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France/USA : Workers dignity and racism. About Michele Lamont’s book " The Dignity of Working Men" (2000)

lundi 7 septembre 2009

Michele Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men, Harvard University Press, 2000

In this book, Michele Lamont compares racism in France and the United States among the workers of both countries.

She starts from an interesting hypothesis : racism and, more generally, reactionary ideology, are, somehow, an advantage, a useful ideological element which is important for workers and enables them to strengthen three important things :

1) their identity as proletarians who have very few possibilities to leave their class and join the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie, and even less chances to integrate the bourgeoisie ; they are condemned to "survive" during their whole existence and therefore need a strenghtening ideological drug ; they need to feel superior not only to the poorest members of their class and to those who have the same skin color, but also to those who have another color and are working alongside them ; and this superiority is not simply « biological » but also moral. This ethical dimension (this feeling of moral superiority) also enables them to feel equal with the upper classes, and even superior to their bosses who they despise for all sorts of reasons ;

2) their class identity. For Lamont, proletarians are actively working to delineate the contours of their class, and use therefore reactionary ideas.

This is quite a stimulating hypothesis. Usually Marxists believe that it’s the Party, or the revolutionary groups, or the class struggle which create class consciousness ... And even more interesting, specially in these gloomy times, Lamont’s claim that proletarians can be aware of being exploited, while at the same time defending reactionary ideas. In other words, their class consciousness does not make them revolutionary. A thought-provoking paradox.

This also contradicts all the situationist or post-situationist rhetoric, or the « theories » about the seducing power of the socalled « consumer society », or those who pretend that social classes have disappeared today, ideas defended by people who think that the working class blindly and stupidly adopts the ideas, values of the petty bourgeoisie or of the so-called « middle classes ».

Michele Lamont makes a difference between the financial wishes or dreams of the workers (which are petty bourgeois) and their values (which are reactionary proletarian values). These reactionary proletarian values determine the way they see their work, family life, sexuality, personal morality, gender relations, the necessary law and order in the city, etc.

3) Their national identity : racism allows them to identify with their States’ foreign policy. They feel "enhanced" by the performances of their military forces, by the wars waged by their state. The author might have added the performances of their national teams and athletes, etc.

Michele Lamont does not seek to « prove » that racist arguments are false (except occasionally in a few notes) ; she rather tries to show they are effective, useful for those who propagate them without belonging to any racist political group (at least among the workers she interviewed in the U.S.).

These hypothesis are quite interesting for our political work, be it in the antiracist field or elsewhere. This should encourage us not to simply ask us if the person we are confronting is "wrong" (in the case of racism, it’s quite obvious) but also ask ourselves what is the benefit for him or her as a member of the working class to defend this or that reactionary idea.

Michele Lamont also seeks to establish the common points and differences which shape two components of the working class : Blacks and Whites in the United States ; Franco-French and North Africans in France, in their relations with other classes.

However, her valuable work has some limits which need to be underlined.

1) She always analyzes racism in function of the individual opinions of the workers but she does not mention the institutional consequences of this individual or collective racism. She never analyzes the link between the individual opinions and the privileges which are given, theorized, defended by the State or private institutions, whether they are openly racist or not. Yet it’s an important contribution of American militants (starting with the Black Panthers) to have underlined the role of institutional racism (see the last article in this booklet, p. 57).

And unfortunately when she evokes (without mentioning the word) institutional racism, she makes absurd comparisons between the segregationist laws which lasted until the 1960s in the United States and the « Code Noir » (Slavery Code) in France which disappeared 2 centuries ago !

2) She always confuses concepts like « Muslims », « North Africans » and « Arabs » when she writes about France. Although in a note she indicates that a significant minority of the North Africans do not claim to have any religion, and that a majority of those who call themselves Muslims are not practicing believers.

Like almost all Leftists on this planet, she confuses anti-Arab racism (or anti-North-African racism) and hostility against Muslim religion. Both can be and are often mixed but a French atheist is not, per se, a racist if he criticizes buddhism, hinduism or Islam. This is the confusion introduced by the fake concept of "islamophobia".

3) She rightly criticizes the assimilationism of French Republicanism. But she forgets the First Red Scare directed against the anarchists in the United States (mainly accused of being foreigners) just before, during and after the First World War. This policy of the American State and bourgeoisie explains the suppression of the American anarchist movement, the IWW and American Socialism at that period. Much of the leaders or theorists of the American workers movement were German, Italian, Jewish immigrants, etc. And they were slandered, imprisoned, lynched, killed or legally condemned to death, as foreigners, anti-Americans, unworthy to live and work in America.

Michele Lamont strangely forgets to mention the decisive role of anti-communism until today in the shaping of American national consciousness.

In the United States, there has always been a very strong assimilationist pressure based on nationalism, crazy forms of chauvinism, a predominant reference to religion and anticommunism. No to mention the fact that the US defends « democracy » in many other counrties, often by military force. If an American militant is atheist, antinationalist and opposed to the military interventions of his country, he will have a hard time living in the US. (Suffice to see the accusations launched against Obama blamed for being anti-American simply because he did not wear pins with the US flag on his jacket during the Presidential campaign !).

American multiculturalism is only a soft version of segregation. Multiculturalism is not at all an anti-assimilationist ideology, which is more generous, more understanding than French republican assimilationism as the author seems to believe.

When she writes that France has no equivalent to the "American dream" for the foreigners who come and want to climb the social ladder, she misses the point, especially in the fields of culture, sports and art which nurture French leftwing and even rightwing nationalism. It’s true that the official French Republican business model is colour blind (i.e. very "White") but in reality many migrants or migrants children create their own small business... to escape instutional racism when they have university degree and cant’ get executives jobs.

The fact that French rap groups are not mono-ethnic as in the US shows that even among those who apparently use the most "anti-French" rhetoric, there is a certain dream of universality, which is unthinkable for the rappers and their public in the US, who divided into « racial » groups.

But Lamont is absolutely right to say that the French Republican, color-blind rhetoric, the refusal to talk about « race » and more important about racism can also hide traditional racist feelings identical to those openly expressed in the United States and which have a pseudo biological basis and not a cultural or religious one as in France.

4) Michèle Lamont polarizes too much her attention on the National Front, but it is probably related to the period when she wrote her book and especially to the people she has interviewed. Curiously she did not interview any extreme right worker in the U.S., although there are many militant racist groups, including armed ones, in America ! The US far right succeeded to blow up an entire FBI building killing over a hundred people ! Compared to the American nazi, fascist or paramilitary militias, the French National Front is a joke, in terms of its use of physical and armed violence !

Michèle Lamont takes the policy proposals of the FN too seriously. I doubt the FN – in case it comes to power one day in a rightwing coalition government - will be more radical than the Italian Lega Norte (Northern League) or Allianza Nazionale (National Alliance). It will be obliged, as we say in French, to « add water in its wine ».

5) While it is true that « France » did not present itself as a country of immigration, this is no more true for the last 20 years or so - otherwise one can’t understand the creation of the « Cité de l’immigration » (a State museum opened by the rightwing minister of "Immigration and National Identity" !), of the Advisory Council of Muslim Cult sponsored by Sarkozy, nor the election of Sarkozy, who presented himself as an "immigrant" during his election campaign ; the presence of French-Africans and French/North Africans like Dati, Yade and Amara in the current rightwing government, etc.

What is undoubtedly true is that this recent « finding » is much more shared by the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie, the internationalist fraction of the capitalist class (the executives who work for transnationals and multinationals) and a good part of the political class (Right and Leftwing) than by the Franco-French working class.

6) Michèle Lamont claims there is no significant upward mobility among the descendants of North African migrants. There is a small « beurgeoisie » and petty « beurgeoisie » (« beur » is a slang word for Arab). If one does not recognize this new reality, one can’t understand the Natives of the Republic movement, but also all those immigrants children who seek to make a career in political parties, who create businesses (often because they can’t get executive jobs in the public or private sector), etc. What is true, is that they must show their credentials : in other words, they have to use the « national republican » rhetoric and praise « universalist » French values. But ultimately it’s also what Obama did in the United States ... to be accepted by the White Democrat electorate. I therefore see no huge difference between the two societies.

7) Michele Lamont talks about racism in France, but never mentions « mixed couples », from a religious or « ethnic » point of view. 4% of African-Americans marry outside their « community » after 3 centuries of presence on the US soil. Suffice it to compare this very low percentage of « mixed » marriages with the 25 % of Algerian men and women, who are living in France for one or two generations, and marry with a French partner.

Lamont does not seem to see that multiculturalism is in fact opposed to mixing and blending in the name of preserving each "culture".

Mixed marriages are much less common among Africans than among North Africans. Because anti-Black racism has a strong biological basis in France – contrary to what Lamont writes. Therefore one can be much more pessimistic about the "integration" of Africans in France. But of course these questions have to be studied in detail.

Lamont is obviously misinformed, including about racial prejudices in France : she says that racist French people believe that Arabs spit in the street because they are Muslims ! She ignores that Portuguese do that for decades and they are Catholic ! And this custom is quite normal in India and they are Hindus !

She also explains that hatred against the North Africans is linked to their religion ; she obviously ignores the anti-Italian and anti-Polish rightwing propaganda and pogroms (several dozens of Italians were killed at Aigues-Mortes in 1893) which were directed against these catholic populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Albeit all these criticisms, this is an excellent and thought-provoking book for militants who are interested in fighting racist prejudices among the working class.

Yves

This article can be read with the following ones

Chinese workers in France (Echanges) : http://www.mondialisme.org/spip.php ?article1325

France/USA : Workers dignity and racism. About Michele Lamont’s book " The Dignity of Working Men" (2000) : http://www.mondialisme.org/spip.php ?article1324

France : how does racism functions on a daily basis at work (Orly and Roissy airports : 1979-1983) : http://www.mondialisme.org/spip.php ?article1323

France : 150 years of immigration : http://www.mondialisme.org/spip.php ?article1322

France : Important social and racist discriminations http://www.mondialisme.org/spip.php ?article1321

France : Social classes and « socio-professional categories » http://www.mondialisme.org/spip.php ?article1319

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