Why Violence is an Integral Part of Gilet Jaunes

A response to Ben Townend’s article: “Yellow Vests or Yellow Bellies?

“If they truly wanted to change the political landscape of their country, they would have employed much more intelligent and reasonable methods of doing so”. This is how the article I am responding to closes.

The author also refers to the gilet jaunes ‘movement’ as madness and a monster. There are some interesting observations in the article, but the impression that one gets while reading is that the author thinks of the riots as uncivilised, as falling short of what we count as ‘legitimate demonstration’.

They cite the lack of a leader and guidance that arises from a failure to outline a “specific grievance against the government”. But I think that this fails to respect the nature of violence as protest.

The criticisms levelled against the gilet jaunes would hit home if they were seeking to operate within our typical understanding of what civil disobedience should be under contemporary liberal capitalism. It is true that there is no unifying demand that covers all protesters here – many of their individual demands are, if realised, contradictory (take lower taxes but better state healthcare, for example).

The demands that we do see, taken together, are impossible in the existing system. This is where we see violence arise – violence as protest can be seen as a refusal to engage with the standard methods, a refusal to operate within the system of grievances that is present.

This is more powerful than “negotiation and effective demonstration” because it expresses the restlessness signalled by the impossibility of the demands: a tiring of the system as a whole.

The author is right in taking the lack of leadership as an issue – this is what will prevent the protests from going beyond their current state (there is, after all, no plan for what might happen if the gilet jaunes took power). But this should not cloud our view of violence.

While unpleasant, violence as protest is one of very few ways to effectively oppose a social and economic structure that has a monopoly on ‘reasonable’ methods of complaint. Violence could then be necessary, if only to step outside neoliberal capitalist methods of grievance.

As such, perhaps we shouldn’t see the gilet jaunes as “yellow-bellied” but as boldly subversive.

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