Moral Economy, Power and the Yellow Vests

The following is our translation of an intriguing text by Samuel Hayat, a French political scientist, published on Dec. 5th 2018. It offers a thought-provoking analysis of the moral economy of the Yellow Vests movement which should also provoke conversations about other social/radical movements and their attachment to normative moral claims about the economy or the present world we are forced to live in.

It’s difficult not to be swept up by the movement in progress. The whole thing is disconcerting, including for those who make a profession of researching and teaching political science: its actors, its modes of action, its demands. Some of our best established beliefs have been called into question, notably those related to the conditions and bliss of social movements. Hence the necessity, or at the very least the desire, to put out it in the open some reflections stemming from the open comparison between what we see in this movement and the knowledge base relating to other subjects. Besides the research of the movement in progress, let us hope that the indirect light born of the comparison with other fields offers up something different on what has taken place.

The situation

The images reported by the media like personal wanderings during the events of December 1st have shown a Paris never-before seen, neither in 1995, 2006, or 2016: three moments where the usual space-time of Parisian mobilizations were deeply deformed. Some have been able to talk about riots or an insurrectionary situation. This may be so and nonetheless it did not resemble at all the insurrections which took place in 1830, 1832, 1848 or 1871. All those insurrections took place in a neighborhood, putting into play local sensibilities, a relational tissue allowing popular solidarity to be deployed.1 But on Dec. 1st the fire took place in bourgeois Paris, in the Parisian north-west which had never before really been a theater for such operations. Far from being led by local forces, raising barricades to demarcate a space of autonomy, these actions were the deeds of small mobile groups, often living elsewhere.


Order was wavering, the city was left to the demonstrators, everything was allowed and in this space embodying privilege, liberties were taken with the customary norms of the use of public space.

It’s evident that local sensibilities play a role in the formation of these groups. You only need to look beyond Paris to see the collective re-appropriation of a given territory, the formation of durable links… But on Dec. 1st these solidarities were displaced to a demonstration space which is itself rather customary: the sites of national power. Here we find ourselves in a totally modern register, no offense to those who speak of Jacqueries2: it’s really a national and autonomous movement, to return to the key categories which Charles Tilly qualifies the repertoire of action typical to modernity. But the rules of the demonstration, long already fixed (we generally situate their formalization in 19093) were ignored: there was no march, no legal representatives, no negotiated route, no service d’ordre4, no fliers, no banners, no stickers but rather a myriad of personal slogans written on the backs of yellow vests.

The whole practice of maintaining order was upended and we have seen how, despite their numbers and armament, the professionals of order were incapable of assuring their own safety, without mentioning the safety of goods and persons. We could imagine that the forces of order will not put up with allowing themselves to be manhandled and that police violence, already very common, runs the risk of further amplifying, with the calls for the extension of the use of force, or even declaring a state of emergency. The failure to maintain physical order goes hand in hand with an even more complete failure to maintain symbolic order: a president in transit to an international summit, an inaudible government (the ransom to be paid for personal power surrounded by mediocre courtiers5 so that no shadow weakens their glow), the pseudo-party in power occupied the same day with electing a new general delegate as though nothing were going on.


Order was wavering, the city was left to the demonstrators, everything was allowed and in this space embodying privilege, liberties were taken with the customary norms of the use of public space. We will not cry for the “families of [broken] windows”, to cite the usual expression; however, we must take into account the measure of the threat that this destruction poses for power: on the first Saturday of December neighborhoods where luxury hotels and businesses line the streets became the object of so many outbreaks, forcing the closure of department stores on the Boulevard Haussman, constituting a great economic risk. If we turn our gaze away from capital we would see that the mobilization was massive across the country, making the maintenance of order so much more costly, even impossible. The temptation the authorities had before Dec. 1st to leave the situation to rot until Christmas now seems impossible.

Mobilization work

Many commentators have glossed over the supposed inconsistency of motives and actors; on the contrary, given the fragmentation of its representation, the unity within the movement is surprising.

The sociology of social movements has for a while now opened the eyes of those who believed in the spontaneity of the masses. Behind any seemingly spontaneous movement, there are mobilization enterprises, people able to put militant capital at the service of the cause, material and symbolic resources as well as skills acquired in previous struggles… There would be no Tunisian revolution without the Gafsa, no 15-M movement without the Stop Expulsions and the Juventud Sin Futuro, no Nuit Debout without a mobilization against the Loi travail. Shall we update these genealogies with that of the gilets jaunes? Perhaps, but they would only offer a weak explanatory power: the mobilization took off too quickly and passed too quickly to the national level to then be interpreted as the result of the patient work of mobilizations by social movement organizations, or even informal organizations.


If there is movement representation work which helps bring into existence this movement (“the Yellow Vests”), this work has been remarkably decentralized, passing through multiple local groups organizing via social networks, by the media aggregation of various words and the work of interpretation done by journalists, politicians and sociologists.6 The desire to give the movement agile spokespersons able to negotiate with the authorities has failed (for the moment). Many commentators have glossed over the supposed inconsistency of motives and actors; on the contrary, given the fragmentation of its representation, the unity within the movement is surprising. There’s a unity in action, solidarity and an apparent consensus on the list of demands, even a unity of rhythm. The choice of the yellow vest, this clothing item made obligatory for all motorists, and whose primary purpose is to render one visible, is particularly happy and has certainly been a material condition for the rapid spread of this unique symbol. But the choice to take action and to do it with the rigor and coherence shown can not simply be the result of a catchy emblem, the good use of social networks, nor of a shared discontent, regardless of its size and shared nature. The words of discontent, anger and of grumblings are screens that prevent us from grasping the reasons for the mobilization in the double sense: they give up their own causes and justifications. The challenge is then to find an explanation for this movement which covers both its form (decentralization, radicality) and its substance (demands).

The demands are worth taking a pause over. We know little as to how they were made, but a list of 42 demands have been widely disseminated both by groups and by the media.7 These demands have some remarkable traits that have already been noted: they mainly concern living conditions, far beyond the sole question of the price of gasoline; they contain positions against the free movement of migrants; they propose institutional changes that strengthen citizen control over elected officials, whose remuneration would be reduced to the median wage. This list has been described as a “patchwork of demands.”8 It seems to me that on the contrary this list is deeply coherent and that what gives it its coherence is also what allowed the mobilization of the yellow vests to take on and to last: it is anchored in what one can call the moral economy of the working-class [classes populaires].

The moral economy of the Gilets Jaunes

The concept of moral economy is well-known by researchers in the social sciences.9 It was developed by the historian E.P. Thompson as a way to designate a fundamental phenomena within 18th c. popular movements: it refers to the conceptions largely shared as to what should be the proper functioning of the economy, in the moral sense.10 Everything happened as though it were self-evident that certain rules had to be respected: the price of goods should not be excessive in relation to their cost of production; standards of reciprocity, rather than the game of the market, should regulate exchange, etc. And as soon as these unwritten norms were found to be trampled upon, or threatened by the rules of the market, the people would feel it was this their right to revolt, often initiated by women. Their motive was very economic, but not in the usual sense: they were not driven by material interests in the strict sense, but by moral claims about the functioning of the economy. There were similar revolts in France at the same time, and even later: the miners of the Compagnie d’Anzin, for example, the largest French company during most of the 19th c., regularly went on strike to remind the bosses the norms which, according to them, should organize work and its remuneration, often in reference to an older order of things, in short, to custom.11

The resonance with the yellow vests movement is striking. Their list of social demands is a formulation of essentially moral economic principles: it is imperative that the most vulnerable (the houseless, the disabled) be protected, that workers be rightly remunerated, that solidarity function correctly,12 that public services are ensured, that tax cheats are punished and that everyone contributes [to taxes] in accordance with their means, which is perfectly summed up with the formula “have the big ones pay big and the small ones pay small.” This call which could seem to be good common sense is not self-evident: it is a matter of saying that against the utilitarian glorification of the policy of supply and the theory of trickle-down economics dear to the elites (to give more those who have more, the first on the repel line, so as to attract more capital), the real economy must be based on moral principles. This is surely what gives this movement its strength and its massive support among the [French] population: it articulates, under the form of social demands, moral economic principles which the reigning power has explicitly attacked without end, which it even has has boasted about. From then on, the coherence of the movement is better understood, likewise with the fact that it was able to do without centralized organizations: as James Scott has shown, recourse to moral economy gives rise to a collective capacity to act, an agency, including social actors deprived of capital usually required for mobilization.13

In effect, moral economy is not just an assemblage of norms passively shared by the working-class. It is also the result of an implicit pact between those who dominate and thus always inserts itself within power relations. Already in the 18th c., the working-class studied by E.P. Thompson had a moral economy with deeply paternalistic traits: the wielders of power were expected to guarantee this pact, in exchange for the generally accepted social order which they enjoyed. But if the powerful were to break this pact, then the masses could then, by riot, bring them back to order. This is what we saw in the riot of four sous, at Anzin, in 1833: the miners protested against a decline in wages, but to this end they placed themselves under the protection of their former bosses, ousted by the capitalists who now controlled the company, singing “Down with the Parisians, Long live the Mathieus of Anzin!” It’s not much of a declaration to say that the current authorities have broken this implicit pact, as much by their anti-social measures as by their repeated disdain displayed to the working-class. The riot did not come out of nowhere, from a simple discontent, or an indeterminate popular agency that was spontaneously set into motion: it is the result of an aggression of power, all the more symbolically violent since that power does not recognize its actions as aggression. And the president of the [French] Republic, who is supposed to represent the French people, has become the incarnation of this betrayal, with his little utterances about “people who are nothing,” his advice on how to get a nice shirt or how by simply crossing the street you can find a job14. Instead of being a protector of the moral economy, Emmanuel Macron has constantly manhandled it, with a disarming naturalness, to end up becoming the representative par excellence of the forces that oppose this moral economy. As he said during [his electoral] campaign on the ISF15, “it’s not unfair just because it’s more efficient”16: it’s hard to think of a better example to illustrate his lack of knowledge or contempt for any other norms than that of finance. It is he who broke the pact, the national charivari now playing is addressed to him and thus we can only imagine that the charivari will end with either bloody repression or his resignation.

Moral economy and emancipation

If we can only hope that the latter will happen, we should not overestimate the political consequences of this movement. Revolts founded on moral economy do not necessarily transform into revolutionary movements, since all that is necessary is the restoration of the [implicit] pact so that the riots may end. For as much as moral economy reveals the collective capacity of the people and the existence of a real but marginal autonomy vis-à-vis those who govern, moral economy is still conservative. By way of its activation, it temporarily upends the normal functioning of institutions, but its aim is, above all, a return to order and not a revolutionary transformation. There’s something here a bit difficult to understand and formulate: just because a movement is authentically popular, and anchored with the most communally-shared beliefs of the vast majority, does not make it emancipatory. Returning to the categories of Claude Grigon and Jean-Claude Passeron, to believe that the people cannot act on their own, that the people are always submissive to symbolic power, is to demonstrate one’s own légitimisme17 and misérabilisme18. The Yellow Vests movement’s strength, spontaneity, coherence and inventiveness offers a blatant and welcome rebuff to the approaches made by this order. However, one should not fall into the opposite extreme, that these authors describe as populism, imagining that because a movement is popular it means that it is in the true, is authentic and in the right. This movement is not so much a sign of revolution but rather of a start, faced with the real decay of representative government institutions.


Perhaps it also indicates that we are only at the beginning of a new chapter in history, that the conditions for re-politicization are there, outside the framework of old parties and the old instituted forms of politics.

For what also reveals the Yellow Vests’ use of moral economy is the extent of political desert that has installed itself the past few decades. The fact that it was necessary to wait until the fundamental implicit pact that binds rulers and the ruled to be broken for there to be such a movement, whereas for decades the government has been bludgeoning us with security and anti-social policies, shows that the power of unions and political forces to mobilize has been reduced to nothing, or that the forms their mobilizations have borrowed have placed them in a state of utter powerlessness. To say this clearly, there is no joy to be had that we have had to come to this point, up to this point of rupture, so that something can finally happen, and that something which borrows pre-modern forms of collective action, under forms certainly renewed. Here is the limit point and also an important lesson on the relevance of the comparison between the Yellow Vests and past riots demonstrating a moral economy: this comparison should not be possible, given the supposedly immense distance which separates the political conditions between these situations, and yet the comparison strongly imposes itself. Moral economy belongs to periods and spaces in which the national and ideologized forms of politicization of democratic modernity, based on the confrontation between political projects and even opposing visions of the world, have not yet come to play a role. And with this the Yellow Vests movement maybe is from another time – but it says a lot about our current moment.

This has a cost we should measure: movements based on moral economy are part of a callback to custom, submission to order, but also exists within the context of a community. Moral economy is not only conservative because it harkens back to timeless norms, but also because it binds together defined by a common belonging. This is how its potential for exclusion are not mere slags which one can easily get rid of: they are the heart of the movement. To take a flagrant example, the demands against the free movement of migrants, for the expulsion of foreigners and the forced integration of non-nationals (“To live in France implies becoming French (French-language courses, French history courses and [French] civil education with a certification upon completion): all of this is inseperable from the movement because it is the logical consequence of the implementation of the moral economy of the initial community, even if this moral economy can be manipulated by the movement in different directions. Moral economy is the proclamation of the norms of a community which does not extend to the logic of equality for foreigners, nor does it recognize internal conflicts, particularly ideological ones. This last point clarifies the refusal of representative power for the popular re-appropriation of politics. But it is also the rejection of the partisanship of democracy, the opposition between political projects, in favor of a unity which we know well can easily turn into a “hate gathering built around the passion of the One which excludes.”19


The detour through this historical parallel with the past may not seem very convincing in grasping the situation in its exceptionality. Perhaps this is just a mind game. But perhaps, on the contrary, it reveals some of the fundamental characteristics of the current movement: its improbable unity, its popular support, its riot-like character, but also its very real conservative, anti-pluralist and exclusionary aspects. Perhaps it also indicates that we are only at the beginning of a new chapter in history, that the conditions for re-politicization are there, outside the framework of old parties and the old instituted forms of politics. At Anzin, the miners did not retain strikes based on moral economy. Upon contact with the first socialist and trade union forces in the region, they adopted their ideas and forms, so that they would become one of the foci from which anarcho-syndicalism emerged. Some local committees of Yellow Vests, far from sticking to a protest in the name of moral economy, call for the formation of popular committees and direct democracy, that is to say towards a radical political emancipation.20 Nothing is guaranteed, everything is open.

1Laurent Clavier, Louis Hincker et Jacques Rougerie, « Juin 1848. L’insurrection », in 1848 : actes du colloque international du cent cinquantenaire, tenu à l’Assemblée nationale à Paris, les 23-25 février 1998, Jean-Luc Mayaud (dir), Paris, Creaphis, 2002, p. 123‑140 ; Maurizio Gribaudi, Paris ville ouvrière: une histoire occultée (1789-1848), Paris, La Découverte, 2014 ; Michèle Riot-Sarcey, Le procès de la liberté: une histoire souterraine du XIXe siècle en France, Paris, La Découverte, 2016. Merci à Célia Keren pour sa relecture.

2Gérard Noiriel montre bien les enjeux d’une telle qualification

3Samuel Hayat, « La République, la rue et l’urne », Pouvoirs, vol. 116, 2006, p. 31‑44

4Translator’s note: Security forces employed by official unions in France.

5Ecoutons Agnès Buzyn assurer le 1er décembre que « Tous les jours nous agissons pour faire disparaître la colère et la peur » ou Benjamin Griveaux le lendemain que « nous ne changerons pas de cap car le cap est le bon ».

6Là aussi voir

7Par exemple


9Le thème a déjà été mentionné par plusieurs commentateurs du mouvement, notamment l’étudiant Léo Labarre ( et l’historien Xavier Vigna ( .

10Edward Palmer Thompson, « The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century », Past & Present, n°50, 1971, p. 76‑136

11Samuel Hayat, « Une politique en mode mineur. Ordre patronal et ordre communautaire dans les mines du Nord au XIXe siècle », Politix, n°120, 2017

12tr. A specific French reference where public social aid are known as solidarités.

13James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant Rebellion & Subsistence in Southeast Asia, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1977

14Translator’s note: Macron had fallen into controversy in 2016 when he said to an anti-Loi travail worker that “You’re not gonna scare me with your t-shirt. The best way to be able to enjoy a suit is to work for it.” In September of 2018 he also fell into controversy when a young man told him he has been having trouble finding a job, which Macron replied with “But there are so many jobs! You gotta go look. Right now…hotels, cafés, restaurants…if I cross the street I can find you one!”

15TN: ISF = Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune. tr. Solidarity tax on wealth.

16TN: This is a reference to Macron abolishing the ISF and seeing it as merely being “more efficient” to tax the rich less.

17TN: A term used to describe a French political movement which favors the re-establishment of the monarchy by the eldest of the Capétiens, leader of the house of Bourbon. (source: Wikipedia).

18TN: A term used in opposition to populism; developed by Jean-Claude Passeron. It describes an attitude which consits in “only seeing within the culture of the poor an impoverished culture.” (source: Wikipedia)

19Jacques Rancière, Aux bords du politique, Paris, Folio, 2004