The Swapes of Wrath

My translation of "Les raisons de la colère" by Raoul Vaneigem (2019) focused on the French Yellow Vests grassroots movement.

         We could well be surprised at how long it has taken for such a large number of men and women whose existence is a daily struggle against the profit machine, against a deliberate undertaking to turn life and the Earth into a desert, to come out of their lethargy and resignation.

          How could we have tolerated the rule and moralizing of the financial powers, the state whose strings they are pulling, and the people’s representatives, representing nothing more than their selfish interests, in a silence as persistent as their arrogance?

          The silence has in fact been well-orchestrated. Attention has been diverted by making a lot of noise around political quarrels, but we've finally tired of the conflicts and mating games between the left and the right, which at last seem nothing but ridiculous. We’ve even been prompted, sometimes surreptitiously and sometimes openly, to engage in a war of the poor against the poorer: migrants fleeing warzones, poverty, or dictatorial regimes. Until we noticed that while this perfectly organized diversion of our attention was taking place, the crushing machine was killing, non-stop, all the living.

          But we had to learn of the progression of desertification, of the pollution of lands, oceans, and the air, of the progression of capitalist greed and impoverishment now threatening the very survival of all species, including our own.

          The silence maintained by our informers’ lies is silence full of sound and fury.

Yellow Vests gathering in December 2018, towards the beginning of the movement still current in August 2019, at Tonnerre (pop. 4000, Burgundy, France) © Marina Urquidi Yellow Vests gathering in December 2018, towards the beginning of the movement still current in August 2019, at Tonnerre (pop. 4000, Burgundy, France) © Marina Urquidi

         So we can stand corrected. We have finally understood that the true vandals are the states and the financial interests commanding them, not those who break the luxury shop windows taunting the victims of consumerism and of growing impoverishment with a cynicism equal to that of political men and women, whatever party they claim to belong to.

          Those who stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789 knew nothing, or just had glimmers of the Enlightenment philosophy, the liberty of which, illuminated by Diderot, Rousseau, Holbach, and Voltaire, they would later learn, they had put into practice without really knowing it.

          It was the liberty to topple tyranny. Gut rejection of despotism resisted against the Jacobins’ guillotines, the Thermidorians’, Bonaparte’s, the monarchist restauration’s, it resisted against the Paris Commune executioners, it overrode Auschwitz and the Gulag.

          True, taking over the Élysée Palace would be giving too much credit to the grotesque palotin commissioned by the Order of Multinational Corporations to do its menial police work. We cannot settle for destroying symbols. Setting a bank on fire does not destroy the banking system and dictatorship of money. Burning down police headquarters and centers of bureaucracy is not tantamount to putting an end to the state (nor is deposing their dignitaries and prebends).

          We should never destroy other human beings (even among a few cops there is still some human conscience to be saved). That the Yellow Vests have chosen instead to destroy the machines that make us pay everywhere and to incapacitate the steam shovels that are digging the trenches of profit through our landscapes is an encouraging sign of the human progress of revolts.

          Another reassuring sign: while crowds, gregarious gatherings, are easy to manipulate—as is obvious from the cronyisms raging from the far left to the far right—we are noting here, at least for now, an absence of leaders and designated representatives, which makes things difficult for the powers that be; there is no handle to grab in this nebulous movement. We observe here and there that individuals, usually drowned in the mass, are joining in discussions, showing creative humor, initiatives and ingeniousness, and human generosity (even if slippages are always possible).

          Joyful anger is emanating from the Yellow Vest movement. State and capitalist bodies would like to see it as blind. It is just seeking clear-sightedness. While the blindness of rulers is still seeking eyeglasses.

          A yellow-vested woman declares: “I’d like Macron, who lives in a palace, to explain to me how I can live with 1,500 euros a month.” And how can people abide the budget cuts that are affecting health, non-industrial farming, education, the elimination of railway lines, the destruction of landscapes for the sake of building complexes and shopping malls?

          What about the petrochemistry and industrial pollution that is threatening the survival of the planet and its populations? To this, Palotin the First responds with an ecological measure. He taxes the fuel that users are forced to buy. This dispenses him from touching the profits of Total and the like. He had already shown his environmental concern by sending 2,500 gendarmes to destroy, in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the collective vegetable gardens, sheep barn, self-built houses, and experiment of a new society.

          Ad what can we say about taxes, which far from benefiting those who pay them, are used to bail out banking malfeasance? About the hospitals, which are lacking in medical staff? About those farmers renaturing the soils, who are deprived of subsidies going instead to agribusiness and to land and water pollution? About high-school kids being parked in breeding camps where the market will come to pick out its slaves?

          “Workers of the world,” said the poet Scutenaire, “I have no advice for you.”

           Clearly, as confirmed by the democratic-totalitarianism vogue, all forms of government, from the past to our present times, have done no more than worsen our bewildering inhumanity. The cult of profit cripples solidarity, generosity, hospitality. The black hole of lucrative cost-effectiveness has progressively absorbed the joy of living and its galaxies. It is surely time to rebuild the world and our daily existence. It is surely time to “take matters into our own hands,” in opposition to the matters being hatched against us and defeating us.

          Judging by the freedom of trade, which exploits and kills the living, freedom is always fragile. It takes nothing to invert it and change it into its opposite. It takes nothing to restore it.

          Let’s engage in our own life, it engages that of the world.

*Raoul Vaneigem (1934–) is a Belgian writer known for his book The Revolution of Everyday Life, 1967, and one of the two principal theorists, with Guy Debord, of the Situationist International movement. A prolific author, his latest book is Appel à la vie contre la tyrannie étatique et marchande [A call to life against state and mercantile tyranny], Éditions Libertalia, Montreuil (France), 2019.

He lives in the town of Villon, after having lived in Argentenay (both in Burgundy, France), that is, when he is not on "a tour of social-conflict areas," which is most of the time.

 

GLOSSARY

Élysée Palace: France’s equivalent of the White House

Notre-Dame-des-Landes: commune in western France planned in 2008 as the site for a new airport, which was occupied by local, then also non-local opponents. The government was forced to abandon the plan in 2018, but not without resorting to a disproportionate use of extreme police violence.

palotin: Palotin is the name of a family in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu the King (1896); a “palotin” is a second-rate, bland, rude, jackanapes subaltern

prebend: stipend furnished by a cathedral or church to a clergyman in its chapter

swape: dialectal, England, a pole or bar used as a lever or swivel; a long steering oar used by keelmen on the Tyne

Total: French multinational integrated oil and gas company

 

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