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Monday, December 05, 2005

Why people continue to be surprised when underclasses rebel

A friend of mine forwarded the following article by professor Immanuel Wallerstein. He also added his own comment: ( It amazes me that people are surprised when underclasses rebel. The surprising thing is that they do not do it more often. The combination of the oppressiveness of poverty and racism and the lack of short-term, or even medium-term hope is surely a recipe for rebellion....


The inequalities that blazed in France will soon scorch the world
The tensions between a dispossessed underclass and the comfortable majority have only been repressed, not solved

Immanuel Wallerstein

Saturday December 3, 2005

Last month France had a rebellion of its underclass that lasted for about two weeks. Groups of young people, mostly of north African or sub-Saharan descent, set fire to cars and hurled rocks at police. In some ways, this was the kind of uprising that has been occurring throughout the world in recent decades. But it also had particular French explanations. It emerged violently, like a phoenix. It has been suppressed by the force of the state. It is far from over.
The immediate story is very simple. Three young men saw police stopping other youths and asking for identity cards. This happens routinely in France to young people of colour who live in the de facto segregated high-rise, dilapidated housing of the banlieues (where France's ghettoes are located). These housing complexes are home to largely unemployed, undereducated youths who have few prospects for jobs, for upward mobility, or even for non-work activity (sport, or cultural centres). These young people run away from identity checks primarily because they are often pointlessly taken into custody in police stations, where they are often harassed, and where they remain for hours until their parents come to take them home.
In this particular case, the youths jumped a wall and landed in an electricity substation, where two of them were electrocuted. This was the spark to the rebellion. It was a rebellion against poverty, joblessness, racist behaviour by the French police and, above all, lack of acceptance as the citizens they mostly are and as the cultural minority they feel they have the right to remain. The French government seemed primarily concerned with repressing the rebellion, and eventually succeeded in this. The fact that the prime minister and the minister of the interior are fierce rivals for the future candidacy for the presidency ensured that neither was going to seem soft on rebellion and thereby give an advantage to the other.
It amazes me that people are surprised when underclasses rebel. The surprising thing is that they do not do it more often. The combination of the oppressiveness of poverty and racism and the lack of short-term, or even medium-term hope is surely a recipe for rebellion. What keeps rebellion down is fear of repression, which is why repression is usually swift. But the repression never makes the anger go away. Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, says that this uprising was not as bad as those of Los Angeles in 1992, when 54 people died and 2,000 were hurt. Perhaps not, but that's hardly a basis for boasting.
Throughout the world today, metropolitan areas are filled with people who match the profile of the rebels in France: poor, jobless, socially marginalised and defined as "different" - and therefore angry. If they are teenagers they have the energy to rebel, and lack even the minimal family responsibilities that might restrain them. Furthermore, the anger is reciprocated. Those in the more comfortable majority fear these young people precisely for the characteristics they have. The better-off feel that the poor youths tend to be lawless and, well, "different". So, many of the better-off (but perhaps not all) tend to endorse strong measures to contain these rebellions, including total exclusion from the society, even from the country.
France is in some ways an exaggerated version of what we find everywhere, not only in North America and the rest of Europe, but throughout the south in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa. Indeed, it is hard to think of a country where this issue does not exist. The problem with France is that too many of its citizens have long denied to themselves that this is a French problem as well.
France defines itself as the country of universal values, where discrimination cannot exist because everyone can become a French person if they're ready to integrate fully. The reality is that France has always (yes, I said always) been a country of immigration. In the days of the ancien regime, and even in the first half of the 19th century, the non-French speakers (50% up to the French revolution) migrated to Paris and other northern cities. Later it was the Italians, the Belgians and the Corsicans. Then came the Poles, and then the Portuguese and Spaniards. And in the past 40 years or so, massively, north and sub-Saharan Africans and immigrants from what was French Indochina.

read the rest of Immanuel Wallerstein



Bahrania said...

Why people continue to be surprised when underclassese rebel?

That is exactly the question that went through my mind when 'thowrat iljyaa3' erupted in Bahrain last week. The difference being in the French case, the media and intellegentsia largely went to assess the root causes of the rebellion. In Bahrain however, the media reaction quickly brushed off the events as the act of immature clowns at best and maliciously motivated political anarchists at worst. No mention that unemployment- as high as 35% among the shia youth -is a ticking time-bomb.

The attack on Moosa Abdali also marks a striking parallel to the ignitor of the French riots - a perceived repressive attack by the police on an innocent man.

Unfortunately whomever I try to pose this argument I am accused of being an apologist for violence.

Abdulhadi Khalaf said...

I have no problem accepting the allegation that there are a bunch of immature clowns and/or a gang of maliciously motivated political anarchists who are behind this or and that activity in Bahrain.

But to stop at that is a mere self disillusionment

Let us face it: there are people who are victims of multiple deprivation, not just income poor. (Check: Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom).

A walk around any zarnouk in Manama, Muharraq, Saar, Duraz or what have you puts one face to face with those whose lives are shaped by a combination of miseries: low income + poor health + un/under employment + lack of social contact + housing + unequal access to public services,+ and so on.

And these poor people have eyes. They see the gap between their destitution and the wealth of the rich (filthy rich, literally) grows wider and wider.

It is not surprising that some underprivileged groups in Bahrain rebel.

What surprises me; Bahrania, is that these poor and disgruntled groups have not reached the desperate point of being self-destructive.

There must be ways to prevent the country from sliding down that dangerous way. The ramifications of the current social, political and economic crises may become disastrous as a generation of young Bahrainis find themselves pushed into despair.

I believe that it is in our interests, opponents of the regime as well as its supporters to push forward our attempts to make the regime see how dangerous are its current policies.

Unfortunately, self disillusionment is an inherent part of an autocracy