“Any appeal to the white working class, as in today’s alt-right populism, betrays class struggle.”
Slavoj Žižek, The Philosophical Salon, 2019.
Commenting on the political aspects of Shelley’s life and poetry, Virginia Woolf asserted in 1927 that the poet’s England “has already receded, and his fight, valiant though it is, seems to be with monsters who are a little out of date, and therefore slightly ridiculous.” Woolf was referring to Shelley’s nineteenth-century opposition to a system in which journalists were imprisoned for being disrespectful to the Prince Regent, men were stood in stocks for publishing attacks upon the Scriptures, weavers were executed upon the suspicion of treason, and boys (Shelley included) were expelled from Oxford for avowing their atheism. Dramatic in its own time and context, by the decadent mid-1920s such activism had indeed become a little anachronistic on paper, even if I disagree with Woolf that it had become slightly ridiculous. The exertion of political power, after all, is a monster that may change costume and migrate in certain seasons, but is also a fixed reality of human relations and therefore no more ridiculous, in any guise or era, than the people it rests upon.
The profundity of Woolf’s comment, for me, therefore lies less in its discussion of Shelley’s poetry than in its exposure of Woolf’s own interwar sense of political security. It is this sense of political security that today seems the more out of date, and therefore slightly ridiculous, especially as we live in an age where the monsters of the past, present, and putative future, are perpetually invoked in all areas of life. Today, people are imprisoned for being disrespectful to certain races, men are stood in the postmodern equivalent of stocks for attacking certain ideologies, workers are today arrested more often for patriotism than treason, and children are threatened with expulsion for the new sin of ‘racism.’ Woolf’s smug security, and not Shelley’s poetic demonology of the political, thus seems quaint at a time when everything in the tumultuous present is discussed via reference to monsters that may at any moment return from their slumber or drop their mask, and are certainly not to be laughed at.
How does one fight today’s monsters, and who is fighting them? One of the most interesting aspects of the persistent Yellow Vest protests, about to enter their tenth weekend and once more growing in size, is that they have been claimed by almost everyone on the political spectrum. As such, no-one is yet clear as to what monsters the Yellow Vests fight, or which monsters the movement itself may give birth to. Although coming from an avowedly Marxist/Maoist perspective, Slavoj Žižek is almost certainly correct is his recent assertion that:
The yellow vests movement fits the specific French Left tradition of large public protests targeting the political, more than the business or financial, elites. However, in contrast to the 68’ protests, the yellow vests are much more a movement of France profonde (“deep France”), its revolt against big metropolitan areas, which means that its Leftist orientation is much more blurred. (Both le Pen and Melenchon support the protests.) As expected, commentators are asking which political force will appropriate the energy of the revolt, le Pen or a new Left, with purists demanding that it remain a “pure” protest movement at a distance from established politics. One should be clear here: in all the explosion of demands and expression of dissatisfaction, it is clear the protesters don’t really know what they want. They don’t have a vision of a society they want, just a mix of demands that are impossible to meet within the system, even though they address them at the system.
Attempts to define the protesters in simple terms appear doomed to failure. Not only have factions of French Yellow Vest protesters been filmed fighting each other in Paris, but in almost every attempt to export this protest model there have been similar splits and fights, as competing groups attempt to see themselves, and only themselves, in the Rorschach of riotous assembly. Most recently, in London, pro-Brexit Yellow Vest protesters and anti-Brexit Yellow Vest protesters clashed at Trafalgar Square, with reports of both sides calling each other ‘Nazis.’ Both the collapse into Yellow Vest vs Yellow Vest, and the mutual use of the ‘Nazi’ pejorative, are illustrative of the wider confusion of ideology and childish terror in the face of name-calling in postmodern politics. These phenomena also illustrate the fact that, as Žižek points out, none of these groups have a vision of a society they want (or will admit to wanting). One guide to characters in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is titled “Who’s Who When Everybody is Somebody Else?” — a question that could as easily be put to the labyrinthine and evasive nature of a postmodern political activism in which identities are claimed and simultaneously disavowed by all concerned. Read more