The working class, wearing yellow vests, has just won a decisive battle: it has at last managed to make itself visible. The gilets jaunes are not a traditional social movement that pits workers against employers or left against right. For four months now, the young people, the older men and women, many of working age, some retired, who have taken to the streets and blocked traffic circles in Paris and other French cities have displayed a shared sense of purpose, a shared sense of their demotion to the status of second-class citizens under a regime of economic globalization that offers them no hope of anything better. Most of them had never taken part in a demonstration before; few were politically active until now. Unlike traditional social movements, the yellow vests are not represented by any party or any labor union; they have no leader. Their protest is the product of an economic system that divides rather than unites. The yellow-vest movement does not repeat history, neither the French Revolution nor the class conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; to the contrary, what sets it apart from what came before is its modernity. It has its roots in the political and cultural relegation of the working class, a process that began in the 1980s, and in the secession of elites first analyzed almost twenty-five years ago by the historian Christopher Lasch.
The astonishment of French intellectuals, politicians, and jorunalists in the face of a movement supported by more than half the people cannot help but recall the astonishment of British elites at the vote in favor of leaving the European Union and of American elites at the election of Donald Trump. It is proof of the existence everywhere in the West today of a cultural divide across which the upper class and the working class look at each other with fear, on the one side, and loathing on the other. The emergence of a challenge from below has caused all the social, geographic, and political perceptions imposed from above for the last four decades to fall apart. Everywhere the dynamics of popular discontent arise not only from a certain economic sociology, but also from a certain geography, the bleak landscape of impoverished rural areas and deindustrialized towns and smaller cities. The yellow vests are the embodiment of peripheral and working-class France. To listen to the new bourgeoisie in France, as in Great Britain and the United States, one would think they had discovered the last tribe of Amazonia living in their own country—and, to their horror, suddenly realized that it actually constitutes a majority of the population.
The fantasy peddled by the dominant class in these countries—of a society without class conflict, without an underclass, amounting only to an agglomeration of docile minorities, a society in which the common good no longer exists—is now on the verge of collapse. The insurgency that arose from the periphery has shaken the moral certainties of a self-styled “cool” bourgeoisie, sure of its own benevolence, that had founded its cultural and political domination on the invisibility of the working class. Terrified already a few years earlier by the muffled noises of dissatisfaction that had begun to be heard beyond the forgotten lands of France, the nation’s elites thought to defend themselves by turning the weapons of antifascism against anyone who dared to complain. But this will not be enough, by now it is too late. Throughout the West the working class has prevailed in the one thing that matters, the battle over cultural perceptions.
In withdrawing from society, in shutting themselves up in the new medieval citadels that globalization has made of the largest cities, the new bourgeoisie failed to comprehend that if the working class were no longer to be found in the great metropolises or talked about in the media, it hadn’t gone away. Having been excluded, ostracized, deprived of economic security and denied political power, the working class was supposed to have vanished from history. Today, however, contrary to all expectation, it exerts a soft but nonetheless very real power that is helping to bring about the end of the new bourgeoisie’s cultural hegemony. In all Western countries today, the familiar notions of strength and power are being stood on their head.
One by one, the claims on which the authorized version of the world depends are being exposed for what they are—baseless fabrications. This disillusionment is not the result of any ideology, still less the storming of any Bastille; it is due to the perseverence of a working class forced to bear the burdens of a reality that at every point contradicts the dream world of the dominant classes. As against their campaign to shrink the welfare state and privatise public services, the working class insists on the necessity of preserving the common good by protecting these services; as against the urge to deregulate and denationalize, it demands that the common good be conceived in national terms; as against the fable of hypermobility, it points to the hard facts of working-class sedentarization; finally, as against the happy fiction that everyone has the same opportunities in life, it tries as well as it can to make the most of what it has, drawing upon its own substantial reserves of cultural capital in the form of mutual aid and solidarity.
The soft power of the working class does not signal a desire to retreat from the world; quite the opposite, it expresses a determination to remake society so that the common interest will be defended and democracy revitalized. This is not a fascist moment that we are witnessing; it is a democratic moment that forces the affluent hipsters of the higher France to squarely confront their hypocrisy. Holed up in metropolitan fortresses that are no less intellectual than physical, they can no longer go on hawking the myth of an open society while keeping it closed to the least well-off. The time has now come for the dominant classes to set their watches to working-class time.
Translated by Malcolm DeBevoise
Christophe Guilluy is a French geographer and the author of several books, including La France périphérique: Comment on a sacrifié les classes populaires. He also writes occasionally for The Guardian.
Featured photo by Sam McJunkin on Unsplash