If people are now prepared to bring a major country to a halt in a dispute over motoring penalty points, who knows what will happen next? Frank Richards sees the French lorry drivers' strike as a sign of the crisis facing capitalist societies
An inarticulate rage
Everybody sensed that there was something novel about the recent strike by French lorry drivers. But of course it is easy to get carried away with novelty. The past decade has seen a lot of novel ideas come and go.
Not so long ago it was fashionable to talk about Thatcherism. Many left-wing intellectuals announced the victory of an authoritarian populism which disposed ordinary people to right-wing ideas. Others got carried away with the notion of popular capitalism. Everybody was meant to have become converted to the joys of share ownership and the love of the free market. Earlier this year Scottish nationalism was the flavour of the month. We were assured that this time the growing constituency for Scottish nationalism was definitely going to put independence on to the political agenda.
So it is best to be circumspect before taking the leap and declaring that some event represents a new development. But having taken the precaution of pondering for a few days on the issue, it is difficult to resist the temptation. The French lorry drivers strike does represent something new. Of course it did not drop out of the sky. Rather it should be seen as the culmination of a protracted process, extensively covered in Living Marxism, which has involved the erosion of the postwar political culture across Europe. But what marked out the French lorry drivers' strike as an obvious departure from the previous pattern was the strike's lack of any relationship with that old political culture.
Throughout the strike, none of the traditional structures and parties seemed to have any capacity to engage the situation. None of the old ways seemed relevant. It was as if the strike exposed the profound mismatch between people's lives today and the political system. The strike brought to the surface many of the uncomfortable realities which are associated with Europe's contemporary political malaise.
You do not need tremendous powers of analytical insight to grasp that the publicly stated cause of the strike, the new penalty points system for lorry drivers, was merely the excuse for action. People do not tend to organise nationwide militant action, involving road-blocks and confrontations with the riot police, because of a new system of regulating road safety. The anger and bitterness which the drivers expressed over this issue indicated that they had been waiting for an excuse to have a go.
What was most interesting about the strike was not the actions of the drivers themselves. It was the reaction of the public. Under normal circumstances, you might expect the public to become angry against a group of militant drivers, who were causing them considerable inconvenience and threatening to ruin their summer holidays. By all accounts France's Socialist government was waiting for precisely such a public backlash. Curiously, however, the backlash against the drivers was largely restricted to the British media. In France the public seemed to be genuinely supportive of the strikers who were making their lives difficult.
If we were to rely on the traditional political categories, then the reaction of the French public to this dispute would make little sense. Normally you would expect provincial petit-bourgeois people to feel threatened by the closure of the transport system. Instead, the strike seemed to be greeted with a mass sigh of relief that finally someone had done something.
It seems that wider sections of society were also looking for an excuse to have a go. The way in which the public provided food and entertainment for the pickets indicated that people seemed to feel more in common with the strikers than with government officials.
The desire to have a go in this way is motivated by a heightened sense of powerlessness - something which the French seem to share with others in Europe. It is this sentiment which drives people to make uncharacteristic two-fingered displays of defiance against the powers that be.
In this sense, the French events are very much in the same vein as the rejection of Maastricht by the Danish electorate. The anti-Maastricht vote in Denmark had little to do with the finer points of the debate about the institutions of Europe. It was an inarticulate attempt by people to assert themselves by rejecting the policy of the government and telling the political establishment where to get off.
One day it is a referendum over Maastricht, the next it is a new system for penalising poor driving. What will it be next? There is no answer to this question. For the predominant feature of European politics is a sullen, inarticulate bitterness about the direction in which society is heading.
This inarticulate response is the consequence of the collapse of the old political parties and organisations which used to provide some sort of voice for protest. In particular, the disintegration of the European labour movement and left-wing political parties has left a vacuum which has yet to be filled. In the absence of organised radicalism, traditional forms of protest have been displaced. As a result, how and when people will react, and over what issues, cannot be determined in advance.
To put it crudely, if people will bring the country to a standstill over a system of penalty points for drivers, they are liable to act on anything. Where in the past workers used to strike for better money, now people react over unpredictable issues through which they feel they can strike a blow against authority.
Some sociologists would characterise this response as post-materialist, since action does not always seem to have a direct economic motive. Such an assessment misses the point. People remain very materialistic. What has changed is that, in the confused political climate of today, people are not able to articulate what they ought to fight for. Instead, an inarticulate rage comes to the surface from time to time, disturbing the status quo. Paradoxically, this means that people are not so much fighting for themselves as they are reacting against authority.
Because of its inarticulate character, the French government found it difficult to know how to handle the lorry drivers' strike. This was a strike where there were no unions, institutions or even recognised negotiators. The old unions attempted to muscle in on the dispute; the government welcomed them with open arms, the only problem was that the drivers did not want to have anything to do with them. The government was genuinely stumped. It is used to dealing with mediators, negotiators and official representatives. With professional mediators around, a deal is always possible. The trouble this time was that the deal-makers did not exist.
The weakening of the old institutions meant that there was no organisation which could be relied upon to control the strikers. In the past in France, even so-called communist unions like the CGT could be relied on to control their membership. Today, the prevailing institutional paralysis means that there was nobody who had the authority to get the strikers to act in a more restrained fashion. This indicates that the stagnation of French institutions of government and the decay of the old political culture has deprived the state of its ability to gauge public attitudes. When the authorities are so out of touch, and so lacking routine methods of regulation, ordinary protests over apparently minor issues can easily run out of control.
Sclerosis and decay
Since the end of the Second World War, the states of Western Europe have built up a sophisticated system of social control. In most instances of protest, the political system has not had to rely upon state repression. Through their own institutions and those of civil society, the authorities have been able to absorb most forms of dissent. Over the past decade, this postwar stability had been undermined by an apparent epidemic of institutional sclerosis. The symptoms include corruption scandals in high places, the political fragmentation of both left and right-wing parties, the emergence of regional, racist and other new political movements, and the general sense of intellectual decay.
These symptoms should be a matter of consternation for anybody concerned with the project of human liberation. Although European capitalism is experiencing its greatest depression this century, there is little in the way of a critical response. Anti-capitalist forces are exhausted. Instead of any sense of solidarity and collective opposition to capitalism, there is a deeply felt but highly individuated sense of impotence and blind rage. It is a response which is entirely out of control. One day it can lead to providing food for striking lorry drivers, the next it could mean turning on helpless immigrants.
The present political balance is obviously frustrating for readers of Living Marxism. But the all-pervasive undercurrent of rage represents no less of a problem for the ruling classes of European society.
The events surrounding the lorry drivers' dispute demonstrated that significant sections of the French public hold their own state in contempt. The almost casual attitude towards law-breaking starkly exposed the popular rejection of the state. And this is a problem which does not stop at the French borders.
Of course many would argue that law-breaking is a peculiarly French phenomenon, and that here in Britain the authorities are held in much higher regard. No doubt Britain is more stable than France. But think of the permanent mini-riots on Britain's estates. And after the recent revelations of major frame-ups and a string of corruption trials, the British police and the judges certainly seem less secure about their authority than they used to be.
The crisis of legitimacy confronting Europe's governmental institutions raises the all-important question: how is society to be held together? Until recently the problem of social cohesion was not an issue in Europe. But with nations breaking up and new regional parties demanding more local autonomy, the survival of European societies as they are now constituted is no longer unproblematic.
At the very least, recent events have revealed a widespread lack of positive identification with society. This development raises serious questions about how society is to survive. The French media was deeply disturbed by the events surrounding the drivers' strike. What it found disturbing was not any specific act, but the revelation that nobody seemed to be in control. Worse still, nobody seemed to accept the established rules of the game.
A major statement on the strike by Bruno Frappat in Le Monde warned of the dire consequences of a situation where 'every man was for himself'. This sense of dark foreboding that society had broken down under the weight of conflicting interests is to some extent an overreaction. But it is an overreaction more widely shared in the media. It is an overreaction that also contains a rational insight.
Where Frappat is right is in his recognition of the potential problem posed for the authorities by the inarticulate rage of millions. It is a rage which lacks political coherence, and so does not in itself threaten capitalist society. But it is a reaction which is alienated from the status quo, and which reinforces the prevailing sense of social malaise. Seeing such a rage in action cannot but reinforce the bad conscience of sections of the French and European ruling classes about the state of their system.
The inarticulate rage of millions is also potentially more. It is an explosive force which need not remain inarticulate indefinitely. It is a force that is waiting to be activated by a political alternative; an alternative which can give shape to the aspiration to settle scores with authority, and give to those now alienated confidence in their collective power to change things for the better.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992