PM Press Blog

Hats off to the Gilets Jaunes!

By Raoul Vaneigem,
31 December 2022

Translated from the French by Dave Barbu and Yvonne Volcan

[updated 9 Jan 2023. File name: <<salut gilets jaunes 2022 ENG deliv.docx>>.] 

In our firmament of mediocrity, the emergence of the Gilets Jaunes in France was a clap of thunder. Their irruption was the obscure catalyst of an insurrectional force then stirring all over the world. History’s irony decreed that they make their appearance in a country where abjection and idiocy masked the enlightenment of an earlier day. Their paradoxical blend of peaceful intent and unrelenting obstinacy stunned rulers snoozing contentedly in the conviction that the masses were brainwashed by consumerism.

The colorlessness of heads of state, notabilities and sundry members of the elite was so readily mistaken for excellence that all the president’s chariot needed to do was to surf the wave –– or, in the reassuring words of Sully Prudhomme, “sail over a volcano.” 

From the Left to the Right, the Gilets Jaunes were met with unanimous scorn. Who were these outsiders suddenly reinspired by the Paris Commune, the joy of May 1968, or the calm self-assurance of the Zapatistas -– movements many of them knew precious little about? It was grotesquely hilarious to see so many intellectuals and specialists in critical thinking hastening to debase and abuse people discovering, in their own selves and amongst themselves, the existence of a life from which they were (and as we still are) kept at a cruel distance by the demands of everyday life. What the Gilets Jaunes succeeded spontaneously in spreading was a practical, playful and poetic consciousness of that withheld life.

The Gilets Jaunes are neither plebs nor proles. For the State and for the conservatives, they are just troublemakers who should be shot. Fascist-leaning populists thought they could gobble them up, but they choked on the first mouthful. Leftists would have loved to drape them in antique proletarian rags, but when union and political organizations rushed forward with counsel their application was declared null and void by the insurgents. 

The informal self-organisation of the Gilets Jaunes rests on a few simple and radical principles: no leaders, no political or union structure, no self-appointed representatives, absolute priority to the human person. No insurrectional movement has ever shown from the very start such a resolute demand for a world utterly distinct from the predation, power, sacrifice and militarism of our present-day societies.

The seismic activity now jarring society worldwide is not rioting, nor is it a rebellion or a revolution. It signals the revival of a life that the civilization of profit has condemned to death. It is breaking the shackles of an age-old apathy. Its consciousness did not spring in eighteenth-century fashion from the clear-sightedness of brilliant thinkers. Its voice is anonymous, as yet inarticulate. A still anxious voice–frightened even–for having dared the impossible. But it is undeniably present, and can do without words because it knows that words too must be reinvented. From Chiapas to Iran, a poetry of social subversion is carrying gentle, ephemeral but startingly irresistible waves to the most disparate of shores. 

At first the reasons given seemed trivial: taxation, metro tickets, a contemptuous State. Many insurgents still stick to survival issues. But nobody is duped: the real question is more deep-seated. The joy that set traffic circles, streets and hearts to dancing arose from a will to live free. No social struggle has ever demonstrated such perseverance, such cool determination. Everything suggests that the phenomenon transcended the instigators of the movement, because – as they will realize sooner or later – the transcendence was within them. 

It doesn’t take a genius to single out racists among the Gilets Jaunes — or anti-Semites, homophobes, misogynists, retro-fascists, retro-Bolsheviks, psychopaths, retards, or what have you. Traditionally crowds have always set individualism over the individual; their forte has always been to push living intelligence aside in favor of the violence of repressed emotions. By contrast the Gilets Jaunes have from the outset upheld a sense of the human that rejects predatory reflexes and fosters mutual aid and individual autonomy. Even if this movement disappears utterly, it will still have sown the seeds of an insurrection of everyday life–a spring “that blooms in every season.”

I have long despised all flags, but I realized that the emblems of France, as appropriated by the Gilets Jaunes, were not unfurled in the nauseating effluvium of nationalism but flapped in the breeze of the French Revolution, harbinger of our present revolutions and those to come. Two centuries of chauvinism have erased from memories the fact that the grandiloquent and bloodthirsty Marseillaise was once the inaugural anthem of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century upheavals that shook the world.

Poetry does not fall from the sky. It is born in the lower depths of existence. No yardstick, no mere numbers can measure the intensity of something propagated by resonance and not by marching orders. Once free of leaders, manipulators and self-tooting intellectuals, the upsurge of the life forces spontaneously ushers in authentically experienced freedom.

Stupidity is contagious. Intelligence is empathetic. A wee drop of radicalism can quicken the most barren ground. Quality always routs quantity. Pay no mind to numbers! The civilization of figures is done. Let the boosters of violent despair call you utopians. Their foul race has preached for centuries that life blinds us and that death alone brings clarity.

Only by way of small local groups can the struggle for the quality of life and the removal of afflictions have meaning. Cut off from its living roots, the project of human emancipation is a mere abstraction. The consciousness of all that lives is our radicalism. That consciousness is inalienable.