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Spectacular Violence as a Weapon of War Against the Yellow Vests

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Violence is a spectacular weapon deployed by the ruling class to discredit movements from below and justify their repression. It is spectacular in the sense of being a great and powerful political tool for governing the masses, and keeping them in their place. In order to do this, however, the weapon of violence is spectacularin a second sense: it creates a carefully orchestrated mise en scène that seeks to render ruling class violence invisible, while simultaneously transforming acts of resistance into prodigious spectacles of criminal violence.

This is how Act 18 of the Yellow Vests is currently being presented by the mass media: at the precise moment at which the government was concluding its democratic consultation of the people via Emmanuel Macron’s “Grand Débat,” the Yellow Vests have unleashed an inordinate amount of violence that now needs to be repressed in the strongest possible terms. The president of the Champs-Elysées Committee, Jean-Noël Reinhardt, declared in an interview in which he is surrounded by the microphones of many of the major press outlets, that the movement is no longer one of the Yellow Vests, but rather of Black Vests that simply “express hatred and the will to destroy.” Proclaiming that this situation cannot be allowed to continue because of its impact on commercial and tourist activity, as well as its defamation of the global symbol of the Champs-Élysées, his statement bleeds seamlessly into the declaration made by the Prime Minster, Édouard Philippe: new measures will be put in place to prohibit protests in certain locations and allow for even more aggressive police crackdowns.

In this moment of the spectacularization of the damage caused to insured private property of the commercial and luxury industry, which is presented as the quintessence of “violence,” it is notable that the General Secretary of the Unsa police union, Philippe Capon, has publicly explained that the police received the order on Saturday to notintervene, because there was an explicit choice to “let a certain number of things be broken.” The timing could not be better because the government has its hands tied. After a few paltry concessions in December, as well as the discursive theatrics of the “Grand Débat,” the Yellow Vests have not gone home and have survived both the winter and the extreme forms of repressive state violence unleashed against them.

This current spectacle of violence thereby serves two purposes. First and foremost, it dissimulates the structural violence of capitalism and plutocratic oligarchy, which are the primary sources of the current uprisings. Living conditions for the masses are increasingly unacceptable, and the traditional system of party politics and unions is dysfunctional. One of the protest signs that goes to the heart of matters simply states: “Violence is poverty [La violence c’est la pauvreté].” Rather than taking seriously the ubiquitous and quotidian nature of thisviolence, which is the violence of capitalist inequality, spectacular “violence” is constructed precisely in order to distract from the daily destruction of life under capitalist rule. It is understood as a temporary and disturbing interruption of the status quo, which needs to be eradicated. It is the “violence” of burning a bank, rather than that of founding one, or more generally the violence of the banking system in its daily role of securing hegemony for the global ruling class.

Secondly, the spectacle of violence orchestrated by the state and mass media functions in order to attach the scarlet letter of V for Violence to the Yellow Vest movement in order to simultaneously criminalize it and justify its brutal repression. There have been numerous cases where the police have been caught on camera damaging property in order to blame it on protestors, and many officers have been photographed and filmed carrying hammers, presumably for this purpose. At least one member of the riot police has spoken out against the violence deployed against non-violent protestors, which has been encouraged by the Minister of the Interior, as well as against the effort to foment violence in the protests.

Elite circles in France have not been completely successful in this aspect of their propaganda campaign, because even liberal institutions like the United Nations, the European Council, the European Parliamentand Amnesty International have seen through their attempt to render state violence invisible, or at the very least justified. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, prepared a memorandum on February 26ththat summarizes some of the violence, while also criticizing the lack of precision and rigor in the statistics being kept by the state and the media: “According to figures from the Ministry of the Interior 12 122 LBD rounds, 1 428 instant tear gas grenades and 4 942 hand-held sting grenades were fired or thrown between the beginning of the yellow vest movement and 4 February 2019.” Based on the calculations of an independent journalist cited in the report, there have been “38 wounds to upper limbs including 5 lost hands, 52 wounds to lower limbs, 3 wounds to the genitals and 189 head wounds including 20 people who have lost an eye.” Medics and journalists have been regularly attacked, and there have been numerous brutal assaults and a record number of protestors locked up.

Nevertheless, significant sectors of the state, the mass media and the punditocracy have gone to great lengths to cloak this systematic deployment of state violence against non-violent protestors, medics, journalists and bystanders. Emmanuel Macron has distilled the very essence of liberal ideology regarding the state by flatly proclaiming that we cannot speak of “repression” or of “police violence” in France today because “these words are unacceptable under the rule of law [dans un état de droit].” Strictly speaking, then, there can be no such thing as “state violence” because the state stands in opposition to violence, and the latter can only come from savage and anarchic forces outside it.

Here we see the double movement of spectacular violence in full force. On the one hand, the state strives to dissimulate its spectacular exploitation through capitalist rule and its equally spectacular repression of any resistance to it. On the other hand, it seeks to incite or create spectacular “violence” in the protests in order to simultaneously discredit them and use this spectacle as cover for its own increased exploitation and repression. These are the two primary aspects of the spectacular violence unfolding in France right now.

It is imperative to identify this tactic for what it is, and to find new strategies for struggling against its extremely pernicious effects. Otherwise, we risk succumbing to the ideological inversion diagnosed so presciently by Malcolm X in a lecture given on December 13, 1964, in which he explained that the press is so powerful in its “image-making role” that “it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s a criminal.”

This article was collectively workshopped in the Radical Education Department.

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Gabriel Rockhill is a Franco-American philosopher and cultural critic. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and founding Director of the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne. His books include Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (2016), Radical History & the Politics of Art (2014) and Logique de l’histoire (2010). In addition to his scholarly work, he has been actively engaged in extra-academic activities in the art and activist worlds, as well as a regular contributor to public intellectual debate. Follow on twitter: @GabrielRockhill

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