Gilets jaunes and tipping points: not knowing what was coming or where it’s going.

From ‘a provincial revolt about speed limits’ to a violent rejection of Macron and the unleashing of ‘a force that threatens to overturn the existing political order’, the rise of the gilets jaunes in France – compellingly described by Jeremy Harding in the London Review of Books – has been astonishing.

It was largely unforeseen and began with an unlikely detail of policy – big themes for The Hidden Half and this blog. Although we’re told that a sociologist, Christophe Guilluy, had argued in 2016 that the ‘periphery’, ‘the forgotten land of small and medium-sized cities and rural areas, home to most of the working class’ was living out the worst effects of globalisation and represented a force ‘that threatens to overturn the existing political order’, it’s hard to believe that many people genuinely felt an earthquake coming, and especially that anyone saw the auguries in a changing speed limit, or spotted the likely moment when ‘resentful silence’, as Jeremy puts it, would turn into noisy political assertion. Even Guilluy was inaccurate in key respects about where the action would be, who would participate and with what motives.

‘The roads, of course, are where the story of the gilets jaunes began, more than a year ago, when the government proposed to reduce the speed limit from 90 to 80 kph on 400,000 kilometres of single carriageway in France,’ Jeremy writes.

Then, in what seemed little more than a blink, there were hundreds of thousands on the streets across France, mass blockades, barricades on the Champs Elysees, riots, hundreds injured, hundreds more in custody, an executive ‘in disarray’. Protestor demands soon went far beyond a change to a speed limit (which was in any case quickly rescinded) until some spoke of wholesale political reappraisal, resulting in 10,000 public meetings where the talk was now of the radical pursuit of equality and social justice.

The point is the pace at which a change in an obscure detail of policy became a borderline revolution whose eventual consequences no-one can now predict. From small details… as I like to say in The Hidden Half…

But we know now, don’t we? Not really. There are no templates for what’s happening. Although some say we are at a tipping point, and it’s tempting to see events in France as a neat illustration of that intellectual construct, who would would be wiling to call it? Clearly, as we don’t know how things will turn out, we don’t know if this is a tipping point or not.

This reveals the limitations of the tipping point idea, or indeed any intellectual order we impose on contemporaneous events: we didn’t know it was coming; nor, I suspect, do we really know what it’s now doing, or where it’s going. The idea of a tipping point strikes me – with the advantage of wondering how to apply it to a case unfolding in real time – as another attempt to impose a pattern on a phenomenon that has none that we can ascertain with any confidence.

The book by Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, is a great read, packed with research and colourful stories, superbly told. But if it’s not too much to ask of a popular book, does it have external analytic validity which we can apply reliably to the next instance, in this case the gilets jaunes? That is, does the theory travel? By which I mean…

Do things always tip the same way? Or do they tip fast in some cases, slowly in others? 

Do some almost reach a tipping point but don’t quite go over before falling back?  Will the political protest fizzle out before things return to normal?

Do some not really tip at all but move to a new equilibrium?

Do some tip a bit, then tip back and then wobble perpetually around the middle, but settle neither into an equilibrium nor fall clearly on one side or the other, but remain mildly unstable?

Do some tip in several directions at once? That is, which behaviours and attitudes are inherently tippable with coherent sets of antithetical consequences and which aren’t, and how can we know which are which in advance? Maybe some are less like a see-saw and more like jam?

For what it’s worth, I think the tipping point idea conveys a truth (the subtitle of Malcolm’s book is one I take to heart: ‘how little things can make a big difference’), but in asking how useful the tipping-point construct itself is, we have to wonder if context will matter more than principle to make the tipping-ness of any social circumstance irregular and unpredictable. Is the tipping point little more than a metaphor for a certain narrowly-defined set of events that might not generalize and probably will only be visible with hindsight – because each case is potentially different once you come to the detail?

If that’s all it is, it’s still useful. But if you think it’s more than that, then call it: what’s happening and what will happen next in France? Has it tipped? Will it tip? And stay tipped? In which direction – to the right or left, to extremes of both, or neither, or will it settle in the centre? Will it be racially motivated or nationalistic, or economic? How will it happen?