Yellow vests: On the edge

, by Temps critiques

Published in : Autonomies.org/2019/03 and in an other translation in Insurgent Notes. November 2019

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

A ridge, a line marking a limit, that accompanies all uprisings because, by definition, we do not know when and how they are going to fall. What makes us glimpse this phase is that the yellow vests’ movement is today stranded before several pitfalls that were nevertheless its strength yesterday.

If it does not allow itself to be defined, it does not define itself

If the yellow vests’ movement does not define itself, it is because it is not (anti-Semitic, anti-migrant, sexist, homophobic); to do otherwise would be to put itself in a position of counter-dependence with the attacks of its enemies or the media. It also does not define itself because it is. As with any movement that has its own real dynamic, cleavages presented as inescapable realities by the State, sociologists and the media, are no longer so for it. For “the people from below” who rise up against the order of the dominant, the splits between “sensitive neighbourhoods” and peripheral, suburban communities are relativised when the secondary school students of Mantes-la-Jolie show that in the suburbs as well, survival is no longer bearable. The division between those on social assistance and the unemployed, targeted by Macron’s murderous phrase “it is enough to cross the street to find a job”, is also abolished, since many of the unemployed, present on the roundabouts, developed relations of solidarity and conviviality. The fragmentation between the working poor (employment is no longer a guarantee of a decent living) and modest wage earners, artisans or self-entrepreneurs, is also erased.

By its own dynamics, by direct action, the yellow vests’ movement has practically refuted the ideological reproaches abstractly levelled at it by the dominant political-media circles.

Within a segment of the population, which has not always been the most active in social movements, because it has both wanted and undergone the processes of individualization, the good old idea is rediscovered, that in each struggle of importance, to divide makes it possible to reign better. But it must be recognized that after three months of struggle, these political advances are insufficient. Indeed, while it has also experienced a certain maturation in the discernment of its objectives (from the fight against taxation to the struggle for social justice, for example), the movement is still unable to truly define itself. This is not only detrimental to its extension to the margins of hesitant sympathizers, but makes abstract the often misunderstood idea of “Everyone is Yellow Vest”, since without a more precise definition of what it is, all the margins of society with affinity to the movement should be able to integrate it and, conversely, on whose behalf or from what principle could they say: “No, you, you are not yellow vest”? Neither the call of the assembly of the assemblies in Commercy, nor the press releases of the yellow vests of central Lyon, have managed to lift this equivocation in relation to, for example, the presence of the extreme Right within the movement.

It is that the community of struggle posits as its first and fundamental political value, solidarity in disagreement, that is to say, the opposite of the traditional conception of politics, including on the extreme Left for which, in contrast, disagreement is raised as the first principle and “line” of sharing. This first provision, in favour of the community of struggle and the solidarity which results from it, leads it however to avoid addressing or to relegate to the background “the difficult or sensitive subjects”. Do not say too much so that you can keep talking to yourselves. Thus, while the yellow vests speak a lot about voting and they vote to make decisions, while many defend the RIC [Citizens’ Initiative Referendum], the question of the right to vote is absolutely not addressed, because it would divide the solidarity of yellow vests, from the moment it would have to take a position on who is a citizen, and especially who is not, at the risk of disagreement.

In the general assemblies, it is often necessary to intervene already to correct the term “citizens’ assembly”, often used in assemblies originating in the roundabout occupations, to coordinate action and reflection between suburban municipalities. Because vagueness often persists regarding the contours of citizenship, especially as in these actions, the yellow vests do not hesitate to ask the city authorities for reunion halls and for the presence elected municipal officials or even national deputies, to the point where sometimes it is difficult to distinguish these debates from the [Macron’s] “Great Debate”.

It may just be a last resort, but as things stand today, the notion of “popular assembly” used in the assemblies of Commercy and those (more urban) assemblies that have joined them, remains vague. Nevertheless, this denomination of popular assembly lends itself to less confusion, while remaining very paradoxical. Indeed, the “citizens assemblies” are of a much more “popular” social composition than the “popular assemblies” which are more “citizen” based, in the sense that the French Revolution gave to this term. However, originally, on the roundabouts, the question had not been posed abstractly, but in a practical way, because it seemed difficult to be on a roadblock or a roundabout with a “foreigner” who is fighting tax injustice beside you and then to tell him that the RIC is not for him … because he does not have French nationality and he cannot vote! The reference to the French Revolution should again serve here: the “citizen” is anyone who participates in the “revolution”, whatever his nationality.

If, for many yellow vests, the reference to the French Revolution is real and profound, then the movement must assume its share of “sans-culotterie” without constantly falling back on the idea of a just citizen, conceived as a subject of State power, as a consequence of performing duties that give rise to rights. Moreover, it would practically end this bizarre idea, shared by some yellow vests, of voting considered as mandatory and therefore as a duty more than a right. But it would be optimistic to think that the movement could in two months acquire an awareness of the (human) community that erases all boundaries. The community of struggle traces, consciously or not, its borders in the struggle. The striking example is the distinction that appears in discussions among “grass roots” yellow vests on the issue of migrants.1 If immigrants are well recognized and accepted by the yellow vests – especially since there is a significant number of them – their acceptance is based on the old figure of the immigrant worker. Descendants of immigrant workers, who are also yellow vests, consider that their parents and they have become or are French because they contributed to the construction and prosperity of the country, whereas in their eyes the migrants of today do not seek to settle and establish themselves (cf. Calais and all those who absolutely want to go onto England). They are part of an international crisis management that eludes the community of struggle.2 As a result, this greatly restricts the scope of the movements’ tension in relation to the human community. It is also a short-sighted situation, because while the labour force is globally supernumerary today in the process of capital valorisation, the surplus is not always there where we believe it to be, as shown by the current efforts of companies such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and other monsters of the hotel-restaurant industry or the construction industry, who go so far as to propose to newly arrived migrants3 accelerated courses in French, because they are looking for “small hands” on conditions so much on the margins of the labour law, that no one accepts them.

A discourse of protest rather than revolutionary or reformist

If the expression of a just anger was the strength of the movement in its infancy, it is now searching for a second wind that would turn it into a more global social struggle against an ensemble structured by the State and capital, what it tends to summarise by the terms of a struggle against the “system”, without seeking to define it further. With the failure to do so, this anger tends to turn into a hatred against the oligarchy (the “I even hate you”, sometimes written on yellow vests denotes in passing a certain political culture and good natured sense of humour), itself reduced to a few large companies or banks and a few individuals (politicians, influential journalists), “that we will go out and fetch”, as the protesters say. It’s as if they have to pay for their own individual treachery, even while the yellow vests have gradually realised that they are dealing with a “System”. In this, Macron is a victim of his own “dégagisme” [disengagement/buzzing off]. He wanted to have done the most difficult thing by getting rid of the old political world and it is the old world of the people that falls on him; a world much more difficult to make disappear.

This anger of the yellow vests against the System is supported by an oligarchic view of power, with popular hatred only devoted to the richest 1% who would oppress the other 99%, while all social relations are marked by hierarchies and inequalities that divide and fragment; the process of domination cuts across the whole of social relations. To recognise this, or at least to take it into account, would be to recognise that the notion of the people does not exist in itself, that it is built in the conflict and tension between those who lead, for whatever reason (economic, political , cultural) and those who have no title to do so. But there is also no reason to have the yellow vests bear the brunt of supposed political inexperience, when this is a widely shared belief, expressed by the Occupy Wall Street Americans, as by a political party like La France insoumise!

It follows that the movement is therefore often on the watch for scapegoats or conspiracy theories, especially as social networks easily cultivate the “us and them”, and above all Facebook, which is their most commonly used relay of information. This has been the case, on many occasions, when, in some cities, the movement planned to launch actions against the Rothschild Bank, a preferred target because it would be a symbol of globalised capitalism and also because Macron was a Bank associate and manager. That this type of action is taken up by a spontaneous group like Article 35-Insurrection is one thing, since its revolt is immediate. But that in general assemblies, where representatives of the various groups of yellow vests are present, that it must be explained that one must stop with the symbols and look instead at the reality of the banking system in the overall operation of capitalism, is the sign of a certain theoretical weakness. On this point, as on the role of the shareholders in the formation of capital, the criticism of the “system” is skewed by the delusion of a financial system that represents absolute evil.

In general, the yellow vests, whose political maturity is only three months old, cannot be reproached for committing the same simplifications as those produced by confirmed far-Left political organisations or by newspapers such as Le Monde diplomatique. The difficulty is to try to correct the target without playing the experts … and taking into account that the analysis of the yellow vests is limited from the outset by the fact that it isolates the process of the circulation of capital from the process of production, while capital is effectively trying, through liberalising reforms, to unify it.

To remain concrete, the yellow vests sometimes tend to be attached to numbers that are supposed to speak for themselves, but which give rise to an over-interpretation close to misinterpretation. For example, in a yellow vests’ tract on finance, part of which was dedicated to shareholders and dividends, the description that is made of France tends to credit the idea that it is in France that dividends reach the best percentage of remuneration for shareholders, which would be absolutely scandalous and would make of it a model of predator capitalism. It is precisely because until now France has more effectively resisted the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and its requirements that France today needs to attract more capital. It thus rejected the transition to private pensions, which then deprives the country of its own pension funds, forcing it to pay more for investments. The problem is not so much that this approach is false, but that it prevents us from understanding the overall functioning of capitalism at the theoretical and practical levels, which often blocks the discussions. The movement tends to carry out a “moral” attack, rather than a political one, something that then includes the idea of a possible moralisation of things and social relations. This trend can only be thwarted by actions that are just starting, but which are developing in support of social conflicts, among sectors of the population that are making demands, because the labour unions are not almost absent, such as against outsourcing companies for large supermarket labour needs. The yellow vests can here complement their initial actions of blocking traffic in and out of distribution centres with a denunciation of exploitation, and thereby allowing themselves to play an effective role in a relation of power.

A contradictory universalism at the risk of isolation

After having broadened its initial demands and continuing to refuse to negotiate, this latter being essential in maintaining an antagonistic relationship with the powers in place, the movement finds difficulties in extending its initial base; difficulties encountered on the 5th of February, as well as the failure to liaison with the secondary school student’s movement in December, which lead the movement to fall back upon itself, on demands that were perhaps part of its originality as a movement, but which are no longer its own exclusively. The yellow vests movement is certainly right to want to affirm both its precedence in the struggle and its autonomy compared to other forces. In this way, it situates itself as a kind of mass vanguard (“Everyone is a Yellow Vest”) to the extent that donning the yellow vest suddenly became an act of resistance in itself, then a sign of recognition and finally the first step towards something else. As a result, it had nothing to expect from the traditional and often “bogus” call for a “convergence of struggles”, the cream pie of the 2000’s that succeeded the “Tous ensemble” [Everyone together] of the 1990’s. The fiasco of the March 16 common protest between Climat and the yellow vests shows that the path is a long one before everyone becomes a “yellow vest”, where the yellow vests become “human kind”. But what is not said is that some of the latter are no longer easily found in blockading actions of the economy (energy) or in actions to support employees in struggle; so many interventions that can take advantage of the general destabilization of the powers in place. The problem is then to know what role to play. Without wanting to settle the matter definitively, our current experience of events shows us that it would be a pity if we were to replay the support for the struggles of the people, in the guise of the Maoists of the 1970’s. The yellow vests, on the pretext that they are mobilised and determined, must not be some kind armed force (even without weapons) of employees or of any other struggle.

It is when actions are taken together against capitalised society that there is convergence and not by first acting separately, to eventually converge (on this subject, the counter-example of the “red pens4”).

If the yellow vests call for another “Tous ensemble” today, it is not of the same nature. The first was an appeal to all segments of wage-earners, but with the idea that the working class and particular categories of the working class, such as railwaymen, were the vanguard; with the second call for unity, that of the yellow vests, the “Tous ensemble” is posed beyond the divisions. Being potentially everyone, it is not clear who could join them. But the consequence is then that it is the yellow vests who position themselves or are perceived as this vanguard, which obviously does not please everyone and which explains in part the hesitations of the CGT, and its various factions, in relation to the movement, something that appeared even more clearly on March 19th than on February 5th.

This “Tous ensemble” is therefore more potential than real and added to the repetitiveness of Saturday demonstrations, with their procession of wounded, convictions and preventive arrests, the movement has been led to turn towards more institutional actions; actions that seek on the one hand to affirm the necessity of the RIC, not, as in the beginning, as a demand among others, but as a miracle cure for the crisis of political representation, a model of direct democracy, and on the other hand, the attempt to respond to the “Great Debate” of the government by the supposed alternative that would represent a “true debate”, this time led by yellow vests. For us, this is a false alternative because it ultimately remains in a sort of counter-dependence with the Great Debate, since concretely and even if the debates are more free, the original idea of the registers of grievances are taken up by political power, for the later’s benefit. Where then has the autonomy of the movement gone?

This is a step back from a direct action supported on the broadest and most comprehensive basis for everyone, with the slogan “Macron-resign”; a retreat from challenging the State by blocking roundabouts and holding undeclared protest demonstrations. To this extent, the RIC now seems to represent the hope of a distant resignation, replacing the belief in an immediate one.

The movement then increasingly defines itself in reference to support for the RIC, which however finds no favour in any other part of the population and which, moreover, is not really discussed within the different groups of yellow vests. For example, there is no real agreement on whether the RIC is a demand, and in this case, where it is to be placed in the vast catalogue of demands or piecemeal proposals, among the original 42 propositions; or if it is only a tool for satisfying the demands or constituent proposals. However, the RIC is supposed to solve all the problems from the moment when it would be understood by all, after publicising its principles (cf. Les “marcheurs” du RIC [the “walkers” for the RIC]). What appears here is the contradiction between the collective action of the yellow vests and an RIC that is based on the individual act of voting in the voting booth or even a simple computer click to be performed at home in a comfortable pair of slippers.

With the RIC as headliner, there would be a break between political revolution and social revolution, a separation already present at the time of the French Revolution5.

Power itself is not questioned, nor is the nature of the state. It is as if the whole problematic of making the RIC possible has made the yellow vests forget the nature of the State that they have discovered, or rediscovered, during their movement. It follows that there is a danger of over-personalising the political function and ignoring the contradictory link between individual personality and public office. For a majority of yellow vests, political personnel and oligarchy constitute a “System” and are therefore not separable. It thus seems more than a little incoherent to attack only political persons (Macron, Castaner) and their underlings (Benalla, etc.), as if they should be punished as individuals, rather than fighting against the very fact that there are professional politicians whose function is separate, that they have separate activities, one more separation among so many others that are a characteristic of the capitalist “System”. It is the same when along with the RIC, the demand is made to carry out a “clean hands” operation, that is, that the representatives of the people have no criminal record. Without a radicalisation of their position, this proposal risks leading to the Italian situation of today, itself partly due to the “clean hands” (“mani pulite“) operation, even if the movement is very different from the Five Stars.

While the Yellow Vests seek amnesty for condemned yellow vests, they do not think to extend this to previous events, carried out during the demonstrations against the new labour code, when it was a somewhat similar matter, with arrests, preventative measures, prohibitions to demonstrate and disproportionate penalties. Although many yellow vests say they regret their passivity at the time, they do not seem to want to connect the events and they may be therefore victims of their own “presentism”.

In their anger targeted at people, even if they are no longer the same, the yellow vests are still walking in the footsteps of the French Revolution. Indeed, if the taking of the Bastille was followed by an opening of the prison, it was quickly filled again and even over-filled by those who were not guillotined. Moreover, on the roundabouts of the yellow vests could be found, for some time, figurative guillotines and demonstrators were even brought before justice for having mimed the public execution of Macron. The problem is that today, the “System” is a little more detached from its “bearers” than at the time. This is true both from the point of view of an ever more abstract capitalist structure, as it is from the side of a State that goes from the nation form to the network form. But it is perhaps also that which produces the breach into which one can rush. Indeed, compared to the time of the French Revolution during which its solid institutions were not yet in place, the Third and Fourth Republic will relegate politicians to positions subordinate to their function and to institutions of the nation-State . However, the Fifth Republic and especially election by universal suffrage reversed the trend. The personalisation of power that has followed has been indirectly reinforced since then by the relative absorption of State institutions in the State’s network form.

There is a storm in the head of the yellow vests, because how is it possible to resolve the contradiction between, on the one hand, the universalist tendency of the Republic of human kind6, which appears as the strategic perspective of the movement and, on the other, a popular sovereignty which seems to give colour and polish to the nation form?

The difficulty of finding a form of organization

The generalisation of the occupation of the roundabouts that we called for in our brochure “A yellow costume that creates community7, is today defeated by the repression of the State, which saw in the occupations a dislocation of its integrated capitalist space (a danger for its control of the flow of people and goods) and the bases of another reproduction of social relations, and which without reaching an important and organized point of fixation like at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, there was nevertheless a tendency for the temporary hut-like shelters to proliferate, as so much slag in a smooth landscape. The situation is now one of retreat onto private lands or quick actions at tolls, with a difficulty, it seems, much greater in the periphery of large cities, as compared to the situation in the villages and around small towns, where all manner of intermediate forms of struggle seem to be able to coexist and survive as best they can.

The assemblies have, on the other hand, developed in many cities, but on more traditional bases and modes of organisation closer to what they were at the time of Nuit Debout, that is to say with a fixation on democratic formalism, very often in contradiction with the idea of free speech. Also with tendencies to want to “organize the organization” or to vote to know if we will vote (and other joyous proceduralisms), leading sometimes to a reversal of things in which the GA believes it is making the movement, when in fact it is the movement that makes the GA. While on the roundabouts it was possible to go from discussion to action and vice versa without any problem, with any organisation existing possibly at the level of a coordination of roundabouts, the assembly form found itself to be very weak before the gap between the progress of its organisational form and the lack of reality of its decision-making form, for example in the organisation of events whose progress, in fact, continued to elude it.

Everything remains open

Collective action, be it on the roundabouts or in the street, constantly reshapes the political and social body of the yellow vests, because it is on these occasions that it confronts the power of the State, including physically, where an all or nothing is played out, well beyond the “real debates” and other RICs. Moreover, the themes posted on the social networks by the yellow vests and treated in a survey by the newspaper Le Monde, are proof of this, as it shows that it is the mobilisation that is most important, followed by the repression, only then followed by criticism of the elites, cited half as frequently as the first and finally demands, cited four times less than the first8.

It is in this collective action that the movement experiences in practice a world that suddenly it no longer seems to suffer passively, because it began to transform certain conditions (social life, fraternity and solidarity, mutual aid), while allowing everyone to discover and change in the same movement, through this action.

Direct action is constitutive of the movement and the demonstrations, like that of Saturday, March 16, shows the necessity. Apart from the subjective satisfaction of the targeted vandalism, for the first time the yellow vests assumed themselves as “casseurs” [breakers/vandals] or “pro-casseurs”, posing without shame in the middle of the damage. But it is not certain that this will make things progress, at the moment when the base of the movement begins to narrow, and during which another anger makes itself more and more manifest … but against the yellow vests and that, at the limit, the next time power can “mark” the protesters with indelible products and, why not, even shoot them.9

No immediate solution presents itself to us because the movement has exhausted part of its original dynamic. It is clear that it is in the moment of its greatest violence that the movement realizes its own exposure … and that it is at the mercy of the decisions of power. Taking seriously the desire for revolution on the part of some yellow vests, something unimaginable at the beginning of the movement, pushes it, for the moment, towards an alternating succession of all or nothing actions, from attempts at institutionalisation and politics to riots (Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse to a lesser degree). The “ultimatum” of March 16th is a strong act, but it also risks being a jump into the void if the movement does not react immediately and by diversifying its modes of action; by temporarily fleeing, for example, a new showdown with the authorities or by provoking them elsewhere, but unexpectedly.10 It is a question of creating a link between all these modes of action without opposing them. Actions carried out since the beginning of the week show that power is scared. Contrary to what it tries to make believe, all gatherings are not forbidden and especially not when it deals with the yellow vests, the new social plague. Power can not intervene everywhere, provided it is harassed everywhere. Forward!

 

Temps critiques,March 22, 2019

Notes

1 – We are not talking here about yellow vest assemblies after the manner of Commercy or the House of the People of Saint-Nazaire which, in fact, bring together people politicised by a passage in Nuit debout or militants more or less attuned with LFI or the NPA, which defend the free movement of people, the reception of migrants, practice inclusive writing and are not concerned about the approach of “people from below” of which they are not really a part. Their adherence to the movement is most often motivated by political proselytism.

2 – This is probably why signs against the Pact of Marrakesh may have appeared sometimes and finally surreptitiously, in yellow vest demonstrations, carried by protesters of far Right.

3 – See the article: “Les réfugiés sont les bienvenus sur les métiers en tension”. Le Monde, March 21, 2019, p. 20.

4 – It is as if the yellow vests had intuitively learned the lessons of May 13, 1968, when the students put the fate of the movement in the hands of the CGT, whereas in the current context, this same CGT would not be able to cope with this demand, given the capital/labour balance of power and union’s decreasing influence.

5 – See our leaflet: “Dans les rets du RIC : remarques sur les faiblesses politiques d’une revendication”, February 2019: http://tempscritiques.free.fr/spip.php?article397

6 – http://blog.tempscritiques.net/archives/2614

7 – http://tempscritiques.free.fr/spip.php?article392

8 – Of course, these are only surveys and statistics, but it can be asked, who introduced the RIC into the basket of questions?

9 – See the leaflet of the police union, Synergie-Officers:

(https://twitter.com/PoliceSynergie/status/1107662000291753985/photo/1).

10 – This situation, the oldest among us lived in the early morning of May 25, 1968 … without having the opportunity to find a favourable outcome. But history never repeats itself …