The reserve army of France’s ‘banlieues’

10 April 2006

The reserve army of France’s ‘banlieues’

The last few years have seen religious faultlines appear in our societies. With the riots in the deprived outer suburbs of Paris we are witnessing a return to a time when the faultline ran between the people of no property and the propertied class. Time for Marx, writes Ronald van Raak.*

‘Les dés sont pipés’, the dice are loaded, so wrote Karl Marx in 1867 in Capital. In a free market economy people (labour) are engaged in an unequal struggle with money (capital). As the economy grows, so does demand for labour, and workers can demand higher wages. The working of the market is, however, disturbed by what Marx called the 'reserve armies' of the unemployed. Workers and the unemployed grasp each other in a stranglehold: on one side the excessive labor by those in work increases the ranks of the reserves of unemployed, while on the other, competition from the unemployed forces workers into 'submission to the demands of capital'.

Fewer and fewer people are joining labor unions, yet in the Netherlands the number of strikes remains high, as for example in the case of the actions in November, 2005 at Shell in Pernis, Avebe in Foxhol and by the Amsterdam Fire Service. Protest meetings and demonstrations attract as many as or more people than ever, with 300,000 turning up in October, 2004 to an anti-government rally in Amsterdam's Museumplein, the large square next to the Van Gogh and Stedelijk museums. This is the organised politics of working people. Their resistance is aimed at preserving employment, workers' rights and social provision, including unemployment and health benefits, pensions and so on. Alongside this, unorganized resistance is also growing, as in the riots which broke out in the suburbs of Paris last October. Young people in these suburbs – a misleading word for most English speakers, these areas consisting of deprived high-rise housing projects – rampaged through their own neighborhoods setting fire to thousands of cars, schools and stores. More than 1,500 youths were arrested. This is the protest of the unemployed.

Labor unions principally look after the interests of those in work. The underclass of the unemployed has disappeared from the political field of vision. This has a lot to do with the weak social position of jobless people, who of course cannot go on strike, but also with the changing role of the unions, who to a lesser extent than at any time in the past demonstrate any vision of the broader society. Labor unions have, however, surely a moral responsibility to look further than the interests of their own members. Solidarity between working and workless also has a political interest; both groups continue to exert a stranglehold on each other. Labor competition from the unemployed is after all still used as an argument for wage moderation, flexibilization of laws governing dismissal, and cuts in social security and welfare. As long as the unemployed and working people have to play with loaded dice, riots by the reserve armies of the French 'banlieues' will be inextricably bound up with the struggles of labor unions.


‘A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of communism’. So begins the Communist Manifesto of 1848. In the Manifesto, Marx examines the socio-economic laws governing society and sketches out a view of history as a process of class conflict. The Manifesto was an ambitious document: it called for a revolt of the propertyless – those who, after all, had nothing to lose. Only such a revolution was capable of putting an end to the historic struggle of the propertied and the propertyless and of offering people the chance to live together in dignity.

Karl Marx was born in Trier, Germany in 1818. He studied in Berlub, where he came under the spell of the philosophy of Hegel. In 1842 he became the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, for which he wrote social commentary, but shortly after his appointment the paper was banned. After 1843 when he married the sweetheart of his adolescence, Jenny von Westphalen, a daughter of the Prussian nobility, Marx went into exile in Paris where he met the businessman Friedrich Engels. When the French government refused him permission to remain in Paris, Marx established himself in Brussels. It was there, at the beginning of 1848, that together with Engels he wrote the Communist Manifesto.

In this work Marx did not put forward the development of reason as the motor of history, as had Hegel, but the struggle between oppressor and oppressed. In classical patriarchal societies the patricians were in conflict with the plebeians, while in medieval feudal societies the lord of the manor was in conflict with the serf. In his own time, which Marx categorized as the age of the ‘bourgeoisie’, conflict between classes had become more acute: a relatively small group of owners of capital stood against a fast-growing group of the propertyless. This 'proletariat' not only provided industrial labor power, but also formed the basis for the reserve armies of the unemployed.

In Marx's materialist philosophy changing socio-economic relations also mark changes in people's consciousness and in their relations with each other. Capitalist society had eradicated the value system of the feudal and patriarchal societies. ‘It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation.’ The dignity of humanity in the time in which he lived was, according to Marx ‘resolved ... into exchange value’, the consequence of a 'single, unconscionable freedom – free trade.'.

Marx argued that the development of the market economy – like a 'witch master' who can no longer control the unearthly powers which he has conjured into being – also signaled the end of capitalist society. The free market economy could only sustain itself in the face of ever increasing concentration of ownership of the means of production and as long as new markets could be opened up. It would inevitably come up against its own limits: the starvation wages paid to the workers and the finite number of markets to be conquered. Condemned to poverty, the proletarians would realize that they had nothing to lose but their chains and rise in rebellion.


The specter raised by the Communist Manifesto was a stimulating image. In Spéctres de Marx (1993) the philosopher Jacques Derrida stated that Marx's specter was used to indicate a feeling of 'Unheimlichkeit', the sensation that you no longer feel at home in your own house. This would come as no surprise to the rebellious French youth. Paris is surrounded by suburbs which are each as big as a major Dutch town. These suburbs are divided: alongside districts of rich mansions stand numerous poor neighborhoods of high-rise apartment blocks. These neighborhoods, furthermore, are isolated, lacking public transportation to the city center. Worse still is the social isolation of many young people in these 'banlieues', young people who have no prospect of a suitable education or meaningful work.

The French President Jacques Chirac spoke in his televised address last November 14 of the high rate of youth unemployment in what he referred to as 'sensitive urban zones.' The Economist of 12 November had recalled the analysis of the situation offered by Chirac in 1995, shortly before he became President: if too many young people lack any prospect other than unemployment, they will eventually rebel. The weekly went on to say that it was depressing to see how under his Presidency youth unemployment had risen in France to a level of 20 percent and in some districts to more than 40 percent.

What Marx had also assessed astutely was the importance of work to people's dignity. In the Communist Manifesto he described how the market economy created 'a world in its own image'. In this capitalist civilization the morality of the market also goes: the value of a human being is to an increasing extent measured by the contribution he or she makes to the economy. This explains why the French interior minister Nicolai Sarkozy's categorization of the rebellious youth as canaille (‘plebs’) created so much commotion. This term confirmed the image of the unemployed as people who are of no value to the economy.


Marx's expectation that capitalism would soon come up against its own economic limits did not, however, come to pass. Even after the spread of the market economy throughout the world by the end of the nineteenth century, the growth of markets remained possible through the application of new technologies and the marketing of new products. The proletarianization of labour in the countries of the west continued, but in many of these organised workers were able to demand higher wages while the unemployed were offered subsistence-level welfare. Nor in developing countries, which lacked such social provision, did Marx's theory hold: people who fall victim to unemployment often lose any potential for political organisation and resistance.

‘Philosophy is emancipation's head', wrote Marx in 1844 in a commentary on Hegel. Marx saw struggle as the motor of history, but it had to be a conscious struggle. He detested anarchistic protest, with neither aim nor organisation. The recent riots in the Paris banlieues are, for example, not to be compared to the uprising of 1968, when students were inspired in their protest by such philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre. The recent riots had a proto- or pre-political character. The French Communist Party (PCF) organized a peaceful demonstration of people who lived in the affected neighborhoods, but had no grip on the rebellious youth. Some Muslim youths may come out with cries of ‘Allah Akbar!’, but there are no Muslim organisations behind the sms-sending rioters. A photo of a burnt-out McDonald's was seen all across the world, but most of the destruction was not aimed at politically symbolic targets. .

The haunting sense of unease of which Derrida speaks affects not only the losers but also the winners in the free market economy. It points the working people of the banlieues, as well as outside them, towards the injustice of existing social-economic relations. Derrida speaks of 'learning to live' with the specters: the idea of a moral responsibility for those excluded from society. This demands the solidarity of political parties, for which the plebs are of no electoral interest – and of the trade unions, who concern themselves exclusively with the economic interests of those in work. The riots in the Paris banlieues were expressions of the frustration of young people who can derive no sense of dignity from their unemployment, but also a call for attention from organised politics.

* Ronald van Raak is a member of the Dutch Senate and head of the research bureau of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP). This article first appeared in Dutch in Filosofie Magazine in December 2005. It was translated by Steve McGiffen.

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