Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 10, 2018

The Yellow Vests, capitalism and communism

Filed under: climate,Ecology,farming,France — louisproyect @ 11:09 pm

Three years ago Michael Moore made a documentary titled “Where to Invade Next” that posed the question of why can’t Americans enjoy the good life most Western Europeans do. Traveling from country to country, he showed how the welfare state created by successive social democratic governments made for better health care, education, child care, etc. He visited a public school in France where he had lunch with sixth graders who had no interest in trading their healthy and appetizing free lunch for a Big Mac, French fries and a giant Coke.

As I pointed out at the time, this social democratic dream was turning into a nightmare, especially for immigrants. It was only a matter of time that France would become ground zero for a revolt against a system that provided few benefits for those who live in the countryside and suburbia. Indeed, my first reaction to the riots is that the white people in France were finally expressing the anger that made the banlieues erupt in 2005.

If steep taxes are supposedly necessary to support the universal health care that Moore supported in “Sicko”, another paean to enlightened social democratic governance, it was lost on the average citizen not fortunate enough to work as an IT specialist or lawyer in Paris. With the closing of rural hospitals, the country’s universal health insurance is next to useless. Under Macron, subsidies to the suburbs and countryside have been cut sharply. $42 billion at the time of his election, they are now $30 billion. The pain this has caused was sufficient to spur a wholesale resignation of mayors around the country who feel too strapped to do their job.

This was not the first time a protest occurred over gasoline/diesel fuel tax hikes. Almost four years ago to the date, “Red Caps” in Brittany forced Francois Hollande to cancel a tax targeting commercial trucks. Protesters, who saw the tax as harmful to farmers who were already having trouble competing with other EU countries, wore red caps. They were first worn in a seventeenth century revolt centered in Brittany as well. As is the case today, the movement took direct action to remind the “socialist” government that it could not neglect those in the boondocks. So grievous was their situation that a virtual epidemic of suicides had plagued the countryside. A recent survey revealed that a French farmer kills himself every two days.

Echoing Donald Trump’s MAGA bluster, Macron has been pushing a Make Our Planet Great Again campaign that was worth pursuing even if it caused temporary pain for the yellow vest social base. On the campaign’s website, there are ambitious goals sounding somewhat like the Green New Deal bandied about on the American left but without the socialist rhetoric:

Regarding mobility, a tax priority has been set: to achieve tax harmonisation between diesel and gasoline before 2022, and to speed up the rise in the price of carbon without penalizing the poorest households. The Climate Plan has set the objective of ending the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. A large public consultation has also been launched, the “National Conference on Mobility”, to anticipate mobility in 2030 and draw up policies promoting soft and less polluting mobility;

The Climate Plan is striving to put an early end to the import in France of products contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and plans to develop a National strategy against imported deforestation. As far as its own forests are concerned, France has put in place a National Plan for forests and woodlands and a National Biomass Mobilisation Strategy, which advocate forestry that is more proactive and better respects ecosystems, with the aim of maintaining and extending their central role in carbon storage;

France is strengthening its actions to protect the marine and land ecosystems, in France and at an international level, which contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation: increasing its funding for ecosystems protection projects, taking advantage of overseas to launch initiatives for biodiversity helping the climate, and calls for projects to develop nature-based solutions.

You need to understand that it does little good to promote a “soft and less polluting mobility” in 2030 when a tax hike today threatens the ability of hard-up French families to get through the month. In a highly revealing article for the NY Times on December 2nd, Adam Nossiter described the austerity that grips Guéret, a typical yellow vest town. Nossiter describes how typical families live:

“We just don’t make it to the end of the month,” said Elodie Marton, a mother of four who had joined the protesters at the demonstration outside town. “I’ve got 10 euros left,” she said, as a dozen others tried to get themselves warm around an iron-barrel fire.

“Luckily we’ve got some animals at the house” — chickens, ducks — “and we keep them for the end of the month,” she said. “It sounds brutal, but my priority is the children,” she said. “We’re fed up and we’re angry!’ shouted her husband, Thomas Schwint, a cement hauler on a temporary 1,200-euro contract.

Hill-Knowlton, the notorious PR firm that cooked up the propaganda campaign about Saddam’s troops yanking babies from the incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital to leave them on the cold floor to die, revealed rather candidly that despite the impression that the tax hike was geared exclusively for “Green” causes such as eliminating nuclear energy plants, it was not quite the case: “While the government has recently announced a new increase in fuel taxes to come in January, the prices have increased by 19 cents for the essence fuel and by 31 cents for the diesel fuel since the beginning of President Macron’s mandate. In 2018, fuel taxes brought in a total of €34 billion for the state. Of these 34 billion, only 7.4 billion are directly earmarked for ecological transition, while the rest is earmarked for the State’s overall budget.”

In effect, the remaining 26.6 billion was designed to make up for the loss of revenue from Macron’s wealth tax cut. In October 2017, a bill was passed in order to repeal the one imposed by the Socialists in the 1980s on incomes over $1.5 million. The wealth tax supposedly drove rich people out of the country, including actor Gerald Depardieu who was granted Russian citizenship in 2013. In a tit-for-tat arrangement, Depardieu defended the jailing of Pussy Riot. In keeping with his “hooligan” character supposedly praised by Putin, he was accused of the sexual assault and rape of a young female actress in August, 2018. This should give you some idea of the sort of person whose needs had to be catered to, even if it meant leaving Elodie Marton with 10 Euros at the end of the month.

Maxime Combs, a French economist and climate change activist, wrote an article that was translated into English for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website. It debunks the notion that the tax hike can help to wean people from fossil fuel usage, especially the poor. He urges a different approach to the problem from eco-tax manipulation:

By making the increase in fuel prices the central policy that must drive the inhabitants of the country to change their vehicles and change their boilers, without reducing their mobility needs and their heating needs, Emmanuel Macron and the government are making themselves prisoners of an ideology that prevents action on the structural causes of too great a dependence on fossil fuels.

Putting an end to urban sprawl and bringing economic activities closer to workplaces – rather than moving them away from already urbanized areas – relocating public services and ensuring the sustainability of local shops, developing public transport and options for alternative modes of transport, are priority areas for reducing the need for mobility reliant on carbon.

This gets much closer to the solution that is really needed even if it doesn’t close the circle. It is not just a question of reducing the need for private transportation and commercial trucks. It also points in the direction of overcoming the “metabolic rife” that is associated with separating the organic production of plant fertilizer (both human and animal) from the crops that require it.

Petroleum products do not only threaten a sixth extinction because of the greenhouse gases they generate. In addition, they are key to industrial farming that relies on plastics for a wide variety of its infrastructure including mulch, greenhouse covers and tunnels. Once crops are harvested, plastic is used to package them for sale in Walmarts and other grocery stores spread around the country. This amounts to $32.4 billion in 2016, with 14.2 billion pounds of resin consumed.

Industrial farming is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, fossil fuels are essential for farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads—all designed to transport food from the farming regions to cities hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Just consider the enormous amount of energy that is expended to ship soybeans, corn and other key agro-export commodities from Brazil to seaports in China or India and their transportation by truck to other destinations once they get there.

As capitalism grows apace everywhere in the world, gaining acceptance for its ability to satisfy every desire that advertising creates for a working class bewitched by commodity fetishism, the threat of extinction deepens. Even if Macron eliminated gas-powered cars in France, you still have two major automobile companies that rely on exports to produce the profits that stock prices are based on. The Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën joint venture produced 734,000 cars in Chinese plants in 2014. Those sales are necessary for the life-blood of French capitalism to flow.

This is the miracle of capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to how it replaced the system that preceded it:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

What Marx does not pay much attention to is the modes of production that preceded this miracle. From ancient Greece to the late Middle Ages, it was the city that formed the basic unit of production rather than the state. So, for example, a places like Tenochtitlan, London, Tripoli, and Damascus arose because they were suited to its natural terrain both in terms of resources and demography. The towns and cities were the hub of commercial activity that relied on the agricultural belt that surrounded them. Food was transported by carts pulled by oxen or horses rather than Mack trucks.

The Barada River was indispensable to the rise of Damascus as the crown jewel of the Arab world. Its name is reflected in the tormented victim of Assad’s barrel bombs Wadi Barada that means Barada Valley. In 1834 a British traveler described Damascus as “a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains, and bubbling streams.” The Barada river was “the juice of her life,” a “gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon” (the mountain range that borders Lebanon and Syria.) The various water sources flowed into the city via seven canals that were built during or before Roman presence in the region. For many, the well-watered wonders of the city were paradisiacal.

Some of these cities became so powerful that they were capable of bring other cities under their sway as part of an empire based on tribute rather than capital. Rome was the most famous of these in the pre-capitalist era and arguably a victim of its own success as its reliance on long-distance exploitation of resources and slavery eroded its ability to reproduce itself.

In the 17th century, Western European nations repeated Rome’s glory but on a capitalist basis. States were created in order to support the armies and navies necessary to embark on a colonization program. Once a colony was established, the old organic unity that kept a place like Damascus viable disappeared. Furthermore, in the post-colonial epoch, the Syrian state, for example, was forced into commodity exchanges in order to subsist in a capitalist world. Perhaps the only way to avoid being sucked in was to use your own feudal military might to stave off the invader as was the case with Japan until Admiral Perry fixed their wagon. Probably, the only non-capitalist survivors in the world today are Cuba and North Korea, even though the pressure on them is enormous. Cuba relies on the tourist trade and North Korea is rapidly transitioning into a market economy in the post-Mao mold.

That leaves the naked tribesmen of North Sentinel islands to keep the faith, one supposes.

Toward the end of “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Engels writes:

At all earlier stages of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities. This collective production was very limited; but inherent in it was the producers’ control over their process of production and their product. They knew what became of their product: they consumed it; it did not leave their hands. And so long as production remains on this basis, it cannot grow above the heads of the producers nor raise up incorporeal alien powers against them, as in civilization is always and inevitably the case.

The task before us is to return to pre-capitalist property relations, but moreover those that precede feudalism with its forced exploitation based on the rule of the aristocrats. Something closer to the city-state of the Aztecs, the Incas or the Mayans is needed but one based on the freedom made possible by machinery rather than captured slaves. In recognizing the value of such a “backward” looking goal, Mariategui remains a socialist whose vision is more prescient than ever:

The subordination of the Indian problem to the problem of land is even more absolute, for special reasons. The indigenous race is a race of farmers. The Inca people were peasants, normally engaged in agriculture and shepherding. Their industries and arts were typically domestic and rural. The principle that life springs from the soil was truer in the Peru of the Incas than in any other country. The most notable public works and collective enterprises of Tawantinsuyo were for military, religious or agricultural purposes. The irrigation canals of the sierra and the coast and the agricultural terraces of the Andes remain the best evidence of the degree of economic organization reached by Inca Peru. Its civilization was agrarian in all its important I aspects. Valcarcel, in his study of the economic life of Tawantinsuyo, writes that “the land, in native tradition, is the common mother; from her womb come not only food but man himself. Land provides all wealth. The cult of Mama Pacha is on a par with the worship of the sun and, like the sun, Mother Earth represents no one in particular. Joined in the aboriginal ideology, these two concepts gave birth to agrarianism, which combines communal ownership of land and the universal religion of the sun.”

1 Comment »

  1. It’s all a part of agenda 21. The farmers must be killed off, they will do this by drowning them in taxes thus reducing their likelihood to procreate children who generationally would be more inclined to take up farming. The job becomes so undesirable no one wants to do it or can afford to start doing it, so everyone stays within the controlled confides of the urban centers. Anyone who happened to inherit farmland from a lost relative will be incentivized to sell the land to the government at a fraction of the lands actual value. Government then has entire control of the food system and can shut off any and all public access to the French countryside. It’s right there but everyone is too blind to make the connection. Good article though, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Megan — December 18, 2018 @ 12:37 am


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