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EVERY couple of years the British left finds itself looking over the channel in despondent envy at the willingness of the French to take to the streets against neoliberalism or state violence.
Now, inspired by eight weeks of uprising in France, various people on the left and right have tried to import the “gilets jaunes” hi-viz jacket here.
Most ignominiously, we’ve seen the adoption of the jacket by a handful of Tommy Robinson types shouting at MPs on national television, abusing RMT pickets, and protesting against the Greggs vegan sausage roll. Even though this tunic putsch was stopped by two van-loads of police, if they succeed in blending a right-wing pro-Brexit stance with the disruptive vibrancy of the French protests, they’ll be wrong footing the left twice: once in denying us as the legitimate representatives of the “gilets jaunes’” essentially anti-neoliberal demands, and again in monopolising support for brexit — forcing the Leave left into the same bracket as the Remain centrists.
The People’s Assembly have now stamped the jacket with clear left-wing, anti-austerity politics following its January 12 protest in London, and hopefully this will only be the start of rolling protest against austerity, Paris-style. Interestingly both nascent takes clashed at the weekend, contesting the brand politically and physically.
The Democratic Football Lads Alliance, successor to the EDL, supported the right-wing “Yellow Vests UK” counter protest to the People’s Assembly, and although they only rallied around a hundred to the left’s several thousand, they were markedly aggressive, with leading figure James Goddard arrested, and other right-wingers swinging punches at columnist Owen Jones.
Still, neither the thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators or the couple of hundred reactionaries could really be called Britain’s yellow vests — yet. So, what are the chances of the movement growing to something similar to the size and political stance of that in France?
It's not about the costume though. Much as we'd like to import Gallic radicalism, it isn't going to happen via fancy dress. That's the thinking of a cargo cult. (Quite apart from anything else, it's the coppers here who wear hi-viz, it’s the symbol of authority). But it's not as if our social conditions are very different or as if we lack the insurrectionary potential over here. Take the August 2011 riots for example. Obviously caused by social conditions brought about by neoliberalism, and the preceding three years of austerity coupled with a hatred of the police, with no central demands other than revenge, they burned themselves out in 10 days and left little political legacy.
But they showed that, like in France, trouble can flare up at any moment without any warning on government radar (or indeed that of the organised left).
And it is not like the left itself didn’t try to rebel against austerity explicitly before now: buoyed up by the unexpectedly militant and disobedient student movement of winter 2010, on March 26 2011 the TUC’s “March for the Alternative” brought 400,000 to central London for the biggest anti-cuts demonstration so far.
Around a thousand younger militants carried out the kind of targeted property damage we are seeing in Paris, against tax-dodgers like Topshop and symbols of privilege like the Ritz, and 150 activists lead by UK Uncut occupied luxury department store Fortnum & Masons — but these actions did not a movement make: no follow-up demos were called to continue until the government resigned, and action did not take place in our home towns and villages, a key feature of the yellow vests.
The resentment from many marchers towards those we would call “the black bloc” and the French would call “le casseurs” (the smashers) for “ruining the demonstration” showed a deep division between those who wanted change by the rules and those who wanted to change the rules themselves. By contrast in France, the middle-aged and retired villagers peacefully blocking roads are the ones calling for “a revolution” and over €114,000 was crowd-funded overnight in support of boxer Christophe Dettinger for punching police officers (before Establishment pressure shut the fund down).
If we’re going to look for an equivalent to the “gilets jaunes” over here that meets the criteria of being a mass movement with a majority of participants coming from outside of the left, then the most valid comparison is the struggle against the poll tax, which brought down Margaret Thatcher.
In both cases, insurrection was sparked by ruling-class miscalculation. How was Macron to guess that a minor rise in fuel tax would be the trigger for the scenes now unfolding across France? Equally how was Thatcher’s government to know that after the miners’ strike, the wholesale privatisation of industry, the rate-capping of local authorities and widespread unemployment, that it would be the poll tax that would lead to mass non-payment, occupations of town halls and sustained rioting on the streets of London?
The fact that the tax was the same for absolutely everyone was an important uniting factor and mistake the British state is desperate not to repeat.
Being in charge of a manifestly unequal society must be a constant balancing act. The trick is to split the herd and, through a system of reward and privilege, undermine solidarity and make sure that those fighting back are always a minority who can be dealt with by force without provoking a bigger outcry. It’s imperative for them to make sure that dissatisfaction cannot coalesce around a single issue.
However right now we have a situation here where by default this consolidation of grievances is happening and the people’s retaliation could happen at any moment: austerity has bitten deep, we’re likely to have a No Deal Brexit and Theresa May has to be leading the weakest government of the last 50 years. Ruling-class nervousness is betrayed by moves like stopping the rolling-out of universal credit to three million people.
There is only so long the Tories can put off picking on too many of us at once, without completely changing their economic outlook, raising taxes on the rich, and ceasing to be Tories.
Massive and universalised discontent is inevitable unless they are ousted by Labour. If the resistance to the desperation caused by the punitive imposition of austerity for those on benefits took the form of blocking roads until people were paid, for example, that could easily be the spark of our “gilets jaunes” moment. In Ireland the issue of evictions, fuelled by some of the most exorbitant rents in Europe, has already lead to militant “yellow vests” protests against the RKB bank. With homelessness leaping 4 per cent in one year to 320,000 in Britain by November 2018 — that’s one in 200 people — it certainly could happen here too.
If France can teach us one thing, it’s that the left isn’t necessarily going to see it coming, but we’ve got to be ready to join in when it does.
John Lilburne is active in anti-fascist, housing and ecological struggles.
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