An amazing set of circumstances allowed the phenomenon of the “yellow vest” protest to spread from the boulevards of Paris to the streets of Tel Aviv. In Paris, the Champs-Élysées was shut down, while in Tel Aviv activists blocked a major intersection and clashed with police. The French president was mute for a month. In the end he caved in, canceling the fuel tax hike that had sparked the protest (which goes on nonetheless). As for Israel’s Finance Minister, Moshe Kahlon, he did not remain long on the sidelines. He hastily announced he would reduce a planned increase in electricity prices.
In France, as in Israel, demonstrators declared themselves “apolitical.” In France, they raised the French flag, and their Israeli counterparts waved the blue and white. Both groups are patriotic, and at a time when patriotism is taking over the world, anyone who is not is branded a traitor.
The protest in France is a revolt of the working class, the destitute periphery against the rich and satisfied center. In Israel, the revolt is concentrated precisely in the middle-class center, while the destitute periphery remains loyal to the rightwing government. In other words, the connection between the Israeli yellow and the French yellow is a matter of coincidence. In France, yellow is a symbol of the downtrodden, in Israel, a gimmick that films well.
French anger originates from suburbs that were once communist and today are fascist. According to the French communists, class warfare dictates that the angry battalions should join their ranks, but the beneficiary of the yellow-vest protests is undoubtedly Marine Le Pen’s National Front. In Israel, too, communists join the protests against the cost of living, but the true winner will be centrist Yair Lapid, as in the 2013 elections, when an earlier protest gained 19 mandates for his socioeconomic platform, compelling Netanyahu to make him finance minister.
Reacting to the yellow vests in France, Donald Trump smelled blood: “I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago. The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters in the world.” Trump recognized the similarity between French workers, the American “rust belt” (his base), and the Brexit-backing Brits. From nation to nation, the working class unites in opposing globalization. It embraces nationalism as a shield against the invasion of immigrants and the influx of cheap goods that together endanger local livelihoods.
Israel warmly embraced the neoliberal market system that the United States imposed on the world in the early 1980s. This system is the target of a working-class wrath that long remained invisible to the establishment. The global economic meltdown in 2008 was a game changer. People saw their assets disappear. When the Obama administration, the European Central Bank, and the British government used tax money to bail out the villainous banks, pent-up anger translated into revolt.
Trump, Brexit, the French National Front, the French yellow vests, and Italy’s Northern League reflect the anger of people who have lost dignity, possessions, and the ability to make a living. Democracy in the West betrayed its citizens, selling out to the banks, and has consequently lost credibility. Now it is in danger.
As for Israel, it is business as usual. Major tycoons – Fishman, Leviev, Dankner and recently Elovitch – are in legal trouble, some already in prison. The link between capital and power has been exposed in all its nakedness, but the system itself chugs on unchallenged. The criminal tycoons have been replaced by new ones, the banks continue to rake in billions, and the government sticks to a market economy.
Neoliberalism has died in the birthplace of capitalism, but Israel lives in a different galaxy. Although its economic system has produced social gaps that are among the largest in the developed world, and although budgets for public services have been cut to a pittance, its poor continue to embrace the ruling party.
Except for brief interludes, Israel has lived under nationalist right-wing governments for 40 years. In 1977, for the first time in its history, the right-wing Likud won a Knesset plurality, ending 30 years of Labor Party rule. Only recently has this great upset received full legitimacy. The pilgrimage of fascists to Jerusalem – Viktor Orbán, Andrzej Duda, and Matteo Salvini, not to mention Trump – is living proof that Israel has achieved its ambition of becoming a light, dark and foreboding, to the nations.
The present chaos in the West allows a dictator like Putin to impose his will on American and European politics. He backs rightwing fascist movements working to dismantle the European Union, while interfering in their elections. However, the fascist Right lacks a coherent alternative to neocapitalism. Its attempts to revive nationalistic economics are foolish, because they run against the grain of the technological revolution, which can no more be stopped than the new knowledge that gives it birth.
Britain illustrates the dilemma of the extreme Right. The nationalist UK Independence Party led by Nigel Farage, a Trump crony, broke up after it spearheaded the movement to leave the EU. Two years have passed, and Britain is at loggerheads on how to go about the divorce. There is no majority for any plan: not for a hard Brexit, not for a soft, and not for none. The British Parliament is stalemated, its future obscure.
Globalization is a disaster for millions who have lost their jobs. It is not an arbitrary phenomenon, but the result of the great technical revolution we are underegoing: the Internet, artificial intelligence, Blockchain technology and, especially, the economy of platforms such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Such giants don’t profit from the exploitation of workers, but from “free” services given to millions of users worldwide. These companies are edging toward a position from which they will be able to control our lives. They know more about us than governments do. Through advertising and retail online services, they have created monopolies that suck up the wealth of humanity.
The war against globalization is futile, composed of reactionary forces that refuse to accept the changes the world is undergoing. They do not offer competing alternatives based on these changes. Society must understand this new reality and deal with new capitalists who exploit “free” services to accumulate billions.
The platform economy creates wealth without creating jobs. It makes profits without paying taxes. It supersedes the traditional economy but does not create an alternative that allows the citizen to make a living. Thus it contributes to the destruction of the democratic system and the creation of chaos in its stead.
These ideas are far from the thoughts of the activists in Tel Aviv. Like the French, they know how to protest, but they have no vision, as is evident from the fact that they declare themselves “apolitical.” Israel of today wants to enjoy the best of all worlds. The government supports globalization that promotes free trade while befriending nationalists like Trump who loathe globalists. It speaks of benefiting its citizens but clings to an outdated gloves-off market economy. It praises the Green Revolution but fosters a gas-polluting monopoly. It sings the virtues of equality but stresses its Jewish character. It wants to ignore the Occupation but doubles down on it. Like the rest of the world, it goes on going on, comforting itself with the common local saying, “It’ll be all right.” It won’t.
– Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman