The Totalitarian Danger – from Paris to Washington

Macron and his [pension] reform must go!

Presentation by Alan Benjamin

The editorial below was published in Issue no. 236 of Workers Tribune, the weekly newspaper of the Democratic Independent Workers Party of France (POID). Its warning of a totalitarian danger in France applies directly to the United States and to many other countries around the world — from India to Hungary to Brazil, and beyond. The totalitarian danger is more and more a trait of political regimes worldwide in this epoch of capitalist decay.

In France, President Macron is declaring his right to assert authoritarian powers granted to him under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic to re-open the economy on May 11 — despite the warnings from health experts and scientists that such a decision could set into motion a second wave of infections of COVID-19.

In the United States, President Trump has declared that he has “total powers” under the Constitution to tell governors how to handle the pandemic. Combine this with the muzzling of all forms of dissent and the persistent efforts by Trump and his lackeys to suppress millions of votes next November, especially Black votes, and you can see that here, too, there is a dangerous rift toward totalitarian rule.

One last introductory comment: In France, as a result of the pressure exerted by millions of people in the streets against the pension “reform” plan proposed by Macron, the main trade unions, as you will read in the editorial below, have refused — at least for now — to be co-opted by the powers-that-be into co-administering an “economic recovery plan” that privileges the corporate elite and throws only some crumbs at the working-class majority. The unions are affirming their independence, affirming that “power concedes nothing without a demand,” to quote Frederick Douglass. “They are just doing their job,” as the editorial below notes.

In the United States, the top leaders of the AFL-CIO, SEIU and the Teamsters’ union were invited by Trump on April 15 to join the corporate-dominated “Great Economic Recovery Board.” Two days later, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka replied publicly to this invitation, stating that, “U.S. workers must have input into how the U.S. economy restarts from the coronavirus pandemic.”

The U.S. labor movement must refuse to sit on this board. It must refuse to legitimize an entity whose aim will be to continue bailing out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. The labor movement must fight tooth and nail to bail out Main Street — NOT Wall Street. Affirming the independence of the trade unions is a struggle that must be waged from Paris to Washington.

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Sans protection

Without protection, what would be the consequences of the lifting on May 11 of the stay-at-home decree?

La Tribune des Travailleurs (Workers Tribune) Issue no. 236 – 22 April 2020 – Editorial

The Totalitarian Danger

By Daniel Gluckstein

From the very beginning, the Fifth Republic was constituted as a regime with a totalitarian mission. The President-Bonaparte concentrates all powers in his hands. The trade union organisations are constantly subjected to attempts to integrate them into the State.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Bonapartist anti-democratic nature of the regime has intensified: the introduction of a supposed “health” state of emergency; the passing of ordinances [1] that confiscate Parliament’s meagre powers and attack the social guarantees won through action by the working class; a strengthening of personal power in every domain (“I have decided, I am doing, I will do”, Macron says again and again, in contradiction with what he had decided, done and said he wanted to do a few days previously). In addition to which there are the attacks on personal freedoms and workers’ rights.

In the last few days, things have moved up a notch. People must go back to work on 11 May at all costs, Macron asserts. Are there scientific reasons for this decision, a dramatic decline of the pandemic? No. Many scientists and clinicians are warning against the possible consequences of lifting the lockdown in these conditions, which could result in a “second wave” and thousands more victims.

It is the capitalist class and its representative, the MEDEF [employers’ organisation], that are demanding a return to work on 11 May: as far as they are concerned, it is time to “get back to business”. This attempt to impose the imperative of exploitation in opposition to health considerations is causing great concern among wage-earners: there are more and more demands, protests and position statements.

In the opposite camp, a bunch of penpushers on the MEDEF’s payroll are following orders and lashing out in the press: it is all about who can strike the hardest against the labour movement, adopting the most radically reactionary tone possible.

Eric Le Boucher is one of them. An editorial writer at [financial daily newspaper] Les Échos, last week he argued in favour of an immediate return to work, assuming that this would certainly result in thousands of deaths. He re-offended on 17 April, in an editorial titled: “Lifting the lockdown: the historic responsibility of the trade unions”. Denouncing a supposed “French preference for not working” (admire the elegant packaging containing this anti-worker vomit), Le Boucher bangs the drum: “There is no other choice, there must be a return to work. The very day after 11 May. (…) French wage-earners must be told that they have to go back to work, that “zero risk” does not exist.” To this end, Le Boucher intends to conscript the unions: “As the State will soon be exhausted, lifting the lockdown rests on the required good understanding of the social partners.” Let us translate: the workers’ trade unions must toe the line, they must obediently meet the demands of the State and the MEDEF and agree to be their back-up troops.

As far as Le Boucher is concerned, it is a question of ensuring “a radical 180-degree turnaround in an employment market driven by conflict relationships”. On this last point, we should acknowledge that he is right: the roadmap he intends to impose on the unions is directly inspired by Petain’s Labour Charter of 1941. It is indeed diametrically opposed to political democracy, which recognises the right of the exploited to organise independently in order to defend their particular rights against the bosses and the State. Le Boucher’s corporatist vision goes beyond the pandemic: “The partners must seize the moment. After wars, the economy starts up again based on new compromises, it is the time to invent a new French capitalism.”

Well now, what is getting Le Boucher so worked up? So, the trade union organisations – including the national-level confederations – are demanding protective masks, protective gloves and gowns, alcohol-based sanitiser and testing kits, and are worried about a second surge in infections without this protection, especially in the schools, where millions of children are in close contact with hundreds of thousands of teachers? So, some of them are going so far as to demand the postponement of the set date of 11 May as long as measures to protect the workers are not guaranteed? They are simply doing their job.

So, the trade union organisations are pointing out the danger of once again using public transport in large numbers in these conditions? So, they are challenging the ordinances that derogate from legal working time and weekly and Sunday rest days, and are condemning the attacks on collective rights, collective bargaining agreements and the Labour Code? That is their mandate.

So, they are opposing lay-offs and job-cuts, and are demanding the repeal of the counter-reforms and the maintaining of wages and collective rights? So, they are coming out against offshoring and outsourcing, and in favour of some nationalisation? They are just doing their job.

Whatever Le Boucher and his like may think, that is precisely why the working class constituted its organisations. The historic role of the labour movement is certainly not to “invent a new French capitalism”. The Charter of Amiens, adopted in 1906 by the CGT (which gave rise to today’s CGT and CGT-Force Ouvriere) assigns it the opposite historic task: to help bring about a new world in which the means of production will no longer be owned by the few, but will be the common property of the producer class; a new world in which the socialisation of the means of production will enable society to progress and remove new disasters like the current pandemic from its path.

There is an immediate, urgent need to forge a united bloc of the workers and the organisations that stand for their interests in order to reject any form of participation-integration in the State and to defeat the attempt at totalitarianism. It is a question of helping working people to protect what is essential: their lives.



[1] Translator’s note: An ordonnance (ordinance, or executive order) is a statute passed by the Council of Ministers in an area of law normally reserved for statute law passed by the French Parliament.

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