Last week, I left London and went home to visit my family in the West Midlands. In conversation with my (disabled, angry, proud, leave-voting) mother, she causally mentioned that she had spent £3 on a high-viz waistcoat and now considered herself to be a ‘yellow vest’.
In doing so, she was pledging her allegiance to the Gilet Jaune movement; a populist, grassroots (and deeply contested) campaign of social and political resistance that began in France in 2018
Note that she didn’t consider herself part of the yellow vest movement, or a believer in yellow vest ideals, instead she considered herself to be a yellow vest. Her symbolic identification was both adamant and total.
When I checked her Facebook page later that night, it was full of #GiletJuane memes, videos and article links. What struck me most about this content was how the symbol of the yellow vest had managed to federate such a wide variety of incompatible and incoherent demands.
What exactly was it about the elasticity of the yellow vest symbol that meant that for some it spoke of progressive taxation, open borders and an end to austerity, while for others it had come to represent ant-immigrant sentiment, hatred of the EU and a fondness for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories?
In order to answer that, and to consider what it might mean for the Universal Basic Income movement, it’s first worth thinking about the socio-political context in which my mom chose to part with her £3. What is the nature of the crisis that is destabilising the neoliberal consensus? And what kind of opportunities might this destabilisation present to those looking to build broad support for a transformative policy like UBI?
Any analysis of the current crisis will be partial, but there are certain foundational observations that matter most in this instance. The first is that the various vectors of resistance and anger are at least in part driven by a deepening democratic deficit and a consequent reduction in personal and civic agency. The second is that these modalities of public discontent are often animated by a desire for increased freedoms, both material and psychic.
Let’s start with the democratic deficit. My mom brought her yellow vest at the end of 40 years of globalised, neoliberal orthodoxy which had been handed down to communities and individuals as a an unquestioned ( and unquestionable) ‘common sense’. In that time, her textural, participatory democratic life had been hollowed out and replaced with a narrow proceduralism.
Every four years, she could cast her vote for one of two sets of technocratic window dressing, confident that her financial, physical and emotional well-being would continue to deteriorate regardless. To her, the bi-partisan shuffle may have offered points of difference, but it had long since ceased to offer meaningful change.
At the same time, the sites where these damaging orthodoxies might have traditionally been discussed, reshaped or resisted have been allowed to either wither on the vine or have been systematically erased and eroded. Whether we conceptualise these sites of historical contestation as the commons, as civil society, or perhaps simply as community, their loss has been profoundly felt.
Because while we know that identities are formed relationally and discursively, we also know that they are formed around shared objects, shared ownership and shared spaces. Community halls, pubs, sports fields, playgrounds, churches, local newspapers; these places of voluntary association are where ‘common sense’ used to get metabolised and reconfigured, where textural democratic engagement was permitted and encouraged, and where people like my mom could contribute, share and be heard.
So if we allow democracy its deepest meaning – as the desire, means and systems by which someone can influence the conditions of their own existence – then it isn’t difficult to see how we have come to a point where so many people have found themselves alienated from it, both conceptually and in practice.
In the case of my mom, this unsatisfied demand for democracy has been further fuelled by economic precarity and the disciplining surveillance of the welfare state. When you consider that she is one of millions of people across the country whose story might be fairly described in this way, it stands to reason that our current hegemonic order has become profoundly (and perhaps fatally ) destabilised by the power of their collective anger and their libidinal desire for social, economic and political transformation. In the eyes of an increasingly large number of people, the ‘common sense’ of the neoliberal era has been utterly stripped of both legitimacy and explanatory power.
For some, this is welcome and overdue, for others it is lamentable and threatening. However, for those of us concerned with the advancement of UBI, I’d like to argue that more than anything else, this moment represents an opportunity.
To explain why, we need to turn again to my mom and her £3 yellow vest. She brought it at a point where subjectivities created in relation to the ‘common sense’ of neoliberalism, have been disarticulated and destroyed. As a result there are millions of affective, libidinal and fluctuating allegiances, ready to attach to themselves to any symbol that might register as being accommodating of their desire for change.
In this case it was a yellow vest. But it didn’t have to be.
Because we have seen time and again that desire is the true motor of political action; driving action both more reliably and more powerfully than statistics, expert analysis or mediated commentary.
And UBI is uniquely placed to capture this affective discontent and, in doing so, forge a new consensus around both its emancipatory possibilities and its potential to offer a new, post neo-liberal ‘common sense’ that is orientated toward individual freedom and collective wellbeing.
This potential stems primarily from UBI’s applicability to all of the diverse constituencies whose antagonism is either a result of, or is sharpened by, their necessary participation in wage labour. The centrality of work (its indignity, scarcity or over-centrality) means that UBI is well positioned to draw affective support from across the spectrum of contemporary discontent and plant a symbolic flag in the ground in the quest for a post-neoliberal ‘common sense’.
What this present moment of disarticulation amounts to, then, is a significant, once-in-a-generation opportunity to capture the political and cultural headland via a deeply felt and broadly supported call for radical societal reorganisation.
It is going to happen to happen anyway. It seems inconceivable that the old orthodoxies will right themselves and re-establish enough trust to go on functioning unchallenged. Because of this, UBI advocates should be confident enough to walk into the rubble of the existing order and offer to build new and durable structures for the future.
To do so is necessary not only to further the goal of human freedom, but, more proximately, because a new consensus is being established in front of our eyes and if we are not careful it is liable to be captured by interests more concerned with limitation than liberation.
The retrograde and reactionary must not be allowed a monopoly on the symbolic, on desire, on fury or on discontent. Those dedicated to a progressive vision of post-work society have a key (and urgent) role in ensuring this does not happen.