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Alain Badiou: Lessons of the ‘Yellow Vests’ Movement

As the Yellow Vests protests enter their sixth month, philosopher Alain Badiou considers the meaning of the movement: "Once the hyperbole and bluster are over, the yellow vest movement can be very useful in the future, as Marx put it: from the standpoint of its future."

Alain Badiou21 May 2019

Alain Badiou: Lessons of the ‘Yellow Vests’ Movement

What are we to think – what we call thinking, not running around barking – of the violent, abiding contradiction between the yellow vests movement and the state authorities led by little President Macron?

At the last round of the Presidential elections, I made it clear that I will never rally either (of course) to Marine Le Pen, captain of the parliamentary extreme right, or to Macron, who was mounting what I have called a ‘democratic coup d’état’ in the pseudo-reformist service of big capital.

Today, there is obviously nothing in my judgement of Macron I would want to change: I despise him unreservedly. But what to make of the yellow vests movement? I must confess that when it started last year I could find nothing in it – in terms of its make-up, claims or practices – that is politically innovative or progressive.

That there are numerous reasons for this revolt, and that the movement may therefore be regarded as legitimate, is something I grant without hesitation. I am aware of the depopulation of rural areas, the sad silence of abandoned streets in small and even medium-sized towns; the continuous removal for masses of people of public services, which are gradually being privatized: health centres, hospitals, schools, post offices, train stations, telephones. I know that pauperization, initially creeping and then accelerated, is affecting sections of the population that forty years ago still enjoyed almost continually increasing spending power. I am well aware that material existence is becoming a headache for whole families, especially for many women, who are highly active in the yellow vests movement.

In short, in France there is a very high level of discontent on the part of what we might call the labouring part of the middle class, provincial in the main and with a modest income. The yellow vests movement is a significant representation of this discontent in the form of active, vehement revolt.

For those willing to attend to them, the historico-economic reasons for this uprising are perfectly clear. Moreover, they explain why the yellow vests date the onset of their woes to forty years ago: crudely, the 1980s, which marked the onset of a long capitalist-oligarchical counter-revolution, incorrectly dubbed ‘neo-liberal’ when it is liberal full stop. Which means: a return to the savagery of nineteenth-century capitalism. This counter-revolution occurred in response to the ten ‘red years’ – roughly 1965–75 – whose French epicentre was May 68 and whose global epicentre was the Cultural Revolution in China.  But it was considerably accelerated by the collapse of the global enterprise of communism in the USSR and then China: nothing on a world scale now opposed capitalism and its profiteers, in particular the trans-national oligarchy of billionaires, wielding unlimited power.

Of course, the French bourgeoisie followed the counter-revolutionary movement. It was even an intellectual and political capital of it, with the antics of the ‘new philosophers’, who ensured that the communist Idea was everywhere pursued as not merely false but criminal. Numerous intellectuals, renegades from May 68 and Maoism, were conscientious guard dogs of the bourgeois and liberal counter-revolution, under such fetishistic, inoffensive etiquettes as ‘liberty’, ‘democracy’ or ‘our republic’.

Meanwhile, from the 1980s to the present France’s situation has gradually deteriorated. This country is no longer what it was during the trente glorieuses of post-war reconstruction. France is no longer a strong world power, a conquering imperialism. Today, it is frequently compared to Italy or even Greece. Competition is causing it to fall back everywhere; its colonial rent is on its last legs and requires innumerably military operations in Africa, which are costly and uncertain, to maintain it. In addition, as the cost of working-class labour power is much lower in Asia, for example, large factories are gradually being relocated abroad. This massive deindustrialization entails a sort of social degradation extending from whole regions, such as Lorraine and its steelmaking or the North of textile factories and coal mines, to the Parisian suburbs, abandoned to property speculation on the countless wastelands left behind by ruined industries.

The consequence of all this is that the French bourgeoisie – its dominant oligarchy, the shareholders of the CAC 40 – can no longer maintain a politically servile middle class on the same footing as before, notably before the 2008 crisis. That middle class was an almost constant historical support of the electoral pre-eminence of the various right wings – a pre-eminence directed against the organized workers of the great industrial concentrations, tempted by communism between the 1920s and the 1980s and 90s. Hence the current uprising by a significant popular section of this middle class, which feels it has been abandoned, against Macron, who is the agent of local capitalist ‘modernization’ – meaning: tightening the screw everywhere, economizing, imposing austerity, privatizing without any of the consideration that still existed thirty years ago for middle-class comfort in exchange for their consent to the dominant system.

The yellow vests, pleading their all too real pauperization, want to be paid a high price for this consent once again. But this is absurd precisely because Macronism results from the fact that the oligarchy, firstly, has had less need of middle-class support, which was expensive to finance, since the communist danger disappeared; and secondly, no longer has the resources to pay for an electoral domestic staff on the same scale.  And it therefore has to shift, under the cover of ‘indispensable reforms’, towards an authoritarian politics: a new form of state power will serve as a support for lucrative ‘austerity’, extended from the popular class of the unemployed and workers to the lower strata of the middle class. And this for the benefit for the real masters of this world – namely, the principal shareholders of the major groups in industry, commerce, raw materials, transport and communications.

In the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, Marx had already examined this kind of conjuncture and referred, in essence accurately, to what are today’s yellow vests. He wrote this: ‘The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative.  Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.’

They strive all the more bitterly today because the French bourgeoisie is no longer in a position, given the turn taken by globalized capitalism, to maintain, let alone increase, their spending power. It is true that the yellow vests ‘fight against the bourgeoisie’, as Marx puts it. But they do so to restore an old, outdated order, not to invent a new social and political order, whose names have been ‘socialism’ or, above all, ‘communism’ since the nineteenth century. For close on two centuries anything that was not more or less defined in accordance with a revolutionary orientation was quite rightly regarded as pertaining to capitalist reaction. In politics, there are only two main roads. We must absolutely return to this conviction: two ways in politics, only two, and never a ‘democratic’ dusting of pseudo-tendencies under the leadership of a self-proclaimed ‘liberal’ oligarchy.

These general considerations enable us to revert to the concrete characteristics of the yellow vest movement.  Its spontaneous characteristics so to speak – those not attributable to interventions external to the main current of the uprising – are indeed ‘reactionary’ as Marx puts it, but in a more modern sense: we might term the movement’s subjectivity a popular individualism mobilizing personal anger at the new forms of servitude imposed by the dictatorship of Capital today.

That is why it is wrong to say, as do some, that the yellow vest movement is intrinsically fascist. No: fascism invariably organizes identitarian, national or racist themes in a highly disciplined, even militarized, way.  In the present rising, which is unorganized – as the urban middle class always is – and, by dint of this, individualistic, there are people of all sorts, all occupations, who often sincerely think of themselves as democrats, who appeal to the laws of the Republic – which in France today costs nothing. In truth, among the great majority of them, specifically political convictions are fluid. But considering the movement – once again as it presents itself in its initial ‘purity’ – on the basis of its rare collective aspects, slogans, repeated statements, I find nothing in it that speaks to me, interests me, mobilizes me. Their declarations, their perilous disorganization, their forms of actions, their deliberate lack of general thinking and strategic vision – all this precludes political creativity. I am certainly not won over by their hostility to any embodied leadership, their obsessive fear of centralization, of unified collectives – a fear that confuses, as do all contemporary reactionaries, democracy and individualism.  None of this is likely to pit against the utterly odious, despicable Macron a force that is progressive, innovative and victorious in the long run.

I know that right-wing opponents of the movement, particularly among renegade intellectuals, ex-revolutionaries who became champions of police powers once the oligarchy and the state guaranteed them platforms for their liberal waffle, accuse the ‘yellow vest’ uprising of anti-Semitism or homophobia, or of being a ‘threat to our Republic’. I also know that, if there are traces of all that, they are the result not of a shared belief, but of the presence, the active infiltration, of the extreme right in a movement so disorganized that it is vulnerable to every conceivable kind of manipulation. Ultimately, though, let’s not bury our heads in the sand: various indications, particularly of clear traces of short-term nationalism, latent hostility to intellectuals, demagogic ‘democratism’ in the crypto-fascist style of ‘the people against the elites’, and discursive confusion, should prompt anyone to be cautious about an unduly general assessment of what is happening today. Let us agree that with ‘social network’ gossip replacing objective information for the majority of yellow vests, the upshot is that ludicrous conspiracy theory impulses circulate throughout the movement.

An old adage states that ‘not everything that moves ahead is red’ [tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge]. And for now, there is no sign of red in the yellow vest movement, which moves all right. Aside from yellow, I see only the tricolour, which is always rather suspect in my eyes.

Obviously, ultra-leftists, antifas, the awakened sleepers of Nuit debout, and those always on the look-out for a ‘movement’ to get their teeth into, the braggarts of ‘the coming insurrection’, celebrate the democratic (in fact individualistic and short-term) declarations, introduce the cult of decentralized assemblies, and imagine re-running the capture of the Bastille sometime soon. But this congenial carnival cannot impress me. For the last ten years or more, it has everywhere led to terrible defeats, for which various peoples have paid very dearly.  In effect, the ‘movements’ of the recent historical sequence – from Egypt and the ‘Arab Spring’ to Occupy Wall Street, from the latter to the Turkey of the main squares, from that Turkey to the Greece of riots, from Greece to indignados of all stripes, from indignados to Nuit debout, from Nuit debout to Yellow Vests, and many more – seem very ignorant of the real, implacable laws governing the world today. Once the intoxicating movements and rallies, the occupations of all sorts, are over, they are amazed that the match is so hard, that they always lose, that the opponent has even been consolidated in the process. But the truth is that they have not even represented the start of a real antagonism to contemporary capitalism, a different way universal in scope. 

Nothing is more important at present than to bear in mind the lessons of this sequence of ‘movements’, including the yellow vests. They can be encapsulated in a single maxim:

A movement whose uniqueness is strictly negative will either fail, most often creating a worse situation than that obtaining when it emerged; or it will have to divide into two on the basis of the creative irruption within it of an affirmative political proposal genuinely antagonistic towards the dominant order – a proposal supported by a disciplined organization.

All the movements of recent years, whatever their location and longevity, have followed a practically similar and, in truth, catastrophic trajectory:
-    Initial unity constructed strictly against the current government. This is what might be called the ‘clear off’ moment, from ‘clear off Mubarak’ to ‘get stuck into Macron’.
-    Unity maintained by a supplementary slogan that is itself exclusively negative, following a period of anarchic brawling, when duration begins to weigh on mass action – a slogan like ‘down with repression’ or ‘down with police violence’. In the absence of any real political content, the movement identifies itself solely with its injuries.
-    Unity undone by electoral procedures, when part of the movement decides to participate in them; another non-, without any real political content supporting either a positive response or a negative one. As I write, voting projections are restoring Macron to his score prior to the yellow vests and put the total of the right and extreme right at more than 60 per cent, with the only hope of a defunct left – France Insoumise – on 7 per cent.
-    Hence the arrival in power, via elections, of something worse than before. Either the existing coalition wins them, overwhelmingly (as was the case in May 68 in France); or a new ‘formula’ that is in fact alien to the movement, and far from desirable, is victorious (in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and then the army with el-Sisi; in Turkey, Erdogan); or verbal leftists are elected but immediately capitulate on the substantive issues (Syriza in Greece); or the extreme right is victorious on its own (the case of Trump in the USA); or a group originating in the movement joins up with the extreme right to get a slice of the government cake (the Italian case, with the alliance between the Five Star Movement and the quasi-fascists of the Northern League). We may note that the last scenario is possible in France if an alliance between an organization supposedly originating in the ‘yellow vests’ and Marine Le Pen’s electoral sect ends up working.

All this is because negative unity is incapable of proposing a politics and will therefore ultimately be crushed in the battle it joins. But to propose something beyond negation, we need to identify the enemy and know what it means to genuinely do something different from it, absolutely different. At a minimum this involves real knowledge of contemporary capitalism globally, of the descendent position in it occupied by France, of solutions of a communist kind as regards property, the family (inheritance) and the state, of immediate measures setting these solutions in train, and also an accord, derived from a historical balance sheet, of the forms of organization conducive to those imperatives.

To acquit all this, only an organization resuscitated on new bases can rally a section of the routed middle classes in the future. It is then possible, as Marx wrote, for the middle class to be ‘revolutionary … in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat[;] they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.’

Here we have a precious indication, authorizing a partially positive conclusion, on a key point. A potential left of the yellow vests movement, a very interesting minority, doubtless exists: the one composed of those of its activists who discover that it is necessary to conceive their cause in the future, not the present, and, in the name of that future, coalesce around something other than static demands on purchasing power, taxes or reform of the parliamentary constitution.

We might then say that this minority can form part of the genuine people, the people in the sense that it is the bearer of a stable political conviction, embodying a way that is genuinely antagonistic to the liberal counter-revolution.

Naturally, without the massive incorporation of the new proletarians, the yellow vests cannot as such represent ‘the people’. That would be to reduce this people to nostalgia on the part of the most deprived section of the middle class for its ruined social status. To be ‘the people’ in politics today, the mobilized crowd must include a strong central contingent of the nomadic proletariat of our suburbs – a proletariat from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. It must display clear signs of rupture with the dominant order.  Firstly, in visible signs, such as the red flag instead of the tricolour. Next in what is said, like tracts and banners bearing injunctions and assertions antagonistic to that order. And then in the minimal demands it must advance – for example, a complete halt to privatizations and the cancellation of all those undertaken since the mid-1980s. Its main idea must be collective control of all the means of production, the whole banking apparatus, and all public services (health, education, transport, education). In short, in order to exist, the political people cannot make do with assembling some thousands of malcontents, even (as I believe) one hundred thousand, and demanding of a state – declared, and rightly so, to be detestable – that it condescend to ‘consider’ you, organize referendums (on what?) for you, maintain local services, and slightly increase your spending power while reducing your taxes.

Once the hyperbole and bluster are over, the yellow vest movement can be very useful in the future, as Marx put it: from the standpoint of its future. If we look to the minority of activists in the movement who, by dint of uniting, acting and speaking, have understood, intuitively as it were, that they must acquire an overview, globally and nationally, of the true source of their misfortune – namely, the liberal counter-revolution; and who consequently are ready to participate in the next steps in constructing a force of a new kind, then these yellow vests, thinking from the standpoint of their future, will doubtless contribute to the existence of a political people. That is why we must speak to them and, if they agree, organize meetings with them where the first principles will be established of what might be called – what, in order to be clear, must be called – communism, yes, a new communism, even if the word has become both cursed and obscure over the last thirty years. As experience has shown, rejection of this word gave the signal for an unprecedented political regression, the very one against which, without being wholly aware of it, all the ‘movements’ of recent years have rebelled, including what is best in the ‘yellow vests’: those activists who hope for a new world.

To start off with, these new activists will support something I believe to be indispensable: creating, wherever possible, from large suburbs to depopulated small towns, schools where the laws of Capital, and what it means to fight against them in the name of a completely different political orientation, are taught and discussed clearly. If, going beyond the episode of ‘yellow vests versus white Macron’, but carried forward by what was best in the future about that episode, such a network of red political schools could see the light of day, the movement, through its indirect power to arouse, would prove to have been genuinely important.

Translated by Gregory Elliott