The Yellow Vests seem to be met with much incomprehension on these shores. To understand what’s happening in France, one needs to remember that the country (and the world in general) is still living through the debate between Voltaire and Rousseau – what Nietzsche called the “unfinished business of civilisation”. A market society and the rule of reason, Voltaire wrote, would lead to inevitable progress. That same society, Rousseau replied, would unmoor individuals: a society based upon the desire of individuals to surpass one another in wealth, without actually delivering the means to do so, would only end in anger and eventual revolt. The Yellow vests (and the public support they enjoy) are an indication that France (and it’s not alone in this) is swinging away from the hollowness of Voltaire and back towards Rousseau.
It’s not hard to see why: today’s capitalism promises a society based on talent and the pursuit of wealth. But everywhere is undercutting social structures put in place to make this possible. It promises equality but is marked by such an extreme of wealth concentration that would make Louis XVI’s Versailles blush red. It promises democracy but is everywhere undercutting civil liberties. It talks of man at the centre of everything but automation – and tactless boasting - is threatening to make most people socially and economically redundant. This is not just in France, but around the world.
So, one would ask: why is a rich country like France exploding? The question itself betrays the survival of the historical illiteracy of modernisation theory. It goes something like this: poverty drives revolutions, which create a growing economy and jobs. Of course, revolutions don’t take place in poor countries alone: Iran was oil-rich and Russia was an empire at the time of their revolutions. And it’s not the poor that are revolutionary: lawyers and writers led the French and Russian revolutions and clerics, merchants and university students led the Iranian one. That’s why Orwell’s big brother spied mostly on the middle class, and left the poor to drink, debauchery and the lottery. In short, revolutionaries don’t come from the ranks of the poor or poor states. What angers them is relative, and not absolute, differences, particularly when the game seems to obviously rigged.
But modernisation theory, coupled with the trickle-down economics of neoliberalism, essentially boiled down to policies that sought to assuage the poor by giving more to the rich. With a theory this silly, the question is not why the yellow vests have come but, rather, what on earth took them so long to appear?
Yes, the yellow vests are contradictory: fewer taxes and more services, more wages and lower prices, cheaper diesel and more environmental protection. So what? Are they any more contradictory than a movement that not so long ago wanted to combine industry and autobahns with Teutonic forest-worship? One cannot understand Rousseau’s anger (nor indeed much of that illogical species called human beings) through the cold logic of Voltaire. Contradiction is not a disqualifying factor in such movements.
The real point of the yellow vests is that manufacturing another Macron is no longer an option. Everybody has discovered that the emperor really is naked after all. The question now is as follows: now that Weimar-France has ripened for something, will it be Le Pen who will be doing the harvesting?
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