Les Gilets Jaunes (the Yellow Vests) movement in France came to its fullest strength on December 8th and 9th, finally forcing a response of meek concessions out of the beleaguered centrist knight, President Emmanuel Macron. While some commentators have sought to confine the causes of the movement to the planned fuel hikes by the French government, the Yellow Vests movement was triggered but not entirely caused by the new taxes on fuel. Since September of 2017, President Macron has implemented an austerity programme of corporate tax cuts, gradual privatization of the French public health system, pensions restructuring, and general cuts in other social safety net programmes, earning him the title of “President of the Rich“. Macron’s aim? To buttress his position with Germany (a surplus nation in terms of trade) and German creditors (the lending financial institutions of Germany which provide liquidity in the form of loans to the deficit nations of Europe such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece and increasingly France itself) so as to “address” the ill-will which is festering on both sides of the proverbial “surplus and deficit” line of the eurozone.
On the surplus side, that is the German side, taxpayers, creditors and the German government, especially since the Greek crisis, have increasingly seen the deficit nations of Europe as corrupt, inept, entitled, economic and financial mismanagers who ruin their countries and then look to Germany for assistance through German federal bailouts, risky loans and demands which are politically toxic for the German government. On the deficit side, Europe through the EU, is seen to increasingly default to German economic interests which are viewed as antithetical to the interests of respective member states and the Eurozone more widely. In sum, these two sides are incubating corrosive political forces whose effects target their own respective governments and the EU against their opponents on the other side of the surplus-deficit line. These effects are gradually fragmenting the legitimacy of the EU and the Eurozone itself over time. Macron, through his French reform package, hoped to straddle this divide by wooing Germany and German lenders towards Europe through France, and Europe through France to Germany by marketing the anticipated economic and political gains accrued from gaining greater confidence with his German interlocutors.
Unfortunately, Germany has not moved, even as austerity, touted as progressive structural reforms, has bitten harder and deeper. When it was finally announced that extra taxes would be levied on fuel, a tinderbox of festering grievances was granted its inevitable igniter: an ignition made all the more sure after word had gotten out that Macron had snubbed a petition of over 800,000 signatories collected by Patricillia Ludosky opposing the tax. That same week, protests were mobilized for the coming weekend and Les Gilets Jaunes movement was born.
I do not wish to rehash the neoliberal bashing which is already underway on “left” twitter. Nor do I want to skirt around the peripheral hijacking of the same movement by the nationalist rightwing. In view of these: I have argued in other pieces also published here that where economics is divorced from a reformist agenda, such an agenda is merely cosmetic and only serves to energize and even produce forms of hostility towards social scapegoats (usually historically maligned and disenfranchised groups of people) while hollowing out the programmatic essence of any stated progressive agendas to improve theirs and everyone else’s plight. The Macronist posture of appositional centrism is deeply cynical because it perches itself atop legitimate grievances for it’s own political viability against its rightwing opponents while disowning any intention to actually address those grievances in a fundamental way. (This was the same posture of New Labour under Anthony Blair; has been the long time posture of the Democratic Party in the United States; and is steadily becoming the go-to posture of Trudeauan liberalism in Canada. It is a form of politics akin to standing on the geographical north pole of the earth, while rotating in place to embrace contradictory positions under the cover that moving or commiting to any other position than the one currently held would be to move south. Indeed, when you position yourself on an ideological north pole, everywhere you head or turn to is southward — you thus stand prominently for everything and substantively for nothing.)
But there are other serious consequences as well — in the domain of climate change. At the moment, because austerity has siphoned the expandable incomes of the working classes, the demand to transform our societies into climate sensible human habitats heavily falls upon the same governments which have enabled neoliberal economic policies to persist unabated: as people on their own have limited means to move sustainably in that direction. So, should governments then decide to implement climate protecting policies via the same fiscal and monetary instruments which eviscerated the working classes over the past 30 years or so, efforts to decelerate the rate of climate change might find themselves being opposed by the same working classes. This is because climate protection under the prevailing neoliberal order will be experienced as austerity (as a new form of wealth extraction and transfer through deterrent taxations upwards towards the higher echelons of society as the trend has been for decades) without readily available or affordable alternatives for an already squeezed population. As we have seen with the Yellow Vest movement, attempts by the French authorities to frame the new taxes on fuel as measures to discourage the use of fossil fuels in view of climate change have largely fallen on deaf ears. So that in a strange way, the otherwise climate conscious left marching in opposition to Macronist centrism and Neoliberalism, must also march in opposition to so-called efforts to address climate change in the form of fiscal instruments such as taxes on petroleum products to protect the little not already vacuumed up by neoliberal economics and austerity within the prevailing economic orthodoxy.
My prediction is this: if Neoliberalism and its bastard child austerity persists, we will see huge grassroots movements organizing, seemingly in opposition to so-called climate protection efforts. In the end, the extremist right-wing forces will prevail, who will have seen the limitations of strictly ethno-focused politics in the USA (under Trump with the help of individuals like Steve Bannon), in the UK (during the days of a vibrant UKIP and a Cameronian centrism), in Italy (which now has a left and right alliance built around fiscal commonalities), in France (during the presidential bid of Marine Le Pen and then Macron’s unpopular centrism) and other places in Europe. They will merge ethno-nationalism with leftwing economic sensibilities and rhetoric thereby consolidating an actionable political programme to engender domestic political cohesion (to bridge the polarization), with an alternative for resisting neoliberal elitism and austerity. Climate change denial will no longer need to be trumpeted by its right-wing generals, it will become salient and integral to the new political alignment, as will other forms of regressive politics such as xenophobia, racism, sexism, homo-and-trans-phobia, militarism and so on. In the meantime climate catastrophe will ensue, thousands and then millions will become displaced as political and economic prospects dwindle, as ever higher walls are erected to keep the “hordes” out.
So what do we do?: We must ensure that climate protection becomes and remains a grassroots issue. This will only be achieved by a sustained challenge on Neoliberalism so as to engender a more humane system of economics and politics conducive for the transformations we must all see to avert climate catastrophe. Lets bear in mind that the image I have painted here of thousands and then millions being displaced is not at all extreme: today, in spite of the strides in technology and all the wealth generated and accumulated in the western enclave and in emergent economies, millions of people still die to famine and food shortages, suffer and die from preventable and curable diseases and illnesses, remain vulnerable to natural disasters, have no access to clean water, and are the victims of shortsighted geopolitical wars and arms profiteering. It is therefore not difficult to imagine further misanthropy in the future when the climate change fireworks are in full force alongside ethno-nationalist national-socialist impulses. Hopefully the centrists like Macron will see the writing on the wall, and adjust their course.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.com