Materialism, opinions, and the harmlessness of postmodernism

Thugs, Punks, or Wise?

, by @Alfred, Nico Melanine

The recent crisis in the French projects of Villiers-le-Bel revealed once more how mainstream groupthink never learns. It recycles its own mediocrity in order to spread the same old class scorn: an ideology we should reject and fight.

“C’est ni le pied ni la gloire quand tout crâme
C’est même pas une réponse à la hauteur du drame,
Mais c’est comme ça c’est tout, c’est tout ce qui reste
Quand le quartier fait même peur à la peste."
La Rumeur. Qui ça étonne encore?

(“It isn’t fun nor glorious when everything’s burning
It isn’t even a reply worthy of the problem
But that’s the way it is, that’s all that’s left
When even the plague is scared away from the hood”)

La Rumeur (What else is new?)

Should we go back to the events in Villiers-le-Bel? Is there anything left to say that would not have already been said during the uprising of 2005? The problem might precisely be that, on all sides, we hear the same old stories. From the government (no, really?), the media (you’ve got be kidding), bloggers (ah). The saddest thing about all this is probably to see that nothing has changed, and nothing is about to change. The same causes produce the same effects. We could sum things up quite simply by saying, along with Laurent Mucchielli, that as long as we will refuse to treat the deeper issues, we will have riots [1]. The triggering event and the context are slightly different, but overall history seems to be repeating itself.

The crisis of social democracy

Like the rest of our government, Fadela Amara, our Secretary of State for Urban Policies negates the social character of the Villiers-le-Bel crisis and adds, not without irony: “because you’re poor, excluded and discriminated against doesn’t mean you can destroy everything. Those who say so are irresponsible..” These devious words have struck several people who have deconstructed her main point. Fadela is despicable [2] because she does not try to understand, but even more because she implies that explaining the crisis is already justifying it a little. This is where our progressive, rationalist left wingers do not agree. This is where they take a stand and call on their favorite sport, social sciences: of course we can explain this, of course we must explain, we have batallions of sociologists paid to observe, write up reports and explain this kind of thing! And it never boils down to justifying it. Let that be clear: explaining is NOT justifying [3].

This, then, is the line that cannot be crossed, the one that separates explaining and justifying. Explaining is fine, understanding is OK, but justifying? Fuck no. This is the limit social-democrats set themselves and force upon their favorite science, sociology. Thou shalt explain, but thou shalt not judge, or justify, goddammit! Safe behind the scientific shelter of observation, you will refuse to take sides, and that you shall do by expressly refusing to justify the actions you observe.
Except that by refusing to justify, as the government invites us to, we implicitly take the government’s side and state that indeed, this is unjustifiable.
Except that among the litany of explanations we still hear, here and there, that people who burn down a gym are “little punks.” Even where so-called scientific objectivity is favored, it turns out in the end that a judgment still is delivered, sides are taken, more or less explicitly. Imagine that. Illusions of political neutrality dissipate every time we read the indignant reactions of the moderate left.

Fundamental hypotheses

The problem with this type of positioning, is that we play the game set up by the government. We roam on the right wing’s turf, on politicians’ turf, talking about the issues in the ways set up by our rulers. By posing the problem in terms that are unable to say anything, we are bound to fail to solve it. Starting with skewed hypotheses, we end up focusing on the insignificant aspects of a complex situation that deserves not only better responses, but also better questions.

This type of circular thinking was exposed by, among others, Stuart Hall, one of the founders of British Cultural Studies in the 1960s. In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigration Bill was passed that limited access to the United Kingdom for populations of the Commonwealth to the sole persons already in possession of a work permit (until then all citizens of the Commonwealth had been granted free access to the UK). These people were now submitted to diverse forms of control and could be deported if they ever were condemned by a court of law on English soil. As Peter Fryer shows in his Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain [4], the goal of this Bill was to reduce the amount of black immigrants in the UK. Its implicit principle was to suggest that blacks were the source of the rising levels of violence Great Britain had had to face the preceding years, this although the same black immigrants had been the main targets of violence.

This principle was never fundamentally challenged, and everything else followed explains Stuart Hall, who denounces the multiplication of so-called liberal TV shows dedicated to the “race issue and race relations” in the following years. Each word and each image displayed on those shows was according to him tainted by subconscious racism, precisely because they were stemming from racist hypotheses [5].

So, in our case, the issue might not be so much the people whom our government calls thugs and others call little punks, but precisely everything else: everything that they, at least, have the courage to denounce and fight, an unjust and oppressive system that the government does not ask us to justify or not, as it mainly seeks to take our eyes away from the forest of true issues hidden by the tree of the violence in the latest uprising. This is not about justifying or not violent action: it is rather about making the effort to look at what the “thugs” show us, what they point at with a stiff middle finger thrust in the face of the capitalist system that through its own hierarchical, competitive and authoritarian nature creates and perpetuates social exclusion, inequalities, ostracization.

But, as the old saying goes, when the wise man points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.

For all that, Nicolas [6]

And so we might be told that for all that, Nicolas, forgiveable or not, blind violence is no appropriate political answer. We will then reply that this ‘blind violence’ demonstrates that the Commune is not dead. The guardians of the marxist doxa might find that this comparison takes it too far, but Laurent Mucchielli rightly notes [7] that the word “lumpen” that Marx used to describe the lower fringe of the proletariat in 1848 could be translated as “scum,” the word used by our government in 2005 to designate the youth from the projects in about its entirety.

We could also ask what was ever obtained without violence. The myths of success of non-violence die hard, but they often hide targeted direct actions that helped move situations along through a recourse to violence. Non-violence is also played up by official history for a reason. In spite of official discourse such as broadcast recently in the UK around the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, slavery was not abolished by the humanism and sudden spurt of goodness of Western governments, but much more by slave uprisings relayed by workers’ actions. I won’t go into details about the Haitian revolution, but repeated slave mutinies throughout colonial history had a crucial part in the ultimate demise of the slave system.

The Civil Rights Movement in the USA was not that non-violent either. The success of Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent rhetoric rested on the guarantee of violent reaction from his opponent, and on the chance that this reaction would be echoed in the media. The success of the movement was also due to direct and collective clashes agaist the police. It is in response to such clashes in the streets of Birmingham, AL in 1963 that chief of police Bull Connor and his troops attacked demonstrators with dogs and water cannons. The pictures taken that day are still among the most powerful illustrations of the brutality of segregation, and they had a huge impact then. Following these events, the Kennedy administration pushed civil rights on the House’s agenda, and King himself declared rather ambiguously in his autobiography that “The sound of the explosion in Birmingham reached all the way to Washington.”

Similar examples are many. We could also state that focusing on the violence of the oppressed is often to ignore the violence of the oppressors to which the oppressed are merely responding. It is denying the violence of the capitalist system, that has a minority of owners imposing arbitrarily and forcefully their rule on a majority of downtrodden people.
The question, once again, is whether this type of violence, more than the violence in the projects, is justified.

And as rightly stated by Laurent Mucchielli, the violence from the projects is “a mode of entrance into politics, or a kind of political expression [8]. This is what matters, ultimately. To judge with condescendance the terms of this political expression boils down to ignoring the material realities in which it is inscribed. To condemn it or to refuse to justify it is to be blind to the fact that it is less a problem than the beginning of a solution. Violence of course, needs to be criticized, whether or not it is justified, but in the end this violence seems much more of an attempt at solving issues than the ambiant bourgeois passivity. As Le Yéti was telling us here, “worse than the sound of marching boots, is the silence of slippers.” But we are never asked to reflect upon this passivity, upon this silence. This is not news. And since we do not ask the question, we do not have to answer it either.

Foundations of postmodernism

Through news as they are constructed by the mainstream media or in the overall trends of social sciences, the points of view of the oppressed are rarely put forward, taken into account or even mentioned. Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School’s style of cultural studies and their focus on minority points of view have been diluted, if not parasited by postmodern approaches in the human sciences.

As shown by Jordi Vidal in his (highly debatable, yet compelling) book Servitude et Simulacre [9]: “Some assert that there are two kinds of cultural studies; the first kind, developed by the Birmingham School (Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies) in the 1960s, attempted to broaden the notion of culture by granting the same seriousness to the study of working class life or the media that is given to the study of official culture. The second kind, more recent but also more broadly recognized,have abandoned all reference to the working class, to the point of even doubting its very existence and, following the development of global hypercapitalism in the 80s, have privileged the study of youth subcultures, substituted for the study of social class the study of genres, abandoned the critique of the media for a study of its reception...We have gone in forty years from the critical analysis of the British worker from his own point of view, from his living conditions and in his words, to compared analyses of the virtues of Barbie and Madonna.” [10]
Further he adds about what he considers to be the second kind of cultural studies that “they are remarkable not for offering new and coherent critique, but rather for their ability to maintain theoretical and political questions in a state of permanent tension, without resolution.” [11]

The issue is not then to condemn human or social sciences but rather to recognize the limits of its majoritary trend.

Limits are inherently present in all disciplines, in that they artificially fragment the analysis of human activities into partial and compartmented knowledge. This is what Marx and Engels explained in The German Ideology: “We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted conception of this history or to a complete abstraction from it. Ideology is itself only one of the aspects of this history.” [12]

But the limits we are interested in here are those mentioned by Vidal. They are the limits linked to the fact that the point of view of the oppressed has been not only abandoned, but often ostracized and antagonized. To use but one significant example, the rapidity with which every violent act taking place in the projects is deemed “a riot” seems to reveal a specific point of view supportive of official order rather than of protest against it. If the point of view of the oppressed were defended, or at least taken into account, it might be more fair to call this a popular uprising. Peter Fryer explains the issues that terminology can raise in his discussion of the 1981 events in Brixton and their qualification as “riot”: “’Riot’, being a four-letter word, is excellent for headlines; but its use to describe what was in fact uprisings by entire inner-city populations, black and white together, served to obscure the true nature and causes of these events.” [13]

Other limits are the permanent lack of resolution at play in human sciences. Practitioners of explanation for the sake of explanation are content with giving reasons for the crisis but refuse to take sides. They end up becoming agents of pure sociology, working in and for itself, a practice whose interest is rather limited and can only do the oppressed disservice in supporting the status quo. Marx’s criticism of philosophy in his Theses on Feuerbach addressed this issue: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

This aspect of human sciences was illustrated by the 1971 debate between Chomsky and Foucault on Dutch TV [14]. Chomsky, recognizing the limits of human knowledge and the uncertainties of the concepts created by it, remains supportive of a materialistic and dialectical approach, thus underlining the necessity of concrete action and political engagement with the means-however limited or imperfect-at our disposal. Foucault remains focused on the idea that any notion built inside a civilization being inherently limited and imperfect cannot be used to demand radical changes in the foundations of this civilization. Avoiding the fact that a civilization is also made of struggles and contradictory currents, he ends up in a dead end, and illustrates perfectly how dominant structuralist and postmodernist approaches are satisfied with lack of resolution and therefore are made harmless, if not counterproductive.

Fundamental materialism

If refusing a materialist outlook can prevent concrete political positioning, it has also hampered, as in the case of Villiers-le-Bel, understanding the stakes connecting people in Villiers-le-bel to the struggle of students or workers around France at the same time. As shown by Denis Sieffert, these crises are the result of policies of disengagement on the part of the state [15]: “what is unbearable in the projects, is that the police-which acts mostly as a tool for repression-has become the ultimate incarnation of the State. The state is not performing its duties of public service, it is not there to help, to serve, to associate; it is only there to hunt down and repress. By renouncing its most valorizing missions, the State becomes an enemy where it should be a friend.”

This is why we should not stigmatize those who in the projects rose against the injustice and inequality of a system that hits them the hardest, as we are encouraged to do by the government. We should instead voice our solidarity for their struggle, which is really the same struggle as the students’ or the workers’. We must reject the filter of analysis imposed on us by the government, the media and others-and in adopting the point of view of the oppressed, give them our support.

Finally, we should recognize the political character of their revolt, and encourage its connection to other revolts of our time, such as the workers’ or the students’ revolt, and those of anybody courageous enough to reject an oppressive, violent and discriminatory system.

"Car tout porte a croire que les tierquars
Ont toute la France contre eux
Et bien avant que ça reparte en queue”
La Rumeur. Qui ça étonne encore?

(“And it seems that the hoods
have all of France against them
This even before it all goes to shit again”

La Rumeur. What else is new?)


[1See here in French.

[2See here in French.

[3See here in French.

[4Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. Pluto Press, 1984. p.382.

[5See Stuart Hall, The Whites of Their Eyes : Racist Ideologies and the Media. In Silver Linings, 1981. qtd in Peter Fryer.

[6Refers to the revolutionary song written by Eugene Pottier-the author of the Internationale-about the Paris Commune of 1871 “It’s not dead!” and the verse “For all that, Nicolas, the Commune still isn’t dead!” Lyrics here in French.

[7Here in French.

[8See here in French.

[9Servitude et Simulacre en temps réel et flux constant : réfutation des thèses réactionnaires et révisionnistes du postmodernisme. (Servitude and Simulacrum in real time and constant flux: a refutation of the reactionary and revisionist claims of postmodernism) Editions Allia, 2007. p. 41. Many of his points on the issues of postmodernism are weakened by vague and generalizing attacks. His own lack of criticism for orthodox marxism is a little disturbing. Yet he manages to raise interesting questions. Read it for yourself if you can!

[10The translation is mine.

[11Ibid., 45.Translation mine.

[12See full text here.

[13Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. Pluto Press, 1984. p.395.

[14Here and here.

[15See here in French.