Social movements in the crisis of representation

Social movements in the crisis of representation

Something is coming up in France as well as in other countries. Yellow Vests coming from the forgotten corners of France, Youth for Climate, and no so long ago, Standing Nights starting in Paris or the ZAD occupation to block the creation of an airport. They may annoy us, make us smile, frighten us or give hope. They all come to disturb the illusion of the eternity of a political system that was born when eternal growth was still the only possible horizon of mankind. What do these social movements say of our societies ? 

France is well-known for its regular strikes and protests. And yet, France has not been able to create a new political force that would emerge from such movements, like Spain did. Nor did France’s students walk enough to shake the government, like the students of Quebec did in 2012. Yet France seems to be a fertile woumb for the creation of new ways for social protest. Such movements have their contradictions and weaknesses, blind spots and red lines. They fade away with the coming of Winter and more important, holidays (sacred treasures to French people !). What is important is not what they achieve in terms of shaking a government, but in showing us that this is the end of something. But we don’t really know what that something is. 

Behind the picture

People have prophesized about what will become of the Yellow Vests. As violence was injected in the protests, politicians tried to take over some electors and some actors of the movement tried to create an acceptable form to become a political force within the system, while others were urging to refuse any compromise, what was at first the unexpected burst of ordinary people’s anger and misery became the oh-not-again Saturday mass.  

Most of the craftsmen, employees, factory workers, small shop-owners, who started the movement and met on the roads have returned home. Medias were interested in their stories as long as it hit the headlines. Cameras are just here to report insults and violence. Where a few people would wear masks and create smoke, this will make a good picture. And that picture changes people’s opinion about those whose hopes, despair, frustrations and angers do not hold their fellow citizen’s attention long enough. 

But this is just where a society holds its heart. In the everyday struggles of its people. In their silences in the kitchen, their looks when leaving their house to go to work, in those gestures they hold and the angers they swallow. In their kids’ eyes looking out the window, and their parents’ silence. Far from what we say in front of cameras, far from slogans and protests. 

In February, another social movement offered nice pictures to the press : students walking for Climate. In Paris, they were only a thousand on the day Greta Thunberg was there. The next Friday, only a few hundred were left. Less when it turned cold and even less during the holidays, and then then exams. 

A few years ago, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, they were 30 000 in the streets of a city with ten times less people than Paris. It was -4 °F. A month later, they were 300.000, in a country with 8 million people. Paris has 10 million people. There was no mediatic child at the front. A student protest became a social movement. Lawyers walked in their robes. Musicians played and families brought their children and slamed pans. Some confrontations with the police turned out very violent, but didn’t swallow up the movement. This lasted eight months. Students didn’t go back because of exams. They just started over the next year. They didn’t care about going away for the holidays. All this happened in Quebec, this quiet province of the quiet country called Canada. What did they have that people of France, the country of big revolutions, has lost ?    

What next ? 

 Youth For Climate France maintains that they don’t want any personalization of their movement. And yet, the only march that really mobilized a signifiant number of students was the one where Greta Thunberg was present. Other famous figures of ecology were there. Seems liks personalization is too entrenched in our societies. Crowds need figures – or balls rolling on the grass – to be galvanized. Should a newborn movement follow this law or break the pattern ? Could we imagine a form of incarnation of a movement that does not imply vertical personification ?  

Just like Standing Nights,Yellow Vests and Youth For Climate have to face, at some point, the problem of representation. At first, it is an impetus, a wave that takes any person who feels the same need of change. Isolated people discover that thousands feel and think alike. They talk, share meals and sittings. In the very streets, squares and rond-point, something like the Greek Agora is reshaping : people come together to discuss common future. People become citizens again, learn to talk and listen, take part in the contruction of a common destiny. 

To join the movement, no need to file, to get any card. You just come, put a yellow vest  on or click on a Discord group. People don’t want to have any filter, they see it as a treason to horizontality. However, people who are more implied, who spend more time or who simply were here from the beginning, become referents, coordinators. They create commissions and post on social medias. They spend their days and a good part of their nights answering hundreds of messages. Decisions are made not on the criteria of people’s knowledge, experience or wisdom, but on who is online at this moment to answer or vote. No one is appointed or elected. Teams are formed – and quickly dismantled – on the sole criteria of availability. As weeks go by, clusters of influence form, and some try to take initiatives to be efficient, but are soon accused of taking power. 

People who are sent to talk in the medias repeat the same credo : « I’m only speaking in my own name, I am not representing the movement. The movement has no representatives. » But medias and people need names and faces. So they pick up the ones who make the buzz on social networks. They have no other legitimacy than the buz they create, but who cares ? Then, little by little, the ones who appear more often are accused of not been legitimate. In Belgium, Anuna de Wever brilliantly carried the voice of thousands of high school students who thanked her. In France, no question of incarnation. In Paris, those who talk in the media decide to all go by the name of Camille. What is it in French culture that turn young ones so reluctant to representation ?  

No more representation = no more incarnation ? 

France is certainly the democracy in which the incarnation of power is the strongest. De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic renewed the verticality of monarchy in the context of democratical Repubic. It restored the figure of the Great Leader, elected directly by the people, who names his ministers like the king did before. But this costume turned out too large for the presidents following De Gaulle. Sarkozy was considered too involved in everything, Hollande was considered too limp, and Macron is considered despising. And yet, people vote massively for the president and much less for the deputies. They desperately need an incarnation but they are expecting old-ways attitudes and new ones that just don’t match and don’t fit the evolution of society.    

We find the same defiance to medias. Those who should tell us the story of our society have deserted little stories, the ones that need long-term research, going to meet people in their homes and to spend time with them, to become worthy of their trust. Most medias are stuck by budget cuts and run after good audiences, producing the same information. 

In all of public sphere, we are skeptical of any one who would speak in the name of. And yet, we still admire Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Gandhi. Those great leaders who have embraced the cause of a whole society. We admire artists like Bob Dylan who have spoken in the name of. We consider Victor Hugo or Emile Zola as pillars of our literature. And yet, they didn’t ask permission to talk about the people in their books, and nobody considers Victor Hugo unlegitimate when he spoke about the miserable ones at the assembly, or when Zola put himself on trial to defend a man unjustly condemned. A great representative is not someone who imposes his authority on others. It is someone who puts his talent or orator or writer, to give people a voice. Depriving us from the chance of having such people rise again, is just cutting the very possibility of change. 

The illusion of horizontality

Within a few weeks, each movement is facing the need of organization. The short-term need of reaching visibility in the medias and in general opinion has evacuated the need to have a long-term vision. No one is asking what will become of the movement, what will be its place in the political and social arenas. Those who have experienced other forms of social action, who wrote about it and think new ways, are suspected of wanting to make profit, and their help is rapidly turned over.  

One word is hold as a new flag : horizontality. What exactly is a horizontal movement ? Rejecting any form of organization ? Some tallk about Natives as horizontal societies, because they sit in circles. They just ignore that hierarchy is still present, only in other forms. People always recognize that each individual has different capacities and talents, is respected for them, and that it is the complementarity of these talents that create common intelligence. 

At Nuit Debout, during the assemblies, the floor was distributed equally, according to the order of registration: everyone had 3 minutes to speak. Three minutes for one who wants to make a proposal to organize the movement, three minutes for another who comes to talk about his association, three minutes to say that we are fed up and do not propose anything. Every word is worth it. Who will come to prioritize? Who will slow down words that do not speak in the name of the general interest? Who will set an agenda to make the agora anything but a kicker?

At Standing Nights, the assemblies took place horizontally : anyone who wants to talk has 3 minutes. There is no subject to discuss, no possibility of answering someone’s proposition. People talk as they sign in. Each one has the same amount of time. This means, 3 minutes to talk about one’s organization, 3 minutes to suggest new forms of organization for the movement, 3 minutes to say again what others already said, 3 minutes to say that we are suffering from injustice. All speeches are considered equivalent. Who will dare put some hierarchy in the topics to be discussed ? Who will establish that there are some priorities and that other subjects can only be dealt with correctly once others are cleared ?  

Refusing role distribution also goes with the psychological mobility of individuals nowadays. People can come and go, leave a meeting or a Discord group. Commitment is no longer subject to the obligation of efficiency or the judgment of others. It only depends on the desire someone has on the spot. And if someone takes a break or wants to focus on his exams, he doesn’t fear any sanction. If sometimes roles are assigned, they have to turn, meaning someone takes the task today that somebody else will take next week. Instead of letting each person get better at a task for which one feels good, the idea equality imposes that everyone does a bit of everything at any time. Therefore the movement is nothing more than an aggregate of individuals who can be exchanged. 

This obsession of horizontality, carried by contemporary modes of communication where debates take place in the immediate time of an online conversation, is the first cause that leads these social movements to be open to extreme ideologies and violence. 

The myth of absolute horizontality is the absurd answer to the absurd vertical political system. Ants, elephants, geese or whales, all live in groups where individuals have different responsibilities and tasks. If one person is good at talking, another at gathering people, another one to resume ideas, that one to calm tensions, another to analyze with distance, why shouldn’t we make the best of these skills to serve a larger vision ? Giving people tasks is not giving them power, it is trusting them. Maybe this is what French people have lost : the capacity to trust one another. 

The urge to create another kind of representation 

The crisis of political mediatic and social representation is deep and legitimate. But France is a country where people spend a lot of time establishing what they don’t want, and not so much trying to figure out what they want. French people spend a lot of energy reporting problems, and not so much trying to find alternatives and put them into practice. For a lot of people, proposing alternatives is just for tranquil ecologists who have the luxury to think of the planet and their impact. Others, those who suffer, are angry. So the urge to find alternatives is often considered as denying others’ suffering. 

And yet we all suffer from the same disease : the end of a world that made us. We all need a new horizon. Those looking for other ways to eat, educate, move, inform, are creating solutions for those who say they can’t do it another way because they are too poor. When people feel like they are ripped from their dignity, anger rises, and it’s legitimate. But where we have the choice is to make this anger a force of change or to just feel comfortable in it to accept the world as it is. French people can always ask the providential man to change their lives, to cut taxes and give more social aid. They can also look at their own lifestyles and find out how they contribute to the system that crushes them. And refuse to be part of it. 

Working at changing the world is a long run. It demands to endure frustrations, to step aside and look at things from another angle, to synthesize, to listen to other opinions and include them, to take other paths to reach the same point, but together.

It is time to create new forms of representations. French movements like ZAD and Standing Nights certainly have been remarquable fields of experimentation. If only French militants were capable of self-questioning. And even of humility ? Maybe they could wonder why in a country as small as Belgium, students have been ten times more than in France ? Why student strikes in Quebec became a social movement, while in France it represents 1% of all the students ? 

Somewhere between the inflexible verticality of our institutions and the dictatorial desire of total horizontality, there must be a space for something new. Only we have to get away from binary oppositions. This is not a choice between anger and accepting. This is not an opposition between powerful people and miserable ones. Asking our leaders to change doesn’t prevent us from changing our own ways of life. The horizon we are seeking and asking for and writing on cardboards deserves more than that. 

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