After a hectic few days in the Schengen area, it’s clear that while the two clichés of life under globalized capital are still true, there’s something else happening too. The clichés are about the contrast between how easy it is for the beneficiaries of the financialized life to move around and how difficult it is for those from underdeveloped parts of the world who do much of the menial work that enables it. The new aspect is the growing worldwide resistance.
In Europe, it’s very much the case that for E.U. passport holders, borders are dissolving. Students at Strasbourg University in France can not only visit close-by universities in Switzerland and Germany, they can borrow books from their libraries and take them to what is technically a different country.
Less visible are those who keep the system functioning or have been excluded from it. I had excellent coffee this morning in a typically Parisian cafe run with exquisite politeness by a Vietnamese couple. On the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, once a by-word for working-class radicalism, there’s a Starbucks and the other signs of globalized homogeneity. In the Marais, still very much a queer/Jewish quartier when I was a student, it’s all upscale shopping and restaurants. Financialization has achieved what Baron Haussmann could not do in the nineteenth century and thoroughly exiled the dangerous and marginal classes from Paris. The average tourist might only catch a glimpse of the city’s diversity as they head for the Eurostar at Gare du Nord.
As part of that displacement, there are more barriers to the globalized knowledge system. Although tuition for a course at the Sorbonne is still only €250 ($320), the European university system is actively trying to become more hierarchical, exemplified by all the paywalls around journals and even newspapers. When you get into the National Library, it feels like getting into a fortress, after you press your passcard on multiple readers, go through many sets of double metal doors, through repeated turnstiles and down several escalators. OK, we get it.
So far, so familiar. What I did also see was the ways in which a resistance is forming that is aware of its differences and distinct histories but also has a good deal in common. I had a long discussion last night with activists in the Debt Group of Réel Démocratie Maintenant, formerly the Indignés. Although some French people had been saying the movement was over, the group showed me some dramatic video footage of movement people working with peasants and green activists to defend a rural occupation against some very violent police. I heard about actions to create a Cahiers de doléances, or Dossier of Grievances, and to establish an Estates-General. These are legacies from the revolution of 1789, reconfigured for the era of financialization. At the same time, they are planning a Europe-wide protest against police violence and its attempt to stifle opposition.
Because just like Spain, just like the UK and of course the US, debt is a driving issue in the French movement. They are more involved with institutional politics than we are and there was some hope caused by the election of Socialist majorities and a Socialist president. However, last week, the government made it clear that they were not going to nationalize the steel furnaces at Florange owned by ArcelorMittal that I’ve often discussed here, where there have been occupations and other militant actions. The company itself refused to bid for the European Ultra Low Carbon steel initiative, as if to say that there’s nothing they will do.
And that passivity by government and disdain by corporations is producing a backlash. The French media this morning were filled with disdain for the pathetic UN climate convention meeting in Doha, Qatar. To put the matter in perspective, the world’s at risk island and developing nations were asking the richer countries for an already-promised $60 billion of support for adaptation. This is equal to the amount President Obama has requested to clean up Hurricane Sandy. No worthwhile steps of any kind were taken to deal with climate change itself, with nations moving on to consider who pays for “loss and damage.” Contrary to some Anglophone media reports, I don’t consider this a win.
If there’s going to be change, it’s going to come from the movements forcing the issue, working together across borders and being aware of the need to prioritize the planetary aspects of the issue. It’s a tall order but I do see very concrete and material signs of that convergence emerging, as people come to realize that 2008 not only bankrupted the banks, it also derailed the Western representative system.