France: Macron and the Yellow Vests — The undead centre meets the shitstorm

Europe’s saviour: a ruthless upper middle-class right-wingerfrom the French finance ministry. He could walk on water. Thanks to the political field being successfully narrowed to a choice between the hard-centre and fascism, the hard-centre won with a big majority. He was going to lead a revolution, invigorating French capitalism with bracing Thatcherite reform.

These reforms weren’t ever popular. But then the medicine is always resisted by the patient (add your own Economist-style neoliberal cliche). Workers would lose and investors would gain, but this would trigger a new phase of intense productivity and high growth from which all would benefit. Ukanian liberals adored Macron and envied France. Macron was everyone’s centrist boyfriend, handsome and pro-European: a conviction not shaken despite some embarrassed feet-shuffling and polite coughing over his racism. That was barely a year and a half ago.

The gilet-jaunes, as Frédéric Lordon puts it [1], is not a movement but an uprising. It began as a protest against fuel tax rises. That makes many uneasy because we’re supposed to be in favour of reducing the use of fossil fuels. The problem is that taxing consumption is both a bad way to reduce demand by itself, and politically unsustainable if it isn’t offset by improvements in living standards elsewhere. It transfers the costs of the climate crisis onto those least responsible for it, and least able to bear it. And in this case, it did so amid a sustained government attack on living standards.

Since then, it has become a far more generalised protest against social inequality. It remains politically heteroclite, with a degree of far right involvement, and conspiracist elements. It is a “leaderless” revolt initiated on social media platforms, and subsequently reverberating through civil society.

Having been initiated on social media, rather than through “leaderful” parties or civil society organisations, it to some extent reflects the logic of the shitstorm. The internal logic of social media platforms is to aggregate sentiment and generate trends and intensified user-engagement on that basis. It routinely generates transient, euphoric coalescences of sentiment on specific issues of collective delight or outrage. That’s partly why it’s so heteroclite. It was possible for the gilet-jaunessentiment to spread virally to quite diverse constituencies, insofar as it genuinely resonated with them.

The logic of the shitstorm has repeatedly shown that, by lubricating low-cost association, it can precipitate sudden outbreaks of political contention on several fronts. It can bypass tactically conservative civil society organisations, only to draw them into the field of the storm. It facilitates action by diverse coalitions because it allows a specifically marked (hashtagged etc) political sentiment to circulate virally among diverse constituencies.

But, and this is where liberal hysteria about the internetgoes awry, it only does so to the extent that this sentiment genuinely resonates with elements of practical experience. If capitalism was not relatively stagnant in the historic Euro-American core, and if capitalist states had not haemhorraged political authority in recent years, and if austerity was not the dominant policy response, it is unlikely that meatspace shitstorms would occur in exactly this format. The scale of street violence — even to the extent of defacing Marianne, to gasps of liberal horror — reflects the scale of systemic violence. And the extent to which the political system repeatedly forecloses opportunities to advance alternative agendas. Austerity has never been supported by a majority, but no matter who people vote for, austerity is what they’ve been getting. With predictable consequences for the life chances, health, and living standards of the working class.

In this case, what started with a petition over fuel tax rises, quickly drew in lots of poor peoplefrom marginalised French regions, studentsopposed to the government’s school reforms, public sector workers against austerity, truckers striking in solidarity, and so on. The vox populi complaints address a variety of issues like benefit cuts for the poor and tax cuts for the rich, but they also complain about the sheer monarchical arrogance of the president. There emerged a list of ’demands’ from maximum incomes and more progressive taxation to proposals for a new ’hydrogen car’ industry to demands that failed asylum seekers be deported: a real mix. In truth, it is preponderantlyleft-leaning rather than nationalistic or racist. Melenchon, not Le Pen, has been the main immediate beneficiary in the polls. But the racist-nationalist elements are there, are significant, and obviously a danger that the organised Left needs to confront.

Macron, in his petty Napoleonic way, is always tempted to respond to opposition in a contemptuous and authoritarian fashion. He denounces it as demagoguery, populism, and so on. Exactly as he did, for example, when called to cease arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But there is a faction of his alliance that wants him to try to calm the situation down. Thus, we have both the temporary suspension of fuel tax rises — too little too late, the gilet-jaunessay, as though the fuel tax issue was just the hook on which years of injustice was hanged — and the threatened use of armoured vehicles, the ratcheting up of police numbers, and the humiliation of studentsin the working class area of Mantes-la-Jolie. The problem is that, absent further ideological clarification, organisation and “leaderful” development, Macronite tactics will work. The fact that the leaders of the major unions were successfully drafted by Macron into an initiative to control the protestsin exchange for an opening of ’dialogue’ on the government’s reforms, is bad news, both for the unions themselves and the protesters.

The shitstorm, the unpredictable explosion of social anger mediated by data platforms, is the future. These uprisings will create complex terrains of political action, not finished objects. They create moments from which new coalitions and chains-of-equivalents can be assembled, but their unity is intrinsically precarious, and they cannot sustain themselves without reaching into and mobilising a ’thick’, tactically cautious, civic society fabric.

Richard Seymour