Neoliberalism is dying in France. Two hundred and thirty years ago, an uprising in Paris changed everything. Why not try for a repeat? In a world where Buddhists can convince Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to sit in a mosquito-filled cave in Burma, anything is possible.
Monday marked the fourth consecutive weekend of protests by the “gilets jaunes,” or the yellow vests, named for—you guessed it—the article of clothing favored by the marchers. (French citizens are required to keep the vests in their cars.) NBC News reported:
... [Macron] is expected to make a televised address amid criticism that he has failed to act over the crisis triggered by his economic reforms — including a hike in gas taxes which his government last week agreed to postpone. An estimated 10,000 protesters took to the otherwise deserted streets of Paris on Saturday, while a further 125,000 marched in other towns and cities across France, the Interior Ministry said. Nearly 2,000 arrests were made and the violence left 264 people wounded, including 39 police officers.
You’ve seen the coverage of the riots and protests. Perhaps you saw the Times wringing their hands over property damage: My God, won’t someone think of the tourism ministry:
At the same time, [Macron] must project strong resolve against the destruction of private property to preserve the allegiance of the small-business owners who have seen their shops vandalized or who have been forced to close on successive Saturdays. Mr. Macron must also stand with the many French who have been outraged by the desecration of national monuments, or who have seen their cars burned or other property destroyed. ... France has a population of 67 million and the most that have turned out to protest is less than 300,000 — support for their grievances remains at about 70 percent, despite the violence and destruction of property, according to several different polls.
The Internet wasn’t having it:
The media makes everything larger and smaller at the same time. It takes the smallest possible man, Donald Trump, and makes him huge. It makes the riots in Paris seem both massive and incidental. It upsells the spectacle and downplays the ideology behind it. But there's a hunger behind the march. And I'm afraid it doesn't bode well for the rulers of France, or America. Your sins have been found out.
When he spoke, Macron promised a minimum wage increase and various tax concessions. But it's too little, too late.
Here's the thing. If we could see French Revolution of 1789 on CNN, it would seem tiny. A understated affair, focused on a few thousand people in a dirty city. But its effects loom large. All revolutions outgrow their cradles, sooner or later. The impending fall of Macron isn't just the dismantling of one puffy, pretentious banker pretending to be king. It also means a body blow against the glib chattering class.
Neoliberals and centrists saw Macron as the embodiment of their weird beliefs. They were correct. They should pay close attention to what's about to happen.
If this seems overstated, very well: it's a time for overstatement. I'm not claiming that guillotines are going to be set up in Place de la Concorde. I just want to highlight how different these protests are. There have been impressive turnouts before 2018. Wikipedia's a click away for the curious. The youth protests of 2006 and 2007-2009, the Trappes riots in 2013, the Nuit debout of 2016, and the May Day protests of 2017.
But French riots before 2018 took place in a society where there were official answers, and these answers were believed. There was a framework to see through: “Oh, the French are upset about jobs. Oh, the French are upset about the police. Oh, the French are upset about this, or that.”
But this protest, and the protests around the world, occur at the moment when the Establishment has run out of ideas. In nation after nation, the old order totters. Modern governments do not fall by military conquest, or empty treasury, or even when they are caught in an obvious lie. They fall when the government itself cannot believe its own lies.
Neoliberalism cannot fix this problem. It is philosophically bankrupt, politically unpopular, and personally hollow. We see here—as we have seen in the previous weeks—that they have no response. They tinker around the edges, since they cannot offer substantial change.
But there's another reason they're so quiet: if they acted, they would reveal what they are. Neoliberalism is an ideology which pretends to not be an ideology, a crackpot doctrine which pretends to pragmatic.
The Chinese Emperor justified his rule under the Mandate of Heaven. Our current rulers – the Macrons, the Mays, the Merkels—run the show under the Mandate of Pragmatism. They say: “These are the best ideas, the only ideas that work, the ideas people want.” But the last two years have shown that the ideas do NOT work, that the people do NOT agree. They have shown that there are alternative tools with alternative hands to use them.
Here's why the yellow vest protest is special: it comes at the very moment that the system has been thoroughly discredited. Just as monarchy was debunked by 1789.
Some people read the protests as having a rightist tinge. Some commenters point to the yellow vests as grousing over the gas tax. But what conservatives fail to grasp is that the gas tax is a conservative way of handling climate change. It's a chickenshit maneuver by politicians who want change, but are afraid of upsetting rich and powerful donors. It is, how do you say, tres Macron.
This late in the game, we cannot save the world by punishing consumers. Real climate change policy must be directed at the actual offenders: the one hundred companies who pump most of the carbon into the air. If we do not target the actual villains, then the world is doomed. Protesting the gas hike doesn't make you a conservative—it makes you a realist.
And then there's the empty suit himself, President Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric le Beauregard le Hufflepuff le Dot Com le Macron. I may have added in several extra names there. What can I say about this basic-ass mannequin prince? He's David Koresh for people who grew up reading The Economist. When Apple starts cranking out human genomes on a lathe, Macron is the kind of man they will make.
Like Trump, Macron was the man that most of the country didn't want. They got him anyway. For a good reason. He was the one who was supposed to keep Marine Le Pen out of power. By the way, killer job on that, Emmanuel. Unless reformers take over in Paris, Macron will join Petain as the man who invited fascism to rule France.
Since he ascended, Macron has continued the same unpopular austerity policies. The elitist indifference to practical political realities is breathtaking—nearly Trumpian. Not since Kanye last tweeted has a middle-aged man believed he can cure people with his touch. He's Marie Antoinette absent the sex appeal and redeeming martyrdom. I loathe him, and I'm not even French.
What Macron is taking down with him is the central fallacy of the Clinton years—really, the whole stretch of history since the Cold War ended.
Starting in the Nineties, there was this silly idea you didn't need politics anymore. You didn't need to change anything, ever. You could manage brutal capitalism, scale back progressivism, and hand the world over to Alan Greenspan and Goldman Sachs. In spite of, oh, Two Hundred Years of History, the elite thought that the free market would self-regulate. The Clintons and Macrons of the world honest-to-God believed you could convince people factory closings Were Very Good if you, I don't know, put Panera Breads on every corner and handed out private prison jobs.
They blindly assumed nobody would object. Not the workers, not the young, not the old, and not the climate itself. But all four disagree.
There's one thing you should remember about the elite, in this country and France. They are so intellectually lazy, they make the Flat Earth Society seem like Einstein's mahjong club. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez described this when she went to an onboarding seminar for new Congressmembers:
The stupidity and moral bankruptcy of the ruling class is beyond belief. But that’s okay. Across France, and in America, the jig is up. Trump was the first, unpleasant burst of change. And he was a dark herald indeed. This is America, we told ourselves. How could this happen? But if anything is possible—and the election of Trump shows that—then a new world is also possible. A world where even the most rock-solid edifice of power—the rule of austerity and corporate democracy—can be broken, shredded, and discarded into the dustbin of history.
In the visual vernacular of every industrialized country, the reflective vest indicates caution: proceed with care. But it also means construction—and reconstruction—is underway. Let the rebuilding commence. God bless, and speed the plow.