One of the largest grassroots social movements in recent history has overtaken France and extended beyond its borders. Like all mass movements, it is multiform and dynamic. Although there are numerous actors and agendas, one of the central focal points has been the dismal failure of the current social, political and economic order. As the oligarchic guard dogs of contemporary capitalism have intensified their assault on the masses, and traditional parties and unions have not been able to successfully organize against it, people have had no choice but to take it upon themselves to organize on their own and do what they can to change the system.
This is what class struggle looks like today. If it is untidy around the edges, spanning a broad ideological spectrum that extends beyond the Left, this is largely the result of organizing and educational endeavors to date (or the lack thereof). The yellow vest is thus an appropriate unifying symbol for this multi-faceted movement. Since every motorist in France is required to have one on hand in the case of roadside work or an emergency, those exploited by the current system have decided to repurpose them to heighten their visibility qua workers when they descend into the streets to struggle against the ongoing crisis of life under capitalism.
Although France has the reputation of having a leftwing intelligentsia, some of the most visible theorists on the Left—including the self-proclaimed torchbearers of the ‘spirit of ’68’—have positioned themselves firmly against the movement or admonished it from the sidelines. This disconnect between important segments of the professional intelligentsia and one of the most powerful social movements of recent years raises very serious questions regarding the politics of intellectual life and, more generally, the relationship between the literati and uprisings. By exploring the intelligentsia’s response—both in France and beyond—to the Yellow Vests movement, this article seeks to elucidate the broader problematic of the role of intellectuals in the maintenance or transformation of the current socio-economic order.
Instrumentalized and Interventionist Intellectuals
Politics is not extraneous to the life of a career intellectual, nor is it something that he or she could freely decide to engage with, according to the standard liberal model of political commitment. On the contrary, the professional academic is someone whose very existence and socioeconomic standing is part of a political system, and he or she is nolens volens an instrument of power. Tasked with the social reproduction of the relations of production, an intellectual’s socioeconomic role is to provide the technical knowledge and worldviews necessary for the renewal of the workforce and the division of labor. This is why the beginning point for any discussion of the politics of intellectual life should be the recognition that professional pundits are instrumentalized intellectuals: they have successfully subjected themselves to the extensive ideological training necessary to occupy a specific economic and political position in society.
When there are major upheavals that contest the dominant socioeconomic order, it is not surprising that most professional thinkers either ignore them, feigning scientific independence from a purportedly autonomous political sphere, or speak out against them as misguided and destined to fail. They are simply doing their job within the system that has produced them by using their platform to police the thought-scape of the general public, while simultaneously ensuring their elevated socioeconomic status as the mandarins of elite technocracy.
There are, however, renegades and class traitors who use their social role and public platform to challenge the given system, which is currently one of oligarchic capitalist rule. Unlike instrumentalized intellectuals, who are the willing and able ventriloquists of the ruling class—some of whom have developed discursive fog machines whose haze of radicality obscures their actual social function—these interventionist intellectuals seek to learn from social movements and their organic intellectuals in order to use their relative positions of power to directly contribute to anti-capitalist struggles. Rather than serving as thought managers paid to discipline the wild ideas of those who do not respect the ‘iron laws of history,’ they take the risk of being directly involved in the intricate and arduous labor of history-in-the-making.
Given the political prominence and symbolic capital of the intelligentsia in France, it is not surprising that Emmanuel Macron’s regime has sought from its very inception to promote its political legitimacy and intellectual credibility by creating a media spectacle out of his academic background in philosophy. Touting Macron as the ‘philosopher president,’ a seemingly endless series of articles and interviews have broadcast far and wide fatuous prattle about his relationship to thinkers like Paul Ricœur, who employed him as an editorial assistant, and Étienne Balibar, who was his professor and—according to Macron—the director of his Masters thesis. This theatrical endeavor to mobilize the symbolic capital of the literati to market the intellectual capabilities of a young banker-turned-politician has continued unabated to this day, with the latest iteration taking the form of Macron’s 8-hour televised debate with 64 intellectuals as part of his faith-in-government campaign against social movements from below. One of the highlights was nouveau philosophe Pascal Bruckner haranguing the president to prohibit protests and do away with the Yellow Vests’ “anarcho-fascist coup d’état,” which is rooted in a “hatred of representation, of democracy, of elites, of the market, of success, and finally of France itself.”
Fortunately, a few intellectuals refused to be instrumentalized in such a direct fashion as those who willingly joined in this pageantry of governmental legitimation. After all, if there is a philosophical lineage that can be identified between the president of France and a thinker like Ricœur, it is in his shrewd deployment of liberal pomp and circumstance as cover for the most repressive forms of state violence. Not unlike Ricœur, who, as the reformist and conciliatory Dean of the University of Paris-Nanterre, notoriously green-lighted the brutal gassing and beating of students by the police in the wake of the ‘68 uprisings (and then sought to deny his responsibility via a disingenuous appeal to liberal proceduralism), Macron has unleashed the full force of the repressive state apparatus on autonomous political mobilizations—from the ZAD to the Yellow Vests—while doing everything in his power to legitimate its brutal violence by dissimulating it under the cover of the “rule of law.” This is likely what Macron actually meant when he claimed to have identified in Ricœur’s work “the other path of May 68”: the one of combining liberal mendacity with authoritarian repression.
Intellectuals and Uprisings
Many prominent leftwing thinkers have spoken out vehemently against the Macron regime. Some of them have been less inclined, however, to participate in the social movements that are directly contesting his reign, or even to rally behind the movements by supporting or encouraging them in the press. The case of the Yellow Vests is particularly revealing because it has brought to the fore a series of standard operations that tend to structure how professional pundits generally relate to insurgencies. Detailing these operations in an axiomatic and ideal-typical fashion can help us elucidate a much larger pattern of how intellectuals are usually conditioned to react to uprisings.
To begin with, the scholar positions himself or herself outside of the fray, as an erudite and cool-headed observer rather than a participant, preferring politics in the third person (‘they did x’) to first-person politics (‘I, or we, did x’). This position on the sidelines—which is a partisan position, regardless of what any spurious claims to increased ‘objectivity’ might have us believe—allows them to judge the movement without actually getting to know it from the inside or directly contributing to its dynamics and development. The second operation usually goes hand in hand with the first, because it consists in assessing the movement, as if it were a singular phenomenon, based on their preconceived system of ideas. The question, in its simplest and most direct form, is: ‘does this uprising illustrate and conform to my ideas, or not?’
This often leads seamlessly to the third operation: a categorical judgment of being for or against the movement because it does or does not conform to one’s idées fixes. In the case of those who come out against a movement, which is the most common position, the fourth operation consists in patronizing denigration of the churlish horde, whose ignorance has led it to develop such a misguided movement. Finally, the concluding operation is one of predicting the failure of the insurgency because it does not conform to one’s ideas (although the intellectual in question might also hold out hope that the rabble will one day recognize its faulty ways and rally behind his or her theoretical leadership).
These operations can function independently of one another, and there is ample variation in their precise formulations depending on the case. But when all five of them come together, the intellectual says to himself or herself: ‘Watching “the movement” from the sidelines, I see it does not conform to my ideas, and I am therefore against it and find its instigators ignorant. I know it will fail.’ When condensed into this formula, we can see that the core philosophic position animating these operations is one of idealism, and that the material contribution of such a discourse to ‘the movement’ is overwhelmingly negative. The role of the thought managers is, in short, to police the hoi polloi and discipline anyone who steps out of line by working to change history in ways that they have not authorized.
The Failure of the Intelligentsia in France and Beyond
While these types of reactions should come as no surprise in the case of the instrumentalized intellectuals who dominate the university, it is highly problematic when strong leftists repeat the same basic operations, even if it is purportedly for opposite ends. Let us consider a few concrete examples in order to see how these ideal-typical operations take on highly specific forms by exploring the reaction of certain segments of the leftist intelligentsia to the Yellow Vests. One of the most prominent public intellectuals in France, Alain Badiou, had remained remarkably silent on the movement for months, and this silence spoke volumes regarding his position. On March 10th of this year, he finally penned an article in which he explained that when the movement began he saw nothing in it that was politically innovative or progressive. On the contrary, he explains that the gilets jaunes are conservative and reactionary because they are demanding that the bourgeoisie maintain or increase their purchasing power (pouvoir d’achat). This is not economically possible, at least according to his ex cathedra pronouncement on the matter, which happens to perfectly accord with the position of the ruling class (this assessment has been convincingly refuted by Boris Kagarlitsky). Moreover, the Yellow Vests lack ideas, a strategic vision and organizational capabilities, and they are mired in individualism, a dangerous fear of the elite and intellectuals, as well as insipid conspiracy theories. He goes on to assert that this movement is just the latest incarnation of the ignorant acting out of the masses, and that all of the major uprisings of the last decade or so—from the so-called Arab Spring to Occupy and Nuit Debout—have failed miserably. What is lacking is a new Idea of communism, which is what he has on offer, and he identifies a small minority of Yellow Vests who might be interested in learning more about this and opening “red political schools” to educate the unruly horde.
Not surprisingly, Slavoj Žižek has made a similar potted Marxist argument, replete with the same supercilious and anti-populist juxtaposition between the ignorance of the people and the correctness of his idea. “The protestors,” he claims, “don’t really know what they want.” It is patently unclear, of course, how he knows this, or even why he would presume, à la Badiou, that ‘the people’ involved in the protests have more or less a single ‘subjectivity’ that he can tap into and elucidate from the outside. Although they can both be commended for emphasizing the importance of setting the movement’s sights on the capitalist system in its entirety, which is ultimately the source of the social, economic and political problems being diagnosed, the discursive radicality of these high priests of metaphysical Marxism simplistically contrasts chaotic struggles from below with the pristine idea of a society to come. One need not look far to discover the rank individualism of competitive intellectuals who market their idea-brands as the cure for social ills.
However, “a social revolution,” as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon explained, “does not occur at the behest of a master with a ready-made theory.” On the contrary, it emerges through complex and often messy battles between multiple contending agencies, and it develops through many transitional stages that allow for the consolidation of power, rather than magically transporting us from one socioeconomic order to the next. In this regard, Kagarlitsky’s critique of Žižek’s discussion of the Yellow Vests on Russia Today is absolutely on point: “The thesis about the need to change the system completely and at once sounds very radical, but it lacks political substance. Any change in the system consists of tens, and maybe even hundreds of concrete steps and measures that simply cannot be carried out simultaneously and at once. Moreover, almost all serious changes involve multiple phases. Transition from one phase to the next could happen in a very short period of time given a revolutionary situation, but the next step is impossible without the first one.”
If Jacques Rancière has been less prone to overtly position himself like Badiou and Žižek, he has nonetheless flatly proclaimed regarding the Yellow Vests that “those who revolt have no more reason to do so than not do so – and often even a little less reason.” The ‘people in revolt’ are thereby presented as an anonymous, thoughtless mass that suddenly rears its head for no apparent reason, in an inexplicable event that arises independently of any determined relation to material forces or the political philosophy and agency of those involved. He does not mention, for instance, that there have been a series of ongoing uprisings in France, including the Nuit Debout movement in 2016 and the extensive student occupations, protests and worker strikes in 2018. As many commentators and protestors themselves have highlighted, there are quite obvious reasons for this ongoing series of insurgencies, beginning with a widespread economic ‘ras-le-bol,’ and including the incessant failure of traditional frameworks of political representation like professional parties and unions. As in the case of May ‘68, however, uprisings often appear to come out of nowhere for bourgeois intellectuals, precisely because they are not involved in the persistent daily struggles out of which they emerge. This is also due, at least in part, to a relative blindness to contemporary forms of class struggle. It is highly revealing in this regard that Rancière, in an interview published on January 11th, 2019, seeks to redefine the relationship between the rich and the poor as symbolic rather than material, and then goes on to bleed the poor into the motley category of the oppressed—whose inner coherence is purely symbolic—instead of relying on a straightforward class analysis of the exploited: “Politics for me effectively consists in that struggle, that opposition [between rich and poor], simply that rich and poor do not correspond to specific sociological categories or to specific social groups: they function rather in the symbolic structure of this opposition. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street, to give an example, result from the conjunction of many groups, many identities, many forms of subjectivation. In this sense, the place of the oppressed is heterogeneous, it is multiple.”
Furthermore, given the innovative tactics introduced by the Yellow Vests, it is disappointing to say the least that these professional intellectuals have preferred their pre-established ideas to learning from the material realities of the movement and its organic intellectuals. Like Badiou, Rancière collapses the gilets jaunes into the recent history of square movements and occupations, without providing an account of all of the creative actions the Yellow Vests have introduced precisely in order to overcome some of the limitations seen in the occupation of public squares: regularly programmed days of action, ‘savage’ protests (manifestations sauvages), marches without permits combined with direct actions, flash blockades, the targeted destruction or seizure of state property (particularly toll booths and radar detectors), active strikes, and so forth. Whereas activists on the ground are participating in social struggle in motion and inventing new tactics, professional thinkers viewing them from a distance tend to apprehend them with their fixed and ready-made concepts.
In an interview on France Culture on the 12th of December, 2018, Rancière did provide more space for learning from the movement, and he commended its powerful contribution to contesting the given distribution of social roles and political actors. In his January 8th article, however, he peremptorily asserted that “revolts always get stuck halfway.” In a comment typical of the ‘post-socialist’ and anti-communist ennui of radical democrats, this is apparently inevitable due to what Rancière claims is the disappearance of any clear objective: “‘We’ll go all the way,’ they say every time. But this end of the way is not identifiable with any specific goal, especially since the so-called Communist states drowned revolutionary hope in blood and mud.” Even if he praises the movement’s de-functionalization of social roles and vocations, Rancière seems to think—or, rather, to know—that there is no way forward for the hoi polloi.
In this regard, he appears to share Balibar’s “methodological pessimism,” which is presumably the working assumption that most social movements will fail. Of course, these types of positions and predictions from the sidelines do little more than contribute to that very failure by closely adhering to the logic of a self-fulfilling prophesy: if one predicts failure and does little or nothing to concretely struggle against it (and might actually abet it), it is indeed more likely that such a ‘failure’ will occur. If that happens, intellectuals can have the theoretical satisfaction and professional record of ‘having been right,’ while never having risked their reputations in the actual struggle. Recalling Bertolt Brecht’s powerful mantra, we would be better served to replace this methodological pessimism by methodological activism: “Whoever struggles can lose. Whoever does not struggle has already lost.”
Balibar’s contribution to the debate on the gilets jaunes, like Bruno Latour’s, has also had the limitation of largely remaining within a reformist agenda that relies on some of the dominant ideological coordinates of the ruling class. In the case of Latour, who is clearly not on the Left, his self-righteous proclamations about what “no one knows”—except him—or what the elite has not explained to the uncouth masses (namely that there is a link between ecology and economics that has come to the fore in the struggle of the Yellow Vests) simply and succinctly eradicates, in one fell ideological swoop, entire traditions of anti-capitalist theory and practice. In an embarrassing admission of historical ignorance, he haughtily proclaims that no one yet knows how to deal with the conflict between economic ‘development’ and ecological degradation, as if this were a new problem for the liberal system of governance and its elite technocracy, rather than a constitutive feature of capitalist rule that has been diagnosed and struggled against for centuries by indigenist, Marxist, anarchist and revolutionary socialist traditions.
Balibar is much more nuanced and informed in his analysis. However, he has written an article in which he identifies “radicalization” as a danger for the movement and voices his stalwart opposition to “insurrectional violence” without providing a critical account of how the repressive state apparatus has allowed and caused property damage in order to label it ‘violence’ and use it both to discredit the movement and intensify its violent state repression. The ‘violence’ portrayed in the media spectacle surrounding the gilets jaunes, which is composed of extremely intermittent interruptions of the status quo (that occasionally lead to limited property damage and minor injuries to the police), is not the enduring structural violence of the status quo, nor is it the brutal violence of the state that is deployed in order to prohibit anyone from changing it. However, Balibar explicitly rejects as “nonsense” Brecht’s important rhetorical question, which goes to the heart of the relation between intermittent ‘violence’ and the structural violence of exploitation: “what is robbing a bank compared with founding one?” Finally, his proposition at the end of the article is to have municipalities “open their doors to the local organization of the movement” and declare themselves—as its faithful representatives once again—“ready to pass on its demands or proposals to the government.”
Given their important political role in consolidating media narratives and setting the parameters of debate, professional intellectuals can mobilize their social power in myriad ways to contribute to radical social movements, connect with their organic intellectuals, and foster their growth in productive ways. Drawing on the theoretical work that engages with the Yellow Vests, but with an eye to the larger problematic of how professional thinkers relate to uprisings, we can identify a series of operations that characterize the work of interventionist intellectuals.
First and foremost, they recognize that insurrections and social movements are complex phenomena with a multiplicity of agendas, practices and objectives. Rather than indulging in spectator politics and watching political events unfold while describing them in the third person, thereby confining their own agency to the sidelines of history, interventionist intellectuals embrace first-person politics and get involved. This is not necessarily because they simply ‘agree’ with the ‘movement’s agenda,’ nor is it that they blindly bracket all criticism. On the contrary, it is because they recognize that any insurrection is a swarm of activity with a plurality of agents pushing and pulling in different directions, and they want to make a material contribution to what they find to be the most fecund courses of action. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, to take but one example, concluded their January 21st article with an important call to arms: “political quietism plays into the opponent’s hands, and is therefore unforgivable. Urgency demands that we act in the movement as it is and with the gilets jaunes, taking them as they are and not as we would like them to be; resolutely supporting everything that goes in the direction of self-organization and democracy. Let’s repeat, it’s not over yet. The present is new, the future is open and our action matters, here and now.”
Secondly, interventionist intellectuals seek to learn from radical movements and study their new techniques, rather than preach to them and express their smug disdain for uncouth commoners. They recognize the creative power of collectivities, meaning their ability to produce ideas and practices that far surpass what any single individual can do. Even though their respective preoccupations with horizontalism and the multitude frame their engagements, David Graeber and Antonio Negri have both written articles—the latter has penned several—that seek to tease out the specific logics operative in these revolts and encourage the development of what they consider to be the most promising lines of action. The Radical Education Department (RED), a political organization that I work with, collectively generated an article entitled “Ten Lessons from the Yellow Vests,” which identifies the most innovative and transformative techniques mobilized by the movement and points to the features that could potentially help it evolve into a revolutionary anti-capitalist insurgency.
Given the enormity of the psychological war waged around any uprising, as well as the power of the propaganda apparatus, intellectuals can play a significant role in both dismantling the ideological framings of an insurrection and providing a rigorous materialist account of what is actually happening on the ground. To take but one dimension of this war for hearts and minds, Frédéric Lordon has attacked the role of ‘violence’ as an ideological operator used to both efface the unrelenting social violence of systemic poverty and to condemn the revolt for the supposed ‘violence’ of activists whose agency and objectives are eradicated behind the obfuscating category of the ‘casseur’ (which literally means ‘someone who breaks things’). In my own work with the collective RED, I have sought to materially deconstruct the double movement of the spectacle of violence that seeks to render the spectacular violence of capitalist rule and state repression invisible—or, at the very least, justified—while simultaneously creating a spectacle of violence out of any resistance to it.
Intellectuals can also mobilize their particular expertise in the service of the movement in various ways. For instance, Sophie Wahnich has drawn on her extensive research on the French Revolution to tease out points of comparison with the current revolts and also reframe the uprisings in relationship to the deep history and potential futures of revolutionary politics.
Finally, professional intellectuals can contribute to the radicalization of social movements by identifying their most revolutionary elements, collaborating with their organic intellectuals, proposing tactics, identifying ideological and practical traps, partaking in their healthy forms of immanent self-critique, and outlining potentials for them to grow into mass egalitarian and anti-capitalist revolutionary struggles. This requires, of course, intervening directly in them with all of their complex and often uncontrollable forces. The point, for interventionist intellectuals, is not ‘to be right’ in some abstract sense by diligently adhering to the discursive and practical protocols of the academy. It is rather to put ideas to the much more difficult test of material reality by participating as cultural warriors and comrades in a common struggle, and by learning from mistakes that are made along the way in order to help move movements closer to consequential gains and substantial victories.
As professionals tasked with reproducing the social relations of production, intellectuals play an important political and economic role in the everyday functioning of society. They need not commit themselves to a particular political cause in order to be political, because their very existence and social role is already political. Any explicit commitment on their part during a particular uprising should therefore reflect back on the normal functioning of their practice. For it is not only in times of spectacular uprisings that the political role of the intellectual should be scrutinized. It is also in the daily humdrum of educational business-as-usual.
This is why interventionist thinkers are not to be confused with spectacle intellectuals, who flock to an uprising to ratchet up their symbolic capital but immediately disappear when it comes to the daily grind of organizing. Interventionists understand that politics is a quotidian affair, and that whatever happens during an insurgency is largely structured by all of the organizing endeavors that preceded it. They are movement intellectuals who are invested in the everyday struggles to educate, agitate and organize in the name of an egalitarian future.
This article was written within the framework of the RED collective and benefitted from our collaborative research and writing process. A special thanks to Rahman Bouzari for his assistance with references.