Paró General! The Return of the General Strike
by Lee Harris
The photograph showed an elderly Hispanic man holding up a placard with the words Paró General written on it, and it accompanied an internet article about the strike of immigrant workers scheduled for May the First -- a strike that its sponsors pledged would "shut down" cities. As I glanced at the picture, groping through my very limited mental Spanish lexicon, I made the connection: Paró General is the Spanish phrase for general strike. No wonder, I thought to myself, that so many responsible Hispanic leaders have expressed concern about the possible backlash from the projected Paró General.
For most Americans, the phrase "general strike" may not pack much of a wallop. But it was once a revolutionary slogan, and one that was embraced by one of the more fascinating and original thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century, Georges Sorel.
In his most famous book, Reflections on Violence, published in 1906, Sorel argued that the general strike was the utlimate weapon in the arsenal of revolution, one that would lead to an apocalyptic transformation from capitalism to socialism. Yet, in the century that followed the publication of Reflections on Violence, Sorel's faith in the revolutionary promise of the general strike inevitably came to seem a bit puzzling. Indeed, not quite four years ago, I wrote that Sorel's myth of the general strike "never quite caught on," and that is why I was somewhat startled to see the placard proclaiming Paró General. For it suddenly made me ask myself, "Did Sorel write his book a century too soon? Is Sorel's general strike ready to have a comeback?"
A general strike is not to be confused with a normal strike. A normal strike takes place when workers refuse to work until a specific set of demands is met by those who have been employing them. Sometimes the workers get what they want; sometimes they reach a settlement; sometimes the strike is simply broken, as occurred during the strike of the air traffic controllers under Ronald Reagan. But the general strike is not targeted at any particular businesses or industries -- its target is the state itself. It is designed to intimidate the state into acceding to the political objectives of those who have called for the general strike.
The very idea of a general strike runs contrary to all the traditions of American politics. Instead of working within and through the traditional political system, those who championed the general strike have used it as a method of forcing the government to give into their demands by tactics such as taking to the streets and paralyzing the normal course of life.
This, for example, is what occurred quite recently in France. When the French government attempted to implement a law that permitted employers to fire employees under the age of 26, those opposed to this law were not content to use the normal political channels for expressing their opposition -- instead, they called for a general strike that was aimed at paralyzing French society. They took to the streets, went on rampages, burnt cars, and disrupted civic life until the French government felt it had no choice but to give in to the demands of those who were opposed to the labor law.
Yet, by giving in to these demands, the French government was in fact betraying the traditional democratic political process on which its own legitimacy rests. By showing people that the quickest and most effective way to get what they want is by paralyzing a society through the use of the general strike, the French government was in effect telling its citizens: "If you want something real bad, you don't have to go through the tedious and unpredictable channels of normal politics, such as voting and organizing political parties, funding candidates and canvassing for their support -- there is a much better way of achieving your goals: all you have to do is riot long enough in the streets, shut down cities, and viola! you win, and those fuddy-duddies who foolishly relied on the ballot box and representative government, they lose."
Any general strike poses a danger to constitutional government by offering a path to political power that short-circuits the normal rules of the political game that everyone else has been playing by. That is why, whenever a government permits itself to be influenced by the tactics of the general strike, it is unwittingly preparing for its own dissolution -- it is de-legitimatising itself by legitimatising the streets. The moment people believe that the traditional rules of the political game get them nowhere, and that the most effective means of procuring what they want is by taking to the streets, then everyone, sooner or later, will end up taking to the streets, and no one will see any point in playing by the old traditional rules of the political game.
In many ways, the key to the stability of those nations founded on Anglo-Saxon political institutions has been their refusal to permit political decisions to be decided in the streets, and their stern insistence that change could come about only through the ballot box and not by manning the barricades. Unfortunately, many Americans today, on both the right and left, have come to look upon masses of people filling the streets with their protests and demands as a healthy exercise in democracy. In fact, once those who control the streets learn that they can force governments to change their policies, or even to bring down governments altogether, then power automatically goes to whatever group can be most effective in organizing the streets to their own ends, at which point constitutional government simply ceases to exist, and the rule of the survival of the fittest comes into force.
For Georges Sorel, however, political anarchy was not an unintended consequence of the general strike; such anarchy was its ultimate objective, its whole raison d'être. This is because Sorel believed that it was only by returning to the law of the jungle that power could be put back in the hands of those who deserved it -- the warlike, the heroic, the ones willing to die for their beliefs. For Sorel, the normal political channels through which a liberal democracy selected its managerial class were carefully arranged so that only non-entities would end up with power. So, if you want to get rid of them, it is not enough to vote this or that non-entity out of power; it was necessary to destroy the very political system that was deliberately designed to keep strong and willful men away from the reins of power.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Lenin was one of Sorel's heroes. Here was a man that could never have come even close to a position of power except during a period in which all legitimate authority had collapsed, and power was lying in the streets. Napoleon, too, was another Sorelian hero, and for exactly the same reason: when the existing government of France had been battered back and forth by the street mobs, it was Napoleon who finally decided to end the French Revolution by doing the only thing that could bring an end to mob rule -- he opened fire on the mob and shot many of them dead: a feat that the timorous Louis the Sixteenth simply could not bring himself to do.
Sorel dreamt of returning to a new heroic age, in which great men would govern nations, and not mere politicians. Little wonder that Mussolini, who certainly thought of himself as such a great man, once said: "I owe most to Georges Sorel." It was Sorel who had taught Mussolini that those who were ruthless enough to dominate the streets would be able to force the government to do their bidding, just as Mussolini's Fascists were able to impose themselves upon the impotent and bankrupt Italian parliamentary system. Sorel liked to see men in power who were exciting and fanatical -- and he got his wish. With the collapse of normal boring politics, one European society after another selected men as their leaders who were Sorelian heroes: Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, men intensely motivated by their Nietzschean will to power and who knew how power really worked because they had worked it for themselves.
Men like this only come to the fore when power has left the state and has descended into the streets. That is why the mere call for a Paró General, with its shift of power away from the legitimate sources and into the streets, represents an intrusion of a very alien element into the Anglo-Saxon tradition of politics that has given the American nation its enormous stability. No matter what actually happens on the First of May, 2006, the simple call for a general strike as a means of obtaining political power sets a dangerous precedent. Yes, this is how many political questions have in fact been determined in Latin America, in France, in Spain, in Italy, and in other nations; but it is not part of the American tradition. Here the streets do not decide policy or force governments from office. It is not how we do politics; and we are unwilling to allow any group within our nation to start doing politics this way.
No one understood this truth better than Martin Luther King. The whole point of the civil rights movement was to permit black Americans to do politics the American way, by voting, by running for office, by influencing political parties to support your cause. At no point did King ever threaten to close down cities. At no point did he take to the streets the way the French students and their supporters took to the streets in France, in order to coerce the US government to adopt his policies. At no point did he ever demand anything other for black American citizens than for them to have the same civil and political rights as all other American citizens.
The false analogy drawn between the Paró General and the civil right movement brings us to what is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the current call for a general strike. Many of those who will be closing down cities, in order to influence the policy of the American Congress, are not themselves American citizens. This means that non-Americans will be using the radically un-American tactic of a general strike in order to pressure Congress into acting in their interests, rather than in the interests of the American people. Yet what right do non-citizens have to influence political decisions about the American nation at all? People who are not citizens of the US do not have the right to vote or to hold office. But if we refuse to give non-citizens the traditional political rights of an American citizen, what sense can there be in extending to them the dubious right to use the streets as a path to political power: a right that the American tradition has always repudiated?
In short, those who think that the Paró General is a flashback to the heroic civil rights struggle of the sixties are seriously deluding themselves. The Paró General is a revolutionary gambit, though of the Latin variety, and one that may well be fraught with consequences of the gravest impact on the future of politics in America. Political power won in the streets ultimately discredits and subverts all the more prosaic and boring methods of achieving power. If shutting down cities is the way to get what you want, then who will wait patiently in a long line at election time in order to cast a vote for a man over whom you have zero personal influence?
The Latin character differs from the American character in one very obvious way. The Latin character is exciting; the American character is a bit humdrum. Latin music, dance, and food -- they're all exciting. But so, alas, is Latin politics. Just read a history of Mexico since its independence to see what I mean. In music, dance, and food, I far prefer the Latin to the American; but in politics, I far prefer the humdrum, if not the ho-hum. I like my politics American-style, and I want to keep it that way.
We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws, and the first rule that every newcomer to this country has had to learn is respect even for the laws you think are wrong, and even more importantly, respect for the tiresome and tedious procedures that are involved in changing the laws you don't like. Yes, it is a frustrating and often maddening process; but at least it has kept us out of the streets for two centuries -- and that is a boast that few other nations can make. Here we are ruled by those who sit quietly in their own homes, and not by those who can throw their weight around in the streets -- and this, more than any other factor, explains why the United States has been so dazzlingly successful. Here, at last, the meek have inherited the earth, and the violent do not bear it away.