[OPE-L] Kagarlitsky, A Return of the Proletariat / (France)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Nov 10 2005 - 06:59:35 EST


Thursday, November 10, 2005. Page 9.

A Return of the Proletariat

By Boris Kagarlitsky

For two weeks now, France has been rocked by street violence and
arson. And for two weeks, Russian commentators have held forth about
the "Muslim factor" and "ethnic conflicts."

It's easier to spout cliches than to figure out what's really
happening, of course. But if our talking heads had taken the time to
watch the television news more attentively, they would have realized
that at least a third of the rampaging youths in France are not Arabs
but the children of black African immigrants. And if a few of these
wise men and women had bothered to stray from the usual tourist spots
or to talk with the locals on their trips to Paris, they would have
discovered that the Arab teenagers living in the working-class
suburbs not only speak no language other than French, but they also
have no clue about Islam. This is doubly true of young French blacks.

It goes without saying that there are plenty of orthodox Muslims in
France who observe Ramadan, never let alcohol pass their lips and
forbid their daughters from appearing in public with their heads
uncovered. But these people have absolutely nothing to do with the
current unrest. Conservative French Muslims keep their distance from
the rest of society. They do not allow their children to adopt
depraved local mores and attempt to shield them from contact with
Christians. Such orthodox Muslims present no problem for the
authorities. Like any other conservative community, they seek to
avoid contact with the outside world. By attempting to bar Muslim
girls from attending school in headscarves, the authorities did much
to provoke a conflict, but this is another matter. There is a big
difference between the complaints of religious conservatives and
teenagers rioting in the streets.

Russian analysts love a good conspiracy theory. It is generally
assumed that someone has instigated, ordered and/or bankrolled every
major crisis that comes along. Strangely enough, however, they didn't
take this line with regard to the events in France, although The
International Herald Tribune noted on Nov. 3 that "like everything
else that happens in France these days, the rioting has become
embroiled in the political succession war between the prime minister,
Dominique de Villepin, and the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy,
both of whom canceled foreign trips to deal with the crisis." The
riots have proven disastrous for the prime minister, while they have
given Sarkozy grounds for demanding additional powers. This may
explain the strange ineffectiveness of the police during the early
days of the uprising.

In fact, the causes of the crisis must be sought not in the areas of
religion, culture or backroom political maneuvering. Around 150 years
ago Europe was shaken by riots very similar to those we're seeing
today. In France the unrest occurred in the very same suburbs, the
same streets. No cars were torched back then because they didn't yet
exist, of course. And police, not yet constrained by any concern for
humane conduct, opened fire on the unruly crowds without much warning.

Fashionable sociologists have long been discussing the "disappearance
of the proletariat" in Western countries. What they seem not to have
noticed is that the proletariat has returned to these countries in
its original form and has inhabited the same depressed suburbs in
which the current middle class began its rise up the social ladder.
Just like the proletariat of the mid-19th century, today's working
poor have few rights, no native country and nothing to lose but their
chains. This huge group of people doomed to labor in low-paying jobs
when they can find work at all are naturally not distinguished by any
particular loyalty to the state or respect for the law.

Benjamin Disraeli described the rich and the poor as two separate
nations. Today, this is quite literally true, since the proletariat
and the bourgeoisie generally belong to different ethnic groups. As a
result, liberal society can close its eyes to social conflict by
attributing all of the problems that arise to religious and cultural
differences and the difficulties of assimilation. No one wants to see
that the teenagers in the streets of France today are fully
assimilated. They have broken with their cultural and religious roots
and become part of European society, but they have not gained equal
rights, and this is why they are rioting.

A shift in social policy to the left or the right will change nothing
at this point. The only way to solve the problems of the proletariat
is to change society, a point made more than a century ago by an
immigrant living in London: Karl Marx.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.

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