This article was originally published here in the “One Question” series on the “Gilets Jaunes” movement in State of Nature. It was written as a response to the question: “What is the significance of the Gilets Jaunes movement?“
The Gilets Jaunes are significant for at least four reasons. First and foremost, they are a grassroots social movement that has arisen in reaction to the ongoing onslaught of global capitalism. The fact that this movement emerged outside of the representational structures that generally serve to support this system – including the professional political parties of parliamentary pseudo-democracy and the bureaucratised unions – indicates the extent to which these structures themselves, with few exceptions, have not been able to successfully mobilise and empower the working classes, but have instead managed their discontent.
The Gilets Jaunes movement is also conjuncturally important in the sense that it is one more sign of the struggle of working peoples to invent new political imaginaries in a historical conjuncture in which the perceived ‘end of the socialist alternative’ has bled into the very real end of the biosphere in the era of the Capitalocene. While there are certainly significant limitations to the movement, which are largely the result of successful misinformation campaigns and a lack of anti-capitalist political education, the movement nonetheless adumbrates the pressing task of developing a revolutionary ecological socialism for the 21st century.
Given the inordinate level of state repression (which includes at least 800 cases of police violence, 289 head injuries to protestors, 24 eyes shot out, 5 hands blown off, and 1 death), the movement is also significant for the ways in which it has revealed, yet again, the extent to which liberalism and authoritarian fascism are not opposites but rather function in tandem as modes of capitalist governance. If the liberal pageantry of Macron’s grand débat and other such ideological charades are sufficient to govern the bourgeois classes and their acquiescent allies, his bloody assault on legitimate working-class protestors demonstrates the mode of governance reserved for anyone who acts out against the system in place.
Finally, the Gilets Jaunes are tactically significant. They have been extremely creative in their organising endeavors, and they have, perhaps most importantly, parted ways with the square movements and the occupation of highly visible public spaces in urban centers. Instead, they have focused on weekly days of action across the entire country, which they have combined with a number of other tactics (flash blockades, the occupation of roundabouts, active strikes, the repossession of toll booths, etc.). This is surely what has allowed them to continue for over 6 months, and they are creating unique organising models that are already being reproduced elsewhere. Although the government has yet to make any meaningful concessions, and there is still much work to be done, the Gilets Jaunes are demonstrating the importance of political imagination as a weapon of class warfare.