What's it going to be, then?
"we can see that there are no organised groups capable of taking on western governments, no matter how weak those governments might be."
except there are, its Corporations. And they already have control of all the relevant power structures in the West, and soon hope to Globally. There's a reason the rioters acted like consumers instead of citizens looking for Justice, because a Consumer is what a Citizen used to be in the West, as consumerism has replaced any other ideology, by decades of careful manipulation by powerful private interests. The Billionaires are your new unelected Kings, ruling their private de-facto Kingdoms, its a new Crypto-Feudalist Age.
Thanks Aurelien, an excellent analysis. On one point I disagree, and from the whole of the article I believe you don't really consider that “they smash things for the fun of it”. This violence is no more just out of boredom, the hate is cathartic now.
When I was a teenager pre 87 I found myself caught up in a spontaneous riot that erupted during a concert in the middle of a major city, one moment the crowd went from intoxicated young people listening to music, to a window smashing and looting rampage in the centre of the city. The catalyst was over policing but the anger was all about haves and have nots, alienation from a culture that openly worshipped the excesses ofthe greed is good ethos, the deregulation and heartless politics of the day.There is no thinking involved in rioting, it's intoxicating, raw and illogical. As you mention its a response to how people feel about their lives and future, the destruction of property is on one level sending a message "if we cant have a share of the good life then we are going to break it" but the difference in France is the protracted nature of it, its only spontaneous once.
Let's not confuse protests and riots. Political protest are extremely boring and often involve lots of speeches almost nobody wants to quietly stand there and listen to. A protest can at best hope to impress by enormous size and persistence (hard to muster) or disrupting normal communications. Protests make for dismal TV and have little impact on politics unless they are huge, in which case they can work (e.g. the Canadian truckers seem to have ended Covid pandemic).
Riots are quite a different thing. Rioters seek trouble and loot. Every population has its share of potential rioters. Bill Buford's "Among the Thugs" is worth a read to understand the psychology. I grew up in Glasgow in the 70s and know the type well: frightening. But they are basically opportunistic, much more interested in fighting than policy and government. Rioters are often attracted to big protests for the obvious reasons.
Riots tend to break out at big protests, unless the protesters are especially well prepared to prevent it. Often riots are arranged (by whom? we never really find out) at protests to stymie the protesters' political goals. I did not take part in the mass protests in the USA at the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. But watched and I well remember thinking that the cops will love it. They love to start a fight and how can they fail? Then these boring protests will turn into fire and riots and the TV will love it. In a few days the script will be all about the violence and destruction and the cops will get even bigger budgets, even better benefits and even more support from politicians.
So I don't think we get far trying to read the meanings of political protest by examining riots. I don't see why we would expect to find it there.
Interesting that no mention of 1/6. In spite of all the PMC mewling about "existential threat to Muh Democracy ZOMG!" it's not as 1/6 could have prevented Biden from becoming president because the magic ceremony wasn't performed properly and the haruspex detected Bad Juju.
Anyway, one of the beauties of an AK-47 is that just about any foolio can operate one well enough to kill people. But the French PMC doesn't care if a few cops get killed, as long as their sinecures are not affected.
What I suspect we will see is a fusion between Macron and the Far Right. The French, European and American PMC are all fine with this, as long as and to the extent that the resulting bouillabaisse does not question France's Atlanticist orientation in general, or the war on Ukraine in particular.
Hi Aurelien. Thanks for your writing. It is appreciated.
I'd love to better understand your take on LFI and Melenchon, you are one of the increasing number of people whose take I respect who seems very critical but I don't quite understand why.
I went back to your article on 'more victories for the left please', to see if I had missed anything but, even though I am mostly on board with what you write there, I haven't really found anything to answer my 'confusion' about some of your statements above.
In the above article LFI is seemingly depicted as part of the notional Left close to the PMC which you wish to distance your views/argument from? I have a few objections.
LFI and Melenchon are largely the red target at the moment whether it be from the Macronistes, LR or RN. They are called, 'Islamo-gauchiste', 'intellectual terrorists', 'La France Incendiaire', etc. so quite clearly they are not the easy to handle 'notional left' of Hollande or Cazeneuve (and the rift there is quite obvious).
I agree that many socialists have tended to think this was the revolutionary moment (you allude to 68), and that does seem quite misguided given the raw chaotic nature of the latest riots, nevertheless the diagnostic you produce is quite similar to that put by LFI: neoliberal impunity has a cost, that eventually blows up in your face if not addressed. Calling for calm (as the PMC constantly does and as LFI is said to insufficiently do) is largely performative and proof of our impotence. Clearly the mainstream media and the political centre seems to be taken by this moral stance as if it had substance. LFI's position is that this posturing is empty, what is needed is an analysis, followed by a program, budgets, policies.
You say there needs to be an ideology, a narrative, etc. Melenchon is one of the only politicians I can think of who actually publishes his thoughts on theory, strategy and pragmatic program. He has been doing this for years, we can in fact agree and disagree with him on specific points, he is far from elusive or vague in comparison to most.
Given that the two main parties scored so dramatically low at the last presidential election, I also find it quite surprising to state that LFI is 'insignificant' or more or it being dismissed in the way it seems to be above.
Further, with the NUPES and the pensions protests (e.g. the intersyndicale), and despite the internal tensions, it also seems to me that LFI has actually done relatively well at focusing on the pragmatics, forming alliances, putting pressure on the government in the assembly but also in the economy with inciting the right to strike, etc. I understand that all of this has still been too little to move the needle, however I don't quite see how it could have been done that much better (more grève reconductible perhaps? as mentioned in the article, it is quite likely that more violence would play against the left politically as well as against its own agenda).
Most of the coverage of the riots after Nahel's death has focused on immigration. Call me a die hard leftist, but I find that quite unsettling. And this is not because I am against talking about immigration but because only weeks ago, Darmanin's police were beating up environmentalists and pension-scheme protesters, I see little reason to consider these events as radically different. They are clearly all manifestations of the impunity with which the PMC runs the show. The indiscriminate destruction is only telling of how much more disenfranchised these populations are in the 'cités'. I think it a fairly well established anthropological insight that alienated people who have nothing to lose and no stakes in society can do things that to anyone who is in the fold looks completely irrational and counter productive.
The point here, from the left (at least of the scientific socialist variant), is that moral judgement is hollow. Norms are important for sure, however we need to acknowledge what is happening empirically, de facto, and understanding why it is happening, rather than simply state 'it shouldn't happen'.
While I agree that the violence will play right into LR and RN's hand, and that indeed some of the left's 'revolutionary fantasy' was somewhat laughable, I also think the left's agenda is harder to bring about by nature. It doesn't play on scapegoats and fears, it is about long term planning of improving material conditions, it's a hard 'sell' and I don't think there are any easy for the left to win politically without corrupting its own aspirations for solidarity (and the internal debate of means and ends has been raging since the inception of 'the left'). Indeed, unlike ISIS which you take as an example, you can't in fact bring about 'inclusive society' by shooting anyone who disagrees. So what remains available? Numbers (and so: how to make the political aspiration stick?).
And finally, the reason why the left does not bring about immigration, is not in my view mostly out of 'moral superiority' (although it is that too), it makes perfect political sense not to. Immigration as a subject has a frame and basic assumptions most people go into the discussion with, and that frame has largely been defined by the hard right. Therefore, when the left engages on those grounds, it engages at a serious disadvantage from the outset, it needs to talk way too much (to establish another frame) before it can even begin to make a point. Just as we all engages at a serious disadvantage from the outset when talking economics given how established the neoliberal mindset has been internalised.
In any case, sorry about the long comment, I'd love to hear from you or anyone else here who can tell me why, if committed to leftist aspirations (as defined in your article on victories for the left), LFI is not fulfilling its role adequately.
*I couldn't agree more with the Anglo-Saxon's take on this or the pensions protests. Truly atrocious. It makes me quite mindful of reading international takes these days.
Clearly the philosophy of nihilism as expressed in writing and action going back to the 19th century doesn’t really describe what we’re seeing now. In the US it’s become fashionable to talk about deaths of desperation. We’re categorizing thinks like opioid overdose this way. Desperation is a pleasant, PMC way to say poverty.
I think that as western states fail, and almost all of them are failing, events like the French riots will become more common. They won’t have any underlying meaning of goal, just people who are feeling the failing of states first lashing out. The poor in developed states already know what life in a failed state feels like in many ways. Though it will get worse for them and it will get worse for them first.
Living in Russia in the 90’s leads me to caution people who discuss civil war, insurrection and the like when contemplating a failed western state. It almost certainly won’t look like that. A better picture can be formed by visiting the poorest section of the nearest city.
Civil war in Bosnia&Hercegovina started when an Islamic leader of a minority reneged on his signature on a deal (after he was visited by the USA ambassador). The other ethnic groups said what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
Former Canadian ambassador James Bisset explains: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkOoJfLQpO0
I agree with you that there is no ideology, no leaders and no concerted plan. There were no group of people meeting together at some point, right before the riots or earlier, to decide to send young people fight the police and burn down buildings.
But that doesn't mean there is no goal. The goal is a secessionist and feudalist one.
It is to send a message : "Don't interfere with whatever happens in our neighborhoods and let our own do whatever they want. If you don't comply, you better be ready for some razzias in your own neighborhoods." Because that's exactly what it was, razzias. Burning and looting. Making as much damage as possible.
And you can be sure that the government received the message full well. They will do exactly what they are asked to do : nothing.
Not because there is nothing to do. Just because doing something would show how much they were wrong so far and because, all in all, on the short term, it is much easier to do nothing.
As they rather see public buildings going up in flame and shop looted to the ground than take the political risk to hurt one of these rioting little angels, they will withdraw, drop some more buckets of borrowed cash and just hope that drug dealers and religious guys can keep the peace. Until next time. Until they ask for more...
This looks a lot like Spengler's formless masses. Large concentrations of people in the big cities with no structure, ethics, or identity.
I think it's potentially important to recognize that the "rioters" and "revolutionaries" usually are not the same people. In 1789, the French Revolution was preceded by food riots in Paris and peasants' riots in countryside, the burning of manor houses with the land tenancy paperwork etc and, in 1917, the sailors' mutinies were a big part of the early stages of the October Revolution. (My understanding is that much the same thing was true in Iran in 1979 and for that matter, the Arab Spring more recently.) Did these people have grievances? Yes, obviously. Were they necessarily articulate in their understanding of where the roots of their grievances lay or some kind of plan to address them? No, of course not. But were there people who were able to articulate some plan for a "revolution" (which, in practice, had very little to do with the peasants' or sailors' grievances) that just needed an opportunity (of the state being in crisis? Yes. The demands by the National Assembly, as these people styled themselves, of the French state had nothing to do with the peasants, but only the ideals of the "revolutionaries" who merely took the opportunity. Soon enough, the "revolutionaries," now in charge in Paris, were themselves crushing the peasants (the Vendee etc) who became a nuisance to their own rule. (Much the way Bolsheviks crushed the sailors when they rose up against the new power.)
In this sense, I think I'm in agreement with you in that trying to address the rioters at an abstract "what do they really want?" dimension is both untenable and undesirable. The first response by a serious state has to be to reimpose "order," just putting the social disruption to an end if it wants to preserve itself (and is capable of doing so). The paradox of the strange "Liberalism/Democracy" of today, though, is that the state lacks the ability to do so unless they make concessions to the "would-be-revolutionaries" on largely orthogonal dimensions: Liberal reforms of various kinds (that had nothing to do with peasants and probably would have raised bread prices in Paris if implemented in full) in 1789, various "social liberal" ideas (about diversity etc) today, or, perhaps, if things went in the other direction, various "libertarian" ideas mixed with "anti-social liberal" ideas--no one says only leftists are opportunistic power seekers). The thing is that the would-be-revolutionaries (like the French aristocrats) already have a seat at the tables of power. Their concession is needed for the state to act. The peasants (and the rioters today) are not. Political pluralism (if only limited to elites detached from the masses--but, really, because masses invariably can't articulate.) coupled with a weakened state apparatus are a dangerous combination. (and seems common in both pre-revolutionary state and early revolutionary stages.)
I wish we could ditch terms like Left and Right. Nothing we see today bears any resemblance to those terms. If anything, the polarity has reversed and it introduces more confusion than clarity. We need terms that indicate political philosophies favoring individual liberty versus Statism. Right now we see virtually every Western government in the Statist/global camp. Individual liberty be damned.
Hmm...there's one ideology that could provide people both the metaphysical answers that modern Liberalism can't, and a prefabricated political program to work towards, that I don't think you're conidering: Islamism. Musing over this article, I wouldn't be surprised if, over the next few years, we start to see a decentralized, but highly articulated and violent, Islamist ideology spread throughout Europe. Its nucleus will be in poor immigrant ghettos, but it will be just as much a protest against the traditional elites of those ghettos (caids, prominent families, establishment religious leaders) as it is against the government, and due to the European establishment's increasing inability to provide people with a meaningful life narrative, this Islamist ideology will quickly spread outside its immigrant strongholds and gain a not-insignificant amount of European converts (in particular, I think the BLM/"anticolonialist" subculture that's formed in western Europe will, for many of its members, prove to be a gateway drug to the new Islamism). However, as the new Islamism gains strength, the prospect of an Islamized Europe will prove repulsive to a large number of people as well, which will lead to the formation (or cohesion-it already exists in embryonic form) of a virrulently anti-Islamic right-wing subculture. Both of these groups will take over the functions of government-organized violence, of course, but also the policing of their members and the provision of welfare and jobs. Both will grow in strength as the ability of the "official" government to do anything declines. But ultimately, both will not be able to coexist in the same society...and well, this won't lead to a very good end, at all.
I think the Greek and Roman democracies came down because a rich class of citizens became the de facto government. The Oligarchs established an Oligarchy. In today's world it will come complete with democratic elections between nominees selected by the Oligarchs. There might even be some Oligarch Senators elected because everyone knows them and finds them agreeable. The collapse comes from the same place, greed and avarice. Oligarchs cannot stop accumulating assets. No matter how much they own. At that point there will be 'some fighting involved.'
Sorry, but the organized structures to conduct an insurrection do already exist or are in the process of being formed. It's the coagulation of crime gangs, fundamentalist networks and religious institutions working together in a myriad of ways and financed not only by the drug trade and mandatory contributions by ghetto inhabitants but also from abroad. Besides this economic, ideological and ethnic coherence, ghettos also provide geographical bases to operate from.
A couple of weeks ago Philip Pilkington was going on about a reduction in spending on food in France recently. Coincidence?