Demonstrations against the pension reform: the ingredients of a social explosion to come

How long does it take for a form of collective expression to become empty of its meaning, to become a parody of itself, a simulacrum? Do social rites have an expiration date? It was said to be obsolete, the good old demonstration, with its slogans shouted at the megaphone, its banners and its red balloons. The monotonous Republic-Bastille-Nation parades did not attract many people.

The form of the demonstration survived like a ritual from another age, with increasingly sparse ranks. She belonged to the chestnuts of the media who only had eyes for the overflowing images of the thugs and black block formations. We almost forgot the meaning of the word “manifestation”, which is to make visible claims but also presences, desires or hidden bodies.

It had had its day the demonstration, it was thought, dethroned by the movements of occupation of the places of 2011 and the new forms of digital mobilization appeared on this occasion. “The Che Guevara of the XXIe century, it’s the net”, could thus declare Alec Ross, the innovation adviser to Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States. As the 2.0 revolutions gathered huge crowds in the public squares of Tunisia or Egypt… More recently, the movement of the “yellow vests”born of a petition on Facebook, had given him the coup de grace by inventing a new way of mobilizing and manifesting oneself.

The neoliberal narrative in the viewfinder

We had buried her a little too quickly. By their magnitude, the various processions of January 19 against the pension reform defied all predictions. Reunited for the first time in twelve years under the same bannerthe eight trade union organizations succeeded in mobilizing the crowds against raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.

By bringing together 1.12 million people according to the government and more than 2 million according to the unionsthe day of January 19 has already risen to second place of the greatest mobilizations of the last thirty years, all directed against plans for reform of the pension system (in 1995 under Alain Juppé, in 2003 against the Fillon bill, then in 2010 during the reform led by Éric Woerth). Nothing like a million or two demonstrators in the streets to bend the government. But how to analyze this force? Is it just power in numbers? Why the reform of retreats is it a red rag of social struggles?

Explanations abound regarding the centrality of the issue of pensions in social struggles. Individualization of the relation of life to work. Dismantling of the social state. With the overhaul of the labor code, the pension reform constitutes the second symbolic stake of the neoliberal revolution. For all neoliberal governments, this is a lock that must be broken to impose a new narrative of work life. The issue is social, but it is also symbolic and narrative.

All the mobilizations since 2008 have targeted this monopoly of neoliberal narrative. Whatever forms they take, they discredit the credibility of the neoliberal narrative and the reliability of successive political narrators. Whether it concerns the movement of occupying spaces, “yellow vests” or current demonstrations against the pension reform project, these movements are part of the same discredit thrown in the face of all the legitimate authorities. They constitute a reaction of the social body to the intoxication of neoliberal narratives, they come under the allergy rather than the viral.

It is this discredit that gives coherence to the social movement and inspires its forms of action, a kind ofelective affinityin the sense that sociology has used it since Max Weberthat is to say a process by which cultural forms enter into a relationship of attraction, choose and mutually reinforce each other.

New forms of movement

Thus, the square movement has made the agora the theater of the struggle for democracy. Of the Tahrir Square from Cairo to Puerto del Sol Madrid, Zucotti Park in New York (where the movement Occupy Wall Street was established in 2011) at the Syntagma Square of Athens, the same demand is expressed: that of a direct democracy which recognizes itself and makes itself heard in its place of birth, the public square.

A social movement is not just a catalog of demands, it’s a collective performance that outlines a possible horizon, a shared story.

It is the same call for a reinvention of democracy that mobilizes the demonstrators, embodied by the slogan of the “Indignados” of Madrid: “Democracia Real ya” (Real democracy now). Proof if there is one that the struggles adopt, by a kind of symbolic attraction, the cultural forms which correspond to their claims.

This is even more true of “yellow vests”. Born of the revolt against rising fuel, the movement borrowed its signs and forms from road traffic. From one end of the country to the other, it has taken control of roundabouts, deployed in cities like a revolution truancy. The “yellow vests” took without knowing it, by a kind of collective intuition, the control of the controlling companythat the philosopher Gilles Deleuze had described under the metaphor of freeway traffic.

A snub to the neoliberal totem of mobility. The “yellow vests” have invented a new visibility thanks to their fluorescent vests and a new dramaturgy in action every Saturday. They challenged police immobilization techniquesinventing a kind of social war of movement.

Bringing bodies together in a common spirit

The mobilization against the pension reform is no exception to this rule of elective affinities. She confirms what she said American philosopher Judith Butler of the performative force of the bodies assembled in the public space. “A gathering already speaks before even uttering a wordshe writes in her book Gatheringpublished in 2016. […] By uniting, it is already the enactment of a popular will. A gathering of bodies in the public space already has in itself a value that is not only demonstrative. It acquires a performative force, that is to say that it achieves, by its sole implementation, the objectives of the struggle.

In his last column for Liberationthe Spanish philosopher Paul B. Preciado drives the point home. “A protest is a strange form of dissident cooperation in which a group of bodies act together and share the risks and benefits of their joint action. Hannah Arendt speaks of “concerted actions”. Judith Butler of “Allied Corps”. We could also say: political intimacy between foreign desiring bodies.

What governments forget is that the Politics does not have for only stake accounting rules or budgetary balances, but mistreated bodies, exploited bodies, bodies bruised by work. Contrary to this hidden, inaudible suffering, the fight against the pension reform takes joyful forms, the joy of liberated bodies, bodies found in the demonstration collective. It makes a certain state of mind contagious, outlines a shared horizon, that of a liberated life after work. We can see in it an appropriate response to a reform which precisely proposes to prolong the pressure on the bodies at the work.

Those who participated in the 1995 social movement may not remember contested measures of the “Juppé plan”, but they haven’t forgotten the general reorganization of life that the strikes made possible, another relationship to time and space, another way of relating to one another. One social movement is not only a catalog of demands backed by a balance of power, it is a collective performance that outlines a possible horizon, a shared narrative.

By wanting to push back the retirement age retreat from 62 to 64, by multiplying the specific cases of application of the law, the current government is not only delaying access to an individual right, it is blocking a common horizon, that of a desirable end to working life . All the symbolic ingredients of a social explosion are brought together here.

Demonstrations against the pension reform: the ingredients of a social explosion to come