Monday, December 10, 2018

What's All This Buzz About Yellow Jackets? Here's the Straight Dope from France.

May Day Protests 1971
This past month I made a decision to finally get around to writing about my experience as part of the May Day 1971 anti-war protest. To some extent it was traumatic due to all the violence I witnessed. In another sense it was uniquely my own, inasmuch as I approached it with my own unformed and uninformed personal perspectives, with also contributed to some of my inconclusive conclusions along with a few personal lessons that I've carried with me to this day.

One of these lessons is a total distrust as regards mob violence being something that "just happens." In DC 1971 there were organizers who spent 2 years orchestrating the main event that served to draw people to the Capitol for that weekend.

To this day I am suspicious when I hear that a mob has risen up in concert to protest this thing or that. Or that a "caravan" has organized itself spontaneously to "break in" to America.

Two weeks ago a friend from France who lives here in the States asked if I'd been following the news regarding the "Yellow Jackets." I had not. And if you're like I was two weeks ago, then you may wish to read a few links at the end of this article.

Basically, the past four weekends now tens of thousands of people have been putting on yellow vests and protesting. The gathering masses have become mobs who are burning cars, smashing windows, looting. If you are on Twitter you can do a search for >Yellow Jackets< and follow the story.

Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash
To gain more insight on the Yellow Jacket uprising, I contacted Pedro H. Albuquerque, Associate Professor of Economics at the KEDGE Business School (Bordeaux and Marseille) and asked if he would provide more insight for American readers.

Pedro Albuquerque: So you saw all this mayhem about the Yellow Jackets, yep, quite impressive news. New phenomenon on that scale in a rich country. We had Tienanmen Square, Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street as precedents, but this scale is totally new.

EN: Is there a "leader" of the Yellow Jackets?

PA: NO and YES. If you are thinking in terms of traditional political leaders, according to the established laws and practices of the French Republic, the answer is NO. Many tried to appropriate this social movement and become their leaders, for example, extreme left, extreme right and conservative political leaders, union leaders, celebrities etc. but none had any success. It's a movement driven by irrational feelings of anger and hate against the "system" and against "globalization," with very little common ground and values otherwise. The carbon tax was just a convenient trigger. So no, they have no leaders. But still, YES, they have a leader, in the sense of new politics driven almost purely by social media, and his name is Mark Zuckerberg. We just do not know to which extent Zuckerberg is a willing or accidental leader. As in the recent case of Brexit, this is yet to be found out.

EN: Is it mob rule?

PA: Again, the answer is NO and YES. NO, because there's an endogenously arising order determined mostly by the usage rules of Facebook, and also by the usage rules of Twitter and YouTube to a lesser extent. And YES because once groups of people in this movement converge on the streets towards the forces of law enforcement, the result is almost inevitably mob rule.

EN: If the government can't cover the cost of necessities, what does the public intend to see as outcome?

PA: I don't think this is really a question of necessities, most of the Yellow Jackets, by the standards of poor and middle income countries, would be considered well-off. Studies show that most did not enjoy reductions or significant reductions in purchasing power, it is mostly about perceived realities than it is about economic realities. But their perceptions are real for two reasons: compared to other regions of Europe, people living in rural or far suburban areas of European metropolitan centers know that their incomes have been progressing much less fast than those of people living in cities, and they also know that their infrastructure of services does not see the same advancements which can be seen in urban centers, and in some cases they have even seen the collapse of public services. They also get the feeling that some global industries, like tech, finance and upscale services like movies, have accumulated most of the wealth creation of the last 30 years. This has created an enormous anger towards government and sometimes also towards rich, highly educated, or foreign people living in advanced countries, meaning, anger towards any group that succeeded or have benefited from the social and technological developments of the last 30 years.

I do not think that the government will have any problem offering the Yellow Jackets financial and political "gifts" as it promised, After all,  some have estimated that active participants in this movement represent only 0.8% of the population. The real problem is that the socially destructive and politically chaotic dynamics created by social media platforms, as seen during the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum in the UK, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and now the Yellow Jackets in France, are going to become only more disruptive and more pervasive around the world. We should expect then to see the same happening in any other country, at any moment, triggers and timing depending mostly on the decisions made by the top management of social media megacorporations. Only time will tell if, as a result, democracies will fall or will learn and adapt by curbing the power and socially destructive effects of social media megacorporations on society.

EN: Thank you for this perspective on recent events in France. 

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Related Links
BuzzFeed's In Depth Overview
Yellow Jackets on the Twitterfeed
Ramifications of the Riots

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