The gilets jaunes: Giving colour to suffering

Writing within the marxist critique of value tradition (e.g., the Krisis group), Benoit Bohy-Bunel offers a theoretically rich reading of the yellow vests movement. Without completely sharing the views of the author, the essay remains important.*

The suffering of reification and the movement of yellow vests

Benoit Bohy-Bunel

(Palim Psao 12/12/2018)


1.) Suffering is the concrete truth of the commodity structure

2.) The suffering of reification refers to the need to abolish the capitalist totality

3.) The failure to adequately convey suffering

4.) Brief remarks on the “yellow vests” movement

1.) Suffering is the concrete truth of the commodity structure

The question that eludes ideological or political discourse, in the formal sense of the term, is the question of the suffering of individuals. Suffering, like desire, is what remains formally non-identical to the abstract categories of the commodity system, which is an essentially impersonal system of domination.

Suffering is what distinguishes, singularises, for example a feeling of disgust, or a feeling of revolt; it is opposed to the abstract universality of the categories of domination; but it is also what connects us all, universally, in the face of a destructive and self-destructive world, and as such constitutes a true concrete universality.

The abstract and instrumental quantification and rationalisation, in a society that aims at efficiency and productivity, are the calculating or logical operations that must bring all individualities back to units that are homogeneous and identical with each other. The qualitative temporality of each is reduced to a spatialised time and indefinitely divisible into equal segments, and the disposition and the intentions become simple intensive differences of degrees, measurable and schematisable. But what never appears on the statistical curves, and which marks a gap between the representative and the represented, is precisely the qualitative suffering of each individual who is supposed to be subsumed under such one-dimensional and reductive schemes. Suffering is the non-identical, the non-homogeneous, it remains what resists the abstract and leveling logics inherent in the commodity structure. No curve, no accounting, administrative, statistical data will ever properly designate the immeasurable suffering of the individuals violently projected into the capitalist and State technical-instrumental order.

That being so, if the abstraction of the categories of domination will never “adequately” represent suffering, we must nevertheless realise that it is capable of producing it concretely, as a materially active abstraction. For example, capitalist society, in order to give value to the products of labor as commodities, places all specific and concrete work under an undifferentiated abstraction. This abstraction is not just an operation of pure consciousness, but it has, everyday, real and devastating effects. It reflects a way of being totally indifferent to concrete desires, and to the concrete quality of lived experiences. Thus, it is irrelevant that a product destroys the world (weapon, poison), or that it enriches it qualitatively (poems), since one brings it back to the abstract and undifferentiated wealth that is the endless aim of this asocial “social” reality. The ever more overwhelming non-recognition suffered by individuals at work (or individuals excluded by the market system), the poisoning or destruction they suffer, and which cause very real suffering, are effectively produced by the actually abstract, and actually inverting, categories of domination. Thus, while it must be recognized that these categories do not adequately “represent” concrete individual desires and sufferings, it must be admitted that, as real abstractions, they are nonetheless capable of producing them.

But then the concrete truth of these categories, of these real abstractions, is this qualitative suffering (as well as the desire to abolish it). This means that the truth of the one-dimensional order of abstract domination has its seat in what is non-identical to that order, even though this last is also produced by it. For example, the concrete truth of a private capitalisation, which seems to be nothing more than an accumulation of disembodied numbers, is not situated in the formal and abstract economic order (nor in socio-economic, simply formal, theorisations), but in the real suffering of individuals at work, subject to this automated logic. It is the suffering of each reified individual in the production chain that constitutes the concrete truth of abstract valorisation, of indefinite “growth”, of the various productive strategies.

A salary is a number, but the truth of this number is not another number, or some theoretical attempt at “rationalisation.” The concrete truth of this number is rather the suffering that results from the disqualification of activity, brought under the order of calculation and quantity, but also the suffering of alienation in the production and consumption of fetishised goods, as well as the suffering of the real precariousness of existence, tied to an ever-increasingly difficult survival.

Because the concrete truth of the quantitative categories of impersonal domination is the suffering of each individual, both singular and universally-concrete, it must be said that the truth of these categories is the necessity of their abolition. For the truth of suffering is precisely the desire to abolish suffering. The truth of the commodity, work, money, value, and the State that manages the self-movement of such categories, is the necessity of their practical negation, since this truth, precisely, is inseparable from a suffering which must disappear.

The truth of a technocratic language that justifies some “necessary” austerity, does not lie within another formal ideological discourse, which seems to identify a “logic”, when we are nevertheless dealing with living and vibrating individuals. The truth of this discourse lies rather in the innumerable and incommensurable, qualitative and individual, sufferings, that result from the ravages of such confusions, and so the truth of this discourse is the necessity of the abolition of the order that bears it.

The categories of commodity domination are categories that contradict each other, not only in a logical way, but also in a real way. It is in this sense that we must abolish them. They contradict each other in a logical way, first of all, because, as Marx explains in the Grundrisse, this society makes the measurement of working time the source of its wealth, at the same time as it always tries to reduce this working time to a minimum. In this process, living work also seems more and more superfluous, while at the same time it remains a necessary expense for the valuation process. Such a logical contradiction will be redoubled by a real contradiction: the suffering of individuals, over-exploited or superfluous, constitutes this real contradiction. The commodity system needs an active involvement of proletarianised individuals in the production chain, at the same time as it increases their dispossession and their abandonment, their suffering and their desire to abolish this system.

The awareness that this suffering has become unbearable, and that it must be abolished, potentially refers to the need to abolish the categories that cause this suffering: money, commodities, value, work, and the State. This awareness points to the need to promote the emergence of new forms of life, which will no longer be synthesised in a totalising way by the categories of fetishistic and impersonal domination. Such radical suffering, therefore, when it develops a praxis on the scale of the scandal it reveals, potentially engages in the radical destitution of existing economic and political functions. Because this suffering is what is most singular, it reflects the most concrete demands of each individuality; because it is universal-concrete, it engages in a collective, extended and federated praxis.

A person who testifies to her/his malaise, to the precariousness of her/his living conditions, to the degradation of her/his working conditions or exclusion, thus designates the contradiction, logical and real, of the basic categories of the system of commodity domination, and the need for their immediate abolition. This is why such a testimony will have extreme subversive potential. In the same way, workers’ surveys, by referring to the concrete quality, the real suffering, which were covered over by the abstract and autonomous forms of the commodity structure, had an explicit revolutionary vocation.

Current accounts of the untenable conditions of the high cost of living, of exploitation and reification, of political and economic non-recognition, of State authoritarianism, racism, sexism, ageism and structural ableism, accordingly confer a very concrete character on the radical critique of the basic categories, since they express, on an existential, qualitative and living terrain, the contradiction, both logical and real, of such categories, as well as the necessity to abolish them.

2.) The suffering of reification refers to the need to abolish the capitalist totality

A testimony of suffering, which is non-identical to the categories of domination, even if it can be produced by these real abstractions, and which thus constitutes the concrete truth of these abstract forms, designates the totality of the commodity reification, and it puts therefore into question this totality as totality. If the collective praxis that responds to this suffering aims at the mere reappropriation of the commodity structure, and not its abolition, it can not achieve the strict abolition of this suffering. Thus, a simple redistribution of the commodity categories can certainly put an end, for a time, to unbearable material difficulties, but insofar as these categories would nevertheless be maintained, the dispossession, the reification, and even the inequalities that they envelop, would not not abolished. The suffering of economic exploitation, reification, or economic exclusion, more radically denotes the necessity for the strict abolition of the basic categories of capitalism. The initial testimony, which translates the untenable contradiction, logical and real, of these categories, demands such a radicality, and thus calls for a revolutionary praxis equal to what is at stake.

In the same way, a testimony of suffering in commodity society indicates the necessity to abolish the political function (State) which regulates and frames the market structure. This political function is indeed inseparable from the reifying economic function. It is the secondary and direct functional sphere that derives from the primary and indirect sphere of the economy and makes it possible as well. The state has no autonomy in relation to capitalism. It guarantees the legal principles conditioning the exploitation, as well as the infrastructures necessary for the valuation process. Thus, the real sufferings of reified individuals, who desire the abolition of such sufferings, do not point to a praxis that would simply claim a modification of the institutions of this political function, which would essentially maintain such political relations. A simple modification of the political institutions, which would develop mainly on a national level, would indeed maintain the exploitation, national and global, as well as the alienating and dispossessed commodity structure. The abolition of the real sufferings linked to the commodity structure supposes the questioning of the political function itself, as well as a revolutionary praxis commensurate with such an issue.

A testimony of suffering also refers to the need to develop a questioning of the global commodity structure, and not simply of national exploitation. Individuals reified by the commodity structure on a given national territory can not call into question their exploitation without also calling into question the racist and neocolonial, international division of labor. A merely nationalist struggle would maintain the suffering of commodity dispossession in principle, since capitalism, which must be abolished, is a global reality, not merely a national reality. A protectionist policy, for example, besides the fact that it maintains the political function deriving from the economic function, maintains national liberalism and national exploitation, regulates the national economy, and will never abolish capitalist reification, whether it is national or global. In this sense, any local suffering relative to reifying capitalism immediately points to the need for transnational solidarity, strict internationalism, and consistent anti-racism.

A testimony of suffering also refers to the need for a basic solidarity between individuals subjected to work and individuals excluded by work. Indeed, the logical contradiction of capitalism, mentioned above, induces the fact that more and more individuals will have to be excluded by the valuation process, and will be considered as “superfluous” for the valuation process. But these “superfluous” individuals (in a capitalist sense) are as much subject to the mediation of labor and value as the individuals actually exploited. Likewise, exploited individuals are also, potentially, deferred “superfluous” individuals. The social synthesis effected by work does not refer to a qualitative recognition, but means always a deficit of recognition, an objective and subjective precariousness, and this universal condition concerns both individuals at work (a postponed “superfluousness”) and those individuals excluded by work.

In an abstract and reified way, “economic” struggles (or “class struggle”) are today contrasted with “minority struggles”. Some “leftist” ideological discourses may even consider that feminist or anti-racist struggles, for example, will be secondary, or will artificially be added onto the “primordial” struggle (the “class struggle”), or that they would divide “the” struggle. Yet impersonal capitalist domination refers to an organized totality, mediating forms of personal domination, such that they are all mutually implicated. To abstractly distinguish the “economic struggle” from the anti-racist struggle, for example, is to fail to perceive this entanglement and this totality, and it is ultimately to promote a partial and truncated anti-capitalism, which quickly drifts into national-state alter-capitalism.

As such, it must be remembered that the criticism of the basic categories of capitalism (commodity, labor, value, money) necessarily leads to a criticism of the commodity [and commodified] subject, a commodity subject that refers strictly to an exclusionary, universal-abstract unity. The commodity subject will typically be the male, western, white subject. This subjectivity refers, among other things, to the “humanist” (universal-abstract) heritage of the bourgeois Enlightenment, and Trenkle (a representative of the Wertkritik) will propose a very precise critique of this dissociative subject-form, in his “Critique of the Enlightenment” (4th thesis): “The horrified rejection of nature is essential to the building of a reason that aims to reduce thought to a pure activity, disembodied and detached from the senses (Descartes, Kant). However, this reduction is not an expression of an original separation from nature, but results from the fact that social mediation comes to align with the abstract principle of value and abstract work. The Enlightenment “invents” this threatening nature from which it then needs to brutally stand against, and this “invention” represents an unconscious act. This is not only true of “external nature”, which technology renders exploitable and exhausts. Even more decisive for the constitution of the modern subject (structurally defined as “masculine”) is the violent struggle against “inner nature”, in other words, against the presumed vulnerability of human nature before its own sensuality. Dissociated from the subject and projected onto an “other” constructed from nothing (“women”, “primitive peoples”), inner nature is seen, through this “other”, as both idealized and despised, coveted and opposed. In this sense, sexism and racism are indissolubly linked to the constitution of the Enlightenment subject.”

The extent and the subtleness of how socio-economic reification and racist and patriarchal domination are intertwined can be understood from this passage. The bourgeois subject-form, with its specific “naturalistic” characterisations, not only induces the necessity of the exploitation of living labor, but also the necessity of maintaining structural racism and patriarchy. But this “naturalism” also induces a domination of the “external” nature, as Trenkle indicates. It can thus be understood that a radical ecological struggle would not “superimpose” itself artificially on anti-capitalist struggles, but rather that it is directly implicated in the radical critique of totalising capitalism. To complete Trenkle, it can be said that the person deemed “invalid” (assigned a “disability”), or identified as “youth to educate”, “old age to manage”, will also be people assigned to a pure undifferentiated “nature”, dissociated from market economic rationality. In this sense, anti-ableist and anti-ageist struggles are not artificially superimposed on “economic struggles”, but may well challenge the very root of modern capitalist domination. The abstract ideologue who abstractly distinguishes “economic struggles” (or “class struggle”) and “minority struggles”, does not see the need for a criticism of the modern subject-form, nor does s/he see the entanglement of all these “dominations”, based on a negative and dissociative “naturalism” specific to capitalist modernity.

Consequently, any local suffering in commodity society refers to the totality of these reifications. It is not a “neutral” capitalism that exploits individuals, that excludes, impoverishes, renders precarious or reifies them, but a directly patriarchal, racist, ableist, ageist and ecologically destructive capitalism. These determinations are not superimposed on capitalism, but are at the very heart of its destructive social syntheses. Wanting to “abolish capitalism” without worrying, for example, about commodity producing patriarchy, is ultimately to promote a form of pernicious alter-capitalism.

Nevertheless, we must also recognize that patriarchy, or racism, are not reducible to capitalist social syntheses, even if some of their essential determinations are embedded in these social syntheses. Specific struggles remain necessary, and we must avoid reducing criticism to the need for a single homogenizing struggle, not taking into account the diversity of real suffering. In other words, it would be a question of articulating the singular dimension and the universal-concrete dimension of the sufferings experienced. Simply, what can be said, is that a racist, patriarchal, anti-ecological, ageist, or ableist “struggle” would only serve to maintain structural violence, and individual and collective suffering.

To summarise, we will say that a suffering experienced in commodity society, relative to reification, exploitation, exclusion or precariousness, designates immediately the unsustainable contradictions peculiar to the basic categories of capitalism, to the political function deriving from the economy, from the nation-form, and specific to a patriarchal, racist, ableist, ageist and ecologically destructive system of domination. The revolutionary praxis capable of abolishing such suffering would thus commit itself to the abolition of these categories and abstract-real functions, and of these personal dominations, mediated by the impersonal domination of value.

3.) The failure to adequately convey suffering

Nevertheless, modern subjects are also violently projected into economic relations that tend to atomise them. Socialisation through work and commodities is an indirect socialisation, which tends to make each subject a monad separated from others, solely concerned with her/his immediate survival. In addition, the political socialisation of the “citizen” remains mediated by these atomising economic syntheses, so that “the general interest” that it envelops restores to the monadic subjects a principled dispossession and reification.

As private consumers of goods, on a daily basis, we are called upon to participate, if only to survive, in a fundamentally racist and patriarchal system. The production of the commodities that we consume induces the assignment of the “feminine” to a “nature” to be subjected. It also induces an international division of racist and neocolonial work. Beyond our “critical consciousness”, we are thus inserted into a racist and sexist system, and we will be thus susceptible to internalise, or trivialise, thematically or not, these discriminating and essentialising injunctions. For example, our daily use of “digital” products (smartphones, computers, internet, social networks, etc. .) induces a passive collaboration with the savage extractivism taking place in the DRC, to corresponding neocolonial rule, and to a globally racist and inhuman system. The expression of our anti-racist “indignation” on “social networks” will not abolish this material reality, nor our real inclusion in this order, but tend, on the contrary, to aggravate our dissociations.

As workers summoned to survive, we are caught in a society of competition and individual success, and we will thus be susceptible to develop reactions of rejection or resentment vis-à-vis other reified individuals, who are nevertheless, in certain cases, more precarious still.

In the context of a labor crisis (after the “third industrial revolution”) and an “inverted capitalism” (in which fictitious capital becomes the engine of the economy), these tendencies to atomisation worsen, and the subject-form, which also tends to dissolve, enters into crisis.

In such a context, we are susceptible, as long as we are plunged in the daily religion of commodity fetishism, to translate our suffering inadequately, reactively, in an identitarian way or hatefully. In this situation, we will be totally unable to abolish the suffering related to our social reification, while the latter is consolidated, just as the dissociative and exclusionary subject-form will be ultimately exacerbated.

Here, the crisis of the subject-form does not translate into a concern to abolish this subject-form, but by the will to maintain this form at all costs.

Crisis ideologies will tend to provide identitarian, populist or reactionary responses to these sufferings that can no longer find a way to express themselves. They will never question the basic categories of capitalism, but will tend to personify the principles of domination, to weld together some fantasised “unity”, in an essentially national context: “Jewish” finance, “the oligarchy”, “‘immigrants’, the “LGBT lobby”, the “socially assisted”, etc., can thus constitute the “foreign” principles of “dissolution” of an order to be restored, and which would be a priori ‘healthy’. These ideologies of crisis will never abolish the real suffering of reification, but count rather on their inadequate translation, favoured by atomising commodified social relations.

Faced with these obfuscations, the fact of grasping the profound significance of the manifest social suffering would be something eminently subversive: the adequate translation of this suffering would no longer indicate the need for identity withdrawal, or the desperate consolidation of the modern subject-form, but the extension of struggles, towards the abolition of this subject-form.

At least potentially, this understanding of lived suffering can develop in revolutionary praxis, which commits itself to new encounters and federations, and whose radicality may imply a new understanding of reified social relations. It is not by a pure theoretical or contemplative act that the modern subject becomes “conscious” of her/his own dispossession, along with that of other subjects, but it is in the real struggle, through which s/he confronts her/himself with this “asocial” social totality, that s/he becomes susceptible to overcoming certain obfuscations (even if this is not always the case).

4.) Brief remarks on the “yellow vests” movement

A movement like that of the “yellow vests” expresses a variety of sufferings related to the “cost of living”, austerity, tax injustice, which are felt as unbearable, and as conditions to be abolished immediately.

More deeply, this anger and these testimonies of suffering designate the contradictions, logical and real, of economic and political functions. At least in law, they could therefore point to a revolutionary praxis aspiring to strictly abolish these reifying orders (capitalism, State, commodity structure).

However, if a dialogue is to be established with “political power”, the immediate demands will first aim at a less scandalous redistribution of value (not the abolition of value), a modification of national political institutions (not the abolition of the national-state form). There is therefore a gap between what the suffering profoundly expresses (the need to abolish politics and the economy) and the demands made. However, it would be absurd to ridicule these issues of redistribution, since they have to do with the real improvement of the conditions of life and survival in a commodity regime (and, as long as capitalism exists, it is necessary to survive). Only, it would also be a question of articulating these issues of redistribution, or of “institutional modifications”, with a radicality that they designate more deeply, and which engages in the long term with the strict abolition of the social relations mediated by politics and economy.

In the praxis of struggle itself, in the very act of blocking the economy, lies the possibility of such a dialectic. The blockage can be understood as the introduction of a relation of force, which calls for a dialogue with “power”, likely to lead to renewed institutional principles (but without abolishing the root of domination). But in a more immediate way, the blockage induces a more radical questioning of the economic and political social syntheses. It is the putting into practice of collective forms of life that potentially break with these totalising syntheses, and which announce a radically different society. It challenges the root of exchange and production.

These remarks would be sufficient if the “yellow vests” movement had not emerged and developed against the backdrop of the crisis of the subject-form. The racist, homophobic acts present in certain demonstrations, the nationalist, populist, sexist, ableist, anti-migrant and anti-social-assistance speeches, which have met with some success in certain parts of this movement, reflect the crisis of this subject-form and the rise of crisis ideologies.

Individuals immersed in the everyday commodity-fetishist religion are caused to develop hardened identity forms. The trivialisation of economic, racist and sexist violence, induced by the commodity structure, may mean that each subject will have to internalise these dissociative norms. In this context, the sufferings experienced are likely to be translated reactively and hatefully, and to move against arbitrary personifications of domination.

Faced with these phenomena, the moralisation of criticism, or condescending miserabilism that would want to “educate” the “people” to anti-racism or anti-sexism are totally inept. It is the commodity society in crisis, in its totality, which conditions individuals to develop these identity reactions, whether exploited or not, and it is by the abolition of this social order that such ideologies of crisis will be actually abolished. On the other hand, an ideologue may very well formally call himself “anti-racist”, while being materially integrated into a racist order that he no longer questions, so that he will have no position as an educator to adopt before the “People”.

Such a hypostatised and essentialised “people” is a theoretical and ideological construction that underhandedly naturalises the nation, the State, and that embraces a truncated and personifying critique of the impersonal system of domination. The mobilisation of the abstraction “people” is opposed to strict internationalism, and to the questioning of the commodity structure as an antisocial totality. In addition, the idea of the “people”, that no longer thematises the constructed differences of “gender”, engages with politics that will structurally maintain commodity-producing patriarchy.

On the other hand, an individual who commits a racist, homophobic or sexist act, whether exploited or not, whether precarious or not, must be prevented from doing harm. It is not because s/he is socially determined that s/he must be infantilised or judged irresponsible.
S/he defends real political interests, as a political subject in her/his own right. S/he may be unable to translate into meaningful acts her/his real social suffering. Nevertheless, it is no longer a matter of “educating” her/him in a “compassionate” or miserabilistic way, but of opposing real acts when they are intolerable.

Populist “left” ideologies (Mélenchon, Ruffin, Lordon, etc.) try to infuse themselves into such a movement by promoting national-state regulatory forms and a simple institutional change. They are not in keeping with the radical nature of the sufferings experienced. Moreover, by favoring the national level, and by not calling into question the basic categories of the system, they are capable of congealing already racist, and perhaps even patriarchal, social relations, beyond the claimed universalism or ideological humanism. Far-right ideologies (Le Pen, Dupont-Aignant, French Action, Soral, etc.), exacerbate the crisis of the subject-form by promoting a pseudo-social discourse, but in a hardened nationalist and identity framework (masculinism, anti-migrant speeches, etc.). A confused and confusing populism (that of Chouard, for example), borrows themes from these two components, insisting on a truncated critique of capitalism (criticising only finance, for example, that is eventually “Jewish”), also targeting only “elites”, “the oligarchy,” etc. These discourses naturalise the political function and the economic function, which are at the root of modern dispossession.

These populist tendencies, and at the margin, explicitly racist or patriarchal tendencies, may legitimately disturb. Some critics are worried that a movement like “M5S” comes to constitute itself on the bases of the “yellow vests” movement, an “M5S” that finally made an alliance with the far right in Italy. The presence of the ultra-right on the street, which would like to take advantage of the movement to gain visibility, is also more than worrying.

A certain confused “extreme left”, that of an Eric Hazan (publisher of Lordon, Badiou, the Invisible Committee, Bouteldja), may, in this context, express more than disturbing ideas. Hazan thus said recently, in Mediapart, regarding the presence of the extreme right in the street, that it “did not bother him”, and he added: “the enemies of my enemies are not really friends, but a bit though.” Such an implicit proposition of alliance between the “anti-neoliberal” (anti-capitalism truncated) extreme left and the extreme right is something very frightening.

The acritical optimism of an insurrectionist (and alter-capitalist) left, which refuses to thematize these potential dangers (or which minimizes them) does not encourage confidence.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to reduce the “yellow vests” movement to a unitary and homogeneous tendency. Many people rejecting “political” politics, or ideological discourses, express immediate social suffering, something which directly questions commodity mediations. The action of blockage induces this radical questioning, even if the claims raised do not go as far as this questioning in fact. More radically still, the spontaneous expropriation of productive zones, with a view to proposing something other than the production of commodities, would lead to the emergence of new forms of life, breaking with the existing order.

An anti-fascist and internationalist left in the street, in direct confrontation with the extreme right, that acts to expel it from the struggle, has at least a negative virtue: the reactionary tendencies and identities of the movement are less likely to prosper. This presence seems necessary, perhaps to avoid the worst, and the television “antifascists” who denigrate in front of their screen this participation in the movement fail to see the need for it.

But a radical questioning of “left” populism (that of a Ruffin, for example) is still too little present.

There are many testimonies of suffering or social anger in this movement. These testimonies directly question the existence of the State and capitalism, with all that they imply (racism, patriarchy, ecological destruction, ableism, ageism). But the translation of this suffering, which is made against the backdrop of the crisis of the subject-form and the diffusion of populist ideologies of crisis, is not systematically emancipatory. What would be properly subversive would be to grasp, collectively and individually, the root of this lived suffering, and the radicality that it designates, so as to counteract the reactive and identity responses to the suffering. Such a capacity is not the privilege of ideologues, even “critical” ones, who would have to “educate” the “people”. Such a capacity eventually develops in the praxis of struggle, which can induce new encounters, new awareness, and new forms of life.

In Montpellier, on November 24, many “yellow vests” formed a guard of honor for the march against sexist and sexual violence. On December 1, the anti-racist and anti-fascist collective “justice for Adama” joined the demonstration of “yellow vests”, to represent the popular neighborhoods. This positive extension of the struggle may mean that a deeper suffering wanted to express itself, and that it would be capable of calling into question the social totality as such. But the collective “justice for Adama” also announced: “to do without us, is to do against us”. In other words, the presence of this anti-racism in the struggle can also have an essentially negative virtue, which is to thwart the extreme right, and avoid the worst.

The “yellow vests” of Réunion Island called into question neocolonial structures, in a difficult socio-economic context (26% of the population is unemployed, and 40% live below the poverty line).

In the course of social confrontations, awareness is also emerging. The police’s inhuman treatment of young students in Mantes-la-Jolie, accompanied by racist and humiliating insults, thus put the repressive function of the police into question in a new way for many people.

The “yellow vests” movement points to radical sufferings, which engages with a radical transformation, even if some translations of these sufferings can be regressive or identitarian. In this context, the significant presence of alter-capitalist and populist ideologies means that uncritical optimism would be dangerous. But over the course of praxis, awareness emerges, and some principles of extension of the struggle can be posed. An authoritarian shift is not at all excluded, and it would mean the worst expression of suffering, indefinitely maintaining such suffering, unleashing institutional violence. Yet all these testimonies of suffering, which want to put an end to suffering, also intrinsically refer to the necessity of the emancipation of all, at least potentially, and it would be a question of seizing this potentiality, to make it one day an actual reality.

*Our differences with Benoit Bohy-Bunel – and with the critique of value tradition in general – has to do with the conceptual and practical-political priority attributed to abstract commodity production over the concrete forms of oppression subtly analysed in the essay. If Bohy-Bunel insists on the need to understand capitalism, in all of its dimensions and relations of oppression as a totality, the heart or centre of the totality (in relation to what could be called the totality’s “periphery”) remains abstract commodity production. For example, in his criticism of the State, Bohy-Bunel writes:

… a testimony of suffering in commodity society indicates the necessity to abolish the political function (State) which regulates and frames the market structure. This political function is indeed inseparable from the reifying economic function. It is the secondary and direct functional sphere that derives from the primary and indirect sphere of the economy and makes it possible as well. The state has no autonomy in relation to capitalism. It guarantees the legal principles conditioning the exploitation, as well as the infrastructures necessary for the valuation process. 

It is the analysis of the State as a “secondary and direct functional sphere”, in relation to the “primary and indirect sphere of the economy” that we contest. (And the same would hold for Bohy-Bunel’s subtle analysis of patriarchy, racism, ecocide, ableism, etc.). In other words, “capitalism” is an evolving social system comprised of multiple, overlapping and mutually interdependent relations of powers. If the commodity form defines capitalism, in a marxist analysis of the same, then the analysis cannot but give priority to the form, when we would defend that without the modern State form, and without modern forms of patriarchy, racism, ecocide and so on, that commodity production would not be possible.

The following quotation from Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread summarises our discordant note:

The evil of the present system is therefore not that the “surplus-value” of production goes to the capitalist, as Rodbertus and Marx said, thus narrowing the Socialist conception and the general view of the capitalist system; the surplus-value itself is but a consequence of deeper causes. The evil lies in the possibility of a surplus-value existing, instead of a simple surplus not consumed by each generation; for, that a surplus-value should exist, means that men, women, and children are compelled by hunger to sell their labour for a small part of what this labour produces, and, above all, of what their labour is capable of producing.

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