‘Gilets jaunes’ shock the politicians


Politicians have not been so worried about a social movement in a long time: the scale, duration and determination of the yellow vest protests were an unwelcome surprise, catching politicians off guard because the protestors come from all walks of life, do all sorts of jobs, and have diverse political allegiances. They cannot be written off as being from a traditional union or political organisation, because they come from what politicians think of as the silent majority, which politicians claim to speak for but ignore, except when it is time to solicit votes.

Injustice, by US political scientist Barrington Moore Jr, provides clues to the rise of this largely spontaneous, loosely coordinated movement. It was written in the 1970s, when academics were trying to understand the big US protest movements of the era; it shifted perspectives by replacing the question ‘Why do people revolt?’ with ‘Why don’t they revolt more often?’ While Moore’s peers discussed the role of economic inequality and racial oppression, he suggested that these were constant factors throughout history but did not always cause insurrection. They might be necessary preconditions of revolt but were not a causal explanation.

    Without the concept of reciprocity — or better, mutual obligation — it becomes impossible to interpret human society as the consequence of anything other than perpetual force and fraud
    Barrington Moore Jr

Moore examined the actions of German workers from 1848 to the late 1930s to explain why they mostly accepted unfavourable social and political orders, and to identify the conditions which, rarely, led them to rebel. He concluded that stability depends on the concessions those in power make to those they dominate: ‘Without the concept of reciprocity — or better, mutual obligation, a term that does not imply equality of burdens or obligations — it becomes impossible to interpret human society as the consequence of (...)