Monday, 24 April 2017

The rise of the cultural omnivore and the artisan career

William Skidelsky
Whatever you think of the gig economy, it does throw up some amusingly bizarre jobs. Set Sar, of Providence, Rhode Island, told this paper in 2015 that he earns a crust by looking at videos and web pages on his computer while having his eyeball movements tracked via webcam. The information this provides is valuable to advertisers — and earns him a dollar every few minutes. In its higher echelons, the gig economy has led to an array of jobs with “consultant” in their title, as people find ingenious ways to peddle niche services to the rich. In New York, for example, “play date consultants” charge up to $400 an hour to teach the progeny of millionaires to share their toys.

Rob Court, neon artist at Creative Neon

The bad news (or good, depending on your viewpoint) is that none of this is going to change. Work is going to become even more bitty and insecure. The concept of a “job for life” has seemed outmoded for a while now. In the future, it seems doubtful whether “jobs” as we know them will exist at all. Many, of course, will be done away with by the much-prophesied automated takeover of everything from truck driving to brain surgery. But that is only half the story. Something more basic is under threat: the entire edifice of office-based, nine-to-five employment that has defined our working lives for at least a century.

Robert Elek, shoemaker at James Taylor & Son

The bargain employees once struck with their employers was simple: they handed their minds and bodies over for 40 hours or more each week, in exchange for security, pensions, mortgages. But today this model makes little sense. Many jobs — certainly most white-collar ones — consist of a range of different tasks, the majority of which can be performed by anyone with an internet connection. So why employ one person to do them all, when that also involves renting office space, investing in training, paying benefits and employing managers to supervise? Why not, instead, slice jobs up into their component parts, and contract these out to specialists? In many industries — pharmaceuticals, accountancy — this is already happening, as full-time employees are replaced by contractors. For millions of people around the globe, this is what the future holds: each worker a one-person corporation, a droplet in what some are calling the “human cloud”.

Camilla Goddard, beekeeper at Capital Bee

Such a future strikes fear into many. And it will, no doubt, have deplorable consequences. Unemployment will rise. Wages may drop. A new model of welfare will have to emerge, to ensure that those pushed out of the workplace can survive. (Universal basic incomes and “digital dividends” are among the ideas being advocated.) For the unskilled and un-enterprising, the fragmentation of work is especially dangerous. Blue-collar workers are already getting a foretaste of what may lie ahead as employers extricate themselves from their traditional obligations by forcing employees to work on zero-hours contracts.

Jenn Merrick, brewer at Beaver Town Brewery

On the other hand, lamenting the fact of change seems futile. There was nothing necessary, or inherently “right”, about the old model. It was simply what — before the advent of globalisation, the internet and widespread automation — made most sense. And the new dispensation is sure to have its upsides. One, perhaps, will be the demise of office work. Offices are often spirit-sapping places, incompatible, for many, with a sense of agency and self-respect. People also dislike having bosses: the prospect of not having one, surveys have shown, is a major motivation for going freelance. Having the freedom to work where you want, in your own time, rather than among people and in a place not of your choosing, are things that people increasingly value, and not only those at the top end of the pay-scale.

As the nature of work changes, so the question of its value comes increasingly to the fore. If, in the future, there’s less work to go round, is that a bad thing, given that it doesn’t necessarily equate to less overall wealth? How can we make our working lives feel more meaningful? Three new books offer contrasting perspectives on these questions.

Two of the titles include references to the “new economy” — the word “new”, in this context, being essentially a synonym for “knowledge-based”. A new economy is one where the generator of exchange value — wealth — has shifted from material goods to knowledge and ideas. Aside from a sense of precariousness, its key features include: the rise of industries such as information technology, pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology; a growing separation between “elite” service jobs, such as those in finance and law, and those in sectors such as cleaning and food provision; and, in physical terms, the transform­ation of rundown emblems of the industrial past (such as factories and docklands) into vibrant “urban hubs”.

Richard Ocejo’s Masters of Craft addresses one facet of this changing landscape: the revival of certain craft or artisanal jobs that were once cornerstones of the industrialised city. A growing number of educated young people, Ocejo notes, are forgoing well-paid careers in the knowledge sector in favour of these “new-old” jobs. Ocejo focuses on just four — barbering, butchery, bartending and distilling — but he could have chosen others such as coffee roasting, brewing, carpentry, upholstery and ceramics. He also confines himself, geographically, to New York, where he works as a sociologist at City University.

For Ocejo, these new masters of craft present a puzzle. Traditionally, professions such as bartending and butchery were low-status and poorly paid. Those who did them had few options. Today, while these jobs are still relatively poorly paid, they have become “cool”. And in their remade form, they provide services that are considerably higher-end — and more expensive — than ever before. At a trendy New York barbershop, Ocejo points out, a haircut costs $50 dollars or more. A traditional barber charges a fraction of this. Joints of meat sold at “whole animal” butchers practically require you to take out a mortgage. And at trendy bars, meanwhile, customers shell out $15 or more for a “craft” cocktail, made — of course — with spirits produced by a new generation of artisan distillers.

All this raises two related questions. What explains the market for these new goods? And why are so many young people drawn to producing them? Ocejo’s answer to the first involves a fascinating discussion of the evolution of taste. He suggests that in recent times a new figure — the “cultural omnivore” — has emerged, replacing the connoisseurs, or “snobs”, of the past. Cultural omnivores tend to be youngish and usually have well-paid jobs in the knowledge sector. Though just as well-heeled as earlier cultural elites, they make no (or fewer) class-based distinctions. They are just as likely to be drawn to hip-hop and craft beer as conventionally “highbrow” products such as opera and expensive wine. In other words, their tastes are “democratic” — although this doesn’t mean that they aren’t picky. In fact, released from old class anxieties — which often acted as a hindrance to real discrimination — they are free to pursue quality for its own sake. Ocejo contends that the emergence of the cultural omnivore is a major driver of the market for his new artisan professions.

As to what prompts well-educated young people to work as baristas, distillers or butchers, Ocejo suggests several factors, most of which relate to the concept of authenticity. Partly, it’s a response to the growing abstruseness of much white-collar work: unlike many jobs in finance and tech, artisan jobs seem solid and “real”. People like the fact that they involve the body as well as the mind: though they require considerable knowledge, it is always in the service of a practical goal — a delicious drink, a stylish haircut. Another attraction is their outward-facing, performative aspect: most of these jobs involve interacting with people going about their daily lives, sharing knowledge, passing on tips. Ocejo is good at showing how, in post-industrial economies, craftspeople have become transmitters of desirable knowledge, even replacing conventional cultural gatekeepers (critics, say) as arbiters of taste.

Masters of Craft is academic in tone and isn’t always an easy read. Unlike many commentators on the “hipster” lifestyle, Ocejo resists the temptation to mock his subjects. Yet his straight-faced approach proves justified; this is a fascinating book, full of valuable observations and insights. Particularly impressive is the way it captures the distinctive atmospheres of these jobs. In a new-generation New York barbershop, for example, Ocejo observes (and reproduces) the macho repartee of the barbers — making it clear, in the process, what it is about such a workplace that appeals to many people.

Ilana Gershon’s Down and Out in the New Economy sounded to me like a George Orwell-style account of the lives of zero-hours shift-workers and Uber drivers. In fact, it’s an analysis of how the “new economy” is transforming the whole process of job recruitment. Gershon, an anthropologist at Indiana University, focuses on California’s Bay Area — in other words, the epicentre of the “knowledge economy”. Like Ocejo, she provides masses of detail, with individual chapters on, say, personal branding and the increasing role played by LinkedIn. The narrowness of her preoccupations, and the academic tone, mean that her book is unlikely to find many non-specialist readers — with the exception, perhaps, of those desperate for a job.

Unlike jobs in finance and tech, artisan jobs seem solid, ‘real’. People like the fact that they involve body and mindThis is a shame, because at its centre is an important insight. Gershen argues that the changing nature of work has led to a fundamental shift in how the relationship between employees and employers is construed. Whereas, in the past, it was seen as being like a property contract — a worker renting out a part of themselves to a company — today it has become looser and less formal, more akin, Gershen suggests, to a business-to-business “partnership”. This helps explain various features of modern work: the need for job applicants to present themselves not as people with marketable skills but as “brands” who feel “passionate” about their “values”; the erosion of the distinction between work and private life (being a brand, after all, is a full-time occupation); and why companies feel less obligated to their employees than in the past. These are genuinely interesting arguments — and they deserve to find mainstream readers.

Andy Merrifield’s The Amateur is a quite different beast. Merrifield is a leftwing “urbanist” whose thinking has been influenced both by obvious figures (Marx and Weber) and more unexpected ones (Baudelaire and Kafka). The Amateur is an old-style polemic arguing that many ills of the modern world (inequality, rising levels of stress and depression) stem from the increased specialisation of knowledge — or what Merrifield calls the “professional” mindset. He advocates instead a return to amateurism — which he defines as the pursuit of ideas for their own sake, and the freedom to roam promiscuously between disciplines.

It is hard to argue with the broad gist of his argument. And it is timely: a dislike of “experts” has become a common cri de coeur among neoliberalism’s critics. The Amateur is also erudite and engagingly written. Yet it does have a major flaw, which is that many of Merrifield’s arguments don’t seem very realistic: his far-left political leanings lead him to brand anyone he likes (Jeremy Corbyn, for instance) as an amateur and anyone he dislikes as an evil professional.

Yet the basic idea behind Merrifield’s thesis — that we all need more intellectual passion in our lives — is refreshing. And in the context of the two other books, it is worth thinking about what kind of “passion” he means. It is not, for example, the ersatz “passion” for their own personal “brands” that Gershen’s job applicants are expected to display. Rather, it’s a passion for knowledge for its own sake, and for engaging with ordinary people — very much the passion, you could well argue, that Ocejo’s masters of craft already possess.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Singapore is aiming to be the world's first Smart Nation

Karishma Vaswani
You know what it's like. You're waiting for the bus on your way to work and inevitably, you're late. Enter Singapore's Smart Nation solution, which aims to merge technology into every aspect of life on the small island.

That includes some bus stops, which under this plan will now have interactive maps and wi-fi connectivity - even e-books and a swing. This is all an attempt to make the journeys of Singapore's commuters more enjoyable and efficient.

If you look at how important the bus system is to public transport here, it makes sense. With almost four million daily rides, the bus network makes up the most significant part of Singapore's transport network.

Nowhere is the scale of the project more evident than at the headquarters of the Land Transport Authority.

Using GPS data, researchers and programmers can tell how fast or slow a bus is going and how many people are on board at any given time.

"With this information we know where are the choke points at different times of the day," said Christopher Hooi Wai Yean, deputy director of the authority's communications and sensors division, as he demonstrated the movement of the buses on their screens. "[This way] we can put in measures to alleviate and dissipate the crowd at choke points across the island. This will ensure that the whole transport system is more well-oiled in that sense."

It is an approach that is being replicated across all sectors - transport, homes, offices and even hospitals.

The KK Women's and Children's Hospital is one of the biggest and busiest in Singapore. On any day, it sees scores of patients - mainly pregnant women or mums with their kids. It began trialling video conferencing for its patients in non-emergency cases in November last year.

Gladys Soo is one such mum. Her five-year old son suffers from eczema and she started treatment for him in February.

"We went to the hospital in person for the first consultation to check for his eczema," she told me. "The follow-up was done via video conferencing."
Mrs Soo said the fact that she is a working mum was a factor in her decision to go for the video-conferencing option.

"It saves you time - I don't have to travel, I don't have to take leave. The doctor can actually view my son's eczema on the video conference. And he can diagnose whether it is getting better - it is like being with him in person."

Speech therapy, lactation consultation services and paediatric home care services are other aspects of medical care that KKH is using video conferencing to address.

Prof Low Cheng Ooi, the chief clinical informatics officer of IHiS, the company that manages the technology infrastructure for the healthcare aspect of Singapore's Smart Nation solutions, says the plan is to phase this programme in gradually.

"We already know that public health services delivered over video and medical consultation via video works well in larger countries with rural areas," he told me. "But in Singapore we are very urban, and our citizens can get healthcare within a very short period of time.

"So we have to rationalise what it is we are trying to do with this platform. We are moving cautiously with discipline so that patients will benefit from this kind of consultation, with no risks."

It's an ambitious goal - trying to merge technology into every aspect of citizens' lives - but this grand plan may have already run into some speed bumps.

"We really are not going as fast as we ought to," said the country's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently.

To deliver results, Singapore has set up a new ministerial committee to push ahead with its Smart Nation dreams.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge of the Smart Nation initiative, says that a sense of urgency is vital in ensuring the future success of Singapore.

"If we don't get this right, jobs are at stake," he told the BBC. "Wages are at stake and any government that doesn't prepare its people for the future and offer the potential for good jobs will be in trouble."

But Harminder Singh, a senior lecturer in business information systems at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, says the main issue with Smart Nation is that there may be too much government control over it right now for real innovation to take place.

"Singapore's way of doing things is that the government leads, then others follow," he told me. "This might be a problem - it is too centralised and so it may take too long for plans to trickle down.

"And ideas from the ground may be neither visible to those on top nor acceptable to them, especially if they are related to the delivery of services that are traditionally handled by the government."
He adds that it is not clear why Singapore's leaders are so keen to move full steam ahead with this plan.

"Smart Nation is about building national technology infrastructure so that the government can offer new services, or do what they do now differently. The government may need to explain more clearly how the Smart Nation project will improve salaries and jobs in Singapore to get the project moving faster."

The authorities here are taking this initiative extremely seriously - it appears to be the big bet Singapore is taking for its next generation. Because of its size, Singapore has always had to stay one step ahead of the curve to survive.

This tiny island nation has always prided itself on persistence and a strong work ethic to succeed. Smart Nation is its plan for its future survival - and the shoots of innovation are beginning to show.

Singapore now has a small but growing start-up culture and home-grown companies are starting to take more risks. But creativity needs to be nurtured - and Singapore may find that its Smart Nation dreams may take time to reach their full potential.

Monday, 10 April 2017

South Africa : a History of legalised corruption

Oupa Lehulere is an activist in the social movements and is currently based at Khanya College, a social justice and movement building institution based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Monopoly capitalists and their allies in the ANC have corrupted something very precious in South Africa’s history – the proud and militant tradition of struggle for social justice. They have corrupted the dream of a free and egalitarian nation. For over two decades, the ANC has presided over entrenched corruption, which must now be resisted. But that struggle will constitute a whole new historical epoch.

The SASSA scandal currently unfolding is probably the most dramatic expression of how far the African National Congress (ANC) has traveled since its days of opposition to apartheid. [SASSA stands for South Africa Social Security Agency, which is the agency that pays social grants to about 17 million beneficiaries.] Under apartheid, ANC activists were associated with laying down their lives in defending and advancing the interests of the mass of the people – in particular the black working class. Today, the cadre of the ANC is associated with stealing from the mass of people they used to die for. It is now commonly accepted, including in the ANC itself, that the corruption and theft of public resources is not just an isolated problem in the ANC. The general South African public and the ANC itself now accept that the problem is deep and systemic.

In every newspaper, social media, and television platforms and in everyday conversation the corruption in the ANC is now standard diet, and therefore the SASSA scandal would seem to be just one other scandal among many. But the SASSA scandal, on the contrary, is important in one respect: it allows us the opportunity to develop an understanding of ANC corruption as being made up of different kinds. As a result of the political struggles in the ANC around which the SASSA debacle is unfolding, this scandal gives us an opportunity to look into a part of the ANC’s corruption that the mainstream and middle class press shies away from – the legalised corruption that the ANC has presided over for over 20 years.

The corruption of the Zuma and Gupta alliance is clear for all to see – and it is clear to all but its beneficiaries that it must be opposed and struggled against. What is equally clear is that Pravin Gordhan and the finance ministers that came before him have presided over the growing impoverishment of the mass of black working class South Africans. Under their watch, wealth has become more concentrated in South Africa and has remained deeply racialised. It is equally clear that the development of the black middle class has not moved beyond flashy clothes and flashy cars – under their watch this class remains as precarious as ever. It is also undeniable that there is really no serious black big bourgeoisie to speak off – except a couple of pin-up boys who are exceptions that prove the rule.

In the public domain – and in particular in the media – the focus has been on the most visible part of the problem: the Zuptas. Indeed, Pravin Godharn and his bloc in the ANC have been held up as models of good governance and clean government who will save South Africa from its ‘descent’ into a banana republic. No connection or relationship is established between the corruption of Zuma and his supporters in the ANC, and Gordhan and his “clean governance”.

In the course of the SASSA crisis it began to emerge that there may be deep interconnections between the corruption of the Zuma group and monopoly capital in the form of Alan Gray (owners of Net1 and Cash Paymaster). Note also that another Mr. Clean, ex-Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, booted out by Zuma on account of his commitment to “good governance”, has also ended up at Alan Gray. Ex-Minister Nene is no flash in the pan when it comes to the revolving door between government finance leaders and finance capital. We know that ex-Finance Minister Trevor Manuel is now one of the big chiefs at Old Mutual, that other giant of South Africa’s monopoly club. Soon after leaving the Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni joined Goldman Sachs, the US investment banking house notorious for its scandalous if legal behaviour all over the world. It also turned out that the bankers of SASSA are none other than the ‘white monopoly capitalist’ most hated by Zuma and his side-kick, College ‘Oros’ Maine – the Ruperts.

How did it come to pass that the most corrupt section of the ANC is connected in all these ways to “white monopoly capital”? Further, how do the “clean” politicians of the ANC also end up in the same bed of monopoly capital? Is there, indeed, a more than passing connection between corruption in the ANC and “white monopoly capital”? Is there a connection between the break up of the ANC currently underway and white monopoly capital?

In light of the SASSA crisis it is important to move beyond the smokescreens and hype put up by South Africa’s mainstream media and its analysts, and explore the deep connections between corruption and neoliberal governance (popularly known as ‘good governance’) that is promoted by Pravin Gordhan and his supporters.

Distribution of wealth
The wealth of any society is distributed among its various social classes through a range of mechanisms. In capitalist society, the means and processes of the distribution of society’s wealth range from the division of wealth between wages and profits; the markets in which goods are bought and sold serve to distribute wealth between the classes; for example, in the agricultural commodities market the wealth is extracted away from the small farmers and other producers towards financiers who control the world’s global markets in agricultural commodities. The system of taxation in a country also serves to distribute wealth between the classes; and the way the government (in any country a key economic actor) produces, buys and supplies goods and services to the mass of the population also serves to distribute wealth between the classes. The entire capitalist economy is organised around the making of profit for the capitalist, the owner of factories, shops, mines and farms: the means of producing goods and services. The entire system, therefore, is essentially about the way the wealth that is produced is distributed among the capitalists, the middle class, and the working class or poor people in a country.

Theft vs. corruption
In any society there are people who steal something from others. Corruption, however, is not just theft (though in many cases it includes theft), but involves an illegal, hidden and unethical use of access to resources and power to transfer wealth and power to the benefit of oneself or for the benefit of one’s associates. Corruption can be done for a range of reasons, including for personal enrichment, enrichment of friends or relatives, and/or facilitating access to resources and power by yourself, friends and relatives. In the history of capitalism and in the formation of the capitalist class, corruption (and sometimes even more violent crimes) constitutes the most important way of creating wealth for a new capitalist class. In addition, as a result of the constant threat to the wealth of the capitalist resulting from competition and the instability of capitalism, capitalists must periodically engage in corruption – this illegal, hidden and unethical transfer of wealth and power  - to maintain their wealth.

Legalisation of corruption
In South Africa, for example, the wealth of all the rich white capitalists is founded on the theft of the land, the minerals beneath the land and other resources of the country. Also, it was founded on the exclusion from power of all social classes and groups from the black majority. During the process of the formation of the South African state in the early 1900s, the black middle class of the time – led by the ANC - attempted to get themselves included in the new power arrangements of the Union of South Africa, but this was rejected by the white capitalists and their colonial government in Britain.

An important step in the development of any capitalist class is reached when the wealth this class acquired by theft, corrupt and illegal means is transformed into legal wealth; when they write and rewrite laws to legalise their wealth. For example, the land that was stolen by white settler capitalists over many years in South Africa was legalised with the Land Act of 1913. The initial legalisation of corrupt wealth requires that the capitalist class creates a range of laws that maintain this ill-gotten wealth. These laws include property laws and by-laws (in cities and municipalities), laws around setting up businesses, the organisation of state policies and taxes that favour the reproduction and maintenance of that wealth, and so on. Meetings between individuals and corporations to organise this corruption are sometimes legalised – and this is referred to as “lobby-groups” and so on. In many countries, such as France, “lobbyists” get paid a lot of money and spend a lot of money (legalised bribery) to persuade those in power to act in the interests of certain power groups.

Power and corruption
Once a capitalist class or section of a capitalist class has legalised its corruption, it has an interest in ensuring that the corruption of competitors is not legalised. By keeping them illegal, the ruling capitalist group can obstruct, weaken, or punish at will its competitors. At times, it may “turn a blind eye” to this corruption as long as it does not threaten its rule. It can also periodically use this dark side of capitalism to strengthen its position without running a risk of becoming illegal – in other words the established capitalists can “outsource” corruption.

Because of their power these groups have created their own system of justice, in which they all agree to pay “traffic fines” for this corruption and theft. In South Africa recently, a number of banks agreed to pay “fines” for manipulating the rand. This parallel system of justice, which includes legal institutions like the Competition Commission, whitewashes corruption and allows powerful groups in society to evade the normal process of criminal justice. In this line think also of the bread cartel, which colluded to rob the poor of their already meagre wages and grants.

Distribution of wealth and corruption
Corrupt groups in society – such as the ANC cadre or groups of new capitalists like the Afrikaner capitalists after 1948 – draw the wealth they transfer to themselves from different parts of society. There are four main sources of wealth, or circuits of wealth, from which the corrupt groups can steal. The first is from the capitalist class itself. There are many cases of this corruption in the financial markets, and daily we hear of reports of “insider trading”, which is corruption between and among financial market traders to steal from the capitalist class itself. The second is from the state. The third is to steal directly from the middle class, and fourth, they can steal directly from the working class.

Corrupt groups focus on the lines along which wealth is distributed in society, where they “intercept” this wealth behind the scenes and direct it to themselves and friends. The wealth can be “intercepted” within the circuits of wealth of particular classes, as well as when wealth moves between the different circuits. Corrupt groups do not in general create wealth, they redirect it and consume it once it is produced.

The line of distribution on which corrupt groups focus depends on the power this group enjoys in society. For example, groups like investment banks and currency trading groups are able to redirect wealth that is circulating in the financial sector by corrupt means. As I have argued, they have created their own systems of justice to ensure that their corruption is legalised. In order for corrupt groups to intercept wealth from the capitalist classes and the middle classes, they need control of important institutions like banks and large corporations.

Weaker groups of emerging capitalists are forced to focus their corruption on less powerful groups in society – such as the working class. In order for them to intercept resources within the working class, and to intercept resources that move from the state to the working class, they need access to political office. Political office allows these groups to intercept transfers from the state to other classes as well, but their lack of power forces them to focus on transfers from the state to the working class.

The 1994 transition blocks black capitalists
A number of key agreements made during the negotiations before 1994 have come to block the formation of a new class of capitalists. Their elements were:

a. Constitutionalism and constitutional continuity
The constitutional and political settlement at the dawn of democracy constituted the first line of defence against the dangers that democracy posed to the wealthy groups in society – in particular to white monopoly capitalist interests. While not being the only elements of the settlements that served to block the redistribution of wealth, the ones we would like to highlight are:

i. the transformation of South Africa into a constitutional state.
ii. the adoption the concept or doctrine of ‘legal continuity’, which meant that all laws and agreements that were passed or entered into during colonialism and apartheid remained valid and could only be changed through the legal process.
iii. the new dispensation made it unconstitutional to punish anyone for any offence committed in the past if no law said it was an offence at the time.
iv. the capitalist corporations continued to be “juristic persons”, and this meant that all key rights conferred by the new constitution to protect people against abuses of apartheid (such as expropriation of property for very low compensation) also protected capitalist organisations.
The doctrines of constitutionalism, constitutional continuity and illegalisation of retrospectivity were not enough to defend monopoly capital. Monopoly capital did not trust the new black elite as it was not always clear if the black political elite now in government would resist the pressure of their constituency to redistribute wealth. The capitalist class, through a range of means, intervened to create other lines of defence against the pressure for redistribution of wealth.

b. The capture of the ANC
To protect the interests of monopoly capital determined efforts were made to capture the ANC as an organisation, and these efforts were already successful by 1992. In that year, the Mail & Guardian organised a retreat at Mont Fleurs outside Cape Town, where the consensus about a free market capitalist road began to emerge. Some of the people present were to be key in the adoption of free market economics or neoliberalism in post-apartheid South Africa. They included Trevor Manuel, Tito Mboweni, Rob Davies, Saki Macozoma, Jayendra Naidoo, and some of the biggest capitalists, Christo Wiese, Derek Keys and so on. It was these series of engagements that ended in the capture of the ANC by monopoly capital, and resulted in the adoption of GEAR policy by the ANC in 1996.

c. Flags of convenience
Another line of defence put up by (white) monopoly capital was to ensure that key capitalist organisations are protected against the South African state – which was black and could not be trusted – by foreign governments. Following the ascent of Trevor Manuel to the Treasury, 5 of South Africa’s large corporations were granted permission to become “foreign companies” by shifting their “home” addresses to London and New York. This move allowed these companies to move their wealth overseas. By 2001 the companies were exporting more than R7 billion in profits made in SA overseas. The ‘flags of convenience’ of these companies meant that they were now protected against South African people by their new-found “parents” – the UK and US governments. From being South African companies, they now became foreign investors in South Africa! While the big 5 companies expressed this process in the most visible manner, the strategy of ‘flying flags of convenience’, even without moving the primary listing to foreign countries, has continued. Today almost half of the biggest companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are controlled by foreign shareholders. Almost 75% of the companies have 30% or more of their stocks owned by foreign shareholders. This level of ownership is enough to control a company, and with the resources at the disposal of these foreign groups they are able to exert a major influence on the South African economy and on the South African state.

d. Privatisation of state enterprises, or starving SOEs of investment
Wall number four was also put up, and this mainly involved pressure on the new South African state to privatise the key assets of the state. If privatisation was not possible, the state allowed these assets to fall into neglect so as to allow the “private sector”, meaning the big capitalist, to create “new industries” to substitute the state industries. Private health is one such example – the decline of state health has led to the consolidation of the rise of private health.

The debacle around SASSA is another example of how the decline in the capacities of the state, a direct product of the neoliberal policies pursued by successive ANC administrations with the Finance Ministry at the vanguard, has led to the current situation in which a state organ cannot even process payments, notwithstanding the fact that the South African Revenue Services run an equally large, modern and sophisticated electronic system of filing and payments. Add to this that the entire Department of Home Affairs platform is now digitised and uses modern biometrics, and we can see how the SASSA crisis is one manufactured by vested interests.

These four lines of defence created a fortress around capitalist organisations and the privileged white middle class, and ensured that their wealth would be preserved. This defence of capitalist and white privilege and power ensured that any new group of black capitalists that wanted to become rich could only be rich on one condition: by the mercy of white monopoly capital. This is how many ANC cadres such as Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Patrice Motsepe became rich. This condition, however, was a recipe for conflict. Not only would the black working class grow restive over time, but the black middle class and the aspiring black bourgeoisie would have to find ways around these walls of defence. This battle was what set in motion the battle for the ANC.

This battle began to take shape around what was called “the class project of 1996” (a code for the capture of the ANC by monopoly capital and neoliberalism); the battle grew into the Polokwane project that brought together Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League, Zwelinzima Vavi and Cosatu, the black petty bourgeoisie at the local level (mainly in the bureaucracy of the local state), and sections of the aspiring black bourgeoisie such as Tokyo Sexwale and Ramaphosa. At this point in the battle, people like Nene and Gordhan were part of this broad church.

Corruption and the battle for the ANC
The policies implemented by the government of Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel blocked the emergence of a class of big black capitalists that could challenge white monopoly capital. The rich few blacks they produced were too dependent on white monopoly capital. Their policies also began to have a negative effect on the working class and the small and fragile black middle class. As unemployment rose and the black middle class struggled to survive, the tide turned against Thabo Mbeki’s leadership in the ANC, and he was overthrown at Polokwane in 2007 and recalled in September 2008. This overthrow of Thabo Mbeki was seen as the end of the “class project of 1996”, and a new regime at the Finance Ministry was thought to be at hand with the accession of Pravin Gordhan to the helm. It was not long before the Polokwane bloc came up against the many lines of defence put up by monopoly capital. It must be remembered immediately on becoming president, Zuma was on his way to London to meet “investors”.

Although this bloc had come to political office around the rhetoric of “radical economic transformation” based on the Freedom Charter – much as the Zuma bloc is now again trying to do – they had no real programme or plan on how to break through the stranglehold of monopoly capital and the defences it had put up over more than 20 years (1990 and before, to 2009).

Without any programme, the new Polokwane bloc could not break through three of the four lines of defence put up by white monopoly capital. The economic situation of the middle classes – their key constituency - had been deteriorating and their indebtedness had been rising in the 15 years or so of the new democracy. As an historical bout of bad luck would have it, they also came into political office against the backdrop of a global economic crisis. This meant that even the crumbs that had been dished out to the Tokyos of this world were drying up. Black participation in the JSE began to decline, monopoly capital and its international counterpart demanded fiscal discipline and austerity and the state as a redistributive mechanism was frowned upon even more by those who held economic power in society.

Thus the Polokwane bloc and the class it represented – the petty bourgeoisie, now dependent on their position in the state - had only one option to survive: through corruption, tenders and doing business with the state that employed them.

Earlier I argued that there are four sources of corrupt enrichment in capitalist society. Recall that I argued that the first line is to divert resources from within the capitalist class. The second was to extract resources from within the state through large state contracts. The third was to extract resources from the middle class, and fourthly, from the working class. Three of these remained blocked, and only one (extracting resources from state transfers to the working class) was now open for this class and the Polokwane bloc.

A new situation had arisen because in the Polokwane struggle monopoly capital and its allies in the ANC lost control of the ANC. The Polokwane bloc had breached one of the four walls of defence set up by capital – they had recaptured the ANC. This immediately opened up the possibilities of extracting resources meant for the poor working class communities, especially via the local state. The only option open to a weakened and defeated black middle class was to extract resources from the line that distributed resources from the state to the working class. At all levels of the state, but particularly at the local state, the new black elite has been extracting wealth for its consumption from resources meant for the working class and the poor. The scale of this corrupt extraction can be seen in the reports of the Auditor General year after year since the transition began. Billions and billions of rand are “lost” every year to “wasteful”, fruitless, and unauthorised expenditure. We can see this extraction from broken RDP houses, unfinished school buildings, pot holes on roads across the country, non-delivery of text books, waterworks that are sabotaged in order for fictitious tenders to be created, and the list goes on without end. The SASSA crisis currently unfolding represents a particularly ugly version of how this group is intercepting resources meant for the working class, but it is only the most visible one because it is now unfolding around a single date, April 1.

The control of the ANC by the Polokwane bloc, however, did not bring with it the power to breach the three other lines of defence set up by monopoly capital. The constitutional and legal defences are still intact, and litigation against the Zuma state has intensified at all levels. Also, massive capital flight and export continues, and various means are implemented to accelerate this. Lately, transfer pricing has become a favoured means to export profits to overseas destinations. The swindling of the middle class, especially the affluent white middle class, remains the preserve of big capital and its banks, which are jealously guarding the banking space for new entrants and find all manner of ways of collapsing upstarts that want to disturb the current division of the market into spheres of influence.

The struggle currently underway (Zuma vs. Gordhan) in the ANC owes its specific origins to a number of key developments since the victory of the Polokwane bloc. The basis of these developments is the fact that the Polokwane bloc had no real programme of how to confront monopoly capital. The rhetoric of the SACP and Cosatu, themselves closet believers in neoliberal policies, was clearly not enough to confront the “beast” that is monopoly capital. Confronted with these defences, the bloc folded and fractured in a hundred different directions. Some of the key modalities of this fracture included:

i. Zuma, who to begin with no programmatic or political interest in the struggle against monopoly capital, went back to his old ways of responding to the intractable nature of the transition: petty corruption. Remember that before his rise to the throne, Zuma was facing hundreds of petty corruption charges. What the new situation opened up was more of the same: resource extraction of the pettiest kind. So followed Nkandla, a large dose of petty theft.
ii. The Treasury under Gordhan was recaptured by monopoly capital, as he was forced to continue dishing out all the neoliberal formulas of his predecessor, Trevor Manuel. The continuation of the Treasury’s orientation towards neoliberal economics of monopoly capital was facilitated by the difficult conditions of the global economic crisis on the one hand (he came into the Treasury just after the crisis), and the lack of any programme (besides rhetoric) on the part of the Polokwane bloc. Without any programme, the man who was going to put an end to the “class project of 96” had no clue on what was to be done – and when you don’t know you just keep going. Zuma’s propensity for petty corruption, his lack of any real ideas (big or small) on any issue and his patent helplessness in running the ship of state – all these facilitated Gordhan’s capture by monopoly capital.
iii. The entry, or rather re-entry, of sections of the Polokwane bloc that had pretensions to being big capitalists also dampened any appetite for a fight with monopoly capital. The likes of Cyril Ramaphosa, deeply indebted to monopoly capital, deeply intertwined with it (Lonmin) had no appetite for this fight and did not believe in radical economic transformation. The attitude of this faction was that it could be rich by being “clean”, and were clearly at odds with the Zuma group of petty thieves.

iv. Those who still believed in the rhetoric of the Freedom Charter, like Julius Malema and Irvin Jim, now came face to face with the fact that no amount of radical rhetoric can shift the entrenched nature of monopoly capital. They also came face to face with the fact that the Zuma section of the bloc and the Ramaphosas of this world had no appetite for the fight, and for the rhetoric as well. They split off from the Tripartite Alliance and the ANC, and went on to continue with their rhetoric and theatrics.
v. In the course of all these struggles (the run-up to Polokwane and the immediate beyond), Cosatu became less and less of a force to be taken seriously by the other factions in the Polokwane bloc. The Marikana massacre bled the key actor in the pro-Zuma blocs in Cosatu – in particular the NUM – and with Numsa leaving the sorry state of Cosatu is there for all to see.

vi. The SACP, as usual, puts its head in the sand, throws around a bit of rhetoric, and hopes that history will lead to socialism in the end. Caught between the petty corruption of Zuma and Gordhan’s shift to the right, the SACP defends Rupert (anything but the Guptas), likes the rhetoric of “radical economic transformation”, and in general swings wildly between the two main protagonists in the struggle of the excluded petty bourgeoisie against white monopoly capital.

These lines of fracture of the Polokwane bloc led to the alignments of factions in the ANC that are now playing out a new, and maybe last phase, of the disintegration of the ANC. In the immediate conjucture of the SASSA crisis, the alignments look like this:

In the corner of monopoly capital stands Gordhan. As the conjuncture of circumstances would have it, the SACP and Cosatu stand in this corner. As a result of his anti-Zuma orientation, Julius Malema find themselves (temporary?) allies of Gordhan, and therefore of white monopoly capital. In the other corner stands (?) Zuma, his family, the consuming black petty bourgeoisie at the local level, and of course the Guptas.

The arrival of the Guptas on the scene (initially introduced by the Mbeki bloc), and their linking up with the Zuma bloc, has led to an intensification of hostilities in the struggle for the extraction of resources from the state. Up to then, there was no actor in the Zuma or Polokwane bloc more broadly, who had the appetite and resources to fight white monopoly capital. Also, up to then there was no actor that was involved directly in real production – people like Ramaphosa are stock millionaires, not real production capitalists.

The importance of the Guptas in this battle cannot be understated. The Guptas are providing 4 key elements that have been lacking in the Zuma bloc. First, as we indicated already, the Guptas are a producing capitalist group and not just a group of consuming individuals. Second, the Guptas have financial resources that can “take on” big capital in South Africa. Third, the Guptas have the organisational skills that come with organisation of production, and they have had to “organise” the whole bloc, even to the extent of dishing out cabinet posts!

Fourth, if the Guptas succeed in making inroads into the circuits of wealth that run between the state and large capitals – the state enterprises are key in this circuit – they may well break into the heart of the circuits that run within the capitalist class itself. An important project of the Guptas will be that of having its own banking arm. This aspect of the project will also give it access to extracting wealth from the affluent middle classes, or in the beginning from the black middle classes. With the ability to issue loans to the middle class on a significant scale, and backed up by access to large state contracts – it will most certainly be game on!

In the short term, the most important strategic goal is to capture the Treasury, currently the most important bastion of monopoly capital within the state. A common error in the analysis of what is clearly an important strategic project for the Guptas – the capture of the Treasury – is that the Guptas only want to “loot”. Now, the idea of looting is always associated with corruption, in particular with consumption, and not production. This is a fundamental error of theory and analysis.

The Eskom contract around the Tegeta coal mining contracts is a classic example of the processes of the legalisation of corruption. It therefore provides an interesting example of how monopoly capital and its “fourth estate”, the media, would cry wolf while they themselves engage in similar kinds of practices. The main purported “sin” of the Guptas is that they got “paid an advance” on coal that they did not have, and in turn used this advance to purchase the mine and later deliver the coal. Now, this kind of financial engineering is standard practice with the likes of Goldman Sachs (see Goldmans Greek debt swindle), derivative of all kinds (remember that what triggered the global economic crisis was the housing loan derivatives), and in many cases straightforward theft of state resources.

If we leave the world of financial engineering (that is the legalised theft of social wealth) the Eskom deal is classic in another and more important sense. The formation of large capitals in South Africa was underwritten by massive state subsidies over several decades. And guess who was key in the provision of these subsidies? Eskom! For decades, while the black working class had no access to electricity, Eskom ran the lowest electricity price regime in the world for big capitals. A combination of cheap electricity (Eskom), cheap steel (ISCOR) with cheap labour was the recipe that created today’s white monopoly industries. The Tegeta deal is borrowing from an old book.

South African monopoly capital is aware of the threat posed by a victory of the Guptas: the Guptas may just succeed in legalising their corruption alongside that of white monopoly capital. Sensing this, big capital and its allies are putting up a fierce resistance, and this threatens to break up the ANC completely. The battle for the Treasury expresses this issue most acutely, but the battle is equally acute across all the big state enterprises.

Of importance in this struggle will be the battle for the hearts and minds of the population. Who will be able to win the battle for public opinion? At this point in the battle the Guptas and Zuma (a minor player in this historical drama) have the odds stacked against them. Almost the entire media sings from the same hymnbook: the Guptas are corrupt, they are a danger to the “nation”, and (and here xenophobia even comes into it) they should be denied citizenship, etc, etc. On the other hand, it is easy to mistake the noise of the media for real support for the Gordhan corner.

The Guptas may therefore be under siege, but they have a crucial trump card, so to speak. Although the Polokwane project has broken up, the systemic social, political and economic problems that brought it into being do not only still exist – they continue to deepen. The economics of austerity implemented by Gordhan continue to pulverise the black middle class and the black working class. The levels of indebtedness of South African consumers has been steadily rising, and the only remaining question is when the tipping point will be reached: when are we going to see large-scale and politically explosive defaults among the middle classes?

On the other hand, the ANC has steadily lost credibility in the working class, as shown by the local government elections of 2016. As a result of this, the working class has become a passive force, as shown by its stayaway from the August local government elections.  A combination of pressures on the black middle class still dependent on the state and its tenders, and a passive working class mean that Zuma and his faction may have lost the battle for the media, but they remain firmly in charge of the ANC. Sensing this, Zuma and his faction have “conjured up the spirits of the past to fight their current battles”: they have resurrected the rhetoric of “radical economic transformation” that initially launched the struggle against the “class project of 1996”.

These layers of the ANC apparatus see Gordhan’s “clean government” crusade as directed against them. They see a repeat of the “class project of 1996”, and they are learning in the process not to depend on their traditional allies – the SACP and Cosatu. Through its various factions in the ANC – in particular the Premier League - this group is digging in for a bitter fight for the ANC. This fight will break the ANC to pieces, but for this class there is no other option.

The consequence of this alignment of forces is that the Gordhan group has to try and launch assaults from outside the ANC. Thus the need for “stalwarts” and all kinds of “eminent persons” that appeal to the Zuma bloc to desist from the road of corruption. Their capacity to contest within the structures of the ANC has been considerably weakened by their association with monopoly capital and its vanguard in the person of Gordhan.

At the heart of the Zupta versus Pravin battle is a battle between two kinds of corruption. On the one side is a corruption that has not yet been able to legalise itself, a corruption of excluded sections of the black middle class and those who aspire to be rich capitalists. At this point this corrupt faction steals directly from the poor, but it seeks to legalise itself and “play” in the greener pastures of corruption in the circuits of wealth that move within the capitalist class and the state itself. On the other side stand the front troops of legalised corruption – the corruption of white monopoly capital. Behind their appeal to the “rule of law”, to “clean government”, to “anti-corruption” stand the defence of privilege that has not only excluded aspiring black capital, but has produced a deep, structural and enduring poverty of millions of working class South Africans.

The prospects of a victory of monopoly capital, a Cyril Ramaphosa victory in the ANC, and therefore a recapture of the ANC is currently looking extremely slim. On the other hand, the Zupta bloc is facing formidable odds as it tries to breach the walls put up by monopoly capital. What South Africa may indeed be facing is what Marx called a “peace of the graveyard”, a “common ruin of the contending classes”. With monopoly capital unable to flush the Zuptas out of the state, and the Zuptas not able to impose a deal that legalises them as co-thieves of social wealth, we may see a ruin of all classes.

In this whole battle for Treasury and the state between Zuma and Gordhan, the real elephant in the room is this: how did it come to pass that almost 40 million South Africans are dependent on meagre grants handed out by the state? This is the real inheritance of Mbeki, Manuel, Nene and Gordhan and the big capitalist groups they represent.

Both the monopoly capitalists and the Zuptas have corrupted something very precious in South Africa’s history – they have corrupted a proud and militant tradition of struggle for social justice; they have corrupted South Africa’s dream of a free and egalitarian nation.
With a ruin of all classes increasingly looking likely, the only way out is for the working class to come out of its period of apathy – but this will constitute a whole new historical period.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

It’s not just unfair: Inequality is a threat to our governance

Angus Deaton, a professor emeritus at Princeton, was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2015

President Obama labeled income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” But why exactly? And why “our time” especially? In part because we now know just how much goes to the very top of the income distribution, and beyond that, we know that recent economic growth, which has been anemic in any case, has accrued mostly to those who were already well-heeled, leaving stagnation or worse for many Americans. But why is this a problem?
Why am I hurt if Mark Zuckerberg develops Facebook, and gets rich on the proceeds? Some care about the unfairness of income inequality itself, some care about the loss of upward mobility and declining opportunities for our kids and some care about how people get rich — hard work and innovation are O.K., but theft, legal or otherwise, is not. Yet there is one threat of inequality that is widely feared, and that has been debated for thousands of years, which is that inequality can undermine governance. In his fine book, both history and call to arms, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the contemporary explosion of inequality will destroy the American Constitution, which is and was premised on the existence of a large and thriving middle class. He has done us all a great service, taking an issue of overwhelming public importance, delving into its history, helping understand how our forebears handled it and building a platform to think about it today.

As recognized since ancient times, the coexistence of very rich and very poor leads to two possibilities, neither a happy one. The rich can rule alone, disenfranchising or even enslaving the poor, or the poor can rise up and confiscate the wealth of the rich. The rich tend to see themselves as better than the poor, a proclivity that is enhanced and even socially sanctioned in modern meritocracies. The poor, with little prospect of economic improvement and no access to political power, “might turn to a demagogue who would overthrow the government — only to become a tyrant. Oligarchy or tyranny, economic inequality meant the end of the republic.”

The founders worried a good deal about people getting too rich. Jefferson was proud of his achievement in abolishing the entail and primogeniture in Virginia, writing the laws that “laid the ax to the root of Pseudoaristocracy.” He called for progressive taxation and, like the other founders, feared that the inheritance of wealth would lead to the establishment of an aristocracy. (Contrast this with those today who simultaneously advocate both equality of opportunity and the abolition of estate taxes.) Madison tried to calculate how long the frontier would last, and understood the threat to the Constitution that industrialization would bring; many of the founders thought of wage labor as little better than slavery and hoped that America could remain an agrarian society.

Of course, the fears about industrialization were realized, and by the late 19th century, in the Gilded Age, income inequality had reached levels comparable to those we see today. In perhaps the most original part of his book, Sitaraman, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, highlights the achievements of the Progressive movement, one of whose aims was taming inequality, and which successfully modified the Constitution. There were four constitutional amendments in seven years — the direct election of senators, the franchise for women, the prohibition of alcohol and the income tax. To which I would add another reform, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, which provided a mechanism for handling financial crises without the need for the government to be bailed out by rich bankers, as well as the reduction in the tariff, which favored ordinary people by bringing down the cost of manufactures. Politics can respond to inequality, and the Constitution is not set in stone.

What of today, when inequality is back in full force? I am not persuaded that we can be saved by the return of a rational and public-spirited middle class, even if I knew exactly how to identify middle-class people, or to measure how well they are doing. Nor is it clear, postelection, whether the threat is an incipient oligarchy or an incipient populist autocracy; our new president tweets from one to the other. And European countries, without America’s middle-class Constitution, face some of the same threats, though more from autocracy than from plutocracy, which their constitutions may have helped them resist. Yet it is clear that we in the United States face the looming threat of a takeover of government by those who would use it to enrich themselves together with a continuing disenfranchisement of large segments of the population.

Perhaps the least familiar and most intriguing policy proposal that Sitaraman discusses is the idea of reviving the Roman tribunate: 51 citizens would be selected by lot from the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. They would be able to veto one statute, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision each year; they would be able to call a referendum, and impeach federal officials.
Such a proposal seems fanciful today, but so is campaign finance reform, or greater redistribution. Yet we do well to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum that it takes a crisis to bring real change, so that our job in the meantime is to develop alternatives to existing policies that are ready for when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” There will surely be no lack of crises in the days to come.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Le sous-entendu raciste de « l'assimilation républicaine »

Anne Chemin
Il y a une quinzaine d’années, le mot « assimilation » fleurait bon la IIIe République. Il était associé aux politiques menées dans les colonies – on parlait alors volontiers d’« assimilation coloniale » – ou aux débats de l’entre-deux-guerres sur l’accès à la nationalité – une circulaire de 1927 la définissait comme « l’absorption plus complète et parfaite des éléments étrangers dans la nation ». Après une longue éclipse, l’assimilation a effectué un retour en grâce inattendu dans les années 2000 : portée par les controverses sur l’islam, elle est désormais au cœur des débats sur l’« identité nationale ».

Pendant la campagne des primaires, Nicolas Sarkozy a ainsi célébré les vertus de l’assimilation. « Elle n’est pas une possibilité offerte à ceux qui choisissent la France, elle doit être une condition à tout séjour de longue durée et à toute naturalisation », lançait-il en mai devant le cercle de réflexion France fière. « Il va falloir reprendre le grand travail de l’assimilation républicaine », renchérissait le vice-président du Front national, Florian Philippot, en septembre sur France Info. La défaite du fondamentalisme musulman « passe par l’assimilation » de l’islam, affirmait Manuel Valls, dans L’Express, en août. « Oui, j’assume ces mots. Il faut une assimilation », insistait le premier ministre.

Si le terme a une tonalité martiale, c’est parce qu’il désigne un processus radical. « La notion d’assimilation fait appel à une métaphore digestive, explique Patrick Simon, sociodémographe à l’Institut national d’études démographiques (INED). Le corps social et les institutions sont censés digérer les nouveaux venus et les transformer en Français. Le but est qu’ils ne soient plus repérables dans la structure sociale, que leurs spécificités culturelles, religieuses ou sociales disparaissent afin qu’ils deviennent semblables en tout point aux Français. » Un parcours que le sociologue Abdelmalek Sayad résume en quelques mots : il s’agit, selon lui, de « passer de l’altérité la plus radicale à l’identité la plus totale ».

Dans les colonies

Cette notion ne date pas d’hier. « La théorie assimilationniste a dominé la littérature sur l’immigration pendant une grande partie du XXe siècle, constatait en 2006 la sociologue Mirna Safi dans la Revue française de sociologie. C’est d’ailleurs pour cela qu’il est commun de l’appeler la théorie classique. Elle anticipe qu’au fil du temps et des générations, les populations issues de l’immigration se rapprocheront de plus en plus des natifs jusqu’à devenir indiscernables par rapport à ces derniers. Derrière cette perspective, on trouve l’hypothèse selon laquelle il existe un processus naturel par lequel divers groupes ethniques partagent une culture. Ce processus consisterait en une perte progressive de l’ancienne culture à l’avantage de la nouvelle. »

Si la notion d’assimilation appartient depuis longtemps au vocabulaire des sciences sociales, elle n’est pas dénuée de connotations politiques. « Ce mot-combat appartient au registre identitaire et il s’adresse à la population majoritaire, constate le sociologue et politiste Christophe Bertossi, auteur de La Citoyenneté à la française (CNRS Editions, 270 p., 20 euros). Il apparaît en général dans les sociétés où ce qui est différent est considéré comme inquiétant. Il s’agit d’imposer à celui que l’on désigne comme l’étranger la conception du monde de la société d’accueil. Ce processus suppose l’effacement total du bagage identitaire des nouveaux venus. »

En France, la notion juridique d’assimilation apparaît dans les colonies dans les années 1890. Si les « indigènes » veulent acquérir la nationalité française, ils doivent prouver leur assimilation en respectant les « critères de civilisation » élaborés par l’administration coloniale. Dans Les Frontières de l’« identité nationale » (La Découverte, 2012), le politiste et sociologue Abdellali Hajjat énumère les questions posées aux candidats à la naturalisation en Indochine, dans les années 1930 : « S’habille-t-il à la française ? » A-t-il « une politesse française » ? Son habitation « est-elle aménagée à la française (salon, bureau de travail, chambre à coucher, etc.) ? ».

Priorité aux « races sœurs »

Il faut attendre 1927 pour que le mot entre dans le vocabulaire juridique de la métropole. Cette année-là, le ministre de la justice, Louis Barthou, fait de l’« assimilation » une condition d’accès à la naturalisation. Dans un pays hanté par le spectre de la dépopulation, il propose d’accueillir « les éléments d’origine étrangère vraiment assimilables et susceptibles de s’y fondre rapidement à la deuxième génération, tant en raison de la naissance et de l’éducation sur le même sol de France que d’une consanguinité fréquente de race et des alliances avec des familles françaises ». La priorité est donnée aux « races sœurs » au détriment de ceux que l’on appelle les « Orientaux » ou les « Levantins ».

Notre droit de la nationalité est l’héritier de cette tradition assimilationniste. « Nul ne peut être naturalisé s’il ne justifie pas de son assimilation à la communauté française, notamment par une connaissance suffisante, selon sa condition, de la langue française », précise aujourd’hui le code de la nationalité. Les décennies ont passé, les critères raciaux de l’entre-deux-guerres ont fait place à un vocabulaire « culturel » ou « socioculturel », selon Abdellali Hayyat, mais la notion d’assimilation reste au cœur de la procédure : c’est au nom de ce principe, et de lui seul, que la nationalité française peut aujourd’hui être refusée à un étranger.

Cette notion a beau être présente dans le droit depuis plus d’un siècle, elle n’a pas fait, dans la réalité, les merveilles que décrit aujourd’hui la droite identitaire. L’historien Gérard Noiriel a raconté à maintes reprises combien l’assimilation, sous la IIIe République, fut difficile, heurtée, chaotique. Et combien les Français furent hostiles aux Polonais, aux Italiens ou aux Belges, qu’ils jugeaient inassimilables. Pour lui, le moment fondateur de cette histoire tumultueuse est la première « chasse à l’immigré », à Marseille, en 1881 : trois jours de violences après des sifflets italiens contre La Marseillaise lors d’un défilé des troupes – un geste considéré comme « un manque de loyauté à l’égard de la nation française », selon l’historien.

Dans les années 1980, nouveau concept

Pour les chercheurs, l’idée que les Italiens ou les Polonais se seraient fondus sans difficulté dans la nation est une légende. « Ceux qui vantent le “bon exemple” de l’assimilation française sous la IIIe République trichent avec l’histoire, note Patrick Simon. A la fin du XIXe siècle, les immigrés vivaient dans des communautés plus isolées encore que nos banlieues. Dans les bassins miniers du Nord ou dans le couloir rhodanien, il y avait des villages entiers dans lesquels on ne pouvait pas élire de conseillers municipaux car il n’y avait pas assez de Français ! On y parlait italien ou polonais, y compris à l’école. Et on y trouvait des infrastructures que l’on qualifierait aujourd’hui de communautaristes : des sections italiennes ou polonaises dans les associations sportives, les syndicats ou les partis. »

Est-ce parce qu’au lendemain de la seconde guerre mondiale le mot assimilation reste associé à la IIIe République et à la colonisation ? Ou parce qu’il n’apparaît plus très pertinent dans une Europe qui s’ouvre à la mondialisation ? Après la Libération, ce terme un brin désuet disparaît peu à peu des discours politiques. En France comme dans le reste de l’Europe, il est détrôné, dans les années 1980, par un concept nouveau : l’« intégration ». Au fil des ans, le terme s’invite dans les politiques publiques : le Haut Conseil à l’intégration (HCI) voit le jour en 1989, le « contrat d’accueil et d’intégration » en 2006. L’intégration « est seule conforme au génie français », proclame le premier ministre Michel Rocard en 1990.

Dans cette France où grandissent les enfants des immigrés venus au lendemain de la seconde guerre mondiale, le mot intégration s’impose peu à peu dans le débat public. « Au début des années 1980, on se rend compte que l’immigration de travail arrivée à la fin des années 1950 et dans les années 1960 va rester, précise Patrick Simon. On pensait que l’immigration était un phénomène temporaire et conjoncturel. On comprend qu’avec le regroupement familial des hommes et des femmes se sont installées durablement en France, que leurs enfants vont à l’école, qu’ils vivent dans les quartiers, qu’ils transforment la société française. Cette prise de conscience explique l’émergence de la doctrine de l’intégration. »

« Aucune négociation  »

Comment définir cette nouvelle notion qui apparaît alors un peu partout en Europe ? En quoi se distingue-t-elle de la notion classique d’assimilation ? Selon le HCI, l’intégration ne vise pas, comme l’assimilation, à supprimer radicalement les différences, mais à les intégrer « à un projet commun ». Le but, explique le Haut Conseil à l’intégration, est de susciter, dans la société, la contribution active « de l’ensemble des femmes et des hommes appelés à vivre durablement sur notre sol en acceptant sans arrière-pensées que subsistent des spécificités notamment culturelles, mais en mettant l’accent sur les ressemblances et les convergences dans l’égalité des droits et des devoirs afin d’assurer la cohésion de notre tissu social ».

L’assimilation imposait la disparition de toutes les spécificités culturelles ; l’intégration admet que certaines puissent subsister. L’assimilation exigeait que l’immigré fasse l’ensemble du chemin ; l’intégration estime que la société d’accueil a, elle aussi, un rôle à jouer. L’assimilation partait du principe que la société d’accueil sortait intacte de sa rencontre avec les nouveaux arrivants ; l’intégration considère qu’elle se transforme au contact de l’immigration. L’assimilation mettait en avant la convergence culturelle ; l’intégration insiste sur la participation démocratique, la cohésion nationale et le vivre-ensemble.

Pour Patrick Simon, ces deux notions sous-tendent une conception différente des relations entre les immigrés et la population majoritaire. « Dans l’assimilation, il n’y a aucune négociation : les nouveaux venus sont tenus d’adopter la langue, la nationalité et les pratiques culturelles de la société d’accueil, qui, de son côté, reste inchangée. Dans l’intégration, l’horizon est au contraire de construire de manière pragmatique une culture commune : il y a donc des interactions entre les nouveaux venus et la société majoritaire. Cette dernière reste maîtresse des lieux, elle définit les termes du compromis, mais elle se transforme et s’enrichit au contact des immigrés, en adoptant par exemple de nouvelles références musicales ou de nouvelles traditions culinaires, mais surtout en devenant plus cosmopolite. »

Un processus à deux sens

La nouveauté est là, dans cette manière d’insister sur la part de la société d’accueil. « L’assimilation était un processus à sens unique : c’était à l’immigré, et à lui seul, de rejoindre la population majoritaire, résume Christophe Bertossi, directeur du Centre migrations et ­citoyen­netés de l’Institut français des relations internationales. L’intégration est présentée comme un processus à deux sens : l’immigré s’avance vers la société mais cette dernière bouge, elle aussi. » Le Haut Conseil à l’intégration le traduit à sa manière : la « politique d’intégration ne concerne pas seulement les immigrés », rappelle-t-il. Pour que le processus fonctionne, il faut que la société entre en scène, notamment en adoptant une politique de lutte contre les discriminations.

A la fin des années 1990, la France et l’Europe jouent le jeu de cette nouvelle donne. « En 1997, au niveau européen, le traité d’Amsterdam impose aux Etats membres de lutter contre les discriminations en introduisant un nouvel article, rappelle Christophe Bertossi. Dans les années qui suivent, le gouvernement de Lionel Jospin insiste sur ce partage de la responsabilité entre les immigrés et la population majoritaire. » Le chantier est ouvert en 2000 par la ministre de l’emploi et de la solidarité, ­Martine Aubry. « Des discriminations existent, affirme-t-elle. Nous le savons. Je le dis avec force à tous ceux qui feindraient d’ignorer ou de minorer cette réalité : à chaque acte discriminatoire, c’est la République tout entière qui vacille. »

Une loi contre les discriminations est adoptée en 2001, une charte de la diversité en 2004, la Haute Autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité (Halde) est créée en 2005. « Mais depuis le milieu des années 2000, ces initiatives tournent à vide, estime Christophe Bertossi. Le discours s’est raidi : on observe, en Europe, une convergence des traditions politiques nationales autour d’une version assimilationniste et identitaire de la citoyenneté. Les débats sur le refus d’accorder la nationalité française à une femme portant le voile intégral, en 2008, ceux sur l’identité nationale, en 2009, et les controverses autour de l’interdiction de la burqa, en 2010, ont redonné une pertinence publique au mot assimilation, qui avait été un peu oublié. »

Le sentiment d’être accepté comme un Français

Pour la droite identitaire, le retour de l’assimilation est lié au comportement des immigrés : ils refusent, estime-t-elle, de se conformer aux usages de la société française. « Une partie des familles venant de l’étranger non seulement ne veulent plus s’intégrer en France mais viennent demander à la France de changer et de s’adapter à leurs propres comportements », affirmait ainsi le président (LR) de région Laurent Wauquiez en septembre sur la chaîne i-Télé. Les chercheurs ont une autre explication : si le modèle d’intégration français s’épuise, ce n’est pas parce que les immigrés rejettent les traditions du pays d’accueil ni parce qu’ils sont musulmans plutôt que chrétiens, comme leurs prédécesseurs du XIXe ou du XXe siècle : c’est parce que ce modèle repose implicitement sur le fait que les nouveaux venus sont blancs.

Pour Patrick Simon, la couleur de la peau est en effet l’impensé des politiques d’intégration européennes. « Elles ont été conçues dans des contextes d’immigration européenne et blanche, rappelle le sociodémographe. La deuxième ou la troisième génération de l’immigration italienne, polonaise, espagnole, puis plus tard portugaise n’est plus identifiable. Dans leur cas, l’invisibilisation sociale et culturelle reproduit la banalité physique : il est impossible de faire la différence entre des descendants d’Italiens et des descendants de Français du début du XXe siècle. Ce n’est en revanche pas le cas des minorités plus récentes comme les Africains sub­sahariens ou les ­Maghrébins : trente ou même cinquante ans après l’arrivée de leurs parents ou de leurs grands-parents sur le sol français, ils demeurent des “minorités visibles”. »

Ce phénomène ne serait pas un problème si ces minorités étaient acceptées comme des Français à part entière. Mais l’enquête « Trajectoires et origines », menée par l’Insee et l’INED en 2008 et 2009, montre que c’est loin d’être le cas. Chez les Européens du Sud et de l’Ouest, le sentiment d’être « vu comme un Français » progresse beaucoup au fil de leur séjour en France : il passe d’environ 10 % chez ceux qui sont arrivés il y a moins de dix ans à 40 % pour ceux qui y vivent depuis plus de vingt-cinq ans. Chez les Maghrébins ou les subsahariens, le temps, en revanche, ne fait rien à l’affaire : vingt-cinq ans après leur arrivée en France, le sentiment d’être accepté comme un Français à part entière stagne à moins de 15 %.

Fantasme paranoïaque

Les enquêtes sur les discriminations dans le cadre du travail ou du logement montrent que ce sentiment d’exclusion des « minorités visibles » n’a rien d’un fantasme paranoïaque. Dans un rapport publié en septembre, France Stratégie constate ainsi que le taux de chômage des descendants d’immigrés africains est très supérieur à celui des Français qui n’ont aucune ascendance migratoire, y compris lorsque l’on prend en compte les différences d’âge, de diplôme, d’origine sociale, de temps de travail ou de type de poste occupé. Cet « écart inexpliqué » a sans doute à voir avec la couleur de la peau : aucun « écart significatif » n’est constaté dans le cas des descendants d’immigrés européens.

Pour bien des chercheurs, c’est ce modèle d’intégration fondé sur la ressemblance et l’invisibilité des populations qui est aujourd’hui en crise. Et cette crise ne sera sans doute pas réglée par le retour d’un discours assimilationniste musclé. « Réaffirmer avec force, et parfois de manière obsessionnelle, les principes théoriques d’un système dont les pratiques démentent jour après jour les promesses d’égalité est une impasse, estime Patrick Simon. Il vaudrait mieux prendre au sérieux la question des discriminations et se montrer pragmatiques. » Pour y parvenir, la plupart des chercheurs plaident pour une discussion sereine et documentée sur l’immigration. On en est loin.