The Red Critique

  The "Event" in Yellow

Rob Wilkie


The conceptual and political exhaustion of the Left today is nowhere more on display than in its euphoric interpretations of the "Yellow Vests" protests in France.

Left writings on the Yellow Vests are orgiastic celebrations of what they represent as a spontaneous insurrection against the power of the state. They approach the Yellow Vests protests as a bursting onto the surface of a suppressed counter-power and, mesmerized, gaze at it as a festival of rebellion which is an end in itself—almost as an aesthetic performance. The very idea that the Yellow Vests movement is an eruption of the class contradictions of capitalism (not simply a reaction to the oppressive state) which has to be analyzed and situated in relation to the social relations of production so that its limits are understood in order to help advance workers' movements in the world is lost in textual raptures.

In its ecstasy the Left sees in the Yellow Vests only "movement" as such, in which "unfolding differentials phase in and out of integrating events" (Massumi, Semblance and Event 31; MIT Press, 2013) and "unity lasts [only] as long as its demonstrative performance" (30).


Arguing that we have entered a new era of capitalism, driven not by the accumulation of profit through the exploitation of labor but through mechanisms of monopoly rents resulting from control over the social common, the dominant voices in Left thought tell us that "the general frameworks" of past social struggles and in particular "the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat" are no longer "valid" (Badiou, Philosophy and the Event 3; Polity Press, 2013).

Negri (who along with Hardt) has argued that "Capitalist accumulation today is increasingly external to the production process" and therefore "exploitation" is displaced by "expropriation" (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth 137; Harvard University Press, 2009), deploys his familiar trope ("multitudinous") to suggest that the Yellow Vests protests in France represent a new form of struggle for social transformation in which power (the political) has supplanted the economic (EuroNomade 4 December 2018). The Yellow Vests, he believes, have abandoned the out-of-date class struggles over production of the social surplus organized in a party for the in-date power conflicts over distribution of the surplus in a loose heterogeneous assemblage: "the struggle has moved from the level of a fight between capital and labor…to a fight between the multitude and the State" (Goodbye Mr. Socialism 162; Seven Stories Press, 2008). In the Yellow Vests protest, in other words, Negri sees that finally "the political tends to entirely absorb the economic" ("Twenty Theses on Marx" 153; Marxism Beyond Marxism, Routledge, 1996), and power (politics) has taken the place of class (I leave aside here that even class is re-written by him as "class composition" which is more the position of the subject in political terms than under economic conditions). 

The Yellow Vests, in his poetics of the social, combat the dominant power through an ontological subjectivity that enables the multitude's anti-dialectical "exodus"—"refusal." His adoration for the Yellow Vests is without limits because "they... refuse representation and intermediation." "Representation" and its twin metaphor "intermediation" are his tropes for the (communist) "party." He simply wants unmediated, direct confrontation of powers; an insurrection, an "insubordination" within capitalism. His entire commentary on the Yellow Vests is a rehearsal of his "within" narrative that capitalism is already a form of "spontaneous" communism (Empire 294; Harvard University Press, 2000) and there is therefore no need for revolution to overthrow it. All that is necessary is an ethical demand on capital enforced by the power of the multitude: 

There is the need to make capital aware of the weight and importance of the common good, and if it doesn't want to understand it, it is necessary to impose it. (Goodbye Mr. Socialism 188)

He sees the lines of this ethical counter-power everywhere, including on the scenes of the Yellow Vests protests in the "behavior of the fire and police officers [where] we can observe hints of insubordination" (“French Insurrection”).


Negri's story is the story of the North Atlantic Left today (which is one reason we return to him again and again). The Left can no longer even imagine an end of capitalism. It turns its own failure into (funny) anecdotes about the impossibility of ending capitalism. Fredric Jameson's fable is exemplary: "someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism" ("Future City" 76; New Left Review 21, May-June 2003, 76). The fable has become popular on the Left and is repeated again and again as an opener for the critique of all revolutionary projects (e.g., Bruno Latour, "On Some of the Affects of Capitalism"; Lecture given at the Royal Academy, Copenhagen, 26th of February, 2014).

For the Left in the global North, there really is no alternative to capitalism, revolution is dead, and "We are all reactionaries today" (Latour, Re-Public: Re-Imagining Democracy, 2007). The only remaining question left after "the division of things between progressivist and reactionary ought to be abandoned" is which way of being reactionary represents the most authentically "passionate attachment" (Latour) to the status quo. What the Left desires now are skirmishes over modes of reforms in the ethical distribution of the social surplus labor that capital pumps out of workers. In the global North, the Left has already conceded to exploitation as a fact of life, as an almost existential inevitability in social life to which one simply has to adjust. All one can do, as the Yellow Vests are doing, is to ask for a less painful adjustment by a reform in the distribution of the exploited surplus labor.

Negri is overjoyed that the Yellow Vests protests are protests over distribution not production—"petrol prices" and "taxes" are the issues, and the villains, as Negri (channeling Deleuze and Guattari) keeps repeating, are the "bankers" not the capitalists, "finance capital" not production relations. With production (the source of exploitation) having been obscured in contemporary Left thought, "revolution" itself has been re-translated to mean some form of change in distribution of the profits already exploited from labor. The lines between revolution and reform are now blurred: "There is no conflict here between reform and revolution" (Negri, Multitude 289; Penguin Press, 2004).

But there is.

Revolution is not a reform of distribution; it is "the most radical rupture with traditional property relations" (Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, MECW 6: 504).


The name of this new distributive reformism, on both the Left and the Right, is "populism."

This does not mean, as Žižek in his own reading of the Yellow Vests insists, that the Left and Right distinctions are no longer valid ("How Mao would have evaluated the Yellow Vests," RT, 21 December 2018). There will be a "Left and a Right" as long as there is capitalism. They are integral to the political theology of liberal democracy (through which capitalism legitimates its own economic interest as the interest of all people who vote). In voting people take sides and express their freedom of expression. Their sides, however, all turn out to be on the side already taken by capital. 

The overlapping of the Left and Right (re-read the previous sentence first), however, means that the class contradictions of capitalism have reached such a level of intensity and depth that they can no longer be contained by the different strategies of the friends of capital on either side. All strategies of containment of the class contradictions converge. This convergence is not a reunion it is an encounter, a bumping into each other of the friends of capital. 

Populism is, like capitalist crises, cyclical: it appears to reduce the class (economic) contradictions that exceed the explanatory archives of the normal strategies of containment. Capitalism needs populism; it needs the Yellow Vests. Their "insurrection" for the reform of distribution essentially strengthens the structure of production (exploitation). By changing distribution and adding to the purchasing power of consumers, populism not only boosts capitalism itself (by increasing consumption), but also tells the story that capitalist exploitation does not have to be exploitative; it can be made to become more empathetic, caring and ethically concerned. 

This is another way of saying capitalism produces populism in the same way that it produces washing machines. Both are necessary for its economic reproduction. Like a new washing machine, populism has also been redesigned to deal with a redesigned ("cognitive") capitalism. To normalize a complex capitalism and its complex forms of exploitation in complex ways, populism today has had to draw on advanced bourgeois philosophies that were themselves responses to such new formations of capitalism as neoliberalism. 

Steve Bannon, the theoretical liaison between European and U.S. Right-wing populisms, for example, theorizes Right populism as a power in terms of Foucauldian governmentality and Derridean deconstruction in terms of a "deconstruction of the administrative state" (Speech at Conservative Political Action Conference, February 23, 2017). 

Bannon's philosophical undoing of the state, however, is only formally a repudiation of the state (as is Foucault's, as is Derrida's, as is Marine Le Pen's, as is Boris Johnson's, as is Donald Trump's, as is the Republican Party in U.S.). Rather, Bannon (and the above) are dissatisfied with the liberal form of the state, a matter which becomes clearer in Luc Ferry's blunt statement on the Yellow Vests protests in The Sun. Here, he calls for the "the fourth largest army in the world" to "use their weapons" against the "Yellow Vests" ("French Police Should be Allowed to Use LIVE Bullets on Yellow Vest Protesters, Ex-Minister Says,” 9 January 2019).

Bannon wants to deconstruct the liberal state since it directs distribution (earned income tax credit, housing subsidies, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program,...) to the (dark) other—the poor, the immigrant… —and creates obstacles to the free movements of capital (in the markets of the world)—although he does not say this openly. Luc Ferry demands the (liberal) state to abandon its pretense of liberal many-sidedness and unleash its force against the "other" side and correct the direction of distribution that has taken a wrong turn by flowing to the (dark) others.

Bannon and Luc Ferry are class allies. They want to maintain the distribution of wealth to the owners. They, however, use different agents.  Bannon manipulates the Yellow Vests as the army of change: "The Yellow Vests... are exactly the same type of people who elected Donald Trump... and who voted for Brexit" (Fabien Zamora, "French Govt Bristles as Foreign Leaders Seize on 'Yellow Vest' Crisis," Agence France-Presse, 10 December 2018). The change Bannon actually wants and gets is, however, Trump's tax reform, his de-regulating movements of (American) capital (trade wars), etc. What Trump's voters get is not economic prosperity; it is a Wall. Bannon, through the Yellow Vests and their allies across borders, substitutes the cultural symbol (Wall in the U.S., Hijab in France, Sovereignty in UK…) for economic well-being. Luc Ferry, unlike Bannon, cannot close his eyes to the signs of the other in the Yellow Vests. After all they have demanded "Fair treatment of asylum seekers. We owe them housing, security, food and education" (even though they also want an "immediate end to temporary foreign worker programs").


The overt violence of the alt-Right populism is masked in the Left populism through biopolitical love. Love in the Left populism is a Deleuzian desiring machine. It is not representational (as in Freud, for example) but productional. It produces (through a Foucauldian notion of power) "alternative subjectivities" (Commonwealth 59). This "alternative subjectivity" is a subject drenched in the spontaneity of the experience of "bio-happiness” (320) by which it exercises power and resistance since, as Foucault says, "Don't think that that one has to be sad to be militant" (Commonwealth 382).

Love is the biopolitical sublime. It is "an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with what exists and the creation of the new" (181). The ontological power of love as a "biopolitical event" transforms capitalism and "creates" a new order of distribution that is anti-collectivist and directed toward "singularities" (182) that violate the laws of the "old dialectic" (183) in which the singular was always connected to the "many." The biopolitical singularity is (internally) "composed of many" (184) which is a theosophical way of saying it is ontologically univocal:

With univocity, however, it is not the differences which are and must be: it is being which is Difference, in the sense that it is said of difference. Moreover, it is not we who are univocal in a Being which is not; it is we and our individuality which remains equivocal in and for a univocal Being. (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition 39; The Athlone Press, 1994)

Populism redesigned for cognitive capitalism is a theopolitical instrument for constructing a new subject of political power. The Yellow Vests are its early specimen. Both Bannon and Negri, in other words, install power as the central dynamics of the social and sever it from the economics of production. 

Populism is event-al; it is an unpredictable spontaneous politics of "a strictly incalculable emergence" (Badiou, Being and Event xii-xiii; Continuum, 2007) in which a "plural ontology" of spontaneous post-class assemblages cannot be reduced to any totalizing logics such as class or restrictive representational logics such as "Left" and "Right."  


The Yellow Vests live in what Latour calls "the middle kingdom" (We Have Never Been Modern 48). They are, like all inhabitants of the "middle kingdom," hybrids. The "revolt against big metropolitan areas," Žižek writes in The Independent, "means that its leftist orientation is much more blurred. (Both Le Pen and Mélenchon support the protests.)." The Yellow Vests are, to say it more directly, a mixture of what Derrida used to call a "link of affinity" but "without belonging to a class" (Specters of Marx 85; Routledge 1994). Hardt and Negri use a Deleuzian metaphor to describe their non-belonging belonging, their non-party freedom. They are "a powerful swarm held together by cooperative logics" (Assembly 69; Oxford UP, 2017). "Swarming" is not a class (party), but momentary assemblages of human and nonhuman actants called into being by singular events outside any total history and existing only "on a plane of immanence" before being reconstituted by new circumstances each and every time (Assembly 122). In other words, class consciousness has been inverted by the Left into the event-al politics of "swarm" thinking, in which the "spontaneous resistance of the oppressed" (Lenin, What is to be Done? CW 5: 375) becomes the limited horizon for social change. "Insurrection," to use Marx's words from a different context, can never be "higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development which this determines" (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, MECW 24: 87). The Yellow Vests protests have become an occasion for cross-class "smoothing" of capitalist contradictions.


The Left's analytical exhaustion is not limited to the Negri-Žižek-Latour networks of "It is useless to rack our brains over whether a proposal is reformist or revolutionary; what matters is that it enters into the constituent process" (Hardt and Negri, Multitude 289); or "The lesson of the last decades, if there is one, is the indestructibility of capitalism" (Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes  339); or, "Overthrowing capitalism does not seem to be a very good solution" (Latour, "On some of the affects of capitalism"). It is Left-wide and takes many forms. 

In Defense of Marxism, for instance, calls the Yellow Vests protest "a major turning point in the class struggle in France" and "a source of inspiration for workers around the world" (Métellus, “France: Macron on the brink – prepare a general strike!” 7 January 2019). In Defense of Marxism's defense of spontaneity is an alibi for their suspending class critique which they regard to be the expression of a "purism" that doesn't understand revolution. Purism becomes a trope by which they erase all theoretical analysis of issues and thus leave the working class classless against capitalism. What is non-purist is ad hoc activism that reacts to the immediate situations. 

Boris Kagarlitsky, in his near rapture over the Yellow Vests protests outdoes In Defense of Marxism and defends, as the sublime of spontaneity, the contradictions in the Yellow Vests' shifting platform ("People's Directives"). To have "a completely consistent and absolutely non-contradictory socio-economic and political program," he writes, "can exist only in the mind of an ideologue" ("The Spontaneous Politics of the Masses: Slavoj Žižek and the Yellow Vests," CounterPunch, 7 January 2019).

The spontaneous that has become the logic of Left activism, however, is not actually spontaneous: it is constructed and reconstructed by the social relations of production, by property relations. The contradictions of capital not only give rise to such movements, but shape the current thinking of the event-al Left, and their abandonment of class critique in favor of an ethics of spontaneity. The spontaneous is a mood-of-being produced by the dominant cultural lore to divert attention from the miseries of the exploitative regime of capital—the logic of social totality—to the pleasures of the life in pieces. The Yellow Vests is the movement of life in pieces disjointed from the melancholies of production. Their "Directives du peuple" ("People's Directives") is an ecstasy of distribution; a distribution directing away from the (dark) other. 

The Left celebrates these "spontaneous" uprisings as reflecting the fact that "gone are the days—and thankfully so—when the working class or, more specifically, the segment of the class most central to capitalist production could claim to represent the others in struggle" (Hardt and Negri, Assembly 68). Which is another way of saying that the lack of class consciousness among the participants is not regarded by Left theorists to be a shortcoming, but a virtue (Lenin, What is to be Done? CW 5: 378).


The class alliance of the Left and the Right and their masking of their economic interests by displacing the economic through the cultural is perhaps better seen in Angela Nagle's "left" analysis of open borders. She argues that it is an open border, rather than capitalism, which "further disempowers organized labor, robs the developing world of desperately needed professionals, and turns workers against workers" ("The Left Case against Open Borders," American Affairs, II.4, Winter 2018). Her anti-immigration argument is a defense of distributionism and the marginalizing of production. 

Exhausted! The reformist left is exhausted, which is nowhere more evident than in the cynical claim that "There is no conflict here between reform and revolution" (Negri, Multitude 289).

Yes, there is.

It is time to invert the Left’s slogan: revolution is "the most radical rupture with traditional property relations" (Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, MECW 6: 504)


Macron's labor reforms aim at the resituating of workers as independent contract workers (petit bourgeois). The new labor laws in France therefore enable capital to change the conditions of labor through bypassing the norms set by collective bargaining with trade unions. Capital, under the new laws, can "negotiate" directly with individual workers and thus set up competition among them. The competition (a favorite workplace tactic of neoliberalism) absorbs class contradictions in individual creativity and initiative which hails the petit bourgeois away from the proletariat and includes them in the armies of capital. The petit bourgeois, to be clear, is a social position not a (subjective) identity, a position that is the objective outcome of a surge of class contradiction at the point of production. 

The Yellow Vests' demand for a more equitable distribution (lower taxes, adding to social services, increasing salaries…) of the social surplus, is made not in the name of a class, but what Marx and Engels call "man in general" (The German Ideology, MECW 5: 360). It is a diffusing of class antagonisms. As they wrote, it is "the representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, terrified lest the proletariat, impelled by its revolutionary situation, should 'go too far'" ("Circular Letter," MECW 24: 267). The Yellow Vests protest makes sure that the Proletariat does not go too far. The "too far" is not burning cars or destroying some buildings, it is overthrowing capitalism. The car burning and the destroying of "properties" are simply tactics of preserving capitalism.


The Yellow Vests protest is not, as Negri claims, an insurrection against capitalism, nor is it a protest without "vision" as Žižek argues. It is a class matter. It is a sadness—bordering on the comical—that although the contemporary Left represents itself as an in-date tendency that has abandoned the out-of-date class struggles since capitalism has moved away from its industrial articulation to a new cognitive formation, its only model of change remains an out-of-date 1968 mutiny in France. Both Negri and Žižek in their analysis take '68 as the model for an up-to date Left insurrection: "The old '68 motto Soyons realists, demandons l'impossible!", Žižek writes, "remains fully relevant" (The Independent, 17 December 2018). This does, of course, raise the question not only of the relevance of this relevance, but the relevance of the contemporary Left itself. 


The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations… 



THE RED CRITIQUE 15+1 (Winter/Spring 2019)