This is a cautionary post. When political agitation takes place in opposition to the plans of a government, you should expect that the government will call upon its strategists, analysts, and tacticians to come up with a scheme of action.
At the time of writing there is a popular rebellion in France. The rebels are called the gilets jaunes, or the yellow vests. This, that, or another threatening act of strong opposition typically suffices to summon the government’s council of advisers.
Not all councils are equal. Nor are all decision-makers up to the task of distinguishing good from bad council. Any rebellious opposition may lack the coherence and wherewithal to succeed in its goals; it may not even have clear-cut goals in mind other than some general sense of reprieve. Likewise, the government can fall short of its ambitions.
Let’s assume the role of one of the French government’s advisers when faced with the political crisis of the gilets jaunes / yellow vests opposition. What would we advise in such a case? This is a useful and serious game. It can help us to strip away blinders as well as to remember that we’re often witness to dynamic and organised policies on the part of governments and similarly powerful organisations. Furthermore, we might spy a potential trap or pitfall in the path of either party.
I’m not privy to any party’s plans in the case of the gilets jaunes crisis, but I strongly suspect that the exercise of trying to think through a possible government plan in response to the gilets jaunes will prove instructive.
So, let’s begin…
Stall for time to expend energy and erode determination
The yellow vests lack the reserve of resources to maintain protracted activity without direct cost to themselves. They’re not paid to demonstrate or organise actions. And, presumably, the thing that has them in the streets is their very lack of wealth and the depleting conditions of every day life, which is why they petition the government for a reprieve.
Their humble station in the strata of social power is the very thing that can tactically be used against them. If the government can drag out committing to any serious or deep change of course or reform, then protesters may simply be forced to return to ‘normal’ life from a lack of resources.
The police, strategists, lawyers, judges, tacticians, administrators, elected officials on the side of the government’s policies have two advantages in this regard.
- They have a larger store of resources with which to withstand a siege.
- They receive pay and compensation to come up with the means of furthering their side’s position. After all, that’s part of their primary job.
The oncoming holidays are helpful to this. There’s likely to be reduced participation during the Christmas season. If the government doesn’t wish to surrender significant policy ground, then it can wait and see if people return to active opposition come January and the new year.
The government will want to frame the protests as shrinking in size. They and their allied media communications teams will want to highlight this point via press releases and interviews with formally distanced yet friendly (to them) commentators. This, then couples the eroding force of time with that of what was once called propaganda and is now demurely termed as public relations.
The opposition’s cacophony vs. your clarion call
The government holds a clear and strong lead in the dominant modes of authoritative and wide-reaching media: television, radio, print, news media, etc. It not only has affiliations with the large businesses and agencies that run and own such outlets, it also has access to an an army of dedicated communications employees throughout the state’s numerous organs.
This advantage can be used to frame the representation of both ‘sides’ of the confrontation. The government’s position should be represented as clear, concise, firm, yet beneficent. This is a clarion call. A person may not agree with the government but you may at least expect to understand their clear tone.
In contrast, the opposition – the gilets jaunes – should be framed as a confusing cacophony of many contradicting and incompatible voices. In the case of the gilets jaunes, the government is assisted by the fact that there is indeed no organised body of representation that speaks on behalf of the protesters. The government will want to keep this as is. And it can represent their multiplicity as confusion and as confusing.
The protesters and their immediate sympathisers need not fall for this scheme in order for it to bear fruit. The tactic can be deemed a success as long as neutral parties are duly prejudiced, the government’s supporters receive rhetorical sustenance, and the disunity of the opposition is made apparent.
The protesters are forced to rely then on either their own media of communication or on internet social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). The gilets jaunes have no unified or common independent media that’s followed by a majority, so reliance on communication via any affiliated communication tools (such as a trade affiliation’s newsletters) expound their differences.
Reliance on social media, on the hand delivers the gilets jaunes to the mercy of algorithms that highlight or demote stories based on the determination of the leading owners of those corporations that have established these particular means of communication. When determined or pressed into a corner, and in a pinch, governments can and have brought to bear their influence in order to demand that the holding corporations disarticulate connections made on social media sites (see the case of general political disaffection in the US being somehow generally manipulated by Russian secret agents, and thus such comments being demoted in search engine and social media rankings).
Divide and defeat
The French government of Emmanuel Macron is aided by the fact that the gilets jaunes is a heterogeneous ensemble of people and groups. As long as this opposition doesn’t consolidate its position, form shared committees, and so on, the government can try to accentuate their differences.
Division can be created or exasperated by pointing out the obvious: that the gilets jaunes are composed of a variety of interests even if they share a common sense of overall anger against the government’s policies. This means that the government can be in the position to target one group for perceived (even if false) favours in order to splinter solidarity. Likewise, the government can single one faction or region for harsh treatment in the hopes that the target doesn’t receive assistance from others and feels alienated, isolated, or resentful. Both of the mentioned tactics could lead to factionalisation and division.
The government could also seek to ignore, isolate, or thwart any attempts at the formation of a cohesive organisation among the gilets jaunes, or try to interdict an already organised outside party, preventing their entry as leaders of a significant part of the popular opposition.
Naturally, where there is a multiplicity of voices and opinions, the government can legitimately claim its role as interlocutor, mediator, and arbiter.
Sift opinion by highlighting violence
Division can be intensified by the repeated claims of infiltration of violent and subversive elements within the body of the gilets jaunes. The very lack of organisation and authorised decision-making committees within the popular opposition can be blamed for the need to have state and police interference on behalf of the majority of peaceful (i.e. status-quo preserving) people within the society as a whole.
Accusation of violence may be enough to delegitimise claims to standard protests, triggering the government’s right to defend the peace, using defensive violence (the police) if need be. This can be used to break up attempts at assembly and fracture protesters’ situational cohesion, eliminate their ability to stay in one location for too long a period, and limit the chance of encounter into larger assemblies.
Depending on circumstances, it’s even possible to have certain groups within the opposition exclude possible coalition partners if they suspect them of being branded as violent offenders. Furthermore, it’s possible that sympathy for the protesters is reduced within certain non-participating segments of the society. For impact on opinion against violent offenders to take hold, there doesn’t need to be a belief that the accused are actually violent, but only that association with them could undermine the perceived political leverage of those who are not thus branded, or lead to harsh treatment of all associated parties.
The danger for the government is that in the course of actions, violence of a certain sort becomes legitimate in the minds of significant portions of demonstrators, or that general cynicism toward the government develops within and beyond the opposition. Care would need to be taken on this front, since here lies the possibility of the state losing its accepted iron grip of presiding over the judgment of valid and invalid violence. To lose a hold on this would lead to mass rebellion.
Select your opponent’s leaders
Since the current popular opposition has no clearly definable leadership, the government can take the step of identifying certain gilets jaunes individuals as leaders. It can directly do so by inviting these particular people to meetings and discussions. It can indirectly do so by having their allied institutions advertise the given individuals or invite them to formal non-governmental meetings, talk shows, etc.
The government can select leaders that are either somewhat compliant, insecure (materially or politically), controversial, divisive, or have poor analysis and strategy. Compliant leaders can demoralise the opposition or quietly undermine significant reform. Divisive figures may represent only a niche interest but speak for the entirety against their will, be arrogant, and somehow highlight difference between various groupings such that the gilets jaunes is broken into disparate interest groups.
Another type of leader of the opposition that benefits the government is one that stridently defies the government yet has poor judgment. That person may receive the mantle of credible leader because of their trenchant independence and solidarity with the gilets jaunes, yet their lack of analysis and bad decisions can lead people astray and facilitate the government’s work, or at least take the sting out of opposition action.
Appoint compliant status-quo organisations as deal-makers
Aside from picking leaders from within the popular opposition, the government can tap or encourage existing non-governmental organisations outside of it to intervene. These can include the leadership of major trade unions that want to maintain good relations with the state. Such people can be used to dampen adversity or to direct it to avenues less harmful to the government’s desired arrangements.
This method was notably successful during the period of the May 1968 uprising. See my article, Non-revolutionary politics in a revolutionary moment, for more details.
Establish desired and controllable fora of discussion
The government can try to select where and how formal discussions are held. The determination of this helps them to frame the discourse, and so direct it along amenable currents, or have contenders spin their wheels in order to expend the popular opposition’s limited energy and resources. The gilets jaunes may also be fractured and various camps turn against one another thanks to the government spotlighting contentious subjects as points of conversation.
It’s no surprise then that the government does indeed have in mind to hold nation-wide public councils, termed “Le Grand Debat National” (The Great National Debate). There are supposed to be public assemblies held across France, within town halls, for a span of months. By holding them in town halls people can be reminded that the legitimate forum for debate is under the wing of the state, while trying to move assembly out of open public spaces and into the closed halls of state-run compounds. The state here takes the role of host as opposed to witnessing unregulated assembly in public squares and streets.
Additionally, the government can table its desired topic of conversation during these town hall meetings. Among them is that of immigration. The government proposes to discuss and debate the impact of immigration on the French economy and society. This may help to divide an angry public by driving a wedge between the left and right wings while also attempting to plant a ‘straw man’ in the room. This could partly pull away the common ground of grievance and present an alternate basis for ensuing debate.
The Great National Debate is not an open-ended council, the government will try to set the tone and topic of conversation.
Make false concessions
The government can make false concessions: that means, it can promise such things as a moratorium to simply delay the otherwise inevitable, or even forward its desired policies as supposed concessions.
For example, the government of Macron says that it’s responding to protests by exempting taxes and contributions on overtime pay. However this is packaged with an already planned tax reduction scheme, a step in the measure to reduce social spending and welfare while liberalising the economy, labour laws, and society. A 30 November 2018 website post on gouvernement.fr states that desired tax cuts should include “Exemptions from social contributions for overtime from September 2019 (€200 saved on average)”.
Such a tactic may be used to win over some, and deflate others who see segments of the opposition waver from a determined stance. It may help to sift between ‘moderates’ and die-hards (sowing division) as well as between groups with differing interests by addressing the concerns of certain camps (another means to division).
Make tactical concessions
When the government does have to make concessions on points it would otherwise have liked to avoid, then it can try to introduce policies that don’t change the fundamentals but instead offer superficial and mildly conciliatory measures. The hope may be to appear to be representative of the people and have their cares in mind, put on the air of goodwill, offer a false sense of victory to opponents, target the interests of only select groups within the opposition in order to divide protesters, or give it time for the opposition to relent before carrying on with the general policy implementation.
The trick is to offer the right things to the right people at the right time. The government must be wary not to unduly insult, infuriate, or embolden the opposition. Essentially, the idea is to diminish and break up opposition, not have it gain new followers, increase its demands, persist in its disobedience, grow militant, or fester into a future crisis.
Any concessions made should not at heart diverge from or fundamentally interfere with espoused government ideology or plans for the future. At best, the concessions should be framed by and within a firm logic that naturally fits with future and upcoming policy decisions. In this manner, a seeming defeat can be turned into the basis from which to justify the logical unfolding of and line for reasoning for prospective government objectives.
Dress the situation and its solutions in a desired uniform
The overall approach and rhetoric on the part of government agents and allies should further an inextinguishable social, political, economic, and cultural logic. Action and word should be in accordance with the maintenance and advancement of the desired ideology. The logic, theories, principles, and maxims of the ideology should be presented as common sense, so that they take on the features of a force of nature.
This will help to establish the boundaries of possibility and impossibility within which opponents will jostle for reform. Anything that falls outside of these limits would be deemed too militant, radical, heretical, or simply absurdly utopian. If done correctly and in conjunction with the existing hegemonic discourse, opponents will internalise the boundaries, thus policing and limiting their own demands
For example, a cut to overtime taxes in favour of workers may later be coupled with an increase of working hours as long as they’re given umbrage by the logic of liberalising the economcy by unleashing market forces.
I’ve briefly gone over some of the schemes that the French government may use in the case of the gilets jaunes crisis. It can use some variation of the same in other cases of popular unrest. Any part or combination of these procedures can be put in play.
Of course, the government is not alone to act, other parties are acting according to their own aims. In this case, the government is organised and has a far superior capacity for tactical and strategic maneuvers. Mistakes and surprises are certainly possible, yet the balance of forces in the national, European, and international arenas is squarely with partisan elements arrayed against the popular opposition.
Those sympathetic to the complaints of the gilets jaunes should seek some measure of victory by using the momentum of popular unrest to leverage concrete reforms that offer opportunities for a new organisation’s expansion. Any reforms or concessions gained should be grounded in a logic of argumentation that defies or undermines the liberal ideology of free markets by clarifying a distinctive vision and plan for a new set of social relations and political structures. This can be the mortar that binds a determined and effective oncoming movement that doesn’t only seek to petition an unwilling superior for reprieve, but has goals for changing the very rules by which the game is played. This would undoubtedly require a long-term strategy that is neither foiled by defeats or giddy from small success.