For a time, it looked as if the “yellow vests” revolt was going to shakeup French politics by legitimizing populist issues. The protests were mainly focused on economic issues, but those issues are the sorts of things that highlight the divide between the cosmopolitan ruling class and the general public. That is the heart of the great political divide in the current age. The ruling class and its supporters are living a fantasy life paid for in a million small ways by the unorganized and ignored masses making up the general public.
That’s really what the yellow vest protesters were about initially. As is always the case with revolts, what got them in the streets were the little things, but those little things were symbolic of the bigger problem. The yellow vest originated from the nutty law that requires all French drivers to keep a yellow safety vest in their car. Whether or not having such a thing is a good idea is not really the point. It is the symbol of elite attitudes that result in the proliferation of thousands of such laws.
Half a year on now and it looks like the yellow vest revolt has followed the same arc as all previous efforts to oppose the prevailing order. In France the protest culture is a part of the political system. It’s not just a left-wing phenomenon, like it is in America. It’s how the political factions rally support and press their case to the public. A populist movement joining the system offered some hope that a genuine alternative could emerge. Instead, it appears that the establishment has found a way to corrupt and de-legitimize it.
Now, Scott McConnell is a yesterday man, stubbornly attached to a politics of a bygone era, but what he describes should be familiar to anyone who has followed dissident politics. What made the Gilets Jaunes initially effective was their authenticity. They were just regular people expressing their complaints the only way available to them. The fact that they had to go into the streets underscored their legitimacy. These were not the sort who engaged in protest. They voted and wrote letters to the editor.
The Gilets Jaunes are like the Tea Party movement in America. What made the Tea Party work initially was the fact it was organized by normal people, not political professionals with hidden agendas. Like the Tea Party, this ordinariness, and the lack of organizational structure, made the Gilets Jaunes vulnerable. At some point, the French equivalent of Antifa showed up to start smashing things. Muslim groups joined into the attack Jews on camera. In Paris, Gilets Jaunes is now just a weekly bit of anarchy.
Something similar happened with the Tea Party in America. Instead of radical leftists, it was political barnacles like the R Street crowd. These are the political shape-shifters, who always turn up in conservative circles. Their job is to co-opt and neuter anything resembling a legitimate challenge to the people in power. In the case of the Tea Party, they jumped in, wrestled control of the name and many of the organizations away from the grass roots and turned the whole thing into cover for the GOP establishment.
A common theme to all of these failed opposition movements is the decision to engage in the established political system. Once they connect to the system, the system releases a virus that either assimilates the new group, turning it into a feature of the system, or kills off the threat. The former case is a universal in life. When the king recognizes a threat to his rule, the first move is to buy off the threat. Offering him a position in the system, in exchange for him adding his legitimacy to the king and his ruling order.
The latter is the one that is most puzzling, as it suggests legitimate opposition lacks the right antibodies to function in a modern liberal democracy. A recent example in America was the alt-right. When it was a humorous on-line enterprise, operating outside the political system, it was effective at introducing paleocon ideas into the flow of social media. Those memes making sport of ruling class piety were highly effective. The alt-right operated like a highly diffuse guerrilla movement, using mockery and satire to undermine order.
Then Richard Spencer started imagining himself as the leader of a vanguard and started to stage protests and go on speaking tours. The shift from underground guerrilla movement to above ground political activism was a disaster. Quickly, Spencer became David Duke 2.0, which gave the Left cover to send in their street mobs. Woke capital joined in and the entire dissident scene was subjected to an ongoing pogrom that persists to this day. The alt-right exploded and has followed the Tea Party into the dustbin.
Decades ago, Sam Francis observed that the Buckley brand of conservatism was bound to fail, because it sought to engage in politics on Progressive terms. By engaging in conventional politics, Buckley was legitimizing not only the rules of the game, but the roles for the participants as created by the Left. Since the Left controlled the institutions, they would always set the rules so they would win and the Buckleyites would lose. That is, of course, exactly how things unfolded. Conservatism was a failure.
Something similar happened with the Tea Party, the alt-right and now the Gilets Jaunes in France. By trying to play by the rules, they legitimize that which they claim to oppose, at least at a meta-political level. It also removes from them the one weapon all outsider movements possess. That is the willingness to break the rules. The flipping over of tables inside the temple is how these movements gain attention and attract followers. To then be seen putting the tables back and sitting behind them robs the movement of energy.
Something else seems to be at work. These movements all suffered from poor leadership and poor organization. The first Tea Party folks were honest, energetic, but wildly naive about the reality of political organization. The alt-right figures that rose up in 2015 were good at getting attention, but incapable of building organizations. Richard Spencer is media savvy, but you would not put him in charge of anything. The Gilets Jaunes appears to also lack capable leadership, which is why they have been taken over by the Left.
What this suggests is that any legitimate opposition must first insulate itself from the political system. Its guerrilla phase cannot be where they start, but where the end, in order to function as a subversive subculture in opposition to the prevailing order. The Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge did not fully come out of the shadows until the prevailing order was collapsing. It was at that point they rushed into fill the void. If there is to be a legitimate opposition in the West, it is going to operate in the shadows.