After a longstanding stranglehold on the political system, the two major parties are quickly disintegrating. Arising from those ruins are three presidential candidates:
A charismatic far-right candidate, originally thought to be a long shot before gaining huge support by openly espousing fascist ideals and consistently dog-whistling to racists and nationalists,
A centrist candidate, trying desperately (but failing) to downplay various ties and allegiances to the current system,
A leftist candidate, first thought to have no chance whatsoever, who ‘out of nowhere’ has inspired a huge movement of followers, whose sudden surge in the polls, threatens the chances of the centrist (who was thought to be a shoo-in.)
It sounds like the United States in the summer of 2016. And it is, for the most part, save for the fact that Bernie Sanders is only really a “leftist” by American standards. But what I am describing above isn’t the United States last summer, but instead what is happening in France on the eve of the first round of the 2017 French presidential elections.
The similarities between the two scenarios are striking, but what is also just as striking are the differences.
* * * * *
Similar to the American system, the French political system is often referred to as a “two-party” system; unlike in the United States, the parties in France have gone through various manifestations, alliances, and name changes. But for many decades now, the winner of Presidential elections in France have come from either the Republican Party (the dominant center-right party) or the Socialist Party (the dominant center-left party).
While the American political system (both in terms of structure as well as maneuvering on the part of the corporate powers that control it) allows little to no power or voice for any other than the two major parties, France uses a parliamentary system in which power-sharing is built into the structure, allowing smaller parties with much less power to also participate.
This is evident in the composition of the legislatures in the two countries, but in light of the current presidential election cycle in France and the presidential election cycle that recently concluded in the United States, it’s also important to note how this manifests in the participation in presidential debates.
In the United States, any third-party candidate who wishes to participate in presidential debates faces many barriers. Over the years, numerous third-party candidates have been excluded from the presidential debates on account of not polling at high enough numbers to qualify. Last summer, once the major candidates were decided through the primary system, the presidential debates only included the candidates from the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Parties, despite the fact that there were nearly two dozen candidates running for President of the United States.
On the other hand, in the French presidential debate held last week, otherwise known as Le Grand Débat, there were eleven candidates on stage debating each other in front of a national audience. Of those eleven candidates, three of them were overtly anti-capitalist. The candidates were as follows:
Emmanuel Macron, from En Marche! (On the Move), a centrist party founded by Macron which claims to represent ideas from both the Left and Right.
Marine Le Pen, from the Front National, a far-right party founded four decades ago by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Benoît Hamon, from the Parti Socialiste, the center-left party of France’s current President, François Hollande.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from La France Insourmise (Unsubmissive France), a new left party founded by Mélenchon last year, formerly of the Parti de Gauche, which was also founded by Mélenchon nearly a decade earlier.
Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, from Debout la France (Arise France), a right-wing party which he founded in 1999.
Nathalie Arthaud, of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), a Trotskyist party that traces its roots back to 1939.
François Asselineau, of the Union Populaire Républicaine, a right-wing nationalist party that advocates a strong anti-EU stance and was founded by Asselineau in 2009.
Jean Lassalle, of Resistons!, a centrist party that he founded last year which concentrates on rural issues.
As an American, it is inconceivable to me that we would ever witness a presidential debate in which not only one, but three separate candidates were not only avowed anti-capitalists but openly identified as Marxists or Communists. And yet, in France, such a scenario is de rigueur.
* * * * *
Unlike American elections, there are potentially two rounds of voting in the French presidential elections. In the first round, voters have a choice between all listed candidates. Assuming that no single candidate accumulates more than 50% of the total vote, the top two candidates then face off in a second round of voting a few weeks later. This year, the first round of elections is being held on April 23rd, and the second round will take place on May 7.
Under this structure, voters are free to vote for the candidate that they actually prefer, as opposed to being stuck in the ethical quandary that so many American voters find themselves in, such as in the last election where “a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Trump.” And historically, once the first round is over, the supporters as well as the parties of the candidates that do not advance align with each other as a coalition in order to defeat the candidate which poses the greatest threat to their beliefs and positions.
While political commentators and the public alike have assumed for months that no candidate would amass 50% of the vote and that the runoff would consist of Marine Le Pen versus either François Fillon or Emmanuel Macron, in the past few weeks the popularity and accompanying polling numbers of Jean-Luc Mélenchon have surged. This is in large part to the effects of Le Grand Débat, where Mélenchon arguably outperformed all of the other candidates while Le Pen, Fillon, and Macron were seen as performing poorly.
Similar to the rise of Bernie Sanders in the American primaries during the summer of 2016, the supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon are quickly mobilizing with the realization that their candidate has a chance to pull an upset. But unlike in the American system, the major parties in France do not have the opportunity or ability to suppress that surge.
Adding to the chances of Mélenchon’s success is the fact that France has strict broadcast rules requiring that equal time be given to all candidates and all views. While such laws exist in theory in the United States, in reality there are so many exceptions that the law holds no real strength. However, in France, where the law is strictly enforced to the point where dozens of government employees monitor all television stations and measure the amount of time given to each candidate to the second, the equal time law has allowed Mélenchon to reach a national audience in a manner that a candidate like Bernie Sanders could have only dreamed of.
Marine Le Pen
The candidate that has gotten the most attention by far, both in France as well as internationally, is Marine Le Pen, who within the course of a few years has transformed the Front National from a formerly fringe party into a mainstream contender.
The Front National (FN), founded in 1972 by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is rooted mainly in a rejection in the values of the French Revolution and a deep anger over Charles de Gaulle granting independence to Algeria after the conclusion of the Algerian War, in which Le Pen was directly involved. Throughout most of its history, the FN has been openly anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, fascist, anti-immigrant, and isolationist. In the nearly forty years in which Jean-Marie Le Pen ran the FN, he was prosecuted several times by both French and German courts for Holocaust denial, incitement of hatred against Muslims, and a physical assault against Socialist presidential candidate Annette Peulvast-Bergeal in 1997.
When Le Pen stepped down from FN leadership in 2011, his daughter Marine was elected as FN’s new leader. Marine Le Pen quickly began to soften the image of the FN, obscuring the far-right views that were a hallmark of the FN in more neutral rhetoric in order to garner greater public support. This strategy culminated in her expelling her own father from the party in the fall of 2015 after further controversial statements regarding WWII. Since the expulsion of her father, Marine Le Pen’s popularity and her public profile has greatly increased.
Marine Le Pen’s strategy closely echoed the same strategy that the Republican Party of the United States embarked upon four decades earlier, cloaking its formerly overt racist rhetoric and reframing those views into policy positions that had the same effect in practice but on the surface were racially neutral. And the effects of those strategies mirror each other in the present day, where the mainstream success and support of such positions is in large part dependent on the ability to deny the inherent racism.
Le Pen’s FN is also quickly filling a vacuum created by the simultaneous crises that have befallen the mainstream political parties. France’s current president, François Hollande of the Socialist Party, is the first president in the history of the Fifth Republic to not seek a second term. Hollande’s popularity has plummeted in the past few years, in part due to the fallout from the intensely unpopular labor reforms (Loi travail) that he attempted to push through the French legislature last year, which was perceived as a massive betrayal of the leftist base that was responsible for his victory in 2012. By the end of 2016, with an approval rating hovering around 4%, he announced that he would not seek re-election, and Benoît Hamon nabbed the nomination a few months later after defeating current Prime Minister Manuel Valls in the primaries, whose popularity also greatly suffered in the aftermath of the Loi travail.
Even by French standards, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s platform and proposals are somewhat radical. He is calling for a 100% income tax on those who make more than 360,000€ a year, an expansion of the already generous French welfare state, a reduction of the work-week to 32 hours from its current 35 hours, a withdrawal from NATO, and a voter referendum on France’s membership in the European Union.
And perhaps his most radical proposal of them all, Mélenchon is calling to abolish the Fifth Republic altogether, on the grounds that it is inherently corrupt beyond repair, and to start anew with a Sixth Republic founded on principals much more reflective of Marxism and direct democracy.
Another of Mélenchon’s more striking proposals is a proposition to establish a maximum wage scenario. From Mélenchon’s website (translated):
“I propose to do away with these indecent “rewards”! For this, I propose to act and not just wait for self-limitation and other well-known ethical codes! How? By fixing by law a maximum wage. That is to say, a maximum difference between the lowest wage and the highest wage in a company. I propose to fix this maximum difference at twenty times the lowest salary. This measure was implemented in Ecuador by President Correa. I mention that in France, in the social and solidarity economy, such a principle already exists and allows only a gap of one to seven. But note the arrogance of the caste which overwhelms those who demand a raise of the SMIC (minimum wage) while defending its own. For the powerful, the wages of the young are always too high.
So I suggest beating them at their own game and returning the argument to them. With my proposal for a maximum salary, if Carlos Ghosn wants to earn 7.2 million euros for his role as CEO of Renault, he will be able to. But on one condition: he must increase the employees of Renault so that the least paid makes 360,000 euros per year or 30,000 euros per month! If Carlos Tavares wants to earn 5.2 million euros a year, the board of directors will be able to decide this way. Provided that the lowest paid employee of PSA is paid 260,000 euros per year or 21,000 euros per month!”
* * * * *
While Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged post-debates, the mainstream candidates have stumbled. Marine Le Pen found herself the subject of great controversy last week after publicly stating that the French were “not responsible” for the infamous ‘Velodrome d’Hiver’ deportation of 1942 in which French police rounded up approximately 13,000 Jews in and around Paris, the vast majority of whom were then sent to Auschwitz and murdered in the camp. The comments were widely interpreted as echoes of the FN’s stance during her father’s reign, and signaled to many that the FN has not distanced itself from such beliefs nearly as much as Le Pen has tried to portray.
Meanwhile, François Fillon has been mired in controversy over multiple financial scandals, both allegedly misusing public funds to pay his wife and daughter as government employees, as well as for failing to disclose a 50,000€ loan in violation of French law. And last month, Emmanuel Macron, who has been trying desperately to appeal to both the left and right as a centrist candidate, managed to alienate many supporters on both sides within a matter of days. He infuriated much of his right-wing base by publicly proclaiming that he believed France’s colonial rule in Algeria to be a “crime against humanity,” and then offended many on the left after voicing support for those opposed to gay marriage.
As it stands at this moment, it’s truly anyone’s election. And regardless of how it plays out in the end, the results will likely shake up France to the core and reverberate for years to come.
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.
It was a warm evening, our leather-shod feet treading slowly over ancient cobble. Strasbourg, last summer, a few days visiting a friend before my companion headed to Germany and then returned to the US.
“Yes.” She said. The worry on her face probably reflected mine. “It’s like They’re shouting, war.”
I nodded. That was exactly what I heard, too.
A few days later, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, abandoning Liberal Democracy’s greatest experiment, one touted as a way not just to bring economic prosperity to an entire continent and nearby islands, but also to make a group of nations so inter-connected that their leaders would never again call for war against each other.
While much of the liberal-left who’d opposed that vote (as well as even those on the right who’d supported it) expressed wild shock that Brexit had been successful, neither my companion nor I were surprised.
It was no different with the election of Donald Trump as the next leader of the American Empire. While every major newspaper and ‘scientific’ prediction site assured us that Hillary Clinton would win handily, the voices I’d heard made clear that’s not how the future would be.
That same companion heard them too.
We called each other after the election results were announced. She was eerily calm. So was I. “I almost convinced myself otherwise,” she said.
“I know. I tried, too.”
We both sighed, perpetually reluctant Cassandras in a tragedy that is only just beginning.
The Drums of War
I HAVE NO special powers of prediction. I also do not need them to see what is happening, nor do you. To follow the threads of actions now to consequences and likely re-actions later, one need only disengage a bit from the narratives with which our governments, political parties, and the capitalists who fund them assure us that their actions are just. One need also disengage from the stories we tell ourselves, the pretty lies by which we live in willful ignorance of the damage we do to the world.
Stand outside those, for just a little while, and the inevitability of war becomes frightfully apparent. From outside those narratives, we start to see things we conveniently ignore, counter-narratives, ‘natural’ forces and societal limits which threaten our ‘peace’ and ‘security’ much more than any foreign power or terrorist act could dare dream to do.
Climate Change (the Anthropocene)
Since the start of the industrial (counter-)revolution and the birth of capitalism, the inherent resilience of forests, oceans, the atmosphere, and all other bio-regions has been damaged beyond the point of healing. So much carbon has been shit into the air that ancient ice is melting, weather patterns are changing, and ocean currents which make densely-populated lands livable are shifting, threatening the wealth those nations accumulated through militant and economic conquest.
The damage done to bio-systems particularly affects those in what is often called the Global South. South America, Africa, and many small Pacific Island nations face massive flooding and die-offs of ecosystems on which the people who live there rely for subsistence.
Industrial Capitalism (and its Chinese cognate, Industrial Authoritarian Communism) relies on relentless extraction of resources in order to fuel the engines of economic control of its citizenry. Petroleum feeds everything, from the automobiles and lorries which move products and people between businesses and homes, to the products being constructed, sold, consumed, and discarded at the altars of ‘economic growth,’ to all the infrastructure in between: even the roads connecting cities and people are made of petroleum (asphalt).
Petroleum, Coal, and the other primary resources which feed the furnaces of capitalism are finite resources, swiftly depleting. Even the ‘renewable’ resources are dwindling, unable to replace themselves swiftly enough to meet our rapacious demand. The oceans are over-fished, forests cannot grow back as fast as they are cut down, and the natural systems which sustain them have been so severely damaged that they are close to (if not already at) collapse. Many systems are on life-support: soil stripped long ago of its nutrients only ‘produces’ food now on account of industrial fertilizers and pesticides, often themselves a product of petroleum.
Depleted resources and climate destruction are not mere esoteric problems to be debated with sad faces in coffeeshops and classrooms. They directly affect the ability of billions of humans to survive, and humans do not generally let themselves die without a fight. The Middle-East, where the largest remaining reserves of oil exist, is increasingly swept by mass uprisings and civil strife violently subdued by totalitarian governments propped up by one or more foreign powers. Syria, Iraq, Afganistan, Egypt, Turkey, and others have all becomes sites of international political struggles resulting in slaughter, while quasi-religious ideologies such as Wahabism embolden the disaffected to claim new power through terrifyingly violent frameworks.
That same unrest has awakened in the nation-states which gain most from the strife elsewhere. Europe, particularly, is witnessing a virulently fascist backlash against the refugees and immigrants fleeing foreign conflict and resource depletion, while simultaneously seeing a new resurgence of anti-capitalist organizing that threatens the political structures even more than the fascist threat. Politicians and capitalists there, as in the United States (which boasts the largest, most-funded military in the world), have chosen to ally with the racists and nationalists against that leftist threat, promising a ‘return’ to economic prosperity and stability.
While the nationalist, racist, and fascist currents in Liberal Democracies (as well as the totalitarian religious ideologies seen primarily in the Middle-East) offer a coherent and pristine (but terrifying) political narrative to lead people through the current crises, ideologies generally associated with ‘the left’ are in utter disarray. This is particularly true in the United States, where the centrist/capitalist party (Democrats) have long co-opted organized opposition, the name ‘Marx’ or the word ‘insurrection’ evoke embarrassed gasps from even those who dedicate their lives towards activism.
Instead of organized opposition to state structures, ‘leftists’ have been happy to justify the recent U.S. military actions in Syria as justified, while embracing a constructed conspiracy narrative that Donald Trump is a puppet of a foreign power, rather than an inevitable symptom of America’s inherent imperialism.
There currently exists no significant internal opposition to the United States’ drumbeat of war. Decades of attempting to appear sympathetic to the employees of the military and defend against right-wing charges of ‘anti-Americanism’ has created a Liberal Nationalism which only argues over how wars are conducted, not whether they should be conducted at all. This was seen most clearly in the campaign of Hillary Clinton, who threatened even harsher foreign action than Donald Trump has currently enacted, while cynically using “Feminism” to distract women and minorities from her nationalist platform.
War is Already Here, And Is Coming
THIS IS WHERE we find ourselves now, and also how we got here. All this has led us to this point where war is inevitable, where the entire world sits upon a powder keg while a few reckless leaders drunkenly play with matches. However, the coming war is not the only war we must worry over.
Those of us in Liberal Democracies often forget that the economic and military dominance of the nations to which we are subject comes through war. War is never just soldier against soldier, gun against gun, nation against nation. War is what has been waged against the forests and the oceans since the birth of capitalism. It is what was declared against the peasantry during the Enclosure Acts, what was fought against witches and heretics and rebels who dared fight back.
War is what was waged against the indigenous peoples of the Americas in order to found the United States, an undeclared war against the land and its human and non-human inhabitants still being fought to this day. War is what kills the unarmed Blacks in the streets of cities, what drags them to misery in prison complexes. It is what has been declared upon the poor of all races, not ‘collateral damage’ but direct casualties. The homeless are refugees in their own lands, the jails filled with those dragged there by uniformed occupiers, hospitals filled with victims of systematic destruction.
War is coming, but it has already been here.
Sadly, we surrendered, laid down our own arms, chose obedience and misery rather than insurrection. Worse, many of us not only do not fight, but tacitly and often willfully support the enemy. Opportunists content to profit within regimes of exploitation, obedient servants to Empire and Capital, corporations, politicians, and individuals occasionally muttering words about ‘social justice’ yet eagerly collaborating with conquest and slaughter as long as the profits still roll in, as long as capitalism keeps them better fed than the rest of the world.
War is already here, and it is also coming.
Unspeakable weapons now used casually, military maneuvers, call-ups of reserve soldiers and media campaigns tell us what we do not need gods to hear. As the numbers of the poor and disaffected in Liberal Democracy crush upon the system, the leaders have decided they need gainful employment. Young men told they are inherently dangerous and violent by Liberals and encouraged to be so by Conservatives will soon be trained and armed to do what society demands of them. They will now be joined by women, a victory of Liberal Democratic equality that will no doubt prove to their bleeding, dismembered victims that America is truly a land of the free.
European nations struggling under the weight of their own contradictions and threatened by their peoples’ demands for more freedom may join these wars, though if real resistance arises against this new militarism, is it much more likely on the continent than in the United States. In France, a Communist candidate has almost as much of a chance to win the next election as the Fascist candidate; Germany seems safe for now, and anti-statist movements are flourishing in countries ruined by Liberal capitalist policies (like Greece, Italy, and Spain). The people on the continent from which I write may be resilient enough to stand against the calls to slaughter. They may also not be.
WAR IS ALREADY HERE, and war is coming, but it can be stopped. Even the gods cannot predict the future when the weavers of fate and destiny intervene.
Those weavers are us.
How might we stop the coming slaughter? By taking up our own arms, enjoining the war that is already here. Not against other nations, not against the poor or the hired soldiers of other lands, but rising up against our occupiers, our imperialist masters and their collaborators.
Those squeamish about violence and insurrection are right to be so, but they cannot ignore that war has already been enjoined. In some cases, this may mean taking up literal weapons. In some cases, it may not. In all cases it will involve intentional resistance, actively engaging in struggle against those who would lead us to the destruction of the earth and world-wide imperialist war.
I am amongst those who do not intend to take up weapons, so I offer here a strategy of war based on attrition and sabotage rather than armed conflict. Others more ready, skilled, and trained to offer force to fight Empire no doubt can outline their insurrectionist strategies better. I will not oppose them, and suspect these strategies will complement theirs.
The Path of Desertion
States rely heavily on obedience, submission, and passive participation in the political and economic systems which sustain them. Capitalists need workers to show up, to produce, to spend their incomes on products and services. Politicians need their subjects to give away their own power and invest it in government and political parties instead.
The Path of Desertion is an act of war against this.
We must stop ‘showing up’ to work, stop relying on the capitalists for the means of our survival and existence, and stop giving away our power to those who demand it from us. But desertion is not just a cessation; neither the soldier who leaves his post nor the worker who quits her job are engaging merely in passive resistance: they are affirming and embracing their own power, their own will, and their own desire.
We must do this, too.
Deserting is not just walking away, but it is also walking away. It means abandoning our posts and quitting our jobs while also posting and employing ourselves elsewhere: our families, our networks, our friendships, our chosen (not ‘enforced’) communities. It means producing our own goods, growing and cooking and consuming our own food. It means making our own art, telling our own stories, creating our own narratives completely outside the narratives of power-over.
Deserting means no longer doing our ‘duty’ to report crimes to the government and their hired thugs. It means no longer paying our taxes, no longer paying our rents and mortgages. It means no longer serving in their wars, literally deserting their armies.
It means admitting that the nationalist nightmare of The United States–or any other construct–is over, and then acting as on that acknowledgment. Liberal politicians in the US are hoping those who oppose Trump will still cling to the American political system long enough for them to have a chance to take the reigns again. In effect, they are demanding we keep ‘showing up’ to the American project, even as it slaughters. We must desert them, too.
The Path of Sabotage
If the Nation is an imperial occupation upon the land and the people, those who would follow the path of sabotage seek to weaken the occupation. Guerrilla warfare is not just fought with guns; its strongest weapons are disruption, infiltration, and sabotage.
Centuries ago, textile workers who wished to retaliate against their bosses threw their wooden shoes into the machines, irrevocably destroying them. These shoes were called sabots, and those who used this tactic were saboteurs.
Like the path of desertion, the path of sabotage is an active choice to take up arms, to enjoin war against those who make war against us. Unlike the path of desertion, it involves direct antagonism, direct action, in support of both the deserters and the insurrectionists.
There are relentless ways to throw our shoes into the machines, damaging the ability of the rich, the police, and the military to enact their war against the earth and all that live within it. Port blockades, strikes, work slow-downs. Theft from businesses, squatting of private and government-owned land. Destruction of oil pipelines, transport networks, mass take-overs of government buildings and capitalist businesses.
Sabotage can be loud, and it can also be subtle. Those who unmask the motives of politicians (liberal and conservative alike), unearth the exploitative histories of business figures, or create counter-narratives to the dominant propaganda machine are as engaged as those who do more visible acts.
Sabotage is often done best when it is done by those without names and faces, so that our enemy cannot know which of we ‘obedient’ house-servants left the front door unlocked for the field-servants to kill the master. When it is public, it is done best to inspire others to do the same.
Notes on The Path of Armed Struggle
It is up to others to define the Path of Armed Struggle. The beginnings of it have already awakened in the streets of large American cities; many trans, disabled, queer, and Black folks have begun training in weapons-use. Many soldiers in the US army–as with other nations–may desert. Some have already joined anti-capitalist and anti-imperial struggle elsewhere, and perhaps they will offer their training to those wishing to follow their path. Armed resistance has long been the path of those in the Global South fighting off capitalist (particularly US) imperialism. They have much to teach as well.
For many, this will be the path of least fame and least support. I am sorry for this. Even now, no doubt some readers are appalled it would even be considered. To them I can say only, ‘if it is not your path, find your own,’ as I am doing.
Some of us will take up direct arms against Empire. Some will desert. Some will sabotage. Many will engage in all three. It is time. But it has always been time. War is coming, but war has already been here.
We have a world to win.
Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram
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“I have so many places I want to take you,” she said to me, pointing to her gas meter. “But I’ve only got 200km worth of gas left in my tank, and all the gas stations are closed today.”
We were traveling through southern France with an old friend of mine who lives in Perpignan, who once spent a summer living with me in Brooklyn while she interned at a production company in Manhattan. During that summer, I helped to introduce her to the best of what New York had to offer, and ten years later she was returning the favor, driving us around to show us the beauty of the land where she was born and raised.
“As you know, the trains are down,” she continued. “The power plants were also shut down yesterday. I don’t know how long the strikes will continue, but I just hope the gas stations open up soon.”
It wasn’t just her words, but the casual and accepting nature in which she said them, which really drove it home for me how accustomed and accepting the French tend to be towards general strikes, or as the French say, la grève générale. Her words came out in a combination of frustration, amusement, and resignation, and while she spoke I couldn’t help but imagine how the average person in the United States would react if they couldn’t access any gas stations for a day or more.
Over the past four months, France has exploded in a series of strikes and violent protests over the proposed labor reform law, or Loi travail, that President François Hollande‘s Socialist government is trying to pass.
And while the strikes have been covered somewhat by the French media, overall the international coverage of these events–especially in the United States–has been sorely lacking to the point where many are referring to it as a ‘media blackout’. Alternative international media outlets such as teleSUR, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, and RT have been reporting on the violence, but even those outlets have almost solely focused on the protests themselves, rather than on an accurate understanding of the issues and history behind these strikes.
For the past month, Rhyd Wildermuth and I have traveled throughout both southern and northern France, spending several days at a time in four separate French cities. Throughout our travels, I have been witnessing and educating myself as to both what is occurring in France and why it is occurring. What I have learned and observed about these complex events is as follows:
France is no stranger to general strikes, in stark contrast to the United States which saw its last significant general strike in 1946. And unlike American workers, who often work multiple jobs for long hours for low pay and few protections, French workers enjoy a long list of labor rights:
a 35-hour work week before 25% overtime kicks in,
a mandated 10-hour maximum workday with breaks ever 4.5 hours,
2.5 days of paid leave per month worked (which adds up to five weeks of paid leave per year),
eleven paid public holidays per year,
sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave per child,
strict protections from being fired without just cause,
and generous severance payments if one is laid off due to their job becoming obsolete.
These rights are a direct result of both the historic and current willingness of the French to fight, often violently and in defiance of the law, for protections that they consider to be an integral part of their way of life.
The modern-day workers’ rights moment in France initiated with a series of general strikes in 1936. These involved more than a million workers, and led to an agreement known as the ‘Matignon Agreements’. These agreements guaranteed French workers the legal right to strike, a 40-hour mandated work week before overtime, two weeks’ paid vacation and the right to collectively bargain.
The second round of workers’ rights that the French enjoy today were won in the midst of the May 1968 crisis. Known as the ‘Grenelle agreements’, out of the civil unrest came a 34-hour work week (down from 40), the establishment of trade unions within every industry in France, and protections that prevented workers from being fired without just cause.
Since the ’68 unrest, the workweek had been briefly raised to 39 hours and then dropped again to 35, where it remains today. In 1995, proposed work reforms initiated by newly-elected right wing President Jacques Chirac, which included restricting the right to retire at age 55, were met with general strikes involving more than 6 million strike days (calculated by the number of days that each worker struck).
As a result, the proposed reforms were retracted. In 2006, President Chirac’s government attempted to pass an ’employment contract’ law which would have allowed employers to easily fire workers without reason within the first two years of their employment, but the proposed law was again rescinded in the face of massive protests.
A year later, newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to reduce retirement benefits for public employees engaged in hazardous professions, and was again met with massive protests. And once again, the proposal was rescinded. Since then, France’s code du travail has remained strong and secure until early this year.
The Current Controversy:
The new labor reform law, introduced in February and dubbed the “El Khomri law” after French labor minister Myriam El Khomri, aims to do away with many worker rights including reducing overtime for those who work more than 35 hours a week, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire workers without just cause. These changes were proposed with the intention of reducing public spending, reducing unemployment, and making France’s labor market more flexible.
The law was met with strong public opposition, starting with the “Nuit debout” movement. Nuit debout, which has been compared to both Occupy and the Indignados movement of Spain, began in March and has quickly spread to over thirty cities in France. Not only is the anger over the law itself, but unlike the attempted reforms of the Chirac and Sarkozy governments, which were right-wing, the fact that the left-wing Socialist party has proposed these reforms is seen as a harsh betrayal.
Paris’ ‘Place de la Republique’ was occupied by thousands of Nuit debout supporters for twelve days straight, and the movement received a high level of public support.
A month later, after facing opposition from several MPs French Prime Minister Manuel Valls decided to push the labor reform law through the lower house of the Parliament without a vote, using a rare provision in the French Constitution to bypass the normal democratic route.
In response, France has exploded in protest, with a coordinated shutdown of public industries that has continued for several months now.
The majority of the strikes in France are being coordinated by the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which is one of five major trade union confederations in France and arguably the most powerful. The country’s largest trade union confederacy in terms of voting power and the second-largest in terms of membership, the CGT has been integral in securing workers’ rights in France for nearly a century, having brokered both the reforms of ’36 and ’68 and playing a significant role in every general strike since then. The CGT openly supported Hollande during the last election and encouraged members to vote for Hollande, so the feelings of betrayal are particularly strong amongst the CGT membership.
Other trade union confederations involved in and/or supporting the strikes include SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques), CFTC ( Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), and FO (Force Ouvrière), while the more moderateCFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail)is mostly in support of the proposed labor reforms.
Over the past few months, these strikes have shut down several major industries throughout France, some for several days at a time. In the time that Rhyd and I have been traveling through France, there have been rolling strikes involving the national railway system (SNCF), the local metro in Paris, several bus systems, air traffic controllers in several cities including Paris and Marseilles, gas stations, and nuclear electric plants.
The largest concentration of strikes had been announced for June 14th, in part with the intention of disrupting the Euro 2016 football tournament that is taking place throughout several cities in France, set to attract upwards of three million tourists.
June 14th was also the date that the upper house of Parliament was set to start deliberations on the proposed reforms.
Among those who announced they will strike were the following industries:
Transport, including buses, taxis, national railways, air traffic controllers, and maritime workers;
Public service workers, including those working in libraries, post offices, sanitation, and non-emergency fire department and healthcare workers;
Private sector workers, including those working in banks, hotels, private transportation, media, fashion, and the mail-order industry;
Educational workers, including those working in preschool through high school.
On the Ground: Arles, May 23-26:
Upon our arrival in Arles, signs of resistance and organizing around the general strikes were immediately evident. Nearly everywhere we looked, posters hung on billboards, street poles, and mail boxes, both expressing anger at the Loi travail as a whole as well as specific calls for demonstrations on set dates. Both gatherings organized by the Nuit debout movement as well as protests organized by smaller, local groups were occurring in Arles on a near-daily basis.
Even more prevalent than the posters were countless stickers, plastered everywhere one could imagine, ranging from those from trade unions to much more explicitly leftist and anarchist propaganda.
Walking around Arles, which is a rather quiet, sleepy, Medieval-era town best known as the later residence of Vincent van Gogh and the subject of many of his later paintings, one could constantly hear both residents and tourists discussing the shutdowns and the protests that were occurring both in Arles and throughout France.
Every word I heard from the locals was in opposition to the Loi travail and in support of the uprisings, with one woman ironically remarking that although she supported the strikes, she hoped the transit issues would be resolved in time for her upcoming month-long vacation.
The buses and trains both went on strike on two consecutive days while we were there, but altogether the effects they had on travel were minor.
Perpignan, May 27- May 30:
Unlike Arles, Perpignan is much more of an urban center, a city of just over 100,000 residents which serves as the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales region of southern France. Perpignan has a reputation for being a right-wing town with a significant National Front presence, but when we arrived the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout was much more prevalent and obvious than any right-wing elements.
On our second day in Perpignan, I stepped off the bus in the centre-ville and literally walked right into a CGT rally taking place in one of the major town squares. The square was filled with various tents which were distributing industry-specific information about the Loi travail and the various forms of resistance against it. In one corner was a stage with a band playing, catty-corner to the stage was a tent serving beer and sandwiches for only 2€ each, and the atmosphere was unusually light-hearted and festive considering that there were several transit-related strikes taking place that very day.
Further down the main boulevard in Perpignan that same afternoon, several Nuit debout folks were flyering in support of the latest round of strikes while also handing out information about their weekly meetings. A few blocks away, several punk-looking activists were rather covertly using what appeared to be wheat or rice paste to affix Nuit debout posters to any and all available surfaces. Nearly everyone who walked by them voiced their support for their presence on the street and/or the strike in general, with several folks erupting in chants as they walked by.
Toulouse, May 31 – June 2:
While physical organizing and leftist presence was more evident in Perpignan, the expressive side of the recent uprisings was much more evident in Toulouse, which lies approximately two hours northwest of Perpignan and is a major city with a population of over a million residents. Instead of the resistance being dominated by the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout, the resistance in Toulouse was much more a product of the people themselves.
Block after block throughout the city was covered in posters, graffiti, and stickers. One could not look in any direction without coming across an uncountable number of messages, both printed and scrawled by hand, not only protesting the labor reforms but announcing daily meetings as well as the nationwide strikes planned for June 14th.
At the same time, the city was gearing up for its role as one of the hosts of the Euro2016 tournament, which the strikes were set to interrupt, and the tension between police and activists was evident.
Rennes, June 3 – June 13:
Despite the wide variety of people, protest, and propaganda that we had observed and witnessed in the previous three cities, nothing had quite prepared us for Rennes.
Unlike the previous cities we had visited, Rennes is in the north, in the heart of Bretagne, where hostility towards French authority has both simmered and exploded for hundreds of years. Rennes is a distinctly Leftist and anarchist city, with a deeply-rooted Breton independence movement, and many of the residents here are quick to tell outsiders that “Bretagne is not France”.
The Breton language, though endangered, is still spoken in Rennes, and over the past few decades a concerted effort has been made to revive the Breton language, much to the chagrin of the French government. Dual-language schools are common in Rennes, and many of the street signs and informational placards are in both French and Breton.
And those dual-language signs were pretty much the only surfaces in town that were spared, and the messages went far beyond protesting the Loi travail. Nearly every square inch of space was covered in protest signs, anti-police and anti-capitalist stickers and graffiti, posters and flyers and every type of leftist propaganda imaginable. It was obvious that in Rennes, the anger is not just aimed at Loi travail, but at capitalism itself.
There was also an pervasive element in Rennes that we had not seen in force in any of the other cities we had traveled to – the presence of the federal police, or gendarmerie. We had seen a few in Toulouse due to the upcoming Euro2016 games, but the gendarmerie presence in Rennes was much more prevalent, despite the fact that Toulouse is a much larger city in Rennes.
But their presence was not without reason. For in Rennes, nearly every single bank in town has been smashed.
Later on, we learned from our host that violence has been breaking out in the city on a near-daily basis, with leftists and anarchists clashing with police throughout the centre-ville. Protests and demonstrations have been banned on account of the violence, but that does not deter the leftists. They are out daily, in force, facing police violence, withstanding clubs and pepper-spray, and many end up in the emergency room. And yet the next day, they are out again.
In Rennes, the anarchists not only have taken over several public squares, but when the federal police drive them out, they protest such actions with a call for a ‘re-enchantment of place’. Messages of love and inspiration jump out from every wall, every signpost, every street corner, every bathroom door. It quickly becomes obvious to anyone who pays attention that the folks here fight not just out of anger, not just against the Loi travail, but because they truly believe that another world is possible.
And while the gendarmerie may be out in full force, it’s obvious that they do not hold the true power in this city, especially in the hearts and minds of the citizens here, whether leftist or not. Based on the comments, gestures, and facial expressions of the citizens, utter disdain for the presence of the gendarmerie is nearly unanimous, regardless of age or social class. They may be feared by some, but they are not respected by most.
Unable to contain the resistance and violence in Rennes, protests and demonstrations have been banned until further notice, a ban which included the annual Gay Pride festivities on the first weekend in June. But even such a drastic step had next to no effect. Despite the prohibition, folks came out for Gay Pride, and amongst the most visible presences at the festival were the trade union confederations, even the one that is not participating in the general strikes. Hundreds of people, gay and straight alike, attended the festivities despite the ban and without fear or hesitation.
They danced and celebrated in joy and merriment, and the gendarmerie simply stood back and allow it to occur, knowing full well that to try to break it up would only result in violence and further demonstrations. Judging by the expressions on the faces of the gendarmerie, it was obvious that while they had the arms and the weapons, they knew full well who actually held the power.
Grève générale: Rennes, June 14:
Despite the numerous pleas and attempted actions on the part of the French government to avoid a nationwide strike on June 14th, the trade union confederations held their ground and made it clear that they would not back down. And as promised, on the morning of the 14th, as the Senate started to deliberate the provisions of the Loi travail, striking workers held demonstrations throughout every major city in France.
When I woke up the morning of the 14th in Rennes, and the first thing I found in my email box was an email from the US Embassy, advising me to stay away from all protests and demonstrations related to the general strikes. I laughed and headed downtown to the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which had been renamed the ‘Place du Peuple‘ bu the Nuit debout movement, where the strikers were set to gather at 11am.
When I arrived at the plaza, I saw that police had fenced off the entire exterior of the plaza. I laughed again, knowing from what I witnessed at Gay Pride the week before that such an action would have absolutely no effect.
And the fences sure didn’t stop them; they simply took the streets instead. For over four hours, strikers and their supporters marched throughout the city by the thousands, back and forth, over and over, occasionally stopping for breaks and then starting right up again. For a town with a population of just over 200,000 people, and despite everything I had seen up to that point, the sheer size of the manifestation left me in utter shock.
As I marched and took photos and at times simply stood there staring in amazement, I constantly checked my phone for updates from the rest of the country. And what I was witnessing in Rennes was being echoed all throughout France. Flights were cancelled nationwide as both pilots and air traffic controllers went on strike. Buses and trains throughout the country were stopped in their tracks. In Paris, taxi drivers blocked the streets and the Eiffel Tower was even closed for the day. Violence between police and protesters also erupted in Paris, although in Rennes the police merely stood by and blocked off roads leading to the old city as strikers marched down the main drags.
And as opposed to America, where even temporary blockages of highways often result in anger and threats from commuters, those who were inconvenienced in Rennes that day were overall extremely supportive despite the fact that they were sitting in cars or buses for long periods of time while protestors took to the streets. Commuters on buses waved, folks in cars honked their support, and only a very few expressed any sort of anger or grievance at the strikers. It was widely understood that the temporary inconvenience that commuters were experiencing was an acceptable sacrifice in the name of what the strikers were fighting for.
Work and the Way of Life:
“Now, when we check out, look at the cashier, and tell me what you notice, what’s different,” Rhyd said to me as we shopped for groceries at a Carrefour market in Arles. “When you figure it out, its going to blow your mind.”
It was only my second full day in France, but already I was blown away by the various differences between the French way of life and what I was accustomed to in America. Checking out our groceries, I closely studied the cashier, a young woman with what I perceived as an unusually pleasant demeanor for someone working in a grocery store. And perhaps it was my tendency to concentrate on the small details instead of the obvious, and perhaps it was still being distracted and overwhelmed by the food I was surrounded by, but when we exited the store I still had not caught on to whatever it was that Rhyd was trying to get me to notice.
“I think I missed it,” I said as we walked out. “Unless it was the super-cheap flasks of nice liquor hanging behind the cashier’s head.”
And then as I turned back to glance again, I noticed it at the exact moment that the words came out of his mouth.
“They’re sitting,” he said with a wicked grin on his face. “Retail cashiers in France are all allowed to sit.”
I stared back into the store in shock, overwhelmed with disbelief and anger all the same as I noticed the comfy, padded chair that the woman who checked us out was sitting in. Immediately I thought of the long hours on their feet that Americans in the retail industry are forced to endure, hours that often lead to chronic pain, sciatica, and irreversible foot and ankle damage. And then I thought of my own circumstances, as someone who is unable to work retail jobs due to chronic pain and sciatica, and who lives in poverty partly as a result. I looked back at the cashier, realizing that I could actually work that kind of job in the United States if I was allowed to sit, and immediately felt a rush of anger rise up inside me.
And over the next few weeks, I went into countless grocery stores and other retail outlets, and found the same – nearly everyone I saw behind a cash register was sitting down. Not only are they sitting down, but ringing up your groceries is all they do. They do not even attempt to empty your basket onto the conveyor belt for you. That’s your job. They also do not even attempt to bag your groceries for you. That’s also your job. They sit, they ring up what you buy, and they make at least €9,67 an hour doing it, or around $10.92 in American dollars, in addition to all of the benefits that I elaborated on earlier in this article.
At one point, while checking out at a Carrefour in Rennes, I got into a short conversation with the cashier, who spoke a decent amount of English. When she asked me what I thought of French grocery stores, I mentioned to her that in the United States, all retail cashiers must stand, and she looked at me like I had two heads.
“That’s inhumane,” she said to me in disbelief. “That’s torture.”
“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.
The fact that she referred to the fact that American retail workers must stand as “torture” carried an additionally weighted meaning to me, as I mulled on the starkly different cultural attitudes that the French and Americans hold about work.
One could ponder various arguments as to why these differences are so prominent. For example, the United States, as a nation that was stolen and settled by Pilgrims and other Protestant-derived factions, has embraced the Calvinist ideology around the virtue of work since its earliest days. France, on the other hand, had a long history of intolerance towards and forced expulsions of Calvinist Protestants. And while the Huguenots were eventually granted equal rights as citizens after the French Revolution, France has been much more significantly shaped by culturally Catholic attitudes than Calvinist ideology throughout its history.
These differing histories are reflected in the cultural attitudes that define the two nations. America’s most famous (and most insidious) ideology, known as the ‘American Dream’, not only stresses the importance of work but falsely promises success to anyone who works hard enough. France, on the other hand, is a culture that has always put great value in ‘la belle vie‘, the good life, and has a long history of valuing health and happiness over the supposed merits of working oneself to the bone. French culture emphasizes the need for rest, relaxation and self-care, to the point that running one’s lawn mower on a Sunday is a violation of municipal codes in many cities, as the loud noise is considered to be disruptive to those who wish to rest and take it easy.
But while those points are significant and valid, perhaps an aspect of how such differences are shaped is as simple as the power of words themselves, specifically the power which is held and reflected in the etymological meaning of the word ‘work’ as it is expressed in the French language as opposed to English.
The English word ‘work’ comes from the Old English weorc, meaning ‘something done’, which itself comes from the Germanic word werkan, which derives from the Indo-European root werg, meaning ‘to do’.
In French, however, the word travail derives from the Medieval Latin word trepalium, meaning ‘instrument of torture’, which itself derives from the Old Latin words tres and palus, meaning ‘three stakes’.
Let me repeat that again for effect: the term ‘work’ in French literally means an instrument of torture. And in a civilized society, nobody would dare consider torture to be a virtue.
The cashier at Carrefour was absolutely correct when she characterized standing for hours at a time for no reason as ‘torture’, but its a form of torture that most American workers accept without much thought or question.
One thing that is quite apparent after spending nearly a month in France is that French workers are not nearly as miserable as American workers are, and most don’t seem miserable at all. They do not hate their jobs as Americans do, regardless of profession. The smiles that one sees on their faces are not forced. Their kindness and courtesy is not an act. They are truly happy to help you and to serve you. They do their job with pride and they do their jobs well. Even the employees at McDonalds carry themselves with a level of pride and satisfaction that I have never seen amongst fast-food workers in the United States.
The attitudes of workers in France is a strong testament to the belief that if you treat workers well, if they make enough to not only survive but thrive, and if they are given ample time off and have the opportunity for regular leisure time with friends and family, they are simply better workers. And when the workers are happy, the customers are happy too. Everyone wins.
Closing Observations: La belle lutte
“So we call these things demonstrations, right?…Why are they demonstrations? Well, they used to demonstrate the power that we had to shut down industry. They used to be like, this is a bunch of people on the street. It’s only a demonstration, it’s not the actual thing that we’re gonna do. It’s just the threat. But now, with spectacle becoming center stage, it was the thing. That was it. Get people into the streets. And it made it seem like that’s what you had to do. …All you have to do is get in the streets, and we’ll shame the people in power.” – Boots Riley
The ‘spectacle’ that Riley refers to in the quote originated with the tactics of the New Left in the United States, born out of a fusion between the politics of the Frankfurt School and the various American hippie movements of the ’60s and ’70s. One can fairly argue (and many have) that despite their good intentions, the New Left abandoned and/or destroyed any remaining shred of effective and militant radicalism in the United States, at least in terms of the strategies and actions of college-educated white folks whose ideologies and actions have historically drowned out those of marginalized peoples.
This shift arguably set the stage for the loss of power on the part of the Left and the severe shift to the Right that the American political spectrum has undergone in the last four decades. The idea that citizens can simply shame the people in power is still a dominant ideology in both liberal and radical circles, and despite the complete and utter ineffectiveness of such a strategy, such strategies are still undertaken and lauded as though they actually produce results.
The New Left in Europe, on the other hand, birthed the May ’68 uprisings in France in addition to many other uprisings across Europe and set the tone for the philosophies and tactics that are still being successfully staged here in the present day. The rallying cries of the Situationist Internation set the stage for a movement that nearly toppled the French government, and its reverberations were not only never forgotten, but consistently built upon while never losing their militant edge. The Situationists utilized spectacle as well, but did so in addition, not as a replacement for general strikes and violent confrontations. In short, they never forgot the true intent of the demonstration.
In observing what is present and effective here in France, one also notices what is absent, especially in contrast to how citizens attempt to both institute and fight proposed reforms in the United States. Amidst all the waves of general strikes throughout France, the marches, the protests, the graffiti, the rallies, the acts of property destruction against banks, there are two things that are notable absent: lobbying and petitions. The idea that one can enact change within the system, which is still the dominant strategy of the American ‘left’, is not only all but absent in France but truly laughable as far as the workers and strikers here are concerned.
While Americans sign petitions protesting the Wall Street bailouts, the French simply smash the banks. While Americans bemoan the ever-increasing decimation of unions in their country, the French trade union confederations are arguably the most powerful political force in the country. And while a good percentage of the American public is still convinced that they can vote their way out of the effects of late-stage capitalism, the French know that the only way to enact true change is to take it into their own hands.
For the French, it’s a fight to the end, and a violent fight at that. But their own history clearly demonstrates that only by fighting will they succeed, only by fighting will they retain what they have successful fought for in the past, and those rights are so deeply cherished that they will most likely keep shutting down industry until the government once again cedes to their demands.
Its a fight, but as many are quick to point out here, its ‘the good fight’, that will hopefully result in protecting and retaining a way of life that Americans could only dream of.
An extensive collection of photos from the June 14th strikes can be found here.
Alley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living on occupied Chinook territory in a city popularly known as Portland, Oregon. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals, and has been interacting with a various collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years. When she’s not fighting Capitalism, Alley works with homeless folks, creates an assortment of art and pottery, and writes for The Wild Hunt.
On a cold Sunday evening a few months ago, I left the warmth of my room and my lover’s side, threw a few books into my bag, and took a bus north to meet The Witch.
We’d corresponded a few times before but had never met in person. That happens often when you are a writer–you read someone’s words, you strike up a conversation with them, and talk for quite awhile without embodied relation. So many of the writers I enjoy live in far-flung lands, as do many of the friends I’ve made through my writing, yet we rarely meet. But The Witch was in town for a very brief stay, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see what had gotten so many others enraged at her existence.
The Witch had written something about a goddess, and it made a few people very, very angry.
Many of those people were writers whom I generally thought highly of, who’d positioned themselves as authorities on that particular goddess. But Authority doesn’t like heresy, and the words of the Witch were heresy, and they decided she needed to be stopped.
The attacks mounted against her. Some said she was an idiot, others claimed she had no Authority to speak about that goddess. Others joined in, perhaps eager to appear loyal to the authorities, or perhaps just eager to join in the pogrom.
I really wanted to meet this Witch. The attacks on her writing had been so fierce that her ability to weather them made me suspect she possessed some intense magic. After all, the people who’d assaulted her public presence were quite formidable. Authors of books on that same goddess, powerful priests or shamans with secret initiations, charismatic men claiming endless years of training –the Witch’s power was certainly at least equal to theirs, if her words warranted so many attacks.
I entered the coffee shop and saw her sitting in a corner by the window. It was her, I was certain, but it was hardly who they thought she was. She had power, definitely, but not the sort that they had.
I wanted to laugh at myself for believing the fear of others, but I also wanted to cry. Seeing her there, suddenly understanding what the war against her heresy had really been about felt like a death.
What particularly struck me, sitting across from The Witch in this cafe, was how different she looked from her critics. She was diminutive, almost elfish, Soft-spoken, a bit timid, but evincing exactly the sort of embodied power I’ve come to notice in people who relate with gods and the land. She didn’t dress the part of a priestess of a powerful deity; she dressed the part of a highly-literate, well-centered, deeply-embodied woman who had nothing to prove to the world, who just wanted to write about the really awesome experiences she was having with gods.
Also, I was in awe with her awe. A lightness of being surrounded her, a curiousity, a wonder unmarred by the cynicism and fundamental certainty of those who’d attacked her. That her open heart remained open despite the onslaught, the smears, and the violence marshaled against her ideas proved to me more than anything that she was, indeed, the Witch they had so feared.
We talked for an hour, this beautiful, timid, bookish, soft-spoken and graceful woman. I drank a latte despite the hour, she had peppermint tea. She had an interview the next morning for a librarian position at a University, and so we talked about books, and Seattle, and the city where she lived, and then I finally admitted the perceptual jolt I experienced when I finally saw her in person.
“That was awful,” she said, regarding the relentless attacks. “I had to stop looking at the internet for awhile, and wanted to stop writing.”
What we didn’t talk about was the other thing those priests attacked her for. The Witch was also a Jew, and as some stated she had no ancestral right to talk about her goddess because of this, very few defended her.
Alley Valkyrie and I sat at the base of a Cork Oak in the Pyrenees, grateful for the unexpected cold beneath its branches. Along the Mediterranean side of those mountains, Cork Oak clings to ledges and cliffs, and where they stand they create a shadow deeply welcome in the early summer heat of southern France. The sun shines strongly, baking the skin and the bare rocks, but under the Cork Oaks the temperature drops almost 20 degrees, With the wind which whips through the passes, it can actually get quite cold.
We were glad of it, sweaty and overheated from the strong sun searing through our skin as we picked our way over loose rocks. We were following Le Chemin Walter Benjamin, an old smuggler’s path through the Pyrenees between France and Spain renamed for the most famous person to follow that path.
Walter Benjamin was a mystic, a Marxist theorist, a trained astrologer, and the bane of several Authoritarian regimes because of his theories on history. Also, he was a Jew.
Benjamin is responsible for two revolutionary–and thus dangerous–ideas. The first is that of the Jetztzeit, the mystical moment which coalesces at some point in time where the direction of the world can change. It’s the ‘revolutionary moment,’ before which the world is one thing and after which, if the moment is recognized and acted in, the world is an entirely other thing.
Importantly, the Jetztzeit is a moment recognized best not by political theorists or authoritarian regimes, but by the poets, the artists, and the bardic current in any social struggle. That is, only those with a mystical awareness can see in the shifting tide the point at which the act can change the world.
The Jetztzeit, then, is the moment of the heretics.
While much Marxist and Anarchist thought at the time sought to distance itself from mysticism, Walter Benjamin danced between those worlds and others, or the Other. And regarding that Other is the other concept for which Benjamin is best known, the “Angel of History”:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin saw plenty of wreckage in his lifetime. He was friends with the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (another whose ideas I use a lot in my writing), and both watched the relentless pile-up of carnage in Europe as war broke out. They were together in the city of Marseille as France unsuccessfully fought the German advance. As France fell to the Nazis, the Vichy government forbade exit permits from the country for Jews, trapping him and many others.
Benjamin had received a visa for the United States and had hoped to escape there. Because he could not leave from a French port, the only way to do make the voyage would be to travel through the mountainous regions of Spain (by then fully ruled by Fascist dictator General Franco) to Portugal, where he could take a boat across the Atlantic.
Walter Benjamin left Marseilles for a small town on the border with Spain called Banyuls-sur-Mer. Some communists knew of a route across the mountains to the Spanish town of Portbou, earlier used by leftists in Spain to escape the Fascist round-ups of anarchists.
That’s why Alley and I were on that mountain. We left Banyuls-sur-Mer in the early afternoon and followed his route, past massive Heather, Juniper, Broom and Cork Oak, across loose scree and sudden explosions of wildflowers.
Every guide had stated it was a four hour, 7 kilometer hike across the Pyrenees. Every guide had lied. It’s 4 hours and 7 kilometers to the top of the mountain. We didn’t know it at the time, but It’s another 7 kilometers and three more hours to the end of the trail in the Catalonian town of Portbou.
We’d already drank most of the several liters of water we’d brought with us. We had to catch a train the 50 kilometers back to our campsite in a few hours. We maybe should have turned back at that point. But Walter Benjamin had made that journey as a 48 year old man with a severe heart condition, fleeing from the Nazis with a large suitcase containing his most prized possession, a completed manuscript which did not survive any longer than he did.
It seemed hopeless for us to get there on time, but it had been more hopeless for him, so we continued.
Where really could he have found sanctuary? His Marxism made him an enemy of many in Francoist Spain, his anarchist leanings made him an enemy of Stalin, his Jewishness made him an enemy in France and Germany. Had he even made it somehow through Spain to Portugal, entry into the United States was hardly a guarantee even with a visa, especially because he was a Marxist. No other country in the world has a longer history of violent suppression of Marxist and Anarchist thought. It was no country for heretics.
Walter Benjamin died when he arrived the day after he arrived in Portbou. The Fascist government in Spain had just passed a law that day which would require him to return to France. He could not escape, and he died in his hotel room, possibly of an overdose, possibly by assassination from Stalinists or the Gestapo.
Quoting Kafka on his last day, Benjamin wrote in his journal:
“There is plenty of hope, but not for us.”
I think every heretic has been so hopeless. I was, until I met the Anarchists.
The Anarchists & The Queers
I’m drunk and fucking happy. He’s in my arms, soaking through my skin. I can taste his soul, I’m drinking in his magic. The world has fallen away, or become more world, our bodies locked, our jaws locked in feral mauling. All is passion, all is joy.
We’re in Rennes, France, outside of an anarchist bar. I’d just met my companion a few days before, an anarchist witch like myself, and gay, and hot. He’d taken me the night before to this bar, we were now there with Alley, sitting outside with Breton anarchists laughing, drinking, playing music, discussing revolution and magic and the rise of Fascism in France and America.
Things are bad for leftists everywhere, and really awful for anarchists. In Rennes, though, even as their hope dwindles, Alley and I could see how strong they still are. That day was gay pride, and the government had forbidden demonstrations to punish the leftists. But instead of obeying the Authority of the government, the gays marched anyway, supported by large leftist trade unions and anarchists.
Here, for at least a little while longer, heretics stand together.
My companion and I were being a bit…exhibitionist, perhaps. Never in the US had I felt so comfortable with another man on the street, nor had I ever felt that I was amongst so many people accepting of our passion.
But then I heard from behind us:
I turned to look at them, three men walking by, disgusted by our heresy. How could two men do such things with their bodies? How could others tolerate such profaning of the sacred? I rolled up my sleeves. I didn’t have my passport on me, I knew what would happen if I got arrested for fighting these men, but I didn’t care. And I knew that in France, just like every other country in the world, Authority does not give a shit for sexual heretics.
But just as I steeled myself, ready to defend my world, I watched all the people around me stand and shout.
I was, after all, sitting at an anarchist bar.
What happened after was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my entire life. The homophobes hurled bottles at us, glass shattering at our feet. I was still ready to fight, but before I could even move eight men tore after them faster than I could ever hope to run.
The attackers fled, running just as fast, terrified of what happens when heretics defend each other, stand together against those who would stamp them out.
How tame we have become. How polite about our witchcraft. In our desire to harm none we have become harmless…How much have the elders sold us out, genuflecting to the academy, the establishment, the tabloid press. In return for this bargain we have gained precisely nothing…
…I will not be part of this process, because to do so is to be complicit with the very forces that are destroying all life on earth. It is time for Witchcraft not to choose, but to remember which side it is on in this struggle.
When Gods&Radicals dared confront Fascist and Authoritarian sympathies within Paganism & Polytheism, we got a chance to see precisely the hatred that Authority has for heretics.
A former leader of a Druid tradition warned of the death of Paganism because of our challenge to self-proclaimed elders squatting on their tilting thrones. Polytheist leaders called me and others enemies of the gods and Marxist infiltrators, declaring crusades against the heretics threatening their Authority over the gods, over witchcraft, over druidry, over the sacred. Someone bought the URL’s of my name to sabotage my identity, others called for boycotts, some made threats against supporters of Gods&Radicals and its writers…all because we challenged their Authority.
But while white American Pagans and Polytheists try to protect their petty empires from heretics, the world around us is in a greater conflict.
Capitalism is confronting a crisis of its own making. Climate change is undeniable, mass extinctions increasing. Capitalists know they are the cause, and are starting to realize that the heretics know this too.
When the rich are threatened, they rely on Authority to sustain it. And we don’t need magical sight to see how governments everywhere have tightened their control of their citizens, even as resistance against their hired thugs and murderers explodes in increasing fury. The uprisings of Baltimore and Ferguson in the United States are siblings of the uprisings now in Europe, and on both sides of the ocean Authority tries to displace that rage, strengthening the Nationalist and Fascist tendencies I warned about.
Capitalism needs us to be exhausted, terrified, eager to work for little, eager to fill our worlds with products to replace what it has stolen from us. It needs us to ignore the damage it does to our lives, to nature, to the sacred. And it needs us obedient, docile, afraid to resist, eager to blame whatever scapegoat is puts before us.
It needs us to stop questioning its Authority, and it needs us to hate the heretics who dare suggest otherwise.
Once, Paganism and Witchcraft dared challenge Authority. Once, Pagans and witches knew who they were, enemies of the religion of Capitalism. Once, we knew the weapons we held in our hands and the power of our magic.
Once, we were also heretics.
It’s time to be heretics again.
The Witch I mentioned at the beginning of this essay survived all the attacks against her, becoming stronger as those who who tried to silence her were shown for the thugs they were. Walter Benjamin did not survive, but the heresies he bore into the world are a foundation for everything I write. And in watching a group of anarchists show love for the desire of two gay punk witches against thugs, I’ve seen the seeds of the revolution.
Authority and Capitalists need us to doubt ourselves. They need us to think we cannot experience the world without them, cannot think for ourselves, cannot do for ourselves. They need us to fear death, to fear each other, to fear ourselves.
But it is they who should fear us.
They should fear our magic and our will. They should fear our ability to create a world without them, to create a world where there is no place for Authority or Capital, no place for the rich, no place for the state, no place for the Fascist or the homophobe, no place for the racist or the anti-Semite.
They should fear such heresy.
And they will.
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.