Everything has already been said about this city and the centuries-long link between what is decided here and what is diffused throughout the country. The city was constructed as the capital of the society throughout the period of absolute monarchy, and the revolutionaries who inherited it never made much of an effort to go beyond this useful tool called Paris.
From Louis XIV until now, through the times of the Napoleons, the Restorationists, and the Republicans, France has been governed from Paris by the Prefecture, the Police, and a miserable Assistanat 1. To this holy triptych the Market must be added, now on the point of replacing the Assistanat. In Paris, they never run out of finding ways to replace the famous and moribund Welfare State and its bureaucratic institutions with a series of contractual micro-relations connecting the unproductive with the market. Through these contracts, they administer a diffuse, paperless, and impersonal behavioral control.
Parallel to this transformation, the same offices never get tired of thinking about a new “societal phenomenon”. It is one that undoubtedly affects the entire globe but that in Paris is somehow understood as a “French” problem–radicalization. They’ve taken things quite seriously and redesigned the framework of future research in such a way as to inject a maximum of money into detecting and understanding “radicalization”. They are careful not to speak of Trump, the police, the fascist macro phenomenon, new micro-apparatuses of control, or the growing arms investment for the lovers of order2. They speak, instead, of everything that overwhelms what is left of an ever-shrinking “freedom of expression”, everything that refuses the neoliberal scenarios where all dignity, solidarity, and radiant future are destroyed.
Thus an even more mutilated future is prepared. It arrives quickly and loudly, for whoever wants to hear it, proclaiming that no alternative solution is possible. It’s true that in the present state of the world, every alternative solution corresponds to the destruction of these little masters and little fortresses of Paris. It’s this very fear that continuously compels our managers to refine the tools of an algorithmic yet purely repressive domination. In 1934, Simone Weil wrote a reflection on the origins of totalitarianism that would be good for us to re-read today:
Those who are called the masters, ceaselessly compelled to reinforce their power for fear of seeing it snatched away from them, are forever seeking a dominion essentially impossible to attain; beautiful illustrations of this search are offered by the infernal torments in Greek mythology. It would be otherwise if one man could possess in himself a force superior to that of many other men put together; but such is never the case; the instruments of power–arms, gold, machines, magical or technical secrets–always exist independently of him who disposes of them, and can be taken up by others. Consequently, all power is unstable.
The instability of Paris and society itself has been demonstrated multiple times in the past years. There are the attacks, the powerful movement of 2016, the scandals, the enormous refugee camps, the silent shipwreck of politics, and the divorce between reality and political representation. At the same time, an atmosphere that compresses the human beings of this earth to the point of implosion makes Paris, France, and Europe such unstable places that in order to maintain the madness, even for a few years, a state of permanent stasis is necessary. Only a government of a fascist tenor would know how to clearly assume this truth, which is now happening throughout the world.
Sadly, democracy can hardly make do with such a state of affairs. Instead of suppressing it (which comes slowly), it changes paradigms. “So if you don’t want fascism, you must accept these new rules,” they say to us. “In any case, we’ll do everything to make sure that those who don’t accept these new rules perish”, says Macron, appealing to a resistance against fascism while validating a series of laws that establish a predictive and diffuse stasis, resulting in a permanent state of exception. The Sentinel Operation 3, which sees more French soldiers patrol national than foreign territory, corresponds to a state of permanent tension toward and against everything. This is France today. Everyone senses a diffuse form of fascism at work in the very form of democratic powers and a democratic police who, pursuing the real, increasingly try to predict and produce it.
While the liquidation of the final workers’ powers (the unions) is achieved by their own representatives, the strike itself becomes existential. The hunger strike becomes a common practice. There is no more downsizing, just the immediately vital experience of the world’s dissolution. Indistinctly, one goes on a hunger strike to defend a hospital, a school, a wooded grove or even one’s job. In short, to defend everything neoliberalism threatens to swallow in order to make it productive.
The last living and moving space, the cortège de tête 4, whose last great appearance dates back to May 1, 2018, seems to have disappeared with the end of the large protests. The first of May was a lesson for France. The official protest of the unions broke with the cortège de tête, following a different path. At the other extreme, the black bloc broke with it as well, like a drop of oil in water. The tens of thousands of members of the cortège de tête that were not part of the black bloc or the unions paid the price for this separation, which since then has never really been repaired. What created the force of this space wasn’t simply a mass of people, but an active solidarity that undermined the most primary work of the police–the separation of the wheat from the chaff. It seems now this same solidarity has again become an ineffective magical incantation, professed by everyone as a final gasp in the night.
Asphyxiated by the corpse-like rigidity of power, we feel the drowning come. Between the refusal of a vile destruction of one of the last livable spaces of Marseilles (La Plaine) and Paris (the wilderness of Romainville), and the movement of the gilets jaunes 5 or “yellow vests”, it seems now one breathes in and breathes out through a destructive urge.
For a few weeks now, a fluid movement whose point of departure was opposition to an umpteenth fuel tax has been underway. It’s hardly necessary to include a list of neoliberal reforms, as no one is ignorant of the cost of these “structural adjustments”. There’s barely a need to give an account of the state of French ecological systems and their destruction, as everyone already knows the world is on fire. As to the forces traditionally able to resist and oppose such facts, it is enough to say they’re in ashes. From the old colonies to the metropole, escaping the grasp of the parties, the unions, and all traditional political analysis, an unprecedented wave of blockades and riots was born. The official rhetoric is simple. It consists of a movement of simple people, more or less xenophobic racists, rednecks, and a frightened middle class. This rhetoric is shared by a significant part of the left, who accuses the yellow vests of not corresponding to the political categories and definitions of that which would truly be an emancipation. “Dear comrade, you have been trapped by the real”. To them, it somehow makes sense to think of the yellow vests in opposition to the ecologists (did you know that cars cause pollution?) and the feminists, who on November 24 held a march to protest violence against women. But what pathological need would there be to think of these “yellow vests” in such an oppositional way? Is it because they make demands in the name of the “people” and not the working class? Is it because they sometimes wave the French flag instead of the standard black and red? As if the International, the folklore of the Commune, autonomy or Leninism were not empty shells, worn out discourses like dry, eroded earth on which there is nothing to cultivate because it’s been worked over too much.
Analyses flourish. “It’s an interclass movement,” say the Marxists. “This movement has oppressors”, say others. “This movement has a penchant for authoritarianism and populism”, say the anarchists. “This movement is anti-ecological”, mostly everyone agrees. Yet whoever satisfies themselves with their political ideology is condemned to perish. This is the terrible lesson of the twenty-first century.
Everyone who was present on Saturday, November 24, knows these stupid oppositions don’t hold. The same gesture of wanting to bring down the presidential palace contains the positive affirmation of wanting to bring the ravaged state of the world to an end. This an observation shared by all the ecologists and feminists, whose eyes are open toward the horizon. Who seriously believes the yellow vests blockade the entirety of France for just one reason? For ten hours, tens of thousands of people tried to break through the police barricades to get to the Elysée Palace, the Parisian fortress that runs France. Not only the Champs Elysées but also all the side streets were invaded, at times up to a kilometer in all directions. Each intersection had its own barricade in flames.
Who knows what treasures we would have discovered in the presidential Palace if the thousands of protestors blocked on the city’s periphery by the forces of order had been able to come? If they hadn’t attacked with five-thousand tear gas canisters and three water cannons over ten hours in the same avenue, who knows what might have happened? The yellow vests are disparate. Some applaud the police, while others hate them, some denounce immigrants, while others express their solidarity. Most survive, and it’s from there one must start. What happened on Saturday, November 24, was that it was clear for everyone the police were the principle obstacle. A keen observer could see dubious banners waving, but also journalists harassed for having called the yellow vests an extreme right movement, anti-fascist slogans, and more modestly a veritable anger and anguish for a future that, in the Anthropocene, crosses all lines.
At the national scale, since November 17, blockades of highways, malls, tax offices, toll booths, traffic circles, oil storage depots, and refineries have continued in the hundreds day after day. This regime of action can’t last long-term, but it proves to be the serious part of the movement and its possible developments. A call to retake the Elysées on the first of December now circulates widely. It is certain power won’t again let the crowd so close to its doors. Perhaps it will be bloodier, in search of an impossible stability.
Almost a century ago, Kafka said: “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning – both throw up their arms. The first does it to signify harmony, the second to signify strife with the elements”. A time has come in which the ecstasy of the human being is drowning. It is profound, unfathomable, and certain. We return to a conflict with elements that inundate, hurricane, tornado, burn, and desertify, like what happens inside us. Each day laws, dictators, and tyrants triumph. Installed for planetary austerity, they are the final possible measure of a capitalism enraptured by its own force of self-destruction. Who will have the force to rise up? The Assistanat is a pejorative term used to describe the organization of supposed wealth re-distribution originally in the form of philanthropy and charity, and now in the deteriorating form of the Welfare State. Soon joyful ticket inspectors of the Parisian Metro, and by extension all of France, will be armed. This is an ongoing “anti-terror” military operation composed of over 10,000 troops that was launched after the attacks of January 2015. Cortège de tête is an inversion of tête de cortège, which literally means “head of the procession,” and refers here to the often funereal union parade classically positioned at the head of the march. While cortège, from the Italian corteggio, reveals its aristocratic roots as a term derived from the somber rituals of the royal court, the linguistic undoing of this formula marks the way in which the tired ritual of the march itself was unworked through the efforts of youth to outflank the unions’ parade and take the head of the march. As a symbol of their protest against the recent diesel tax, the “yellow vests” movement donned the “high-visibility” vests a 2008 law requires French motorists to keep in their vehicles in the case of an emergency.
↑1 The Assistanat is a pejorative term used to describe the organization of supposed wealth re-distribution originally in the form of philanthropy and charity, and now in the deteriorating form of the Welfare State.
↑1 Soon joyful ticket inspectors of the Parisian Metro, and by extension all of France, will be armed.
↑3 This is an ongoing “anti-terror” military operation composed of over 10,000 troops that was launched after the attacks of January 2015.
↑4 Cortège de tête is an inversion of tête de cortège, which literally means “head of the procession,” and refers here to the often funereal union parade classically positioned at the head of the march. While cortège, from the Italian corteggio, reveals its aristocratic roots as a term derived from the somber rituals of the royal court, the linguistic undoing of this formula marks the way in which the tired ritual of the march itself was unworked through the efforts of youth to outflank the unions’ parade and take the head of the march.
↑1 As a symbol of their protest against the recent diesel tax, the “yellow vests” movement donned the “high-visibility” vests a 2008 law requires French motorists to keep in their vehicles in the case of an emergency.