America supported fascism. The fascists supported Nazi Germany in WWII.1

Post-WWII the top income tax rate was 91% until 1964. One-third of workers belonged to a union. From 1940 to 1967 real wages doubled. Living standards doubled.

However, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 would attack workers, banning many types of strikes, closed union shops, union political contributions, communists and radicals in union leadership, and the compelled payment of union dues. The Supreme Court upheld Taft-Hartley, and it remains in force today.

The film also examines McCarthyism, a witch hunt against communists or communist-leaning types, as a psychological attack against Americans. No one was safe. Blacklisting was in vogue and among the first blacklisted were the so-called Hollywood 10 for either communist sympathies or refusal to aid Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee investigations into the Communist party or having fought for the rights of Blacks and workers. The list expanded much past 10. One celebrity given in-depth prominence in Subterranean Fire was singer Paul Robeson who refused to back down before Congress, stated he was for Negro and worker rights, and accused Congress of neo-fascism.

McCarthyism hit hysterical heights as exemplified by Texas proposing the death penalty for communist membership and Indiana calling for the banning of Robin Hood.

McCarthyism was foiled when it bit off more than it could chew. When McCarthyism took on the establishment, in particular the military, its impetus ground to an inglorious halt. The Alien Registration Act was ruled unconstitutional, and the First Amendment right to political beliefs was upheld.

Subterranean Fire notes that the damage to the labor movement was already done. A permanent war economy was established: overtly through the military and covertly through the CIA. Come 2001, union membership had dropped to 13.5%. Radicals were disconnected from their communities; union democracy was subverted by a top-down leadership which avoided the tactic of striking for collective bargaining; the court system was heavily backlogged with labor-management issues, which usually were ruled in favor of management.

Some outcomes noted in the film,

In the early 21st century, Americans took on the dubious distinction of working more hours than any other country….

There is no single county in America where a minimum wage earner can support a family.

The Rise

Grotesque income and wealth disparity signifies the current state of neoliberalism. Yet Subterranean Fire finds glimmers of change for working men and women.

Despite relating the historical trampling of the working class, the film concludes on a sanguine note. Union strength appears to be on the rebound with solidarity being a linchpin. Labor strikes were on the upswing in the US, with teachers leading the way. Fast-food workers are fighting for a decent wage. Labor, which has seen real wages stagnate in the age of neoliberalism, is fighting back worldwide. Autoworkers in Matamoros, Mexico are striking and colleagues in Detroit, Michigan have expressed support for their sisters and brothers. The Gilet Jaunes in France have been joined by labor. A huge general strike took place in India. The uptick of resistance was not just pro-labor but anti-global warming in Manchester, UK; Tokyo, Japan; Cape Town, South Africa; Helsinki, Finland; Genoa, Italy; and, Nelson, Aotearoa (New Zealand).

All this, however, must be considered through the lens of the current political context. A virulent anti-socialist president and his hawkish administration occupy the White House in Washington. Despite the nationwide strike actions, the right-wing BJP and prime minister Narendra Modi won a recent huge re-election in India. The purportedly centrist Liberal Party in Canada, rhetoric aside, has been, in large part, in virtual lockstep with the US administration.2

The Importance of Metanoia Films

Today, people with access to the internet have little excuse for continuing to depend on state-corporate media sources. Why would anyone willingly subject himself to disinformation and propaganda? Not too mention paying for access to such unreliable information and the soul-sapping advertisements that accompany it.

It is important that we be cognizant of the search engine manipulations of Google, the biased opinions parlayed by moneyed corporate media, and the censorship of social media data-mining sites. The corporate-state media nexus wants to limit and shape what we know. The current war on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is proof positive of this. Assange and WikiLeaks exposed horrific war crimes. It is a no-brainer that a person should be congratulated for bringing such evil perpetrated by the state to the public awareness. Instead the establishment seeks to destroy WikiLeaks, the publisher Assange, and Chelsea Manning who is accused of providing the information to WikiLeaks.

Given the corporate-state power structure’s ideological opposition to WikiLeaks and freedom on information as well as the preponderance of disinformation that emanates from monopoly media, it seems eminently responsible that people seek out credible independent sources of information. Metanoia Films stands out as a credible source.

There are plenty of independent news and information sites that provide analysis that treat the reader/viewer with respect by substantiating information provided in reports and articles with evidence, logic, and even morality. The reader/viewer who seeks veracity has an obligation to consider the facts, sources, and reasoning offered and arrive at her own conclusions.

Metanoia documentaries lay out a historical context that helps us understand how we arrived at the state of affairs we find ourselves in today. It is an understanding that is crucial to come up with solutions for a world in which far too many languish in poverty, suffer in war zones, and are degraded by the cruelties of inequality. It is an understanding that is crucial for communicating, planning, and organizing the establishment of new societies in which all may flourish and of which all may be proud.

Independent media is meant for independent thinkers and those who aspire to a better world. Watch Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire and the first four parts in the Plutocracy series and become informed.

  1. For an in-depth history, read Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015), a book which exposes US motivations during WWII as serving corporate interests.
  2. Note Canadian prime minister Trudeau’s stand on Assad in Syria, Maduro in Venezuela, Huawei and the extradition hearings on Meng Wanzhou, antagonisms with China, and antagonism with Russia’s Putin. Also consider Canada’s poor record on effectively taking on climate change. These actions differ little from president Trump south of the border.

Re-forming the Reformers

Further to previous articles,1 on the Marxist Impossibilist tradition it must sound rather bizarre to modern ears that there exist political parties that do not make demands upon the present capitalist system and its protector, the State. For many people it seems common-sense that a socialist party should advocate for something right now. Labor and left-wing parties have over the years issued manifestos listing their immediate demands, formulating platforms for various minimum programs and promoting their particular menus of transitional reforms. Amelioration of conditions by palliative changes has been the bread and butter of elected politicians for generations and, in contrast, here are the Impossibilists of the World Socialist Party of the United States and the Socialist Party of Canada declaring that they stand for socialism, only socialism, and nothing less than socialism. Yet they express the original authentic view of the Marxists. It was after the dismal results of a French election in 1881, that saw a group arise which began to advocate a more pragmatic policy, declaring “We prefer to abandon the ‘all-at-once’ tactic practised until now…We desire to divide our ideal ends into several gradual stages to make many of our demands immediate ones and hence possible of realisation.” Describing themselves as the Possibilists, they regarded socialism as a progressive social process. Those who still regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as ‘the maximum program’ were henceforth labelled as Impossibilists.

Those Impossibilist parties, such as the WSPUS and SPC do not deny that reforms won by the working class have improved living and working conditions. Indeed, they see little wrong with people campaigning for reforms that enhance the quality of their lives, and some can be viewed as “successful” such as public education, housing and sanitation. They also acknowledge that the “welfare” state, socialized healthcare, unemployment payments and so on, made living standards of the working class better than they ever had been under free-market, laissez faire capitalism. Nevertheless, these “successes” have, in reality, done little more than to keep workers fit for the treadmill and their families in working order and while they may have taken the edge off problems, they have rarely managed to eradicate problems completely. The theory underlying the Impossibilist case against reformism is that a revolution is the work of a class which has gained political power in order to transform society to suit its interests; a reform is carried out only within the framework of the social system. Reforms cannot end capitalism; they can modify it to some extent, but they leave its basis untouched. To establish socialism, a revolution — a complete transformation of private property into common property — is necessary.

Impossibilist socialists do not oppose reformism lest it dampens revolutionary ardor, nor because they think that capitalism cannot deliver on any reforms but because the continued existence as property-less wage-slaves undermines whatever attempts is made to better our lives through reforms. The objection to reformism is that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the operation of the wage-labor system. All that effort, skill, energy could be instead turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our collective mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing class war. It is much like medics on a battlefield, all they can do is to keep slamming in the morphine, slapping on the bandages and hope that somehow the slaughter might cease.

What Impossibilists are opposed to is the whole concept that capitalism can be tamed and made palatable by the proper reforms. They do not claim capitalist reforms stand in the way of achieving socialism. If they did, they’d logically have to oppose them — which they don’t. They actively encourage workers to fight back against employers but don’t propose or advocate reforms, and don’t oppose them if they genuinely do improve workers’ lives under capitalism. Impossibilists say that palliatives are merely irrelevant to achieving socialism and that a socialist party should not advocate reforms.

If a pipe bursts and the water is flooding the house, one can start bailing the water out while it continues to flow in, or one can turn the water off, and then start bailing it out. It may take a while to find the tap, but unless the water is turned off, the water will continue to rise and bailing is rather pointless. Human tragedies occur daily, by the millions, and generate thousands of social activist groups trying to stem the tide. The Impossibilists urges people to find the tap and turn it off.

In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been following and vacillating between four different roads:

1 ) The insurrection of a small determined group which would hold on to power until the majority were converted to socialist ideas – Blanquism/Leninism
2 ) The seizure of the means of production and distribution by some form of economic action – Syndicalism/Industrial Unionism
3 ) The accomplishment of ever more sweeping reforms until capitalism had been reformed out of existence and society had become socialist – Reformism/Gradualism
4 ) The conquest of power by a majority of class-conscious workers imbued with the single aim of abolishing the capitalist ownership of the means of production and distribution – Impossibilism

In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been built, some following one or other of the above roads. Endeavoring to change capitalism, or reformism is the route that has been taken by most who have wanted to improve society. Reformism has some attractions over revolution – especially if you lack imagination, don’t like confrontation, prefer to think only in the short term, and don’t want to be accused of not living in the real world. You are also assured of being in good company because large numbers of people think as you do that capitalism can be humanized. What is needed is for the class which is poor to dispossess the class which is rich so that we may have a society in which we will all live in a condition of security and equality.

Reforms can be defined as political measures brought forward to amend the operation of capitalism in some way. Because in a class-divided system like capitalism, it is the State which is the institution operating this entire process. By extension, reformism is the attempt to seek support so that political power and influence over the state can be obtained to enact reforms. The role of hegemony – that powerful combination of ruling ideas filtered through the mass media is important in understanding how reformism is actually carried out. Concerned as they are to maintain the profit system, reformists persuade themselves to do what is best for “the economy.” Reforms are implemented by political parties that seek and get a mandate to run capitalism. Politicians’ logic prevails:

1. Capitalism is terrible.
2. We must do something.
3. Reforms are something.
4. Therefore we must enact reforms.

While political and economic measures are often intertwined, without their political character, they can’t be reformist. So the key issue for Impossibilists is not to advocate nor seek political support for reform programs, as this is reformism. It is for others such as trade unions and the many one-issue activists to engage with the State for the purpose of gaining relief from the effects of capitalism.

Important to note (and perhaps the most common mistaken criticism of them) is that Impossibilists do not accept the view that nothing but socialism are of concern and accept that a non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary. When the worker acquires revolutionary consciousness he or she is still compelled to make the non-revolutionary struggle, fighting in the here and now, where they can and how they can. Opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism in the guise of being true to socialist principles would be ridiculous. Impossibilists argue that while the working class should organise for socialism, it doesn’t mean that nothing can be done this side of the revolution. Such things as basic healthcare and education came into being because the working class fought for them. Without the threat of action we would never have won such concessions. Industrial action helped to improve wages and working conditions. We have the ability to change things if we act together. The power to transform society lies in the hands of those who create everything – the working class. This is the source of our power, should we eventually use it. It is the class power not to make a few reforms, but to change the whole system, to make a social revolution. Leading the workers along the path of reform is not equipping them for their revolutionary role.

Those convinced that political parties promising reforms deserve support should consider the following points. The campaign, whether directed at right-wing or left-wing governments, will often only succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system. In other words, the reform will often be turned to the benefit of the capitalist class at the expense of any working class gain. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary and we are witnessing that from all the recent austerity measures happening from Scandinavia to Spain. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve. One can pick any single problem and find that improvements have taken place, usually only after a very long period of agitation. But rarely, if ever, has the problem actually disappeared, and usually other related problems have arisen to fill the vacuum of left by the “solution”. Impossibilists choose to use their time and limited funds to work to eliminate the cause of the numerous social problems. They hold the opinion palliatives and ameliorations will be offered and conceded by a besieged capitalist class in a desperate attempt to retain ownership rights if the working class were demanding the maximum program of full and complete appropriation and nothing less. To stem the socialist tide reforms now derided as Utopian aspirations will be two-a-penny in an attempt to fob off the workers. Governments do not feel threatened by appeals to it to act on single issues – even if those appeals take the form of mass protests. A government feels a sense of power and security in the knowledge that the protesters recognize it as the supreme arbitrator to which all appeals must be made. As long as people are only protesting over single issues they are remaining committed to supporting the system as a whole. But a government will take a very different view when people confront it not to plead from a position of weakness for this or that legislative change, but to challenge the whole basis of the way we live – in other words to question the inevitability of buying and selling and production for profit, and to actively work from a position of political strength for its replacement by the socialist alternative. In such circumstances, the governments’ aim will be to buy off the growing socialist consciousness of workers. In other words, reforms will be much more readily granted.

Finally, another reason the Impossibilists resist the siren song of reformism as some sort of tactic to gain support from workers, is that people who’d join a socialist party because they are attracted by its reformist tactics would eventually turn it into a pure and simple reformist organization, constantly working on the terrain of capitalism. History shows the fate of the social democratic parties, which despite a formal commitment to socialism as an “ultimate goal”, admitted non-socialists and sought non-socialist support for a minimum reform program of capitalism rather than the maximum socialist program. In order to maintain their non-socialist support , they were themselves forced to drop all talk of socialism and become even more openly reformist. Today the social democratic parties are firmly committed to capitalism in theory and in practice. Impossibilists say that this was the inevitable result of the admission of non-socialists and advocating reforms of capitalism. That is another reason why they have always advocated socialism and declines to call for the reform of capitalism. A socialist party advocating reforms would be the first step towards its transformation into a reformist party. Regardless of why or how the reforms are advocated, the result is the same: confusion in the minds of the working class instead of growth of socialist consciousness. The Left always wish to have the ear and confidence of the working class and will say to fellow-workers “Carry on with your reformist struggles. We’re with you all the all way” even though it is known that this is a recipe for failure and so, in the end, the Left actually helps to weaken not strengthen the working class by tying it ideologically to capitalism, fostering the illusion that capitalism can be run in the interests of workers and entrenching their dependence on capitalist governments to do it for them. It is far better to say what you really think and feel to be the case however unpopular or out of touch it might might make you seem at the time. Workers will not thank you for trying to lead them up the garden path and you will certainly not gain their confidence as a result.

  1. Here and here

Human Hierarchies, Competition, and Anarchism

New Yorker

If dominance hierarchies are an outcome of natural selection, and if early Homo sapiens were naturally selected (they were), and if humans are genetically inclined to procreate thereby ensuring their genes continue in future generations, then, to the extent that status confers reproductive advantage, humans should be genetically predisposed to challenge for the highest placement within a hierarchy. Yet, modern humans have made substantive inroads in understanding and manipulating genetics, controlling the environment, and eliminating and curing disease. While there is evidence still pointing to natural selection having influence in shaping human evolution, human advances have curbed natural selection and artificial selection has become more prominent. Moreover, if dominance hierarchies genetically prevailed over humans, then anarchists must represent some kind of evolutionary dead end. Nonetheless, anarchists have made great contributions to societal and political-economic thought.1 Probably the greatest anarchist contribution has been to work toward a classless, anti-authoritarian, co-cooperatively based society in which there are no permanent hierarchies.

In particular, Petr Kropotkin’s well-researched landmark work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, posits other than biological determinism; the ideal society is anti-hierarchical, anti-dominance, and anti-authoritarian.

I obviously do not deny the struggle for existence, but I maintain that the progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially mankind, is favored much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle…2

Karl Polanyi’s seminal book, The Great Transformation, describes how early forms of human society were based on cooperation rather than competition. That the social order was transformed to a capitalist market economy was criticized by Polanyi: “[T]o separate labor from other activities of life and subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one.”3

Polanyi’s thought is a logical reflection of Marx’s core theory of Value and the role of capitalism in eroding the value of labor.

Based on the historical and anthropological record, Polanyi held that the economy is bound up in the social relationships of humans.

The maintenance of social ties … is crucial. First, because by disregarding the accepted code of honor, or generosity, the individual cuts himself off from the community and becomes an outcast; second, because, in the long run, all social obligations are reciprocal, and their fulfillment serves also the individual’s give-and-take interests best. Such a situation must exert a continuous pressure on the individual to eliminate economic self-interest from his consciousness to the point of making him unable … even to comprehend the implications of his own actions in terms of such an interest.4

It is arguable that in disregarding immediate, long-term, or status-enhancing selfish gratifications, the individual is safeguarding her own future economic self-interest. In a society where individuals care for the needs of all members, that individual also belongs to the protective web of such a society. Since no one can be certain of avoiding future ill health or disaster, such a society acts as a safety net for all its members. Even some capitalist societies recognize this fact but all too often fail to adequately provide coverage and care to vulnerable sectors of society. And such welfare programs can fall victim to self-serving capitalistic procedures and tendencies based on immediate cost reductions because of a short-term focus on profit accumulation. While the provision of employment and health insurance is integral to those marginalized within capitalist society, such programs can be diverted to the profit-making interests of capitalists.

For Polanyi, the very fact that production was organized around buying and selling adduced the “extreme artificiality” of the market economy.5 Polanyi saw abandoning the natural way for the market system to be dangerous:

Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. The natural world would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.5

In his meta-analysis of the literature on competition versus cooperation, educator Alfie Kohn, echoing Petr Kropotkin,6 contended that “competition is an inherently undesirable arrangement.”7 Moreover, performance based on cooperation was found to be superior across fields of endeavor.8 Given the preponderance of the evidence, one would more reasonably conclude that at the societal level, cooperatively based groupings would be selected over competitive arrangements.

A Consensual Economic Model: Parecon

What kind of world is it that most people want? Dog-eat-dog capitalism or everybody looking out for each other? One economic model called participatory economics (parecon for short) was developed based on the core values of equity, solidarity, diversity,9 efficiency, and self-management. Parecon features balanced job complexes, remuneration based on effort and sacrifice, and decision-making empowered in all the workers. Grassroots planning that converges on a consensus outcome will replace the highly inefficient capitalist markets.10

Cooperatism also offers an interesting economic model wherein job complexes are run by workers for workers and not workers being dictated to by a board of directors for the profit of shareholders.11

Peterson argues that dominance hierarchies are based on competence, ability, and skill — not power. “This is obvious both anecdotally and factually,” writes Peterson.12 He gives the example of people wanting the best surgeon when stricken with brain cancer.

Yes, of course, patients want a good surgeon. However, how many patients would ask for a ranking of their surgeon? Wouldn’t most patients assume that a person by virtue of being a surgeon had successfully completed the training to become a surgeon and would, therefore, be competent in her vocation? Others might refer to this as specialization rather than a hierarchy. Most people tend to excel in certain areas and not as much in others. This is obvious both anecdotally and factually. If you are scuba diving for the first time in a challenging tidal channel with extreme current flows, do you want to dive with the experienced dive guide, a rookie dive guide, or with the brain surgeon? The brain surgeon does what she does well within her bailiwick, and the dive guide does what he does well within his field of expertise. And within the field of surgery some surgeons will have more expertise and competence in performing certain surgeries and less skill to perform different surgeries. This is normal in situations calling for specialization. The same goes for scuba diving. Some dive professionals will have greater knowledge of the dive sites and be better able to navigate and explore sites familiar to them. However, the competence and skills demanded do not necessitate the formation of a dominance hierarchy.

  • Read Part 1.
  • Part 3: analysis of Peterson’s views on religion versus science, Wikipedia as a trusted source, and his antithesis to revolution
  1. See, for example, the works of Leonid Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakunin, Noam Chomsky, Petr Kropotkin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin, Robin Hahnel, Michael Albert, and many, many others. It should be noted in the anarchist context that the contributions arise from the masses.
  2. Petr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, A Public Domain Book, 1902: loc 221.
  3. Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957): 163.
  4. Polanyi, 46.
  5. Polanyi, 73.
  6. Kropotkin, “Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual Support.” loc 962.
  7. Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986): 9.
  8. Alfie Kohn, “Is Competition More Productive?: The Rewards of Working Together” in No Contest: 45-78.
  9. Since Jordan Peterson seems at odds with diversity, a definition is in order. Diversity is merely the state of being different, and such difference must not face discrimination. Diversity does not mean forcing others to like or agree with the differences. It means live and let live.
  10. See Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso, 2003).
  11. See Chris Wright, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States (BookLooker.com, 2014).
  12. Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (Penguin Random House UK, 2018): loc 5370.

The Utility of Rules and Hierarchy

The overzealous politically correct-speech crowd has triggered a backlash. One person who took exception is Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who rocketed into the spotlight for his courageous dissent against compelled speech. I support that stance taken by Peterson. Peterson also has a youtube presence, and this year his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Crisis (Penguin Random House UK) was published.

Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life contains plenty of wisdom, but also plenty of bias, often ill-supported by facts or reason. Yet an anarchist physics professor finds, “Peterson is having an impact because his important words are true and because oppressive false words have gone too far.” Peterson, says the anarchist, is “fighting for reason and objectivity and against ideological madness.”

Indeed, rational people will agree that discovering what best captures or approximates truth is important, as is exposing false narratives. Who cannot help but support “fighting for reason and objectivity and against ideological madness.” Yet Peterson can also be accused of ideological bias. Since 12 Rules for Life is a best seller and since Peterson’s views are garnering widespread attention, Peterson’s viewpoints on truth, falsity, anti-communism, ideology, and so on, as expressed in his book, call for a critical analysis.

The Need for Rules

Peterson claims that “without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions—and there’s nothing freeing about that.” (location 50)

This is an assertion, and it seems that Peterson is imprecise, or taking liberty, with language since what he calls slavery is more correctly termed addiction. An addiction usually starts as a choice, a choice that turns out to be bad as the addict has lost self-control.

There are several other points when considering rules and whether to adhere to them. First, it has been compellingly argued that rules lead to a dreaded, bloated bureaucracy.1 Second, there are good rules, and there are bad rules. Third, who is it that decides what the rules are or should be and which rules are good or bad? Does the common man decide or the uncommon woman? Does the colonizer decide or the dispossessed Indigenous person? Cree lawyer Sharon Venne made the legal and moral argument that “colonial laws are ‘rules and regulations,’ but not laws in the true sense of the word. Colonial laws are made to be broken.”2

When rules are devised and imposed on the masses with little or no input from the masses, and without genuine acquiescence from the masses what does this signal about the validity and legitimacy of said rules?

Regarding rules, in general, I propose: don’t become a slavish follower to a bad rule, instead seek its abolition. Likewise, in cases where rules are a necessity and are legitimately enacted by moral actors among the masses and having garnered the acceptance of the masses (without unduly impinging on the rights of a minority), then apply common sense: don’t be selfish and break laws that are scripted for the good of the wider society. Bad rules, however, can, and probably should, stir up a passionate resistance.

The other side of the argument is specificity. For instance, suppose a rule is valid. Is it universal though? For instance, if an Israeli accepts a rule, would a Palestinian accept the same rule knowing that his condition does not allow him to be generous in accepting such a rule? In the Canadian context, should First Nations accept that their culture and laws are subject to and inferior to rule imposed by a colonial-settler structure?

Decency and social cohesion points to the preeminent rule being some form of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated.

Regarding Peterson’s 12 rules, they are very reasonable and something all persons interested in their betterment should consider embracing. Importantly, they are rules one should set for oneself and are not meant to be imposed from outside; hence individual autonomy is sanctified. Individuals are empowered and are challenged with responsibility for their actions. In this vein, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,

The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over himself and over fate, has sunk right down to his innermost depths, and has become an instinct—what name will we give to it, this dominating instinct, if he needs to have a word for it? But there is no doubt about it—the sovereign man calls it conscience.3

Dominance Hierarchies and Determinism

Petersen writes of the dominance hierarchy,

It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism, either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy—that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence. (loc 688)

Peterson writes that the dominance hierarchy is ancient, as is the part of brain that tracks position.

Nonetheless, many people take umbrage at the idea that one could seemingly extrapolate from lobster behavior “up” to humans and also that dominance hierarchies among humans are fuelled predominantly by biochemistry. Such a view points to biological determinism. It hearkens to sociobiological theory which, in a nutshell, is that humans are genetically driven to pass their genes into future generations. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology, came to this theory based on observations of ant colony behavior which he compared to animal behavior along the branches of the evolutionary tree. Yet sociobiology has problems adequately explaining evidence contrary to theory, for example, couples who choose not to have children, homosexuality, or engaging in behaviors that would diminish chances at passing genes to the next generation — such as alcoholism.

Peterson’s view of an “unchanging existence” runs contrary to the several qualities/changes that distance humans from animals, for example, the human conception of morality.4 The moral principle popularized by Star Trek that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one would argue against sociobiology, and also indirectly against a dominance hierarchy.5

Peterson’s amoral view (he does not state that dominance hierarchies are good or bad, just that they are), however, appears more nuanced; he does not appear to adhere strictly to a deterministic outcome. Ideally based on intrinsic human values, people must (or should) have by inalienable right free choice. If this happens, then clinical psychologists can help distressed people through therapy to bring about changes in their life.

As for the animal kingdom, there are salient studies that call into question the pervasiveness of a dominance hierarchy. The great apes called bonobos are known for positive emotional attributes, a lack of aggression, and a relatively deemphasized hierarchy.6

Another study suggests the importance of the environment, pointing to the lack of a dominance hierarchy among chimpanzees in captivity.7

Besides, sometimes being an alpha is not all it’s cracked up to be, as the underlings will knock off their despised alphas.8 Humans, by and large, also do not appreciate bullies (a type of personality who covets a top-dog position obtained through violence or threat of violence).

Quite revelatory was a longitudinal study of a baboon troop by Robert Sapolsky and Lisa Share. They chanced upon a surprising result following the die-off of alpha males after eating tuberculosis-tainted food at a garbage dump. Subsequently, the stress levels of the remaining troop diminished, and the troop behaved much more amicably toward one another.9

The neuroscientist Sapolsky also appears in a documentary where he speaks to the recultured baboon troop and what it implies for human society:

Another one of the things that baboons teach us is if they are able to, in one generation, transform what are supposed to be textbook social systems, sort of engraved in stone, we don’t have an excuse when we say there are certain inevitabilities about human social systems.10

In conclusion, the documentary’s narrator pointedly asks: “And so, the haunting question that endures from Robert [Sapolsky]’s life work: Are we brave enough to learn from a baboon?”10

Plenty of evidence exists for the non-expression of a dominance hierarchy in the animal kingdom. This does not, however, preclude the manifestation of dominance hierarchies among humans. And, indeed, dominance hierarchies do exist in human societies. But are they wrought by evolution? Or are they shaped by features of the environment? Or perhaps a combination? Are they pervasive across the spectrum of behaviors and networks? Are they an inevitability?

The chicken-and-egg conundrum speaks to determinism. Does physiology precede topping a hierarchy or does top ranking bring about changes in physiology? What about environmental factors? What about socioeconomic factors?11 Sapolsky writes, “When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.”12

Sapolsky notes there are similarities in human and animal hierarchies,13 but humans are “totally different.”14

Dominance hierarchies do exist, and there are multiple hierarchical scenarios that humans can take part/compete in. Therefore, most people are likely to rank higher and lower across myriad fields of endeavor. Many humans can also choose their pond; being a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond.

Moreover, there are the drawbacks of clawing one’s way to an hierarchical apex. What is the actual utility of hierarchical supremacy if reaching the pinnacle requires one to become a despised asshole? If one has to spend inordinate hours working (being a slave to one’s job or addicted to work?) instead of spending leisure time with family and friends? And what if one cannot determine whether those who surround you are sycophants or genuinely care about you as a person?

Sapolosky wrote, with easily perceived sarcasm: “Hurrah for clawing your way to the top, for zero-sum, muscular capitalism.”13

It seems eminently preferable to be an anarchist, work and play with others at one’s leisure, and refrain from undue concern about chasing rankings because in your mind all are equally human beings.

  • Part 2 examines further the nature of hierarchies among humans and whether competition is preferable.
  1. See David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2015): loc 2166.
  2. Sharon Venne, Our Elders Understand Our Rights: Evolving International Law Regarding Indigenous Rights (Theytus Books, 1998) cited in Tamara Starblanket, Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State (Clarity Press, 2018): 24.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1913): location 661.
  4. There is evidence for behavior guided by morality among animals. However, the reasoning behind such moral behaviors is qualitatively different from among humans. See Robert M. Sapolsky, “Morality and Doing the Right Thing, Once You’ve Figured out What That Is” in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin Books, 2016): 478-520.
  5. Individual differences and situational cues influence how human subjects indicate they would respond in such scenarios. See Robert M. Sapolsky, “Morality and Doing the Right Thing, Once You’ve Figured out What That Is” in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin Books, 2016): 478-520.
  6. See Paoli, T, Palagi, E, and Tarli, SB (2006), “Reevaluation of dominance hierarchy in bonobos (Pan paniscus),” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130: 116-122. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20345
  7. Funkhouser, JA, Mayhew, JA, and Mulcahy JB (2018) “Social network and dominance hierarchy analyses at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest,” PLoS ONE, 13(2): e0191898.
  8. See Rowan Hooper, “Gang of chimpanzees kills their alpha male,” New Scientist, 6 March 2013.
  9. Robert M. Sapolsky and Lisa Share (2004) “A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission,” PLoS Biol, 2(4): e106.
  10. Stress, Portrait of a Killer,” National Geographic, 24 September 2008.
  11. Sapolsky: 443.
  12. Sapolsky: 442.
  13. Sapolsky: 429.
  14. Sapolsky: 429. Sapolsky expounds on factors affecting hierarchies: choice of leaders, political orientation, intelligence, affect, conformity, and obedience: 442-470.

Gilets Jaunes Referendum by Initiative of Citizens (RIC): Push to Revive a Democracy


The illusion of democracy

The Gilets Jaunes movement took most observers and so-called experts in France and worldwide entirely by surprise, but it was actually completely predictable. The crisis simmered below the radars of France’s politicians, media, as well as those who considered themselves the enlightened figures of the intelligentsia for 50 years. By their sometimes raucous revolt, the Gilets Jaunes understand that the current democratic process is a farce, and that democracy itself has become an illusion. France is hardly an exception but more the rule in a system where citizens are not truly represented or even heard: a corrupt and opaque system, where most politicians are in the back pockets of global corporate interests which, despite campaign regulations, have found loopholes to rig elections through large money contributions and pseudo-neutral mainstream media coverage to influence public opinion. In France, the Macron administration should view the Gilets Jaunes and their bright yellow vests as thousands of irate canaries flying off a coal mine before an explosion. France’s new Sans-Culottes will not be satisfied any longer with crumbs, or even loaves of bread: instead they want control of the bakery. The Gilets Jaunes want more than money, food and stuff, they demand respect, dignity, and attention. The Vox Populi shall not be silenced! Not for trinkets or any price.

Lesser-of-two-evil elections in USA and France: dialectic of rejection

Democracy is moribund elsewhere. The United States, which is supposed to be the greatest democracy on earth, offers the unsavory option of two parties, Republican or Democrat, on its electoral menu. This difference, however, has become largely fictional, as the political class all belong to a cozy inbred Republicrat party of hand-picked plutocrats that serve corporate imperialism. This democratic illusion was duly represented in 2016 with two fake options, either Clinton or Trump, both disastrous. Which one was less repulsive to American voters? As we know, it was Trump who “won” the US empire’s election. In France, by the same powerof the negative vote, Macron was elected more as a rejection of Marine Le Pen than an adhesion to his neoliberalism, youth, or vague impulse to modernize France, whatever it meant at the time. So the second round of the French presidential election of 2017 was also a futile exercise of lesser-of-two-evils. Democracy was dead in France, and one could take RIP to mean Rest In Peace instead of Referendum d’Initiative Populaire. Can the Gilets Jaunes’ key proposal of a Referendum d’Initiative Citoyenne save a comatose political system?

Trouble in France’s imperious fifth Republic

France’s fifth Republic is 60 years old. It was established by General Charles de Gaulle on October 4, 1958. This proud military man, without political ambition at first, had already salvaged France from the ignominy of the pro-German Vichy government, and he was called during the war in Algeria to rescue the Republic again from the preliminary stages of a coup plotted by a junta of four French generals. These generals were against Algerian independence and wanted to topple the French government. De Gaulle set his conditions clearly, as he wanted to reestablish the power of the executive. Some critics viewed this constitutional change as establishing some sort of hybrid republic-monarchy, but de Gaulle’s genuine love of France commanded respect, inside and outside the country’s borders, and France’s fifth Republic resembled its imposing father-figure general: short of being imperial, it was imperious.

The Gilets Jaunes movement could mark the end of an era and the beginning of a French sixth Republic, where the excessive power in the executive branch is diminished. The French constitution has currently two types of referendums, both of them essentially top heavy. The first type, which can only be called by the president, has been used nine times during the fifth Republic; the second one, which was established in 2008, in Article 11 of the French Constitution, is a “referendum of shared initiative” and has never been used. It can be organized at the initiative of one fifth of the parliament and must be supported by at least 10 percent of the registered voters, currently 4.5 million citizens. However, this unused referendum cannot challenge the constitution.

What is the RIC requested by the Gilets Jaunes?

The Gilets Jaunes are calling for four types of RIC. Firstly, the ability for any French citizen registered voter to propose a law; secondly, the right to propose the abrogation of any legislation; thirdly, the ability for any citizen to petition for the destitution of any elected official; and finally the right to call for an amendment to the constitution. The Gilets Jaunes demand that the RIC become enshrined in France’s Constitution. Citizens would propose legislation through an independently monitored website. If such a legislative initiative garners at least 700,000 signatures from registered voters, it would have to be discussed, and potentially amended, by the National Assembly, which would be legally obligated, exactly one year after receiving the 700,000 signed petitions, to bring it to a national referendum. This type of direct democracy by referendums exists in the world elsewhere, in countries such as Switzerland or in the US in California. Recent examples are the BREXIT saga that is still unfolding in Great Britain and the fiasco of Catalonia’s independence vote. Referendums are not a universal panacea and can potentially be manipulated either by local political players or even foreign interests.

Vox populi or wrath of angry mobs: cautionary tales about RIC

Switzerland, which has a population of 8 million, has applied direct democracy through referendums of popular initiative since 1848, with a staggering 309 referendums! While this has been overwhelmingly beneficial, as it keeps a constant citizen check and balance on government at all levels, it has on occasion drifted into unsavory Islamophobic and Orwellian measures. For example, in 2009, the country approved, through a popular referendum, a law that forbids the construction of minarets on Mosques. More recently, Switzerland’s citizens approved, by 65 percent of the votes, a state surveillance, including at home, of recipients of social benefits if they are suspected of fraud. In California, citizens’ initiatives put on the ballot made the use of marijuana legal, but on the flip side, such initiatives have also installed extremely repressive legislation such as the infamous “three strikes, you’re out,” which made recidivists of sometimes petty crimes, like shoplifting in a supermarket, rot in jail for 20 years.

Many Gilets Jaunes have been chanting “Macron Demission!” Therefore, one can assume, and they are already gathering signatures to that effect, that forcing Macron to resign is at the top of their RIC shopping list. Another item, a double-edged sword to say the least, would be a FREXIT, or BREXIT made in France. Will Corsicans or Bretons petition for their independence like Scotland did a couple of years ago? Direct democracy in France is a thrilling proposition, providing that it is not motivated by meanness, anger, racism or is secretly financed by various entities. A reasonable system of checks and balances is the key to good laws, because often people are motivated to vote with their guts and not their brains.

Gilets Jaunes Referendum by Initiative of Citizens (RIC): Push to Revive a Democracy


The illusion of democracy

The Gilets Jaunes movement took most observers and so-called experts in France and worldwide entirely by surprise, but it was actually completely predictable. The crisis simmered below the radars of France’s politicians, media, as well as those who considered themselves the enlightened figures of the intelligentsia for 50 years. By their sometimes raucous revolt, the Gilets Jaunes understand that the current democratic process is a farce, and that democracy itself has become an illusion. France is hardly an exception but more the rule in a system where citizens are not truly represented or even heard: a corrupt and opaque system, where most politicians are in the back pockets of global corporate interests which, despite campaign regulations, have found loopholes to rig elections through large money contributions and pseudo-neutral mainstream media coverage to influence public opinion. In France, the Macron administration should view the Gilets Jaunes and their bright yellow vests as thousands of irate canaries flying off a coal mine before an explosion. France’s new Sans-Culottes will not be satisfied any longer with crumbs, or even loaves of bread: instead they want control of the bakery. The Gilets Jaunes want more than money, food and stuff, they demand respect, dignity, and attention. The Vox Populi shall not be silenced! Not for trinkets or any price.

Lesser-of-two-evil elections in USA and France: dialectic of rejection

Democracy is moribund elsewhere. The United States, which is supposed to be the greatest democracy on earth, offers the unsavory option of two parties, Republican or Democrat, on its electoral menu. This difference, however, has become largely fictional, as the political class all belong to a cozy inbred Republicrat party of hand-picked plutocrats that serve corporate imperialism. This democratic illusion was duly represented in 2016 with two fake options, either Clinton or Trump, both disastrous. Which one was less repulsive to American voters? As we know, it was Trump who “won” the US empire’s election. In France, by the same powerof the negative vote, Macron was elected more as a rejection of Marine Le Pen than an adhesion to his neoliberalism, youth, or vague impulse to modernize France, whatever it meant at the time. So the second round of the French presidential election of 2017 was also a futile exercise of lesser-of-two-evils. Democracy was dead in France, and one could take RIP to mean Rest In Peace instead of Referendum d’Initiative Populaire. Can the Gilets Jaunes’ key proposal of a Referendum d’Initiative Citoyenne save a comatose political system?

Trouble in France’s imperious fifth Republic

France’s fifth Republic is 60 years old. It was established by General Charles de Gaulle on October 4, 1958. This proud military man, without political ambition at first, had already salvaged France from the ignominy of the pro-German Vichy government, and he was called during the war in Algeria to rescue the Republic again from the preliminary stages of a coup plotted by a junta of four French generals. These generals were against Algerian independence and wanted to topple the French government. De Gaulle set his conditions clearly, as he wanted to reestablish the power of the executive. Some critics viewed this constitutional change as establishing some sort of hybrid republic-monarchy, but de Gaulle’s genuine love of France commanded respect, inside and outside the country’s borders, and France’s fifth Republic resembled its imposing father-figure general: short of being imperial, it was imperious.

The Gilets Jaunes movement could mark the end of an era and the beginning of a French sixth Republic, where the excessive power in the executive branch is diminished. The French constitution has currently two types of referendums, both of them essentially top heavy. The first type, which can only be called by the president, has been used nine times during the fifth Republic; the second one, which was established in 2008, in Article 11 of the French Constitution, is a “referendum of shared initiative” and has never been used. It can be organized at the initiative of one fifth of the parliament and must be supported by at least 10 percent of the registered voters, currently 4.5 million citizens. However, this unused referendum cannot challenge the constitution.

What is the RIC requested by the Gilets Jaunes?

The Gilets Jaunes are calling for four types of RIC. Firstly, the ability for any French citizen registered voter to propose a law; secondly, the right to propose the abrogation of any legislation; thirdly, the ability for any citizen to petition for the destitution of any elected official; and finally the right to call for an amendment to the constitution. The Gilets Jaunes demand that the RIC become enshrined in France’s Constitution. Citizens would propose legislation through an independently monitored website. If such a legislative initiative garners at least 700,000 signatures from registered voters, it would have to be discussed, and potentially amended, by the National Assembly, which would be legally obligated, exactly one year after receiving the 700,000 signed petitions, to bring it to a national referendum. This type of direct democracy by referendums exists in the world elsewhere, in countries such as Switzerland or in the US in California. Recent examples are the BREXIT saga that is still unfolding in Great Britain and the fiasco of Catalonia’s independence vote. Referendums are not a universal panacea and can potentially be manipulated either by local political players or even foreign interests.

Vox populi or wrath of angry mobs: cautionary tales about RIC

Switzerland, which has a population of 8 million, has applied direct democracy through referendums of popular initiative since 1848, with a staggering 309 referendums! While this has been overwhelmingly beneficial, as it keeps a constant citizen check and balance on government at all levels, it has on occasion drifted into unsavory Islamophobic and Orwellian measures. For example, in 2009, the country approved, through a popular referendum, a law that forbids the construction of minarets on Mosques. More recently, Switzerland’s citizens approved, by 65 percent of the votes, a state surveillance, including at home, of recipients of social benefits if they are suspected of fraud. In California, citizens’ initiatives put on the ballot made the use of marijuana legal, but on the flip side, such initiatives have also installed extremely repressive legislation such as the infamous “three strikes, you’re out,” which made recidivists of sometimes petty crimes, like shoplifting in a supermarket, rot in jail for 20 years.

Many Gilets Jaunes have been chanting “Macron Demission!” Therefore, one can assume, and they are already gathering signatures to that effect, that forcing Macron to resign is at the top of their RIC shopping list. Another item, a double-edged sword to say the least, would be a FREXIT, or BREXIT made in France. Will Corsicans or Bretons petition for their independence like Scotland did a couple of years ago? Direct democracy in France is a thrilling proposition, providing that it is not motivated by meanness, anger, racism or is secretly financed by various entities. A reasonable system of checks and balances is the key to good laws, because often people are motivated to vote with their guts and not their brains.

What Happens if the French Yellow Vests Win?

What if protesters in Paris win, and the French government gives in to all their demands?

What if taxes are reduced, wages increased, President Macron steps down?

I am not talking only about the fuel tax; attempts to impose it have been already abandoned. I am not talking about increase of the minimum wage – the government already agreed to rise it by 100 euro per month.

What I am talking about are real, fundamental changes which many protesters seem to be desiring: substantial tax reduction for the majority of French citizens, generous increase in wages and enhancement of social benefits for all.

So, if the Yellow Vests manage to win all this, then what will happen? Who would benefit? But also, who would lose?

*****

One of my readers recently wrote to me that France should reduce its military budget and from those billions of euro saved, could easily finance demands of the protesters.

Another reader wrote that the richest citizens of France (or call them ‘elites’) should be taxed heavily, and the money saved in this way could be then distributed among the poor and the lower middle class.

Sounds ‘reasonable’? Yes, definitely; reasonable and logical. The only tiny defect is: we all know that it will never happen this way.

President Macron was elevated to the throne by precisely those so-called elites. In return, those rich folks expect their privileges to be guaranteed, even swollen.

And to imagine that a NATO member country (in this case France) would suddenly slash its military budget and from what is saved, start to finance various new social programs for the poor and the middle class, is unrealistic, even childish.

So where will the funds come from, if the French government decides to do something truly ‘radical’; radical at least by the standards of our era of turbo-capitalism: to listen to its own people?

Let me stop beating about the bush and ask my question brutally and concretely: “What if all demands of the Yellow Vests get satisfied; who will pay the bill?”

*****

To put all this into a context: I write this essay in Hanoi, capital of socialist Vietnam.

Some time ago, I used to live in this city. I spent almost three years here, when it was still poor, and people remembered war, some even the French colonialism.

Right after I arrived, what shocked me the most was that while the Vietnamese people seemed to ‘forgive’ the USA, they had never forgiven the French colonialists.

“Why?” I asked my friends. “How is it possible? Wasn’t the US bombing and killing campaign during the ‘American War’ (which is known in the West as ‘Vietnam War’) terribly brutal, with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians losing their lives?”

“Of course, it was”, I was readily explained. “But we fought and, despite the terrible losses and hardship, we defeated Americans in relatively short time. And anyway, it was not only them; members of the coalition also consisted of countries like South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Thailand, and of course, France.”

And the story continued:

The French were occupying and tormenting us for much longer. They also had been humiliating our people, continuously. They enslaved up, tortured us, took our women, they raped them, and they had stolen all that we had.

Near where I used to live, was a notorious “Central Jail”, equipped with guillotines, torture chambers, solitary confinement cells. Now, on exhibit there, are monstrous instruments used by the French colonizers, to torture and rape captured Vietnamese patriot women: beer bottles, electric wires, walking canes.

Liberty-Equality-Fraternity but only for French

Whatever the colonized Indochina had, was stolen: taken to France, in order to finance construction of grandiose theatres, railroads, metro, parks, and universities. And, yes, to subsidize formation of that famous French social system which, as the Yellow Vests are now correctly saying, is being dismantled by the French ‘elites’ and by the political system which they are fully controlling.

Vietnamese people fought bravely against the French, finally defeating them during an iconic battle at Dien Bien Phu. But the victorious Vietnamese Communist forces inherited ransacked, divided land, stripped of its resources and even of its art work (several French intellectuals, including famous writer and later Minister of Culture in de Gaulle’s government, Andre Malraux, confessed to stealing art objects from ‘Indochina’, when he lived there as a young man).

Needless to say, that until now, French companies are brutally pillaging many parts of Southeast Asia, through mining and other neo-colonialist projects, as they do in various areas of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Now ask in Hanoi, ask in Phnom Penh or Vientiane, whether people of ‘Indochina’ (what an insulting and bizarre name was given to this part of the world by the French, during the colonial era!) are supporting Yellow Vests in Paris? Ask whether they think that if they win concessions in Paris, it would improve life in Asia.

Are you guessing what the answer would be?

*****

I don’t say that demands of the people who are fighting in the streets of Paris are wrong. They are not. They are absolutely legitimate.

French elites are brutal, selfish, even perverse. Present French government is simply serving them, as the US presidents are all serving huge corporations, including those deadly military conglomerates. ‘They should go’, they should disappear, give way to what is logical human evolutionary pattern: a socialist, egalitarian society.

But they are not ready to go. On the contrary. They are robbing, for centuries, entire planet, and now they went so far as to plundering their own people (who were used to sharing the booty).

French citizens are not used to being plundered. For centuries they lived well, and for several last decades, they were living ‘extremely well’. They were enjoying some of the most generous benefits anywhere in the world.

Who paid for it? Did it matter? Was it ever important to those in Paris, in other big cities, or in the countryside? Were the French farmers wondering how come they were getting generous subsidies when they were producing excessive amounts of food and wine, but also when they were asked by the government not to produce much of anything? Did they often travel to Senegal, or elsewhere in West Africa, to investigate how these subsidies thoroughly destroyed agriculture sector in several former French colonies? Did they care that lives of millions there were totally ruined? Or that as far as Indonesia or Brazil, French corporations have been, aggressively, taking over food and beverage production, as well as food distribution, and that as a result, food prices in many poor countries skyrocketed to double or triple of what they are in Paris, while the local incomes remain, in some cases, only 10% of those in France?

And the food is only one example. But this essay was supposed to be about something slightly different: about the Yellow Vests, and what will happen if all of their demands would be met.

*****

If we agree that the regime that is governing in France, entire West, and in many of its colonies and neo-colonies, is truly monstrous, perverse and brutal, we have to come to a logical conclusion that it is not going to pay the bill for better medical care, education, as well as lower taxes and higher wages of the ordinary French citizens.

If demands of the protesters are met, there will be someone else who will be forced to cover the bill. Most likely tens of millions, or hundreds of millions will be ‘taxed’. And they will not be living in France, or in the European Union, or even anywhere near.

Are protesters of Mouvement des gilets jaunes, thinking about this? Does it matter to them at least a little bit?

It did not in the past, either. Perhaps when few people like Jean Paul Sartre were still alive, these questions were periodically asked. But not lately; not now. Not during this rebellion on Champs-Élysées.

Do people in France question how many millions would have to die in order to improve the quality of life in the French cities and in provinces?

Or perhaps, to ‘compensate’, to cover the social spending, some country would ‘have to be’ invaded? Would it be Iran? Or maybe Venezuela?

The New York Times, in one of its articles about the French provinces, mentioned that people were complaining they cannot afford to even take their wives to a restaurant for dinner, anymore. That is truly serious, but would it justify a battle for Iran or Venezuela, and their consequent plunder, or would it excuse massacre of further few hundreds of thousands of West Papuans?

*****

I would suggest something that would help to convince the true internationalists, as well as people all over the pillaged world, that the Mouvement des gilets jaunes is not just selfishly fighting for the benefits that would improve lives of the French citizens, at the expense of many others all over the world:

They should indicate that they understand; that they are not indifferent to others. Say clearly that they are against capitalism and imperialism, against colonialism and plundering of the people and their resources in absolutely all parts of our Planet!

Say that they are for freedom, equality, and fraternity of all human beings, not just French!

Say that this is true revolution, true battle for improving the world, not just for more money, lower taxes, and better benefits exclusively for people who are living in France!

Say that they would never accept any benefits or extra money, if they come from robbing poor and colonized nations of all that have left.

If they do say all this, and if they demonstrate that they truly mean it, I will have to shout Vive la Révolution! and join them – the protesters – wholeheartedly.

But until they do, until I am convinced that their victory would not harm others, millions of others, I’ll continue to be much more concerned about people of Vietnam and Papua, about Iran, Africa, Syria or the entire Middle East, than about whether some one individual in rural France can afford to take his wife for dinner to a restaurant.

• Originally published by NEO – New Eastern Outlook