Jean-Marie Durand for lesinrocks.com: “The present is a period of riots,” you write in your new book. In what respects does this interpretive lens centered on riots tell us something about our world, our time?
Alain Bertho: In the course of the last two centuries, there have been three sequences of violent political mobilizations in Europe or the world: The 1848 Springtime of the Peoples, the insurrectional movements that followed October 1917, the 1960’s and ’70s which have remained “the ’68 years.” We incontrovertibly entered a period of that kind a few years ago. The singularity of what we are living through is double: geographically more spread out, this sequence also seems longer-lasting than the preceding ones and is in a certain sense “invisible,” since there’s no common and clear political meaning to these innumerable outbursts of popular anger. There is obviously no global revolution, whether political, social, or cultural, brewing there.
Why do the riots in the French suburbs, in Guadeloupe, Athens, Karachi, Lhasa, Tehran … have a common message for us in spite of their localized histories in different political contexts?
There is something serious in this move to action by the individuals involved. They put their bodies – their lives – in danger with the virtual certainty of losing. The repetition of the phenomenon must test us, question us. It clearly tells us about the overall global collapse of political space as space for the representation of popular suffering and hopes. That’s the common thread that makes the angers, the gestures, the images posted on the internet so similar. The riots are the multiple fissures of the globalized world. Every fissure has its own history, but it’s the whole house that’s wobbling.
You’ve been working for years on the subject, recording all the riots that emerge in the news on your first site. In the last few weeks: scuffles in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, student riots in Jakarta, deadly clashes in the Congo, post-game riots at Rostock.… What is your procedure for drawing up this complete picture of what you nonetheless define as a “shifting and elusive” object?
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This picture is certainly not complete. But the riots of globalization are visible on the very scene of globalization itself. The Internet is an unprecedented source, sometimes a firsthand source, when the protagonists themselves put images up on YouTube or Dailymotion. The day-before-on-line has become a new terrain for ethnology. And the posting on-line of the results of that day-before opens absolutely fascinating possibilities for “reactive” effects, or backlash. The Internet is a living and responsive source of information, a sort of barometer for the world’s fevers.
Is it possible to establish a typology of the riot? Confrontations with the police, hunger riots, urban revolts, peasant uprisings …? What are the various action repertoires used by rioters?
There are very strong guiding principles around the world. The theme of murdered youth is one that affects Senegal, Portugal, China, Greece and Brazil, as well as France. The common thread of anger against financial rationales is another that takes various shapes: riots against the cost of living, against electricity cut-offs, against land speculation…. The operating mode, the practical repertoire, if you like, is rather general. The barricades of yesteryear are finished. We’re in a period of balaclavas, obstruction, fire, mobile harassment and the posting of images on-line.
Is the riot a symptom of youth’s relationship with politics, the “striking sign of its absence?”
It’s primarily a symptom of the contemporary world’s relationship to its youth. The failure of the twentieth century’s revolutions and the ecological threat have abolished the modern idea of historical progress, whether political or social. Youth is no longer considered the world’s future, but as a threat to its present. Vis-à-vis youth, there is no longer any political discourse except for a disciplinary one. Youth reacts in consequence. In the whole world, college and high school student mobilizations, such as festive or sport-related demonstrations, are turning into ever more violent confrontations with the authorities. The same gestures and the same rage are present on every continent.
Does the riot profoundly threaten the modern state? Or do its techniques of social control and repression protect it from all instability?
The riot is the mirror of the contemporary state. It is its product, sometimes its double: when it targets the neighbor, the other, the foreigner. Above and beyond national regimes and traditions, the new so-called “governance” systems that position themselves within globalization are systems of “long-distance government.” They combine bureaucracy, authoritarianism, contempt for people and various discriminatory procedures. The state loses a great deal of legitimacy through these systems. Confronted with the often-silent dissidence of their populations, governments everywhere are responding more and more with a rationale of security controls. Popular exasperation is level with the arrogance of the financial-state authorities and the autism of political organizations. Today, conditions are coming together such that the sequence of confrontation will be long-term. Confronted with revolt, military rationales win out in São Paolo as in Urumqi, in Athens as in Villiers-le-Bel, in Algiers as in Dakar. When, in a certain way, war becomes the mode of governance, we may fear escalation. On one side as well as the other.
1. berthoalain.wordpress.com Le Temps des émeutes (Bayard), 271 pages, 2009, 19 Euros.
Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.