Few things are more warming, now that summer’s been washed out of the sky and the sun is almost glued to the horizon, than the sight of workers erecting a big guillotine in a public square. Whatever else the gilets jaunes movement in France may be, it’s viscerally exciting, with a keen sense for theatre. Macron, the self-appointed Jupiter, finally humbled by a Promethean working class. Masses of protesters in political uniforms, fires on the Champs-Élysées, and guillotines: some festooned with yellow ribbons, like a winter maypole, some daubed with slogans, some ramshackle, bolted together with whatever’s at hand. A guillotine can be an anchor. It doesn’t just remind the ruling classes that they are never indispensable; it situates the movement in a long history of insurrection, from the French Revolution itself through the Paris Commune and the upheavals of May 68, half a century ago. This is why they still sing the national anthem at the barricades: what’s been sedimented by the crimes of the imperial state can be reactivated as a revolutionary march. And for a world increasingly mired in reaction, the songs and guillotines and the burning cars can serve as a potent reminder that an active, unabashed, insurrectionary movement is still alive.
But something, quite evidently, has changed. Even ten years ago, a movement like this would most likely have explicitly announced itself as what it intermittently appears to be: a movement of the radical left. The Europe-wide antiwar protests of 2003 situated themselves within a broadly socialist understanding of the world; even the heterogeneous and unprogrammed eruptions of 1968 were loosely held together through the idiom of socialism. Not so long ago, the response from the organised left to similar expressions of popular discontent had a decidedly practical bent. How can we help organise and unite this movement? How can we help refine its political line? How can we advance it? These questions are not only no longer being asked, they feel somehow unaskable.
The gilets jaunes are explicitly inarticulate. There is no political line, only a series of complaints and demands, endlessly extendable but admitting no synthesis. Its only totality is the countable infinity of miseries drizzling down on the heads of the working classes under neoliberalism: rising prices, stagnating wages, hollowed-out services, unemployment, all administered by a spit-shiny elite who sometimes muse that what the French people really want is for the king to come back. All these ought to be the raw materials for a socialist critique of existing conditions. We know what’s gone wrong; what’s more, we know how to fix it. But it simply isn’t there. As well as organising on the now-hegemonic lines of horizontalism and leaderlessness, the movement explicitly refuses political labels – and in these circumstances, attempting to impose one becomes an act of condescension.
You wouldn’t know this from the vast and effusive response the movement has generated from the left. The best of these responses – such as that from the novelist Édouard Louis – defend the dignity and autonomy of the insurgent workers against a bourgeoisie horrified that its sparkling Parisian shopping streets are full of rampant scum, and in the weeks just before Christmas to boot. Appius Claudius, faced with the fury of the Roman plebeians, heard in their demands only ‘a fugitive sound, a sort of lowing, a sign of want and not an expression of intelligence.’ For some people, not much has changed. But too often, intellectual advocates of the movement collapse any possible critique into the form of class chauvinism. There’s no room to consider, only affirm. All the left can do – as many French trade unions are now doing – is trail along in the wake of the movement, thrown around by its bumps and eddies, trying to retroactively claim it for itself. At its worst, this affirmation can sometimes end up reproducing the elitist sneer. Yes, this movement really is an unstructured expression of bestial rage – and that’s a good thing. Yes, its slogans are signs of want and not expressions of intelligence – but what else could you expect from the working classes?
There is another option, of course, which is to hide somewhere warm, and denounce. With huge crowds on the streets, there’s always plenty to snipe at. Isn’t there something slightly menacing in the symbolism of that dayglo jacket? The gilets jaunes have shored up a political collectivity out of the legal detritus of the state: we’re the good citizens, the jacket says, the ones who carry this stupid vest in our cars, just like we were told to, the ones who did everything by the rules – and what do we get? A kind of Falling Down-esque resentment, the hair-trigger tetchiness of the grumbling classes. Aren’t these social constituencies a little too unfashionable to mount a serious revolution? Aren’t these energies a little close to fascism? Aren’t all these faces just a little too white? There are stories of racial abuse at roadblocks; there’s footage of antifa beating up neo-Nazis on the streets of Paris, both groups wearing identical yellow jackets. The movement seems to be rooted in Facebook groups rife with conspiracy theories. It’s too grubby. Better to wash your hands of the whole thing, in case any of the muck gets on you.
These, broadly speaking, are the two critical options that seem to be available to us: passive and ineffectual support, or passive and ineffectual condemnation. What both approaches ultimately share is a refusal to really interrogate the nature of the present moment. Socialists ought to be profoundly concerned by the fact that we’ve lost the idiom of insurrection; instead, we either ignore it, or place the blame on the insurrectionaries themselves for failing to conform to our expectations. The response to the movement in France marks, most fundamentally, a retreat from what ought to be a basic question: where do our political forms come from?
One of the more interesting responses to the movement, and one that at least attempts to answer this question, comes from David Graeber – himself, as one of the major intellectuals of the Occupy movement, a major architect of this formless form. Graeber follows much of the analysis outlined above; he, too, has noticed that mass social movements no longer speak the language of the left. He writes:
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.” […] But it has now become clear that it has become the default mode for democratic organizing everywhere.
Graeber doesn’t see this form as protean or inchoate, wet and naïve clay waiting to be moulded. This is a fully developed form, and he provides a quite admirable materialist account of its emergence: the reason the gilets jaunes don’t articulate a cohesive intellectual understanding of the present situation is that they ‘literally cannot afford it.’ In the neoliberal era, money and power circulate in increasingly tiny and frantic circles around the top of the social hierarchy. In Western states, the working classes have a substantially diminished role: for the most part, they no longer produce the material commodities on which the fortresses of finance depend, but reproduce each other. They are the nurses, teachers, carers, ambulance workers, and so on. As a result, they can no longer apprehend the capitalist system in its totality; such a ‘universal’ view can only be found from the high peaks of the economy.
But, in the end, this doesn’t matter; it may even be an improvement. ‘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.’ In other words, it doesn’t matter what the gilets jaunes actually think, or even if they’re members of Le Pen’s party; simply by constituting themselves as a horizontal, leaderless, autonomous, unmediated swarm, they are objectively a progressive force.
This is a particularly advanced version of the affirmationism outlined above. Vico, in the New Science, considers ‘articulate speech’ to be the heir to two other forms of language: the ‘divine and conceptual language expressed by wordless religious acts,’ and that of ‘heroic emblems, in which arms are expressive.’ For Graeber, the cycle has completed itself; we’ve transcended the ‘final’ form, and returned to the muteness of deeds. The men in the yellow jackets hoot like monkeys and low like cattle; they’ve moved beyond thought and language into a plane of pure action. The movement is to be celebrated, not despite its inarticulacy, but because of it.
Still, there’s something attractive in this analysis. Where it fails is in its relation to the actual situation – in more senses than one. It’s true that the ‘caring professions’ make up an increasingly significant portion of the working class, but maybe not large enough to account for the ontological and epistemic shift away from explicit politics we’ve seen. Some of those arrested during crackdowns on the movement include a fisherman, a mason, a bricklayer (and father of two, accused in court of ‘deeply anti-Republican behaviour’ for carrying ‘a big stone’), a butcher, a welder. Are those who work on fishing boats structurally incapable of considering that the work they do puts food on thousands of tables, in a circulation of fish that reaches all the same social crevices as the circulation of capital? Are they ontically blocked from understanding that climate change might, one day soon, kill off the last fisheries that are left?
For those of us who experienced the collapse of the protest movements of 2011, the idea that they did in fact constitute a successful revolution in our ground assumptions is a comforting one. It’s good to hear that it wasn’t all for nothing. Until, that is, you start to consider what we actually got out of it. If this is a victory, what did we win? The process of capital accumulation is untouched. The famous one percent are still in their castles, while the rest of us are still miserable. A new and virulent strain of reaction has seized power across the globe. We have maybe ten years to prevent catastrophic climate change – and as the heirs to this marvellous revolution, the left has been granted… a new default organisational form. It’s not exactly the Winter Palace. It’s not ever clear if this form is actually any good; in effect, we’re supposed to welcome it just because it’s here.
Graeber considers the horizontalist form effective because it’s become the ‘new common sense’ – it’s effectively crowded out alternate modes of organisation, and in a sense its new hegemony is its own justification. But it doesn’t at all follow that it can perform the same feats in reshaping society at large. Its track record here is – to say the least – spotty. I was living in Los Angeles during the Occupy protests; the movement there was effectively torn apart by the question of whether it was ok to smoke weed in the camp. Nobody could make a decision, and direct democracy responded extremely poorly to actual conflict. When the cops came, resistance was minimal. In the Middle East, spontaneous and horizontal democratic movements were quickly brutalised by better-organised takfiri formations. In Brazil, the 2013 protest movement sparked by hikes in public transportation fares quickly found itself populated by the extreme right, which has gone on to capture much of the state. (The mayor of Sao Paolo at the time, Fernando Haddad, was the losing candidate to Bolsonaro in this year’s election.) Leftists within the movement described being physically attacked by men performing Nazi salutes and chanting the slogan ‘the people united don’t need a party.’ And by contrast, one of the most effective European social movements in the last decade, Momentum, is characterised by its explicit ideological goals, hierarchical structure, and formal leadership.
Suppose for a moment that the horizontal non-politics displayed by the gilets jaunes aren’t born out of a radical commitment to democracy and multiplicity – where else might they have come from? What else might they be producing, if not an anarchist utopia? What else lingered around the fringes of the subculture from the 1960s onwards, before suddenly taking over the world in the last few decades? What permeates our subjectivities? What allows for a broad and interminable series of articulations so long as they’re conditioned by certain invisible limits? What flattens structures, disperses individuals, and collates by affinities? What really does perspectivise, allowing us only a peephole-view of the world rather than anything approaching totality? What if all these radical new social movements were not, in fact, the awakening of a powerful new democratic instinct, but the residue left on political life by Facebook?
It’s not gone unnoticed that the gilets jaunes have their origins in social media, but the response has been, quite predictably, to fret over the medium’s susceptibility to fake news. This is a familiar tic: anxieties over these new technologies are displaced onto one particular aspect of them. The problem is the fake news, the trolls, the harvesting of our personal data, the government surveillance – the way other people are misusing the platform. Any more generalised critique is easily derided: phones bad; live in the moment; old man yells at cloud. You may as well be a medieval monk, railing against moveable type. (It’s not as if printing almost immediately ushered Europe into thirty years of utterly ruinous warfare.) But aside from facilitating the largest upwards transfer of wealth in human history, the digital revolution really has made people measurably more miserable and more isolated. A weapon: against sociality, and against socialism. It’s strange that Graeber – who in his work as an anthropologist reminds us that supposedly ‘flat,’ non-hierarchical societies are in fact embedded in cosmic hierarchies of ‘metapersonal powers’ – should be so willing to take the supposed horizontalism of these movements at face value. In fact, it’s nothing of the sort; this flatness is not prefigurative, but the product of predatory systems that find us easier to hunt on an open plain. This is simply not a fruitful ground on which to base our politics. It shouldn’t be surprising that organisational forms that externalise these profoundly alienating technologies tend to fall victim to the pathologies of discourse on the internet: capture by reactionary elements, or collapse into squabbling, power-politics, and incoherence.
This is not, in any sense, a critique of those who’ve joined the protests in France; it’s a critique of the slowly ossifying dogmas that seem poised to let them down. When people are suffering from the indignity of low wages and no prospects, when the future is crumbling in front of them, it’s not enough to claim that their aspirations have already been realised, because they’re organising without a leader. It’s certainly no help to suggest that the limitations of a movement are its virtues, or that they’re the best the working classes can hope for, given its situation. I would like the aspirations that power the gilets jaunes to be realised. But if that’s to happen, the left needs to do more than to passively sit by and applaud. It needs to have the courage to help.
Sam Kriss is a writer and dilettante surviving in London. He blogs at Idiot Joy Showland[book-strip index="1" style="display"]