Class and Identity on the Margins of Industrial Society: A Breton Illustration

By Menzies, Charles R. | Anthropologica, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Class and Identity on the Margins of Industrial Society: A Breton Illustration


Menzies, Charles R., Anthropologica


Abstract: In this article the author draws upon his field work in Le Guilvinec, France during a period of crisis in the local fishery to explore the creation and reproduction of a local Bigouden identity. This identity emerged, replete with costume, rituals and festivals, out of an encounter between a metropolitan-driven industrial capitalism and a local, essentially non-capitalist, social formation. Here two aspects of how the "local" is integrated into and/or articulated with the "larger" are important: (1) the historical positioning of the Bigoudennie within Brittany, an internal hinterland of France supplying labour and raw resources; (2) the ways in which the emerging neoliberal processes of globalization structures, shapes and hinders the ability of local communities to wield any real control over local processes.

To write about class and identity is simultaneously to come to terms with both the structures of power and appropriation and the manner by which such structures are interpreted and translated into daily life (Sider, 1986: 7). Class is here used in its most fundamental and basic sense, defined as an objective relationship to the means of production. Identity, while a profoundly more ephemeral and elusive quality, is rarely constructed so as to entirely repudiate its material moorings in class. As expressed in racial or ethnic terms, identity is often essentialized as being immutable and, once created, is always there until the homogenizing force of state power erases its uniqueness. In practice, the expansion and consolidation of state power and the processes of capital accumulation both destroy and create variation (Sider, 1993).

The constant restructuring of the social and political landscape reminds us that "capitalism does not so much come to the countryside. The backcountry is itself a site of historical transformations, generating social [race/gender/class] relations, ... market forces pivotal in the transition to capitalism" (Palmer, 1994: 15). In this illustration of one particular transition to capitalism, drawn from the Bigouden region of France, I focus on: (1) the historical set of social relations out of which emerged a local identity; and (2) how this identity is intimately linked to the formation of social class in coastal Brittany. My underlying point of concern is with the mundane daily necessity to feed, clothe and shelter one's family, and how this is connected to, shaped by and is often in opposition to an economic formation driven by profit and greed.

The People and the Place

I first visited the Bigoudennie in the fall of 1992. As I toured the coast, rumblings of the coming crisis could be heard on every dock. Fishers complained of poor fish prices, declining catches and non-European Union fish imports. A major fishing co-operative was forced to reorganize and consolidate its operation (in the process nearly 100 workers lost their jobs). Fishing skippers were beginning to have difficulty in making their boat loan payments. Though the problems were widespread, it was in the fishing ports of the Bigoudennie (the primary artisanal fishing district in France, fourth in rank in overall production after the industrial ports of Boulogne, Lorient and Concarneau) that the situation seemed the most acute.

Upon my return to the Bigoudennie in 1994, local fishers were in the midst of the second year of free-falling fish prices. Overall landed value had fallen by more than 20 percent (Chatain, 1994) and the prices continued to fall well into 1995. The brutal realities of fishing for a living drove fishers to fish longer, travel farther and spend less on essential maintenance just to remain "on an even keel." Despite their increased effort, more than one quarter of the Bigouden fleet had difficulty meeting their debt service requirements.

The Bigouden region is located at the extreme western tip of Brittany, in the department of Finistere -- "land's end" -- on a box-like peninsula that juts out into the open Atlantic. …

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