This Time It’s Different
This week, rail workers and civil servants in France staged a massive demonstration against Emmanuel Macron’s planned reform of the national rail service, coordinated with plans for an ongoing transit strike. A few days later, high school students led by the survivors of the Parkland, Florida massacre held a march on Washington to demand stricter gun control. Both movements claim to be poised to deliver what their predecessors over recent decades have consistently failed to bring about. For the cheminots and their allies in France, the goal is not only to protect the status of SNCF workers, but through a convergence des luttes—the generalized social mobilization promised by the militants of mai 68—to save civil service jobs for good from the liberalizing turn that has proceeded slowly but without major opposition since the 1995 strikes that (mostly) defeated Alain Juppé’s public sector reforms. For the students in Washington, the goal is to finally break the National Rifle Association’s de facto veto power over even the most modest gun reforms.
But if both movements represent ambitious attempts to overturn decades of the status quo, they also both come on the heels of recent predecessors that quickly fizzled out. In France, in response to both the Loi El Khomri in 2016 and Macron’s labor decrees this past fall, massive protests and general strikes were also announced. The 2016 demonstrations and strikes broke records for the number of days of action, and gave rise to an Occupy Wall Street-style youth movement, Nuit debout, that later helped form the base of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise. But neither these mobilizations nor the ones Mélenchon attempted to lead a year and a half later produced anything near the mass actions of the 1990s. In the United States, it is impossible not to recall the abortive attempts to restrict gun ownership after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut—despite Barack Obama’s emotional call to action—followed by the utterly lame efforts at gun control led by Democrats after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, where a rousing sit-in at the Capitol led to no more radical demands than taking guns away from people on the terrorist watchlist.
In recent years, a number of theorists on the left have described contemporary politics as “post-democratic.” Prominent examples include Wendy Brown, who has argued that neoliberalism replaces the political notion of the democratic citizen with the economic notions of the consumer and the entrepreneur; and Chantal Mouffe, who has criticized center-left politicians for fetishizing consensus and the rule of experts, and ignoring the need to build a popular movement base. In general, these critiques of “post-democracies” point to trends in which democratic procedures such as elections are maintained, political institutions do not truly represent the people or respond to its demands—no matter how loud the protests get, or even how long the strikes last.
Last summer, in a review essay in the New Yorker entitled “Is There Any Point to Protesting?”, Nathan Heller took some similar ideas in a direction left-wing theorists most likely didn’t intend, suggesting that against such overwhelming odds, most protest activity in recent memory has been essentially useless. From Occupy Wall Street, to Black Lives Matter, to the January 2017 Women’s March, Heller suggested, protests and marches are nothing but virtue-signaling identity politics for the “radical chic,” their message nothing more than “we were there.” Social movement politics may have worked in the past, such as during the civil rights boycotts and marches of the 1950s and 1960s. But Heller argues that if the Civil Rights Movement was successful, it was not because it was an expression the people’s will, but rather because it was more strategic than today’s activists, knowing when to send the right message and how to play political insiders against one another.
Any sincere social movement that aims to succeed where others have long failed must believe, at some level, as Damon Linker put it shortly after the Parkland shootings, that “this time it’s different.” It must believe that conditions are more favorable to actualizing popular demands, or that it has learned from the mistakes that led its predecessors to fail. In today’s context, this might mean either that the (perceived) extreme circumstances of our politics suffice to get people out into the street that might otherwise stay home, or that movement leaders have found new ways of getting them out and ensuring that the message is received by those in power.
Are things really different now? It is hard to deny that American politics are in uncharted territory in many respects, but as a recent essay by Corey Robin points out, Americans do have a peculiar tendency to exaggerate the present danger by normalizing the past (e.g., the recent rehabilitation of the image of George W. Bush). And though many people may be more inclined to outrage now that Trump is president than before, does anyone really think that he and the party he leads are going to listen? In France, despite Macron’s claims to have revolutionized the political system, there in all likelihood less that suggests that we are in an utterly different political moment than across the Atlantic.
It might be wise, then, to exercise caution before declaring such a radical break between the present moment and our own. But there are nonetheless some signs that the organizers of these movements are adopting promising new techniques. It is not only striking to see young people take the lead of the campaign for gun control, but even more importantly, that in this week’s march they insisted on putting gun violence in all types of communities on the same playing field, rejecting the racialized distinction between victims of “school shootings” and those of “gang violence.” The message from the young activists is clear: the ways we have thought about guns in the past makes no sense and is unacceptable to the new generation of political actors. The movement has also done a relatively good job seizing on Trump-related outrage, rousing indignation not only at the number of preventable gun deaths in the United States, but also at the legalized corruption exemplified by the NRA—a type of corruption that has become all the more blatant under Trump’s GOP.
I am generally less optimistic about the French case, but at least between last fall and today, there are some minor signs of improvement. Macron may succeed in escaping the outrage that might befall a more conventional right-wing president attempting to enact similar public-sector reforms, but the Parti socialiste‘s fall from grace arguably energizes some on the left (and not only Mélenchon) to seek new political configurations. The rail unions have also been experimenting with a complicated formula to minimize the actual amount of days striking cheminots will have to miss work, showing at the least that they are seeking to adapt to changing circumstances. A majority of French poll respondents finds the strikes to have been unjustified, so we are most likely far from seeing a bona fide convergence des luttes. But the collaboration between cheminots and other public sector employees indicates that the movement may not be entirely perceived as an act of selfish “corporatism” on the part of the rail workers.