The General Strike Circa 2019

Years ago, while an undergraduate and hanging out with friends in Students for a Democratic Society, I read about the history of socialism and studied with the noted American Marxist scholar Barrington Moore his dismissive, even bitter, take on capitalism as intentional, systemic extraction of the surplus from peasants and workers. I remember vague references to the general strike as a tactic of institutional change where the “people” refused to participate in the elite’s system of extraction.

Last week, I was in Paris for Bruno Roche’s conference on the economics of mutuality. My time there was then diverted by the need to adjust to a “general strike” called for Thursday December 5th. The strikers were the people; the oppressor was the Macron government. I did not want to risk a trip to Amsterdam on the 4th to see colleagues there for fear that the railroads would not run in the evening for my return to Paris if the workers walked off before the official time for the strike had begun.

On the 5th, public transportation was not available; streets were empty of traffic; stores were closed; taxis were unavailable. You could walk around looking at closed shop windows until you got bored and returned to your hotel. A few stores for tourists were open near Montmartre, not far from our hotel.

An avenue near our hotel was filled with people in protest – walking, singing, carrying signs, all quite well behaved. But there I was in the streets of Paris thinking about uprisings of the past – the capture of the Bastille, the 1832 insurrection made vivid by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, the Commune of 1871 – real instances of acting on the idealism of the “people” taking national destiny into their own hands. I realized I was in the middle of French history repeating itself. What could be academic and the stuff of fiction was an actuality.

Why a general strike? As I understood the issues, President Macron wants to reduce retirement benefits out of fiscal prudence. The age of retirement for many workers would be pushed back from age 50 and their monthly retirement benefits would no longer be the equivalent of full salary. Public transport workers object. They like retiring young and having the state maintain them quite comfortably.

Then, I was told that students also objected. They were quite visible among the strikers. They very much like the idea of early retirement for the older generation to make those jobs available for themselves. They like giving older workers incentives to retire early.

I was watching a general strike demanding entitlements, not an end to oppression. But then, of course these days, being denied what one desires is, a priori, cruel-hearted oppression on the part of those who are to pay for the entitlements, a hardship for the dispossessed not to be tolerated.

The moral question of who should be entitled to how much of what and on what terms of reciprocity – what should be given in exchange for the benefit – is a difficult one for me.

Secondly, it’s not at all clear to me how systemic entitlements can ever be provided if wealth is not created to finance them. And how can such wealth be created without enterprise and the sale of goods and services at a profit?