Strong Constitutions: Cameron Responds

Strong Constitutions

I am grateful to Jon Beasley-Murray for his review of Strong Constitutions. The greater part of the review is a perceptive and accurate account of the central argument of the book. I also appreciate the objections Jon raises, which I think are important and deserve a response.

First, Jon argues that Strong Constitutions, despite its critical intent, ultimately falls within the mainstream of political science. Indeed it rests on a kind of scientific naturalism that is as bad as the pseudo-scientific rationalism it rejects. Second, Jon suggests the argument of Strong Constitutions is actually a rather conservative one. It confuses description with norms—what is, with what ought to be. Such a view limits rather than expands human freedom because, in the end, what ought to be is reduced to what is. Finally, Jon is skeptical of what he calls the “humane” tradition rooted in Aristotelian practical wisdom.

It would please me a great deal if Strong Constitutions were to be seen as part of mainstream political science. I have a strong commitment to social science. I do not, however, think the social sciences should seek to replicate the natural sciences. Strong Constitutions is written in support of an interpretive or human science that starts with the recognition of the centrality of agency and purposiveness, intentions and goals. I can’t agree with the claim that the vision of agency in this book is “as reductive” as rational actor theories. For me—like many social theorists, from Guillermo O’Donnell, to Amartya Sen, to Martha Nussbaum, to Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz—agency implies practical reason and moral judgment, which are missing in rational actor models. I assume agents can plan their lives and distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. A social science theory that does not incorporate that human capacity is not just limited—it becomes complicit with the unchecked instrumental rationality that undermines practices and institutions that are vital to self-government.

This brings me to the next point. Moral judgment, care and concern for others, and deliberation about both means and ends in aid of sociability, are human capabilities. They are by no means unique to humans (precursors of morality can be found among other mammals, birds, and, yes, even fish!), but they are massively reinforced by the use of language. The fact that we are speaking agents, among other things, contributes to our potential to be moral agents—that is, the ability to construct ought-based institutions. That is the sense in which Hume’s law (you cannot derive an ought from an is) is flawed. Morality is an emergent property of human sociability, a necessary feature of conscious social activity. Morals are social facts.

Morals as social facts are often embodied in institutions. I attribute recognition of this to Montesquieu, which is why he is a forerunner of sociology (Durkheim’s claim), and that is not at all a bad thing—my work also purports to be sociological. What makes institutions so interesting, in my view, and this is lost in a positivist perspective, is that in order to work they have to make normative claims that are always contestable. Merely reading the riot act is never enough—as we can see today in Ferguson. The factual power institutions generate is grounded in contestable claims that involve ought-statements. These are the moral resources institutions can mobilize, though they often fail to do so.

A critical insight of the book is that planning an action or activity before and judging the action after it has been executed are fundamentally different kinds of things. The first involves deliberation about the aims of an activity and how to achieve them. The second involves judgments about whether the aims were right and the means the best suited to achieve them. That these are not distinctions made in rational actor models is obvious, since such models focus on means-ends calculations exclusively. For that reason, such models cannot explain our deliberative institutions except in highly “reductive” ways. By contrast, the view that institutions are emergent properties of social action that in turn shape and give potential to agents implies reciprocal causality (where the causal arrow go both upward and downward between agents and institutions). I agree this can seem circular, but it is not an iron cage. On the contrary, recognizing this fact is essential to progressive social change.

There is, in the social sciences, too much faux realism masking complacency about the status quo. I am happy to be associated with a more “humane” tradition, though that is not a label I would have chosen. But I don’t see any basis linking Strong Constitutions to a kind of law-and-order ethic. It is, instead, written in support of the idea that human freedom is a collective goal, and to be truly free and flourishing we need to be participate in collective self-government. That is, at their best, what constitutions enable.

My thanks to Jon for his careful reading and probing analysis.


[The other week there was a small book launch for Posthegemony here at UBC. My colleagues and friends Brianne Orr-Alvarez, Oscar Cabezas, and Gastón Gordillo all presented critical reviews of the book. Here, by kind permission, is Gastón’s…]

Jon Beasley-Murray’s Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America is a groundbreaking proposition to abandon the concept of hegemony that may allow us, paradoxically, to re-politicize and reinvent our understanding of hegemonic formations.

Some clues about this theoretical direction are in the book’s title, an intriguing one given that this is a work firmly committed to philosophies of affirmation. Posthegemony, after all, is a phrasing defined by negativity. “Post-things” are things that negate what precede them. And, indeed, Beasley-Murray frames his book as a negation of hegemony. He critically dissects the concept of hegemony and shows how its alleged rationalism, its transcendent connotations, and its emphasis on ideology and representation cannot account for immanence, affect, and habits in the production of politics. And he suggests that we abandon the concept altogether. We live, after all (always have), in post-hegemonic times. And this negation of hegemony is followed by an affirmation: a call for a political understanding of affect, habit, and the multitude.

Yet hegemony is still in the title. Affect, habit, multitude are nowhere to be seen. Preceded by the “post,” what is negated is present, as if in trying to move beyond it Beasley-Murray is still drawn to hegemony. This distancing and incorporation pervades in fact the entire manuscript. Posthegemony is haunted by the ghost of hegemony and, in particular, the ghost of Antonio Gramsci, which is a powerful absence in the book, engaged in only one paragraph yet always there in a phantom form.

Read more… (pdf file)


[The other day there was a small book launch for Posthegemony here at UBC. My colleagues and friends Brianne Orr-Alvarez, Oscar Cabezas, and Gastón Gordillo all presented critical reviews of the book. Here, by kind permission, is Oscar’s…]

This book is an attempt to re-think the concept of politics beyond cultural studies and political theories on civil society. In his approach to various Latin American cultural and political phenomena, Jon Beasley-Murray re-opens a debate on key concepts of politics —hegemony, civil society and the State, among others— in order to criticize any conceptualization in which the State excludes the Negrian concept of multitude. Through neo-Spinozan notions derived from Antonio Negri, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, and the Bourdieusian concept of habits, Beasley-Murray proposes to undermine not only Laclau and Mouffe’s Post-Marxist concept of hegemony, but also the understanding of ideology as the master concept of the Marxist tradition. Thus, posthegemony is not simply a transitional concept that overcomes the concept of hegemony, but also an alternative mode of thinking political theory and Latin American studies. Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America engages with the richest debates in political theory and simultaneously with the most paradigmatic events in Latin American history.

The wonderfully written five chapters of this book develop the notion of posthegemony in the following manner. In the prologue “October 10, 1492,” Beasley-Murray analyses the legitimating mechanisms of colonization by the Spaniards in the 15th Century (the so-called Requerimiento). The author argues that the Requerimiento has nothing to do with the construction of hegemony but with a violent act of coercion. This preliminary remark leads to the first chapter, “Argentina 1972: Cultural Studies and Populism,” which contains a discussion of National-Populism in Argentina (1972). The author denounces the love-pact between people and the nation in its exclusion of the multitude. This chapter is not only a critique of national populism but also a critique of Laclau and Mouffe’s post-Marxist concept of hegemony. What the author denounces is the imbrication between the concept of hegemony and neo-populism. The second chapter, “Ayacucho 1982: Civil Society Theory and Neoliberalism,” offers a description of Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato’s theory of civil society and shows its failure in the study of one of the bloodiest Maoist guerrilla movements that took place in Peru (Sendero Luminoso). By the same token, it also shows the structural violence inherent to neo-liberalism in the Southern Cone. In the third chapter, “Escalón 1989: Deleuze and Affect,” one of the book’s best, Beasley-Murray describes the offensive of the FMLN in El Salvador as a paradox between political violence and “lines of flight.” He also develops the Deleuzian theory of affects as an attempt to de-territorialize the capture of the revolutionary movement into the state-apparatus. In the fourth chapter, “Chile 1992: Bourdieu and Habit,” the author extends the theory of affects in Deleuze through Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habit”. The chapter offers an analytical understanding of the correlations between power and bodies through the history of the traumatic Chilean transition from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship to a neoliberal democracy. In the concluding chapter of the book, “Conclusion: Negri and Multitude,” Beasley-Murray describes Negri’s concept of multitude as an opening to rethinking politics in Latin America. This chapter could be read side by side with the Epilogue, “April 13, 2002,” where the author shows how the constituent power of the multitude breaks the “fiction” of hegemony in the paradigmatic conflict of the so-called Caracazo in Venezuela.

Read more… (pdf file)


This is a guest post by Freya Schiwy, author of Indianizing Film: Decolonization, the Andes, and the Question of Technology. Here she responds to my earlier discussion of her book.

To begin, I would like to thank Jon for reading and commenting on my book Indianizing Film. His reflections offer initial, generous appreciation of Indianizing Film and then suggest some critical disagreements with the methodology and theoretical focus of my study. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.

There is a wide-spread, sometimes unquestioned assumption that research on contemporary indigenous peoples belongs to the domain of anthropology, or at least that it should be informed by its methodologies and critical concerns: extensive field research in one local site and a focus on changes and forms of identity formation. The social sciences, particularly political sciences, have also staked out a claim on studying indigenous movements, frequently in relation to the state and to global institutions. The methodology here does not require extensive fieldwork. The interest here does not lie with cultural production but the dynamics of political organization and often the relation to the state. My work is neither anthropological nor focused on the concerns in political science. I have, however, spent significant time in face-to-face contact with indigenous media activists as well as in their audiovisual archives.

Jon’s response to my study of indigenous media, decolonization, and the Andes takes issue with the lack of attention to audience reception and the effects of indigenous videos in local communities. He concludes that more field-research should have taken place in order to answer questions about indigenous identity. Unfortunately, he thus misses the key argument of my study: It is possible, even necessary to critically engage with texts (in the widest sense) produced by indigenous movements.

Reading these texts offers insight into the discourse created by indigenous movements. This discourse constructs a pan-indigenous identity, which, I hoped to make clear, is not ontological but precisely a cultural and political project constituted in the face of more than 500 years of colonialism. The texts, including the documentary and fiction videos I engage with, however also contribute ideas and perspectives on issues – such as literacy and power, the theorization of the “coloniality of power”, even recent debates about late capitalism and the possibly immanent nature of political-economic transformation. My study does not aim to document the multiple dimensions and impact of political struggle in the Andes nor the complexity of economic forms indigenous communities and individuals engage in. Rather I wish to focus on the critical potential of the indigenous discourse for enriching our scholarly discussions.

While Jon offers a fine summary of the description of the material I study, he fails to give adequate account of how I believe this material helps to problematize several key concepts in cultural theory. As I elaborate in individual chapters, indigenous media suggest, for example, rethinking the notion of the lettered city as based on a division of literacy and orality. I also argue that theorizing colonial legacies in today’s constellation of power needs to regard constructions of gender. They are central to the process of decolonization and overcoming a colonial dismissal of indigenous peoples’ capability for taking part in political, let alone critical debates. Finally, Jon fails to make reference to the way the production and circulation of indigenous media open up a border to the immanence created by late capitalism. This border is informed by the recently strengthened political memory and practice of reciprocal economic forms. The appropriation of video as a non-commercial and non-artistic yet highly political process of communication forces us, as I elaborate in Indianizing Film, to qualify the notion of immanence.

Audiovisual technology is a key element in this process – a form of representation with its own inscription into the scholarly canon, but also a social, economic form. As indigenous media indicate, technology, however, does not determine use and desire but is itself a malleable tool. The fact that its uses and aesthetics have changed from anti-imperialist revolutionary cinema attests to the new sensibility that informs indigenous struggle today. No longer does the final freeze-frame of rifles raised seek to incite viewers into violent action. After integrating the staples of Hollywood film (cause-effect narratives, continuity editing, stable cameras, improvised dolly-shots and genres such as melodrama and the horror movie) into local narrative and textile traditions, indigenous videos often end by fading out pensive protagonists who reconsider long dismissed cultural values, subjectivity, and epistemologies. This new sensibility toward social transformation as based in the decolonization of the way indigenous peoples generate knowledge, alas, offers us as scholars the opportunity to critically review our desire to perversely maintain or transcend our own, colonially constituted epistemic privilege.

This kind of critical reading of indigenous discourse builds on and goes beyond at least two exceptions to the dominant approaches in the study of indigenous peoples. Literary studies and film studies have both focused on textual production, including the critical reflection on production and circulation but without necessarily engaging in the field-research required for audience reception. Indeed, for those interested in such an approach, Gabriela Zamorano’s dissertation in process (in the field of anthropology) will offer precisely such a perspective, though limited to the Bolivian context. For those interested in a critical approach (similar to my own) that teases out indigenous media’s epistemic potential for transforming the critical tools of cultural theory, Michelle Raheja’s forthcoming book Redfacing and Visual Sovereignty opens up productive ways of engaging with North American Native visual and autobiographical discourse.

This has been a guest post from Freya Schiwy.


Following my recent post on Ryan Long’s Fictions of Totality… I suggested to a few friends that we could perhaps make this something of a “book event” or online seminar. Others are welcome to join in, of course. So people are getting hold of the book, and there should be some more posts and comments to amplify and develop the discussion.

I hope that at some later point we can organize similar online book events or mini-seminars on some of the other books I mentioned, such as Legras’s and Schiwy’s, and perhaps also, for instance, Erin Graff Zinn’s Wandering Signifier or Kate Jenckes’s Reading Borges after Benjamin.

In the meantime, however, it’s Ryan who’s the focus of our attention. I therefore asked him if he could write a short introduction to the book to help orient us. Here it is…

This is a guest post by Ryan Long, author of Fictions of Totality: The Mexican Novel, 1968, and the National-Popular State.

“Fictions of Totality”

First, thanks to Jon for taking a look at my book and for starting this discussion! Thanks in advance also to anyone else who’s interested in reading and discussing it. Now, a brief synopsis…

My book began as an effort to ask a very specific question: how did the Massacre of Tlatelolco affect the Mexican novel? I still feel that this is the question my book best answers, and thus its major contribution will probably be, if to anything, to Mexicanist literary studies. Of course it is also my hope that it addresses concerns that go beyond the historical context that limited, and thus defined, my analysis. A sub-purpose of the book is to provide analyses of well-known and lesser-known novels that merit further discussion. The former include La región más transparente, the only canonical novel in the book and the only to be translated into English, José Trigo, and Morir en el golfo. Con Él, conmigo, con nosotros tres has practically vanished from literary histories and criticism, which may have more to do with its author’s militancy in the PRI than with the book itself. Si muero lejos de ti, though fascinating and incredibly ambitious, is long, unwieldy, strange, and a little tiresome at times, so it has also flown under the radar, so to speak, more than it should have. (Though Rebecca Biron has done great work on it). In short, then, I think one of my book’s strengths is its literary analysis, organized in chapters that could stand alone to a degree.

But, there is an arc, which is the relationship between totalizing representation and the national-popular state, and this arc is what expands the scope of the book beyond the Mexican context and the novels in question. My argument is that the national-popular state provided a fertile context for a certain degree of optimism regarding the novel’s ability to render the social totality, and that this state form’s decline is registered in novels that begin to question totalizing representation more and more intensely. So, I posit a teleology both in terms of state form and novelistic structure, ambition, and desire (i.e., respectively, perspectivism, totality, and optimism). What I posit in order to avoid adopting an entirely teleological position is that the novel is always already undermining its own totalizing ambitions and desires. Teleology returns in my argument that the violent foundations of totalizing representation that, I argue, necessarily underpin any totalizing effort become more and move visible over time, as, in the Mexican example, state violence permeates the middle- and intellectual-classes in a way that it did not before 1968.

Accomplishments of recent authors, like Juan Villoro, and the recent fame of authors no longer writing, like Roberto Bolaño, raise interesting questions about the viability of my argument regarding the novel’s decline. Jon has raised these questions in his response to my first comment on his blog. I have to admit to not having read Bolaño yet, but it is my understanding that 2666, for example, goes far beyond the Mexican context in terms of its thematics. Juan Villoro’s El testigo does as well, though I am sure not to the same degree as 2666. Another recent totalizing novel, Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe, by Sada, focuses to a great deal on the US-Mexican border, a theme almost invisible in previous totalizing novels. The novels I analyze in my book are almost exclusively focused on Mexico, events that take place in Mexico and discussions of Mexican identity that still aim to define Mexico primarily on its own terms, as Ramos and Paz did so famously in their mid-century essays on Mexican identity.

Does my book fit into Jon’s arguments about posthegemony? Perhaps not that easily: I contend that the debt crisis of the early 80s and 1968 indeed mark key critical moments in a progressive decline in the national-popular state’s hegemony, if not necessarily the PRI’s. De la Madrid’s and Salinas’s fiscal and monetary reforms dismantled social programs and political structures that had long been the pillars of the national-popular state. Thus, the PRI’s tenacity can be separated from the national-popular state ideology that once defined it. Regarding the decline of the novel, I contend that the totalizing novel with an almost exclusive, if not obsessive, national focus, is a thing of the past. So, there is a post- to a hegemony that once existed.

Let the discussion begin!

This has been a guest post from Ryan Long.


The Wednesday quotation, part VIII: Foucault on pirate heterotopias.

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia, and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century to the present, the great instrument of economic development (I have not been speaking of that today), but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates. (Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces.” Lecture given in March 1967, printed in Diacritics 16 [1986]: 22-27 [27])

This is a guest post because the quotation was suggested by my brother, Tim.

factory revisited

Another guest post from my friend Jeremy, in response to a previous post here, on Simone Weil…

I was a bit perplexed by the original post in that you argued, understandably, that Weil was attempting to hegemonize the power relations within the factory, by making the workers give their reasoned consent to the production process, through greater knowledge of its overall purpose and greater involvement in decision-making as a result. At the same time, however, you see in Weil a precursor of today’s “take your kid to work” day, complete subsumption, affective labour etc., which, if I’ve understood you, you take to be characteristic of posthegemony, of the end of any hegemonic relation. So by instituting hegemonic relations Weil brings them to an end and heralds posthegemony. . . I don’t quite get this.

For me, a possible answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the detail of what Weil is actually proposing, since I read this slightly differently from you, as follows:

Yes, it’s certainly true that Weil bemoans the brutalising and debasing nature of factory work, arguing for the need for workers to have a rational grasp of what they’re doing by being made aware of the purpose (the use value) of the components they produce. However, this is only one part of the story.

For all her criticisms of the dehumanising realities of factory labour, Weil is not entirely insensitive to the “moments d’euphorie [moments of euphoria]” that factory work affords her (Weil 1951, 52), to what she terms “une certaine joie de l’effort musculaire [a certain joy in physical effort]” (76). In a kind of dialectic of euphoria and debasement, the joy Weil derives from her labours relates directly to way in which the repetitive rhythms of factory work “brutalise” workers by reducing them to a more primitive, animalistic state, to the state of unthinking beasts of burden. As she puts it in one of her diary entries: “7h-10h40: continué * rythme rapide, malgré malaise. Effort, mais aussi après quelque temps sorte de bonheur machinal, plutôt avilissant [7am-10.40am: continued * rapid rate, despite unease. Effort, but also after a while a sort of machine-like happiness, more or less debasing]” (61).

Model T assembly lineThus, even in Weil’s account of the working conditions in a Fordist factory, the apparently unnatural rhythms of modern factory labour are taken to reduce or return the worker to a more primitive state that, although debasing or “avilissant”–or rather, precisely because it is “avilissant”–elicits a strange “bonheur machinal.”

In her suggestions for the reform of working conditions in French factories, Weil proposes to mitigate the brutalising, debasing effects of routinised factory labour by increasing the extent to which workers are made aware of the purpose of their efforts, reconnected with the products of their labours, at least intellectually, and hence included in the decision-making process.

However, this strengthening of reason and intellect in the face of the debasement of purely physical labour does not imply rejecting outright the “joy”, “euphoria”, or “happiness” Weil experienced through submitting herself to Fordism’s repetitive rhythms. Rather, as she puts it, “la condition d’un bonheur plein [the precondition for complete happiness]” in the factory is the achievement of a harmonious “union entre un ouvrier et sa machine [union between a worker and her machine],” since it this union alone that “fait du travail un équivalent de l’art [makes of work an equivalent of art]” (168).

Weil’s suggestion reflects what appears to be an adherence to a Kantian conception of art and the aesthetic. As Terry Eagleton has explained, for Kant the aesthetic offers a way of mediating between the realms of pure sensuality and disembodied intellect, representing “an elusive third way between the vagaries of subjective feeling and the bloodless rigour of the understanding” (The Ideology of the Aesthetic 17). As such, the aesthetic holds out the promise of healing “the fissure between abstract duty and pleasurable inclination” (20).

In Weil’s proposed reforms of working conditions, then, the initially disruptive, debasing rhythms of factory labour will, when leavened with an increased emphasis on the intellectual component of labour, ultimately prove essential to a harmonious working experience, in which abstract duty, in the form of the orders of the time and motion man, and pleasurable inclination, the “bonheur machinal”, will be reconciled.

It is because of its ability to heal the fissure between abstract duty and pleasurable inclination that Eagleton attributes a particular role to the aesthetic in bourgeois ideology:

The ultimate binding force of the bourgeois social order, in contrast to the coercive apparatus of absolutism, will be habits, pieties, sentiments, and affections. And this is equivalent to saying that power in such an order has become aestheticized. It is at one with the body’s spontaneous impulses, entwined with sensibility and the affections, lived out in unreflective custom. Power is now inscribed in the minutiae of subjective experience, and the fissure between abstract duty and pleasurable inclination is accordingly healed. To dissolve the law to custom, to sheer unthinking habit, is to identify it with the human subject’s own pleasurable well-being, so that to transgress the law would signify a deep self-violation. The new subject, which bestows on itself self-referentially a law at one with its immediate experience, finding its freedom in its necessity, is modelled on the aesthetic artefact. (20)

Now, isn’t this precisely a definition of the functioning of habitus in Bourdieu, of the “amor fati”, of the way objective necessity (working class kids don’t go to university) becomes internalised, allied with subjective inclination, so that to even imagine going to university becomes “a deep self-violation” of the collective ethos (“who do you think you are?”).

The habitus, after all, generates “actions which are reasonable without being the product of reasoned design [. . .] informed by a kind of objective finality without being consciously organized in relation to an explicitly constituted end” (Logic of Practice 50-51). In other words, practice is endowed with the very “purposefulness without purpose” that defines the Kantian aesthetic object. Hence Bourdieu can describe practice in unmistakably aesthetic terms as containing “something ineffable, something [. . .] which pleases (or displeases) without concepts” (Outline 1-2). Hence also Bourdieu’s constant recourse to poetic and musical motifs to communicate how practice and habitus function: Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Mallarme’s poem “Le Demon de l’analogie” as title of the final chapter of The Logic of Practice, allusions to musical improvisation, Kabyle habitus endowed with “the eternal charm of Greek art, of which Marx spoke,” and so on.

cubiclesTo return to Weil, then, and to shifting relations of power and forms of sovereignty. . . Consider Bourdieu’s narrative of a shift from the “gentle” forms of domination under pre-capitalism (“disinterested” gift exchange, relations of fealty and honour) to outright coercion (the brutal conditions Weil experiences in the factory) followed by a “return” to a modernised version of those earlier “gentle” forms of domination. Wouldn’t this be useful here?

(Bourdieu’s is, of course, an inflection and extension of Marx’s description of the shift from feudalism, with its relations of fealty, loyalty, and personal honour between lord and serf, to the “naked exploitation” of capitalist relations: viz. both The Communist Manifesto and the 1844 Manuscripts.)

If we apply Bourdieu’s narrative to this case, then we get not the institution of hegemony which, paradoxically, leads to posthegemony. Rather we get the institution of an aestheticized relation of power, which mediates between reasoned consent and let’s call it affect or sensibility, yes by involving a greater dose of intellect or reason, but not by that alone and hence anticipating our current world of affective labour, “take your kid to work,” and so on. This seems to me to get you out of the problem I identified at the beginning, of seeing posthegemony as being created by hegemony.

This has been a guest post from Jeremy.

economy (stupid!)

I’m very pleased to present the following guest post from my friend Jeremy, on recent events in France…

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Both in France and in Britain, media coverage and commentary on the recent disturbances in the banlieues has focused on the perceived fundamental differences between the French republican model of “integration” and the so-called “Anglo-Saxon model” of multiculturalism. Commentators on either side of the Channel, or indeed the Atlantic, rarely miss an opportunity to point to problems in the other country as evidence of the inherent failings of the foreign model and the superiority of their own.

Peter Mandelson, formerly the architect of Blairism, currently EC Trade Commissioner, was recently featured on BBC’s Newsnight programme, preparing to meet the French Trade and Agriculture Ministers in advance of the latest round of world trade talks. As Mandelson walked to the meeting, an advisor suggested he should break the ice by expressing his sympathy for the problems the French government was experiencing in quelling the nightly disturbances in the banlieues. “So much for the French social model they’re always telling us must be defended at all costs!” came Mandelson’s audible, acerbic reply.

Such evident Schadenfreude was perhaps understandable given the eagerness of French observers to lecture those in the so-called “Anglo-Saxon world” on the inherent superiority of the “French model.” In their analyses of the riots, several French commentators have been unable to resist comparing race relations in France with the situations in both Britain and the US, predictably concluding that things are far worse “chez les Anglo-Saxons.” For example, in the left-leaning Le Nouvel Observateur, Jacques Juillard and Jean Daniel insisted that where the July bombings in London demonstrate failings inherent to the “Anglo-Saxon model” of multiculturalism, rioting in the banlieues is in no way a symptom of equivalent flaws in French republican universalism; such problems, they assure us, relate to the purely contingent failure to apply republican values properly.

The mistake, when confronted with such patent examples of self-serving chauvinistic myopia, would be to play the French at their own game, by trumpeting the superiority of our own national models or traditions. However tempting, matching nationalistic bad faith with nationalistic bad faith will not advance us far.

What is really significant about the tendency of so many in France to champion the benefits of their own “social model” is that such apparently confident assertions of national superiority merely reveal the deep anxiety at perceived French national decline that in fact lies at their root. Moreover, what lies behind the periodic, largely directionless outbreaks of violent protest in the banlieues is not the failure of one or other model for “integrating” ethnic minorities. Rather, what’s at stake here is the breaking of the link between such differing conceptions of national belonging and the mode of capitalist accumulation that used to underpin them.

It is commonplace in France to claim that earlier immigrant generations were integrated into the Republic relatively unproblematically. Too often forgotten is that such immigrants either arrived as adults or, if children, had a mercifully brief exposure to the French education system, that talismanic site of republican integration. Arriving as adults or leaving school at 15, such immigrants and their offspring were in fact integrated in the Fordist workplace, through both labour and the labour movement, thanks to the ramified political, social, and cultural networks of unions and the Communist Party. The role of republican institutions was limited to equipping such workers with certain linguistic skills and a fairly minimal sense of specifically French cultural values and traditions.

The banlieues were, of course, the necessary adjuncts to Fordism. Inspired, architecturally, by Le Corbusier’s “factories for living,” they were located close to areas of heavy industry to provide housing for workers in France’s booming post-war economy. The decline of the banlieues has thus precisely mirrored the decline of French heavy industry and the shift to a post-Fordist mode of accumulation. As unskilled and semi-skilled factory jobs have dried up, so the young French working class, ethnic minorities and others alike, have been encouraged to spend ever longer in formal education, to be confronted on a daily basis with evidence of the disparity between the republican school’s promises of equality and meritocratic social promotion and the reality it can actually deliver.

As the bases of Fordism as mode of both governmentality and capitalist accumulation disappear, so republican institutions, and the school in particular, are left to take up alone the task of integrating France’s most economically and socially deprived groups. Unsurprisingly, this is a task which such institutions are unable to achieve in isolation. The more such institutions fail, the more politicians and commentators across the political spectrum insist that their founding values must be safeguarded and reasserted. But reasserting the very republican values and institutions whose failings banlieue inhabitants confront on a daily basis can only produce effects opposite to those desired. The thousands of burnt-out cars littering the streets is depressing evidence of such unintended consequences.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s response to the rioting, which has included a plan to revive “pre-apprenticeship” schemes for young male immigrants, at least has the merit of moving beyond the traditional exclusive focus on republican institutions and the school. Indeed, his proposals might be interpreted as an attempt, doubtless vain, to suture the fractured link between republicanism and the Fordist mode of accumulation that had previously ensured the “integration” or disciplining of generations of French citizens into the body politic.

Another of De Villepin’s proposals, to introduce a form of “voluntary civil service” to replace the compulsory military service demanded, until a few years ago, of all male French school-leavers, is also telling. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in Multitude, the disciplining of bodies under mass conscription paralleled the disciplining of bodies in the Fordist factory. It is this parallel, they argue, that Céline explores in Journey to the End of the Night, as his narrator recounts his experiences on the Western Front and, later, as a worker at the Ford factory in Detroit. What Hardt and Negri neglect to mention is that between these two experiences, Céline’s narrator recounts his encounter with French imperialism, in French West Africa. What Hardt and Negri term Fordist “disciplinary governmentality” did not merely involve a parallel between mass soldier and mass worker: it also rested on Western imperialism.

In France today, the Fordist factory has all but disappeared, mass conscription has been abolished, and the grandchildren of France’s former colonial subjects have arrived in the imperial metropolis to confront residual forms of colonial arrogance and violence; the old mission civilisatrice will no longer be enacted in a primary school in Kabylia, but in one of the newly designated Zones d’éducation prioritaire in the metropolis’s all too proximate periphery, the banlieue – open to all French residents, universally, as long as they leave their Islamic headscarves at the door.

De Villepin’s attempts to return to a more certain age, through a reassertion of republicanism, a dose of national service, and precocious insertion into the workplace, will doubtless prove in vain. Yet this should not be cause for any Mandelsonian Schadenfreude. For it is precisely the failings of the nation state, its institutions and traditions, that is at stake here, so that any analysis that falls back on disparaging comparisons between the failings of “their model” as against the strengths of “ours” paradoxically becomes a symptom of the very malaise it claims to diagnose.

Or rather, what’s at stake is the failed articulation between the nation state and the economy, between national ideology and the contemporary mode of capitalist accumulation. The fact that the London bombers hailed from declining industrial communities of the Midlands and the North should remind us that, contra Juillard and Daniel, what was significant in the UK, too, was not the inherent failings of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon” multiculturalism but the disappearance of Fordist structures of work and socialisation – it’s the economy, stupid!

This has been a guest post from Jeremy.