Notes on “the immigrant question”: Guy Debord

Among the functions of borders, political and others, is to stabilise and make possible the exploitation of human populations, against the free flows of capital commodities and commodity spectacles.  If populations were allowed complete freedom of movement, equal to that of capital, then capitalism would collapse.

Borders are also however points of passage, for the control of population movements.  They function as instruments of surveillance, registration and control.  Populations must be allowed to move as well, for the permanent acceleration of the fluxes of capital can not find points of labour extraction and intensified consumption without movement (e.g. land dispossession, peasant migrations to centres of industrial and/or service production, etc.) and thus without the relative control of movements of people.

The “immigrant question”, as it is then typically posed and addressed in official “political debate” is farcical, when not openly deceitful.  Questions of how many immigrants should be allowed into a country, which kinds of immigrants, under what conditions and under what modes of “integration”, and the like (and this against the background of millions dislocated by the violence of capitalism), only serve to mask the truly political nature of the issue.  That is, who is considered an immigrant or who is not depends on who is necessary, and in what way, for the re-production of the social relations of capitalist domination.

Guy Debord’s short essay, “Notes on ‘the immigrant question'” ( remains telling …

The “immigration question” is completely fabricated, like any question openly asked in today’s world, and for the same reasons: the question is raised by the economy (i.e. the pseudo-economic illusion), and discussed by the spectacle.

Its discussion is limited to stupidities. Should we keep or get rid of the immigrants? (Of course the true immigrant is not the permanent resident of foreign origin, but the person who is perceived and who perceives himself as different, and is destined to remain so. Many immigrants, or their children, have French nationality; many Polish or Spanish nationals ended up losing themselves into the mass of a French population which was different [était autre].) Like nuclear waste and oil spills, immigrants are a product of modern capitalist management practices — except that their “tolerance thresholds” are more quickly and more “scientifically” defined — and like nuclear waste or oil spills, immigrants will remain with us for centuries, millennia, forever. They will remain because it was much easier to eliminate the German Jews under Hitler than to eliminate the North Africans, and others, here today: because there exists in France neither a Nazi party nor the myth of a native race!

Should we then assimilate them or “respect their cultural diversity”? Inept false choice! We can no longer assimilate anyone: not young people, not French workers, not even provincials or the old ethnic minorities (Corsicans, Bretons, etc.), because Paris, a ruined city, has lost its historic role, which was to make the French people. What is centralization without a capital? The concentration camps did not make Germans out of the deported Europeans. The diffusion of the concentrated spectacle can unify only spectators. We gargle, in a language that is purely promotional, with the rich expression of “cultural diversity”. What culture? There is none left. Neither Christian, nor Muslim, nor socialistic, nor scientistic. Don’t speak of the dead. If we glance even for a minute at the evidence and the truth, there is nothing left but the global-spectacular (American) breakdown of all culture.

It is above all not by voting that people can assimilate. The French people are voters and are no longer anything (1 party = 1 other party; one electoral promise = its opposite; and more recently, political platforms — which everyone knows will never be implemented — have stopped even being deceitful, since they no longer address any important issues at all). A historic demonstration that the vote means nothing, even for the French: 25% of “citizens” in the 18-25 age bracket are not registered to vote, simply out of disgust. Add to this those who are registered but abstain from voting.

Some put forward the criterion of “fluency in French”. Laughable. Do present-day French people speak French? Is it French that is spoken by today’s illiterates, or by Fabius (“Bonjour les dégats!”), or Francoise Castro (“Ça t’habite ou ça t’effleure?”), or B.-H. Lévy?[1] Are we not clearly heading towards the loss of all reasoning and articulated language, even without a single immigrant? What infinitely more ridiculous sects than Islam or Catholicism have easily conquered a certain fraction of our highly-educated idiots ([Sun Yung] Moon, etc.)? Not to mention the profoundly retarded or autistic people whom such sects do not recruit because there is no economic interest in the exploitation of such livestock — which is therefore left in the hands of the public authorities.

We have made ourselves into Americans. It’s no surprise that we should experience all the miserable problems of the U.S.A., from drugs to the mafia, “fast food” and the proliferation of ethnicities. For example, though Italy and Spain are Americanized on the surface and even to a fairly significant depth, they are not ethnically mixed. In that sense, they remain more characteristically European (just as Algeria is North African). Here [in France] we have the problems of America without having its strength. It is not guaranteed that the American “melting-pot” will continue to function much longer (with the “Chicanos”, for example, who speak a different language). But it is absolutely certain that it can’t for a moment function here. Because the U.S.A. is the manufacturing center for the contemporary way of life, the heart of the spectacle that extends its pulsations all the way to Moscow and Beijing, and this spectacle can not give the slightest autonomy to its local sub-contractors. (Once understood, this unfortunately demonstrates a much less superficial kind of subordination than what the usual critics of “imperialism” call attention to, with their demands for destruction or reform.) Here [in France], we are no longer anything: we are a colonized people who have not been able to rebel, we are the yes-men of spectacle and alienation. What pretensions do we not suddenly rediscover in France when faced with the proliferating presence of immigrants of every color! As if somebody was stealing something that was still ours! And what might that be? What do we believe or, rather, what do we still pretend to believe? It is but a conceit for their infrequent holidays, when full-blooded slaves protest that mulattoes threaten their independence!

Is there a risk of apartheid? Yes! In fact this is more than a risk, it is already fatefully the case (with its logic of ghettos, racial conflicts and, someday, blood baths). A society in complete decomposition is clearly less able to take in a large quantity of immigrants without undue stress than a coherent and relatively happy one. In 1973[2] we had already called attention to the striking parallel between the evolution of construction techniques and the evolution of mentalities: “As the environment is rebuilt, always more hurriedly, for the purpose of repressive control and profit, it simultaneously becomes more fragile and incites more vandalism. Capitalism in its spectacular phase rebuilds everything as fake and produces arsonists. Thus its scenery becomes everywhere flammable like a college in France.” The presence of immigrants has already served the purpose of certain union bosses, who denounced as “wars of religion” certain workers’ strikes that they could not control. And we can be sure that the existing powers will favor the full scale development of those smaller experiences of conflict which we have already seen put into play through “terrorists” (real or fake),[3] or through fans of rival soccer teams (and not only English fans).

But it’s easy to understand why politicians of every stripe (including the leaders of the National Front)[4] try to minimize the gravity of the “immigrant problem”. Everything that they all want to preserve prohibits them from addressing any problem directly, or in its true context. Some pretend to believe that it’s just a matter of spreading “anti-racist goodwill”, others that we need to recognize the moderate right to a “just xenophobia”. All agree to consider this question as if it was the most pressing of our social problems, if not the only one — of all the frightening problems that this society will not overcome. The ghetto of a new spectacular apartheid (not the local, folkloric version found in South Africa) is already here, in present-day France: the vast majority of the population is locked up in and stupefied by it; and this would be the case even without a single immigrant. Who decided to construct Sarcelles and Les Minguettes, to destroy Paris or Lyon?[5] True, immigrants were involved in this despicable work. But they did nothing more than execute precisely the orders that they were given: the usual misery of the salaried worker.

How many foreigners are there really in France? (And not just according to their legal status, skin color, facial features.) Evidently, so many that it would be better to ask: how many Frenchmen are left, and where are they? (And what is it that characterizes a Frenchman now?) We know the birth rate is dropping. Is that a surprize? The French people can no longer tolerate their children. They send them to school at age three, and until at least 16, to learn illiteracy. And before age three, more and more people find them “intolerable” and beat them more or less violently. Children are still loved in Spain, Italy, Algeria, among the Gypsies. Not often in France, at present. Neither housing nor city streets are suitable for children anymore (whence the cynical government ad campaign on the theme of “opening the city to children”). On the other hand, contraception is widespread, abortion is legal. Almost all children in France today were wanted. But not freely! The voter-consumer does not know what he wants. He “chooses” something that he doesn’t like. His mental structure no longer has the coherence of remembering that he wanted something when he finds himself disappointed by the experience of that very thing.

In the spectacle, a class-based society has very systematically tried to eliminate history. And now it pretends to regret the particular result of the presence of so many immigrants, because France is “disappearing”! Comical. France is disappearing for very different reasons, and more or less swiftly, on almost every front.

The immigrants have the fairest right to live in France. They are the representatives of dispossession; and dispossession is at home in France, it is so widespread here — almost universal. The immigrants have lost their land and culture, as we all know, and they haven’t been able to find another. And the French are in the same situation, and hardly more secretly.

With the leveling of the whole planet into the misery of a new environment and a completely deceitful understanding of everything, the French, who have accepted all this without much protest (except in 1968), can hardly say that they no longer feel at home here because of the immigrants.They have every reason not to feel at home, it’s true. But that’s because there is no one left but immigrants in this horrible new world of alienation.

There will be people living on the surface of the earth, and even in this place, when France has disappeared. The mixture of ethnicities that will dominate is hard to predict, as is their cultures, even their languages. We can assert that the central, and profoundly qualitative question, will be this: have these future peoples, through an emancipated practice, dominated the present technology, which is generally that of artifice and dispossession? Or are they dominated by it in some way that is even more hierarchical and enslaving? We must be prepared for the worst, and fight for the best. France is certainly worthy of regret. But regrets are vain.

(Written by Guy Debord in 1985 for Mezioud Ouldamer, who was working on his own book, The Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of France, for Editions Gerard Lebovici. Published in the collection Guy Debord: Oeuvres (Quarto Gallimard, 2006). Translation from the French by Wes Wallace, September 2006.)

[1] Laurent Fabius, a Socialist politician, was Prime Minister of France when these notes were written; Francoise Castro, a film producer, was his wife. Bernard-Henri Levy was the founder of the school of “New Philosophers” who repudiated Marxism and Socialism in reaction against the insurrections of 1968. The significance of the quoted expressions, which translate literally as “Hello damages!” and “Does it haunt you or does it graze you?” could not be deduced. (Translator’s note.)

[2] In the film version of The Society of the Spectacle. (Translator’s note.)

[3] “Fake terrorists” can be understood as covert agents paid to commit terrorist acts or fictitious agents publicly alleged to have committed them. The concept of “artificial terrorism” was frequently invoked by Debord, notably in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), and Preface to the fourth Italian edition of “The Society of the Spectacle” (1979), and by Gianfranco Sanguinetti in the ironic, pseudonymous Veritable Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy(1975), which was written in collaboration with Guy Debord. (Translator’s note.)

[4] Extreme right-wing political party headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen. (Translator’s note.)

[5] Sarcelles and Les Minguettes are two of the “outer suburbs” of Paris where bleak cement housing projects were built in the 1960s and 70s. The “destruction” of Paris and Lyon may refer to several concurrent phenomena, including the razing of old neighborhoods to construct high-rise buildings, the expulsion of working-class people from the inner city to satellite suburbs, and the gentrification and “disneyfication” of old neighborhoods. (Translator’s note.)


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