Yellow Vests, Modern Junk Politics and Robespierre

During the recent holidays, I had the opportunity to listen to my French friends extol the virtues of the yellow vests (gilets jaunes) movement. “We have had enough of the elitist rule that has left most of the French working class economically desperate,” Pierre said. “People have gone into the streets out of dire frustration.” Jean added; “This is not just a complaint about taxes, rather it is an uprising against the oligarchy that has destroyed democracy.”

I listened to their complaints with empathy, fully accepting their descriptions of what the French middle and lower classes are living through. Their emotions seemed genuine; I had no reason to question their analysis of the underlying causes of the recent protests. Where we differed was their inability to answer my simple question: “What is the solution?”

My answer to that question refers back to what is considered to be the first act of modern politics, the beheading of King Charles I of England in 1649 during the civil war between the monarchy and parliamentarians. The beheading highlighted the people’s uprising against the established order. The parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell, scored military victories, eventually capturing the monarch and convicting him of treason before sentencing him to death.

In this historical example, attention should be on the actions before the beheading, involving rulers, parliamentarians, armies and courts. All were legitimate structures of power. The political, in this sense, took place within a given system. Cromwell’s army had the goal of establishing rule by the people within that system. The actual beheading was the culmination of a political process.

The importance of legitimate structures of power is central to politics. “Who are you?” is a typical identity question that has to be answered within some form of authority. Politicians will say “I am the representative of my district in the city government” or “I am the treasurer of my political party in my neighborhood.” Diplomats will say “I am the second secretary of the mission of my country to the United Nations Office in Geneva.” All these examples show an identity within a given order.

But what if you object to that given order? Pierre and Jean’s emotional rejection of President Macron was not part of a political movement. They are not members of any political party. They have no political platform. They rarely vote. They do have a very strong sense that “the system” does not answer their needs, but that is as far as they can go.

Where does this leave the gilets jaunes or previous protest movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring?  The gilets jaunes have succeeded in getting the French President to change some of his policies, but their fundamental dissatisfaction with the way the government has functioned has not yet been reflected in the larger system. In retrospect, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement did not lead to a fundamental change in the United States. On the contrary, Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. And the Arab Spring? Are the situations today in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria or Iraq better than they were in late 2010?

My point is not to be against protests. My point is that emotional protests must include politics. The protesters must have alternative politics if they are to be politically successful.

When Benjamin DeMott wrote about what he called “junk politics” in 2003, he focused on how the political had become debates about civility, compassion, personal lives, and different moral perspectives instead of dealing with larger issues. “Junk politics,” or what he referred to as “touchy-feely,” was DeMott’s way of saying that the American political debate had been ambushed; the political had been lost. Similarly, Joe Klein wrote of “politics lost,” of how politics had become trivialized away from ideology towards only gaining and keeping power.

An update of “junk politics” would be social media encouraging decentralized mass mobilizations featuring a lack of leadership and structures. The gilets jaunes purposefully rejected any formal organization, something that is philosophically understandable, if not admirable, but politically suicidal. For a movement to be sustainable, it must have structure, a fundamental of politics.

My discussion with Pierre and Jean ended when they tried to convince me that there would be a revolution in France from the bottom up. They were proud of how the French people had taken to the streets; they were sure the movement would continue and overturn the current order well beyond Macron’s eventual resignation. Since they had not answered my initial question “What is the solution?” I wished them a happy new year by saying; “Remember Robespierre and the Reign of Terror came after the French Revolution of 1789.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.