Toni Negri: Finally a Little Revolt
Interviewed by Jacopo Iacoboni, La Stampa, 12/11/05
TN: What gangs! The explosion of the banlieues is not some random jacquerie. Even if it were, it would be in a radically changed social context, whose basic features are the crisis of Fordism and the absence of a political response – not only in France - to this crisis. That is why for me it remains a revolt, but I could even say insurrection, if we understand the term in a mild sense. There is a lack of political consciousness of the objectives, what Marx called the for-itself. This movement wants something, but it does not yet know what it wants.
JI: Much of the international press has tried to read the explosion of the banlieues by seeing in it the failure of the French model of integration. Are you persuaded by this explanation?
TN: Not at all. After all, hasn’t the Anglo-Saxon model failed as well? Just look at the America of New Orleans or the England of July 7th, with terrorists who were born English in the deepest sense of the term, Englishmen dressed like everybody else, kids who before becoming bombs go to the pub and get drunk on beer…The point is not the failure of the two multicultural models.
JI: Now you’ll say: “it’s a matter of the organisation of work”.
TN: The elements hidden behind the burning banlieues are at least three. What is in crisis is the Fordist industrial model, which implied permanent employment and an indefinite schema of growth sustained by the state. Later this crisis was linked with the processes of economic globalisation. These are joined by neo-liberal policies of cuts on public spending, which produce a crisis in welfare interventions. This has nothing to do with integration, the problem here is a total absence of a political response to the crisis of Fordism. This missing response is tied to the crisis of democratic representation.
JI: So why then are the suburbs in turmoil only in France and not in Italy? Post-Fordist dynamics are the same here too.
TN: In part because we are a socially less advanced country. And then because, paradoxically, such turmoils have been partly exhausted in Italy. The 70s unleashed a potential for social struggles, or rather, Italy or Germany extended ’68 by ten years. But in so doing they also diluted its effects. We should be careful however: we already have protest movements. The Val Di Susa [popular protests and strikes against the building of the high-speed Turin-Lyon rail connection and tunnel, for both ecological and economic reasons], the movements for housing in the cities, migrants, battles against detention centres for immigrants…
JI: Prodi says that soon the outskirts of Italian cities will also explode, so are you half in agreement with him?
TN: Well, in a sense Prodi exaggerates, and I doubt he really knows anything about the outskirts [periferie, akin in an Italian context to banlieues]. As for Fini, well for him the fact that there’s no explosion means that there is no problem…Berlusconi does not know what to say. And then how can he speak about immigration, stuck as he is between Calderoli [Minister of Justice for the Northern League] and the cleverness of Christian Democrats like Pisanu?
JI: And the French? In 1990 Mitterand asked himself “what can a youth living in an ugly tower block under a grey sky, with a society which turns its back on him, hope for?” However, the degradation has continued, seemingly unstoppable. Does French socialism have good intentions and a bad conscience?
TN: Look, I think that we’re dealing with very different characters, but Mitterand and Chirac, a Republican and a Monarchist, had both understood perfectly what was going to happen. Like them, the French elites, especially if we consider the great contribution given by sociology to French administration, were perfectly aware of the explosive dynamics developing in the banlieues: but what could they do? They too were overwhelmed by this neo-liberal wave, which exacerbates conflicts and revolts, and has hindered any possibility for them to control the transformation.
JI: Sorry, but this means that politicians are excused in advance, if it’s always the fault of neo-liberal dynamics.
TN: Of course not. I’m only saying that the revolts are the expression of the incapacity for neo-liberalism to turn itself into state policy. I’m not speaking only of leadership, but of the capacity of the state to exercise governance, that is, to put itself in permanent contact with the movements. This was a capacity that Fordism, with all its evils, had.
JI: Sarkozy called the youth of the banlieues racaille [scum]. Beyond these scenarios there is the question of la politique politicienne, isn’t there?
TN: Sarkozy was both careless and unforgivable. But this is not the first time that a French politician calls the youth of the banlieues scum: they’ve been told that a thousand times. Only that this time people exploded. There is an event.
JI: It’s a little shocking, however, that in what you call a “revolt” they burn workers’ Renaults and not the drug dealers’ Porsche Cayenne. What kind of revolt is this?
TN: The fact is that the dealers keep their cars in garages! I know some schools in Epinay sur Seine well. It is the only banlieue in which only a dozen cars were burned but there was no explosion like the one in Clichy. And you know why? Because perhaps in Epinay there is a balance based on the Mullahs and the drug lords. In Italy too, where there is Mafia, there is often no revolt.
JI: This does not remove the fact that the cars of victims are being burned and even the disabled are beaten. I take it that this is not exactly your vision of social struggle.
TN: Faced with these epochal processes what do a handful of burnt cars matter? They burnt the cars because people did not go to the streets to defend them. Believe me, people in these neighbourhoods are not so opposed to those kids.
JI: Many are intimidated. A 61-year-old pensioner was killed precisely because he defended those cars. Doesn’t speaking of “insurgents” mean giving them a legitimacy they do not have?
TN: I am not a cynic, nor a Machiavellian. I feel human compassion and pain for whomever is killed. But I would not be troubled by the fact that in a conflagration of this size there are only two deaths. And what shall we say instead about the two kids who were electrocuted? And how many wounded kids are there? And how many kids like them died in other instances of racist insanity?
JI: You will not deny that those who attack helpless citizens give good reason to those who are inclined to a purely repressive vision of the problem.
TN: There is no doubt that Sarkozy provoked them, even if he did not expect the reaction that he got. What is more, both before and after, he expressed a hypocritical attitude, proposing measure of positive discrimination: let us help the good blacks and repress the bad ones.
JI: There are those that have accused him of political calculation in view of the Presidential elections.
TN: Sarkozy has a problem: preventing the right from stealing a considerable political space away from the Gaullist candidacy. Both Le Pen and De Villiers, the latter a little more manoeuvrable by the Gaullists, can take away a lot of votes. Sarkozy was instead thinking of a hegemony over the whole right. Now it seems to me that that project is in crisis.
JI: De Villepin has instead promised economic aid.
TN: De Villepin, and probably Chirac too, initially stood by cautiously; then they also reacted, on the one hand by promising order, on the other by trying to recuperate what was recoverable from the banlieues. But in the end there could even be a third Gaullist candidacy.
JI: But even the left, honestly, is struggling.
TN: That’s very true as far as the official left goes, but in France today the official left is in the minority. In the majority instead is the left that said “No” to the European constitution: A sovereigntist left which is hysterically Republican, and which has nothing to say about the banlieues.
JI: And the Parisian intellectuals? We haven’t heard much from them.
TN: But when have we ever heard from them during all of the great internal social events? They are still studying which way the wind will blow in the corridors of power.
JI: Can the “revolt” find positive outlets?
TN: The logic of the Prime Minister does not go much further than charity, whilst what we would need here is a true opening in processes of participation which is a serious matter – not like the Italian primaries, so cute, where everybody votes and everybody is included! Participation means a discussion over power relations, schools that work, banks that lower interest rates…
JI: You also say that a political aim is lacking and that we can not therefore speak of an “insurrection”. Where are the demands of these youths?
TN: The problem is that they know what they do not want, not what they want. It’s a big mess. My friend Patrick Braouezec, the ex-Mayor who is now President of the Saint Denis region, said the other day that what we need here is a new pact of Grenelle, the agreement between unions and the government in ’68, when the Pompidou government was formed to block the uprisings. But then the workers were asking for a salary raise, the revision of the hierarchical structure and the development of forms of welfare. The kids of the banlieues can only look for a way out. Don’t you think that the right of escape has become a human right? Of course the season of Seattle is over. But the end of the Alter-Globalist [altermondialista] cycle has given birth to a cycle of struggles which has completely taken advantage of the previous movements. In France like in Argentina.
JI: Have you noticed that you can’t see any Muslim French women on the barricades? Is Olivier Roy right when he says that they are not there because they are better than the men? More integrated and therefore less angry? Or is it because their brothers and husbands keep them segregated?
TN: I would be careful. You say that they’re not there? I don’t know. Not so long ago I was in Tehran and I saw how women play in an ever more revolutionary sense with the hijab, lowering it every hour that goes by, but you don’t perceive it at first glance. And perhaps in Paris they weren’t photographed, but what do you think, that these kids burning cars don’t make love? That behind everyone of them there isn’t a woman? The real film, if you want to understand the banlieues is not Kassovitz’s La Haine, which is metallic and cold. The real film is L’esquive. In this film, a teacher tries to get a North-African Arab class to recite a text by Marivaux. At first they all apply themselves, but then something breaks and it is precisely the erotic and affective vicissitudes between the kids that will produce the revolt. At the end the class refuses to play ‘The Game of Love and Chance’, which is the comedy of the white bourgeoisie. In the same way, even the Muslim-French girls of the banlieues will be profoundly changed and partake of this revolt.
JI: Negri, do you still believe in the use of political violence as a solution to the problems of the post-industrial crisis in western societies?
TN: With Michael [Hardt], we have tried to imagine an “exodus” from this society in crisis. In the exodus, just like Moses had Aaron, we must have rearguards, who might also use weapons, but to defend themselves. Resistance is this, because reality is like this, the world is like this: And the multitude operates in this world seeking that escape route which they are looking for in the banlieues without yet having found it.