The 'Yellow Jackets' weren't the first leaderless movement, and they won't be the last
Carne Ross - independent diplomat and accidental anarchist - is a good friend of The Alternative UK. Here he’s written an article for the Guardian on “leaderless revolutions” (the title of his 2011 book), the trigger being the “Yellow Jackets” protests in France.
The gilets jaunes movement in France is a leaderless political uprising. It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last. Occupy, the Arab spring and #MeToo are other recent examples of this new politics. Some of it is good. Some of it is not: a leaderless movement, self-organised on Reddit, helped elect Donald Trump. But leaderless movements are spreading, and we need to understand where they come from, what is legitimate action and, if you want to start one, what works and what doesn’t.
The Arab spring began with the self-immolation of one despairing young man in Tunisia; the revolt rapidly spread across the region, just as protests have proliferated in France. In highly connected complex systems, such as the world today, the action of a single agent can suddenly trigger what complexity theorists call a “phase shift” across the entire system.
We cannot predict which agent or what event might be that trigger. But we already know that the multiplying connections of our worldoffer an unprecedented opportunity for the rise and spread of leaderless movements.
Leaderless movements spring from frustration with conventional top-down politics, a frustration shared by many, not only those on the streets. Polls suggest the gilets jaunes are supported by a large majority of the French public. Who believes that writing to your MP, or signing a petition to No 10 makes any difference to problems such as inequality, the chronic housing shortage or the emerging climate disaster? Even voting feels like a feeble response to these deep-seated problems that are functions not only of government policies but more of the economic system itself.
…Complexity science tells us something else important. System-wide shifts happen when the system is primed for change, at so-called criticality. In the Middle East there was almost universal anger at the existing political status quo, so it took only one match to light the fire of revolt. Meeting people in colleges and towns across the UK but also in the US (where I lived until recently) you can hear the mounting frustration with a political and economic system that is totally unresponsive to the needs of the 99%, and offers no credible answer to the climate emergency.
There will be more leaderless movements to express this frustration, just as there will be more rightwing demagogues, like Trump or Boris Johnson, who seek to exploit it to their own advantage. For the right ones to prevail, we must insist on nonviolence as well as commitment to dialogue with – and not denunciation of – those who disagree. Messily, a new form of politics is upon us, and we must ensure that it peacefully and democratically produces deep systematic reform, not the counter-reaction of the authoritarians. Get ready.
More here. And if you have the stamina, here’s a huge meditation on the gilet jaunes by French political philosopher Etienne Balibar. The crucial paragraphs:
…the gilets jaunes have in brief proposed a contemporary alternative to the decline of politics, based on the self-representation (and therefore the presence in person) of ‘indignant’ citizens in the public square, with the support of their localities and the technical assistance of ‘network’ communication.
The movement is both powerful, by the support it generates, by its despair, by its novelty, by the strategic dimension of the double ‘problem’ that caused and triggered it: tax injustice, the economic and ecological contradiction.
And at the same time it is fragile, like any revolt that depends on the endurance of the individuals who bear it, without the backing of any organization, and against whom the privileged classes, a good part of the media, and especially the machinery of the state, will gradually unite.
…What they need is rather a counter-populism, equally distant both from anti-popular oligarchical politics and from the ideological populisms of left or right. Quite a conundrum!