From a distance, it's hard to understand the nuance of the mass "gilets jaunes" protests that rocked France; with one in five French people identifying as a yellow vest and more vests marching in Basra, Baghdad and Alberta (and with Egypt's autocrats pre-emptive cracking down on the sale of yellow vests ahead of elections), it's clearly a complicated and fast-spreading phenomenon.
The complexity stems in part from the leaderless nature of the group; participants claim they have no formal membership structure and no formal policy-setting mechanism. They're like Anonymous: an "ensemble" (to use anthropologist Gabriella Coleman's very useful frame). You become a yellow vest by putting on a yellow vest. An action is a yellow vest action if people in yellow vests do it.
(This leads to tortured phrasing, as in Caroline Haskins's excellent Motherboard piece, where each yellow vest action is attributed to "certain Yellow Vest protestors" -- this will be familiar to anyone who followed Anonymous.)
So while the original yellow vest protests kicked off over a proposed fuel tax, the actual views of individual yellow vesters are hugely variable. There are factions that want cheap petrol, and factions that want subsidies for a green new deal that will let them get off petrol all together.
But what unites them -- and other yellow jackets around the world -- is rage at oligarchic policies, whether these are aimed at fighting climate change or addressing other problems. French President Emmanuel Macron decided to fight climate change in France by taxing the poor, while transferring masses of wealth to the billionaires who are responsible for the climate crisis, slashing inheritance taxes and weakening labour protections.
This is the neoliberal model for fighting climate change: start from the premise that the rich will not accept any limits on their power, and put the screws to everyone else, on the theory that they have no political power to push back.
Even the yellow vests who are most in love with petrol are really pushing back against neoliberalism: they live in rural France, where de-industrialisation, depopulation, and a gutting of services and hollowing out of towns means that cars are an absolute essential for their daily lives. Taxing fuel is taxing the means of existence.
For years, the French economist Thomas Piketty has warned that we have attained levels of inequality last seen in the days before the French started building guillotines. Today, yellow vests are literally erecting guillotines in Paris.
Anti-neoliberalism has two faces: the right-wing critique (which agrees with neoliberals that some people are better than others, but worries that the wrong people are getting ahead -- think of the American right's hostility to welfare expressed through the incorrect belief that brown people are its primary beneficiaries); and the left-wing critique (which sees universal sufferage and broad prosperity as the key to a better world).
Recent anti-neoliberal movements like the Tea Party and Occupy fit well into these categories, and during their heydays, it was obvious that their policies and grievance overlapped in many places. Today, left-wing anti-oligarchs like Bernie Sanders sometimes win support from people who were once sympathetic to the Tea Party, who recognize that his platform requires holding the looters they despise to account.
The yellow vests seem like a coalition of those two strands of anti-oligarchy, and that's why they're so hard to pin down. They're not a movement that can ever hold power, because they have fundamental disagreements about what kind of world they want to make. But they're a movement that can bring power down, because they're united on what's standing in the way of those worlds.
The WTO did not add $1,700 in annual income to American households. New global markets did spread consumer benefits most everywhere, but they were less often accompanied by human rights or democracy. And our invasions in the Middle East so destabilized the region that multiple nation-states simply dissolved into hell-zones of chaos and nonstop violence. This led among other things to a refugee crisis that is part of the plotline in recent European upheavals.
Folks like Boot and fellow ex-neocons David Frum and Bill Kristol are now rebranding themselves as anti-Trumpers and would-be leaders of #Resistance. They seem to be asking for one last shot. Kristol even let slip that a post-Trump plan for America might be “regime change in China.”
These dolts don’t seem to get that a gasbag like Trump only became a plausible political choice after decades of false promises and misgovernment by people who think we should be ruling the world in pith helmets, and lack the sense to avoid saying things like “What’s wrong with elitism?” out loud.
Their evangelical insistence on pushing centrism — which is just a nicer word for “trickle-down economics” — is what got us into this mess in the first place.
The French Protests Do Not Fit a Tidy Narrative [Matt Taibbi/Rolling Stone]
‘Eat The Rich’: Still a Popular Idea in French Uprisings, Especially With the Yellow Vests [Christopher Dickey/The Daily Beast]
The Paris ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Show the Flaws of Capitalism [Caroline Haskins/Motherboard]
(Image: ActuaLitté, CC-BY-SA)