From the Archive | This concerns everyone

In hiring migrants instead of workers from the French countryside, industrialists calculated that existing racism, police pressure and anti-migrant sentiment would contain labour unrest.

This is a lightly edited excerpt, translated by Patrick Lyons, from “This Concerns Everyone” by Robert Linhart, the preface to Albano Cordeiro’s Pourquoi l’immigration en France: critique des idées récues (Office Municipal des Migrants de Creteil, 1981), 5-14. 

This article contains racist language used against workers in factories in France. 

Capitalist organisation divides and subdivides industrial labour into posts, gestures, sequences and cycles. Karl Marx qualifies such a division, at the end of his prophetic description of it in Capital, as “the assassination of a people”. But it is not only labour which is divided. Labour-power is as well. And it is this same movement of division and subdivision which slices it apart into qualifications, wage levels, stable and unstable employment along moving lines of distribution: adults and youths, men and women, white or Black, nationals and foreigners, urban and rural. In all capitalist countries, organising work means dividing workers: exploring ever new “labour reserves,” just as one begins production on a new mining deposit, wearing down and laminating its dense cores. 

As a result of this tendency, the organisation of labour never stabilises, even in periods where technology remains constant. Workers resist a mode of exploitation which seeks, limitlessly, to intensify work and make labour-power more lucrative and, on its end, capitalism strives to detect and deepen weak points within worker resistance. This double pressure produces a moving, heterogeneous composition of the working class. Sometimes, setting entire populations to work has such catastrophic effects – that is, compromising profit security – that the system must seek palliative measures against itself. Albano Cordeiro shows how French capitalism turned early on towards foreign labour in order to slow the demographic pillaging of its own working-class families – an entire population devoured and stunted by setting women and children to work – and then in order to preserve rural populations whose political support appeared so decisive at the moment of the Paris Commune. Class struggle is inscribed in the very formation of the working class, at every moment of its existence.

There are abundant examples of these recruitment policies that big industry uses to detect, and overcome, points of resistance. In the 1950s and 1960s, the automobile industry explored the French countryside in search of ideal unskilled workers (OS): were not young rural folk a malleable labour force, rarely unionised, without much work experience, and generally available for the advertised positions? This is the case with Le Mans, Flins, Cléon, etc. Yet it is precisely this young working class fresh from the west countryside that would be the most virulent in the movements of 1967 and 1968 – strikes, protests, sequestrations. Wouldn’t it be wiser to repopulate the assembly lines with shipments of Algerians, Malians and Turks who, carefully divided on the production lines and often housed in company hostels, would be subjected to the tight control that the old colonial powers, experts in managing indigenous affairs, know so well? 

Circa 1980: The Bonnet law, which hardened the conditions of entry into France and helped expel those deemed to be illegal immigrants, provoked hunger strikes and demonstrations. (Photograph by Christine Spengler/ Getty Images)

Many immigrants were hired and, following this, from 1970-1973, unskilled worker revolts spread. And everywhere, these same immigrants were supposed to assure calm production in the workshop were the first to go on strike. How to break this resistance? Racism, police pressure, anti-immigrant procedures. And perhaps also, in the long term, turning in part towards other “labour deposits”– for example, what about those old working classes in the North and East devastated by the death of heavy industry? Might we not rediscover their aptitude for hard work? And so on and so forth. A machine with many keys: immigrants are one of them, always important despite public discourse on the matter.

In 1977, when the immigrant population in France suffered a double assault of a racist wave (“ratonnades” and murders) and new governmental dispositions, a study was submitted to the Ministry of Work on the “substitutability of immigrant labour”. If we chased away the immigrants, would the French take their place within production? This question was posed to a sampling of enterprises. Nearly all of them responded in the negative: we cannot do without “our” immigrants: they accept the hardest work, low wages, the most complicated hours, frequent displacements, all sorts of hardships that French workers refuse. Certain employers spoke of a “critical threshold” beyond which a job is considered “Arab work” or “Black work”: they hire a certain number of immigrants in a workshop or for a type of post and no longer worry themselves with ameliorating work conditions. After a while the French refuse to take on work therein – it has become an “immigrant sector”. Assembly lines, foundries, presses, painting, cleaning. It isn’t difficult to piece together a map for these jobs: rhythms, exhaustion, heat, benzolism and other illnesses, roaring din and deafness…

Friedrich Engels said that the contempt for servile manual labour handed down by antiquity would persist long thereafter, like a poison needle, to corrupt and fetter the productive systems that followed. In certain of its characteristics, immigrant labour – and above all the modern offspring of colonial labour, which constitutes an important part of it – plays a comparable, devalorising role. In French factories, the Algerian War never really ended on the assembly lines, and old colonial officers, integrated into management positions, still strive to avenge the loss of empire in “making the wogs sweat”. Immigrant work, “inferior” work. The assembly lines, construction work, the cleaning and maintenance of heavy industry sites (more and more, petrochemical, steel and cement-making enterprises subcontract a great deal of work to smaller enterprises; these are whole functions which “leave” the central enterprise and are distributed across control centres, temporary work and various contracts, for which immigrant labour is a key reservoir).

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A dividing line thus produces, in the heart of the working class, a subaltern proletariat, and this division is inscribed in the labour process itself. Only, on this side of the inner boundary, there are more than just immigrants: women, youths and delinquents constitute other components of this productive population. And there can arise slippages in the sorting logic: between a Black sweeper and a cleaning woman; between an Arab worker and a juvenile delinquent sentenced to temporary work by a children’s judge; between the undocumented Turkish clothing worker and the old woman who makes boutonnières at home; employers may have their pick. 

Sometimes subtle rules of alignment are established – this is “feminine” work, while that is best suited for “Maghrebis”, etc. Employers’ responses to the 1977 survey include a full hierarchy of immigrant nationalities, just as at Citroën we classified manual and unskilled workers according to their country of origin. From one population to another, there are slippages, but the principal source of this subaltern proletariat remains immigration. And it must not lose its advantageous characteristics. The employers insist upon this point. Immigrants must remain mobile, not too organised. As Albano Cordeiro shows, anti-immigration politics of the 1970s seek to re-establish these characteristics of “good immigration”, rather than eliminating it altogether.

For an entire part of industry, the good immigrant is the “fresh” immigrant: mobile, not affixed to a family, nor integrated into a union movement (strong, unencumbered arms, medically selected arms, as Albano Cordeiro describes). If too many immigrants lose the ideal characteristics, we’ll expel them to import new ones. But, for other industrial work, the accumulated experience of more established immigrant workers may be of use: a knowledge base acquired on the assembly line or in workshops – paid sparingly and without recognition for qualifications – is not negligible (this massive under-qualification of immigrants is frequent. In South Africa, it appears in its most developed form: Black immigrant labour essentially keeps the mines working, but all qualified posts are officially assigned to whites, even though Black workers are in fact doing the work – and the titular official is content to surveil them). Finally, in periods of demographic stagnation – currently the case in France – the supply of a youth base to “Frenchify” offered by the “second generation” is considerable, as much as cultural and scholarly segregation funnel it into the low-cost labour reserves.

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