The Suburbs Are Ticking... Why The Nihilism Of The Paris Riots Is Not A Political "Insurrection"
rights, freedoms and repression |
Monday November 07, 2005 19:09 by Kay Velvet - The Glorious Revolutionary Federation of Fortune 500 Killers (M50/Blanchardstown Chapter) mmm skyscraper... i love you. 666
Re-branding of rioting by leftists solves nothing
An attempt to look at the Paris riots, with more questions than answers.
The last seven days have been interesting. Here at home there was a large gathering of union workers protesting against the casualisation of labour at Irish Ferries, who plan to lay off Irish workers and employ Eastern Europeans at lower wage rates in their place. In Argentina, demonstrators opposed to the exploitation of Latin America by multinationals clashed with riot cops at the FTAA summit, providing the now familiar unwelcome mat for Dubya. Undoubtedly the focus was on Paris however, as it entered its second week of rioting after two teenagers were electrocuted to death fleeing from police.
Already there is revisionism happening in left circles regarding the events of the last eleven days in the banlieues of Paris (and now further afield). Several commentators and newspapers in France have been drawing comparisons between the rioting in depressed districts of the city with the student and general strike in May/June 1968, while others sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and speaking up in favour of rights for Islamic communities in the aftermath of the War in Afghanistan have been calling it "the French Intifada". Both of these paralells are flawed. The soixante-huitards may have been involved in street clashes with the CRS, but these clashes had an explicit political dimension and statement behind them; and even the tactics used differ markedly from those on the streets of Paris now. Nobody is denying either that the situation of the mostly Black and Arab families is grim, but to suggest that it is equivalent to the oppression suffered by the people in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip is complete hyperbole.
What is happening at the moment in Paris is part of a continuum of mass urban riots, as opposed to organised political insurrections or direct actions, that have been a feature of Western city life for the past 50 years (and further beyond into the past, although the development of consumer society and the spread of the car as the main mode of transport mean that the rioters have different targets and tools to light up their fires with). Take your pick from a long list of urban meltdowns, from Watts 1965, Newark '67, Tampa '80, Brixton/Toxteth '81, Broadwater Farm '85, Los Angeles '92, Cincinnati 2001 - and these are just the ones that I can remember off the top of my head, and only in the English speaking world. Paris 2005 will become part of this timeline.
Regrettably in these urban riots, there is little hope or central message behind them, only decentralised nihilism and unfocused property damage committed by disenfranchised young (mostly male) people. In the wake of the Rodney King riots in 1992, similar revisionism was taking place, referring to the riots as a multiracial insurrection. The assault on Reginald Denny at the beginning of these riots was as brutal and racist as that of the four cops on King. Likewise in Paris it is hard to justify or defend the burning of public transport and local amenities such as a community centre or gym, or explain the political reasoning behind an elderly woman being splashed with petrol and set alight as she attempted to disembark a hijacked bus.
However, in the words of the Situationists (who were defending the looting and arson in Watts) "Let the sociologists bemoan the absurdity and intoxication of this rebellion. The role of a revolutionary publication is not only to justify the Los Angeles insurgents, but to help elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search." Perhaps these days it is the role of Indymedia articles and peer review to try and explain the actions of the Paris rioters in a radical, accurate, and passionate telling of truth.
One origin of this (and most) Western urban rioting is colonialism. Rich, imperialist, white countries happily preached about liberty, equality, land and brotherhood while going to town on their African pals, taking them for everything they were worth, practicing a level of violence much more intense than any burning of cars or bins. Post WWII when it wasnt so p.c. to be occupying other countries, eventually (after much political pressure from the people of the oppressed states themselves, rather than just collective guilt on the part of the Allies for mirroring the Nazis Lebenstraum policy) this resulted in the "Scramble to Get Out of Africa". Ghana became the first independent Black state in Africa in 1957, while the predominantly Arab nations of Morocco and Tunisia freed themselves from the yoke of French rule a year previously in 1956. Algeria followed suit in 1962 after a civil war.
Rather than repair the damage, imperial nations chose to indulge in neo-colonialism by holding on to strategic economic resources through private companies. So although the new independent African nations had political independence, their financial means to stabilise were removed, leading to the breakdown and corruption often associated with the continent today. Many of the colonial "subjects" had work and travel rights in their imperial parent, so they ended up there as economic refugees/migrants, possibly with a healthy measure of antipathy towards their hosts. The generation rioting on the streets are the children of the colonised.
Rather than accept these people as equals, apologise for and acknowledge enormous past mistakes during imperial terror campaigns, and legislate for the positive emancipation and "affirmative action" of integration into the host society, life continues much the same as before, as if nothing had happened. So, the colonial subjects will always be looked down on, ignored, or treated as an "other", outside the realm of "normal" life and society. This goes on for years and the separation continues. Whether its Africans in the USA, Pakistanis in the UK, Algerians in France, or the Aboriginals in Australia (who still have to suffer the indignation of being the other in their own country), the tension builds for years and years until one little spark sets it all off in an explosive orgy of anger, violence, and frustration. The refusal or denial to reach peaceful and meaningful resolution with the legacy of colonialism will come back and erupt in urban districts populated by the communities affected by it, regardless of which generation is dealing with the exclusion.
Another origin of the rioting is the trickle down effect of free market capitalism and globalisation. The fabric of the labour market has changed almost beyond recognition in most European countries since 1968. There are very few manufacturing and primary industry jobs remaining, many of which have relocated to the far East where labour is cheap, unregulated, and non-unionised. Rather than protect jobs with legislation, and work in tandem with the economies of the far east, successive states have allowed multinationals to up and leave at a whim. The effect of this move is felt on both sides of the world - in the richer West, whole communities built up around factories are instantly destroyed, while in the poorer East, workers are exploited to the point of death and the multinationals do not have to comply with environmental standards, polluting the immediate surroundings and beyond far more than previously.
These skilled manual labour jobs were traditionally occupied by French workers, but there was also space for the North African immigrants, as well as in auxiliary openings related to large scale production plants, such as catering, maintenance, transport, etc. With the disappearance of these jobs and the slide towards a service industry (which people with even slight language difficulties find it impossible to find a job in), it has slowly resulted in a scenario where large swathes of the population cannot and most likely will not find employment in the forseeable future. This bleak outlook builds up over time, and slides once strong family-based communities into drug abuse, petty theft, and other antisocial activity.
The self-immolation happening in Paris communities is a reflection of this despair and complete disbelief in the future. People simply dont care any more. When you have a job that values you as a person, and a family that cares for you and your friends, you generally dont gamble on it for a night of rioting with the risk of injury, arrest, or even death. This complete detachment from the concept of society is visible in the targets of the rioters. Left wing opportunist commentators can defend some of the targets such as police stations, car dealerships, and banks; but schools, local shops, buses and community centres which local residents associations doubtlessly fought long and hard for have also gone up in smoke and rubble. This type of anti-community vandalism regrettably is commonplace in poor districts of major cities - which the state is happy to let happen to a degree. When it spills into the more affluent suburbs, it is only then that the crackdown begins.
The fire that burns within the heart of the rioters will probably only be extinguished by a long spell of cold rain and winds. The government in France has made the repeated blinkered mistake of a law and order response, further fanning the flames of anger. Based on previous examples of such urban rioting, there will be state committees set up to investigate the causes behind it, but nothing will really change. The rioters arrested will not be shown any leniency, and in five years time when they are released from prison, their rage will burn just as brightly as before. They will not be able to secure employment due to a criminal conviction, and their children will learn of this heady time in exalted tones, as something to look up to, to garner respect from. The cycle continues.
The net result of the Paris riots will not be some mass proletarian consciousness awakening and sudden crystallisation into a political movement - because "the left" is for the most part fractured in urban areas and simply not present on the ground. The nihilism of the rioting is born of hate and desperation, and into the eye of the storm (or the calm after) steps political movements which seek to exploit and benefit from this deep emotion. This can range from both the extreme and mainstream right wing, promising protection to the scared white neighbourhoods, to religious fundamentalism, which elevates a social struggle into a completely different, celestial battle - only offering a way out through the misery of further violent conflict or even complete self-destruction with the promise of salvation and pleasure in "the next world". In the context of current global geopolitics, this seems the inevitable next step in France for the immigrant communities, sadly drawing in young people into the trenches of the War on Terror. Religious fundamentalism (of any stripe) ultimately is destined to repeat centuries-old disharmony with its dogma and chronic monolithic view of the world.
What can progressive movements do during and after these riots? One (perhaps foolhardy) option is to organise and jump in at the deep end, engaging in the confrontations and aiming the destruction at more 'legitimate' targets of capital, such as those attacked during large summit mobilisations - and issuing communiques afterwards explaining your actions. This is not opportunistic, rather an action that lies in the roots of the belief that revolution can happen at any time, so now is as good as any to make it your own. Another, perhaps more palatable and less dangerous action is to organise solidarity marches with and in the communities perpetrating and affected by the violence - not afterwards when it cools down, but now. This means talking with people on the ground, engaging in a long and difficult time of community work, organising prisoner and legal support, and exploring long, hard answers that stretch beyond the usual realms of sloganeering/rhetoric and cliched "activism" within a closed circle.
Whatever the outcomes of the rioting, let us not try to re-label it as some sort of serious conscious political uprising, or manipulate the destruction of working class areas and amenities as being a positive development. Mature and responsible questions and actions will hopefully lead to long term, intelligent answers, rather than perpetuating the misery and despondency of huge sections of French society. The pressure has been building up for years, and now that it has all exploded in a juissance of fire, a magical solution isnt going to materialise overnight in amongst the debris of cars and bins.
Can you spot the difference...