Editorial: The ambivalent and undecided (dis)order of things
As this double-issue was sent to the publishers, France was insurgent. Its peripheries and its cities have been incandescent with the riotous anger of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (or yellow, HiVis, jackets). As with many other instances of ‘[sub]urban rage’ (Dikeç 2018), the Gilets Jaunes emerged out of, but soon overflowed, a particular grievance; an environmentally minded, but regressively targeted, rise on fuel taxes that followed hot on the heels of a significant tax break for the rich. Indeed, as the initial social media call-out has developed into a powerful, fluid and leaderless movement, it has become clear in the heterogeneity of the participants, the varied and often contradictory politics expressed on the streets, and the increasingly brutal police coercion that has followed, that Macron and the Fifth Republic face a profound crisis of legitimacy and authority.
Reflecting the ambivalent political energies of the post-crisis conjuncture, of what has been called the long-2011 (Enright & Rossi 2017), the motley coalition of Gilets Jaunes cannot be mapped along clear political dividing lines and refuses to be channelled by established political parties or organisations. Yet, despite its constitutive insurgency – its seeming spontaneity, structureless self-organisation, and lack of concrete political programme – we need be in little doubt about the broad social composition of the Gilets Jaunes. As Gabriel (2018) Bristow has noted in one of the more perceptive pieces on the subject:
“[In the Gilets Jaunes,] the ubiquitous post-crash spectre of the immiserated middle — public sector workers, students, small business employees, shopkeepers and artisans — joins a host of precarious workers and the long-term unemployed. The former have seen their futures darken suddenly, and the latter never had one in the first place.”
We can be certain too, even in the absence of a formal set of political demands, of what this movement stands against and of what is at stake. According to one poll, 33% of the Gilets Jaunes reject the left-right divide, but tellingly of those in yellow who do self-identify on the political spectrum 57.6% were on the left or far-left, 18.1% were on the right or far-right – almost completely absent from the ranks are those who would distinguish themselves as centrist (6%) (Verso, 2018). After 10 years of zombie-like persistence following the Global Financial Crisis, the so-called political centre, the post-democratic governing system of technocratic and financialized neoliberalism that President Macron promised, with Jupiterian pretensions, to revivify, has been marked as the problem.
Whatever it is that the Gilets Jaunes want, it is resoundingly not neoliberal capitalism redux. It is not rising wealth inequality and rentierism; it is not declining living standards, precarious working conditions and crises of social reproduction; it is not a green washed ecological transition paid for by the poor. Contra centrism’s fixes, the Gilets Jaunes speak to the deep roots of the present crises and the structural (even rupturing) change that is required.
Joe Penny & Anna Richter (2018) The ambivalent and undecided (dis)order of things, City, 22:5-6, 609-611, DOI:10.1080/13604813.2018.1571771