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“A people’s revolt against the king. Something utterly French.” An Interview with Toni Negri

Macron has always presented himself as beyond traditional political categories. In this interview with the Huffington Post, Toni Negri argues that the gilets jaunes movement, which can be characterised as neither Left nor Right, has now challenged Macron on his own representational ground, and forced centrist populism into its first great crisis. 

Toni Negri, Angela Mauro18 December 2018

“A people’s revolt against the king. Something utterly French.” An Interview with Toni Negri

Put in this way, the issue seems both simple and complex, but certainly alarming. From the French capital, his home for many years, Toni Negri is trying to make sense of the protests that have been rocking the country for weeks. The gilets jaunes protests are not easy to read, even for Negri, who certainly knows a thing or two about workers’ and student movements. Because they represent a new phenomenon, Negri argues, “this is not ’68, which was too much of its century. This is something different, and most importantly, it is neither of the Left nor the Right: it is against Macron, who has destroyed all intermediary bodies and finds himself with no possibility of mediation and not even the slightest chance to make a Gaullist appeal.” Negri’s reading makes recourse to grandiose historical comparisons, to de Gaulle’s celebrated appeal to the “France liberated from the Nazis” in 1940, intended to underline the gravity of the situation. The fact that Macron has no room to manoeuvre, continues Negri, “is a very serious problem, a disaster that should pose questions for the architects of centrist populism… “

Angela Mauro: In a reflection published on the blog you speak about insurrection. Is this what we are dealing with?

Toni Negri: The word insurrection implies success, here the phenomenon is still developing. We can certainly say that we are dealing with a people’s revolt against the king, the sovereign, to put an end to the people’s misery. It is something utterly French. But if the sovereign does not agree you can also take him to the guillotine: this is how the nature of the relationship.

AM: In what sense?

TN: In the sense that it is not only a revolt: it is a radical revolt. You can see that in the pickets taking place across the country, it is not confined to the city. There are pickets in the middle of the countryside, pickets have been held everywhere to mark the presence of the gilets jaunes,their behaviour seems almost mechanical. They will not be stopped.

AM: Macron has backed down over the increase in petrol taxes, the issue that sparked the protests in mid-November. Now he has even eliminated the taxes. Is this not an adequate solution?

TN: No. It is no longer enough. If he had done it after the first Saturday of protests, the 17th November, perhaps the situation could have been resolved, perhaps… But we can be sure that it is no longer just about the petrol tax. My impression is that the protest’s demands have accumulated to become a demand for fiscal justice and even justice in other senses: it is about the cost of living. This is why this move by Macron has failed to quell the revolt.

AM: Why has this happened and why has it happened in France?

TN: Because, at the beginning of his ascent to power, Macron had picked up on this discontent and had made it the basis of his success. This now means that the revolt is against him: he had presented himself as the “sovereign” and he won, he was able to impose his rule. Now what is happening is that Macron’s promise is being overturned: Macron has always presented himself as beyond Left and Right, he has sought to manoeuvre himself on a different terrain of representation, yet he is now confronted with movements that express themselves according to the same guidelines. It is, in short, a failure of centrist populism, populism’s first great crisis.

AM: At the beginning the gilets jaunes were seen as mainly a right-wing movement. Is this the case?

TN: Right and Left have been erased, they do not exist anymore, and they do not exist among the gilets jaunes. The South of France is full of blockades. Initially, they were spoken about as right-wing blockades, “they’re hunting types”, people said here in France. In only a few days, however, a whole variety of different categories of people had gathered around these blockades: pensioners, workers, people living in poverty posing the problem of inequality. And it is interesting that, at least until now, they have not been speaking about immigration, it does not figure among their demands. As such, the gilets jaunes’ protest presents itself as culturally closed, the central themes being focused on the cost of living, it is almost parochial. There is certainly a risk that it could drift to the right, but for now we cannot simply say that it is a right-wing protest.

AM: Are there differences between the revolt of the gilets jaunes in the provinces and the protest in the city?

TN: Yes, but the protests are everywhere, even though you perhaps won’t necessarily see gilets jaunes in the city. Yesterday, for example, students occupied one of the buildings of the Sorbonne, there are high-school students on strike, and a truck drivers’ strike has been called for Sunday. And then we are beginning to hear rumours that the security forces will not hold up….

AM: Is it possible that they will join the protests?

TN: I am not saying that, but there have been incidents of insubordination. It is not difficult to imagine when you think that the average gendarme lives in conditions that are clearly reflected in the gilets jaunes’ protests…

AM: Since you mention the truck drivers’ strike, in Italy many people are comparing this French revolt to the phenomenon of the so-calledforconithe protest of the Italian truck-drivers of some years ago…[1]

TN: That has nothing to do with the gilets jaunes. The forconi movement was a Sicilian and Turinese phenomenon, there are no similarities whatsoever. Indeed, I see more similarities with the No Tav movement in the Susa valley in terms of the level of radicality…

AM: With the old working class in crisis and precarity having become the norm, is this perhaps what we need to prepare for: revolts that cannot be defined as Left or Right, a general anger that projects our digital age backwards rather than forwards, to pre-19th century historical phases and to, I would say, “primitive” protests, far removed from the intellectual elaboration of ’68.

TN: I do not believe that Right and Left are finished. The parties of the Right and the Left are finished. The mechanisms of representation have been blocked up. The class struggle continues to be fundamental, even if it sometimes manifests itself in spurious ways. In France, it sometimes seems like a repetition of the revolution… of 1789, but it is only an illusion…

AM: Is this the end for Macron?

TN: I don’t know, we need to wait and see what happens. For sure he has everyone against him. Besides, this is not ’68, which was too much of its century.This is something different, and most importantly it is neither of the Left nor the Right: it is against Macron, who has destroyed all intermediary bodies and finds himself with no possibility of mediation and not even the slightest chance to make a Gaullist appeal. It is a very serious problem, a disaster that should pose serious questions for the architects of centrist populism…

AM: I imagine that alarm bells should be ringing for those in Italy who hope to follow Macron’s example, I refer here to Renzi…. But if we turn to Italy: we have no gilets jaunes. Will we ever have them?

TN: Italy is still an open case: the PD is about to split, the movement around Renzi that is breaking away has fallen from grace. Aside from this, I do not know whether there is a risk of an Italian gilets jaunesmovement: it depends on what will happen with this unnatural alliance between the League and the 5 Star Movement. I have always viewed the 5 Star Movement as a derivative of multitudinous behaviour. And it is true that they are now having to deal with growing discontent, precisely because of their alliance with the League. But it all depends on what happens with this government, which is, moreover, completely isolated within Europe, it is quite incredible…

[1] The “pitchforks” movement, a movement began by agricultural business owners in Sicily then extended to include truck drivers across the country. The movement held protests and blockades during the winter of 2011/2012, and a nation-wide strike on road-freight that also involved some petrol stations. The movement declared itself non-partisan, though in reality both the far-Right and organised crime played a role.

This article was originally published in the Italian edition of Huffington Post. It has been translated from Italian by Bethan Bowett.