by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker blog
The fight against autocracy and monarchy – the dominant theme of progressive politics in human history – has always begun with the fight for a parliament: the creation of a group representing some interest beyond the royal executive decree, and with the power to affect the lawmaking process and general governance.
(This is the fifteenth chapter in a new book, France’s Yellow Vests: Western Repression of the West’s Best Values. Please click here for the article which announces this book and explains its goals.)
People often do not realise what a historically recent concept this is in human society – the primacy of the people and not just a person.
Perhaps the biggest change for the average Frenchman in the changeover from Charles X of the Bourbons to Louis-Philippe of the House of Orleans in 1830 is that the latter accepted to be the king “of the French” instead of the king “of France”. This brand change did nothing on a practical level but it reflected the legacy initiated in 1789: the people’s newfound sense that only they bestow legitimacy, instead of a claimed divine theocratic right. Louis-Philippe would be the last unelected royal in France, but it took World War I to wipe away arrogant, unelected royalty in most of Europe (12 monarchs still reign in Europe, which has about 45 nations). Thus the change from millennia of a falsely divine monarchy is a very historically recent one, and much this book aims to remind that the cultural traits of autocracy – for those who cannot divine it in the governance style of Emmanuel Macron – is pernicious and pervasive today, still.
If, as the last chapter proved, Western voters are herded – or browbeaten – into supporting parties which falsely claim to be progressive but are merely PFAXIst (Popular Fronts Against Xenophobia but for Imperialism) then is Western parliamentarianism a total sham?
The problem is not in the idea of a parliament of course – which would be to say of representative democracy – but the parliamentarianism habitually produced by Western Liberal Democracy, where power is not based on reflecting the popular will but where power comes from an extra-parliamentary base controlled by an elite. English-style parliamentarianism – French revolutionaries realised in 1789 – does not prioritise representativeness but mere governability of the masses on behalf of an oligarchy which has been only extended only a bit further than the royal family.
The refusal of this “extra-parliamentary base” to care for the needs and will of the working-poor was immediately obvious in 1848, 1871, 1936, 1983 and in the results produced by the culmination of this 3rd imposition of Liberalism – the undemocratic installation of the pan-European project. European Parliament is the only directly elected institution of the European Union.
Marx pegged the perennial problem of of Western Liberal Democratic parliamentarianism at its very start:
“In the domain of general bourgeois interests the National Assembly proved itself so barren that, for instance, the discussion over the Paris-Avignon railroad, opened in the winter of 1850, was not yet ripe for a vote on December 2, 1851. Wherever it did not oppress or was reactionary the bourgeoisie was smitten incurable barrenness.”
Being oppressive and reactionary is a well-known criticism to all, but just as vital is Western parliamentary democracy’s “incurable barrenness”. This is a synonym for more common contemporary terms: “dysfunctional”, “paralysis”, “ungovernable”, “unworkable”, “not agreement-capable”, etc. These are different ways to stress that Western Liberal Democracy does not actually want broad economic growth which extends to the working-poor and working classes: that would empower the average person, and thus encourage them to demand more political and economic power from the ruling post-absolute monarchy oligarchies. Western parliaments are designed to fail the average person on purpose.
As we will see in the next chapter: the best way to make sure a general strike fails is to make sure people don’t have any savings to strike with. The same concept applies in non-general strike eras: the Western Liberal Democratic oligarchy wants dependence on bosses and creditors, not empowered and free workers and citizens. Thus wherever Western Liberal parliaments do not oppress or are reactionary its incurable barrenness is rendered obvious by the spectacular and broad creative successes of socialist-inspired nations like China; a century ago the shaming example was the USSR.
Countries victimised by imperialism know that Western Liberal Democracy only overcomes barrenness for projects which are of indispensable economic need to the oligarchy – railroads and highways to move natural resources to ports, military technology, the creation of lavish neighbourhoods in city centres for Western expatriates to enjoy, etc. Barrenness is strictly enforced regarding projects which would lead to the empowerment of the average citizen – well-funded schools, job training, equal pay for women, a dependable social safety net for times of difficulty, etc. and etc.
Indeed, how much of Western culture’s existentialism is a result of this certainty of political “barrenness”, this ineffectiveness, this apathy which leads to a dull acceptance of the status quo of a society which promises only an endless and rigged competition governed by cruel elites?
The Age of Austerity – which is to say the initial neo-imperial rule of the neoliberal empire that is the EU – is reminding White Europe how they have ruled Brown people for centuries: with disregard for everyone but the 1%.
The Yellow Vests’ misplaced hope that RICs can overcome oligarchical parliamentarianism
Overcoming this “incurable barrenness”, which enforces perpetual difficulty for the working poor class, is the implicit goal encapsulated by the most popular demand of the Yellow Vests which would change France’s political structure: a demand for RICs (Citizens’ Initiated Referendums). Many have even told me they will not stop marching until this is approved. RICs are the primary Yellow Vest solution to the failed representativeness inherent in Western Liberal Democracy, but it’s already been proven to be a failed solution.
The ability of citizens to initiate referendums is not a revolutionary concept – Switzerland has had it for over 160 years. In their over 160 referendums about 55% have been approved by voters, but most of the time the watered-down government counter-proposal was accepted and not the original initiative idea. It’s a mistake that so many Yellow Vests are so invested in this very minor political advance. Emmanuel Macron and French elite are dead-set against even this modest change which has been employed for generations right next door in perhaps the dullest of nations, which reflects how greedily they want to retain their autocratic and nearly-royalist power.
What is more important is what this demand for RICs actually expresses: It is presented as a solution for more representative government in Western Liberal Democracy, and at granting regular citizen involvement in Liberalism’s policy-making process. In reality, I believe many Yellow Vests have entirely given up on parliamentarianism in favor of direct rule by the citizen. It’s a laudable idea, and maybe one day human society will be so efficient and technologically spectacular that all citizens can take the necessary time to take an effective part in daily governance, but simply cross the border – Switzerland is no egalitarian paradise, and is routinely ranked as the most expensive country to live in in the world. RICs are not a panacea for Western Liberal Democracy’s oligarchic and fundamentally anti-democratic structures!
The Yellow Vests’ key demand of referendums reflects the fact that since the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 there is now only one route of exchange between lawgivers and citizens in France – the vote. As the writing on the back of one Yellow Vest’s vest put it, a bit vulgarly: “Making love once every 5 years is not a love life – voting once every 5 years is not a political life.” It should be remembered that this is not only a reference to the executive branch vote, but the vote for the legislature as well.
For decades France was exceptional in the West for having the route of exchange of public protests. However, beginning with Nicolas Sarkozy’s hiking of the retirement age in 2010 French protests have been almost always fully ignored. The Yellow Vests incarnate the vital insistence that public protests must be a part of the political process, and they have bravely paid a heavy personal price for the benefit of the average Frenchman.
Since the installation of the Lisbon Treaty French protests have been unable to do wrest concessions from their national politicians, who are beholden to Brussels and the rules of the pan-European project. However, Macron went even further in autocratically limiting the circle of influence in policymaking by totally and publicly dismissing any role for any intermediaries – unions, NGOs, grassroots groups, etc. Even the Pope could not have wrested a bit of charity from Macron – religion, infamously, can play zero role in modern French political discourse – thus French policymaking is mostly an affair between a trinity of God, Brussels and Macron.
In Western Liberal Democracy the primacy of parliament is always implied as the heart of their governmental project, as opposed to, say, Islam, the Communist Party, the tribe, etc. However, it’s instructive to be reminded how little French parliament has changed from when Edmund Burke, the founder of modern Western conservatism, examined its very first rolls in 1790:
“Judge, Sir, my surprise when I found that a very great proportion of the assembly (a majority, I believe, of the members who attended) was composed of practitioners in the law.” From its very inception, in something that should be obvious to all, Western Liberal Democracy means rule by provincial lawyers. The insult there is not “provincial”, but “lawyers”.
“Who could conceive that men who are habitually meddling, daring, subtle, active, of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds would easily fall back into their old condition of obscure contention and laborious, low, unprofitable chicane(ry). Who could doubt but that, at any expense to the state, of which they understood nothing, they must pursue their private interests, which they understand but too well. … To the faculty of law was joined a pretty considerable proportion of the faculty of medicine. … Then came the dealers in stocks and funds, who must be eager, at any expense, to change their ideal paper wealth for the more solid substance of land. … To observing men it must have appeared from the beginning that the majority of the Third Estate, in conjunction with such a depiction from the clergy as I have described (from earlier: “mere country curates… habitually guided in their petty village concerns”), whilst it paused the destruction of the nobility, would inevitably become subservient to the worst designs of individuals in that class.”
Who would disagree with Burke’s low estimation of Liberalist parliamentarians: “men formed to be instruments, not controls”? Whose “instruments” are such legislators? Burke gives the answer: the worst individuals of the de-titled royal class, or – to put it in today’s terms – the 1%. In 2017 fewer than 2 percent of legislators in the National Assembly came from the working class. Contrarily, a common Western Liberal Democratic criticism of the parliaments of Cuba, Iran, China, etc., is that there are too many people who are “unqualified”. They are accuse of this because they lack university degrees, whereas in socialist-inspired democracy morality, devotion to the people and grassroots esteem are seen as good qualifications for public office.
The incurably barren future of Western Liberal Democratic parliaments was accurately summed up by Burke: “If possible, the next Assembly must be worse than the present.”
While only today’s reactionaries accept Burke’s elitist views without skepticism they are useful – we must scroll through Western Liberal Democratic history to remind ourselves that their parliaments have been discredited in every generation.
It’s worthwhile to note Marx’s assessment of Western Liberal Democracy as practiced in the United States – we see how the complaints about Congress have been monotonously similar for two centuries:
“Nowhere do ‘politicians’ form a more separate, powerful section of the nation than in North America. There, each of the two great parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions.”
The 1852 popular vote in France which sanctioned Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s self-coup against French parliament was that generation’s similar condemnation of English-style oligarchic parliamentarianism. As Marx wrote in his writings on the Paris Commune:
“The (2nd) empire (of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte), with the coup d’état for its birth certificate, universal suffrage for its sanction, and the sword for its sceptre, professed to rest upon the peasantry, the large mass of producers not directly involved in the struggle of capital and labor. It professed to save the working class by breaking down parliamentarianism, and, with it, the undisguised subserviency of government to the propertied classes. It professed to save the propertied classes by upholding their economic supremacy over the working class; and, finally, it professed to unite all classes by reviving for all the chimera of national glory.” (emphasis mine)
Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was a Bonapartist and not a Socialist Democrat, but he would not have won the biggest popular election in history until that point by professing to save the French sharecropper and small farmer by defending a widely-detested, oligarchical parliament full of open royalists. These royalists and elitists colluded with Germanic autocrats to topple Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1871 but ultimately failed to restore an unelected, feudal monarch in France. However, across the 21st century is the accusation that the West has become a “neo-feudal” society precisely because the ideology of France’s first parliamentarians has still not been checked by a victory of Socialist Democracy.
In 1934 Trotsky showed that Western Liberal Democracy still had achieved no record of producing a parliament which puts the needs of the average person first, and not those of the elite: “On the parliamentary road the socialist proletariat has nowhere and never conquered power nor ever, as yet, even drawn close to it.” As soon as they drew close a Popular Front sprouted to hand power right back to the reactionary bourgeois bloc.
Whereas elections are now just once every five years, in Western Liberal Democracy with American characteristics elections are perpetual. This has turned politics into something like a competition between two sports teams, and the emphasis on winning votes has totally gutted American politics of any moral substance. Of course taking both the ideology and the morality out of politics renders the average person totally unconnected from the political process.
As Trotsky wrote: “As if the fate of the people depended upon a lesser or greater number of municipalities of the ‘left’ in 1935, and not on the moral, social and political position of millions of workers and peasants during the next period!”
Starting in 2018 the Yellow Vests had essentially the exact same condemnations as Burke, Marx and Trotsky, even if their primary target was Macron and not parliament. However, to believe that Macron was the main problem with the French executive branch is as misguided as the belief that RICs will solve the failures of the French legislative branch.
The autocracy of Macron hid the oligarchy of Parliament
All of France saw in 2017 that the victory of both Macron and of his new parliamentary party was undoubtedly centred around a rejection of the mainstream duopoly, but Macron was legally justified to falsely claim that he held a broad mandate of the people. Macron, in policies and personality, was only elected by a “bourgeois bloc” of around 25%, but nothing could compel Macron to not govern autocratically.
Macron knew this, and did not care. He refused to be hindered by a legislature he dominated and ignored exactly like the kings who followed Napoleon Bonaparte. Macron routinely bypassed a parliament in which his party held an absolute majority via using the 49-3 executive decree, simply in order to avoid the bad publicity certain to be created via public debates of far-right economic policies.
There is a second path at influencing the executive in Western Liberal Democracy – intermediaries – but Liberalist lawmakers only listen to paid lobbyists, in a case of obviously undemocratic corruption. Macron has infamously stated that he does not like intermediaries, but what is Parliament but the most powerful intermediary possible between the head civil servant and the citizens/workers? Of course Macron doesn’t like “intermediaries” – they seek to leaven his autocratic decision-making.
Thus, many Yellow Vests mistakenly believed that France’s problem was centred in Macron and not in its Western Liberal Democratic structures. This engendered a widespread desire to speak to Macron in person, which was even caricatured in France’s first big-budget movie about the Yellow Vests, La Fracture. In the bourgeois protagonist’s final climax of semi-enlightenment she bestows upon the Yellow Vest character a drawing of him crawling up the sewers to Élysée Palace to finally be able to talk with Macron, which the Yellow Vest character had insisted was the solution which would result in policymaking that favoured the lower classes. When all the checks and balances of Western Liberal Democracy are tested it’s clear – autocracy by the 1% is what is preserved, and the average person should just head to the sewers for understanding.
The key is to realise that autocracy did not begin with Macron: An oft-cited concern in France since 2017 is that the 5th Republic (founded 1958) gives the French chief executive power which is unrivalled among his Western peers.
Edwy Plenel, founder of Mediapart, wrote in La Victoire des vaincus (The Victory of the Defeated) of the Yellow Vest movement: “It’s true motor is a demand for social and political equality where, for the first time, the institutional question of French presidentialism, the power of one to to confiscate the will of all, is swept by a popular anger.”
Critically, Macron comes after Francois Hollande’s repeated and flagrant use of the 49-3 executive decree, and both reveal that Western Liberal Democracy with French characteristics no longer puts parliament at the centre of their governance. This evolution would be in line with Western Liberal Democracy’s trend towards greater and greater adoption of fascist tactics, and it would also be in line with the historical base of Liberalism: the pro-autocracy view of elitist oligarchs.
Open defiance of the claim of the centrality of parliamentary life in Western democracy makes France today more like the Bonapartism of Louis-Napoleon (rule via the people’s mandate but on behalf of the bankers, bourgeois and pro-royalists) and not the more leftist Bonapartism of Napoleon (rule via the people’s mandate and on behalf of the moderate wing of the people’s revolution).
But this suddenly recognition of an overly-powerful executive branch merely served as a safety valve to obscure the problems inherent and routine in Western Liberal Democracy itself: It’s not really presidential power which the repression of the Yellow Vests covered in disgrace, but parliamentary and judiciary power as well.
A necessary and simple question which Western Liberal Democracy wishes to avoid is: Why did the Yellow Vest protests go on for so very long? From November until June every Saturday represented a disaster of democracy, after all.
After creating an empowered parliament, Western Liberal Democracy’s main political advance was to wrest the judiciary from the nobility, and to give it a supposed independence in order to defend the new rights of Liberalism. The failure of the judicial branch to stop the repression of the Yellow Vests could take up an entire chapter in this book, but it takes only one paragraph to recognise the depth of the importance of its obvious refusal to do so:
The protests were not resolved because they were protests against Western Liberal Democracy itself, and thus all branches of government were united against the movement as long as the movement insisted on moving. The executive branch refused to end the crisis if that meant changing its policy-making style away from autocracy; the legislative branch could not or would not intervene – the infamous “anti-Yellow Vest law” showed whose side they were on; the laughable claims of Western Liberal Democracy to have a totally depoliticised (and thus “independent”) judicial branch revealed the truth of its obvious bias against the majority’s conception of justice and certainly against extending the basic rights of Liberalism to the average citizen. Because the Yellow Vests could not be denounced as “Socialists!” – it’s no longer a criminal offence in France – it became so vital to falsely portray the Yellow Vests as hooligans (casseurs), i.e. criminals and not political protesters. This absolved the judicial branch, especially.
However, if Western Liberal Democracy is committed to supporting the advantages of and run by ex-nobles and the rich, can we be surprised that any reduction of their rights or powers is considered a crime against the entire nation?
Ultimately, we have a case where the executive, legislative and judicial branches are in total collusion – against permitting the most basic rights of Liberalism. To paraphrase Marx as cited earlier: even the rights of Liberalism are denounced as “Socialism!”
With the legislative, executive and judicial branches thus closed off to democratic input, many concerned French citizens they had only one resort – a direct appeal to the top cop. So we see why the Yellow Vests focused so much on Macron even though the primacy in non-autocratic politics theoretically lays with the legislative branch.
However, presidential power in contemporary France – in the context of a supranational government centred in Brussels – is actually now more comparable to a mere provincial governor. The obfuscation of the actual power in France – the EU and the Eurogroup – has created this confusion among the Yellow Vests and most of France.
Stalin was both exasperated and accurate when he famously said, “Social Democracy and fascism are not opposite – they are twins.” The accurate statement in a post-Lisbon Treaty Europe is that Western Liberal Democracy and fascism are not opposite – they are twins.
Western Liberal Democracy as a false ‘Third Way’ between autocracy and socialism
Ultimately, the failure lies in the fact that Western Liberal Democracy simply is not a democracy, in the sense that neither majority rule nor the supreme rule of the people is ever achieved, but only consistent liberal rights for a minority – namely, a rich oligarchy.
What the Yellow Vests prove is the fallacy of Western Liberal Democracy’s implicit claim of being a “Third Way” – first between socialism and autocracy, and now between socialism and fascism. The fallacy was to believe that Western Liberal Democracy is not autocratic in nature, and the repression of the Yellow Vests reminds us of this.
What the Yellow Vests – who are not (yet) revolutionaries for Socialist Democracy – actually greatly resemble in Western Liberal Democracy is a third-party.
A two-party duopoly is inevitably formally created in Western Liberal Democracy. When a new, grassroots, powerful third party actually sprouts one of the duopoly usually absorbs and adulterates them. However, the French political establishment was unable to resolve the embarrassing, long-running Yellow Vest debacle precisely because the only changes allowed in Western Liberal Democracy are those approved by the bourgeois bloc, which the Yellow Vests oppose.
Western Liberal Democracy has always been essentially a mono-party system – dedicated to upholding the elite – and thus it greatly resembles both autocratic oligarchy and modern fascism. There is no “third way” – the choice is either autocracy (rule by one person and his coterie) or socialism (rule by all). The undemocratic monopoly of power by any small group – oligarchy – has the same practical effect on the 99% as autocracy.
The entire point of Liberalism in 1789 was to constrain the executive, and mainly via a parliament that was supposed to reflect and enact the will of the majority. However, the Macron era confirms the Liberalist trend since 9/11 in the US and since 2009 in Europe of undeniable and seemingly irrevocable executive branch power grabs which neuter the ability of the legislative branch to play a role in policymaking – it’s a major return to the monarchical autocracy of 1788.
Parliamentary democracy is certainly a positive progression in political history, but not in the 18th century, elitist conception of parliamentarianism in Western Liberal Democracy.
Upcoming chapter list of France’s Yellow Vests: Western Repression of the West’s Best Values.
Publication date: July 1, 2022.
Pre-orders of the paperback version will be available immediately.
Pre-orders of the Kindle version may be made here.
Pre-orders of the French paperback version will be available immediately.
Pre-orders of the French Kindle version may be made here.
Chapter List of the new content
- New book announcement – ‘France’s Yellow Vests: Western Repression of the West’s best values’ – March 15, 2022
- Introduction: A Yellow Vests’ history must rewrite both recent & past French history – March 20, 2022
- The UK’s endless reaction: 1789 & feudalism’s end creates modern conservatism – March 25, 2022
- Glorious Revolution of 1688: England declares ‘death to all other revolutions’ – March 29, 2022
- Modern political history makes no sense if Napoleon is not a leftist revolutionary – April 2, 2022
- The ‘Counter-Revolutions of 1848’ stillborn child: Western Liberal Democracy – April 7, 2022
- Louis-Napoleon: The revolutionary differences between Bonapartism & Western Liberal Democracy – April 11, 2022
- The Paris Commune: The true birth of neoliberalism and EU neo-imperialism – April 17, 2022
- Where the West is stuck: The fascism of the 1930s and the ‘fascism’ of the 2020s – April 23, 2022
- On ‘Leon Trotsky on France’ in order to reclaim Trotsky from Trotskyists – May 2, 2022
- Growing up Yellow Vest: Seeing French elites, not French people, conquered by neoliberalism – May 8, 2022
- The pan-European project wanted a Great Recession, winds up with Yellow Vests May 13, 2022
- To Yellow Vests he’s the radical: Macron imposes ‘radical centrism’ for Brussels – May 19, 2022
- Yellow Vests: At worst, the most important French movement for a century – May 24, 2022
- Who are they, really? Ask a reporter whose seen a million Yellow Vest faces – May 31, 2022
- Yellow Vest Win: Ending the West’s slandering of all popular movements as far-right xenophobes – June 9, 2022
- Yellow Vest Win: The end of Western parliamentarianism as the most progressive government
- Yellow Vest Win: The end of Western unions as leftism’s hereditary kings
- Yellow Vest Win: Reminding us of the link between fascist violence & Western democracy
- What the Yellow Vests can be: a group which can protect liberalism’s rights, at least
- The 2022 vote: The approach needed for ‘Before’- what came ‘After’ polls closed
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of ‘Socialism’s Ignored Success: Iranian Islamic Socialism’ as well as ‘I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China’, which is also available in simplified and traditional Chinese.