The reaction by one of France’s “Yellow Vests” to Macron’s about face was as follows:
“We have put Macron on one knee. Now he must fall.”
This from a middle aged, over taxed and under paid member of France’s proletariat, a subject written out of leftist thought for the last 50 years as a dupe of consumerism, a spent political force, a class dissolving into a morass of individual interests. For many on the left focus shifted to that segment of the population at one remove from the productive forces – the structurally unemployed, the precariously under- employed, the marginalised, the excluded, the undocumented. There, it seemed, one could engage with a real instance of the degradation that should have been visited on the proletariat but which the latter had managed to escape. Instead, the workers had retreated to the suburbs and embraced the rewards of the democratic-materialist lifestyle.
The hope of a communist future had fallen foul of the vagaries of history, despite the apparent truth of a philosophical proposition: that the proletariat was the relational axis around which history must revolve. The possibility of immediate consumption, enabled by a general increase in purchasing power, had seduced the workers into abandoning the revolutionary mandate bestowed on them by a conception of history as driven by the motor of internal contradiction.
Actual “history” though, could subsume the new found materialist lifestyle into it’s unfolding without difficulty; events continued on their way impervious to the telos projected into them from a philosophical outside. Reality continued to deliver the unforeseen, establishing order out of chaos and dissolving order into chaos in wavelike undulations that subsumed philosophical constructs and the practices of intervention which they inspired as one more spasmodic twist along a multidimensional continuum without centre or periphery, beginning or end.
Call history, then, that foreclosed real from which we act in and on worlds. Bypass a machine metaphor which tries to incorporate motion into structure as rythmatic predictability. There is no “motor of history” dialectical or other.
The dialectical was, at best, a generality describing the relation between economic structures and processes and the structures and processes of social relation and their evolution. It tried to map the contradictions that inevitably ensue with advances in technology. But at no time was the outcome of the application of the dialectical method to concrete events so fixed as to enable predictive power of the sort we expect from the empirical sciences. The only alternative, if one wanted to preserve the concept of a science of the dialectic, was to relax the criteria of what constituted a science. Such a move was irrelevant to practising scientists and remained an ideological imposition on science by Marxists, an attempt to steal the glory of science for Marxism in an age of scientific positivism.
The whole history of dialectical thought, from Hegel through Marx to the simplifications of ideological Marxism and the complexities of academic Marxism, all of that too was effortlessly folded into the movement of the Real, as easily as a piece of flotsam is folded into the curve of a wave and taken beyond our reach. The actual history of the social beings who conceived the idea of the dialectic continued to evolve, inclusive of that philosophical act of constituting the actual as dialectical. A thought about the mode of the unfolding of history was folded back into history as the realisation of that idea in the actuality of social life. Many were won over to the dialectic, Marx included, and many others to Marxist dialectics in the era of the mass movements for social change of the last century and the victory of state socialism.
Eventually, as we all know, the dialectic fell foul of post structuralist thought, and a general mistrust of totalist ideas, grand narratives, master signifiers, the scientific and the technological. But it survived the process and continues to fascinate. The more sophisticated have tried to incorporate something of the fold into the event, imagining time as a series of recursions incorporating a moment of structural relation, a sort of dialectical looping along a trajectory from past to future. At the other philosophical extreme, those desperate to escape the constructionist knot dissolve time and space into the quantum, installing superposition and effect at a distance in place of the dialectic, imagining themselves able to operate as an immanent subject of freedom, deploying a form of magic-science to conjure virtual worlds by way of language acts.
The majority of humanity – what we used to call the people (before it became politically incorrect to reify the mass as opposed to surreptitiously liquidating the mass into the individual) hang on and try to stay afloat, taking each wave of “history” as it comes, hoping only for that relative knowledge that might prove useful for survival. If they find their voice it is always to express a felt need – Macron must fall- a thought that expects that the world should be just. How did they arrive at that conclusion? They don’t know. They were brought to it by the brutality of a circumstance that made it impossible for life to go on as it had. They came onto the streets, visible now in their yellow vests (is there a more profound comment on the willful blindness of their masters?) once more written into a History they had been previously written out of.
More and more this will be the case. The rise of the Right, populist and explicitly fascist, says as much. That the proletariat, once more exercising it’s power as a political subject, will not automatically swing to the left as the climate crisis exacerbates the contradictions in capitalist social relations is simply another way of saying that there is no dialectic at work guaranteeing a good outcome. The climate crisis is one and the same crisis as the crisis of capitalism; commodity production and exchange just is the appropriation for profit of the natural energy locked into the body of the worker as a particular instance of the energy locked into animal bodies and the body of the planet.
Where will the yellow vests go from here? Into the arms of the neo-rightists, of course, who have re-learned the art of speaking the wishes of the people by way of their populist propaganda. It seems almost inevitable, considering the absence of a leftist movement of equal force, that the energy of the yellow vest movement will re-emerge at the ballot box as that surge necessary to lift Le Pens party into power, alone or in a coalition of the right.
“We have put Macron on one knee. Now he must fall.”
It has the finality of an incantatory invocation, signalling the liquidation of the centre, and the near end of the reign of bourgeois rights and freedoms, in France as across the world.
We will not be saved by a science of the dialectical or the empirical. The future is already with us.
What will we do, we on the left?