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From Negri’s commentary on “yellow vests” it follows that something incomprehensible is happening — “There is in France something that is rising up with violence”. It is only clear that this “something” is undoubtedly significant.
The significance of it is evidenced by mass support (two thirds of the population approve of the general movement) and incidents of insubordination of fire and police officers.
The incomprehensibility is expressed in the fundamental absence of the agenda and the refusal of the “yellow vests” to negotiate with the existing political structures.
According to Negri,
“The movement that has grown from these demands is not, then, a traditional social movement — or at least it does not take the form traditional to the 20th century, where the movement presents its objectives for the institutions of the state to accept or refuse following a process of mediation via intermediary social bodies. This is a multitudinous movement, that does not want intermediation, that is the expression of the enormous social suffering so far accumulated”
Such form of insurrection somehow resembles a teenage rebellion, which looks meaningless from the point of view of parents, but is important in the process of forming a teenager’s independence. It points to the emergence of autonomy — the reluctance to be dependent on the guardianship of a parenteral figure, no matter how comfortable such dependence might be.
National states are modeled after the traditional family. The French counter-revolutionary philosopher Louis de Bonald regarded the state as an extended version of the family, in which the father is an active power (the mediator between the will of God and the people), and the child is a passive subject of power.
While previous forms of movements represented an appeal to the parental figure of the state, the “yellow vests” might be seen as the embodiment of the desire to break the parent-child relationship. They do not represent a request for salvation addressed to the state; by refusing to negotiate, they undermine the very meaning of the traditional state.
According to Negri, while the previous struggles “bore the mark of a liberation, this one has a desperate face”. It is a massive inconsolable despair, which cannot take shape: it doesn’t know what to demand, without hope, it embodies the tragedy of the collapse of a known order.
Negri also claims that the yellow vests movement “recalls the prison revolts more than the mass worker’s joy of sabotage.” Despair is a grown-up feeling. Compared to desperate acts, the joy of sabotage is child’s misbehaviour, which does not abolish the figure of guardianship and control, but only displays a relatively harmless disobedience, thereby only asserting or modifying the position of submission.
The lack of form is directly connected with despair and lack of hope. Hopes and dreams appeal to the past, that is, always nostalgic. When dreaming, one imagines the improved version of the past. One still remains within their usual cognitive map of the world and from within tries to formulate the optimal image of what is desirable. The truly new is unimaginable, one can not dream about it. Within the existing order it is felt as collapse, emptiness and despair — when dreaming is no longer possible and there is nothing more to hope for.
A revolutionary act is an act of despair — come what may, since the present is unbearable. Desperation bears seeds of a willingness to take risks and destroy the old, despite the fact that, along with its repressiveness, the past has provided all the comfort imaginable today.
In Negri’s analogy of prison revolt, prison should be thought as the one where we are imprisoned from birth and therefore we do not know what the world outside of its walls looks like. At a certain moment we began to feel our constraint so clearly that, despite the danger, we are willing to take the risk and break the prison walls, completely unaware of what awaits us outside.
Apart the fact that the prison was repressing our existence, it was also the only form of wellbeing available to us. We followed its order, knew how to survive in its conditions. There are absolutely no guarantees that it is better outside the prison, rather the opposite, since uncertainty is associated with stress.
It is not yet possible to clearly imagine a world in which the whole familiar pattern of a paternalistic state, political parties, presidents will be sent to hell. Monarchies and slavery looked just as serious and indestructible in their own time, it was also difficult to imagine that this would end.
Each significant change is accompanied by criticism of those who warn about the possible dangers and point out advantages of the existing order, at the end they turn out to be right (to hell with them too). We don’t really talk about it today, but tyranny is in many ways more convenient and reliable order, especially for those who are deprived of their liberty (patriarchy is a dream came true, nostalgia for which will remain for a long time), since a person who is deprived of liberty are consigned to permanent childhood.
Negri (not for the first time) expresses the hope that “yellow vests” indicate the emergence of an autonomous multitude. This is a political category that is defined by Negri and other theorists as a fundamentally heterogeneous group of people, united only by the fact of their cooperation or coexistence and irreducible to monolithic unity. Multitude is opposed to the principles of the identity of the nation-state and acts not through national or state institutions, but through horizontal forms of cooperation.
Negri warns that “yellow vests” should be shaped into an organisation, otherwise the movement will be neutralized by the political system and will become powerless. But at the same time, it is extremely important to preserve its lack of shape, the movement should not be reduced to the Right, but also to the Left: “it is only in its independence that this multitude can function.” Another Negri’s reflection: is “when we say organisation, we do not intend the party form — as if only the party-state were able to give organisation to the multitude”
Negri’s reflections reflections are paradoxical: the “ yellow vests” should be shaped, but at the same time remain left unshaped (within the existing framework of definitions): should not form a party, to be neither left nor right.
The current framework for perceiving the political system is still based on a division into right and left. Such a division also appeals to the image of a family. George Lakoff asserts that the Right and the Left are not opposites. A metaphor that unites and structures both political positions is the metaphor of the nation as a family, the difference is only in the ideals of the family that are projected onto society. For he Right, the ideal is the patriarchal and moralistic family, for the left, the family of caring parents. The multitude cannot be conceptualized on the model of a family.
Negri’s paradoxical thinking (the shape of the unshaped) is necessary. The multitude can take shape only of unshaped. Any premature adoption of the shape will cancel its autonomy and return it to the custody of the existing order. The necessity of such of such paradox becomes even clearer if we recall Negri’s reflection on the monstrosity of significant transformations.
Monstrosity is a terrifying redundancy, which is generated by the existing order but does not fit into its framework. Monstrous is immense, it cannot be measured by existing measures, it requires new ones.
From the point of view of the existing order, the new looks like a breakdown or stupidity (“yellow vests” do not know what they want). They need to be “repaired” — define their agenda or be allowed to change the direction of the existing political agenda. But all this would mean to diminish what is crucial — the lack of shape and non-inscribability into the existing order, that is, to heal from monstrosity.
Monsters are necessarily ugly, even for themselves. They embody the new, the indefinable and the unattractive, whose beauty one still is not able to see.
The ugliness of the “gilets jaunes” was noticed by Anatoly Ulyanov:
“The cry about people throwing off the fetters is accompanied by the live broadcast of this people: rude, aggressive, uncouth […]. The rebel spawn seem barbarians willing the world, which does not belong to them. Uprising is their language, the way to say: “I exist, I am a human being”
The only thing that unites the movement is the yellow vests themselves. These are clothes, the meaning of which is not to be beautiful, but to make a person noticeable.
Ulyanov, like Negri, considers it essential to organize “yellow vests” (to preserve their effectiveness). He associates this organization with the imparting of beauty to the movement, which will empower it.
In accordance with Negri’s paradigm, the beauty of the “yellow vests” should be the beauty of the ugly. One should not try to fit them into the existing frame or notice in them understandable beauty and comprehensibility (at least not immediately). Everything that today is considered to be refined and understandable has passed the stage of rejection: it used to be monstrous.
According to Negri, one should not hope that the uprising of the “yellow vests” is an event that is able to establish a new order once and for all, rather, it is one of the manifestations of the nascent force that for a long time will confront the existing order:
“If there is no longer any possibility of the multitude coming to power, there is nevertheless the possibility of systematically keeping an insurrectionist movement open. This situation used to be described with the term “dual power”: power against power. The events in France tell us only one thing for sure: it is no longer possible to shut down this relationship. The “dual power” situation will stand and will endure for a long time to come, either latently or, as is the case now, in its express, manifest form”
The voice of the rebellious monstrosity can no longer be silenced, the only option is to listen and begin to master its senseless barbaric language and accept the fact that reflective yellow is the new black.
- Antonio Negri on the Giles Jaunes and France
- Antonio Negri, Empire and Beyond, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008.
- Louis de Bonald, Du Divorce considère aux XIXe Siècle, Paris, 1801.
- George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002.
- Anatoly Ulyanov, Ugly Crowd