How the Gilets Jaunes are Breaking Capitalist Realism…
…and how culture and national identity are at the forefront of the movement
In 2009, the late Mark Fisher published his phenomenally influential text Capitalist Realism, in which he argued that there is a “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it”.
Throughout the slim volume, Fisher analyses the different ways this atmosphere manifests in politics and culture and what Capitalist Realism means for the subjects of late capitalist societies.
Fisher draws a distinction between British and French students in 2006 — where British students had succumbed to depressive hedonia (knowing that things can’t get better so endlessly pursuing pleasure without success), French students performatively protested neoliberalism in a way that suggested they didn’t think they would actually win. They drew too heavily on the past — the redeployment of iconography and slogans from 1968 indicated rather than protesting in the belief that change could be won, they were protesting for a sense of nostalgia for when alternatives to capitalism were genuinely possible to dream of.
But by the time Fisher came to write his seminal work this was no longer possible, in his haunting words “capital follows you when you dream”. But as politics has sluggishly, painstakingly caught up with the financial crash these truths about Capitalist Realism that once seemed omnipotent and omnipresent are beginning to unravel.
Britain saw some student protests in the couple of years after the crash and more recently witnessed the more politically active students occupy buildings and join arms with their lecturers on picket lines for the UCU strike.
Mark Fisher would undoubtedly have been glad to see this happen; it defied the divide and rule tactics of the managerial types in government that had hoped to pit student against lecturer by allowing the creeping tendrils of the market to squeeze the throat of higher education harder and harder.
To strike was to deny students (paying consumers!) their service, which also happened to be their education and yet overwhelmingly the students supported them — the market hadn’t quite poisoned the well in the way they’d hoped. But, Fisher would probably have been disheartened to see the cultural expressions of the strikes.
With it being 2018, meme pages were established in support of the strikes. But their imagery was inflected heavily through a prism of nostalgia — the funny contemporary text often overlayed images of pre-1980s resistance to capital — again, it was reminiscent of a time when alternatives were at the very least imaginable.
Solidarity Forever was one of the anthems of the strikes and at the University of Exeter, Billy Bragg played a set on top of a rock to the assembled picket, belting out ballads about mining. It was a great set, and it did the job that it was intended to do, encouraging more people to come to the picket and to boost the morale of the many struggling lecturers who had been there every day fighting to preserve their pensions. That students were protesting at all indicates the hegemony of Capitalist Realism is starting to crumble, but it is worth noting that contemporary cultural analysis of the strikes was lacking.
Mark Fisher drew a distinction between the English and the French. And this distinction is still reflected in the present moment. Where the English have started to challenge capitalist realism, by actually protesting, taking one step forward from the drawing board to where their French counterparts were in 2006, the French have also taken a step forward and have launched a further attack on the pervasiveness of capitalist realism.
The Gilets Jaunes protests have not only successfully resisted the free market reforms of Emmanuel Macron, which in Fisher’s words makes them “immobilisers” on the side of conservatism, resistant to change, they have also put forward their own policy proposals. A well circulated graphic on the Gilets Jaunes Facebook pages shows 25 demands which if implemented would represent a radical change — the ban of big lobbying, the cessation of neo-colonial activities in Africa which “keeps them in poverty”, break apart the banks and media monopolies, build 5 million rent-controlled homes among other policies. They are also calling for a RIC (citizens referendum initiative) which would mean that all French citizens can propose laws which if they receive 700,000 signatures (1.5% of the population) have to be taken into the national assembly, debated, amended, finalised by the experts then put to referendum in a years’ time.
They are not just resisting capital’s attempts to apportion more suffering on to the working class while facilitating an upwards transfer of wealth, they are proposing ways to change the system inherently, the anti-migrant policy proposals aside, the Gilets Jaunes have in some ways sketched a rough blueprint for a socialist France. Support from the left must be critical, the GJ movement has significant flaws, a contingent of anti-Semites and a recurrence of anti-migrant sentiment are a couple, but alternatives seem to be back on the table.
Not only have they actually managed to present policy alternatives that suggest neoliberalism is no longer the only game in town, or rather the only game in people’s imaginations, but the movement has achieved an awe-striking level of cultural saturation.
On an aesthetic level, the Gilets Jaunes are not nostalgic but thrillingly contemporary. The now infamous iconography of the yellow jacket has resonated as a symbol of modern misery to such an extent that it has been taken up by protestors from countries as far and wide as Serbia and Sweden, Iraq and Israel. Whereas the UCU strikes had Billy Bragg and ‘Solidarity Forever’ the Gilets Jaunes have the widespread support of popular and up and coming rappers.
Kopp Johnson’s track ‘Gilet Jaune’ is approaching 16 million Youtube views — the song contains the lines “Macron Demission” (resign Macron) which is a contemporary slogan of the movement, and playfully ‘takes down’ the president, calling him “dumb”. Kozi, Mr Fabre, Pappy Sito, Young Jeune and Momo have all also dropped popular tracks in support of the movement.
French political rap has historically been darker. Orelsan comes off like a French Eminem in the early stages of his career on the track Suicide Sociale and mainstream rappers like Booba and Nekfeu frequently deliver verses condemning police brutality, neocolonialism, the far-right and the difficulty of life in the banlieues but the tone is always brooding, the beats generally moody. They reflect the pervasive atmosphere of capitalist realism — things are bad but this is the best they can be.
The pro-GJ tracks, however, are different. Of course, they are angry, but they also seem optimistic. Pappy Sito and Young Jeune are influenced by reggaeton, and Kopp Johnson’s track is also light and upbeat. Although the lyrical content would be somewhat jarring, you could dance to these songs at a house party.
Mr Fabre’s track sonically is the most similar to the trap-influenced political rap of previous years, but his lyrics are a call to arms: “all of France block the roads” and he suggests that they could finish Macron if they continue. These are positive messages claiming that change is possible, in this instance, they seem to have directly defied Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism. It is worth noting that this is not some fringe group, hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting up and down the country and the movement has generally maintained popular support. They have been the talking point of the French Republic for weeks and Gilets Jaunes are always the two words you see if you turn on the TV or open a newspaper. They are so embedded in popular consciousness that people have started producing porn videos wearing the yellow jacket and nothing else. This political and cultural shift seems like it could open up a world of possibilities.
As Fisher wrote at the end of his book “the very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect”. That two of the examples he cites as evidence of capitalist realism, English students and French protestors have refuted his specific criticisms tells thus that although we may not yet live in a post-capitalist system, capital no longer follows us when we dream.