Almost two months after their emergence the yellow vests are still here! The movement started attracting international attention and more extensive coverage after the events that took place on Saturday 1/12. This was expectable, since no matter what our political judgment may turn out to be, we are faced with a nationwide revolt, which has not simply prompted thoughts for a state of emergency, but led to its informal implementation, through the extensive police measures imposed during the 8/12 demonstrations. Among the numerous texts written there are the typical patronizing advices coming from “responsible” commentators, directed mainly towards the “moderate” wings of the movement. There is also a lot of idealization and wishful projection, expressing the need to see “something happening” as a leverage to alarming phenomena, notably the rise of the far-right in many parts of the world. On the other hand, as with all other recent movements, the anti-austerity movement in Greece being a case in point, the yellow vests have become the target of virulent critiques coming from an ultra-left and “class” perspective. Before even the movement has developed its full élan, a veritable compulsion has led some to declare that the “yellow vests” are not what they should be based on some preconceived notion of what a “truly” radical movement must look like. To be sure, the content of the critiques varies. Some see only “spectacle” and not the invasion of the masses into its center, as if it is possible today to have a popular movement that is not captured in massively transmitted images.
Other criticisms confuse a theoretical thesis for a political standpoint, waiting for the famous contradiction between “capital and labor” to go out in the streets in pure form, in a class-struggle devoid of grey areas. Alongside come the expected accusations of being “petty-bourgeois” and “inter-classist”, as if it is possible to have a mass uprising which is not heterogeneous or as if it is impossible to have problems, demands and claims which may not be strictly “proletariat” but nonetheless concern an important part of the working class.
Even more so today, where the generalization of phenomena like indebtedness and precarity have created a wide gamut of common affects and impasses among the middle and lower stratums of capitalist social formations. There are of course critiques which are sensible and insightful, highlighting real contradictions and problems, like the presence of far-right groups, which is enabled by some identifiable features of the movement. It is also astutely stressed that despite the intensity of riots, on the level of political discourse, there is no critique or questioning of the state as the guarantor of right and wellbeing, nor of capital as a social relation. Having said that, it needs to be stressed that the “populist” rhetoric about privileged elites and a disenfranchised people or about the division between rich and poor is not “wrong” in some descriptive sense, that is why after all it has proved time and again successful as a discursive representation of social divisions. The problem with this type of discourse rather lies on the analytical and political level, that it does not pose the issue of the relations and forms that constitute the material presupposition of the separation between people/elite and rich/poor. Here though is the real quandary: even if they are correct, the externality of these critiques relative to the struggles and what is at stake for those who participate in them, reveals the weakness of those who do the criticism to have any meaningful influence in mass movements. Thus, the critique acquires a two-way direction, returning to its source. In fact, the problem does not concern only the ultra-left, but spreads throughout the left hemisphere, since what has become manifest once again is the weakness of the Left and of Anarchy to exercise real hegemony, that is, to affect (political) culture.
To be sure, it is necessary here to move beyond a prescriptive standpoint and try to understand this weakness as a historical phenomenon. Nonetheless, if a small leftward turn can be traced, it has partly to do with the fact that leftists and anarchists did participate in the yellow vests instead of simply passing judgments on them. Regardless how we would like things to be, the fact that red and black flags have not been waving in the thousands does not make the yellow vests movement reactionary by default.
The same is true for the presence of national flags, so much so of the French flag which concentrates multiple and conflicting significations and meanings. This is not to say that the presence of national symbols is not potentially problematic, especially in the sense that it tends to assert the division between native citizens and foreigners upon which the modern national state rests. Having said that, the presence of xenophobic elements must not be overstressed. Neither the identity nor most of the demands and claims of the movement are xenophobic or nationalist. Everyone can on principle become a yellow vest, which is why it has been relatively easy for different social groups to flow into the movement. Moreover, the latter addresses issues which concern many people regardless of their ethnic identity. For is there a wage earner that does not want a better wage or anyone living in a given community who would not benefit from greater access to decision making?
It is such economic and political demands and aspirations pertaining to social justice and civic recognition that provide the material ground for an international/polyethnic unity on a mass scale, and without which calls for such unity remain evocative but idealistic declarations of what should happen. Even if from our perspective such demands and aspirations are not enough, radicalization can only happen as a dialectical process immanent to the movement.
The yellow vests are a popular uprising – plebeian is an equally valid term – in the full sense of the term: a representative part of “the people” have risen against a life that becomes increasingly difficult to live. Obviously, at a first level, the expectations and demands of the movement cannot but express the reality of the people who compose it, since this very same reality is determined by an established economy of desire. Indeed, the fact that – despite the extensive mechanisms of consensus and integration that exist in modern capitalist societies – social experience is never unitary, nor even within the same class, helps explain the plurality of desiring flows permeating the movement, thus also its inner tensions and contradictions. Yet even if the yellow vests remain for the most part attached to a social reality against which they rebel but beyond which they cannot see, the core claims and aspirations of the movement are not reactionary. Nor has the far-right been able to acquire hegemony, no matter if after the end of the movement Le Pen or other rightwing groups will be able to draw votes from it. Moreover, as long as they exist social movements are by definition not static. Apart from the already manifested and noteworthy capacity for mass scale, horizontal direct action, there has been also a marked radicalization as well as a move towards a more “leftwing” direction.
Where can the whole thing lead to? It cannot go unnoticed that the movement has forced Macron, self-styled as a hard-poised reformer who will “not back down”, to make concessions and (perhaps even more crucially) recognize the movement and its concerns. On the other hand, there are signs of fatigue and demassification and it is possible that the yellow vests have started encountering the same limits that other movements in the recent cycle of struggles have stumbled upon. We cannot fail to notice especially that no organs and institutions capable of acting as “dual power” have emerged. Thus, while their persistent refusal to enter negotiations and be represented is a strength of the movement and a source of potential, the lack of representative organs leads to an impasse, since the current structures of representation are not challenged on the level of an alternative. Again, balancing between critical comprehension and a prescriptive standpoint is the key for an effective political intervention. We cannot of course simply will a movement to follow our desired course and if the revolt in France shows something, just like the anti austerity movement in Greece (not to speak of the much more minoritarian movements in other western countries), is that a revolution is not in the ordre du jour. Having said that, the transformation of social relations is a macro-historical process, which passes though failed expectations, mass unrest and uprisings of wide intensity and extensity.
The yellow vests are such an uprising. In fact, they have a crucial characteristic, which adds to their significance: their class composition is nothing less than the social backbone of contemporary capitalist societies. To this extent, they indicate the depth of the current crisis. Equally important, the movement has managed to reveal the non-correspondence between a people and its state/juridical representation. This has further verified that the greatest threat for a state is always its population. It follows that although in the short-term the yellow vests may not be the harbingers of spring, or worse they may be the spasms of a long winter, they nonetheless foretell of a possible revolutionary outbreak. After all, no matter what the content of a revolution may be, it will concern much more than the actions of small and ideologically compact groups. Not because everything that is of mass scale is necessarily positive and experiments on the molecular level irrelevant, far from it. But it is politically absurd to advocate revolution and dismiss mass movements that fight for an improvement of life and also have horizontal/egalitarian qualities and conversely valorize small and ideologically homogeneous spaces as prefigurations of a grand communist future. Instead of an either/or logic, the question should be how the latter political milieus can positively contribute on the former movements. Nor can revolutionary change be reduced to a wave of irregular attacks from “the excluded”, as fantasized by romantic representations of the marginalized proletariat living in the ghettos, banlieues and slums of the modern metropolis. While, the latter groups obviously must be empowered, we simply cannot talk seriously about a social transformation of wide scale – and in face of what takes place but also of what is coming is there anything less needed? – that does not embrace broad segments of the middle and working classes. It is from this viewpoint that we insist that the yellow vests, both in what they have done as well as in all those things that they could (not) have done, are not only a sign of the times but an image of an uncertain future which germinates with hope.
In all events, from a distance, every judgment, praise and critique are easy. However, because many of us have found ourselves in a similar position, the question faced by the politicized minorities that still raise red and black flags remains: can we participate in something that exceeds us, in struggles that pose the problem of organization and justice on the level of a historical stake, to find ourselves next to people that we do not agree nor identify with, to risk, to err, to be disappointed? If the answer is negative, we can verbalize about revolution, but we will not be one of its productive vectors.
Text by Void Circle – political assembly of Void Network / member of Anarchist federation in Greece
VOID NETWORK (Theory, Utopia, Empathy, Ephemeral Arts) http://voidnetwork.gr