Toward a materialist approach to the question of race: A response to the Indigènes de la République

The Charnel-House

A few months ago, I wrote up a critique of the “decolonial dead end” arrived at by groups like the Indigènes de la République. Despite being welcomed in some quarters of the Left, wearied by the controversy stirred up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was not well received by others. Last month, however, a French comrade alerted me to the publication of a similar, but much more detailed and carefully argued, piece criticizing Bouteldja & co. in Vacarne. I even asked a friend to translate it for the new left communist publication Ritual. But before he could complete it, someone describing himself as “a long-time reader/appreciator of The Charnel-House” contacted me to let me know he’d just finished rendering it into English.

The authors of the original piece — Malika Amaouche, Yasmine Kateb, and Léa Nicolas-Teboul — all belong to the French ultraleft, militant feminists and communists active in different groups. I am grateful they brought up the PIR’s execrable position opposing intermarriage and submitted it to ruthless criticism, offering a Wertkritik-inspired analysis of some antisemitic tropes reproduced by the self-proclaimed Indigènes. Regarding the provenance of “philosemitism,” a concept employed by Bouteldja which the authors critique: the term was invented by antisemites during the nineteenth century, as a reproach to supposed “Jew-lovers.” Not a title that would be claimed by those who were themselves sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Europe and elsewhere.

Translator’s introduction

The following text, a critique of the Parti des Indigènes de la République by three of its former members, originally appeared in the French journal Vacarme. A radical anti-colonial party, Parti des Indigènes came to wide attention among the English-speaking Left for their sharp critiques of secularism and racism on the French Left following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015. While they seem to enjoy great respect in certain sectors of the Left, the translator of this document believes such respect is mistaken; that PIR’s identitarian politics seeks an alliance with the identitarian far right of Le Pen, Dieudonné, and Soral; and that such an approach to politics poses a great threat to the Left.

Secondly, this document provides a much-needed insight into the problem of antisemitism. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the media hysterically speculated that Europe was on the verge of a pogrom, to be carried out by its numerous Muslim immigrants; Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took up the hysteria, calling for French Jews to emigrate. The backlash among certain leftists, whom the present translator otherwise respects, was perhaps equally hysterical. Some questioned whether antisemitism was even extant in contemporary Europe; others seemed to blame antisemitic acts on crimes of the Israeli state, rather than the perpetrators. As this document’s analysis shows, antisemitism is not only a threat against Jews, but against any movement of the working class.

Rosa Luxemburg in Martinique

Toward a materialist approach to the racial question: A response to the Indigènes de la République

Malika Amaouche, Yasmine
Kateb, & Léa Nicolas-Teboul
Vacarme (June 25, 2015)

Les Indigènes de la République have helped to shed light on racism within the Left, supported by the racism of French society at large. But are they also prisoners of racism? We propose a systematic analysis of the forces exercised upon the most precarious: a critique of the erasure of race and gender; while escaping the identitarian project of the extreme right; remaining anchored in critique of political economy.

From the dead refugees of the Mediterranean, to the Baltimore riots, to the events of everyday metropolitan life, we are constantly drawn back to the question of race. It seems necessary to propose an analysis of the foundations of racism, which will not be merely a shallow response to current events.

Today, we observe mounting Islamophobia and antisemitism. These two are a pair: in a context where social segregation is becoming stronger, and the logic of all-against-all becomes uncontrollable, we must work to think of these things in conjunction. That means to reject the logic of competition between different racial oppressions; but also to examine Islamophobia and antisemitism together in all their specificity. And in all this, the general context — growing social violence, a hardening of class segmentation, and effects of structural racism (in housing, work, and so on). It is harder and harder for the poor, and for those who are the most precarious (racial minorities and women).

With the [Charlie Hebdo] attacks in January, the left was hit with its own denial of the issue of racism. It made a specialty of denouncing the victimization, and of dismissing racism as a massive structural phenomenon. Institutional feminists’ obsession with the veil functioned as a spotlight on the racism of a Left clinging to an abstract, ahistorical, and highly aggressive universalism.

This was why we were enthusiasts of the great work of exposing the racism of the Republican left — a project in which the Parti des Indigènes de la République has participated since 2004. There are many of us who worked to undermine this “respectable” racism, under which the indigènes were never truly equal.1 If the Left was never explicitly against racialized people, its arguments were dismissive of the great values meant to emancipate them. An entire history of the condescension and paternalism of the French Left remains to be written. Such a history would note the way the discourse of class was used to stratify the hierarchies of the workers’ movement itself.

Nevertheless, it seems to us that PIR is slipping. Riding the gathering wave of identitarianism, it proposes a systematic cultural, almost ethnocentric, reading of social phenomena. This leads to the adoption of dangerous positions on antisemitism, gender, and homosexuality. It essentializes the famous “Indigènes sociaux,” the subaltern it aims to represent. It is as if the racialized working class, who face the most violent racism, are being instrumentalized in a political strategy which basically plays in the arena of the white left and à la mode radical intellectuals.

For us, descendants of Muslim and Jewish Algerians, to lead the critique of the PIR, just as we led the critique of the Left, is a matter of self-defense. We believe we have nothing to win from a political operation which subsumes all questions under those of race. For us, not only the question of race, but also those of political economy, and the social relations of sex, are the order of the day.

Political economy and Islamophobia

Anyone who has taken the RER to Gare du Nord in the morning knows that those who look Arab, black, or Roma, face a constant pressure. “Face control,” police killings, housing in only the most distant banlieues — racial minorities face geographical, social, and symbolic segregation. This integral racism (to take up a phrase of Frantz Fanon), consubstantial with French society, begins with orientation in the fourth grade, or with the search for an internship, or the first job… and extends to all the dimensions of existence. In its multiple appearances, it extends from the streets of rich towns where ethnic men are turned away from nightclubs, to the edges of seas where they are let drown with all the indifference that attends to those who dare cross borders.

In France, Islamophobia — i.e., anti-Muslim racism — is to be understood not merely as a secular opposition to religion, but as a form of racism directed against all who are black or Arab. Its presence is seen in the public space, whether against veiled women, or young people loitering against a wall. The events of January only accentuated this process of stigmatization. From the attacks on mosques to the assaults on veiled women, to the police summons given to eight-year-olds who preferred not to say “Je suis Charlie,” it has become almost impossible for an Arab to speak politically without first prefacing that they are not an Islamist.

But it does not only operate through discriminations or prejudices. Islamophobia returns to a more central issue, the issue of race. This issue functions by assigning a place in the division of labor to certain sections of the population based on their origin or skin color. One need only observe a construction site to note that the heavy labor is performed by blacks, the technical work by Arabs, and that the overseers are white.2 Racism is the regime of material exploitation which has organized the development of European capitalism.

In effect, capitalism promotes market competition not only between capitalists, but between workers as well. This competition takes the form of a process of “naturalization,” which allows a specific devaluation of labor power. Certain sociohistoric traits of the immigrant workforce (for example, qualification, disposition, specialization) are “essentialized”: they are stretched, “typecast.” And this permits employers to bring down cost of labor.

But this process cannot be simply reduced to a “racial premium” of exploitation. It is a total social phenomenon. One may therefore submit that racialization is an essential dynamic under capitalism, which always needs greater labor power, and produces, at the same time, a “surplus” of labor power, always too much.3

Insufficiency of the “colonial” framework

This racism marks, materially and symbolically, the European metropolitan space. Nevertheless, the strict decolonial framework proposed by PIR prevents us from comprehending the actual dynamics of racism, which exist only in conjunction with the development of global capitalism.

The history of colonialism as such is behind us, but it has left traces. The West — that is, the historical center of accumulation now threatened by crisis — perpetuates, through its “War on Terror,” the continuation of structural exploitation on the world scale. Take, for example, the wars over access to natural resources (oil or “strategic” minerals). But equally at play is the intensification of exploitation in all class segments, beginning with the most fragile. This process of immiseration and marginalization ends by engulfing those subjects who are not black, Arab, or the descendants of the colonized. Continue reading