As I reported recently, I spent my Christmas vacation tracking down and studying France's "Yellow Vest" movement. In December, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman did something similar. However, as expressed in his piece, "The End of Europe," his conclusions mirror old threadbare thinking about social transformation. Most tellingly, while honoring the voices of the Yellow Vests as grassroots activists, Friedman's responses exclude the very democratic input the Yellow Vests demand. Instead, he looks to government and business leaders to save what he termed "the idea of Europe."
My own conclusions are the reverse. I see the Yellow Vests as advocating a democratically radical, comprehensive and bottom-up approach to what distresses our world. In fact, the issues and demands of the Yellow Vests suggest proven reforms that are clearly feasible, since they've worked in the past. The economic and political restructurings implicit in their working-class demands could save our planet and create the other world that all progressives sense is possible. Consciously or unconsciously, the Yellow vests propose a program worthy of support by us all.
Friedman & the Yellow Vests
According to Friedman, France represents the last barrier against the disintegration of Europe itself. Across the European Union (EU), England is committing collective suicide (because of Brexit), Germany is turning inward, and Italy (along with Greece) is in full rebellion against EU austerity measures. Meanwhile, the United States incipient withdrawal from the world increasingly leaves the continent without its traditional life insurance policy against "predatory threats from the East." That insurance is needed now more than ever in a world where Russia is again asserting its power, and where China promises to become the center of the world.
However, Friedman says, the Yellow Vest Movement reveals that France itself is in danger of disintegration. The movement has arisen because the country's working poor and anxious middle class have not benefitted from the liberal order of political-economy characterized by globalization, technological development, and mass migration of workers from the former Soviet Union and from France's colonial empire. In the face of such developments, the poor have been completely marginalized, while robotics, artificial intelligence, outsourcing and competition from Chinese imports have made it increasingly difficult for middle class wage-earners to sustain accustomed life styles.
For France, all of this has been complicated by the ineptitude of its president Emmanuel Macron. On Friedman's analysis, Macron has done the right things, but in an arrogant top-down, "let them eat cake" manner. The right things have included giving tax breaks to the rich, while imposing austerity (and job re-training programs) on workers. Austerity has meant raising taxes on diesel fuel, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire their workers.
In other words, Friedman approves of the very policies that have given rise to the "Yellow Vests" in the first place. For him, it's just that austerity's necessarily bitter pill wasn't administered with the proper bedside manner.
And, according to the New York Times columnist, there is no apparent alternative. In the face of globalization, he holds that old solutions (simply cutting or raising taxes) cannot work. Instead, he vaguely calls for cities and local leaders to become "more nimble." In his words, that means forming coalitions of business leaders, educators, and small entrepreneurs who can compete locally, regionally, nationally and globally.
That's it. That's Friedman's analysis and solution.
Entirely absent from his considerations is any mention of "Yellow Vests" (i.e. working class) involvement in the solutions he finds so elusive. That is, Friedman's own approach, like that of Macron is entirely top-down. Like Macron he seems tone deaf to the "Yellow Vest" demand for inclusion in decision-making processes.
Necessary Changes in Consciousness
But what would such inclusion entail?
It would first of all necessitate changes in the very consciousness exhibited in the Friedman piece. These changes would include recognition of:
- The Fundamental Failure of Capitalism: Friedman begins his article by celebrating capitalism. He writes "Ever since World War II, the liberal global order. . . has spread more freedom and prosperity around the world than at any other time in history. . ." Granted, such triumphalism might have been defensible (for those ignoring, for example, U.S. interventions in the Global South) before the dawn of the climate and immigration crises. However, today its uncritical hubris is embarrassing as the system's train of destruction stretching back to capitalism's dawning are seen as threatening the very continuation of human life as we know it. We can now see that capitalism has not really been successful. Quite the opposite. Persisting in lionizing the system while ignoring its run-away destruction prevents serious analysts from imagining the fundamental changes necessary to address the system's basic failure. Apparently, it prevented Friedman from doing so.
- Yellow Vest Criticism of Neo-liberalism: What consciously or unconsciously irks the international working class about neo-liberal globalization is the fact that the reigning economic model accords rights to capital that it steadfastly denies or severely restricts in the case of labor. It grants capital the right to cross borders wherever it will in pursuit of low wages and high profits. Meanwhile, it insists that labor, an equally important element of the capitalist equation, respect borders and/or severe restrictions on its mobility. Evidently, this is because the authors of the system (politicians, corporate boards, and lawyers) realize that freer movement of labor especially from the East or Global South would outrage constituents and consumers within industrialized countries in the developed world. The "Yellow Vests" prove that such outrage has taken hold in France and threatens to spread across the continent as workers from Europe's former colonies extend and appropriate for themselves the logic of "free trade" heretofore acted upon only by capitalists and denied to labor. The immigration crisis is the result.
As noted earlier, the Friedman article throws up its hands in surrender before the changes he describes as perhaps signaling the end of Europe. He writes, "Here is what's really scary, though. I don't think there are national solutions to this problem simply cut taxes or raise taxes in the way there were in the past." So (to repeat) our author is left with the standard neo-liberal policies earlier described trickle-down tax cuts for corporations and austerity for workers implemented by the usual suspects with no mention of worker input.