Saturday 15 December 2018

Hurrah for the Yellow Shirts?

Far be it for someone so humble to offer advice to the exalted Emmanuel Macron, but faced with a revolt in which one's haughty, arrogant style of leadership is one factor in the galaxy of grievances, perhaps appearing on television behind a gold table in a room shiny with this most wretched of metals to assure the populace that you're "listening" wasn't the best idea. Nor was the related announcement that his "concessions" would be funded by public spending cuts elsewhere. And to think a good chunk of professional politicians in this country really rate this deeply mediocre man.

Macron is yesterday's man, and has from the outset of his presidency shown British politics its past, not its future. But what to make of the Gilets Jaunes movement that has grown up in revolt under his watch? We've seen the violence, the vandalism, and the reports of racist and homophobic attacks. Apart from being what they're against, what are the Gilets Jaunes for? Matters aren't helped by this unofficial list of demands doing the rounds. Some of it, from a left wing point of view, is entirely supportable. Others wouldn't be out of place in a Le Pen speech. What is this movement, then. Should the left be intervening and moulding it, or is it a case of our French counterparts crossing their arms and forswearing it as an abomination?

Well, that ship has sailed. The Gilets Jaunes won't pass the political hygiene tests set for it by sundry centrists here, but as Gabriel points out the left are involved and taking part in increasing numbers. However, because the movement doesn't fit certain people's pre-ordained categories we have seen attempts to politically excommunicate it from the terrain of politics altogether. For instance, this foolishness from Buzzfeed argues the Gilets Jaunes are a "beast born entirely from Facebook". Apparently, tweeks to the company's algorithms designed to de-prioritise fake news and allow material from "trusted local sources" a higher ranking in one's newsfeeds has privileged local news, allowing the movement to emerge online from the ground up and appearing as if from nowhere from the metropolitan point of view. This isn't anything new as protest movements have utilised the internet for as long as the internet has been around, but to claim it's a Facebook phenomenon is absurd. Does the author not know anything about France?

An adjacent explanation is that the movement is a creature of the Kremlin. Of course it is. If in doubt, always blame the Russians. Because the movement was sparked off by protests against a fuel tax, which would coincidentally diminish the money coming in to Putin's petrochemical kleptocracy, the former could only be an effect of the machinations of the latter. No other explanation makes sense. It's also anti-Macron, just like Putin! The Gilets Jaunes hold the French mainstream media in contempt, just like Putin! And it communicates memes based on fake news, just like ... You get the picture. It's almost as if there is a large, influential section of elite opinion who refuse to believe there is anything wrong with the world and prefer the delusion of Russki conspiracy or the overweening power of social media to confronting their own obsolescence.

The truth, sociologically and politically speaking, is the yellow vests are not an exotic movement and follows the well understood path of mobilisation of social movements. To follow the approach defended and tweaked in the old PhD thesis, these can be boiled down to structural conduciveness, strain, growth and spread of generalised belief, precipitating factors, the mobilisation of resources for action, and the role of the authorities - the operation of social control. Translated from the jargon of 1960s functionalist sociology, what this means in this instance are the contradictions and tensions of French society have incubated a series of grievances over a long period. Strain in this instance is located in the centralisation of the French state, the consequent economic centralisation, poor public transport by road, flat-lining living standards, and the political and cultural disinterest those at the centre have in provincial and small town France. Into this situation successive government have tossed austerity grenades exacerbating the situation further.

For his part, Macron isn't responsible for the strains. But as widely predicted by everyone with an eye on political reality, he was never going to do anything to resolve them and would, as per his predecessors, exacerbate them. And so he has. His short, dismal turn at the top has hardly been the Jupiterian triumph he imagined. He provoked mass strike action by cutting public sector pensions, affected a distant, high-handed style of leadership, and then arrogantly introduced his fuel tax, knowing full well it would do little to curb carbon emissions - people have to drive to get around, regardless. This was the grievance, the straw that did for the proverbial camel and ignited the simmering anger around the country. Facebook and social media played its role by enabling the the rapid facilitation of connections between like-minded people and the sharing of key ideas. This would have happened without it being there because, well, French history, but in this instance online networks acted as an information cyclotron that accelerated messaging and experiences, condensing into local, semi-permanent actions at speed. The characteristic indifference of Macron to local protests and blockades afforded a clear field for the emergent movement to get its message across further, and the actions of the authorities - standoffish last Saturday, hands on this - have catalysed the movement further. Mass arrests have done nothing to dampen it down.

So much for a broad brush strokes analysis of the Gilets Jaunes' mobilisation, but what of the movement's character. Unfortunately, some have looked upon it and determined it to be the French equivalent of gammon at riot, or a bunch of fascists, the occasional presence of FN voters on local mobilisations, and the aforementioned confused, anti-globalist programme listing the movement's unofficial demands. Others are discombobulated by what you might call the extreme Deleuzism of sections of the movement. It was widely reported that the dozen or so people put forward to "represent" the Gilets Jaunes in negotiation with the authorities had to pull out after death threats apparently from within the movement. The argument goes as soon as you set up representatives, it quickly evolves into another authority structure that bears down, limits, and excludes. Yet it's less the case tens of thousand hi vis protesters have cuddled up with Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, and more an expression of their lived experience. As people on the periphery, a sense of being ignored and taken for granted by politicians from the left and right, and seeing other institutions of civil society limited in their struggles against whoever is in government feeds a visceral fuck 'em attitude. They have no skin in the game because the game doesn't recognise them, so why not blow it up?

An entirely understandable response then. However, apart from the anti-representation dynamic the confused and contradictory ideas on show, including the participation of the far right and the far left, is typical of a movement in formation. It might be news to the wiseacres who populate political science and journalism, but movements do not pop into existence fully formed. When something takes off it moves and evolves depending on the social stuff it draws in, and the extent to which its leading figures have control over the movement. Analysis that has moved beyond impressionism and offence at the defacement of the Arc de Triomphe shows it has pulled in workers, farmers, the petit bourgeois. Apart from geography, in the initial phase of mobilisation age was a common factor. i.e. It presented as a movement of older people, but the increasing participation of the young, especially the school and college kids who've come out in support, is a positive sign that this won't evolve into an adjunct of Le Penism. Also potentially encouraging is the movement calls into question the social basis of modern France. In other words, from the outset, despite its confusion it is explicitly political. Again, no guarantee of a progressive outcome but this is the terrain where the left have a worked out critique and programme. Unfortunately, so do the far right. One thing can be sure, if the left and leftists didn't intervene in the movement and try and steer it, the forces of nationalism and fascism would.

What then are the stakes? Gabriel's piece argues that we should see the Gilets Jaunes as a movement and moment of political recomposition in France, and of the left particularly. In the space of less than a decade the Socialist Party, once a natural party of government, has gone the fate of social democracy elsewhere in Europe. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has continued its long march to ever-diminishing returns, and various projects of the left have broken through and faded away - the workerist Trotskyism of Lutte Ouvriere, the New Anti-Capitalist Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the soaking up of the centre left vote by Macron's En Marche in the parliamentary elections. There is also the anti-globalist movement, itself tinged with a bit of French exceptionalism, that has cast a shadow over protest and environmentalist politics for 20 years, and the anti-austerity mobilisations of the last few years that - rightly - did for the Socialists. The Gilets Jaunes are drawing hundreds of thousands of people hitherto excluded the mainstream and throwing them into the maelstrom of the street, and in so doing the process of recomposition. It is a process analogous to what is happening in Britain and the United States, though there it is primarily expressing itself through constitutional means, the French are doing so in their own inimitable style. Any leftist advocating abstentionism then is a flaccid sack of sentient water that is neither use nor ornament.

Our job here in Britain is to keep studying the movement, learn from it, and be alive to the possibility that an accumulation of similar grudges could lead to similar explosions here. With our febrile and dysfunctional politics, that might just happen.


1729torus said...

It already has happened - Ireland seceded from the UK because rural areas were being neglected and left to die (sometimes literally) by an over-centralised state run by liberals and landowners.

1729torus said...

Today in Northwestern rural Ireland, anti-eviction protestors wearing yellow vests have physically beaten dodgy private security contractors with baseball bats

Tmb said...

'It's almost as if there is a large, influential section of elite opinion who refuse to believe there is anything wrong with the world and prefer the delusion of Russki conspiracy or the overweening power of social media to confronting their own obsolescence.'

That basically sums up the smug, self satisfied mostly London based metropolitan 'liberals' (for liberal read centre right economically) who pretend to want a left wing answer to the Tories, yet like the Guardian continually attack, belittle, subtly demean and studiously ignore anyone and anything that is simply left wing. The Guardian is merely the slightly less (sometimes admittedly a lot less) odious twin of the Daily Mail, as both are reactionary, sensationalist, quick to stir things up and both seem to dislike poor and working class people.

The Gilet Jaunes are the French version of Brexit and Trump voters, a mish mash of people pissed off with the political machine and aloof establishment, and the various puppets, clones and mediocrities in power everywhere.

What we need in the UK is significant political, social and economic reform. What I can say is that the middle class 'left liberals' will never speak up for that and indeed with the Tories have spent the last thirty years or so denying even moderate social mobility for millions of working class people of all ethnicities. Fakes, flakes and phonies doesn't even begin to describe the majority of metropolitan 'liberals'.

Jason said...

I love the Buzzfeed take you mention:

"Apparently, tweeks to the company's algorithms designed to de-prioritise fake news and allow material from "trusted local sources" a higher ranking in one's newsfeeds has privileged local news."

I can picture someone smashing their fist on the table. "Fake news, trusted news, national news, local news, damn it, gentlemen, don't you see, the problem is news!"