dimanche 6 avril 2008

Germinal or terminal

Zola's 'Germinal' ends on a bright note. After the strike is broken, after babies starve and after hundreds of miners are killed in a huge underground explosion, the text ends on the idea of new optimistic beginnings germinating in the soil.

Yet a hundred years later, the prospects of left wing social change are frozen in the ground. Whilst everywhere the failure of liberal free market policies is evident, the left seems in terminal decline. In Britain, the Labour Party has long since abandoned even a notional attachment to its founding ideas, which were never that left wing anyway, the glimmer of revivial that Respect offered has been snuffed out due to internicine warfare and, sigh, splitters and strikes are at an all time low. In the Absurder today we even see the prospect of Gordon Brown "...backing [an] army cadet plan for schools" http://http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,2271362,00.html. an idea that even Thatcher would surely have dismissed for fear of precipitating further riots. In Germany there are small signs of a left recovery - Die Linke did well in last year's local elections - but this was against the background of a ferocious attack on working class living standards and the picture is not very bright much elsewhere in Europe.
Here in France, a left wing rebirth looks unlikely. The Socialist Party is about as distant from its roots as its British counterpart. In fact, one cannot even call it a party let alone 'socialist', in that its leaders despise eachother, factions are breaking out calling for (o no) "modernisation" and its big (s)hitters (Kouchner, Stauss-Khan, for instance) left the 'party' to join Sarkozy's government, last year. This would have been like Roy Hattersley and Denis Healy joining the Conservatives after the 1987 election débacle.

Come to think of it, this betrayal is really nothing of the sort. It's analogous to the way in which the Healey's/Hattersleys of this world, in the shape of the most odious one of them all, Anthony Blair, reveal their true politics by carrying on the work of capital governance. 'Je vote gauche but the government always gets in' is an ancient addage but one that reamiains to be refuted.

The photos were taken during a teachers' march against redundancies in the northern French city of Lille last month. If hope lay anywhere, Winston Smith thought, it lies with the proles. Now, teachers aren't supposed to be proles, but the way their pay has fallen relative to inflation over the last decade or so, effectively they are. The turnout for the event was quite low. Incredible as it might seem, over 40% of les profs actually voted for Sarkozy and his brand of dysfunctional neo-liberalism. To no one's surprise, he's pursuing a policy of not replacing teachers once they've retired, attacked pension rights and has forced unions to accept a 0.8% pay rise this year (which amounts to a 2% pay cut once you take inflation into account).

This is France, 40 years after May '68 so you might have thought there'd be a major reaction against this. But only 2500 or so turned up to this outing. And yes, there were a lot of greying bears, ageing streetfighters and depressed looking crumblies. To make things worse, it rained, it was cold and by the end we were marching/walking hurriedly through driving sleet.

So there are reasons to be depressed. The front of the march here is hardly a vangaurd of the revolution. One whiff of pepper spray and the whole rank and file of them would collapse and disperse. You get the feeling on these demos (like the ones against the Iraq invasion in 2004/5) that you're on a funeral march and not a protest. Cars stop, when the rozzers order them to, but i get the sensation sometimes that if they carried on driving, they'd pass through the crowd as if we were made of smoke or were like ghosts. When the people in the streets look at us, which is not very often, it's as if they're seeing something alien something from the outside, something that doesn't belong. A mixture of surprise and incredulity crosses their faces. Our shouts, slogans and music echoe emptily off the buildings from whose windows watch bored distracted workers, their faces sullen and pale. The speeches at the end are garbled, read quickly, like a vicar and guests ministering a funeral, so all can get away as soon as possible.
These wakes seem only to remind their participants of the futility of their demands and the hopelessness of their position. Soon after this nationwide protest, further cuts to the education budget have been announced. Then, the week after, the left 'won' the municipal elections but the government "interpreted" this defeat as a sign of the population's frustration at the slowness of its reform program.
It's April now, Lawrence said the "cruelest month", and it's snowing in London and here in Costa del Armentieres. All across the world, the situation gets that slightly bit more difficult for the little people, the factory workers in Xianzing province, the solderer of circuit boards in HajduBiharCounty Hungary or TZR teachers in Pas-de-Calias or the miners in Chile or Australia or the steel workers in India. Capital governance is making proles out of us all. It is all it can do. There is no poitical representation for them in China, the US or Europe. Soon the wake will be over. The sun will warm the earth and Spring will be here.