Political Philosopher Michael Hardt on the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) Movement


Michael Hardt shared some of his thoughts on the leaderless Gilets Jaunes movement, a workers’ movement against austerity and inequality which erupted in France in November of last year and has since spread to other countries. Hardt is a political philosopher, literary theorist, and the coauthor of Assembly, a book which discusses the rise of leaderless movements throughout the world and proposes a framework and strategies for successfully organizing them.

MFU: Given the diversity of supporters of the Gilets Jaunes movement, what do you think is the importance and meaning of this development today?

MH: One of the notable aspects of the Gilets Jaunes is their refusal of representation. I mean not only the fact that none of the established political parties or trade unions can speak for them but also that they produce no spokespeople or leaders with whom the government can negotiate. At this point, without such interlocutors, there is no mediation between the government and the movement, only force—primarily on the part of the militarized police and security forces. This lack of representation and mediation is one factor that has made the situation so unpredictable and has led to such a rapid escalation of conflicts.

MFU: Does this movement echo other contemporary efforts to fight neoliberal oppression, or are the Gilets Jaunes speaking to unique developments and circumstances that have emerged recently?

MH: The internal constitution of the Gilets Jaunes is currently so varied and ambivalent (with elements of right and left) that one can’t make comparisons regarding the movement as a whole. But I do think it is useful to recognize echoes with segments of the movement. In the French context—and one should emphasize that there are many aspects of the movement that are specific to France—some of the Gilets Jaunes practices echo in interesting ways those of the ZAD at Notre-Dames-des-Landes, the long-standing occupation to prevent the construction of an airport. But I find more interesting and substantial the echo with Occupy Wall Street—specifically insofar as segments of the Gilets Jaunes highlight the French President’s dramatic reduction of the taxes of the super rich. This echo emphasizes the intersection between social inequality and the injustices of austerity policies.

MFU: It has been said that one of the Gilets Jaunes strengths is its decentralization, but as you wrote in Assembly, this is a vulnerability as well. Given that this movement is comprised of people across the political spectrum, what is a good path towards organization?

MH: I certainly believe that the multiplicity of the movement, its horizontality, and its refusal of traditional forms of representation can be positive elements but only if they are brought together through innovative forms of organization. Without such an organizational process, the movement might be able to express a refusal but will not be able to initiate any sort of social alternative. The most likely outcome, if no such organizational project is developed, is that the force of the movement will eventually be recuperated by one of the existing political parties—Mélenchon on the left and Le Pen on the right have presented such possibilities, the movement being subsumed under former would be unfortunate and under the latter tragic. It is also possible that the movement will evolve to form a party of its own, something like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which would not in my view be a positive outcome either. We should recognize, though, that there is the potential within the Gilets Jaunes for developments that point in a truly insurrectional direction.