The majority of those who assembled in Paris in millions on Saturday did so to protest against the two murderous atrocities committed there and to defend free speech. The symbolic phrases which dominated placards and posters was ‘Je Suis Charlie‘. Nevertheless there were others who attended to assert their religious or national identity, to call for social cohesion or national unity. In other words there was a high degree of unity along with a degree of diversity. It was clear that from the immediate aftermath of the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo and the creation of the Je Suis Charlie hashtag, that there would be a huge outpouring of opposition to this outrage.
It was at this stage that the French political elite decided to endorse the idea of a mass rally and to make their emphasis a call for national unity with the bourgeois state against terrorism. This decision was quickly followed by an invitation from the French elite to approximately 50 heads of states to attend the rally and to lead it. It will not have escaped the political elite in Europe, as elsewhere, that for many years, there has been a growing rift between the ordinary citizens of the many states and the political elites in power. This includes a scant regard for those oppositions currently waiting for the next election.
Contradictions within the political elite.
Call me a cynic but I cannot exclude the possibility that most of these political ‘suits’ who lined up in Paris were far more motivated to attend by a desire to hold on political power, than the future of ‘free speech’. The sight of 40 plus politicians, many of them guilty of recently ordering indiscriminate bombings, targeted assassinations and torture, linking arms across a boulevard at the head of a march for ’free speech’ and against targeted assassinations was positively surreal. Let us start with their individual and collective hypocrisy concerning ‘free speech’. Not one of them has supported the right to free speech with regard to ‘whistle-blowing’ activists, nor to allow an open publication of their secret deals and other such nefarious activities. Gagging orders, secret diplomacy, black operations are the bedrock of their political careers and elevated positions.
The European political elite also declared they were against terrorism and its targeted or indiscriminate assassinations, yet the state forces they command are guilty of far more of these kinds of acts, than those they rightly condemn. With no embarrassment, they even invited to the rally one head of state, who only recently oversaw both the targeted and indiscriminate murder of thousands of people in the second such Blitzkrieg of Gaza. This is not to mention those outrages committed by the armed forces of Israel within the occupied territories of Palestine. Most of them had recently ordered and/or supported the countless indiscriminate bombings of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya etc., as well as hundreds of targeted drone strikes on those around the world they wished to silence or destroy.
Not only that but a number of them had already financed, the training and arming of a number of the original Islamic groups, when their Jihad was aimed elsewhere. The arms and weapons used by these new Islamic terrorists are not manufactured by primitive engineers and blacksmiths originating in the countries of the near east, but are the products of advanced weapons manufacturers – the majority of which – reside in the territories of those politicians linking each others arms in Paris. They displayed no embarrassment about their own citizens possibly being executed by the guns supplied by their own military or arms manufacturers. Nor the fact that they may be wielding them according to tactics taught by their own countries military experts.
Another contradiction for the elite and their policies of exploitation and social control arose out of the fact that only three well-armed, bloodthirsty and determined people, could bring substantial parts of one of the largest cities in Europe to an absolute locked-down standstill. Literally tens of thousands of the states highly armed bodies of men and women were necessary to track down, isolate and surround two people in one location and one in another. Despite the eventual success, it became clear to all those citizens in France (and elsewhere) that the modern state could not adequately protect them from terrorism. And for two good reasons. First, while it was engaged in state terrorism abroad it was effectively creating it at home as well as abroad. This opinion was expressed by many interviewed and by police experts in this field. Second, the sheer logistics and expense of this kind of ‘protection’ was too great to be permanent. Given the current scale of sovereign debt the current level state-funded anti-terrorism is likely to be reduced.
Finally, let us consider those elite utterances in France and elsewhere of support for the ideals of Equality, Liberty and Fraternity. Not one of them subscribes to equality, except with regard to voting rights. All else, education, housing, wealth, opportunity, freedom of movement, women’s rights are subject to the most extreme forms of inequality in all the countries of those elites assembled in France. Liberty, is hard for working people to find in these same countries, except the liberty to be poor or unemployed. Liberty is also not allowed to those falsely accused by these countries and once incarcerated many of them are brutally tortured as at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. And of course, Fraternity is practiced only among the elite themselves. The final contradiction I shall mention here is that these very political elites are instituting ’austerity’ for the bulk of their citizens and obscene ’affluence’ for the rich. Does that represent any commitment to Equality, Liberty and Fraternity?
Contradictions among the ordinary citizens.
When the white-collar, blue-collar and lower middle-classes assembled in their hundreds of thousands in the cold streets and squares of Paris and elsewhere it was not to demonstrate their unity with the political elite. They were there to support the right of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ radicals to speak their humorous and sarcastic truth to power, whether that power was political, religious or sectarian. These citizens, black, brown, white, young old, gay or disabled, marched or stood shoulder to shoulder and displayed no hostility to each other. There was no racism, no religious bigotry, and no expressions of class or political superiority. They were as one in solidarity against something they clearly held dear.
At bottom it was the right to openly express an opinion and the right to address that opinion to those holding any kind of power. The fact that many among them also mentioned the French revolutionary slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity indicated that they had more than just a standing up against terrorist assassinations in mind. The core of what the majority were expressing was humane and humanist aspirations. Yet, as was the case with those who assembled by the million in Tahir Square in Egypt, unity against a common threat is far easier to achieve than unity for something to transcend a number of common threats.
Faced with the current five-fold crisis of the capitalist mode of production everyone present at that rally and demonstration knew, to a greater or lesser extent, the problems they currently face. For example, in the economic spheres of life, many face unemployment or low wages; within the financial sector, the rip-offs and collapses have eroded even small savings; the steady reduction of public spending has created many pockets of social deprivation and alienation; everyone is faced with the environmental problem of pollution and ecological damages caused by the current mode of production; most of those attending will be aware of the corruption, fraud, cover-ups, institutional racism and sexism at the heart of the political, military, judicial and civil elites. This five-fold crisis is the common threat facing not only the French working classes, but all those workers around the world!
Yet given the size and extent of the problems facing them the undoubted temptation of most people will be to struggle as isolated individuals, small groups or to put their trust in those politicians who emerge and offer to put in place, radical but partial or reactionary measures. The temptation to simplify things and isolate some aspect of the crisis for blame, will be hard to resist and this temptation will be massaged and manipulated by those politicians who are already perfecting the new version of the ‘blame game’. Their task is to find a scapegoat and put all, or at least a significant part of the blame for the crisis, upon them. The right-wing, as they have done in the past, will seek that scapegoat from among the ordinary people.
Thus in Europe in the 1930’s the blame was put on Jews and Communists. In the 1970’s and 80’s Europe it was put on the Trade Unions. Now in the 21st century the target for blame is the immigrant – particularly the ordinary Muslim immigrant. This blame game is already having considerable success, in France as in all advanced capitalist countries in Europe and America. This is another part of the contradictions among the working populations of Europe. Low-paid immigrants were encouraged and recruited by the economic and political elite to compete against indigenous working people and have been offered jobs and housing previously available to the indigenous working people.
In this way there has developed an economic and social reason to be against immigration, but instead of the blame being levelled at the economic and political elite for this state of affairs, the blame is being put on the immigrant. The Islamic terrorists among the Muslim religion are ably assisting this right-wing blame game by their obscene atrocities. Thus the contradictions lying under the January show of unity and solidarity among ordinary people in Paris and elsewhere are many. The challenge, during and after the Paris Rally is the same. Will French white-collar workers turn their backs on blue-collar struggles and vice versa?: will both allow the racists to set upon Muslims and Jews?: will young people let pensioners struggle alone?: will those well housed be indifferent to the homeless? These are the same contradictions that face all the world’s working people.
These cracks in the foundations of bourgeois society can only be papered over for a short period of time before they are either consciously addressed, remedied or deliberately opened up wider. As was the case in Egypt and elsewhere, a lasting unity of the mass of working people, old, young, male, female, able-bodied or disabled can only be achieved by being based upon a programme of ending these economic divisions and social differences. This is the only way of avoiding the descent into a new form of ‘blaming the victim’ and possible totalitarian despotism. Yet to my knowledge, this type of message did not appear – even in an abbreviated form – on any placard held by any of those attending. Why was this? Whose job was it to at least attempt to introduce an alternative theme of practical unity to that of Nationalism promoted by the political elites in attendance?
Contradictions among the ‘left’.
I suggest the only ones sufficiently equipped to play the role of countering bourgeois ideology within such a rally would be any non-sectarian anti-capitalists and revolutionary- humanists who might exist within France. The reformist left could not do so, because they think Capitalism can be reformed economically and socially and to do this you need to galvanise the ‘nation’ behind the effort. They would therefore need the assistance of all classes in pursuit of their illusion of ‘fair’ wages and ‘comfortable’ social conditions within the very system that has destroyed these post-Second World War gains. For this reason, they would probably just blend in with the crowd and offer no alternative to the nationalist ideology pumped out by politicians and mainstream media.
In contrast the sectarian left would no doubt stay away from such a populist gathering as took place in Paris. They would probably see their attendance as an endorsement of the bourgeois nature of the rallies main theme ‘Je Suis Charlie’ instead of an opportunity to appropriately engage with as many energised demonstrators as possible. The opportunity to sensitively engage by leaflet or discussion in order to point out the many contradictions mentioned in the sections above would doubtless be spurned. I say this because the sectarian left, routinely stay away from demonstrations or actions called by other sectarian groups. It has happened many times before. There is a pattern among these groups which either boycott actions they do not control or whose leadership they fail to take over.
The rationalisations used by sectarians to avoid engaging with those workers who do not subscribe to an anti-capitalist or ‘politically correct’ perspective in such cases are often cleverly presented, but they amount to the same thing. A distancing of the sect from all those who disagree or do not conform to the sectarian view of practical struggle. The most important point for the sectarian is not what they have in common with working people but what particular point they have which is different. They implicitly or explicitly demand that workers agree with their full ‘programmes’ before they will join them in their mundane political struggles. As Marx noted with regard to one of the typical characteristics they display;
“By their very nature, the sects …are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions, in brief to any unified movement.” (Marx. ‘The First International and After’. Penguin p 298.)
Any vacuum in the realm of ideas left by the revolutionary- humanists and non-sectarian anti-capitalist left in mass movements which emerge will undoubtedly be filled with nationalist and reformist ones.
Roy Ratcliffe (January 2015.)