Ballet Against Austerity

Ballet and classical music shouldn’t belong to the elite. The Paris Opera’s free, outdoor performances for striking French workers point to a radical redefinition of what work, play, and the arts could be under socialism.

Striking ballet dancers from the Paris Opera perform "Swan Lake" for the public in front of the Palais Garnier in Paris on December 24, 2019.

Behold, the anarchic magic of a mass strike: when physical resistance seizes the collective imagination, and the balance between destruction and creativity begins to shift. Cities split open, and new futures spill out. Striking workers cut Amazon’s power, but restore it for poor residents. Yachts of the rich burn in the harbor. And for a brief moment, even the Eiffel Tower, one of the world’s most iconic structures, is shut down.

So it is in France. President Emanuel Macron, making good on his flagship campaign promise, is telling the nation’s workers that he plans to replace the country’s pension plan — one that has achieved one of the lowest old-age poverty rates in the world — with a meritocratic “points-based system.” Workers have replied in much the same way as the gilets jaunes did a year ago, with a firm and collective “va te faire foutre.”

It is already the longest wave of rolling strikes since May 1968. And it has made the government nervous. The original plan to bring the more moderate unions, such as the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour), to the table for a negotiated settlement they could abide by didn’t work. With more mass demonstrations this past weekend, the government withdrew a major pillar of the plan: the raising of the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four. Though apparently enough for the CFDT, more left-wing federations, such as the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), have vowed to stay on the streets.

It’s been noted before, and must be hit home time and time again, that there is a link between militancy and creativity, which seems apparent only in hindsight, when the militant becomes manifest. Much has come to halt. But so, too, have other events been set in motion that wouldn’t have otherwise. “It comes out,” as Jeremy Brecher writes in Strike!, “in the gaiety and the festival atmosphere that mark so many of the mass actions . . . in which human activity flows from individual and group creativity, rather than from a minority who direct the social activity of others in their own interest.”

That utopian impulse is in the actions of the artists of the Paris Opera. Recent videos have gone viral, the first showing the company’s ballet dancers performing “Swan Lake” on the steps of the Opera Bastille on Christmas Eve. The second, a week later, is of the opera’s orchestra playing “The Damnation of Faust,” “The Dance of the Knights,” and “The Marseillaise.” Both are in front of giant banners reading “Opera de Paris Greve” (Opera of Paris on Strike). The very existence of these performances reflects the destruction Macron’s reform will wreak on French society and the discontent it has produced.

The Paris Opera is one of the oldest in the world, and among the most prestigious. It first opened in 1669, and since then, its ballet dancers and musicians have had the ability to collect a pension at the age of forty-two. It’s an early age compared to many other professions, but then the physical toll that both classically trained dancers and musicians have to withstand, particularly given their high intensity training and the young age at which most start, is almost always downplayed.

Macron’s reforms would have eliminated this right, and this by itself makes clear why the orchestra and ballet have joined the pickets for the first time in the opera’s 350-year history. This likely explains why, as the government has backpedaled by seeking to carve out exceptions to the pension reform, one of them was for the ballet dancers.

On a deeper level, however, the anger stirred reveals a great amount about what austerity does to the arts. A regime that cares little for the health and livelihood of its artists also cares little for the principle of art as a public right. Find a country where a generalized assault on living standards and the social safety net is underway, and you will likely find a country where art and music programs are being removed from schools, where museums are shuttered, where tuition is increasing for performing arts colleges.

For this reason, though the Opera strikes are the most visible presence from artists in the French uprising, they by no means represent this presence in its entirety. In the days leading up to the first massive mobilization on December 5, a call was put out for artists of all walks to join in the demonstrations. “Art en Greve,” or “Art on Strike,” is deliberately broad in defining who exactly qualifies as an “art worker.” It would have to be, given that the artist’s position in relation to capital can vary greatly.

But what the group seeks is a redefinition of creativity as work and work as creativity. It’s a significant gesture pointing to one of the crucial axes of what capital does to the human experience. In the process of exploitation, work becomes rote, utilitarian, and dull. It becomes counterposed to play. And our entire environment, the spaces we live in and move through that should be ours, become something altogether alien.

How different these appear when mass resistance is made real. The long hours and tiring tasks of political organizing take on a different and more cooperative aspect, the urban space that lords over you most days seems within your grasp and worth fighting the police over. And the steps of public buildings become stages for ballet and grand musical performances.

Telescope this forward, and we can start to get a sense of what socialism might look like. Of course, there will still be drudgery to be done, boring work fundamental for a functioning city and society. Sewers will need maintenance, dull but necessary items will need to be shipped. But in a world that puts human need and endeavor before profit, in which workers themselves control the conditions of their labor, that drudgery can be minimized, shared collectively, and the path will be opened for our labor to be liberated and our cities to be meeting spaces for what Marx called “the all-around development of the individual.”

Almost 150 years ago, after the Communards had chased out the French army and Paris was, briefly, under workers’ control, a group of painters, sculptors, and members of the decorative arts gathered. They included influential realist painter Gustave Courbet and Eugène Pottier, later the author of the lyrics to “The Internationale.” With the promise to “work cooperatively toward our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendors and the Universal Republic,” they formed the Paris Commune’s Federation of Artists.

Barely a year prior, the Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann had been renovating the entire city with the aim, among others, of atomizing the working class and ensuring that 1848 didn’t happen again. Obviously, the Paris Commune revealed how futile this effort was. But its dramatic transformation did succeed in further snatching the cultural evolution of Paris out of the working class’s hands.

Against this, the Federation was dedicated not merely to the protection of art, or to lending artistic support to the Commune, the first large-scale experiment in socialism. To them, the freedom of art was interwoven with its accessibility, and its proliferation through the city itself. Kristin Ross describes it as “beauty deprivatized, fully integrated into everyday life.” Old monuments would be torn down, new ones would be built, and public exhibitions and performances would become commonplace and open to all.

The parallels to today are striking. There is also, admittedly, a contradiction in the idea that such a thoroughgoing radical democratic reimagining of daily life starting with the likes of Sergei Prokofiev and Hector Berlioz, composers who have been dead for decades. But then, workers and artists start where they are today, of course. Though the current strikes have rattled society, they have not yet brought the state to its knees. Poetry of the future has yet to fully arrive on the streets of Paris.

Nonetheless, it is likely stirring. When struggles prolong, horizons widen, and there’s very little to indicate that the unions (or Macron for that matter) are backing down. All the more time for ideas to change, for the repressed to be expressed, and for straitjacketed visions of life to be blown wide open. When that happens, all the world does, in fact, become a stage.