The gilets jaunes: How the ground moves beneath our feet

What an insurrectional moment shows is the return of life to visible social space. The uprising has no existence of its own, if not by an abuse of language. It is meshed with a thousand little stories, the smaller the more abundant, of lives and deaths. The intertwining formed by the uprising has no other substance than the life of the people, their births, their encounters, their loves, their disputes, their loves again, their deaths. The much celebrated character of the insurgent – courage – is only a derivative product.

Josef Elchado, Glose sur hanouka d’un point de vue révolutionaire (lundimatin 169 – 13/12/2018)

… revolt never comes to flatter anyone, never comes to correspond to expected patterns. Revolt, it fucks shit up, all the time, or then, it’s not revolt. Well now, the “gilets jaunes” fuck shit up in what is expected, in the projections of “advanced”, “politically conscious” people.

Les gilets jaunes du point de vue revolutionnaire (lundimatin 168 – 07/12/2018)

Those who make half insurrections do nothing but dig their own tomb. At the point where we are, with the contemporary means of repression, either we overthrow the system, or it is it which crushes us.

Prochaine station destitution (lundimatin 168 – 07/12/2018)

On December 11th, a month after the eruption of the “gilets jaunes” insurrection in france, the country’s president was forced to speak to the “nation”, and there lay in his words all that was necessary to understand what is at stake.

“Women and men of France, here we are together at the rendezvous of our country and our future. The events of recent weeks in France and overseas deeply troubled the Nation. They have mixed legitimate demands with a chain of unacceptable violence and I want to tell you right away: this violence will not benefit from any indulgence.”

“We have all seen the game of opportunists who have tried to take advantage of those who are sincerely angry, so as to mislead them. We have all seen irresponsible politicians whose only ambition was to shake up the Republic, seeking disorder and anarchy. No anger justifies attacking a policeman or a gendarme, or defacing a business or public buildings. Our freedom exists only because everyone can express their opinions, which others may not share them, but without anyone having to be afraid of these disagreements.”

“When violence is unleashed, freedom ceases. Henceforth, calm and republican order must prevail. We will dedicate all the means available to this end, because nothing sustainable will be built as long as there are fears for civil peace. I have given the government the strictest instructions to that effect.” (Le Monde, 12/12/2018)

The words are intended to diffuse fear, to undermine the sympathy with which the “gilets jaunes” have been greeted, for what the movement threatens, we are told, is State sovereignty itself.  And thus the State must act, with equal or greater violence, if necessary.  The “king” is naked, contested, and the children dress and dance in yellow vests mocking the Leviathan, and the monarch listens with fatherly attention, while telling his children that this is a time for seriousness, and that the play has become far too dangerous.  For those children who then fail to pay heed, they can but expect punishment.

What follows the declared fears and threats are a list of gifts for the legitimately rebellious, but on condition that the violence cease immediately (and as this violence is but the action of a minority, those who protest with justification are asked to stand aside, so that the authority of the State may be allowed to deal with them separately and effectively), that they give time and opportunity for the government to address their real frustrations and needs, and that they clear the streets, put an end to the protests and obey. 

Macron’s speech was a call to order, without which the “Republic” and all that it stands for, will collapse.  As a government spokesperson had stated a week earlier: “The moment we are living is no longer one of political opposition, but of opposition to the Republic”.  And the prime-minister would add, on the same occasion, that “what was at stake was the security of the french people and our institutions”.  And as for those who have brought chaos to Paris, for Macron, they came “to destroy and to kill”. (Le Monde 07/12/2018)

As for the peace offerings, Macron emblematically promised to raise the minimum wage by 100 euros per month, to come into effect at the beginning of the new year.  Curiously though, it will not be the employers who are burdened by this new cost, but the State; in other words, minimum legal salaries will be modestly increased with tax money gathered largely from salaried labour; and this not for economic reasons, but political.  The survival of a government is in the balance.

If we set aside Macron’s own pathetic endeavour to save his job, if we ignore his government’s concerted efforts to divide the movement from within and isolate it from the rest of the population, is there anything to be taken seriously in his words? Is there a mortal threat for the “Republic”?  Is there a revolution in the making?

Macron’s speech was an exercise in crass, self-centred politics.  But behind it lies a real fear that the “gilets jaunes” protests spread and intensify, and that something far more unpredictable and uncontrollable bursts forth.

All seem to agree that the movement is born of indignation with growing inequality and the economic difficulties for “middle class” working families to make ends meet.  The consensus however ends there.  The movement is then variously depicted as an uprising of a weakened and forgotten working class against rich, urban, cosmopolitan elites (and in this case potentially legitimate) or as a populist rebellion, victim or agent of extremist political forces, on the right and/or left (and in this instance to be condemned).  But in either interpretation, what is ignored is precisely what cannot be forced into such vague and rancid social categories.

That the movement may be described as “middle class” is useful only to the extent that the concept not be taken as a mere socio-economic category (designating a social group with an income more or less arbitrarily set above a certain level).  Those participating in the movement are largely modestly paid (public and private, female and male, young and old) employees, from all manner of professions, some precarious, others not, and covering the whole of the french territory. (Le Monde 12/12/1962)

Some have spoken of it as an awakening of the people, of class conflict, lacking only a proper political voice to give it expression, organisation, objectives (whether of the left or the right).  We would prefer to speak of a multitude, i.e., of a pre-political (“political” understood here as possessing an ideological and institutional form) body that sits outside or which has withdrawn or removed itself from dominant political and social relations (as Hobbes and Spinoza elaborated the term, and not Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, for whom the multitude is a proto-communist, collective subject).  To describe the “gilets jaunes” as a multitude captures their complexity, plurality, their absence of a centre, of leadership, their refusal of representation and delegation, their rejection of political parties, labour unions and other “intermediary” organisations, their consequent horizontality and their insistence, without any defined programme, that they exist and that they want an end to the injustice that reduces them to mere labourers struggling to survive.

If a proposed tax increase on diesel fuel (now abandoned) was the spark for the insurrection, then what has given life to the protests goes well beyond a matter of taxes.

Throughout the country, roads have been blocked, roundabouts and tolls occupied, city squares and streets taken, all of this now for over a month and without any central coordination.  Calls for protest follow each other, the occupations become permanent, turn into communities (“mini-ZADs”) sustained by the material and effective solidarity of neighbours, sympathisers, comrades,  metamorphosise into “general assemblies” and “agora” of debates.

The rebellion resonates.  Secondary school students follow in the wake of the “gilets jaunes”, blocking hundreds of schools.  Poll after poll suggests mass support for the protests.  The movement of goods slows, halts; streets and squares become again points of encounter, common stories are told and shared, the solitude and fear of suffering are shattered, identities and roles are shaken, and at once, the horizon begins to clear.  All this is to be found in the magic of insurrection, all insurrections, and it is this that the social scientists forever fail to understand.

“It is difficult to grasp the movement, for it accumulates characteristics that are normally disassociated, namely, a gaseous state and a great radicalness”.  But the latter cannot make up for an absence of objectives, of organisation and thus for the need of making a place for itself in history.  In other words, the “gilets jaunes” do not even qualify as a “movement”, and therefore, they cannot aspire to “revolution”.  What we have before us is but an insurrection, and should it remain nothing more, then it will vanish as quickly as it appeared. (Pierre Rosanvallon, Le Monde 10/12/2018)  The problem of such a reading of events though is that it treats history with a capital “H”, as a stage upon which only certain kinds of actors and agents are permitted to perform, and hence all revolutions are the children of social classes in conflict and all revolutions end in institutionalisation.

The “gilets jaunes” however have no history, or as the “middle class”, they have no life beyond their immediate duties to the demands of money: work and debt consumption.  All other social relations or social possibilities are made secondary or erased in the movement of mere survival.  Neither disdainful of money (like the rich or the revolutionaries), nor the bearers of a counter-hegemonic class culture, the middle class exists only in and through its slavery to flows of capital.  And when these latter accelerate or shift, beyond their reach, then it discover that what it in fact is, is nothing.

The “gilets jaunes” protests are an insurrection of the anonymous many who are in the end the disposable and multitudinous  masses of contemporary capitalism.  And in their gesture of self-affirmation, which can only mean self-erasure as elements of capitalist social relations (within which they can only be by not being), ways of life appear beyond capital.  How far this movement may go, or in what direction, no one can possibly say.  But it is from within such movements that a different present may be created. 

We share below one of the more lucid readings of the “gilets jaunes”, by David Graeber (Le Monde 9-10/12/2018;

The “yellow vests” show how much the ground moves under our feet

If one feature of any truly revolutionary moment is the complete failure of conventional categories to describe what’s happening around us, then that’s a pretty good sign we’re living in revolutionary times.

It strikes me that the profound confusion, even incredulity, displayed by the French commentariat—and even more, the world commentariat—in the face of each successive “Acte” of the Gilets Jaunes drama, now rapidly approaching its insurrectionary climax, is a result of a near total inability to take account of the ways that power, labour, and the movements ranged against power, have changed over the last 50 years, and particularly, since 2008. Intellectuals have for the most part done an extremely poor job understanding these changes.

Let me begin by offering two suggestions as to the source of some of the confusion:

1. in a financialised economy, only those closest to the means of money-creation (essentially, investors and the professional-managerial classes) are in a position to employ the language of universalism. As a result, any political claims as based in particular needs and interests, tended to be treated as manifestation of identity politics, and in the case of the social base of the GJ, therefore, cannot be imagined it as anything but proto-fascist.

2. since 2011, there has been a worldwide transformation of common sense assumptions about what participating in a mass democratic movement should mean—at least among those most likely to do so. Older “vertical” or vanguardist models of organization have rapidly given way to an ethos of horizontality one where (democratic, egalitarian) practice and ideology are ultimately two aspects of the same thing. Inability to understand this gives the false impression movements like GJ are anti-ideological, even nihilistic.

Let me provide some background for these assertions.

Since the US jettisoning of the gold standard in 1971, we have seen a profound shift in the nature of capitalism. Most corporate profits are now no longer derived from producing or even marketing anything, but in the manipulation of credit, debt, and “regulated rents.” As government and financial bureaucracies become so intimately intertwined it’s increasingly difficult to tell one from the other, wealth and power—particularly, the power to create money (that is, credit)—also become effectively the same thing. (This was what we were drawing attention to in Occupy Wall Street when we talked about the “1%’—those with the ability to turn their wealth into political influence, and political influence back into wealth.) Despite this, politicians and media commentators systematically refuse to recognize the new realities, for instance, in public discourse one must still speak of tax policy as if it is primarily a way of government raising revenue to fund its operations, whereas in fact it is increasingly simply a way of (1) ensuring the means of credit-creation can never be democratized (as only officially approved credit is acceptable in payment of taxes), and (2) redistributing economic power from one social sector to another.

Since 2008 governments have been pumping new money into the system, which, owing to the notorious Cantillon effect, has tended to accrue overwhelmingly to those who already hold financial assets, and their technocratic allies in the professional managerial classes. In France of course these are precisely the Macronists. Members of these classes feel that they are the embodiments of any possible universalism, their conceptions of the universal being firmly rooted in the market, or increasingly, that atrocious fusion of bureaucracy and market which is the reigning ideology of what’s called the “political center.” Working people in this new centrist reality are increasingly denied any possibility of universalism, since they literally cannot afford it. The ability to act out of concern for the planet, for instance, rather than the exigencies of sheer survival, is now a direct side-effect of forms of money creation and managerial distribution of rents; anyone who is forced to think only of their own or their family’s immediate material needs is seen as asserting a particular identity; and while certain identities might be (condescendingly) indulged, that of “the white working class” can only be a form of racism. One saw the same thing in the US, where liberal commentators managed to argue that if Appalachian coal miners voted for Bernie Sanders, a Jewish socialist, it must nonetheless somehow be an expression of racism, as with the strange insistence that the Giles Jaunes must be fascists, even if they haven’t realized it.

These are profoundly anti-democratic instincts.

To understand the appeal of the movement—that is, of the sudden emergence and wildfire spread of real democratic, even insurrectionary politics—I think there are two largely unnoticed factors to be taken into consideration.

The first is that financialized capitalism involves a new alignment of class forces, above all ranging the techno-managerials (more and more them employed in pure make-work “bullshit jobs,” as part of the neoliberal redistribution system) against a working class that is now better seen as the “caring classes”—as those who nurture, tend, maintain, sustain, more than old-fashioned “producers.” One paradoxical effect of digitization is that while it has made industrial production infinitely more efficient, it has rendered health, education, and other caring sector work less so, this combined with diversion of resources to the administrative classes under neoliberalism (and attendant cuts to the welfare state) has meant that, practically everywhere, it has been teachers, nurses, nursing-home workers, paramedics, and other members of the caring classes that have been at the forefront of labor militancy. Clashes between ambulance workers and police in Paris last week might be taken as a vivid symbol of the new array of forces. Again, public discourse has not caught up with the new realities, but over time, we will start having to ask ourselves entirely new questions: not what forms of work can be automated, for instance, but which we would actually want to be, and which we would not; how long we are willing to maintain a system where the more one’s work immediately helps or benefits other human beings, the less you are likely to be paid for it.

Second, the events of 2011, starting with the Arab Spring and passing through the Squares movements to Occupy, appear to have marked a fundamental break in political common sense. One way you know that a moment of global revolution has indeed taken place is that ideas considered madness a very short time before have suddenly become the ground assumptions of political life. The leaderless, horizontal, directly democratic structure of Occupy, for instance, was almost universally caricatured as idiotic, starry-eyed and impractical, and as soon as the movement was suppressed, pronounced the reason for its “failure.” Certainly it seemed exotic, drawing heavily not only on the anarchist tradition, but on radical feminism, and even, certain forms of indigenous spirituality. But it has now become clear that it has become the default mode for democratic organizing everywhere, from Bosnia to Chile to Hong Kong to Kurdistan. If a mass democratic movement does emerge, this is the form it can now be expected to take. In France, Nuit Debout might have been the first to embrace such horizontalist politics on a mass scale, but the fact that a movement originally of rural and small-town workers and the self-employed has spontaneously adopted a variation on this model shows just how much we are dealing with a new common sense about the very nature of democracy.

About the only class of people who seem unable to grasp this new reality are intellectuals. Just as during Nuit Debout, many of the movement’s self-appointed “leadership” seemed unable or unwilling to accept the idea that horizontal forms of organization were in fact a form of organization (they simply couldn’t comprehend the difference between a rejection of top-down structures and total chaos), so now intellectuals of left and right insist that the Gilets Jaunes are “anti-ideological”, unable to understand that for horizontal social movements, the unity of theory and practice (which for past radical social movements tended to exist much more in theory than in practice) actually does exist in practice. These new movements do not need an intellectual vanguard to provide them with an ideology because they already have one: the rejection of intellectual vanguards and embrace of multiplicity and horizontal democracy itself.

There is a role for intellectuals in these new movements, certainly, but it will have to involve a little less talking and a lot more listening.

None of these new realities, whether of the relations of money and power, or the new understandings of democracy, likely to go away anytime soon, whatever happens in the next Act of the drama. The ground has shifted under our feet, and we might do well to think about where our allegiances actually lie: with the pallid universalism of financial power, or those whose daily acts of care make society possible.

Video …

December 8, Paris

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