Wednesday, November 30, 2005

[Post updated and altered: please see below.]

I don't suppose that my and Jane's agreement to arrest our dialogue on the political violence/banlieues nexus at a certain stage was meant, on either end, to be some permanent check on posting further thoughts, forever and ever amen. And I think I'm on safe ground in assuming that Jane doesn't take himself to under some such obligation. At least, I hope he doesn't, and, in any case, "E proibido proibir," as they used to say in a couple of languages. But: the sad fact is that a couple of runs I've made over the last few days at stringing my thoughts together have been long, dull, and unoriginal -- failures even by the minimal standards of readability to which I hold my posts (at least substantial ones). My concern with being misunderstood is such that I'm wary of being coy or aphoristic; even so, what I've been able to salvage is the following bolus of links, notes, and quotes. I'm not doing this to stir the pot, but comments are, as always, welcome.

* Uppermost in my mind is this: anyone who thinks this story arc has been resolved just because fewer cars are burning, and even those are off our front pages (and mostly, our blogs) is not merely whistling in the dark, but staging a full production of Les Mis in a sensory deprivation tank.

* I gather that the curfew was lifted around the 17th, and that the main legislative move so far has been an all-too-typical tightening of visa controls. But it's not clear to me whether emergency powers are still, officially or really, in effect; nor have I seen reports of just what degree of force was used to (depending on your terms) calm the waters/repress the insurrection. If anyone cares to help an Anglophone out here, I'd be grateful. As interesting as it is to learn that the violence deemed newsworthy now revolves around the new Beaujolais, it's not quite what I was looking for.

* One story deemed fit to print recently was this (registration req'd), on the end of a brief rail-strike. The article's only mention of the riots is to note that they, like the strike, are a political headache for Chirac. The fact that there's no other connection made -- and, in a way, none to be made -- between this sort of relatively "normalized" labor dispute and other forms of civil unrest strikes me as symptomatic. Of what? One might consider this well-known letter from Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, April 9, 1870. In part -- "The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself."

* This discussion attempts some form of sympathy for the rioters' apparent motivations from within a liberal framework (but please see update below); it interprets these, not surprisingly, as a demand for the French government to make good on its promises of e-l-&-f; and takes it that the capacity of the government to respond to that demand is a test of its real commitment to its founding egalitarian principles. From the last paragraph:

"The upper class has simply used the Republican model as a protective shield to preserve its "privileges" through hidden networks of power and influence....What is ultimately needed is for the elite to accept the necessity of abdicating a significant part of the "privileges" they have accumulated to the detriment of the public good."

What is liberal about this, of course, is the notion that the above suggestion could and would be enacted were the elites sincere about their public commitments -- and that the system ultimately exists to resolve conflicts of this sort. The anarchist view, of course, is that to expect the state to do anything beyond scattering, or redistributing, enough crumbs to make massive continued domination possible is the biggest joke since 911. And I suppose a more specifically Marxist addition to that view is the idea that the sort of hypocrisy just described is necessary to the state's real function, that of protecting an existing economic order under the guise of "justice for all."

That's just a sketch of a fairly obvious divergence of views. What might be added is that the committed liberal need not, and likely should not, close off the possibility of extra-legal revolutionary action, violent or not, when it becomes clear that existing institutions are not living up to their advertising. Whatever else one thinks of John Locke, he was at least explicit on this entailment of his version of contractarianism: the contract can be voided when it massively fails to serve its purported purposes.

If anything, the liberal ought to be more upset, because more disappointed, at (what s/he will see as) the usurpation of institutions, whose form s/he supports, by an elite (of whatever sort) than the Marxist -- who thinks that such institutions are doing just what they arose to do. Or, as the quoted article ends: "We should rediscover the spirit of 1789. If not, some may want to rediscover the letter of it, complete with bloody consequences." While that "may" understates matters -- it ought to be "will," if not "already do" -- it seems to me that any liberal who does not take him or herself to be merely "ventriloquizing for class interests" ought to take some thought along these lines quite seriously.

[Update: Jane points out, quite correctly, that the original version of this post implied support for the entirely of Pech's analysis. There is much in the piece that is indefensible. The most glaring examples are the excuses for Sarkovsky, and the notion that the curfews were unavoidable. But there are others: even in what I quoted, the suggestion that we get the society we want when existing elites "abdicate" their privileges, out of some combination of altruism and bourgeoisie oblige, is obviously inadequate. Above, I was not as concerned to make something of these points as I might have been in another context. My primary interest was in pointing out that, even from within this framework, a breaking point is more than imaginable. And I do still think this is worth pointing out, if only to poke at what sometimes seems to be an unexamined assumption: that one must be a Marxist to ever support radical change in a putatively liberal republic. I strongly suspect that whether one is willing to take the step of saying that that breaking point has been reached -- again, from within the liberal framework -- depends largely on whether a committment to egalitarianism (not only with respect to economic redistribution, but with respect to possession of institutional power) is one's Archimedean point. Pech's notion, of course, is that reform is a method for avoiding real -- to say nothing of structural -- change; for others, the conclusion that he almost reaches in the quoted paragraph should at most be a starting point. One should also ask if the "spirit of 1789" is here understood to be embodied in the last sentence of Article 6, or in Article 17.]

* Passages relevant to cruelty, and "rigor." Communard Louise Michel, speaking to a military tribunal in 1871:

"You accuse me of having taken part in the murder of the generals? To that I would reply -- yes, if I had been in Montmartre when they wished to have the people fired on. I would not have hesitated to fire myself on those who gave such orders. But I do not understand why they were shot when they were prisoners, and I look on this action as arrant cowardice....

"...More than that, I have the honor being one of the instigators of the Commune, which by the way had nothing -- nothing, as is well known -- to do with murder and arson. I who was present at all the sittings at the Town Hall, I declare that there was never any question of murder or arson."

I'm also intrigued by (and undecided about the import of) this sentence from Debord's analysis of the Watts riots, which Jane linked to some weeks ago:

"The Watts riot was not a racial conflict: the rioters left alone the whites that were in their path, attacking only the white policemen, while on the other hand black solidarity did not extend to black store-owners or even to black car-drivers. Martin Luther King himself had to admit that the revolt went beyond the limits of his specialty. Speaking in Paris last October, he said: 'This was not a race riot. It was a class riot'."

[Again, I do not have at the ready some vest-pocket argument which starts from these citations. I don't think what's going on in the Debord is that approval is being extended on the grounds of certain limits being observed; instead, what the actors do and don't do is being treated as a mode of articulation, and as evidence for claims about the events' meaning.]

I haven't found time to compare Vaneigem on the particular subject matter, though much of the 1972 (post-break-w/SI) essay "Terrorism and Revolution" is of interest: "From fear that only the death logic of terrorism has the upper hand, it is necessary to open the gate to an anonymous and consciously oriented insight against the order of things, not against its servants. Ideologies are directed against people, the subversive game against conditions."

*Louis Lazare, critic of Haussmannisation, on the emerging banlieues in 1870 (quoted in T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life):

"Artisans and workers are shut up in veritable Siberias, crisscrossed with winding, unpaved paths, without lights, without shops, with no water laid on, where everthing is lacking....We have sewn rags onto the purple robe of a queen; we have built within Paris two cities, quite different and hostile: the city of luxury, surrounded, besieged by the city of misery....You have put temptation and covetousness side by side."

* [Updated Update: I had more here, but I was unhappy with both the tone and the waffling. It was exactly what I had not wanted to get into again -- not here.]

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