Friday, March 24, 2006

Paris-Los Angeles: Walks on the wild side

Today in L.A., protesters will flood the streets in an attempt to be heard on immigration "reform." Yesterday, protests, accompanied by some violence, came back to the streets of Paris, and, indeed, all of France yesterday, the NYTimes reported.

On the surface, the French are fighting against changes in laws that make firing young workers easier. On the surface, we are told (by the Minutemen and Lou Dobbs), that the protesters in L.A. are fighting to keep "lax" immigration laws and enforcement and that it "patriotic" to build an even bigger fence (I wonder who will make the profits at an expected 1.7 million per mile) and to let border crossers starve by making it illegal to even give crossers food or water.

Dig a little deeper and you will find common strands that tie Paris, Marseille, Chicago, L.A., Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Dig a little deeper and you will find that border fences built in the name of patriotism, are really just pork. And while you are digging there, ask yourself why this is becoming a hot-button issue all of a sudden and which "side" (Republican or Democrat) will win the political battle once "real Americans" are enflammed by the patriotic rhetoric. Also, ask yourself why journalists and politicians rarely point out that NAFTA has hurt Mexico and is thus a driving force behind illegal immigration. Expand NAFTA to a global level and you get the WTO, which is a driving force behind job insecurity in France, the U.S., Mexico, and all over the world.

Now, do you really trust CNN and FOX News to guide us through this discussion? Are you going to let them push your buttons? Are you going to allow corporations to hire cheap labor here, exploit workers abroad, and reap the benefits of tax breaks at "home" in the U.S.?

Read the following paragraph and think about the U.S.:

...Philippe Robert found out that starting from the early years of the twentieth century (that is, by more than sheer coincidence, from the early years of the social state), fears of crime began to subside. They went on diminishing until the middle of the 1970s, when a sudden eruption of 'personal safety' panic focused...on the crime apparently brewing in the [poor neighborhoods] where immigrant settlers were concentrated. What erupted was however, in Robert's view, but a 'delayed action bomb': explosice security concerns had already been stored up by the slow yet steady phasing out of the collective insurance that the social state used to offer and by the rapid deregulation of the labour market. Recast as a 'danger to safety', the immigrants offered a convenient alternative focus for the apprehensions born of the sudden shakiness and vulnerability of social positions, and so they were a relatively safe outlet for the discharge of anxiety and anger which such apprehensions could not but cause. [Zygmunt Bauman in Wasted Lives p. 55]

Though Robert is referring to the 1970s in France, you can easily see the similarities between then and now, and there and here.

I would argue, then, that rising economic insecurity is not the result of immigration; immigration is the result of rising economic insecurity.

Indeed (getting back to France for a minute), before you go thinking "Oh those spoiled French workers," go read this post by Jérôme à Paris (Why the fight in France is the same as in the U.S.). While there, check out his diary for other posts about blatant media bias in these matters and interesting stats that reveal, among other things, that unionization rates are actually lower in France than here. So, at the risk of repeating some of what Jérôme has said, but with the hope of enlarging the discussion, why are young French people revolting, and why is it important?

You see a lot of background and fundamentals over at Jérôme's diary, but a good summary of Friday's events and the situation were written by someone Emmanuel refers to--Eric Chaney (a leftist) at Morgan Stanley:

The fundamental reason why attempts to reform the labour market in France have failed so far lies in what several economists, ranging from Prof. Gilles Saint-Paul of the University of Toulouse to Prof. Olivier Blanchard from the MIT, have named the “insider disease” — which I denounced back in 1995 (see ‘The Inside Worker Disease’, Inside the French Economy, December 1995). In short, the French labour market is a two-tiered market with, on the one hand, highly protected workers (civil servants and holders of permanent contracts, mostly in large companies) and, on the other, highly flexible jobs (internships, short-term contracts, temporary jobs) for new entrants, immigrants and, more generally, unskilled workers. The reason why college and high-school students are demonstrating, sometimes violently, is obvious: they strongly resent this situation as unfair — why would they accept reforms while nobody is questioning the privileges of the insiders?

Chaney concludes by noting : "Piecemeal reforms that do not question the status of insiders are doomed to fail, in my view, because they are opposed by insiders, who fear that they may be the next on the list, and outsiders, who consider them as discriminatory and continue to dream of becoming themselves inside." [His emphasis.] Of course, I would extend insider status to many groups, including an ever richer and smaller bourgoisie, to corporations on their way to becoming global monpolies, to the Western world. Les bourgeois, c'est comme des cochons, to quote Brel.

According to Chaney (and Emmanuel over at AFOE), then, the true root of the problem is large unfairness of the job market, not only in salaries but also (especially) in job stability. This inequality is even greater in the U.S. because we tie health benefits to jobs.

Of course, how to deal with this inequality is largely what has defined left-right politics for a long time. A discussion of left-right could take up a million pages, so let's not get into that here. I will say however, that the neo-liberal policies of large-scale supposedly free-markets seems to have been a series of of failures--NAFTA is just one example--and the promises of trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the upper classes, and privatization have been shown to be, at worst, enormous failures, and, at best, middling successes. Poverty and inequality have grown worse all over the planet, and they are growing ever worse in the U.S. and Europe, though much, much faster here than there. Moreover, during this time, the social network has been eroded, especially in the U.S., and, perhaps more importantly, the voices for reinforcing the social network have disappeared from the public sphere. Voices for the left have also dissapeared from Socialist (Europe) and Democratic (U.S.) parties. This explains why Robert's ideas are so appropriate to French workers, U.S. workers and immigrants: "Recast as a 'danger to safety', the immigrants offered a convenient alternative focus for the apprehensions born of the sudden shakiness and vulnerability of social positions"

What remains to be said, then, and what is more important to me is that French workers, like workers here and all over the planet are suffering from a crisis of representation. There is no more representation in government, we have weak unions and a media that has no desire to bring these voices to the table. Emmanuel hints at this when he writes: "The first thing to keep in mind is that the French parliament is inherently weak: when the government really wants a law to be passed, it always gets its way." Yes, the French parliament is inherently weak; in the U.S., it has become so. And if a strong executive and week legislative sound familiar, well, then you know why an ignited Paris is important and why voices are searching for recognition in L.A., Chicago...everywhere.

In France, they have taken it upon themselves to make their voice heard. They want representation, they want a voice. But the social contract is broken. What this means is that, while the government may see some valid (from a left-wing point of view) economic reasons for the reforming the laws in France, the crisis in representation means that the government can no longer be trusted to enact any reforms, even good ones. (Note: I'm not saying the new contract law is necessarily good.) Mistrust of the government is as much a reason for the protests as the issues in the reform law itself.

The United States is not to this point yet. In spite of the fact that our government has been overtly undermining the social contract for at least 25 decades; in spite of Katrina; in spite of the war; in spite of no-bid contracts; in spite of horrendous gutting of environmental laws; in spite of Abramoff;in spite of the takeover of the fourth estate; in spite of everything georgia10 said the other day, we are still asleep.

Sure, in our beds, be they soft or hard, we kick, we roll over, we are uncomfortable, we are prodded with nightmares of immigration by the media and simultaneously lulled to sleep by their platitudes.

So we still sleep.

One thing that we do not have that the Europeans do is a press that (a little) more accurately represents the views of its constituents. Europeans therefore have an social and economic vocabulary to discuss their situation, to find motivation or, at least, vent frustration. They have, to some degree, a vocabulary that allows them to think about the future and reflect on the present. Have you noticed how little we talk about the future in the U.S.? Have you noticed how young people here have begun to assume that they will not do better than their parents? Have you noticed the statistics of youth and young adults are living longer and longer at home and have worse and worse jobs? Have you noticed that the only national vocabulary we have to talk about it is "tax cuts"? Have you noticed how the talk of outsourcing always turns to "secure borders" and "bad foreigners" rather than improving labor laws and land reform all over the world so that people don't have to leave home? (For people do not cross borders for fun. I repeat: people do not cross borders for fun.)

All of the above is the result of a lacking or lackluster vocabulary for explaining our situation. It is the symptom of the financial tools (GDP, unemployment) we choose to use to measure our success and our failure, tools, which are at best incomplete because they do not give a full accounting of our lives or of the costs (and worth) of our lives. Thus, lacking representation, we need a voice. More importantly, we must begin to act quickly, and we must look to the poorest for leadership, for their voices and ours have more more in common than the media leads us to beleive.

In France it sometimes helps to take to the streets. I hate to end on a questions, but what does it take here? Blogs? Really--what will shake us out of our sleep? Soon we will be among the superfluous:

Superfluous people are in a no-win situation. If they attempt to fall in line with currently lauded ways of life, they are immediately accused of sinful arrogance, false pretences and the cheek of claiming unearned bonuses [How dare American children get a free education in our schools! Why should my tax dollars go to a welfare recipient in West Virginia! I'm not paying for universal health care!]...If they [the Superfluous] openly resent and refuse to honour those ways which may be savoured by the haves but are more like poison for themselves, the have-nots, this is promptly taken as proof of what 'public opinion' (more correctly, its elected or self-appointed spokespersons) 'told you all along'--that the superfluous are not just an alien body, but a cancerous growth gnawing at the healthy tissues of society and sworn enemies of 'our way of life' and 'what we stand for'. [Bauman, p. 41]

Have a nice Saturday.