The Yellow Vest Movement in France–Between “Ecological” Neoliberalism and “Apolitical” Movements

The past weeks have seen a massive confrontational movement arise in France opposing President Emmanuel Macron’s “ecological” tax increase on gas. This movement combines many contradictory elements: horizontally organized direct action, a narrative of being “apolitical,” the participation of far-right organizers, and the genuine anger of the exploited. Clearly, neoliberal capitalism offers no solutions to climate change except to place even more pressure on the poor; but when the anger of the poor is translated into reactionary consumer outrage, that opens ominous opportunities for the far right. Here, we report on the yellow vests movement in detail and discuss the questions it raises.

A las barricadas: the yellow vest movement has provided a venue for people to revolt without giving up their identity as consumers.

Preface: The Ruling Center and the Rebel Right

In the buildup to the 2018 elections in the US, we heard a lot of arguments that it would be better for centrist politicians to win control of the government. But what happens when centrists come to power and use their authority to stabilize capitalism at the expense of the poor? One consequence is that far-right nationalists gain the opportunity to present themselves as rebels who are trying to protect “ordinary people” from the oppressive machinations of the government. In a time when the state can do precious little to mitigate the suffering that capitalism is causing, it can be more advantageous to be positioned outside the halls of power. Consequently, far-right nationalism may be able to gain more ground under centrist governments than under far-right governments.

In attempting to associate environmentalism, feminism, internationalism, and anti-racism with neoliberalism, centrists make it likely that at least some of the movements that arise against the ruling order will be anti-ecological, misogynistic, nationalistic, and racist. That works out well for centrists, because it enables them to present themselves to the world as the only possible alternative to far-right extremists. This is precisely the strategy that got Macron elected in his campaign against Marine le Pen. In this regard, centrists and nationalists are loyal adversaries who seek to divide up all possible positions between themselves, making it impossible to imagine any real solution to the crises created by capitalism.

A social movement of anger and confusion.

In short: if the wave of nationalist victories still sweeping the globe eventually gives way to a centrist backlash, but anarchists and other revolutionaries are not able to popularize tactics and movements that adequately address the catastrophies that so many people are facing, that could pave the way for an even more extreme wave of far-right populism.

We should study populist social movements under centrist governments in order to identify the ways that far-right groups can hijack them—and figure out how we can prevent that. This is one of the reasons to pay close attention to the “yellow vests” movement unfolding right now in France under the arch-centrist President Macron.

The “yellow vests” movement shows the strange fractures that can open up under the contradictions of modern centrism: above all, the false dichotomy between addressing global warming and addressing the ravages of capitalism. This dichotomy is especially dangerous in that it gives nationalists a narrative with which to capitalize on economic crisis while discrediting environmentalism by associating it with state oppression.

Against the dictatorship of the rich: a banner seen near Nantes.

What is taking place in France is reminiscent of what happened in Brazil in 2013, when a movement against the rising cost of public transportation provoked a nationwide crisis. This crisis gave tens of thousands of people new experience with horizontal organizing and direct action, but it also opened the way for nationalists to gain ground by presenting themselves as rebels against the ruling order. There are two significant differences between Brazil in 2013 and France today, however. First, the movement in Brazil was initiated by anarchists, but grew too big too quickly for anarchist values to retain hegemony—whereas anarchists have never had leverage within the movement of the “yellow vests.” Second, the movement in Brazil took place under a supposedly leftist government, not a centrist one. The hijacking of the movement against the fare hike in Brazil set the stage for a chain of events that culminated in the electoral victory of Bolsonaro, an outright proponent of military dictatorship and extrajudicial mass murders. In France, the context seems even less promising.

What should anarchists do in a situation like this? We can’t side with the state against demonstrators who are already struggling to survive. Likewise, we can’t side with demonstrators against the natural environment. We have to establish an anti-nationalist position within anti-government protests and an anti-state position within ecological movements. The “yellow vests” movement provides an instructive opportunity for us to think about how to strategize in an era of three-sided conflicts that pit us against both nationalists and centrists.

Burning barricades.

The Yellow Vest Movement in France

Several weeks ago, the Macron government officially announced that, on January 1, 2019, it will once again increase taxes on gas, which will raise the price of gas in general. This decision was justified as a step in the transition to “green energy.”

Diesel vehicles comprise two thirds of vehicles in France, where diesel is less expensive than regular gas. After decades of political policies aimed at pushing people to buy cars that run on diesel, the government has decided that diesel fuels are no longer “eco-friendly” and therefore people must change their cars and habits. Macron reduced taxes on the income of the super-rich at the beginning of his administration; he has not taken steps to make the wealthy pay for the transition to more ecologically sustainable technology, even though the wealthy have been the ones to benefit from the profits generated by ecologically harmful industrial activity. Consequently, Macron’s ecological arguments for the gas tax been largely ignored. Many people see the decision to increase the tax on gas as yet another attack on the poor.

The French government is responsible for creating this false dichotomy between ecology and the needs of working people. Decades of spatial planning have concentrated economic activity and job opportunities in bigger metropolises and developed public transportation in those same areas while isolating rural areas, making cars necessary for a large part of the population. Without any other option, many people are now completely reliant on their cars to live and work.

Blocking a toll collection point.

In response to Macron’s announcement about the tax on gas, people started organizing on the internet. Several petitions against the increase of the price of gas became viral, such as this online petition that is about to reach a million signatures as this text goes to press. Then, on September 17, 2018, a driver organization denounced the “overtaxation of fuels,” inviting its members to send their gas receipts to President Macron along with letters explaining their disapproval. On October 10, 2018, two truck drivers created a Facebook event calling for a national blockade against the increase of gas prices on November 17, 2018. As a result, more and more groups appeared on Facebook and Twitter sharing videos in which people attack the president’s decision and explain how difficult their financial situations already are, emphasizing that increasing the taxes on gas will only make it worse.

On the eve of the national call, about 2000 groups across the country were announcing their intention to block roads, toll collection points, gas stations, and refineries, or at least to hold demonstrations.

In order to identify the participants during this day of action, demonstrators decided to wear yellow emergency vests and asked sympathizers to show their support to the movement by displaying these vests in their cars. The symbolism behind this vest is simple enough. The French driver’s manual mandates that every driver must keep an emergency vest inside their car in case of accident or other issues on the road. In view of their dependency on cars, fearing to see their living conditions worsen, protestors chose these emergency vests as a symbol of resistance against Macron’s decision. By extension, protestors and media came to call this movement the “yellow vests.”

A blockade near Nantes on November 17.

Thousands of actions took place during the weekend of November 17. Approximately 288,000 “yellow vests” protestors were present in the streets for the first day of national blockade. This was a success for the movement, especially considering that it did not receive any assistance from trade unions or other major organizations.

Unfortunately, things escalated when fights broke out between “yellow vests” and other individuals. One “yellow vest” protester, a woman in her sixties, was killed by a driver, a mother who was trying to take her sick child to the doctor and attempted to drive through a blockade when people in yellow vests started smacking her car. Altogether, more than 400 people were injured, one protestor was killed, and about 280 individuals were arrested that weekend.

The movement remained strong despite these incidents. The blockades continued over the following days, even if participation diminished. In order to maintain the pressure on the government, the “yellow vests” made another national call for the following Saturday, November 24. Once again, various “yellow vest” groups on Facebook planned actions and demonstrations everywhere in France and circulated a call to converge in Paris for a big demonstration.

Facing a water cannon.

At first, this demonstration was planned for the Champs de Mars, near the Eiffel tower, where law enforcement would have surrounded and contained the protestors. However, this official decision did not satisfy some “yellow vesters,” and other calls circulated on social media. The November 17 demonstration in Paris had failed to reach its objective, the Presidential palace; consequently, the “yellow vesters” who were about to converge in Paris decided to repeat that effort on November 24. So it was that, rather than gathering at the base of the Eiffel tower, people converged and blocked the Champs Elysées, a target with powerful symbolic status. This luxurious avenue is the most visited in Paris; the Elysée palace where President Macron resides is located at the end of this avenue.

As they had the preceding week, demonstrators tried to get as close to the Presidential palace as possible. Barricading and confrontations took place all day along the most well-known Parisian avenue. It was reported that this second round of actions gathered about 106,000 participants throughout France, with about 8000 in Paris. These figures suggest that the movement is losing momentum. In the course of the demonstration in Paris, 24 people were injured in clashes and 103 people were arrested, of whom 101 were taken into custody. The first trials took place on Monday, November 26.

Bonfire on the Champs Elysées.

What Kind of Movement Is This?

The “yellow vests” movement describes itself as spontaneous, horizontal, and without leaders. It is difficult to be certain of these statements. The movement started via social media groups that facilitated decentralized actions in which people decided locally what they wanted to do and how to do it. In this regard, there is clearly some kind of horizontal organizing going on.

Regarding whether the movement is truly leaderless, this is more complicated. From the beginning, “yellow vesters” insisted that their movement was “apolitical” and had no leader. Instead, it was supposed to be the organic effort of several groups of people working together on the basis of their shared anger.

Nevertheless, as in practically every group—anarchist projects included—there are power dynamics. As is often the case, some people manage to accumulate more leverage than others, due to their access to resources, their capacity to persuade, or simply their skills with new technologies. Scrutinizing some of the self-proclaimed spokespersons of the “yellow vest” movement, we can see who has been able to accumulate influence within the movement and consider what their agenda might be.

  • Christophe Chalençon is the spokesperson for the Vaucluse department. Presenting himself as “apolitical” and “not belonging to any trade union,” he nevertheless presented his candidacy for the 2017 legislative election as a member of the “diverse right.” When we dig deeper into his personal relations and Facebook profile, we can see that his discourse is clearly conservative, nationalist, and xenophobic.

  • In Limoges, the organizer of the November 17 action of the “yellow vests” in the region was Christophe Lechevallier. Once again, the profile of this “angry citizen” is quite interesting. The least we can say is that Christophe Lechevallier seems to be a turncoat. In 2012, he presented his candidacy for the legislative elections as a member of a centrist party (the MoDem). Then he joined the extreme-right Front National (now called the Rassemblement National) and invited in 2016 its leader Marine Le Pen to a meeting. In the meantime, he was also working with the French pro-GMO agricultural organization FNSEA (the National Federation of Agricultural Holders’ Unions), known for defending the use of chemicals, such as the Glyphosate, to intensify their productions.

  • In Toulouse, the “yellow vest” spokesperson is Benjamin Cauchy. This young executive has been interviewed several times on national and local media. Again, this spokesperson is hardly “apolitical” if we consider his past. Benjamin Cauchy speaks freely about his political experience as a member of the traditional neoliberal right (at that time, the UMP, now known as Les Républicains). However, during law school, Benjamin Cauchy was one of the leaders of the student union UNI—well-known for its connections with conservative right and far-right parties and groups. But even more interesting, Benjamin Cauchy has not publicly acknowledged that he is now a member of the nationalist party Debout La France, whose leader, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, made an alliance with Marine Le Pen (of the Rassemblement National) during the second round of the last presidential election in hopes of defeating Macron.

    There are frustrated consumers on both sides of the barricades.


So it is clear that conservative and far-right groups are hoping to impose their discourse, spread their ideas, and use this “apolitical movement of angry citizens” as a way to gain more power. This has not gone entirely unopposed. The yellow vesters of Toulouse decided to evict Benjamin Cauchy from their movement due to his political views. On November 26, while invited at a radio show, the latter said that as an answer to his eviction, he was creating a new national organization entitled “Les Citrons” (the Lemons) to continue his fight against tax rises and took the opportunity to denounce the “lack of democracy that exists within the ‘yellow vests’ movement.”

Finally, it seems that the so-called “leaderless movement” completely changed its strategy in the aftermath of the second Parisian demonstration. On Monday, November 26, a list of eight official spokespersons of the movement was presented to the press. Apparently, the preceding day, yellow vesters were asked to vote online to elect their new leading figures. These nominations and strategic decisions are already creating tension within the movement. Some yellow vesters are now criticizing the legitimacy of the election, raising questions about how these leaders got selected in the first place.

Meanwhile, some members of the movement have called for another day of action on Saturday, December 1. The demands are clear: 1.) More purchasing power; 2.) The cancellation of all taxes on gas. If these demands are not granted, demonstrators say that “they will march towards Macron’s resignation.” So far, 27,000 persons have announced that they will participate in this event. Once again, the unity that was the watchword several weeks ago seems to have evaporated, as several local organizers have dissociated themselves from the movement in opposition to the more confrontational path that the movement seems to be taking.

A blockade by night.

Rather than addressing the question of horizontality, corporate media outlets have been focusing on another question: is the protesters’ anger legitimate?

Many media outlets have suggested that this movement is mostly composed of undereducated low-income people who are against protecting the environment; they describe the demonstrations as violent in order to delegitimize the anger of the participants. Despite this, some media outlets have shifted their discourse over time, becoming somewhat less condescending and more whiling to broadcast demonstrators’ concerns. For example, after the confrontations at the Champs Elysées last Saturday, Christophe Castaner, the new Minister of the Interior, said: “the amount of damages is poor, they are mostly material ones, that’s the most important thing.” Quite a surprising statement, considering how corporate media outlets and politicians have decried similar actions during the demonstrations on May Day and the protests against the Loi Travail.

From our perspective, there’s no doubt that their anger is legitimate. Most people who take part in this movement speak of the difficult living situations they have to deal with every day. It makes sense that they are saying that they have had enough; the gas issue is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The lower-class population has to struggle harder and harder to survive while everyone else remains comfortable enough not to be affected by economic shifts and tax increases targeting consumers. For now, at least.

So anger—and direct action—are legitimate. The question is whether the political vision and values that are driving this movement can lead to anything good.

“Well, let’s give them biofuels – Brigitte Macron.”

Troubled Waters

Numerous racist, sexist, and homophobic acts have taken place during yellow vest actions. During the November 17 demonstration in Paris, several well known anti-Semites and nationalists were seen among the crowd of demonstrators. Members of far-right and nationalist groups participated in the demonstrations on November 24 in Paris, as well. Some comrades have reported that the presence of the far right in the Paris demonstration is “undeniable.” They describe seeing a group of monarchists with a flag; the crowd considered their presence “insignificant” compared to the water cannons that law enforcement used during the clashes.

The same report also mentions several elements that are difficult to interpret. For example, while the crowd in Paris chanted some classic slogans of May 1968 (“CRS SS”) and the Loi Travail demonstrations (“Paris debout, soulève toi!”), they also chanted the first verse of the Marseillaise, which is currently associated with traditional republican parties and the far right, not radicals. This chant could be understood as a reference to its origins in the French Revolution, but the song has been coopted by its role as the French national anthem, giving it a patriotic and nationalist tone.

Yellow bloc.

Another example: while marching down the Champs Elysées, the crowd chanted “We are at home.” For an English-speaking reader, this statement seems innocuous enough, an affirmation that the demonstrators had taken the streets, as the authors of the above report framed it. However, this chant echoes the one regularly used by National Front supporters during their meetings. Understood in that context, “we are at home” has a more sinister connotation. For nationalists, it means that France is and will always be a white, Christian, and nationalist country. Everyone who doesn’t fit their identity and political agenda is therefore considered a stranger or an intruder. In other words, this slogan creates a narrative about who belongs and who doesn’t. The use of these words during the yellow vest demonstrations is poorly chosen, if not ominous.

Paris is not the only place reactionary tendencies have emerged in the movement. Indeed, on November 17, in Cognac, yellow vest protestors assaulted a black woman who was driving a car. During the altercation, some protestors told her to “go back to [her] country.” The same day, at Bourg en Bresse, an elected representative and his partner were assaulted for being gay. In the Somme department, some yellow vesters called the immigration police when they realized that migrants were hiding inside a large truck stuck in traffic. The list goes on.

Finally, some participants in this “apolitical” movement have openly expressed contempt for social movements in general—including the movement for better education, the movement to defend hospitals and access to health care, and the movement of the railworkers. In effect, this movement that purports to dissociate itself from collective struggles so it can benefit “everyone” ends up promoting individualistic self-interest: the right of isolated consumers to keep using their cars however they want at a cheap price, without any real vision of social change.

Police block the freeway as yellow vesters make representations of themselves.

How Should We Engage?

Among anarchists and leftists, we can identify two different schools of thought regarding how to engage with the “yellow vests” phenomenon: those who think that we should take part in it, and those who think that we should keep our distance.

Arguments to distance ourselves:

  • The yellow vest movement claims to be “apolitical.” By and large, the participants describe themselves as disgruntled citizens who work hard but are always the first to suffer from taxes and government decisions. This discourse has a lot in common with the Poujadisme movement of the 1950s, a reactionary and populist movement named for deputy Pierre Poujade, or, more recently, with the “Bonnets rouges” movement (the “red beanies”).

  • The idea that the movement is “apolitical” is dangerous in that it offers a perfect opportunity for far-right organizers, populists, and fascists to insinuate themselves among protesters. In other words, this movement offers the far right a chance to restructure itself and regain power.

  • As soon as the movement gained widespread attention, extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen and other conservatives and populists expressed support for it. So much for the talk about being “apolitical”!

    “The ultra-right will lose!”


Arguments in favor of participating in the movement:

  • This appears to be a genuinely spontaneous and decentralized movement involving low-income people. In theory, we should be organizing alongside them in order to fight capitalism and state oppression. Mind you, the concepts of class war and anti-capitalism are far from being accepted or promoted among the demonstrators.

  • Some argue that we should participating in order to prevent fascists from coopting the movement and the anger it represents. Some radicals believe that we should take part in these actions as a way to make new connections with people and spread our ideas about capitalism and how to respond to the economic crisis.

  • For some radicals, being skeptical of the current movement and not wanting to take part in it can also indicate some sort of class contempt directed at the “apolitical” poor. Others argue that in every situation, we should always aim to be actors rather than spectators. Some even assert that if we are “true” revolutionaries, we should leap into the unknown and discover what is possible instead of passively criticizing from a distance.

All these arguments are valid, but if they lead to anarchists participating in a movement that offers fascists a recruiting platform—as some anarchists did in the Ukrainian revolution—that will be a disaster that opens the way for worse catastrophes to come.

“Down with the state, the police, and the fascists.”

The fundamental problem with the yellow vest movement is that it begins from the wrong premises, attempting to preserve conditions that we should all have been fighting to abolish in the first place. Rather than seeking to protect today’s alienated and miserable consumer way of life, which is itself the result of a century of defeats and betrayals in the labor movement, we should be asking why we are so dependent on cars and gasoline in the first place. If our ways of surviving and traveling had not been constructed in such an isolating, individualized way—if capitalists were not able to exploit us so ruthlessly—we would not have to choose between destroying the environment and giving up the last vestiges of financial stability.

We have to change our habits and give up our privileges in the course of fighting for another world (or another end of the world), but as always, governments and capitalists are forcing us to bear the brunt of the problems they caused. We must not permit them to frame the terms of the discussion.

“Overthrow Macron, disband the government, and abolish the system.”

Open Questions

Incidentally, the situation is quite different outside the French homeland. On the island of Reunion, since November 17, there has been a social upheaval in which all strategic sites have been blocked—the port, the airport, and the prefecture. Fearing that they might lose control of the situation and being concerned about the impact on the economy, French authorities established a curfew on November 20 that lasted until November 25.

In Europe, as the yellow vest movement attempts to restructure itself after being weakened by leadership issues and conflicts over strategy, this might be an opportunity to create new bridges and make proposals about more systemic solutions to the problems that caused this movement.

Regarding ecology, we have to emphasize that the rich are the ones chiefly responsible for climate change, and that they will have to be the ones who pay to deal with it—if we are not able to dethrone them first. To some extent, this seems to be what the current blockading movement against capitalism and climate change Extinction Rebellion is trying to do in England. It is ironic that two different blockading movements about capitalism and ecology are taking place on either side of the English channel right now—one making ecological demands of the state, the other reacting to state environmental measures.

About nationalism, we must assert that it is no better to be exploited by citizens of our own race, gender, and religion than it is to be exploited by foreigners, and emphasize that we will only be able to stand up to those who oppress and exploit us if we establish solidarity across all the various lines of difference—race, gender, religion, citizenship, and sexual preference. We are inspired by the yellow vest protesters in Montpellier who formed a guard of honor to welcome the feminist and antisexist march on November 24.

Above all, we need an anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist and ecological front within the space of social movements. The question is whether that should take place inside the “yellow vests” movement, or against it.

Chaos for Christmas.

The G20 in Buenos Aires: Logbook November 20-22–Security Zones and Shantytowns

On November 30 and December 1, the 2018 G20 summit will bring together the rulers of the 20 most powerful nations for a meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the third installment of our coverage of the 2018 G20 summit, our international correspondents describe the unprecedentedly massive security operation that is accompanying this summit, the international protest mobilization, and police violence against the poor population in the periphery.

Tuesday, November 20

Border Controls, Security Zones, and a City Blockade

The government announced on Monday, November 19 that it will be tightening border controls, focusing on the border triangle with Uruguay and Brazil as well as the international airport. They claimed to have “extensive international lists” and that they “will strictly prevent the entry of radical G20 protesters.” In case friends and activists are detained at the airport, the Protest Alliance has set up a round-the-clock legal emergency service.

On Tuesday, the “security junta” chaired by Minister Patricia Bullrich held a press conference; Bullrich is a machine of repression with an oligarchic family background and also some (decidedly dubious) past association with the Montoneros. Everyone expected large security zones and restrictions on freedom of movement, but the scope of what Bullrich announced went beyond the expectations of the assembled capitalist press.

The graded security zones will cover an area of about 20 square kilometers only in the inner-city area—a tenth of the total area of the capital. There will also be “variable corridors” and closed roads to the international airport 40 km away. Within the dark red security zone, the “Villa 31” is located—the so-called “Villa Miseria”—with its approximately 30,000 residents, which is close to the conference venue. As it appears, the residents are to be locked in or out of their homes and their neighborhood. They have virtually no lobby at all to advocate for them; on the contrary, they are highly stigmatized.

The square-shaped area below (to the south) in the following city plans is justified as “protection of the Theatro Colon”—where this Friday, the feudal dinner of the heads of state is to take place. However, the theater is not located in the middle of this zone, but close to the upper left edge, between the metro line B and the zone border. More than 200,000 inner city residents live in this square, which also houses the political and historical center of the city and the entire country, including the Congress and the Plaza de Mayo. The security zones also include the entire port, the inner-city airport, the city’s main arterial roads including the sixteen-lane Avenida of July 9, Retiro Central Station, large parts of the historic Recoleta district, and the expensive new Puerto Madero port quarter. For the latter two, we are talking about approximately 50,000 more residents who will be directly affected by the security around the summit. In addition, there is a smaller control area to the south, near the Plaza Constitución, which can only be explained by a “troop site” planned there.

In addition to all these security zones, restrictions on local public transport have been announced, on a scale that has never been implemented before at any previous summit. The entire regional rail network and the metro (“Subte”) network will be completely shut down during the G20. This will render travel impossible throughout the city. The same is true for all shipping traffic on the Rio de la Plata, the river that separates the neighboring cities of the metropolitan region and Montevideo in Uruguay from Buenos Aires.

On the other hand, some buses within Buenos Aires “may still run.”

All this is hard to swallow for city residents who have only experienced such conditions during general strikes. This time, however, the aim of the intervention is not a social concern—and certainly not “guaranteeing the safety of the summit”—but rather, cutting off or inhibiting the flow of protest towards the center. In the city center, only police and politicians should move freely. Everyone else—the inconvenient others—should leave for the countryside or stay locked inside their homes.

The affected areas.

The affected areas.

Wednesday, November 21

A Book, an Article, and a Call for a Demonstration

On Wednesday, the widely read national online newspaper Infobae published an article about the multilingual book To Our Compas in Buenos Aires by activists from Hamburg and Paris. Infobae is considered to be close to the reigning government; it is often cited by the German Foreign Office as a “serious source.” The lengthy article was titled “Take Care Compas—The Handbook of International Protest that the Government Is Studying ahead of the G20.”

First, the text briefly presents the concerns of the Argentine government, highlighting the alleged threat posed by international opponents of globalization. After that, however, the article quotes the book at great length in a fairly unbiased manner. For example, the book description appears unabridged and passages referring to the forthcoming summit in Buenos Aires are highlighted. The text is framed as a kind of “guide to protest,” though this is already refuted by the quotations. However, the article sketches a relatively comprehensive picture of the courses of events in Hamburg, chiefly through the quotations. Infobae describes it as “ridiculous” that the authors of the book describe the attendance of 80,000 people at the central demonstration as a “success”—a rather small number of participants, by Buenos Aires standards.

To Our Compas in Buenos Aires.

Surprisingly, on the same day, the short call for a demonstration in Hamburg to show solidarity with the protests in Buenos Aires, translated into Spanish, appeared on the front of the local protest website in Buenos Aires. The call is for a demonstration on the afternoon of December 1 after an FC St. Pauli home game. The preceding evening, there will be a meeting in a left cultural center in Hamburg to follow the events in Buenos Aires. The December 1 demonstration is also intended as a reaction to the anticipated repression.

And International Protests?

In addition to those in Hamburg, parallel protests will take place in Paris and London. There are probably also plans elsewhere. Very few activists from Europe or North America will come to Buenos Aires, and not only because of the announced border controls. The flights are expensive and harmful to the environment, police repression is expected to be intense, and the strange conditions in which the G20 will take place in Argentina are likely to deter many more protesters.

The alliance “Confluencia” expects activists from neighboring countries. In view of limited resources and the long distances, however, even within South America, travelling to protests in neighboring countries is by no means standard. Now, the Argentine government has added the offensively announced border closure. The national government and international security management are doing everything they can to minimize the number of participants from outside Argentina. Even journeys from other regions of Argentina will be rendered considerably more difficult by the interruption of the railway connections into Buenos Aires. It is even conceivable that this will extend to regional train connections and bus routes. The announced repression is also having an effect: one of the larger Peronist trade unions has already toned down its mobilization for this reason and in view of next year’s elections. One does not want to be associated too much with the foreseeable (or even conjured up) “riots.”

Thursday, November 22

“No Roof, No Land, No Life”

This is the headline of the progressive, left-leaning daily newspaper Página 12. Rodolfo Orellana, 36 years old, of Bolivian origin and father of five children, is dead, most likely murdered by the police. What happened? In the early morning, between 100 and 200 residents attempted to occupy a vacant site in the huge suburb of Matanza. In fact, the owner had already signed a far-reaching temporary use agreement with the local neighborhood association, in which Rodolfo Orellana was also active. This agreement document has been pushed from office to office for a long time in order to take effect legally.

Despite this legal grey zone, the police immediately arrived at the occupation in full gear and shot numerous rubber bullets, seriously injuring several people. A video shows Rodolfo Orellana, likely after his death. As became known later during the autopsy, he died as a consequence of live ammunition entering his shoulder. Based on the exit wound, the shot must have hit him when he was in a stooped posture, either standing or squatting with his back to the murderer.

Police maintain that neither the bullet nor the shell were found; the caliber of the bullet is supposed to be determined in a second autopsy. The police deny the use of firearms, alleging that there were hostilities between Bolivian and Paraguayan groups within the occupiers. Since the bloody political unrest of 2002, it is forbidden for the police in Argentina to carry firearms during demonstrations—and even more so to use them. But it is absurd to imagine that now, during a brutal evacuation, the demonstrators would have shot each other under the eyes of the police.

There were four more arrests, including a mother who was “allowed” to have her baby in the police cell for a short time every three hours to breastfeed. On the following day, there was a fierce and emotionally moving protest rally in the city center.

Housing Shortage in the Periphery

Officially, the city of Buenos Aires covers only 203 km² with 2.9 million inhabitants; by contrast, Berlin covers 891 km² with 3.6 million. However, there are officially almost 14 million inhabitants in the immediate metropolitan area. In the periphery there are also some isolated “islands for the rich” and areas with a mixed character, but by and large, the “outskirts” range from poor to extremely poor districts and informal settlements. The social and cultural contrast to the official “capital” is dramatic.

The “suburb” Matanza (in English, “slaughter” or “bloodbath”) hosts 1.8 million inhabitants—as many as the city of Hamburg. There are also several “villas,” places with improvised buildings. The housing shortage is most clearly visible in these shantytowns and their surroundings. Migrants from neighboring countries often live in highly crowded and inhumane conditions. Empty spaces are often squatted in order to open up a little more space for survival and life. In addition, there is a widespread “economía popular” via which people organize their everyday lives. Rodolfo Orellana was an activist there.

Rodolfo Orellana, murdered by the police.

Income throughout Buenoes Aires

The proportion of “villas” as a form of housing in 2010.

The 2018 G20 in Buenos Aires: Setting the Stage–Background Materials and Logbook November 15-16

On November 30 and December 1, the 2018 G20 summit will bring together the rulers of the 20 most powerful nations for a meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina to strategize about how to maintain world domination. Following the courageous disruption and mass unrest during last year’s G20 summit in Hamburg, the whole world is watching to see what will happen in Buenos Aires. Organizers have planned a global week of action expressing opposition to the concentration of power in the hands of politicians and capitalists and conveying a vision of a more egalitarian world. Our international correspondent in Buenos Aires will be reporting to us daily. Below, you can read the reports from the last few days before the mobilization and review our coverage of a decade and a half of previous resistance to G8 and G20 summits.

Logbook G20

We will be publishing a kind of logbook covering the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires and the demonstrations taking place against it. The function of a logbook is to record all essential events concerning the ship—including events on board, but also everything that could affect the ship from outside and observations during the voyage or when going ashore. Here, we will try to present the essential context of the 2018 G20 and give an impression of the general city events.

Prehistory and General Conditions

Buenos Aires was already chosen as the venue for 2018 before the 2017 G20 summit took place in Hamburg. This metropolis of 14 million people has been a protest stronghold in Latin America for a long time. This is even truer now, as a result of the far-reaching social cuts introduced by the neoliberal policies of President Macri’s government. The background to this is a currency crisis and a loan imposed by the IMF as the “only possible antidote.” According to official figures, the repayment and interest burden alone will account for approximately 25% of the state budget for many years to come. (In Germany, by contrast, a total of 6% is currently spent as “debt service” in the state budget.) The IMF is an integral part of the G20; consequently, the protests against the summit address the IMF, social questions, and the future viability of society.

The protest alliance “No al G20” is broad-based: it involves numerous trade unions, environmental associations, human rights groups, ATTAC, and large sections of the women’s movement and left-wing organizations. This mobilization is international, especially involving people from neighboring countries. An action week is planned before the summit, as well as a large-scale demonstration on Friday, November 30, the first day of the two-day summit.

The Argentine government has taken tremendous repressive measures. The deployment of 22,000 Argentine police officers has already been announced, and a further 5000 security forces from various countries are to supplement them. The government purchased discarded combat aircraft from France and new armored vehicles from China with optional MG armament on the roof. In addition, they bought an arsenal including fully 2 million rubber bullets, various surveillance equipment, and other police weaponry. The Argentine state is spending money on this while in the universities, the lights are going out in the evening due to unpaid electricity bills and pensioners have to tighten their belts three holes at a time.

November 30 has been legally declared a “holiday without work” for the entire city of Buenos Aires; the residents are encouraged to spend a long weekend in the countryside. In addition, for the duration of the summit, public transport will be completely suspended in the city center, if not the entire city.

Wednesday, November 14

Senate Waves IMF Program through; Protests before Parliament

It was foreseeable. After the House of Representatives had already approved the draft of the IMF program by a narrow majority; the approval of the much more conservative Senate seemed to be certain. This time, however, the Macri government made every effort to secure the broadest possible approval. That is why they haggled until the end—especially aiming to gain the approval of at least a few Peronists and of representatives of the rural regions. Those in rural areas will be particularly affected by the program because, in addition to the social cuts, it will also cut funding previously earmarked for the poorer provinces. A few specific representatives negotiated special conditions for their regions and finally agreed to pass the controversial IMF budget package. The vote was 45 in favor, 24 against, while opinion polls showed almost exactly the opposite picture among the general population.

While the debate was taking place, a rally of between 3000 and 5000 demonstrators gathered in front of the parliament (“el Congreso”)—quite a small number for Buenos Aires and especially in view of the important reason. A few weeks before, during the vote of the Chamber of Deputies, there came many, many more people and fierce clashes broke out. The largest blocs at that time were young Trotskyists and a more leftist faction within the Peronists. But there was also a kind of “standing panel discussion,” the “Barrios de Pie” were involved, and also a few more militant groups. When a small group, mostly unmasked despite several cameras, began to pry up paving stones from the street with iron rods, a sturdy group came out of the Peronist block and took the rods away from them. The Trotskyists sealed off their bloc with a human chain and shortly thereafter pulled away to hold their own smaller demonstration.

Finally, about 80 fully-equipped police officers stormed out of their own fencing towards the Peronist block, grabbed a very young anarcho-punk demonstrator, and dragged him away to loud protests from the crowd, which they blocked off by forming a chain across a side street. According to the press, a second person was arrested as well.

Notably, after a comparatively short sprint, most of that riot police in full gear were gasping for air. Their protective equipment must be enormously heavy.

Ritualized Protests and Repression before the Congreso

There is hardly a protest in Buenos Aires that does not end in front of the Parliament building—if it does not begin there. Accordingly, everything seems to be arranged: the roadblocks (2-meter-high connectable steel grids) are not transported away between demonstrations, but stored nearby and always rebuilt at the same intersections. At the adjacent main artery, this is indicated by installed signs reading “Evitar zona Congreso—Corte total” (“Avoid the congress zone—total blockage”). The standard barriers cover several hundred meters with numerous shops and an estimated 5000 residents. At the narrow checkpoints, the security guards wear suits; they probably already know many of the residents and regulate everything without helmets and truncheons on their belts. Often, everyday life plays out on three of the four sides of the ritualized barrier.

On the fourth side, however, in front of the main façade, demonstrations take place in front of the barrier on the large square, and clashes occur regularly. Behind the barriers, the police position their “Infanteria” (the usual term here), i.e., helmeted riot police, as well as water cannons and motorcycle units. If they think it´s necessary, they move to the spacious square in front of the parliament building, shoot tear gas and rubber bullets, clear the area, and beat and arrest people, often against embittered resistance.

Barbecue in the front of the barrier.

Thursday, November 15

Press Conference of the Protest Alliance “La Confluencia—Fuera G20 y FMI”

This press conference took place at the Latin American human rights organization “Servicio Paz y Justicia.” The small hall was full to capacity—including, among others, the 1st German Television and the news agency Reuters. The podium is occupied by Beverly Keene, a spokeswoman of the alliance, and Nora Cortiñas, one of the best-known “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.” Behind them stand other representatives of the alliance.

Beverly Keene briefly introduces the alliance and emphasizes its versatility and openness. It was not for nothing that it is called La Confluencia, i.e., a “confluence” of many different flows into a common river. She stresses that all meetings and preparations are open to the public and, in this context, criticizes the surveillance carried out by security forces. The danger does not come from the alliance, but rather from the premeditated state repression and from the G20 itself.

Then, succinctly but comprehensively, she sets forth the protesters’ concerns. The G20 leaders do not represent the interests of the people, as they claim to, especially not those of Latin America. Rather, their policies produce hunger, poverty, and destruction worldwide, especially in Argentina, where the IMF stipulations are currently aggravating the misery of millions of people. But this is only one part of an international system that no longer has any legitimacy. It is not for nothing that the G20 leaders have to hide behind an armada of security forces.

Then we hear about the events of the protest week, especially the “summit of alternatives” on November 28 and 29, which will take place on the square in front of the parliament building, and the mass demonstration on November 30, the first day of the summit. A trade union representative adds that several million demonstrators have already taken to the streets throughout Argentina against Macri—against the IMF program and thus also against the policy of the G20. Everywhere in the country, mobilizations are taking place; one may expect very, very many participants.

Next, we heard from Nora “Norita” Cortiñas with a short but touching speech. She vehemently called on people not to be intimidated and instead to take to the streets in droves. Her demand carries weight; she publicly opposed the military dictatorship at a time when participating in demonstrations could get you killed. Over 30,000 people were murdered—including Nora Cortiña’s son.

Protest Alliance and Appeals

The alliance involves nine international networks, 102 Argentine organizations, and eight from other countries. Among them are environmental associations (e.g., Friends of the Earth), several grassroots trade unions, organizations that are critical of capitalist globalization, left-wing anti-imperialist groups, ATTAC (also from France and Spain), a Basque Antifascist organization, internationalist groups, various campesino organizations, student associations, women’s organizations, human rights groups, associations for grassroots economy, and others. It does not involve the Peronist-dominated trade unions, but for example the “Movimiento Evita,” who see themselves as “revolutionary Peronists.” What is striking about the alliance and its external image is the large proportion of women in general and the specifically feminist component of the mobilization.

From the outset, the “Confluencia” has explicitly positioned itself as internationalist. This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that generally, Argentinian politics from right to left are limited to a standard national framework. The call for mobilization was translated into five other languages, including English.

Friday, November 16

An Explosion at the Cemetery; Raids and 14 Arrests

Already on November 14, in the early evening, an explosion took place in the cemetery in the district of Recoleta, allegedly in direct proximity to the grave of Ramón Falcón, an infamous police chief who was assassinated by anarchists on November 14, 1909, precisely 109 years earlier. A woman was seriously injured in the explosion. A mother of two, she lost three fingers and was taken to hospital with severe facial and skull injuries; her companion was arrested directly. According to police, four more “homemade pipe bombs” were found at the grave.

Shortly thereafter, bodyguards arrested another man who allegedly threw a “highly developed incendiary bomb” that did not detonate under the parked car of the judge Claudio Bonadio. The federal judge had conducted various sensational corruption proceedings against former high-ranking Peronist officials and politicians, as well as sentencing two demonstrators to several months’ imprisonment after riots in December 2017. The arrestee is alleged to have visited one of them once in prison.

The police and large sections of the press evaluate both “attempts” as part of a militant campaign in the context of the upcoming G20 summit and classify the three arrested as “violent anarchists.” On this pretext, police carried out raids of several houses, including three left-wing cultural centers. The man arrested at the cemetery is alleged to have lived in one of them, which is alleged to be the “epicenter of the anarchist movement.” The police stormed the long-occupied house with heavily armed special units and arrested ten more people. So-called crow’s feet (caltrops) were presented to the press as “bomb material.” On the following day, another arrest took place.

In addition, two Lebanese brothers were arrested and accused of possessing numerous weapons. Both were accused of associating with Hezbollah and of planning an assassination during the G20. The whole thing became mixed up in the media, which used the excuse to portray a scenario of extreme danger. The press conference of the alliance “Confluencia” was pushed under the table and instead one media “fish story” chased after the next.

Bizarrely, the “donated” armored clearance vehicles from the Chinese to Argentina were delivered in a public ceremony. Security Minister Bullrich once again urged city dwellers to leave Buenos Aires already on the Thursday before the summit, because “…the situation in the city will become very complicated… if there is any violence, we will take immediate measures against and stop it.” In the meantime, the German Foreign Office has also issued a corresponding safety warning.

Anarchism in Argentina

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, there was a very strong libertarian and anarcho-syndicalist movement in Argentina. For several decades, the FORA (Federación Obrera Regional Argentina) was the largest and most militant trade union in the country. After a long history of strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations, and bloody repression, the movement was largely crushed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Currently, the relatively small anarchist movement is closely linked to a subcultural context, similar to the anarchist movement in many parts of Europe. But anarchists also participate in major political mobilizations, such as those bringing attention to the kidnapping and murder of the activist Santiago Maldonado.

Appendix: Previous Coverage of Resistance to the G8 and G20

For nearly two decades, CrimethInc. has published firsthand accounts and analyses of demonstrations and acts of defiance at summits including the G8 and G20. These stories of strategy, courage, and adventure deserve to be passed on from one generation to the next.

2003 G8 in Évian, France

Let Me Light My Cigarette on Your Burning Blockade: An Eyewitness Account of the Anti-G8 Demonstrations and Anarchy in the Alps

2005 G8 in Scotland, UK

Taking on the G8 in Scotland, July 2005: A Retrospective

2007 G8 in Heiligendamm, Germany

Can’t Stop the Chaos: Autonomous Resistance to the 2007 G8 in Germany

2009 G20 in Pittsburgh, USA

Why and How to Confront the G20 in Pittsburgh

Breaking News from the Pittsburgh G20 Protests

State Repression at the Pittsburgh G20 Protests

Pittsburgh G20 Mobilization: Preliminary Assessment

2010 G20 in Toronto, Canada

Shut Doors = Broken Windows

Toronto G20: Eyewitness Report

2017 G20 in Hamburg, Germany

DON’T TRY TO BREAK US–WE’LL EXPLODE: The 2017 G20 and the Battle of Hamburg: A Full Account and Analysis

To Our Compas in Buenos Aires: A Full Retrospective on the 2017 G20 Protests in Hamburg

Continuous Live Coverage of Resistance to the G20 in Hamburg: Four Days of Round-the-Clock Reports

“Solidarity with the Police”: Debunking Excuses for State Violence in Hamburg

“Dear Citizens, This Is Your Police”: In Praise of the Police-Free Zone in Hamburg

Police Raid on the G20 Camp: A Tale of Violence and Betrayal

The Spiral of Police Violence: A Work of Art Criticism

Take Your Pick: Law or Freedom How “Nobody Is above the Law” Abets the Rise of Tyranny

We saw you last night among thousands of other anti-Trump demonstrators around the US. Their signs proclaimed, “No one is above the law.” You were the one with the sign reading “I love laws.” We need to talk.

Really, this is what gets you into the streets? Trump’s goons have been kidnapping your neighbors, preparing to block your access to abortion, openly promoting “nationalism,” calling the targets for lone wolf assassins who send mail bombs and shoot up synagogues—and your chief concern is whether what they’re doing is legal?

And if Trump and his cronies were to change the laws—what then?

If you’re trying to establish the foundation for a powerful social movement against Trump’s government, “no one is above the law” is a self-defeating narrative. What happens when a legislature chosen by gerrymander passes new laws? What happens when the courts stacked with the judges Trump appointed rule in his favor? What will you do when the FBI cracks down on protests?

If everything that put Trump in a position to implement his agenda were legal, would you be at peace with it, then? When some nice centrist politician takes office after him, but the police keep enforcing the policies he introduced and the judges he appointed keep judging, will you withdraw from the streets? Come to think of it, where were you under Obama when people were being imprisoned and deported by the million? Perhaps you have no problem with millions of people being imprisoned and deported as long as no one colludes with Russia or talks over a journalist?

We saw other protesters with signs entreating us to “Save Democracy.” Didn’t democracy inflict Trump on us in the first place? Isn’t it democracy that just brought Bolsonaro to power in Brazil—a racist, sexist, and homophobic advocate of the Brazilian military dictatorship and extrajudicial killings? If democracy enables outright fascists to legitimize their authority rather than having to seize power by force, what’s so great about it, exactly?

If “no one is above the law,” that means the law is above all of us. It means that the law—any law, whatever law happens to be on the books—is more valuable than our dearest desires, more righteous than our most honorable aspirations, more important than our most deep-seated sense of right and wrong. This way of thinking prizes group conformity over personal responsibility. It is the kiss of death for any movement that aims to bring about change.

Social change has always involved illegal activity—from the American Revolution to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, from the sit-in movement to the uprising in Ferguson. If not for the courageous deeds of people who were willing to break the law, we’d still be living under the king of England. Many of us would still be enslaved.

That is what makes your cheerleading for the FBI so chilling. You’re familiar with COINTELPRO, presumably, and many of the other ways that the FBI has set out to crush movements for social change? Imagine that your best-case scenario plays out and the FBI helps to orchestrate Donald Trump’s removal from power. What do you think that the FBI would do with all the legitimacy that would give them in the eyes of liberals and centrists? It would have carte blanche to intensify its attacks on poor people, people of color, and protesters, destroying the next wave of social movements before they can get off the ground. Nothing could be more naïve than to imagine that the FBI will focus on policing the ruling class.

The greatest peril we face is that Trump’s government will be replaced by a centrist government that will continue most of the current administration’s policies without violating any rules or norms. The more Trump’s regime is described as exceptional, the easier it will be for the next administration to get away with the same activities. In the long run, the system is at its most dangerous when it does not outrage people.

Mobilizing to support an FBI Director in response to the firing of one of the most racist Attorney Generals in living memory—this is the same “lesser of two evils” argument some have made for voting taken to its logical extreme; this approach guarantees that we will be reduced to advocating for the second worst of all possible evils. Firing Jeff Sessions helps Trump evade Mueller’s investigation, yes, but let’s be clear—men like Sessions, Trump, and Mueller do the most harm in the course of carrying out their official duties in strict observation of the law.

What Gives the Law Legitimacy in the First Place?

In the feudal era, when kingly authority was thought to be bequeathed by God and laws were decreed by kings, it was at least internally consistent to hold that everyone had a sacred duty to obey them. Today, this assumption lingers as a sort of holdover—yet without any rational basis. Certainly, the law decrees that no one is above it, but that’s just circular reasoning. What obliges us to regard laws as more valid then our own personal ethics?

Partisans of democracy like to imagine that laws arise because of their general utility to the population as a whole. On the contrary, for most of the history of the state, laws were decreed by monarchs and dictatorships—and only existed on account of their utility to rulers. Sovereignty itself is a fundamentally monarchist metaphor. If we no longer believe in the divine right of kings, that undermines any inherent claim that laws could have on our obedience. Rather than blindly complying, we have a responsibility to decide for ourselves how we should act. To cite Hannah Arendt, “No one has the right to obey.”

The law masquerades as a sort of social contract existing for everyone’s benefit. But if it’s really in everyone’s best interest, why is it so hard to get people to abide by it? The truth is, neither the powerful nor the oppressed have ever had good cause to obey laws—the former because the same privileges that enable them to write the laws release them from the necessity of observing them, the latter because the laws were not established for their benefit in the first place. It shouldn’t be surprising that a billionaire like Trump does not obey the laws. What’s surprising is that you still think that the rest of us ought to.

What’s the difference between the illegal activity of a Donald Trump and the illegal activity of a person who engages in civil disobedience? If “no one is above the law,” then they’re both equally in the wrong. No, the real distinction between them is that one is acting for selfish gain while the other is attempting to create a more egalitarian society. This is the important question—whether our actions serve to reproduce hierarchies or undermine them. We should focus on this question, not on whether any given action is legal.

What we are seeing today is the fracturing of our society. The peace treaties that stabilized capitalism through the second half of the 20th century are collapsing, and members of the ruling class are adopting rival strategies to weather the crises ahead. On one side, nationalists like Trump are betting on chauvinism and brute force, preparing to make the best of it as society splinters into warring groups. On the other side, centrist technocrats want to present themselves as the only imaginable alternative, using the specter of Trump and his kind to justify their own quest for authority. When they get back into office, you can bet that they won’t turn down any additional power that Trump has vested in the state. Your advocacy for “the rule of law” is music to their ears. And, of course, whatever additional power and legitimacy they concentrate in the state will be passed on to the next Trump, the next Bolsonaro.

Each side aims to instrumentalize the discourse of law and order in order to outflank the other in the battle for power. This isn’t new; it’s as old as the state itself. Immediately after the confirmation of Kavanaugh, you’re a sucker to imagine that the law represents some sort of social consensus rather than the edicts of whoever happens to control the institutions. To fetishize obedience to the law is to accept that might makes right.

To march under the banner “no one is above the law” is to spit in the faces of all those for whom the daily functioning of the law is an experience of oppression and injustice. It is to reject solidarity with the sectors of society that could give a social movement against Trump leverage in the streets. It is to assert the political center as a discrete entity that holds itself apart—that views both Trump and the social movements that oppose him as rivals to its own power. Finally, it is to legitimize the very instrument of oppression—the law—that Trump will eventually use to suppress your movement. Remember “Lock her up”?

You have to ask yourself some important questions now. Do you love laws—or justice? Do you love rights—or freedom?

If it’s laws you believe in, you’re on the right track. Just don’t have any illusions about what it means to value the law above everything else. If it’s justice you want, on the other hand, you need to be prepared to break the law. In that case, you need a totally different narrative to explain what you’re doing.

If it’s rights you’re after, you’ll need a government to grant them, protect them, and—inevitably—take them away when it sees fit. Whenever you use the discourse of rights, you set the stage for this to occur. There are no rights without a sovereign to bestow them. On the other hand, if you love freedom, rather than vesting legitimacy in the government, you’d better make common cause with everyone else who has a stake in collectively defending themselves against invasive efforts to impose authority, whether from Trump or his Democratic rivals.

From the anarchist perspective, all of us are above the law. Our lives are more precious than any legal document, any court decision, any duty decreed by the state. No social contract drawn up in the halls of power could provide a basis for mutually fulfilling egalitarian relations; we can only establish those on our own terms, working together outside any framework of imposed responsibilities. The law is not our salvation; it is the first and greatest crime.

Further Reading

The Centrists

From Democracy to Freedom

Don’t celebrate the exception; abolish the rule.