Media reports suggest that yellow vest protests in France are petering out, numbers are smaller, demonstrations are fewer, the path of direct action has led nowhere. Perhaps thoughts of Christmas have assumed a priority, perhaps winter is not the best time to mobilise for radical change; perhaps the lack of a single focus, the absence of a coherent manifesto, and the disparate nature of the movement, have meant that there would only be one outcome.
Does direct action always lead to failure? Attending an Open University summer school at the University of Sussex in the summer of 1989, the final afternoon was a workshop on industrial relations. The case of the closure of the British Steel works at Shelton Bar was the background for a role play exercise. A group of us were cast as workers in the plant. The labour force was efficient, it was productive, and it was unable to do anything to save the plant and so save the jobs. Reading through the script of the role play, there was the realisation that there was nothing that those of us playing the workers could do; there was no form of words that could change the reality of the situation. When it came to our turn to speak, we set aside the script, climbed upon the desks and stood and declared that we were engaged in direct action and that the plant was henceforth under workers’ control. The lecturer smiled, “a nice try,” he said, “unfortunately direct action doesn’t work”.
He was right, of course. Like the yellow vest movement in France, every effort at direct action has always failed. Paris is the world’s leading city for direct action, the Paris Commune of 1871 was an attempt to bring revolutionary change to the city. Stand at the Communards Wall in Père Lachaise cemetery, and it is sobering to read of the thousands of ordinary people executed by the army for their support of the commune.
Direct action, whether by the yellow vests, or others, begs an answer to the question in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?”
People undoubtedly prefer the latter, standing up and shouting does not come readily. But would direct action not be the cathartic thing to do? Would it not be a statement, “I am a person; I am alive; I have rights; I have dignity?”
The yellow vest movement was born out of a deep alienation of working people; when the political establishment ignored them, taking to streets became the only way to shout.