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The Politics of Disaster: Frédéric Gros

In an new preface from Disobey!, Frédéric Gros observes the gilet jaunes and proposes a new way of thinking about protest, and government's response to it.

13 May 2020

The Politics of Disaster: Frédéric Gros

I wrote the preface to the first edition of Disobey! in May 2017. I regretted at that time a general passivity, a lack of reaction to the great scandals of the world: abysmal social inequalities, horrific degradation of the planet, production of wealth through debt, deliberate strangulation of future generations, etc. I regretted that I had not been able to react to these scandals. To this should have been added the tragedy of migrants, and everything that makes the state of the world a disgrace in these first decades of the twenty-first century.

The past year has completely demolished this disenchanted, apathetic and almost indifferent attitude. It has seen the emergence, and indeed the continuation, of a large-scale protest movement, that of the gilets jaunes, which has found a rhythm and forms of ritualization, a culture that has kept it going. Sometimes backed up by parallel movements of civil disobedience around the climate or the situation of migrants and illegals, it was, from the outset, tremendously heterogeneous – in its socio-geographical components, its demands, its modes of action (occupations of roundabouts, gatherings every Saturday in large cities, etc.).

A common theme has nevertheless emerged, on a negative basis: what could be called its ‘anti-political’ character. I use this barbaric term to avoid that of ‘apolitical’, regularly applied to the protesters of winter 2018, as if their demands had been only economic (rejection of new taxes) and they had been unconcerned throughout with any political perspective. On the contrary, they expressed, along with a disavowal of traditional party politics, the demand for a democratic re-foundation. The question ‘how do we want to be governed?’, to use Foucault’s expression,[1] was central. Hence the demand, for example, for referendums on citizens’ initiative, and, beyond that, the clearly expressed rejection of the way the world currently functions (economic mechanisms of production/distribution/transmission of wealth, political processes of public decision-making).

For thirty weeks, these massive protests worried the authorities, swamped the live news channels and astounded analysts, who could not make head or tail of it and lost the ability to anticipate.

Above all, the protests provoked a large-scale police response, whose brutality was repeatedly justified by the intensity of the violence it confronted – and provoked. Without denying the significant challenge faced by the police forces and the presence of fans of violence in the demonstrations, the fact remains that the government chose to authorize disproportionate brutality (notably the large-scale use of plastic bullets and sting-ball grenades), accompanying this with systematic, terminological and factual denial (repeated and deliberate refusal to speak of ‘police violence’ or ‘repression’). They will have to answer for this in the long term, as these tactical choices, which set a precedent, risk trivializing deviant behaviour by law enforcement agencies and fostering a culture of impunity.

The gilets jaunes movement also met with widespread ideological discrediting by media elites. It was suspected early on of fuelling political extremism (there was talk of ‘fascist overtones’, a ‘red-brown alliance’, ‘national-populism’), being basically unrepresentative, and causing economic and social disaster (astronomical cost of the damage, drastic impoverishment of traders deprived of Saturday’s turnover, etc.) – as if a pre-existing disaster was not precisely the cause of these uprisings. It was said that the movement was leading France into economic, moral, political and civilizational bankruptcy. This discrediting was the work of a bloc (intellectuals, economists, politicians, journalists, columnists) united around horrified condemnation of the violence that regularly attended these demonstrations. Their indictments were so homogenous that they could only be seen as emanating from a caste that was desperate. Above all, they blocked out in advance the question of a non-instrumental violence to which the criterion of legitimate versus illegitimate cannot even be applied, violence that one can simply regret without condemning it – not because one approves of it but because the question of its condemnation is meaningless. Unfortunately, the contemporary way of thinking, which is vindictive and fundamentally uncritical, can only see refusal to condemn as approval (pretending to believe that to understand is to excuse).

The most remarkable thing remains that, faced with this double obstacle of repression and discrediting, the movement could hold out for so long, demonstrating the presence of a genuine groundswell of social anger.

What now, one might say? What was the use of this revolt, what results has it brought? The meagre measures announced in December 2018 and April 2019 have certainly not been on a par with the social upheaval. Was the movement abortive, with no future for lack of solid political representation? A fever attack that has now subsided? A manifest and crushing failure of the convergence of struggles (inequality, climate, migration)?

In The Contest of Faculties (1798),[2] where he had in mind the French example (the storming of the Bastille, the Terror, Bonaparte), Kant put forward the thesis that a revolution basically always succeeds. This success, however, did not consist in the extent of the remedies provided for the suffering that provoked it, but in the collective ‘enthusiasm’ that was aroused for a time, stemming from the rediscovery by a people, in fervour, emotion and anger, of its capacity to decide its own destiny and its essential ability to live freely and with dignity. An ability and capacity perpetually denied by history, but which the moment of suspension produced by movements of struggle leads us to rediscover as the unspoiled youth of humanity.

Certainly, with the gilets jaunes, we have seen the emergence of new dynamics of contestation essentially maintained by social networks, which despite being open to manipulation and highly uncontrollable, are sustained by a horizontal dynamic that rejects any stable or unitary representation and escapes the influence of intermediate bodies.

But we have also seen, in response, the emergence of new, unexpected and shocking forms of governmentality. I use here the term ‘governmentality’, which I borrow from Foucault, because the classical terms of political thought (rule of law, republic, democracy, liberalism, authoritarian regime, totalitarianism...) are no longer an adequate reading grid, and altering them with adjectives – for example, by speaking of ‘authoritarian democracy’, ‘repressive republic’, ‘permanent state of emergency’ – does not give a proper glimpse of contemporary political novelty. Nor is it more enlightened to brandish the category of ‘populism’, which expresses above all a value judgement.

In the major ‘developed’ countries, we are witnessing the emergence of a governmentality of catastrophe, and it is in this perspective that we should understand the contemporary political management of disobedience. What does it mean to govern ‘by catastrophe’? The term has three distinct aspects.

First, catastrophe is a spectre that is waved: any sustained protest is immediately accused of bringing social chaos, leading to civil war. Violence is then over-represented in the media, to make clear that the logical conclusion of disobedience is collapse.

Of course, this lever of fear is classic; the novelty is that it is based on a second meaning of catastrophe, this time seen as an inescapable horizon. Non-absorbable financial cataclysm, irreversible climatic disaster: the inexorable disaster is denied – i.e. simultaneously acknowledged, rejected and postponed. This irrefragable aspect of catastrophe leads politicians to govern by a complex game of public reassurance and secret panic, emergency and indifference – above all, submerging themselves in the ‘very short term’ as a refuge.

Finally, the third sense of catastrophe is the one Walter Benjamin used in his Arcades Project: catastrophe, he wrote, is that everything starts all over again and goes on as before. Behind the rebuilt facades and resounding assertions that this time lessons will be learned from past tragedies or mistakes, the crushing weight of greed and stupidity makes history a rut into which humanity constantly falls back.

It is the intertwining of these three aspects of catastrophe (spectre, denial, repetition) that structures contemporary governmentality.

Faced with this, current movements of disobedience give rise to a fourth symbolic matrix: catastrophe as the return of an origin, rehearsal for what has never existed (and therefore the momentary suspension of the perpetual and accursed time that forms the basso continuo of history, i.e. the shameless exploitation of the most fragile): the political contract as a sharing of rights and a culture of solidarity, the organization of living together, the harmonious cohesion of differences – divine weaving, as Plato said in The Statesman.

What is most perilous for the powers that be in collective forms of disobedience, beyond their confusions and excesses, their inevitable impurity, is that they give a brief taste of this sense of politics as a shared adventure, a collective redefinition of the common good.

This is what ‘cannot be forgotten’, as Kant wrote about revolution.

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Translated by David Fernbach

[1] See Michel Foucault, ‘What is Critique’, in James Schmidt (ed.), What is Enlightenment?, Berkeley, 1996.

[2] Immanuel Kant, ‘The Contest of Faculties’, in H. S. Reiss (ed.), Political Writings, Cambridge 1991.

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