April 5, 2023

The State and Global Capital: “Retirement Reforms” in France

Morteza Samanpour

Protests against “retirement reforms” in France, March 2023. Photo from crimethinc.com.

This article was originally published in Persian (see here) two weeks ago. Following its translation into German (see here) by a great Iranian comrade of mine, together with the encouragement of e-flux Notes, I decided to translate the text into English myself. Note that the English version slightly differs from the original text due to the syntax and grammar of English as well as the political context of the Anglophone world. More importantly, some passages were added to the original text in order to incorporate the developments of the past two weeks.


France is on fire: in recent weeks millions of people have taken to the streets in more than 250 cities to say “No!” to Macron’s neoliberal pension reforms. Blockades of highways and main roads keep interrupting the free circulation of people and commodities across the country, and periodic general strikes continue to temporarily disrupt the reproduction of French society as a whole. Teachers, nurses, port and airport workers, students in grade schools and universities, workers in “strategic sectors” like energy, urban transport workers—all have been refusing to work for at least one day a week during the past month. Thanks to the refusal of sanitation workers to collect garbage, seven thousand tons of trash have piled up on Paris streets, the stench of which reflects the decay of liberal democracy and the depth of social discontent. Last Tuesday (March 28) marked the tenth time since January that unions have called on workers to go on strike and join demonstrations. Over a million people nationwide participated in the day of action.1

Despite the widespread protests, blockades, and strikes, president Macron has completely disregarded the voices of demonstrators and the will of the people—just as he did with the Yellow Vest movement.2 The government forced the “pension reform” bill through the Assemblée Nationale without a vote on March 16, 2023 by invoking Article 49.3 of the Constitution. Article 49.3 was added to the French Constitution in the postwar era (1958) to give the state more discretion in urgent circumstances. It functions much differently today, primarily serving the authoritarian wishes of governments, be they left or right, to implement neoliberal policies while bypassing formal democratic decision-making procedures.3 Since a constitutional reform in 2008, the executive branch can now use Article 49.3 for only “one bill per parliamentary session,” unless a motion of no confidence in the government gets a majority. However, there is one exception—namely, when the proposed law concerns “the state budget and the social security budget, for which the government can use it without restriction.”4 This is the case with the pension reform bill.

How is it that the French government can bypass Parliament and give the middle finger to society? What does this kind of “neoliberal authoritarianism” say about the role of the state in contemporary capitalism? What organizational-strategic lessons for “politics from below” can be drawn from this situation? This article attempts to tackle these difficult questions and show that the French government’s indifference towards, and refusal to accept, the will of the people on the pension issue, which is currently being resolved through a kind of “state of emergency,” is not specific to Macron and neoliberal forces in France. Rather, this kind of authoritarianism reflects larger transformations in the nature and function of the state in the Global North, driven by changes in the reproduction of capital more generally. Grasping these changes will also contribute to an understanding of how capitalism works in the Global South.

From the Welfare to the Neoliberal State: The Reproduction of Financialized Transnational Capital

Let’s first take a look at the content of Macron’s pension reform law and its likely destructive effects on society. With the retirement age raised from sixty-two to sixty-four, laborers will remain wage slaves of capital until the very last years of their lives. From an existential point of view, this implies that the ruling class appropriates more and more of labor’s lifetime and vital capacities for the purpose of capitalist valorization. It is not accidental that in contemporary capitalism, existential concerns about issues like “life” and “death” have become increasingly intensified. To remind ourselves of Adorno’s dictum, “the life that does not live” (Das Leben lebt nicht) is more exposed to the existential abyss of death than the life governed by principles of autonomy, freedom, and the multidimensional growth of individual and collective capacities.5 Moreover, in the new pension law, maternity leave is no longer counted as part of one’s working years. So as with all other attacks on social reproduction, it is women and other gender minorities who will pay the highest price. Not surprisingly, women have been at the forefront of social struggles not only in France but also globally. The pension reform deepens the crisis of social reproduction as engendered by the commodification of housing, education, and healthcare, and the ensuing indebtedness of millions of people struggling to obtain the basic means of life.

The fundamental political question that arises is this: How is it that the president of a “democratic” society like France can push this law through despite widespread protests? How can the president be explicitly disdainful towards the protesters, brutally repress them, and apparently get away with it? Perhaps it is helpful here to outline the historical transformations of the state in contemporary capitalism at a global scale and leave aside for the moment the specificities of French society.

The postwar welfare state in Western Europe and North America was designed to “represent” the interests of national industrial capital in general—specifically, to sustain and secure the economic, political, and cultural conditions for the reproduction of productive capital, while also providing public services to citizens. On an international scale, what Marx calls “total social capital” in Capital acquired its unity on the world market out of the totality of national capitals. In this context, national states and national capitals were in geopolitical and economic competition with one another. Since the 1970s, however, capitalism has undergone deep transformations globally, constituting a radical break with the postwar era. Embedded as it is within these large-scale and systemic transformations, the state goes through massive changes too. Whereas the main task of the state in the postwar era was to provide the general conditions for the reproduction of national capital, today national states have become agents of transnational capital, especially finance capital, in a radically paradoxical manner. The rise of finance capital as the dominant faction of capitalism and the emergence of transnational circuits of accumulation, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have dramatically changed the role and structure of the state within capitalism. Instead of representing national industrial capital, the state now assumes the task of integrating the national economy within global capital and opening it up to transnational capital via all sorts of deregulation.

These developments matter politically, as the political consequences of such a substantial change in the state have been enormously destructive to the democratic capacities of society to collectively organize social life. In France, for example, over the past decade there has been no shortage of social movements against neoliberal laws and deregulation: from Nuit Debout and struggles against reforms to labor laws (both in 2016), to the Yellow Vest movement (2018–20) and the current protests against pension reform. In all these instances, the state responded with an iron fist, repressing the movements with police brutality that blinded some protesters and physically harmed many others, and that led to the arrest, imprisonment, and surveillance of leftist militants.6 In the long run, the repressive apparatus of the state exhausted the angry protestors, causing led them to lose momentum in their struggle against their class enemy. The same thing is happening today. With the escalation of repression, Macron is trying to crush the current movement with brutal state violence.7

From Development to Coercive Integration into Global Capitalism

The transformation of the state is not limited to Western liberal democracy but must be understood globally. On the other side of the world and in the immediate aftermath of decolonization, the central concept for the postcolonial state in the so-called “Third World” was development. This was understood as a social project to be realized in the future: the development of industrial productive forces and political independence from the East and the West alike. The colonial semantics of development, however, are important here as they were systematically employed in colonial discourses to justify colonial violence. Understood as the actualization of potentialities, the notion of development became prominent in the nineteenth century via modern biology and the life processes of natural beings. It also found a complicated philosophical expression in Hegel’s Eurocentric conception of history. In this context, the colonized were represented as populations that were intrinsically incapable of actualizing their “human potentialities” and hence must be forced from outside, externally, to do so. Colonial violence was thus “necessary” in order to develop those capacities and render the backwards colonized people as “civilized” and “contemporaneous” with the metropolis. The meaning of development dramatically changed after World War II. Freed from its colonial connotations in the postcolonial era, primarily through the US’s “Truman Doctrine,” “development” was adopted by the “Third World” states themselves.

Development thus became a national project of economic growth and cultural and political progress, especially in the arena of civil rights. For example, after the 1979 revolution in Iran, Khomeini famously spoke of free water, electricity, and gas for the “poor classes”; but these words must be located within the historical context governed by the principle of “development.” That era, however, had already ended shortly before the 1979 revolution. The postcolonial dream of development and its realization in the future was supposed to heal the wounds of colonialism. The “Third World” was supposed to catch up with the West, based on a linear and progressive conception of history that had its roots in the Enlightenment. However, from the 1970s onwards, the development dream was completely ruined not only by the West and imperialism but also by postcolonial governments themselves in collusion with supranational agencies like the IMF, WTO, and World Bank, which enforced the violent integration of postcolonial economies into the reproduction of global capital. The task of the postcolonial state thus transformed from development into coercive integration. Social and political rights, economic growth, and prosperity turned into empty words. Not only have the wounds of colonialism not been healed, but the legacy of colonialism has been appropriated for integrating the economy into the capitalist world market.

The Myth and Reality of Liberal Democracy

Two things have become clear as contemporary capitalism exacerbates global hierarchies and inequalities in unprecedented ways. First, the so-called “developing” countries are not approaching any predetermined destiny. That is, the “West” is no longer the reference point for measuring the historical time of the “rest.” Deconstructing the homogeneous and unilinear conception of historical time is not solely the achievement of postcolonial studies but is rooted in the objective movement of global capital itself. If earlier it was fascism and war that challenged the Eurocentric philosophy of linear time (as argued by Bloch, Benjamin, and Adorno), then today it is the legacy of colonialism and uneven global “development” that have compelled the philosophy of history to accept a multiplicity of timelines—histories in the plural. In contrast to the “culturalist” approach of postcolonial theorists, the multiplicity of historical times is actively created by capital itself rather than passively given to it.8 Second, capitalism does not logically presuppose democracy, not even liberal democracy and formal equality before the law. The religious autocratic dictatorship in the Islamic Republic is not an exception to the rule; nor is the authoritarianism of the Macron government, with its flagrant violations of democratic rule. Iranian state television’s characterization of the Yellow Vest movement as evidence of the “corrupted West” is as ridiculous as French television calling the “Women, Life, Freedom” uprising in Iran a movement for liberal democracy. The point is simple: if there are rights in capitalism, they are the product of history and social struggles. True, capitalism presupposes wage labor at the general level, but this does not automatically lead to free wage labor, as Marx uncritically assumed in his writings.


Just as the era of development in the Global South has been over for decades, so too has the era of state welfare and national governments in the Global North. Concurrent with the reconfigurations of capital and its transnationalization, the state primarily serves to create the conditions for the reproduction of financialized transnational capital through the deregulation and neoliberalization of the economy. The globalization of capital by no means implies a loss of state power vis-à-vis transnational hostile forces, but rather the state’s reconfiguration and refunctionalization at the service of global capital. The national state paradoxically denationalizes the territories upon which it exercises its juridical and political power.

In these circumstances, the will of citizens is increasingly pushed aside, and the executive branch of the state enjoys more and more power compared to legislative institutions. This is precisely why Article 49.3 is significant for grasping the inner workings of the state, as it allows the French government to diminish the legislature’s power and arbitrarily implement the law. It is not surprising that Article 49.3 was modified in 2008 so that the executive branch could acquire extraordinary discretion compared to other political and juridical institutions.

The time has come to announce publicly the end of formal liberal democracy in the West, as citizens are increasingly unable to determine their collective destiny through elections and parliamentary representation. The authoritarianism of the French government is not specific to Macron alone; it is a fundamental feature of the state in contemporary capitalism. Organization and politics from below face great challenges in such a situation. This, however, is a topic that must wait for a future discussion.


For a precise mapping of protest locations, see .


This is of course not the first time that workers, unions, and independent leftist organizations have fought against pension reforms in France. In December 2019, just before the start of the pandemic, the largest strike in the history of France since May 1968 was organized to protest neoliberal pension policies. The Paris subway suspended service for at least a month.


François Hollande’s government used the same legal trick to implement neoliberal changes to labor laws in 2016.


Les Décodeurs, “French Constitution: How Does Article 49.3 Allow a Bill To Be Passed Without a Vote?” Le Monde, October 19, 2022 .


Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (Verso, 2005).


See the letter written by the parents of Serge, a leftist militant who was on the state security watch list and is now in a coma as a result of police brutality .


On the subject of repression, see “France in Flames,” CrimethInc., March 30, 2023 .


It would be banal to say that capital assumes a singular form when it “adapts” itself to local and cultural singularities, becoming different from other capitalisms developed elsewhere. More interesting would be to posit that the global reproduction of capital is intrinsically and actively marked by unevenness and social differentials.

Democracy, Capitalism
Protests & Demonstrations, Europe, Postcolonialism, Neoliberalism

Morteza Samanpour is studying for a PhD on Marx’s critique of political economy at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University.

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