The ‘Yellow Vests’ : How the Intellectuals Saw Them Coming

Quand les intellectuels voyaient venir les ‘gilets jaunes’
LE FIGARO/ANALYSIS, 19th November 2018.
The Yellow Vests movement, more than just a popular uprising, is a new symptom of the revolt of whole populations against the globalized society — a revolt that cuts across all Western democracies.

“Is it a revolt?” “No, Sire, it is a revolution!” For years, the same scene has been repeated in London, Washington, Rome etc. Brexit, Trump, Salvini: a deep-seated movement is in the process of overthrowing, through the ballot-box, the established order — which looks on, stunned by the great upheaval. In France, since Saturday [17th November], the “yellow vests” — these demonstrators with neither structure nor organization — have put on a spectacular show of strength. They are now calling for protests “on foot, horseback, or by car” on Saturday, 24th November, to “block” Paris. Whether they succeed or not, it would be a mistake to believe that this was a simple uprising, a transient phenomenon whipped up by the media; an epidermal reaction to the increase in the price of fuel, to which the government will be able to respond with this or that accommodating measure.

Whoever has read the French geographer, Christophe Guilluy, or the British journalist and economist, David Goodhart, the Italian theoretician Diego Fusaro, or the American intellectuals Thomas Frank, Mark Lilla and Yascha Mounk, will be drawn to the same conclusions as they: that this fluorescent yellow revolt is a phenomenon of quite another kind.

The first analysis postulates a conflict between “the France of the margins” [la France périphérique], and the France of the major cities [la France des métropoles]: the second, the confrontation between the people from somewhere and the people from anywhere. Last week in Le Figaro Magazine, Guilluy and Goodhart exchanged their views for the first time. Both stressed the commonalities between the French and British political situations on the one hand, and on the other, the universal character of the contemporary popular revolt against the globalization of society. “We are witnessing the end of the Western middle class. Since the end of the Second World War, it was this middle class majority that provided the framework for all Western democracies. All of this is now falling apart”, concluded Guilluy. Diego Fusaro, an Italian philosopher close to the 5-Star Movement and the League, agrees: “In Italy, the ‘national mass’ (Gramsci’s expression) of those who have become excluded from globalization, has expressed itself contra.” The young philosopher proposes a new kind of social and political geography, resembling that of the class struggle: “The old dichotomy of ‘Right-Left’ has been replaced by that of ‘High-Low’, Hegel’s master-slave relationship. From above, the master wants more deregulation of the market, more globalization, more liberalization. From below, the ‘national-popular’ serf (Gramsci again) wants less free trade and more nation-state, less globalization, less European Union, and more cultural and professional stability.”

In the United States, Mark Lilla, Thomas Frank and Yascha Mounk, each in his own way, has interpreted Trump’s victory over Clinton as the result of a clash between the ‘professional’ class — that is, the white-collar workers of America’s coastal regions, which are open to minorities but insensitive to the question of inequality — and America’s blue collar workers of the Mid-West, who have seen their factories close, their standard of living stagnate, and their life-expectancy dwindle. All of these writers, in fact, arrive at the same diagnosis: that of a revolutionary process at work in all Western democracies — a process on its way to overthrowing the old political divisions and systems. The new world order is no longer the one of technology and trade prophesied by Macron and the cheer-leaders of the End of History: it is, on the contrary, that of the transnational anger of the people.

“Social media — long presented by ‘progressives’ as ‘liberation technologies’ — have on the contrary favoured the rise of ‘anti-system’ movements.”

The paradox is that this transformation of traditional divisions took place against a backdrop of the digital revolution. As though Silicon Valley were offering its leverage to its own very antithesis. From Brexit to the Yellow Vests and Trump’s election, social media — long presented by ‘progressives’ as ‘liberation technologies’ — have on the contrary favoured the rise of ‘anti-system’ movements.

In election after election, the supporters of the status quo are now being swept away one after the other. After Macron’s surprise victory, some observers imagined that France would be an exception. The Yellow Vests movement, however, indicates that France too could take its turn to be caught up in the wave. Le Figaro