Political Power and Social Races*, by Houria Bouteldja
Race is the crucial knot tying state power to capital and big business; this is what Houria Bouteldja aims to prove in this speech, which she gave at the “Trial of political anti-racism” on the 25th of May 2016. After repeated attacks against the Party of the Indigènes of the Republic, and against a large number of immigration and anti-racist movements also present at this meeting, Bouteldja presents her line of defence. Breaking the racist system requires an alliance between political anti-racism and the radicalized social movement. To establish the centrality of race, even within the preoccupations of the Nuit debout movement, Bouteldja takes us through the long history of capitalism and the Nation-state. She sheds a light on the racial knot linking geopolitical value-creation to capitalist value-creation. She invites everyone to join ranks with the descendants of the colonized, to unravel this knot, and give the struggles against neoliberalism a more powerful anti-statist and anti-imperialist content.
I would like to start by saying that in choosing my line of defence, I have broken away from convention. I will not seek to refute any of these accusations. Let the many McCarthy’s of the French editorial class face their own responsibilities. In my experience, defending oneself is a useless waste, given our limited access to mass media, when for them it is a second home.
With that said, I have a confession to make.
As Frantz Fanon taught us, “a society is either racist or it is not.” And since only the truth is revolutionary, I will tell the truth.
What Guénolé1 says is not true, but I cannot say that it is entirely false either. Indeed, since I belong to a racist society, and I am part of this whole, the racism that structures it infiltrates me. In fact, in my view, anyone who lives in a racist society, but maintains that they are exempt of racism, is at best fooling themselves, or at worst lying. Racism is what we were fed since childhood, regardless of where we stand in the hierarchical scale of human dignity. If we stand at the high end of this hierarchy, we experience a more or less swollen sense of self. Our only ambition, often unavowed, is to preserve this dominant position.
But if we are among those who endure racism, then we tend to feel a somewhat incurable hatred of ourselves. What subaltern groups yearn for the most is to cleanse themselves of the indignity in which they are placed, and to elevate themselves on the ladder of the said hierarchy, even if it means trampling on those who are beneath them. For example, at a recent Muslims of Bourget meeting, the title of one panel discussion about refugees was: “Must we welcome all the misery in the world?”. This question was first asked by Michel Rocard2, and Le Pen is perfectly capable of endorsing it. Today, some in our own communities are asking it. To me the question is obscene, particularly when we are products of painful stories of exile, and particularly when we are not entirely innocent, as European citizens, of the wars France is waging in our name and, it must be said, indirectly in our interest.
In this respect, I would like us to reflect on the words of James Baldwin who – seeing the destructive effects of racism on Black people – wondered about their fate by asking: what will happen to all that [Black] beauty?
Lucidity is surely the wound that is closest to the sun, and Baldwin’s lucidity burns. Because facing oneself is not an easy task. Yet it is mandatory for those who truly want an end to racism. I am confessing tonight, but I have already confessed in my book White people, Jewish people, and Us, towards politics of revolutionary love.
In a chapter of the book, I fault Jewish people (as products of the history of antisemitism) who have somewhat tended to integrate into this society despite their revolutionary history. Here is what I wrote:
“The worst part for me is not here. After all, what you surrender is up to you to decide. The worst are my thoughts, when my eyes meet a child wearing a kippah in the street. That fleeting instant when I stop to look at him. The worst is the disappearance of my indifference towards you, the possible prelude of my own internal ruin.”
There are two ways of interpreting this passage: Guénolé’s or Baldwin’s. Needless to say, the prevailing mediocrity favoured the former. The latter, more challenging, interpretation is gaining influence. It demands, like Aimé Césaire, that we look for the small Hitler inside of us, and not only in the far-right, precisely because racism is systemic. In other words, in a racist society, we must resist integration. We have to be conscious of our own deterioration, our own gradual decline. This is precisely what all the organizers present here tonight are doing, and this is why these accusations are being leveled against them. It is ironic that we are singled out as hoodlums because we refuse the construction of racial hierarchies and seek the light.
In fact, we are not hoodlums. We are the heirs of the immigration struggles that preceded us and that shape France every day.
And with this heritage, we observe the Nuit Debout movement. With our long experience in struggles, we carry a message to the social movement that is being violently clubbed today by the police and the socialist government.
In an article in Le Monde3 on the 3rd of May, 2016, a group of intellectuals commented on Nuit Debout: “Criticisms noted the absence of people from the poor neighborhoods, especially immigrant or postcolonial minorities.” They then went on to affirm that “If a successful articulation takes place with labour movements and civil society networks of these neighborhoods, nothing would be able to stop this movement.” On the 20th of April, at the Bourse de Travail in Paris, Frédéric Lordon gave an important speech in which he stressed that the current social movement must face two plagues: “the violence of capitalism and racist identitarian violence.”
Well, we’re on the same page.
But what must be done for this accurate observation to become effective and not remain confined to the realm of abstract incantation?
Let’s imagine that there are two distinct power logics in our societies. The capitalist one is based on generating as much money as possible; and the “geopolitical” one is based on accumulating geopolitical power, by imposing order on national territory and building military, industrial, and commercial power against other nations. Two forms of rivalries emerge here: strictly economic rivalries (competition between private enterprises) and military-political-diplomatic ones (competition between nations/superpowers).
We can also say that the spread of modern imperialism is a result of these two logics working hand in hand. Capitalists finance state policies (public loans, weapons industries, enterprises of colonial exploitation). In return, states use their power to advance the interests of their national business sectors (the workforce that was coerced into slavery through the slave trade, forced labour in the colonies, the destructuring of agricultural communities in the Third World, oil as a key motive for invading Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure that it remains outside the control of the region’s peoples…)
Broadly speaking, capitalism is born out of the power politics of Nation-States, and Nation-States gained power (the power to destroy and conquer) with the help of modern capitalism. Now consider that one of the pillars of this “geopolitical logics of power” is race. I say this because, on a global scale, a hierarchy separates the world into dominant (rival) nations and dominated ones, which have become the hunting grounds of the dominant nations. The stakes here are crucial: race is the knot of the alliance between the modern state and big-business capital. Capitalist value-creation and Nation-State’s political power are tied together by race.
In this way, state personnel (high-ranking officials, chiefs of police, military staff, etc.) “meet” capital through race. By following its national-racial internal logic, the state serves the interests of capitalists. It does so by pursuing an imperial policy: continuing to advance “national” economic interests, through diplomatic, trade or military agreements. This is what France does with its weapons industry, and its big industrial groups specialized in aeronautics and nuclear power, or through the Françafrique. These official instances advanced the interests of only a few big emblematic groups: EADS, Dassault, etc.
Also, on national soil, there is a real colonial continuity of the Nation-State. This is materially apparent within the state apparatus: the history of its police, its intelligence services, its ideological and media systems, its schools. These administrations more or less enforce a logical separation of the population into two groups: the white people and the others. This separation logic is an integral part of the modern Nation-State. As brilliantly demonstrated by Abdelmalek Sayyad and Etienne Balibar, the nation inevitably produces “foreigners”, human-rights universalism has always had exceptions, and nations lead predatory policies in the global South.
So by reproducing race, state personnel reinforce the hierarchies that big-business capital exploits. Descendants of the colonized are also the last to be hired and the first to be fired. This system provides a reserve army of cheap labour, which could, for instance, be conveniently “uberized”. This brings us to the last point: the reason this labour force is easier to exploit is that the Nation-State’s racial logic tends to offer more economic protection to the white working-class than it offers non-white workers. This also meant that white labour movements were more prone to abide by republican legality, to trust the state’s neutrality. At best, it sees the welfare state as the “good” side of the state, as opposed to the “bad” authoritarian securitarian side. But to non-white people, even the “good” side of the state is a way to keep them in their place. Social workers, unemployment agencies, child protection, physical and mental health personnel, all take part to a certain extent in social control.
We can come to the conclusion that the racial logic strengthens apathy and inertia within the social movement. Since white supremacy is the knot that ties capital to the state, untangling this knot among the oppressed would enable more radical rallying cries. Opposition to capital should also translate into opposition to the state.
It just so happens that for more than forty years, postcolonial struggles, if you follow their history, have been at the forefront of the confrontation with the national and imperial state, and its mythology. Committees dealing with police violence and judicial and prison systems, resistance to the demolition of Rrom camps, struggles against state racism, for Palestine, for the end of the Françafrique, and for the memories of colonization and the slave trade: all of these call into question the ideological base of the republican mythology.
I would also say that if the social movement has real political ambitions, it is up to that movement to help move its center of gravity, which is now found in the Work law – whose stakes we certainly understand –, towards questions of imperialism and racism and their terrible consequences in France. Among them were the attacks of January and November 2015, strangely absent from discussions within Nuit Debout.
In conclusion, I cannot end my defence plea without addressing Clémentine Autain:
“During his visit to Israel, in an interview with Radio J, Manuel Valls condemned “islamo-leftism”, and “those capitulations, and ambiguities with the Indigènes of the Republic, discussions with Clémentine Autain and Tariq Ramadan, ambiguities that become a fertile ground for growing violence and radicalisation.”
Through the "Red and Green" blog on Le Monde's website, she responds that she is considering suing Valls for defamation, because she does not share Tariq Ramadan's reactionary ideals. She adds that her organization, Ensemble!, did not join the December 2015 meeting against the state of emergency, after the Bataclan attacks, because of Tariq Ramadan would be present.
I would like to tell Clémentine Autain that if she shares Frédéric Lordon's convictions, regarding capitalism and racism, she had better extricate herself from Manuel Valls's deadly embrace, and to come out from the top of his trap. I would also like to inform her that Tariq Ramadan, regardless of her criticisms or ours, is a part of political anti-racism, through his struggle against islamophobia and for Palestine. That is why I can only remind her of a golden rule in politics. You should be able to identify your main enemy, something Clémentine Autain clearly has trouble doing. Despite being an anti-capitalist, she is placing herself at the same distance from one of the most powerful representatives of the bourgeois state, as from a Muslim intellectual with whom a big portion of non-white working-class people identify, who is not, to my knowledge, a big boss of a Cac40 corporation. If Tariq Ramadan is capable of causing Clémentine Autain to lose her own political grammar, then either he is a devil or Clémentine Autain is an objective accomplice of the state's policies and is thus reinforcing apathy and inertia within the social movement. My point is that at a time when we are discerning, not so far away, the specter of rising fascism, we are ready to help Clémentine Autain recognize her class enemies. As for us, we will remain attentive to recognizing our race enemies, who can be deracialized, through the magic of revolutionary love, when they fight at our side, to become brothers and sisters in humanity.
That, your Honour, was my line of defence against the accusations leveled against me.
Translated by Samr Tabri.
*Social race is a concept developped by Sadri Khiari in his book La contre-révolution coloniale en France : de De Gaulle à Sarkozy. Paris, La Fabrique, 2009, to refer to how in the same way that social classes are produced by class domination, social races are produced by racial domination. In the French context, the use of the concept of "social race ", that is race as a social construction by political power, aims to counteract the reductive, essentialist reading of the concept of race and its understanding as a moral question instead of a institutional question.
1 Thomas Guénolé is a political commentator who, during a televised panel discussion, made a series of accusations against Houria Bouteldja and her book Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous, vers une politique de l’amour révolutionnaire (White People, Jewish People, and Us, towards politics of revolutionary love). See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5sn-Tbyz_0
2 Michel Rocard; then French Prime Minister, asked this question in 1989 to justify more strict immigration control.
3 http://gauche.blog.lemonde.fr/2016/05/23/autain-valls-veut-substituer-la-question-de-lidentite-a-la-question-sociale/ It must also be noted that in a recent interview, Clémentine Autain, as an elected official of Sevran, presented an action plan against "jihadism", that made numerous concessions to the prevailing securitarian anti-terrorist consensus: "As an elected official of Sevran, I demand that the Police be given the means to conduct an action of intelligence and action [sic] on the ground, to remove and neutralize the sectarian and jihadist recruiters from society, and prevent future attacks. This police action should also permit the prevention of all sorts of illegal traffic activities: I renew our calls for a fully-functional independent police station in Sevran, open 24h a day, with reinforced staff and technical resources on the ground. We do not need the permanent state of emergency, but of justice and equality. We do not need all our freedoms to be kept under surveillance, but that indoctrination networks be dismantled by the specialized intelligence services."