Nov 18, 2005
The following article was translated from a text that first appeared in issue #92, November 2005, of Lutte de Classe, the political journal of Lutte Ouvrière, the French Trotskyist organization.
The most striking feature of the anger which recently flared up in France's poorer neighborhoods was not its violent character, but the way it showed how rotten the social situation has become and how disoriented young people are.
There were no genuine street battles between angry youths and law enforcement agents. With the exception of a few isolated confrontations between roving groups of teenagers and special police (CRS) squads, the fighting consisted most of the time in rock throwing at firemen and policemen.
Violence was aimed mostly at people's property. Some youths started burning cars in their own streets or neighborhoods, including the cars of relatives and close neighbors. Others copied them and pretty soon, in town after town, car burning became the main activity, not because of some concerted plan but in imitation of what was done elsewhere. In some areas, youths also attacked public transport vehicles, burning buses and streetcars. They set fire to a few garages and commercial centers, as well as some schools and social centers.
In other words, when the rioters weren't targeting their neighbors and close relatives, they were trying to destroy anything that represents some sort of social life in the poor districts.
The conditions prevailing in these areas must be denounced. They reflect the widespread contempt of the ruling class for the poor and, more generally speaking, the existence of a social order that permanently creates unemployment and poverty. But at the same time, we must understand why the violence which flared up in the poorer neighborhoods took the form of blind violence. Due to the policies it has carried out over the past thirty years, the state has an overwhelming responsibility in the moral impoverishment of a fraction of these youths. Moral emptiness and the lack of any kind of solidarity only aggravate the material conditions of those who live in these poor districts.
The context of the explosion is obviously marked by poverty, overcrowded apartments and run-down buildings. But that does not explain everything and certainly not the sterile form of the teenagers' revolt. Under capitalist rule, a large fraction of the working class, if not its majority, always lives in poverty, with at times a very high level of unemployment. Living in a working class neighborhood has always meant living in overcrowded flats. The majority of the working class has never known anything else: there were the filthy slums of early capitalism and the mining villages around the coal mines, or, in the big cities, basement flats or cramped apartments, or even shanty town shacks which, in rich countries, disappeared not so long ago "and might come back sooner than we think.
And we know that the situation will remain the same until the working class is able to destroy capitalism and replace it by a society in which the productive forces serve public interest instead of enriching the ruling class.
But none of these explanations can account for the social decay revealed by the recent outburst of violence. Things started to rot a long time before this outburst. And paradoxically, limiting one's criticism to the existence of unemployment and bad living conditions "which have always existed under capitalism, whatever the time and place" is, in a sense, a way of closing one's eyes to the specific political responsibilities. It amounts to ignoring the role played by the policies carried out at least over the past three decades, that is, since the beginning of the enduring crisis of capitalist economy.
It was no surprise that the right wing reacted by sending Minister of the Interior Sarkozy along with the CRS to "solve the problem of the suburbs," declaring a state of emergency and reactivating a repressive law adopted in the early days of the war in Algeria. It was just acting out its beliefs as it still is when it dares blame the parents for having "abdicated" and threatens to suppress state aid and family allowances to those parents who cannot "keep their children under control" or educate them properly.
Those bourgeois hypocrites have the gall to blame parents for their lack of authority. But how can parents exert any authority when they spend eight or ten hours a day at work, plus two or three more in transportation? Look at the cynicism of these hypocrites when they accuse people of not transmitting to their offspring the education and culture that they never received themselves.
This is true of poorer working class families of French extraction; it is even more true of those who were recruited by capitalist industry in Africa and Asia's countryside to come and work in France.
The left hides its own responsibility behind criticism of Sarkozy and his provocations, but it does not call in question the government's stick-wielding policy. Sarkozy is nothing but a reactionary power-hungry politician who wants to become the next president of the Republic by using the same type of demagogy as far-right leader LePen. However, in the suburbs, the crumbling of social life, the development of ethnic divisions, the limitation of people's universe to the building where they live or even to the building's stairwell and the regular outbursts of violence – all these existed long before Sarkozy started to deal with the issue. The few proposals presented as positive steps by the left, like reinstating "neighborhood police" [later suppressed by Sarkozy] or multiplying the number of social educators and "facilitators' in the neighborhoods, will not solve the problems which have created the present situation (also, nothing guarantees us that the proposals made by the left in the opposition will be fulfilled by the left in power).
In some of the poorer districts, parents come from 30, 40 or more different countries with many different social customs, behaviors and languages. Preventing the development of sharp ethnic divisions and people's withdrawal into their own group requires conscious and determined efforts aimed at counterbalancing these tendencies. As a start, public services, and first among them the national education system, should bring those youngsters the education and culture they need "things as basic as learning French, which they can't do at home. And this requires above all political will.
For at least thirty years, this political will has been lacking and the necessary means have not been granted by successive governments, whether right-wing or left-wing.
Revolutionaries certainly don't idealize the public services. In the context of capitalist society, the so-called public services are the ones that represent collective interests to a certain extent, but at the same time they are planned and managed according to the general interests of the bourgeois class. These two sides of the coin contradict each other not only in theory, but also in practice.
And even the bourgeoisie's own general interests have to be imposed on this selfish, greedy class. It is so greedy that, as the saying goes, a capitalist "will sell you the rope to hang him with." When public services correspond to the general interests of the bourgeoisie, they also, to a certain extent and despite their limitations, correspond to the interests of bourgeois society as a whole.
Take the case of electric power "which is being debated today due to the privatization of the formerly state-owned electric company EDF. The same holds true of the postal services or telecommunication systems. Even when it was a state-owned "100% public service," EDF was first and foremost at the service of its bigger clients, the big corporations "in other words, it served the capitalist class. However, it was also useful to the public in general, as was the post office, which for a long time was seen as the best example of a genuine public service, though it was for the most part at the service of those who used it massively, that is, the capitalist enterprises. The same thing could be said of the health system (public hospitals and medical coverage) which was gradually set up so individual companies didn't have to pay the level of wages that would have allowed workers to be treated by private doctors in a totally private system.
Similarly, the national education system was created by the state with public funds only because the full development of the bourgeoisie required a workforce that could read and write and, eventually, get more qualifications.
But for years now, the state has been giving up its responsibility for public services. "Profitability" has taken over, sometimes without the government having to change the legal statutes of the state-run entities. In the name of profitability, post offices, railway stations and lines have been eliminated and local maternity or general hospitals shut down.
For 35 years, since the beginning of the economic crisis, the state has less and less supported all those functions that contributed in good part to the living conditions of poorer people "like access to a minimal education, which they could not afford otherwise. This is one of the main features of the offensive led by the capitalist class: to extort from the poor the increased profits the capitalists can no longer get from markets that stopped growing with the advent of the crisis.
The state eliminates some of its former functions, which responded more or less successfully to people's needs, and devotes an ever growing part of its budget and huge resources to defend private interests. At every governmental level (state, region, municipality), enormous sums are being spent to maintain company profits, either through direct subsidies, tax deductions or cuts in what the bosses are obliged to pay for social services.
The decline of all public services has meant worsening living conditions for ordinary people. However, the situations thus created are not equally catastrophic. Post offices, public transportation or electric power are still available, even at a reduced level, although the suppression of a post office in a small locality can be a drama for the elderly, just like the overcrowded and permanently behind-schedule suburban trains are a cause of increased fatigue for commuting workers.
But the consequences are much more disastrous when people's health is involved, because budget cuts here can mean death "as they did during the hot summer of 2003, when thousands of deaths were reported. But how many others go unnoticed? The state's carelessness concerning the school system has different consequences, but they are extremely serious. Children who are not put, at a very early age, into a situation where they can learn to speak well enough to follow a reasoning, then to read and understand texts which are more and more complex, who in other words never "learn how to learn," find themselves forever handicapped.
We recently heard ministers and bosses justify the government's decision to allow youngsters to start working as apprentices at the age of 14, saying they were "school dropouts," that school is "boring" for a youth who is "not interested" in it, and the best thing is for him to learn a skilled trade. In fact, those bosses who will hire a 14-year-old are more likely to make him sweep the floor than to teach him a trade. But the question remains. Why are there so many "dropouts"? Why do so many youth reject any kind of culture? Why so many illiterates? In fact, the reason so many young people between the age of 14 and 16 want to leave a system they see as useless is because they never were educated; they were dis-educated.
It was the public schools' duty to look after children living in the poorer sectors, starting at kindergarten or even nursery school age "that is, ages three or even two. That is when kids get to learn the basics of language, of collective behavior; that is when their curiosity and taste for learning can most easily be stirred. But that requires kindergartens that are genuine schools, not just day nurseries where children learn nothing except the law of the jungle.
Elementary school should be a place where children find conditions allowing them to learn to read, write and count properly. But in poor neighborhoods where there are too many children per class, only a small part actually receive a proper education, even when the classes are entirely made up of French-speaking children. This is even truer when the 25children of a given class come from families speaking 10different languages, as is so often the case in working class neighborhoods.
Politicians talk about "positive discrimination" or the need to establish quotas in "problem districts" or quotas according to the parents' nationality. This is stupid. The problem is not to enable a small number of children coming from the poorer families or immigrant neighborhoods to eventually enter the elite's schools of higher education (like Polytechnique or the Ecole nationale d"administration). The measures needed by the whole school population of the poorer neighborhoods have nothing to do with "positive discrimination." What they need is enough teachers and enough classrooms to address the problem.
The children of the better-off, especially when their parents have a higher level of education, learn at a very early age to speak properly; they also learn to play the piano or take dance lessons; they travel, learn another language outside the school environment, etc. Within their family, they are in contact with different ideas and learn how to deal with them; they also acquire in a "natural," effortless way a cultural knowledge that will eventually give them a taste for reading and going to museums and theaters.
The state-run schools ought to be able to offer at least a share of that cultural wealth to children who are deprived of it at home "where they often do not even have a table corner on which to do their homework. What is needed is a system of smaller classes whose teacher could really look after each individual child.
In a developed country like France, the means to do this exist. Many young university graduates who are presently unemployed could do the job. It is shocking to realize that just when the suburbs were running amok and the press was talking about the increasing number of school dropouts, teachers working on the basis of temporary contracts (some of which are renewed for years on end) had pitched their tents in front of the Ministry of Education asking, in vain, for a permanent contract! And there many others who are not trained teachers, but who could acquire the necessary competence. Their work in the so-called difficult neighborhoods could be facilitated by the sheer number of adults per school and the small number of children per class.
In this respect, the state has completely failed even to meet the requirements created by capitalist economy. The increase in the number of foreign families, whose children have a dramatic need for such education, may be a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, in the 1880s, when Jules Ferry [French Minister of Public Instruction and later Prime Minister] instituted compulsory school, France's school-age children seldom came from immigrant families and did not speak Arabic, Chinese, Bambara or some suburban sub-language like a lot of today's school- goers. But they spoke a variety of local dialects and, in some cases, foreign languages like Provençal, Breton, Alsatian or Basque. Despite the drawback of their disparate backgrounds, the state-run school of the time managed to give all of them a common, basic education and culture "while, of course, serving the interests of the bourgeoisie, especially through the transmission of the ruling class's ethical principles.
Of course, the number of children of kindergarten age or primary school pupils is much greater today than in the 1880s, when compulsory school was invented. However, a so-called public service is not to be assessed in the abstract, but according to the needs of a given period. And today's collective means and global wealth have increased not only the number of children attending school, it could also increase the possibilities.
The quality of education and the general cultural level should also be on the increase. But we see the exact opposite. Yesterday's teachers know full well that their pupils who came from a working class milieu and obtained their primary certificate had a better level than today's twelve-year-olds. There are people who, being openly or secretly racist, stupidly explain this by the heterogeneity of today's primary schools. The truth is that different origins could enrich the school environment and bring about an open-mindedness that is not easily developed in the school of a small isolated village. But this requires proper means to ensure that the different languages do not become an obstacle to communication, but on the contrary enhance communication. It is a question of means and, first of all, of human means. The material problems can easily be solved if teachers and pupils alike are motivated and are given adequate conditions to solve them. But a child who has no natural gift or no inborn desire to learn will never be motivated if he finds himself in an overcrowded class where weeks will pass before the teacher is able to call him by his name.
The lives and potential of hundreds of thousands of youths are ruined, in order to give the rich even more money, but also out of scorn for the poor. This is why conditions in the poorer neighborhoods become more and more explosive.
Of course, the bourgeois school, even at its best, is also the vehicle of all kinds of conformist ideas concerning the present social order and its preservation. Only a revived workers' movement, able to fully play its role, could bring back a sense of solidarity in the neighborhoods, an understanding of people's collective interests and, above all, class solidarity, which is the only way to open up new perspectives.
The capitalist social order, which is aimed at guaranteeing the profits of a rich minority, causes a lot of material damage. But it also has negative consequences on the moral level. One of the worst aspects of the general decay of our society is the progressive destruction by the reformist and Stalinist parties of that collective consciousness which once existed in working class districts. Today's situation has become so extravagant that we can hear right-wing politicians deploring that working class militants and associations have disappeared from the neighborhoods where they used to ensure some sort of cohesiveness. What hypocrites! In fact, the social solidarity that existed in the past was rooted in the working class's efforts to build its own organizations, in order not to guarantee bourgeois social order, but to defeat it. Class solidarity can only be revived by following the same road.
Some leftists talk about the "radical" actions of these youths and present them as an example to be followed by the workers. This is rather stupid. Blind violence is not a sign of radicalism, but the sign of a deep disorientation and lack of consciousness. Both are understandable and are not to be blamed on the teenagers or young adults who live in the suburbs, and even less on the ten- to twelve-year-olds who imitate them. Of course, revolutionary communists are in solidarity with those youths who are now confronted with a law of exception "the government's ultimate move to solve "the problems of the suburbs." They are also in solidarity with those who are despised because they are poor and who are rejected by the ruling class, be it on racist grounds or not. But their blind, sterile violence only hurts the people who live around them. It is the expression of a social decay and of a rejection of class solidarity that does not in any way help the revival of class consciousness.
How and when the working class will find its way to class consciousness "the only thing that can transform people's anger and revolt against the numerous injustices of this unfair society into a revolutionary force capable of overthrowing capitalist social order?
Nobody knows. But the capacity to fight back to defend one's living conditions and to give new life to the collective understanding of the need to change the social order is bound to emerge one day. And there is one thing we know for sure: it will emerge where the heart of the present social order beats, where exploitation is carried out: that is, in the workplaces.