France’s Yellow Vests: Their Program Should Be Our Program

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.

Necessary Reforms

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.

None of that will work for the Yellow Vests. They want their voices heard. They want democracy at all levels. Such democratic ideal suggests changes far beyond the tired nostrums offered by Friedman – or perhaps even imagined by the French protestors themselves. These might include:

  • Democratized International Trade Agreements: Trade agreements like the European Union or NAFTA for that matter need to be negotiated with workers taking part. That means that the real EU question isn’t whether or not Great Britain should renegotiate its Brexit. The real issue is the reformulation of the EU Charter itself. The whole thing has to be rethought with the circle of negotiators widened to include all stakeholders. This means going beyond politicians, corporate heads, and lawyers to include trade unionists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, educators, social workers, women, and representatives of children. In the process, each stake-holding group must have equal votes to complement their intellectual input. The same holds true for NAFTA.
  • Democracy at Work: Workers like the Yellow Vests spend most of their lives at work. Hence, their demands for democracy suggest, that any concept of self-governance must be broadened from the exercise of voting franchise every few years to include democracy at work. In its most effective form, democracy there takes the form of worker-owned cooperatives, where workers decide what to produce, where to produce it, and what to do with the profits. Enterprises of this type would never elect to pollute their neighborhoods, to pay outlandish salaries to administrators, to move their firm to a foreign country, or to lay off workers because of technological advance (all Yellow Vest complaints). Introducing such change is entirely possible. For instance, since 1985 Italy has taken steps to favor cooperative ownership. According to the country’s Marcora Law any company going out of business must extend to workers the right of first refusal in the case of a firm’s transfer of ownership.
  • Democratization of the New Technology: Democratic movements like the Yellow Vests need not be Luddite vis a vis the introduction of new technology. Instead, they might welcome any “labor saving” technologies. However, the point of such introduction would not be to down-size the labor force, but to shrink time spent on-the-job. For too long computers and artificial intelligence have been used by employers to cut labor costs and increase profits rather than to expand worker free time. By contrast, worker-friendly technological policies could make widespread job-sharing possible to eliminate unemployment. Four-hour workdays could replace present overwork. It could become possible to work only 6 months per year, or to take sabbaticals every few years without any reduction in pay.
  • A Green New Deal: Part of eliminating unemployment entails implementation of a Green New Deal (GND) to address climate chaos in ways that mirror Roosevelt’s original New Deal to combat the disastrous effects of the Great Depression. Prominent among the GND’s provisions must be the contemporary equivalent of the old Civilian Conservation Corps – this time to accomplish the environmental ends that the economy’s private sector is unwilling or unable to achieve.  
  • A Marshall Plan for the Former Colonies: To reverse the influx of immigrant workers, the former colonial powers must stop the wars and environmental policies that end up creating refugees and migrants in the first place. This means, first of all, ending their resource-wars and the failed war-on-terrorism. Secondly, however, the old colonists need to implement a New Marshall Plan in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, where centuries-long resource-extraction policies have created the very poverty, hunger, and unemployment that has transformed the Global South from a natural paradise to a cauldron of social inequities. Besides being a remedy for the migration crisis, a grand Marshal Plan for the Global South is a matter of reparations.
  • Implementation of the NIEO: Specifically, reparations should entail something like the implementation of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) demanded by the Group of 77 within the United Nations in 1974. The New Order would grant Global South countries the power to control multinational investments within their borders. Recognizing that no country has ever achieved “development” as a mere supplier of raw materials to already industrialized countries, the order would require the latter to make large transfers of capital to the former colonies in the form of money and technology. It would also guarantee stable prices for raw materials from previously colonized nations in exchange for finished products (like tractors and computers), with the prices for the latter indexed to the established value of the raw materials.
  • Implementation of A New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO): As recognized by the UNESCO McBride Report in 1980, the former colonies need not only a new economic order, but one in which special attention is given to the international flow of information. The Global South needs a world information system that gives its inhabitants themselves the ability to portray and understand their own reality rather than being dependent on their former keepers for information about their lives, cultures and politics.     
  • Deep Cuts in Military Spending: All of this would be financed by higher taxes on the world’s 1% and by developed world cuts in military spending. Such increases and cuts would (1) recognize that the present war on terror is an utter failure, and (2) divert money now spent on attacking countries in the less developed world to constructive projects there such as rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals, power plants and water purification systems. Arguably, this would do more to combat terrorism than wars and bombing campaigns which many see as aggravating the problem of global terror. Again, this is a question of reparations.  


The elegance of the just-listed responses to France’s Yellow Vests and to the crisis of the neo-liberal order the protestors are rebelling against is that they are not new. In the cases of the New Deal and Marshall Plan, they enjoy a proven track record. At the same time, the prescriptions are much more detailed than the abstract cliches reflected in Thomas Friedman’s endorsements of neo-liberal austerity and “more nimble” decision-makers drawn from the professional classes.

Instead, the suggestions just listed have been with us since the 1930s (in the case of the New Deal), since the 1940s with the Marshall Plan, and since the mid’70s and early ‘80s with the proposed NIEO and NWICO. For their part, as Richard Wolff points out, worker co-ops have been hugely successful, for instance in the Mondragon Corporation in Spain and throughout the world, including France and the United States. Across the globe, worker cooperatives already employ 250 million people and in 2013 represented $3 trillion in revenue. Meanwhile, a huge body of literature from the 1960s and early ‘70s described a world in which computers and robotics would be used not to one-sidedly increase corporate profits, but to provide lives of leisure and enjoyment for ordinary people.

None of this is unrealistic, dreamy or impractical. In other words, we have the Yellow Vests to thank for helping us recall that another world is not only possible, but that we’ve already experienced it!

“Captain Phillips”: Cavalry to the Rescue


Prairie Schooners transporting goods across the plains are attacked by savage Indians. The cavalry comes to the rescue and slaughters the “tribals.” We all go home feeling safe and proud of our armed forces.

Mutatis mutandi, that’s the basic story of “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks and the splendid Somali actor, Barkhad Abdl. Though familiar in basic plot-structure, the film spins a nonetheless gripping account of the 2009 piracy of the container ship, Maersk Alabama, on the open seas. The ship is waylaid by four Somali ex-fishermen turned pirates. The captain, Rich Phillips, is abducted by the bandits. The Navy Seals are called in. They kill the pirates, rescue the captain. And normalcy returns.

The inattentive will no doubt experience the simple catharsis afforded by such “action thrillers.” However, in the case of “Captain Phillips,” there is more to the story than good guys rescuing the innocent from the clutches of savages. In fact, the story, based on actual events occurring in 2009, has much to tell about globalization, national sovereignty, and the military-industrial complex.

Begin with globalization.

The back story of “Captain Phillips” demonstrates that we’re living through an era of buccaneer business, where multinational corporations act like lawless pirates. They roam the globe and operate where they will, regardless of international law, territorial waters, national boundaries, environmental impact, and the noxious effects their investments might have on local populations.

Somalia provides a case in point. There, overfishing by factory ships from Europe and the United States has left tribal fishermen without income. What fish escape the nets of the giant sea trawlers have been poisoned by toxic waste flushed from container ships off Somalia’s coast. Along with loss of income by local fishermen, plummeting living standards, and otherwise avoidable deaths from poverty and starvation are the predictable results.

This is where national sovereignty comes in.

In the absence of an effective national coastguard, such practices have forced locals to form citizens’ defense groups like the National Volunteer Coast Guard . Initially, these attacked the offending ships to drive them from Somalia’s territorial waters. Though characterized as “pirates” by western media, such groups enjoyed the support of Somalia’s affected population. According to a survey by Wardheer News, about 70% in Somalia’s coastal communities “strongly support[ed] the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”

Eventually, such “pirates” discovered that responding in kind to buccaneer businesses (represented by container ships) could itself replace lost revenue from fishing. Whether understood as such or not, “reparations” could in effect be seized by attacking ships on the open seas. There goods could be confiscated and hostages taken in return for large ransoms. Ensuing battles amounted to one highly financed buccaneer business competing against another more primitive, poorly financed counterpart.

Never mind limiting concepts such as open seas, territorial waters, international boundaries, or other legal considerations. From viewpoint of the impoverished “pirates,” if such limitations did not apply to their competitors, neither did they apply to them. It’s all “free enterprise” at its rawest – the law of the jungle, the Wild West, or of Cowboys vs. Indians. As Muse, the “captain” of the pirates attacking the Maersk Alabama put it, “No al-Qaeda here. This is just business.”

But then comes the overwhelming response from the military-industrial complex. Giving the lie to right-wing claims of independence from government, Maersk Shipping demonstrates the ability to call in the Navy Seals to protect its private enterprise operations. As portrayed in “Captain Phillips,” the White House itself is involved. After all, if private firms are threatened, “America’s” credibility is on the line.

Two cruiser ships, their crews of hundreds, several helicopters, and parachuting Seals are all employed to enforce the Law of the Sea on four impoverished “pirates.” This is a law whose rejection by the big-time pirates and their protectors was the root cause of the Somalis’ small-time piracy in the first place.

What to take away from all of this? Myths are powerful. And we should beware of their ability to blind us. Though Hollywood can no longer get away with enforcing such archetypes by portraying Indians as savages, it’s still free to do so with Muslim tribals. After all the West has already been won; there is no longer need to vilify “Indians.”

Muslim tribals are another story. Their resources are still up for grabs.

Fascism Is “Capitalism in Crisis”

Princess Bride

This is the third installment in a series on “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”

[Last Monday this series on the Second Coming of Adolf Hitler tried to connect Hitler and the response to the tragedies of September 11th, 2001. In the aftermath of those events, the U.S. Vice President’s wife, Lynne Cheney and her American Council of Trustees and Alumni identified university and college professors as “the weak link in the fight against terrorism.” They found it particularly offensive that some of the latter had identified the September 11th attacks as “blowback” for “American” Hitler-like policies in the Third World. Such response inspired me to do some research on the question paying particular attention to data found in a standard Western Traditions textbook used in many institutions of higher learning, Jackson Spielvogel’s “Western Civilization.” This third installment attempts to clear up some common misconceptions about fascism which many see as threatening to take over the U.S. today just as it did Germany in the early 1930s. (Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to Spielvogel’s text.)]

The thesis here is that privatized globalization is a continuation of Hitler’s system of fascism which is understood here as “capitalism in crisis.” To understand that position, it is first of all necessary to clear up prevailing confusions about fascism itself. Not surprisingly, misunderstandings abound concerning its nature. Most correctly identify fascism with a police state, with institutionalized racism, anti-Semitism, and totalitarianism (though they typically remain unclear about the term’s meaning). Most too are familiar with concentration camps, the Holocaust, and, of course, with Adolf Hitler. Some can even associate the Nazi form of fascism with homophobia and persecution of Gypsies. However, rarely, if ever will anyone connect fascism with capitalism. For instance, here is Jackson Spielvogel’s (Western Civilization) textbook description of Hitler’s thought:

“In Vienna, then, Hitler established the basic ideas of an ideology from which he never deviated for the rest of his life. At the core of Hitler’s ideas was racism, especially anti-Semitism. His hatred of the Jews lasted to the very end of his life. Hitler had also become an extreme German nationalist who had learned from the mass politics of Vienna how political parties could effectively use propaganda and terror. Finally, in his Viennese years, Hitler also came to a firm belief in the need for struggle, which he saw as the “granite foundation of the world.” Hitler emphasized a crude Social Darwinism; the world was a brutal place filled with constant struggle in which only the fit survived” (794).

Here it is interesting to note that racism, especially anti-Semitism, nationalism, propaganda, terror and Darwinian struggle are signaled as defining attributes of the Hitlerian system. Capitalism is not mentioned, though “struggle” is. Perhaps, had the term “competition” been used instead of “struggle,” the basically capitalist nature of “Social Darwinism,” and fascism might have been clearer.

Fascism and Communism

Textbooks typically add to the confusion by closely connecting fascist Nazism and Communism. For instance, Spielvogel’s Western Civilization deals with Hitler’s fascism and Josef Stalin’s socialism back-to-back, linking the two with the term “totalitarianism.” Spielvogel’s transition from one to the other illustrates how the merely mildly interested (i.e. most college students) might come away confused. He writes, “Yet another example of totalitarianism was to be found in Soviet Russia” (801). Spielvogel defines totalitarianism in the following terms:

“Totalitarianism is an abstract term, and no state followed all its theoretical implications. The fascist states – Italy and Nazi Germany – as well as Stalin’s Communist Russia have all been labeled totalitarian, although their regimes exhibited significant differences and met with varying degrees of success. Totalitarianism transcended traditional political labels. Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany grew out of extreme rightist preoccupations with nationalism and, in the case of Germany, with racism. Communism in Soviet Russia emerged out of Marxian socialism, a radical leftist program. Thus, totalitarianism could and did exist in what were perceived as extreme right-wing and left-wing regimes. This fact helped bring about a new concept of the political spectrum in which the extremes were no longer seen as opposites on a linear scale, but came to be viewed as being similar to each other in at least some respects” (Spielvogel 789).

Here Spielvogel correctly points out “significant differences between fascism and communism. One is radically right, the other radically left. Nazism is identified with nationalism and racism (not, it should be noted, with capitalism). Communism is associated with Marxism and socialism. In the end, however, the two are viewed as “similar to each other in at least some respects.” Thus, clarity of distinction given with one hand seems to be erased with the other. Confusion is the typical result. Such fogginess might have been cleared had Spielvogel employed greater parallelism in his expression – i.e. had he identified Stalinist communism with police-state socialism and Hitler’s Nazism with police-state capitalism.

National Socialism

Nonetheless, history books and teachers are not solely at fault for student confusion. There are other understandable reasons for the distancing of fascism from capitalism. For one, Hitler’s Party called itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). As a result, it is quite natural for students who reflect on the question at all, to conclude that Hitler and his party were “socialist,” or even “communist,” since the two terms are almost synonymous for most Americans. After all, well-indoctrinated students would be justified in reasoning that Hitler did such terrible things he must have been a communist.

Lost in such analysis is the historical realization that during the 1930s, all sorts of approaches to political-economy called themselves “socialist.” This is because they supported state intervention to save the market system that was in crisis during the Great Depression. Thus, there were socialisms of the left as found in Soviet Russia. But there were also socialisms of the right, such as Hitler’s in Germany, Mussolini’s in Italy, and Franco’s in Spain. In other words, interventionist economies easily adopted the “socialist” identification to distinguish themselves from laissez-faire capitalism, which in the aftermath of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, had been completely discredited. As we shall see below, in such context (were it politically possible) Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionist program to save capitalism could easily have been called National Socialism instead of the “New Deal.”

However, analysis of fascism’s approach to socialism must recognize the national character of the socialism advocated. [Yet even here, according to Spielvogel, Hitler’s program had a distinctly international dimension eerily evocative of promises associated with the current global economy. Spielvogel recalls, “After the German victories between 1939 and 1941, Nazi propagandists painted glowing images of a new European order based on “equal chances” for all nations and an integrated economic community.” (829)] The critical adjective (nationalist) was intended precisely to distinguish the right wing brand of socialism from its left wing international antagonist. In this connection Hagen Schulze writes in Germany: a New History (2001):

“The catch-phrase “national socialism” itself had been created before the First World War as a means to unite a variety of nationalistic organizations in the battle against “international socialism.” The term was designated to appeal to the working class, but it also proved attractive to young people from the middle and upper classes with romantic notions of Volksgemeinschaft, a “popular” or “national” community” (231)

The implication here is that right wing zealots “co-opted” a popular term to confuse the young – a strategy employed to this day with great success. Here as well one should note that “national socialism” is signaled as a direct opponent of “international socialism.”

Fascism as Mixed Economy

Yet another reason disjoining fascism from capitalism is that fascism was not capitalism pure and simple. (The same might be said of Roosevelt’s New Deal – and even today’s U.S. economy.) Both systems were “mixed economies.” That is, if capitalism’s essential components are private ownership of the means of production, free and open markets and unlimited earnings, socialism’s corresponding elements are public ownership of the means of production, controlled markets and restricted earnings. Both Roosevelt and Hitler combined the two approaches to economy.

Once again, in a period when free market capitalism had been widely discredited, both Hitler and Roosevelt performed a kind of “perestroika.” Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev would later use the term to refer to the restructuring of socialism, in order to save it by incorporating elements of capitalism. The suggestion here is that more than a half-century earlier, Roosevelt and Hitler had done the opposite; they had incorporated elements of socialism into the capitalist system in order to resurrect it. So, while the means of production most often remained in private hands, others (such as the railroads, the postal system, telephones and highways) were nationalized.

Similarly, while the free market was allowed to continue in many ways, its freedom was restricted by measures socialists had long advocated (e.g. rationing, legalized unions, social security, wage and price controls). Finally, high income taxes were used to restrict earnings and garner income for the state to finance its interventionist programs. [Few recall, for instance, that during the 1940s, U.S. federal income tax rates assessed incomes over $400,000 at a rate of 91% (See Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, 567-8). Government revenue collected in this way paid for populist programs that modestly redistributed income to the American working class and unemployed. Such redistribution found its way into workers’ pay envelopes, but also took the form of “social wage.”]

None of this is to say that Roosevelt’s and Hitler’s interventionist economies were the same. Mixed economies, after all, are not the identical. The key question for distinguishing between them is, “Mixed in favor of whom?” Some mixed economies are mixed in favor of the working class, others, in favor of their employers. As the product of a liberal capitalist, Roosevelt’s mixture successfully sold itself as the former. That is, while keeping most means of production securely in the hands of capitalists, Roosevelt gained the support of the working classes through his populist programs aimed at gingerly redistributing income downward towards those unable to fend for themselves. In other words, Roosevelt’s “mixed economy” was blended so as to facilitate its defense in populist terms – that is, as mixed in favor of the working class. And the defense achieved plausibility with the American people. Despite objections from more overtly pro-business Republicans, Roosevelt was elected four times in succession. His party remained in control of the U.S. Congress for nearly a half-century.

Hitler had another approach. Influenced by Herbert Spencer and (indirectly) by Friedrich Nietszche (see below), der Fuhrer was an extreme social Darwinist whose programs unabashedly favored elite Aryans and despised “the others,” particularly socialists, Jews, trade unionists, non-whites, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and other “deviants.” On the other hand, Hitler despised “liberal” politicians like Roosevelt, with their programs of social welfare. On those grounds, he vilified the Weimar government which preceded his own. During the early years of the Great Depression, Weimar politicians had attempted to gain the favor of the working class, and to sidestep civil war by implementing wealth distribution programs (233). Funding the programs necessitated tax increases, unpopular with middle and upper classes. It meant strengthening unions along with socialists and communists.

The point here is that is it with good reason that few make the connection between fascism and capitalism. A student of Spielvogel, for instance, would have to be quasi-heroic to do so. After all, he or she would be not only resisting the confusion fostered by the text itself, but would also be swimming against the stream of American propaganda, which treats Hitler’s system as the product of an evil individual, and unconnected with any specific economic system (other than, mistakenly, socialism or communism).

Despite such ambiguity, next week’s blog entry will attempt to demonstrate more specifically that even a closer reading of a text like Spielvogel’s makes unmistakable the connection between fascism and capitalism.