For the first time in ever so long, European protest movements – like those of the so-called indignants – are concretely committed to autonomous action and to re-establishing values such as sociality, mutual aid and solidarity. By demanding a life worth living, protesters are also implicitly raising the question of giving new meaning to life in today’s society. Because all those who reject mankind’s current mad race to disaster necessarily sympathise with them and want to be involved, it is everyone’s duty to point out the contradictory nature of these movements, in order to discover where problems lie and to take them further.
The "indignants’" protests mainly unite city dwellers from the middle-classes, who find themselves in precarious situations – unemployed graduates, casual workers – or those who fear they may eventually fall into these categories. There is little enthusiasm among the lower classes. These protests spread via the social networks. Their participants supposedly share the same core values (indignation), and they agree to reject all sorts of political or associative patronage. The workplace too is rejected as totalitarian ; a place from which the unemployed are excluded, where casual workers are mixed with permanent staff and/or careerists and where verbal protests are monopolised by trade unions who are coopted.
But the idea of "indignation" itself in no way explains its causes. It is likely to create a series of misunderstandings. In Tunisia as well as in Egypt, there was a consensus around the idea of "ousting" the local tyrant, with Western democracy as a prospect. But in Europe, Western democracy itself has become a dead end. Confronted with this, the indignants’ protests oscillate between two conflicting tendencies, for which the term “real democracy” is more confusing than helpful. The first seeks only to correct the system’s excesses. Its demands call for the moralisation of public life, an improved quality of life, a fair share of wealth, the right to work, justice, economic reforms, and so on. The second challenges our society’ foundations and sets the basis for a radical change : self-management, autonomy, direct democracy. Nowhere have all these practices been demanded for society as a whole, except perhaps in Syntagma square in Athens.
This is why protests lack direction There is no basic line of thinking likely to be shared by the majority of participants, no solid ground from which to turn to the rest of the population. Neither of these two tendencies prevails over the other. Both of their societal projects are problematic.
Those who denounce the system’s excesses desire some sort of return to the time when society was supposedly better-regulated and wealth was more fairly shared. But even supposing the equal sharing of goods, a return to full employment based on strong growth, as in the 1950s and 1960s, is impossible : the energy crises, environmental changes and possible food shortages herald an inevitably sober future. We must face the fact that the affluent society is coming to an end. And it seems to us that the only way to avoid a war economy, which would only benefit those in positions of power, would be to demand a strict equality of incomes for all. This means, of course, a radical change in mentality.
The difficulty for those who, like us, want to "get out of capitalism" and its "representative democracy", is inventing forms of real democracy. Putting them into practice occasionally and on a small scale in public squares is one thing. Extending them to all aspects of social life is another. This would require that a significant part of the population adopt values such as individual and collective freedom, equality and a style of self- government that would favour and develop both individual and collective autonomy. And that can only progress alongside the gradual development of procedures establishing collective decision-making. The difficulties faced by those making such an attempt will be tremendous. But the protesters’ current inability to agree on a clear way forward will ultimately lead to their failure.
The festive atmosphere at demonstrations sometimes makes us forget for a while the dissatisfaction and indignation that motivated us to protest in the first place. It may also lead us to avoid confronting the tremendous problems that those who genuinely want a radical change of society will have to face. But it won’t prevent us from sinking back into apathy and indifference – until the next burst of anger. There is even the risk of resigning ourselves to the disaster we are headed for and allowing traditional parties to hijack the protests and empty such slogans as “democracy”, "autonomy" and "freedom" of their content.
This swinging back and forth between two tendencies is seen very concretely : in speeches calling for a return to former moral standards and a reminder of fundamental values, urging the political oligarchy to act. This leads us to ask a question that hasn’t been raised by the "indignant" protesters : can we still expect anything worthwhile from the oligarchy ? For instance, this moralising speech considers corruption a symptom of the current oligarchic regime. It has become clear, at least since the worldwide heist aka "the 2008 financial crisis", that corruption and mafia-style behaviour are now the norm. All the oligarchy has to propose is austerity plans, poverty for (almost) everyone, and a planet made inhospitable. They intend to go on plundering and destroying everything that is meaningful for us, with no other perspective than a general free-for-all. Their core values – consumption, accumulation, control and power as existential goals - are spreading everywhere. Fighting them everywhere in order to promote a true project for society means struggling against reflexes which have also become our own.
Either we expect something from the oligarchy, thereby recognising its legitimacy, or we consider it illegitimate, and it must no longer be given any credit. This question has immediate implications. In Spain, for instance, a general police clampdown has revived protests, whereas the government’s lack of reaction had been weakening them. Should we accept to be dependent on those in power ? This is a question which also applies during elections. If we think voting has no use other than legitimising arbitrary power cut off from society, then we must draw explicit conclusions and abstain from voting.
There are other contradictions and sources of misunderstanding :
- Demanding a constituent assembly is ambiguous. This may mean a mere facelift allowing the ruling classes to consolidate their power, as in Tunisia today. Or it may be the exact opposite : the expression of an alternative to the existing power, as at the dawn of the 1789 French revolution. These two concepts are, of course, at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
- Calling for the people’s sovereignty is absurd, because in theory, it already exists. If this really is the case, it should be embodied in sovereign assemblies, established as the only decision–making authority and proclaiming that all other decision-making authority be abolished.
- Seeking to revive direct forms of social relationships is contradictory when at the same time people glorify the social networks. These simply increase solitude, a feeling of loneliness and constant switching from one activity to the next without ever seeing any one through. Emancipation is first and foremost about taking a critical look at the new and updated versions of alienation and self-delusion. Does a social protest need to gaze at its reflection online to exist ? What distance do we have with respect to images, inevitably subjective, or exaggerations, rumours, or falsifications, whether they come from protest supporters through social networks or from those who speak out against protests via the traditional media ?
- Protesters have rejected political parties and trade unions from the start. But when it has come to building a platform of proposals, they haven’t been able to go beyond the stage of general statements and intentions. They have established real forms of autonomy without formalising them through fear of traditional parties hijacking their ideas. But however efficient this concrete self-organisation may be, it cannot forever make up for the lack of an articulated, clear and debatable political project.
For us, the basis of oligarchy, what makes it exist, is a thirst for power and unlimited accumulation extended across the whole of society. The first can be hampered only by means of organising all institutions around sovereign assemblies functioning on the principles of revocable mandates and the rotation of tasks. And the second can be disposed of only by collectively establishing a strict equality of incomes and a collective redefinition of needs and of what must be produced. All this must be voiced, debated and discussed explicitly.
It is obvious that if the population adopts democratic structures, these will be in conflict with the existing "representative" institutions. The deeper their roots and the stronger they are, the more violent the response from the oligarchy will be. But if our living conditions are going to worsen, if we are to enter into a period of confrontation and if we are to suffer violence, as we will, unavoidably, then it had better be for something worthwhile.
June 2011 - Lieux Communs
Independent political collective for a self-transformation of society