The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The French Uprising over “Pension Reform” and Where We Ought to Stand

Noam Chomsky once explained that we ought to be wary of the word “reform.” He says:

Reform is a word you always ought to watch out for... Reform is a change that you're supposed to like. And watch -- so as soon as you hear the word reform, you kind of reach for your wallet and see who's lifting it.

His words could not be more accurate.

Currently, the French working class is up in arms (see some fantastic photos here) against the austerity measures in the form of “pension reform” being forced upon them via the reactionary Skarkozy administration. On Friday, the French Senate pushed through a bill to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 and the age for a full pension to 67 from 65. The vote, with 177 for and 153 against, was much closer than the vote in the National Assembly, France’s lower house.

Charles-André Udry, in an interview with Ahmed Shawki, outlined the seriousness of this so-called reform:

And in any event, one thing that's typical of the general economic situation is the growing number of workers who, for reasons of ill health or because of layoffs, are forced to leave work at 55 or 58 or 60 years of age, and go on unemployment. As a result, they aren't able to contribute sufficiently to assure themselves of a full pension at 60--and it's not certain that they'll have a full pension at 65 or 67, which is the final proposal of the Sarkozy government… It's not even that there's so much opposition to pushing back the minimum age of retirement to 62, but rather that most people know that in order to get a full pension you can live on, you would be forced to work until you're 67.

Its passage is a pernicious victory for the reactionary French government and will prove very harmful to the French working class. Regardless, the fact that the vote was so close shows that the prodigious upsurge in struggle did have some effect on forcing politicians to rethink the bill.

Nearly every town and city in France, no matter the size, has been touched by the wave of strikes and street protests that have swept across the country. All last week strikes, blockades, and demonstrations shut down oil refineries, schools, highways, gas stations, etc. Even Lady Gaga had to cancel her shows in Paris. The main unions have called extremely successful nationwide strikes, with organizers estimating around three million people out in the streets. Meanwhile, smaller actions are taking place every single day. Police have clashed with workers and youth all around France.

Even with the measure passing, a two-day general strike has been called for Thursday and another for November 6th.

The conservatives in France are claiming that someday workers will thank them for the pension rollback. They argue that a certain retirement age, as well as other social services, are not rights, but privileges, and sometimes these privileges need to be revoked. Pretentious right-wingers like Greg Gutfeld factitiously claim that, in essence, French workers are like children who need to learn that “when you don’t work, you can no longer pay for stuff,” and Skarkozy, who “has more balls than a McDonald’s play pit,” is the only daddy-like figure who has the bravery to scold them. Apparently, only those of us with testicles can smash workers down and destroy their standard of living. Thatcher must have been a guy in disguise.

While this sort of right-wing garbage is to be expected, what is not so clear is how liberals and the left are talking about the issue.

Even though many of them voted against it, the Socialist Party in France is worried about the protests because they could be “discredited if there are excesses.” Likewise, even many people here in the states who identify themselves as progressives or liberals argue that the pension system is unsustainable and that the French shouldn’t care about raising the pension age two years.

The Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek recently appeared on DemocracyNow and, when asked about the strikes in France, had this to say:

A strange phenomenon is now exploding in Europe, getting more and more accentuated, which was here, we just didn’t notice it all the time. Those who dare to strike today are usually the privileged, those who have a guaranteed state employment and so on. And they strike for these things like, no, we don’t want to freeze our salaries; we want raise them up, while, for example, in my country, there are thousands of textile workers, women, who, if one were to offer them what—that situation with regard to which those who strike today are protesting, like "we guarantee you permanent employment, just with frozen salaries for next five years," they would say, "My god! That’s better than we dared to dream." This is what worries me a little bit, that this strike waves, you know, are clearly predominantly strikes of the, let’s call it in old Leninist terms, workers’ aristocracy, those with safe positions.

In other words, he juxtaposes the workers in France and the workers in Slovenia, and is basically, without saying it, insinuating that the France workers should be take the pension reform and shut up, because things could always be worse. This sort of rhetoric is, in my opinion, the most disempowering that a leftist, especially one with as much of a following as Zizek, could articulate.  

We on the left have to be utterly clear on this issue.

First, the French government is not simply trying to preserve the pension system, as many claim. The pension system is in no urgent danger, and is not on the verge of collapse as some economists claim. Furthermore, extending the full pension age to 67 would be harmful for older workers, many of them having lived through the speed ups and excessive increases in productivity over the last few years. It would mean there are less jobs for young people entering the workforce, a section of the population which already suffers from high unemployment. This, in large part, as well as solidarity with their friends and family, explains why youth have organized to fight back alongside workers.

There is not fatal flaw in the pension system. It is not, and would not be, short by any significant sum of money. Some economists and politicians like to provide a few abstract percentages, tailored in a way to make one think there is some tremendous shortage, in order to push the ideological case for changing the pension. Any shortages could be easily fixed by a few tax adjustments, especially on the rich, and not a continual push towards austerity for French workers.

The money is there. The question is, who should bear the burden? These pension cuts are “being planned amid a financial scandal rocking the Sarkozy government. Sarkozy and his Labour Minister Eric Woerth—who is in charge of the pension reform—allegedly obtained illegal campaign funding from France’s richest woman Liliane Bettencourt, who received €100 million in tax refunds from Sarkozy’s tax breaks for the wealthy.”

So, while Skarkozy is pushing through tax cuts for the rich, he plans to cut social spending by €100 billion, €19 billion of which come, purportedly, from raising the pension age.

We ought to find it more than ironic that Skarkozy pushed through a large tax cut (cutting inheritance taxes, reducing taxes for the wealthiest from 60% to 50%, etc.) in 2007 worth $18 billion euros, just shy of the amount he claims this pension reform will save.

Meanwhile, people like Martine Durand plays with abstract statistics and useless percentages while not actually providing any solid numbers in terms of actual money being brought in and paid out by the pension program. She gives the classic “we’re going to have more old people and less young people, the whole system is going to collapse” rhetoric when, in reality, these things could be fixed with very minor tax adjustments, particularly increases on the wealthiest sections of French society. Our only options, she argues, is to cut pensions or raise the age to receive them. Apparently, because of the ideological interests she represents, no other solution is possible. The only solutions presented are those that harm working people.

Interesting, also, is the fact that she presents a blanket claim that “even the unions think the pension system needs to be fixed,” but not a single union or working class voice is present in the entire article. It is very easy to inject claims on behalf of the other side when they are not there to represent themselves!

The French people know which side of the battle they are on. reported that:

Fully 71 percent of the population opposes Sarkozy's "reform," and that support for the movement rises to 87 percent among manual workers and routine office workers. A poll last week even reckoned that two-thirds of the population thought the strike movement needed to get tougher on the government, while 53 percent of the population and 70 percent of manual workers wanted a general strike.

Us workers in the United States should be in solidarity with our French counterparts, asking ourselves why we do not have pension eligibility at age 60, not condemning them for it.

Second, this is not the first attack on the French working class by Skarkozy. There are various instances of the Skarkozy government attempting to dismantle and undermine unions in France and push austerity measures onto the people there

For those that argue retirement is not a right, we must stand unequivocally against such rhetoric. Rights are defined by a given society at a given historical point. They are socially constructed and constantly changing. Thus, we need to understand that the definition of what constitutes a right is a site of struggle. Likewise, we need to be ready to defend the idea that retirement is and should be a guaranteed right. We must stand against those, like Skarkozy, who would attempt to shorten or remove our right to it.

We ought to argue against the idea that the cost of financing state deficits should be on the backs of the working class in the form of social cuts. These are meant not to “save the pension system” but to cheapen labor and help the French capitalist class to be more competitive in the global market. That is, fundamentally, what this is about.

Third, the entire context of this general strike is within the worldwide austerity measures that are hitting Europeans especially hard. French workers understand that once you allow the state to remove one hard earned benefit without a battle the social safety net and hard earned gains can be unraveled piece by piece. It is, in essence, the ultimate failure of reformist ideology. Reforms can always, and historically this has been proven again and again, be rolled back.

In fact, it has been happening here in the United States for the past thirty-five years, and we would be ignorant to not make the comparison. The French have maintained a fairly higher standard of living because of their militancy.

We need to understand that, and we need to support them in their struggle to maintain a decent standard of living. In fact, not only should we support them, we should take inspiration from their struggle and start fighting back here, where for the last four decades we have been smashed in the face again and again as neoliberal “reforms” have eaten away at the already failing social safety net in the United States. We need our own version of France’s “May 1968,” that’s for sure, but I’d settle for anything comparable to what’s going on in France right now. At a time when unemployment is high and wages are at their lowest point in decades, we need to start fighting back. It’s time, America.
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