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Marseille: Anti-gentrification myths and lies for welfare case workers

Posted: May 22nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Broadsheets | Comments Off on Marseille: Anti-gentrification myths and lies for welfare case workers

Texts translated from issue 5 of Du Pain Sur La Planche [1], published in March and distributed in the streets of Marseille. The first text is a short but incisive critique of liberal anti-gentrification organizing that seeks to set out a positive local identity that needs to be protected from change (which, under capitalist social relations, can only be a lie); the second is a reflection on the role of the welfare bureaucracy in building a docile workforce and maintaining social peace.

This wonderful neighbourhood…

In the early morning on the way to work, X is passing through the market in the Plain[2] when she hears shouting. She has to elbow her way through to get close enough to understand what’s happening. A woman, surrounded by several men (four “stall holders”), is blocked in by a motionless crowd. These assholes are insulting and threatening her, punctuated with disgusting sexist comments. Though isolated among these jackals and their accomplices, she stays strong and holds her ground. Just beside her, an old man is being abundantly berated by another merchant, who says that he’s already warned him, that he doesn’t want to see him around, that he’s already stolen things several times: if he comes back, he’ll kick his ass. It seems the woman has been singled out by these four horrible people because she defended the old thief. Running ever later and rightly furious now, my friend X tries to find others to help her tell the stall holders to fuck off. But in vain. One of the few responses she received was that “it livens things up”. Hard to conclude anything positive from this anecdote that combines “class” violence with sexism and regular old assholery and that makes visible (yet again) the petty cowardice of crowds. There is one thing though: the attitude of the person who got in the way of something she found disgusting and X, who tried to ease the pressure on her and offer her a way out.

Down with demagoguery. It wouldn’t be a lie to say that if I identify with someone here, it’s neither with the merchants nor with the members of the silent crowd. While the developers, urbanists, and politicians [3] work to make Marseille ever smoother, more sterile, and controllable, this marketplace doesn’t inspire me more than any other. Don’t count on me to get behind some hypothetical “Marseille identity” or to invoke the myth of a “rebellious and working class” neighbourhood (and of its its shabby, fenced-off square). The same relationships of domination (sexism, racism…) run though these spaces as through the rest of this shitty society. Thankfully, there’s no need to celebrate what exists ( which “we” never chose) in order to struggle against the new plans of the powerful. The suits from SOLEAM (and co.) [4] just released their new redevelopment plan for the Plain. Some are invoking a singular “we” that would include neighbourhood residents, merchants, and people who hang out here who all supposedly have the same interest in keeping the neighbourhood the way it is now… Though we refuse to hide the fact that we don’t fit into this fake “we” and to fall in line behind the banner of the stallholders’ struggle, we nonetheless refuse to politely let ourselves be displaced by this new “tidying up” that seeks to push the poor and undesireable ever further from the centre. Isn’t it better to have multiple, autonomous initiatives, assemblies, and sites of struggle that could define their own terms and ways of operating, without setting up spokespeople or “discussion partners” for the powerful and without falling into the trap of “co-managing” or of making demands.

The stakes are high: let’s drive out all those who seek to manage the population to redevelop the city so that we can (finally) choose for ourselves how we want to live our lives.

A Jobless stroll

To those who “dream of punching the guy from the unemployment office”

Ok, you mentioned a stroll. I would have preferred the Calanques [5] or a lovely hike in the back country mountains, to escape the city for at least a few hours. But after an hour and a half of walking, all the way to the end of Valbarelle boulevard in a sordid industrial area, I find myself in some sort of prefab for an hour-long meeting that’s sure to be serious.

Simply summoning someone to come out to this area already feels like a punishment. Out of a hundred people ordered to attend, probably about a third won’t show up for the meeting just because of the trip. And the consequences are easy to guess…

Getting up early to be at the foot of Mount Carpiagne at 9:30am makes you feel like keeping walking. But shit, gotta save 450 euros. A welfare cheque.

400 crumbs for the rent, 400 crumbs for the bills, 400 crumbs for food, 400 crumbs for everything we have to pay for, everything that’s too tricky to steal. And even theft isn’t free… People who struggle to make ends meet know the way the threat of repression weighs on illegal acts taken “for survival”: arrests, detention, judgements, criminal records, prison… The grim accounting of goods and of insufficient cash. We could always saddle ourselves with some shitty job for 100 or 200 euros more, without considering the cost of enduring the boss’ orders and schedule, which is incalculable. But what choice do we have in this shitty equation between jobs, jail, and permanent survival?

An hour’s walk generally gives you time to imagine tons of junk to tell your “intake worker”. In effect, in spite of often having a month to prepare, to invent a story, work on a character, we usually have better things to do, especially when we’re on unemployment and have lots of time, since we’re not working full time.

So on the way, I fine-tune my “special intake appointment persona”: someone who clearly doesn’t want to work but who doesn’t really feel like explaining why, at least not to someone who’s paid to put them to work. A little unmotivated, or rather never motivated. A bit slow, a bit limp, a little quiet, not reactive, not willing. Who has to grit their teeth to not let out a reflexive “I’m not answering any questions”. Not depressed though: you have to watch out with these people, they might just put a psychiatrist on your back. Not totally disengaged, but not engaged either. A slacker, definitely, and openly so, but with a hint of restraint, because anonymous bureaucrats can stick the “voluntary poverty” label on your file and you’ll be scratched off the lists. Holding up during these kinds of meetings is an art unto itself, one never properly appreciated. In any case, they do everything they can to make you play their sorry game: dress up like a winner, someone who really wants it, is ready to give up their life to land a job, who proves their credentials regardless of how big the lie they have to manage to tell. Or else we go to great lengths to prove our “barriers to resuming activity”. We come out feeling drained from these moments of hypocrisy and acting, with the urgent need to tear off this hideous mask, take a shower and – oof – go on to something else.

The meeting will, no matter what it’s for, last about an hour, this I know in advance. An hour of textbook humiliation. A few questions, a bit of information typed into a computer, a few notes to draw up a properly administrative file on “my history”, “my situation”, to make an “intake assessment” and to “reorient” me if need be. Having strayed far from any career path long ago, I’ve had to be “reorinated” many a time. Tossed between “skills training centres” to job centres, passing through a long list of agencies delegated by the state to (re)make you into a good job seeker, often it’s only the colour of the cubicle walls that changes.

And though there may be differences in the zeal of the “workers”, the strings are the same all over: pressure, threats of being cut off, sent to a “disciplinary commission”, a reduction in your monthly payments… A careful mix of paternalism, condescension, and blaming, all with the goal of making you feel the hot breath of the Institution, the tingling reminder of your Duties, with the threat of an Investigation hanging over your head. These low-lifes go to great lengths to make us swallow their moralizing discourse, to remind us constantly that society doesn’t fund a “right to laziness” and that the state gives nothing without expecting something back. This is what the experiments carried out in certain departments are exploring, where your welfare is only paid on condition that you work several hours of volunteer (sic) work each week.

“We told ourselves that it was time to settle our scores with the local community assistance centre, because it never offered us courses in pillow-fighting, or jogging on rooftops, or rock-paper-scissors strategy, or any of the little things that make our unproductive lives a little more lively. Instead, they offer us boring games where we always lose, accelerated trainings to send us off into the arena of the working world.”

–From a communique for broken windows at the Toulouse community assistance centre in February 2017

Caught up on the conveyor belt, it can seem like a well-oiled and impersonal machine. However, it only works because many thousands of people participate in this machine’s pulverizing mission of pressurizing individuals, transforming them into gears in the economy. Without them, it would be impossible to isolate, survey, and punish the millions of people who have to go to the Job Centres or the Welfare office or the other centres for administering survival. So no pity for the social work cops!

Six years of swallowing these meetings, sprinkled with a few hours of work here and there. A long road to follow to avoid all the orders and initiatives that would have us spend our days begging for any little job from any old employer for any kind of pay in any kind of work.

In spite of the constant guilting direct at those who don’t work, let’s remember that unemployment is not the opposite of work, it’s its waiting room. The “unemployed” of today are often the workers of yesterday or tomorrow. The unemployment rate is used to put pressure on each potential exploited to force them to accept any work in any conditions, regardless of the pay. Unemployment benefits are thus only a part of the salary paid to the whole of what’s called “the workforce”. The state and capitalists check and recheck their accounts: for them, it’s better to pay out a few hundred euros to a few million people rather than to see those millions of people in the most miserable conditions. The powerful are prepared to pay this price to maintain a relative social peace (the famous “guaranteed basic income”, much talked about these days, won’t fundamentally change this). It’s entirely in their interests that the myth of the nanny state not completely fall away: it’s their main argument to justify their existence: “See how generous democracy can be!” At the same time, they go to ever greater, more effective, and bloodier length to keep this death-like peace.

They want to force us to spend our time producing what they’re interested in: merchandise that can be sold for a profit, be it guns or bags of chips, and work that participates in reproducing the current social order, through control, surveillance, and repression.

Let’s refuse to submit to their ideal mould: we are only proletarians, welfare recipients, workers, producers, wage earners, or “collaborators” (in the latest capitalist jargon) in a society structured by money and exploitation.

Let’s find a different way to spend our time: let’s work towards the destruction of this unbearable society that’s (re)produced every day through work.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow

Better unmanageable than case manager


1] This expression translates as “bread on the cutting board” and means that you’ve got unfinished business

2] La Plaine is a neighbourhood in central Marseille that’s known as a counter-cultural hub for the city. Facing rapid and concerted gentrification and redevelopment, activists in the neighbourhood have formed several groups promoting a positive vision of the area and encouraging people to unite to protect it. This tendency is critiqued in the text.

3] Author: whose ugly faces are plastered all over the market these days

4] A regional development company with strong links to the local government

5]Coastal mountains and bays on the Mediteranean coast just outside Marseille

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