Caroline Keve: In Los Condenados de la Ciudad, you draw a methodical comparison between the evolution of the black American ghetto and
the French popular periphery or banlieue over the past three decades. Why did you undertake this comparison and what does it reveal about the changing face of poverty in the city?
Loïc Wacquant: This book was born of the confluence of two shocks, the first personal and the second political. The personal shock was the first-hand discovery of the black American ghetto –or what remains of it – when I moved to Chicago and lived for six years on the edge of the city’s South Side. Coming from France, I was appalled by the intensity of the urban desolation, racial segregation, social deprivation, and street violence concentrated in this terra non grata that was universally feared, shunned, and denigrated by outsiders, including by many scholars.
The political shock was the diffusion of a moral panic about ghetto-isation in France and through much of Western Europe. In the 1990s, the media, politicians, and even some researchers came to believe that working-class neighbourhoods at the periphery of European cities were turning into ‘ghettos’ based on the pattern of the United States. And so public debate and state policy were reoriented toward fighting the growth of these so-called ghettos, based on the premise that urban poverty was being ‘Americanized,’ that is, stamped by deepening ethnic division, rising segregation and rampant criminality.
Bring these two shocks together and you have the question that animated a decade of research: are the US ghetto and the European lower-class districts converging and, if not, what is happening to them? And what is driving their transformation? To answer these questions, I gathered statistical data and carried out field observation in a dilapidated section of Chicago’s ‘Black Belt’ and in a de-industrialising suburb of the ‘Red Belt’ of Paris. I also reconstructed their historical trajectory, because you cannot understand what happened to these declining neighbourhoods in the 1990s without considering the full sweep of the twentieth century, marked by the boom and then the demise of Fordist industrialism and the Keynesian welfare state.
So what happened to the American Black Belt and the French Red Belt? Are they converging?
On the American side, I show that, after the riots of the 1960s, the black ghetto imploded, or collapsed onto itself, due to the concurrent retraction of the market economy and retrenchment of the social state. The result was a new urban form that I call the hyperghetto, characterized by double exclusion based on race and class and reinforced by a state policy of welfare withdrawal and urban abandonment. So when we speak about the American ghetto we must imperatively historicise it and not confound the ‘communal ghetto’ of the 1950s with its fin-de-siècle descendant. The communal ghetto was a parallel world, a “black city inside the white,” as the African-American sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton put it in their master-book Black Metropolis. It served as reservoir of unskilled labour for factories and its dense web of organisations offered a buffer against white domination. With de-industrialisation and the shift to financial capitalism, the hyperghetto does not have an economic function and it is stripped of communal organisations, which have been replaced by state institutions of social control. It is an instrument of naked exclusion, a mere receptacle for the stigmatised and superfluous fractions of the black proletariat: the unemployed, welfare recipients, criminals and participants in the booming informal economy.
On the French side, the reigning media and policy perception turns out to be dead wrong: lower-class boroughs have undergone a process of pauperization and gradual decomposition that has taken them away from the pattern of the ghetto. A ghetto is an ethnically homogenous enclave that contains all the members of a subordinate category and their institutions, and prevents them from fanning into the city. Now, declining banlieues are very mixed and have become more diverse in terms of ethnic recruitment over the past three decades; they typically contain a majority of French citizens and immigrants from two to three dozen nationalities. The growing presence of these postcolonial migrants results from a decrease in their spatial separation: they used to be barred from public housing and thus more segregated. And the residents who rise in the class structure through the school, the labour market or entrepreneurship quickly leave these degraded areas.
The Red Belt banlieues have also lost most of the local institutions tied to the Communist Party (to which they owed their moniker) that used to organise life around the triad of factory, union, and neighbourhood, and give people collective pride in their class and city. Their ethnic heterogeneity, porous boundaries, decreasing institutional density and incapacity to create a shared cultural identity make these areas the opposite of ghettos: they are anti-ghettos.
This goes against the grain of the image painted by the French media, politicians of both Right and Left, and activists mobilised around issues of immigration, race and citizenship.
This is a good illustration of a key contribution of sociology to civic debate: through precise conceptualisation and systematic observation, it discloses the huge gaps – in this case a total contradiction – between public perception and social reality. Immigrants and their children in the French city have become more mixed, not more separated; their social profile and opportunities are becoming more similar to those of native French people, not more different. They are becoming more diffused in space, not more concentrated. It is precisely because they are now more ‘integrated’ in the mainstream of national life and compete for collective goods that they are seen as a menace, and that xenophobia has surged forth among the native fractions of the working class threatened by downward mobility.
What the urban peripheries of Western Europe suffer from is not ghetto-isation but the dissolution of the traditional working class caused by the normalization of mass unemployment and the spread of unstable and part-time jobs, as well as vilification in public debate. In effect, the discourse of 'ghetto-isation' partakes of the symbolic demonisation of lower-class districts which weakens them socially and marginalises them politically.
Los Condenados demonstrates that the thesis of ‘convergence’ between Europe and America on the model of the black ghetto is wrong empirically and misleading policy-wise. Then it goes on to reveal the ‘emergence’ of a new regime of urban poverty on both sides of the Atlantic, distinct from the regime of the preceding half-century anchored in stable industrial work and the safety net of the Keynesian state. This advanced marginality is fed by the fragmentation of wage labour, the reorientation of state policy away from social protection and in favour of market compulsion, and the generalised resurgence of inequality – that is, it is marginality spawned by the neoliberal revolution. This means that it is not behind us, but ahead of us. It is bound to persist and grow as governments implement policies of economic deregulation and commodification of public goods. But this new social reality, spawned by the scarcity and instability of work and the changing role of the state, is obfuscated by the ethnicised idiom of immigration, discrimination, and “diversity.” The latter are real issues, to be sure, but they are not the driving force behind the marginalization of Europe’s urban periphery. Worse, they serve to hide the new social question of insecure work and its consequences for the formation of the new urban proletariat of the twenty-first century.
In the book, you stress the collective indignity felt by people stuck in the hyperghetto and the de-industrialised banlieue. The residents of the Black Belt have lost race pride and their counterparts of the Red Belt have lost class pride. You argue that “territorial stigmatization” is a novel dimension of urban marginality in both America and Europe on the brink of the new century.
Indeed, one of the distinctive feature of advanced marginality is the suffusive spatial stigma that discredits people trapped in neighbourhoods of relegation. In every advanced society, a number of urban districts or towns have become national symbols and namesakes for all the ills of the city. This growing defamation of the bottom districts of the metropolis is a direct consequence of the political weakening of African Americans on the US political scene and of the working class on the European political scene.
When a district is widely perceived as an urban ‘hellhole’ where only the detritus of society would tolerate living, when its name is synonymous of vice and violence in journalistic and political discussion, a taint of place becomes superimposed onto the stigmata of poverty and ethnicity (meaning “race” in the United State and colonial origin in Europe). Here I draw on the theories of Erving Goffman and of my teacher Pierre Bourdieu to highlight how the public disgrace afflicting these areas devalues the sense of self of their residents and corrodes their social ties. In response to spatial defamation, residents engage in strategies of mutual distancing and lateral denigration; they retreat into the private sphere of the family; and they exit from the neighbourhood (whenever they have the option). These practices of symbolic self-protection set off a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby negative representations of the place end up producing in it the very cultural anomie and social atomism that these representations claim were already there.
Territorial stigmatisation not only undermines the capacity for collective identification and action of lower-class families; it also triggers prejudice and discrimination among outsiders such as employers and public bureaucracies. The young men from La Courneuve, the stigmatized Red Belt town outside of Paris I studied, constantly complained that they must hide their address when they apply for jobs, meet girls or attend the university outside their city, to avoid negative reactions of fear and rejection. The police are particularly susceptible to treating them more severely when officers find out that they come from this tainted town widely seen as a fearsome ‘ghetto.’ Territorial stigma is one more obstacle on the path to socioeconomic integration and civic participation.
Note that the same phenomenon is observed in Latin America, among dwellers of the ill-reputed favelas of Brazil, the poblaciones of Chile, and the villas miserias of Argentina. I suspect that the residents of Villa del Bajo Flores, La Cava or Villa de Retiro in Buenos Aires know too well what ‘address discrimination’ is. This territorial stigma attaches to these lower districts of the Argentine city for the same reason that it coalesces around the hyperghetto of the United States and the anti-ghettos of Europe: the concentration in them of the jobless, the homeless, and paperless migrants, as well the lower fractions of the new urban proletariat employed in the deregulated service economy. And the tendency of state elites to use space as a ‘screen’ to avoid facing problems rooted in the transformation of work.
Does not this territorial stigma facilitate the turn to the penal state and the implementation of the policy of 'zero tolerance', whose global spread you analysed in your previous book
Carceles de la miseria (Manantial, 2000)?
Spatial taint grants the state increased latitude to engage in aggressive policies of control of the new marginality that can take the form of dispersal or containment, or better yet combine the two approaches. Dispersal aims at scattering the poor in space and recapturing the territories that they traditionally occupy, under the pretext that their neighbourhoods are devilish “no-go areas” that simply cannot be salvaged. It is currently at work in the mass demolition of public housing at the heart of the historic ghetto of the US metropolis and in the pauperized peripheries of many European cities. Thousands of housing units are destroyed overnight and their occupants are disseminated in adjacent areas or poor districts further out, creating the appearance that “the problem has been resolved.” But dispersing the urban poor only makes them less visible and less disruptive politically; it does not give them work and grant them a viable social status.
The second technique for dealing with the rise of advanced marginality takes the opposite tack: it seeks to concentrate and contain the disorders generated by the fragmentation of work by throwing a tight police dragnet around neighbourhood of relegation and by expanding the jails and prisons in which their more unruly elements are chronically exiled. This punitive containment is typically accompanied on the social welfare front by measures designed to force recipients of public aid into the substandard slots of the deregulated service economy, under the name of “workfare.” (I describe the invention in the United States of this new politics of poverty wedding restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” in my next book, Castigar a los pobres). But the policy of mano dura or zero tolerance is also self-defeating. Throwing the jobless, the marginally employed and petty criminals behind bars makes them even less employable and further destabilizes lower-class families and neighbourhoods. Deploying the police, the courts, and the prison to curb marginality is not only enormously costly and inefficient; its aggravates the very ills it is supposed to cure. And thus we re-enter the vicious circle pointed out long ago by Michel Foucault: the very failure of the prison to solve the problem of marginality serves as justification for its continued expansion.
Moreover, in Argentina and neighbouring countries that went through decades of authoritarian rule in the twentieth century, the police are a vector of violence and the judicial apparatus is rife with inequity. So rolling out the penal state at the bottom of the order of classes and places is tantamount to re-establishing a dictatorship over the marginal fractions of the working class. It violates in practice the ideal of democratic citizenship that theoretically guides the authorities. What the state needs to fight is not the symptom, criminal insecurity, but the cause of urban disorder: namely, the social insecurity that the state itself has spawned by becoming the diligent handmaiden to the despotism of the market.