From the first occupations of roundabouts, highway tolls, commercial areas, during street and square demonstrations, the emblems of the French Revolution are present and openly expressed by the Yellow vests. Tricolour flags, Phrygian caps, guillotines and the singing of the Marseillaise set the tone and punctuate the various forms of struggle. In meetings and on social networks circulate strategic slogans and modes of political action which, for the majority, make reference to the strong moments of the French Revolution: registers of grievances, destitution1 of the president-monarch, citizens’ assemblies, the abolition of intermediary bodies, direct democracy, the end of fiscal injustice, the control of elected officials and the reduction of their remunerations, the call to form a constituent power, the union of patriots for the defense of the nation, etc.
This reference has been repeatedly noted, described and commented. But more often than not, it has been so as a symbolic reference rather than real; a sort of nostalgia; at best, as a political impulse given to the struggle. However, two decisive questions arise in the relationship of the yellow vests to the French Revolution and they have rarely been considered:
1 – Beyond the historical specificities of the French Revolution, what value is claimed as common to these two moments? We posit that it is the value of universality which is at the heart of these two moments; an aspiration towards the universality of the human community.
2 – The second question is raised even more rarely about this desire for the French Revolution, on the part of yellow vests. Why is the French Revolution the only reference to past revolutions? Why are the workers’, proletarian, “communist” revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries almost impossible references for the movement of yellow vests?
The universality of the commune of “cabins/huts”*
If we consider the first three months of the existence of the yellow vests’ movement, the moment when the dimension of universality of the human community manifested itself with the greatest intensity was that of the occupations of the roundabouts . Although less explicit, this aspiration has also been expressed in the control of highway tolls and in interventions at supermarkets.
That the initiative of the struggle at the roundabouts has been coordinated on social networks does not deprive the yellow vests’ movement of this human solidarity that is its strength. In the limited but strategic space of the roundabouts, in this community lived in the rudimentary “huts” built there, there has powerfully risen up the freedom of citizens’ words, words always ignored, often despised, and determined action to make it heard.
With their vests donned, both women and men organised themselves to block or filter road traffic and, in doing so, they shared the conditions of their precarious lives, unjustly taxed, invisible to state power and its networks.
In the exchanges on the difficulty of daily life, but also on the possibilities of another society and another life; in the shared meals; in the reception of passersby in solidarity or the defense against hostile motorists, a universal aspiration to the human community has been affirmed. Nothing but this aspiration to a “Republic of the human race” proclaimed by Anacharsis Cloots, Prussian atheist self-described as “orator of the human race”, made honorary citizen by the Girondin revolutionaries in 1792, then sent to the guillotine in 1794 by Jacobin theist Robespierre, who earlier had excluded him from the Convention as an “foreigner to the nation”.
The impasses of assemblies and parliamentarianism
With the spreading yellow vests’ movement, collective decision-making with regards to the organisation of the struggle quickly becomes a crucial imperative, a political necessity that is not without generating internal tensions. How to discuss the continuation of the struggle? How to coordinate the various proposals? By which means of communication: social networks, local assemblies, development of “yellow media”?
During the French Revolution, the deliberations in the Constituent Assembly and then of the Convention, were controlled by the bourgeois, regardless of whether they were Girondin or Jacobin Republicans. In the clubs and local sections, the control of political speech was in the hands of the revolutionary class, the one that completed its triumph against royalty: the bourgeoisie.
Thus the Enragés and the Hébertists were excluded from the deliberations by the terrible repression led by the despotism of the Jacobins. The republican model of political deliberation was framed, limited, guided by the victors of the exercise of State power.
The use of deliberation as a means of regulating social antagonisms worked only for the benefit of the political and economic interests of the triumphant bourgeoisie. The institution of deliberation in sections, clubs and parties, as in the assemblies, was only contested by movements outside the established republican order: the popular riots against the free price of flour, against the taxation of essential goods, against the Le Chapelier law, which forbade any association of the workers; an order also challenged by the insurrections of the Fédérés, the uprising of the Vendéens, the revolt of the “revolutionary women”2 and the sans-culottes, etc.
The practice of the yellow vests in collective decision-making clearly departs from the assemblyist and parliamentarian model. It has more in common with movements that have opposed the ruling power of the bourgeoisie. Rather than the compromise of “direct democracy”, it is “direct action” that could be the most appropriate term for qualifying this orientation.
Through social networks as well as through assemblies (two modes of non-contradictory political organization), the yellow vests movement managed to guide its action with a certain unity. Despite the focus on individuals called yellow vests by the media and the ministry of the Interior, the movement drew its strength from the most original of its slogans: no representatives, no delegates, no spokespersons. A simple unifying recognition: yellow.
The immediate consciousness of an in-common to come is the main path taken by the collective speech of the yellow vests; a generic consciousness turned offensive speech and loaded with human potentialities.
A one and only revolutionary reference: the French Revolution
We have observed that the yellow vests’ movement is not a struggle linked to work, to the sphere of work, and therefore no more to that of the old class struggle.3 It situates itself in the universe of a way of life, in purchasing power, in the daily fight for survival. Its social composition has been commented at length (and by many people deplored!): artisans, trades people, service and health professionals, trades tied to transportation and the economic circulation, intermittent employees of the private sector, precarious employees, farmers, retirees, etc.
“Guaranteed employees” of the private sector and their unions, public service executives, teachers, intellectuals, artists and researchers, executives of big cities, the media, politicians and union officials, middle managers, etc. have from the beginning of the movement expressed strong reservations and often repulsion towards yellow vests.
In the present economic, social, political and historical conditions, it was and still is impossible for the yellow vests to be in continuity with the historical labour movement. Why? First, because of its historical failures: defeated by the Stalinist and National-Socialist despotisms, rallied to various nationalisms, integrated into social-democratic stateism, consenting to liberalisms.
Secondly, and above all, because the dynamics of capital have rendered the labour force in its valorisation process inessential, and more generally has encompassed all the relations of production in the global processes of power. With the economic decompositions/recompositions partly caused by the failures of the movements opposed to the existing order at the end of the 1960s, it is today the reproduction of all social relations that constitutes the central political concern. For thirty years, we have analyzed4 these historical upheavals, which also have an anthropological dimension.
Spontaneously, the reference to the French Revolution constituted for the Yellow Vests the only historical reference, because only it carries the collective memory of a social and political upheaval with which they can identify.
This identification is not only symbolic since we can highlight some analogies between these two political moments: anti-tax revolt, hate of power from above and anger against its main figures; the need for social justice and real equality; demonstrations in the neighbourhoods and places of power, etc. But the game of analogies soon turns out to be rather futile because the historic cycle of domination of the bourgeois class and its values, which forcefully began with the French Revolution, ended with the worldwide failure of the last proletarian assaults of the late sixties of the 20th century.
The cycle of revolutions that has crossed modernity is exhausted. We are in another era, that of capitalized society;5 a time, certainly, that remains historical; an era in which many men seek ways out of the dark circle of capitalisation of their activities and the planetary devastation of nature.
Temps critiques, February 7, 2019
1 – The slogan “Macron resign” is to be understood as “Macron destitution”, more than “Macron, go away, you failed”. Destitution, that is to say, affirmation of a potentially constituent power, challenge to the arrogance of parliament, abolition of the supreme representation constituted by the election of a President of the Republic. In this, the yellow vests’ movement touches the foundations of the state-republican order, which according to them is illegitimate because it is in the hands of the world financial powers and major world groups like the GAFA the internet giants.
* – “cabanes”: This is a reference to the provisional shelters built by the yellow vests on the occupied roundabouts.
2 – Actress Claire Lacombe, co-founder of the Revolutionary Republican Society, led a battalion of Fédérés to attack the Tuileries. In 1794, close to the Enragés, she is imprisoned by order of the Committee of Public Safety for disorder in a meeting.
3 – Marxist sects did not fail to scream “interclassism”, the absolute evil in their antiquarian eyes. We have already analyzed how this notion is of no political significance to understand the yellow vests movement. See: Temps critiques, supplement to number 19, Dec. 2018.