Hobgoblin Journal

Freedom Fries Cold Capitalism

A View on the French Riots

By Ken Wong

Feb 27 2006

Leave it to the youth of the world to set the trends that the rest of us should be following. In a society that values commodities and private property over human life (and the link of conscious subjectivity to community without separations), these sons and daughters of North African immigrants respected their lives' qualitative values (and the subjectivity of the police brutality victims) by destroying what destroys us as a whole.
Yes it is true that we need more than just riots and other direct actions such as looting, sabotage, and wild cat strikes to negate existing conditions and create more desirable ones. However, despite any limitations the youths' actions might have, they also are making an important step forward by realizing that their collective action has the power to effect existing conditions.
To their credit, they have followed the patterns of autonomy that other poor Black rebellions and revolts against late capitalism such as Watts 1967, the L.A. Rebellion 1992, and Benton Harbor 2003 followed by refusing representation from leftist, religious, and nationalist partners in separate power. While we should avoid the ideological trap the reactionary Vorticist avant garde movement held about the "clarity" of youth (anybody who has lived through adolescence would know how confusing it could get), proletarianized people everywhere have gut reactions against authority in all of its flavors.

The Left in general has nothing relevant left to say to those who want freedom now. The twentieth century saw the gradual retrogression of much of post Marx Marxism into state-capitalist dictatorships over the proletariat and parlimentary parties that replace revolution with gradualism and bourgeois democracy. There are still anarchist currents that fetishize earlier responses to earlier forms of capialism, such as anarcho-syndicalism, at the expense of rigorously analyzing the present and the need for people to critically experiment without ideological constraints including fetishizing work and formal organization.

Perhaps the core problem of the Left has been that many leftists want to organize others instead of organizing themselves first; they see themselves abstractly and by extension see others abstractly as victims and/or potential recruits and/or constituencies within Power's terms and so on. They can't see, or refuse to see, aspects of themselves in others. They like many people on the planet need ideological reductionism of troubling human complexities - theirs and others - in order to justify their roles and routines. From this self repression flows the basic bourgeois views of some leftists in France and abroad condeming the youths' activity as mindless, leading nowhere, making things worse for "them", etc. which are reheated tripe from past reactions to Watts, L.A., and Benton Harbor, etc. Racism and classism have co-existed throughout all levels of this society including within opposition to it. Since slavery, there were white liberal abolitionists that didn't want Blacks to be "too free" since they still believed themselves superior to Blacks and didn't want their status challenged; there are still white radicals who are disturbed whenever poor Blacks organize themselves outside of their specialized control and raise the ante for immediate liberation. Many leftists hold condescending and patronizing attitudes when confronted with spontaneous self-organized activity. They even call on their loyal opposition as a recourse to order (see the World Socialism Journal November 9, 2005 pg. A16, and the article by Bernard Henry Levi "When Suburbs Burn" where he suggests the Mosques might be the last line of authority to stop the riots) and the rest of the proletariat to police itself (see the absurdities of French Trots, Lutte Ouvriere, calling for "community policing" without addressing racism). They fear deviation and unruly passion more than a gaggle of billionaires.

Other problematic responses I've heard include that they were destroying schools and community centers (i.e. institutions "they need") and that there wasn't a counterculture involved or developed. Yes, they targeted these institutions like the cars that blazed as symbols of their alienation; of roles, rules, institutions and false community imposed on them which are simultaneously reintegrating and alienating. The efforts of these youth force all existing countercultures to decide what side they really are on (the same challenge applies to academics and activists). They have formed a culture of resistance that might be more fluid and aggressive than many youth subcultures which are both critical and spectacular. Hip hop was cited by the media as an influence on these youth; which reaffirms that since the 1950s first generation to be categorized as teenagers, culture helps connect "inspired juvenile deliquency" (the kind that carries on and surpasses the spirit of Dada) with the need to reclaim our lives. Popular culture still needs to be analyzed and critiqued by real revolutionaries for our own and others' understanding of human behavior and subversion.

The short term effectiveness of the youths' hatred needs the shared balance and propulsion of others' desires, dreams, love, joy, imagination, etc. in order to go beyond catharsis into a protacted upheaval in France and elsewhere in Europe. Already Germany and Belgium showed solidarity through others also immediately acting upon their destinies. People throughout the French suburbs are communicating more now - whether they agree or disagree with the riots; critics of riots tend to forget that they could also open up more unfiltered public communication than passive acts like voting. The current riots continue some connections to the anti-CIP riots of 1994. In March 1994 the French government tried to cut the minimum wage for all workers age 25 and under with a bill called the Contrat d'Insertion Persionelle (CIP) or "beginning work contract." This measure, coming after six months of important working class victories in strike actions and 'mini-riots' in suburban ghettos, gave rise to a month long nationwide movement of mass demonstrations and riots that defeated the wage cut. This movement should be seen as a French equivalent of the UK's anti-Poll Tax movment though with its own specificity as well.

"The time of well behaved demonstrations is over. The number of incidents has increased alarmingly. Often, the student demonstrators have nothing to do with it. The 'hooligans' infiltrate their demonstrations. Who are they?... They are younger and younger. The great majority are less than 20 years old, and some are less than 15. The profiles of these young 'provocateurs?' It defies every prejudice. Three quarters are pure blooded French. The others are from North or Black Africa."

("Who Are The Hooligans?" Paris Match April 7, 1994).

Two important things to consider: the urgency of immediate liberation for both its own sake (we should operate like there is no tomorrow as nothing is guaranteed but those who take risks now can get more than those who wait for the abstraction of perfect conditions); and to determine long term struggle and the difficulty many may have in articulating what they really feel and want. Subjectivity encapsulates liberation on immediate, long term, individual and social levels. When people participate in radical situations they begin to realize we have less time to act. The damage caused through capitalism on personal, social, and environmental levels accelerates; yet one cannot be effective as a revolutionary if there is self-repression through mandatory self-sacrifice and renunciation; since collective self realization needs to be the foundation of any passionate liberatory transformation of the world. Instead of bourgeois narrow selfishness and collective mediocrity, we need to cultivate a selfless selfishness that includes/cherishes the affinities and differences of others to abolish the separations of us-and-them through mutual liberatory greed for life beyond the poverty and misery of this society.

You don't have to be a Freudian to know that people don't always say what they really mean but their actions are closer to their actual feelings. The media's interviews of participants, that find them only demanding more jobs and better education, shouldn't be taken as the final word of this movement. People express themselves as more candid and complex off the record, with less pressure from the media and scrutiny from authorities - something which is also found when some people reject even the media's representations ("image looting") and attack them. Besides, capitalist media needs to spin things to reinforce submission. How can those who have difficulties articulating the radical content of their acts be engaged by those who make connections between subjectivity and revolution without resorting to vanguardism or other alienating mediation? What would you do now to realize at least one burning desire to prevent your liberation from being reified in a specialized political program?

Feb 27 2006