The revolt of the Yellow Vests: My interview with Atlantico.fr

[The following is my interview with Nicolas Goetzmann, chief economics editor of Atlantico.fr, a French online publication.  It was translated into French and published Saturday, March 23.  Francophones who wish to read it can link to it here.

The interview was in writing.  I have slightly edited it to make the interlocutors sound slightly wiser.]

1 – Your 2014 book The Revolt of the Public has been presented as a kind of prophecy of the Yellow Vest movement in France. To what extent do you think the ideas developed in your book match the French situation?

My book’s thesis is that the decisive conflict of the twenty-first century isn’t between left and right, or between Islam and the West, or even between democracy and tyranny.  The pivotal struggle today pits an angry public, newly empowered by a dazzling array of communications technologies, against the elites who run the great institutions of modern society – very much including government.

These institutions received their form and spirit during the industrial age.  They function from the top down, hierarchically, methodically, ponderously, obsessed with five-year plans and pseudo-scientific position papers.  They make extraordinary claims of competence:  that they can deal with unemployment and inequality, for example.  To retain their legitimacy, therefore, industrial institutions require a monopoly over the information in their own domains.  Today, that monopoly has been swept away by the tsunami of information set in motion, around the turn of the millennium, by the digital revolution.  A roar of strange new voices now drowns out government pronouncements and explanations.  An overabundance of information, it turns out, is subversive of every kind of authority.

The elites still possess all the guns and most of the wealth – but they know they have lost their authority, their ability to command, and they are disoriented and demoralized.  The public in revolt can organize online and erupt in street protests, seemingly out of nowhere, at any time.  And the elites are always surprised:  from Tahrir Square to Brexit to the Yellow Vests, governments were shocked by the sudden radical change in the political landscape.  The elites had no idea of what was coming, and they have been unable to learn since.

Now, I don’t believe in prophecy.  I think that, in principle, we can’t know the future of complex systems like human societies.  Accurately describing the present should be the analyst’s task:  and that’s hard enough.

That said, the Yellow Vests and their movement match my description (not prophecy) of the public in revolt to a remarkable extent.  To begin with, they gathered below the digital horizon, in Facebook “anger groups” where they could whip themselves into a frenzy of grievance and repudiation and yet remain beneath the notice of the media and the politicians.  Then tens of thousands appeared, as if by magic, on the streets, branded by the yellow vests and a consistent anti-Macron rhetoric.  They lack leaders.  In fact, they are anti-leader, a super-egalitarian feature of movements that begin online.  They lack programs.  Programs pertain to government, and government is never to be trusted.  They lack a coherent ideology.  They are neither left nor right, and their identity is a sort of non-identity:  they are nobodies who wish to be recognized as something.

Above all, with absolute conviction, they stand against.

The political web is a fractured place, crowded with sects and splinters of opinion.  The public is not one but many.  Positive proposals divide and frustrate it.  The public can become a political actor, unified in purpose, only in the act of repudiation:  in the negation of the social and political established order.  And that is the sentiment that pervades the public’s online voices – the rhetoric of rage that attracts more attention the more vehement and violent it becomes.  Ultimately, a revolt driven entirely by negation risks tipping into nihilism at every occasion.  Vandalism in that case is a virtue.  Destruction appears as a form of progress – a razing of corrupt, exploitive structures.

The Yellow Vests have been an almost ideal illustration of this trajectory and these attitudes.  They began with the angry rhetoric of the Facebook groups and ended by smashing at the Arc de Triomphe and burning banks.  They are also typical in one more respect.  The public never takes “yes” for an answer.  I can’t think of a single street protest in my research that was disarmed because of policy concessions by government.  The grievance that ignited the Yellow Vests’ rage was a fuel tax – but the rage, and the protests, continued after the tax was withdrawn.

2 – Emmanuel Macron started his 2017 presidential campaign by publishing a book, Revolution, in order to convince French citizens of his ability to deliver a real change. Ironically, a IFOP/Atlantico poll published this week shows that 39% of the French people think a revolution is the solution to the situation in France, far more than in Italy (28%), in Germany (20%) or in Spain (13%). Are we seeing here another piece of the puzzle described in the Revolt of the Public?

My short answer to the last question would be:  no.  Revolution means conquering power, and the public has shown no interest in doing that.  The clearest thinker on this subject (as on many others) is Pierre Rosanvallon.  In Counter-Democracy he writes: “Radicalism no longer looks forward to un grand soir, a ‘great night’ of revolutionary upheaval… To be radical is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.”  That, of course, is the rhetoric of rage – the preferred form of discourse by the public in the digital era.

Nobody, public or elites, believes revolution is desirable.  Worse, nobody believes it’s possible.  What are the alternatives to liberal democracy?  What would be the new order?  The Chinese “model”?  Putinism?  Liberal democracy endures despite the public’s anger and distrust because at present no conceivable alternatives exist.  This provides a minimum of political stability but also feeds the stream of nihilism:  better nothing, a blank page, than the status quo.  Our conceptual sterility has also made it possible for some to embrace the corpses of old ideals, like socialism and nationalism, that were long ago laid to rest by history.

I suspect that the 39 percent of the French who voted for revolution in the poll meant many things by this gesture.  No doubt a message of repudiation was intended, but there is probably a cultural element as well.  I’m American, but I was born in Cuba, and I have observed that in France, as in Cuba, the word “revolution” is nearly synonymous with “patriotism.”

3 – In the same poll, 81% of the French say that the opposition between the elites and “the people” should be strong in the short term. You made a distinction between “the people” and “the public” in your book. Today, who is the public in France, and what relationship does this public have to the elites? 

As I use the term, the public is not “the people,” though it often claims to be.  It’s not “the masses,” which is a concept from the last century.  It’s not exactly “the crowd,” either, though in the day of the mobile phone the crowd and the public share an intimate relationship.  I took my definition from Walter Lippmann, who said that the public is not a fixed body of individuals, but merely the persons who have been mobilized by interest in a particular affair.  Thus the Yellow Vests are mobilized by the affair of getting rid of Macron.  The Brexiteers were mobilized by the affair of getting out of the EU.  Trump voters were mobilized by the affair of “draining the swamp” in Washington DC.  It is always some sharp interest, some irritant, that brings the public to life.  Today, that almost invariably means the repudiation of something.

The French public is like the public everywhere.  It is fractured along many fronts.  It can unite and mobilize only in opposition to the established order.  But it lacks alternatives to the ruling system, and it has no interest in seizing power:  so it lapses, on occasion, into nihilism.

The French elites rest uneasily at the top of the pyramid.  They once ruled supreme in a national system that gave the top greater power than most democracies tolerate.  Now they are besieged by protests and uncertain about what comes next.  In a very real sense, the French elites created the French public and by their sheer blindness provoked it to the present state of unhappiness.  The elites never knew such people existed.  They were invisible from the top.

Although he is usually portrayed as the last hope of the status quo, Emmanuel Macron is a creature of the revolt of the public.  En Marche didn’t exist a year before it won the election of 2017.  That is unprecedented in the Fifth Republic.  Macron had never held elected office before he won the presidency.  That is also unprecedented.  These are new people – literally so, as many citizens entered politics for the first time to support the Macron campaign.  That is the mark of a populist movement.  Macron’s language, which exhorts the French to return to their former greatness, often echoes that of Trump.

A number of adventures and accidents led to Macron’s election, but once in office he had within his grasp an astonishing possibility:  the fusion of the tremendous political energies released by the public with the permanence and purpose of the institutions.  That never happened.  I won’t pretend to inhabit the mind of the French president, and explain what went wrong.  He was inexperienced.  Possibly, he lost his way.  He wrote a book called Revolution yet spoke of an Olympian presidency and gave his first major speech in the Palace of Versailles.  He is ambitious.  My guess is that he was tempted by the crown of the Holy Roman Empire:  the dream of becoming the next Angela Merkel.  He was, when all is said, an elite of the elites, a graduate of the grandes écoles, and he threw in his lot with his class.  The people around him speak at best with ignorance and usually with contempt about the public.  Gilles Le Gendre told an interviewer that the government had been “too intelligent, too subtle, too technical” for ordinary people to understand its achievements.

The 81 percent in the poll who spoke of strong opposition between public and elites surely had statements of this sort in mind.

4 – How could we reconcile the nihilism of the public and the government’s claims of competence? 

I would rephrase the question:  How can we reconcile an unruly public to the democratic system?  Here is the great dilemma of our era:  our riddle of the Sphinx.  The answer is usually couched in economic terms.  The public is said to want more money, more jobs, more government programs.  That may well be true in specific cases.  But I note that in no instance that I am aware of have the poorest or most marginalized members of society participated in the public’s revolt.  The Yellow Vests are not from the most destitute classes in France.  They own laptops and smartphones and they know how to gather on Facebook.  The indignados in Spain were mostly university educated.  Similarly, the crowds in Tahrir Square were the children of Egypt’s educated elites.  The Occupy Wall Street protests in the US lost their charm when homeless persons began to infiltrate the protesters’ camp.

I don’t have any towering solutions – and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have one.  We are in the early stages of a massive structural transformation.  The industrial model that for the last 150 years has become for humanity almost like part of the natural world is now being battered to bits.  This includes the industrial model of democracy:  top-down political parties, executive-dominated government, cozy arrangements between politics and media.  Many of the old ways are already gone with the wind.

But democracy predates the industrial age, and it is not too much to hope that it will survive it.

When I read the public’s complaints, not just in France but globally, I find two overriding themes:  distance and failure.  The public feels that elected officials climb to the top of a very steep pyramid, then disappear from sight.  Presidents aren’t Olympian gods.  Politicians aren’t Hollywood stars.  That is contrary to the democratic spirit.  When the public demands increased proximity, frightened elites draw away.  Le Gendre will explain that political elites are “too smart” for this conversation.  Hilary Clinton will observe that, in any case, they are dealing with “deplorables.”

If we want to reconcile the public to democracy, our political elites must behave as if they believe in equality.  They must speak in plain language rather than jargon.  They must participate in the endless digital conversation.  And they must do more than talk:  they must listen.  They must come down from the pyramid, with fewer bodyguards, fewer limousines, and be seen to belong to the same mortal species with the public.

Failure is less an empirical assessment about the functioning of the modern state than a perception, not entirely false, that much is promised and much less is delivered.  Politicians make extraordinary claims about their ability to “solve” unemployment, say, or economic inequality.  But society isn’t a mathematical equation.  Complex historic conditions are not liable to be “solved.”  Candidates thus run for office on promises that will often destroy their credibility once they are elected to government.

If we want to reconcile the public to democracy, the elites will have to embrace the limits to human knowledge, and learn to speak with humility.  They will not tempt the public by promising them all the kingdoms of the world.  They will not speak as if the normal state of humanity is utopia, so that any fall from perfection must be blamed on selfish and corrupt forces – their opponents.  They will have the integrity to speak the truth as they see it, and they will have the courage to say “I was wrong” when necessary.

None of this will be easy.  None of it, I imagine, will come without a struggle.  The elites like their distance from the deplorables.  That’s the joy of being elite.  The public, for its part, wants to believe in miracles.  Politicians who speak the truth in all humility will have to overcome much prejudice and persuade many cynics.  Is that an impossibility?  I have come down against prophecy:  I can’t say.  But at some point one has to move forward on faith.  The democratic system has weathered turbulent times before – for example, in the 1930s, when totalitarian governments appeared to own the future.  There is no reason to believe that democracy can’t surmount the present crisis of authority.

5 – After the decline of Yellow Vest violence in the beginning of the year, new violence broke out last Saturday in France. The French government has chosen to respond to this security question by deploying – symbolically – French army units against the Yellow Vests’ next street protest. Where does the path of this logic lead?  

nce protests begin, governments have very limited options.  Weakness will be exploited by the protesters.  Shows of force will produce shocking digital images that scandalize independent observers.  The current government in France is caught in this vise and keeps wriggling this way and that.  First it offered a number of concessions, including the withdrawal of the fuel tax.  Then it staged a “great debate” with Macron on one side and shadowy figures on the other.  Now the talk has turned to deploying the military against protesters.

It may well happen that the Yellow Vests become exhausted and end their protests.  That happened in Spain with the indignados and in Israel with the “social justice” movement.  These protesters were able to remain irreconcilably against for only so long; in the end, they lost interest in their affair and went home.  But government action had very little to do with that.

I take the question to mean that civil war or military authoritarianism may be immediate threats to French democracy.  I can only say that, despite the rhetoric of rage so prevalent today, organized violence between hostile parties – protesters and the government, for example – has yet to occur on the scale of civil war anywhere in the democratic world.  Individual nihilists and small sects have perpetrated atrocities, as in Bataclan theater and more recently in Christchurch.  Can such tactical horrors be expanded to all of society?  ISIS achieved this in the Levant.  But let’s be clear:  in democratic nations, the horrors so far have been mostly verbal and virtual.

And the image of Emmanuel Macron as authoritarian is, frankly, risible.  Invoking the military is a sign of weakness.  The malady of democratic governments in this turbulent age isn’t that they have become dictatorial, but that they have lost the trust of the public and thus their authority.  That is equally true for Macron, Merkel, Salvini, and Trump.  They rule from the top of disintegrating pyramids, and can only muster weakness in the face of nihilism.  If we accept that reform is imperative, every attempt at reform must start by acknowledging this reality.

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2 Responses to The revolt of the Yellow Vests: My interview with Atlantico.fr

  1. Michel Vaquin says:

    I am reading your book and just discovered your interview with Atlantico
    . Being French I find it one of the best analysis I have read so far about the “gilets jaunes “. Thank you
    If you ever come to this side of the Atlantic I would be interested to meet you

  2. Pingback: 💰💰💰 The future of wealth management #115 - Nicolas Colin

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