Some Sideways Reflections on the Recent Rioting

It’s Saturday now and, for the better part of the week, I’ve been trying to find time apart from work to put together some thoughts  on the recent violence in a number of English cities.

What has passed for debate in the mainstream media has been both intentionally and unintentionally misleading. So, for example, we have Boris Johnson dismissing socio-economic factors and emphasizing ‘criminality’ in its place, as if the idea of a link between socio-economic conditions and criminality was impossible to imagine let alone a mainstream idea. More irritatingly, there are exchanges like this one between Michael Gove  and Harriet Harman, where Gove (himself involved in the expenses scandal) appears to deliberately obscure Harmen’s central argument. The statement that ‘You cannot claim that the riots are in any sense political’ is something we have heard again and again. In the hands of more cynical commentators, I would describe this as an intentional attempt to dismiss the possibility of a context to these events by pretending that people arguing for a political context see the rioters as some sort of intentionally politically ideological protesters. It’s not hard to see through this debating tactic, and yet it has been deployed again and again.

This article will attempt to offer a few reflections on what we’ve seen so far. It’s normal to begin these sorts of articles with a denunciation of the violence, particularly for those on the left. I don’t want to be misinterpreted, so here it is: the damage being done to people by this violence is horrendous and I’m glad it has (for however long this will last) subsided.

1. The Police Context

Rhetorically, the connection between the rioters and police oppression has been rejected in the mainstream. I want to offer a few reflections on the role of the police in the crisis and in society more generally.

Damage to property and people in a glib, brazen and systematic way, can in part be understood as an attack on authority, and the media/government emphasis on exerting authority suggest a certain truth to this (“There has been for too long a lack of respect”, says Cameron). It’s also worth bearing in mind that two police stations have been attacked (one in Birmingham and another in Nottigham) and some data suggests that police have been disproportionately assaulted, although the precise circumstances of this are not yet clear.  Obviously, what sparked the initial disturbances was three separate incidents of police misconduct: the murder of Mark Duggan, it’s subsequent cover-up and the attack on a young girl at the following (ignored) peaceful protest, a fact reported but swiftly forgotten by the BBC.

This occurs in a context where the police have consistently acted with impunity. The high profile cases are well known, such as the death of Smiley Culture and Charles De Menzies, not to mention Ian Tomlinson and the various attacks on peaceful protesters during recent political demonstrations. There are also a number of less high-profile concerns, ranging from disproportionate use stop-and-searches amongst ethnic minorities[1] (which is not to suggest in any way that ethnic minorities are rioting exclusively) and the myriad deaths in police custody without police conviction. (The most recent statistics suggest that there are 333).

While it’s clear that the anger is not entirely related to these incidents, it’s harder to argue that the complete disrespect of authority seen throughout is not partly a result of that authority being consistently abused. I have regularly seen the sentiments of even the most reasonable people I know become extremely hostile to the police following abuse at their hands, so I have no reason to imagine that this can’t be generalized. This sentiment is partially echoed, for example, in the BBC’s botched interview with Darcus Howe.

This should, at least, give pause to those arguing that the solution is a crackdown. We have heard this before, in fact ad nauseam, throughout British politics in the last thirty years. ‘Getting tough with offenders’ – a tactic that’s given England and Wales (with Scotland close behind) the largest per capita prison population in Europe, a fact generally omitted by those arguing that law and order here is ‘too lax’. There is a welt of historical and sociological evidence on the link between both austerity and riots, as well between inequality and social dysfunction, but many would rather consider ‘morals’ and ‘culture’ as if these were free floating phenomena and in no way connected with wider social structures.

2. The Penal state as a response to unrest

This emphasis on police solutions and an aggrandizement of the police themselves is in keeping with recent trends, in leads usefully into the second point.

The emphasis on penal sanctions, here defined as those relating to the police, prison, social control through removal of benefits and the judicial system, as the only way for the state to regain authority in the present context is in keeping with the neoliberal project in general. As mentioned above, the UK has the highest prison population in Europe and as Loic Wacquant points out, this has been the case in all countries that have followed the neoliberal path, regardless of fluctuations in the crime rate. As the state’s economic and social welfare functions are retracted under neo-liberalism, the penal state, courts, police and prison, come to the forefront of state power. As partially seen in the various discussions of police brutality and harassment in poor areas, Wacquant sees penal strategies as the principal strategy for managing marginality. In this context, we should not be surprised that the penal response has trumped all others in response to current events. It also shows why, whatever is said, the Tories and even Labour are unlikely to show any interest in addressing the situation that created the poverty and anger we’re seeing today. Their predicament means they simply do not have the means to do so.

The mainstream media, in particular the BBC, has responded to the rioters in a consistent way. This response, amounting quite simply to “get back in your hole” and a wholesale acceptance of violent and even at times fascist (I don’t know another word for using the army as a domestic police force) solutions demonstrates a society unable to display it’s authority in any other way, and a desire to enact the hierarchy of power in brutal terms. If it was not previously clear that we were dealing with a marginal population (those Wacquant would describe as ‘surplus’ to the current economic system) this should be abundantly obvious from the mainstream reaction.

3. The Parallax of Greed and Lawlessness

Then there is the broader context. Assuming that critics alleging opportunism and greed as fuelling these riots are correct – although I would argue that there is certainly more to it – this is a symptom of a deeper malaise. Britain has been rocked by a torrent of scandals displaying greed, opportunism and criminal behaviour at the very top of the Establishment. This ranges from the expenses scandal (which involved several members of David Cameron’s cabinet) the trashing of the NHS for private gain (see here), the destruction of the financial system, the gouging of the welfare state to pay for an elite-created crisis, and rampant, environmentally destructive capitalism. Even in simply economic terms, the eviction of households through the proposed housing benefit cap (estimated in a leaked Ministerial letter as potentially 40 000) and the destruction of local business and unemployment due to the recession will continue to far outweigh those resulting from the riots.

That we can maintain such a robust distinction between the ‘necessary’ economic destruction abundant in the political process and the ‘wanton’ violence of the riots isn’t surprising, as the supposed morality of capitalist societies relies entirely on this separation.  However, I would argue that what we are seeing is a “parallax”. This concept is explained by Zizek like so:

“Thus there is no rapport between the two levels, no shared space – although they are closely connected, even identical in a way, they are, as it were, on the opposed sides of a Moebius strip”[2]

This is most revealing when the points come closest to crossing over, which is of course regarding Cameron, Osbourne and Boris Johnson’s membership of the Bullingdon club, an elite social club at Oxford responsible for, both now and then, violent disorder and anti-social recklessness. These exploits, discussed here, involve trashing pubs and damaging historic hotels, could easily have blended in with some recent events, minus the looting. To quote the Sydney Morning Herald:

“A few years ago, in a glow of nostalgia, Johnson recalled an evening where a pot plant was heaved through a restaurant window and ”the party ended up with a number of us crawling on all fours through the hedges of the botanical gardens and trying to escape police dogs”. “

Of course, the ability to pay for damage and lax response from the authorities protects these privileged enclaves from appropriate responsibility. This contrast, linking the highest authorities in the land with the recent riots, above all shows the deep inequality at the heart of British life.

4. The Impotence of Violence

Zizek also casts light on our predicament from another direction. Writing about the Banlieue violence in Paris back in 2005, Zizek makes the following comments, which should have some resonance in Britain today:

“…the recent revolt was just an outburst with no pretense to any kind of positive vision – if the commonplace that “we live in a post-ideological era” has any sense, it is here. [my italics] Is this sad fact that the opposition to the system cannot articulate itself in the guise of a realistic alternative, or at least a meaningful utopian project, but only as a meaningless outburst, not the strongest indictment of our predicament? Where is here the celebrated freedom of choice, when the only choice is the one between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence, a violence which is almost exclusively directed against one’s own – the cars burned and the schools torched were not from rich neighbourhoods, but were part of the hard-won acquisitions of the very strata from which protesters originate.”

In what follows, after rejecting both the Left-liberal (social programmes, etc) and the Rightist (Clash of civilizations, law and order) responses, he comes to the following conclusion:

“Far from signalling an imperial arrogance, such “irrational” outbursts of violence…rather stand for an implicit admission of impotence: their very violence, display of destructive power, is to be conceived as the mode of appearance of its very opposite – if anything, they are exemplary cases of the impotent passage à l’acte.”

The impotence of violence and the complete lack of any viable alternative  can both be seen clearly in what has happened so far. The claim that ‘we are not heard’, ‘not respected’ and ‘they can’t tell us what to do’ suggest that the riots are ultimately an expression of powerlessness. The number of  incensed accounts I have read and heard about the alternatives to crime – hard work for minimal pay accompanied by insecurity, exhaustion, and submission in a context of falling real wages and eventual dismemberment by a reckless capitalist economy – seem so hollow precisely because this alternative life choice is so grim. This sad fact, in a context of hyper-inequality and excessive materialism, must be clear to at least some of the rioters.

I would also maintain that this impotence offers a far better account of what’s happening than the re posting I have seen in some places of Guy Debord’s account of the Watts Riots in 60s. While the article contains an interesting theoretical approach to looting – to say the least – the romanticism in it should be fairly obvious to most people. Having said that, I’m a fan of DeBord an personally think it’s worth reading and bearing in mind, particularly for those thinking critically about anti-capitalism and theft.

5. The Role of the Left

While we need not share Zizek’s bleak closing sentiment (“Perhaps, Job is the proper hero today: the one who refuses to find any deeper meaning in the suffering he encounters.”) it is worth reflecting temporarily on the apparent lack of any alternative to the present order which has produced the current situation. When I say ‘produced’, I should state again that I am not making a definitive reading of what in particular has caused the current violence, nor condoning it, but unless we are claiming that it is in fact a miraculous (i.e. without cause) then there must be causes somewhere.

This is where the failure of the radical left in the UK becomes most clear. From the student demonstrations which trashed Millbank to the huge trade union protests in March, we can see a wave of political unrest spreading throughout the country. These movements, I would argue, are a response to the objective conditions of neoliberalism and the havoc they have wrought for the social fabric of the country. What I mean by ‘objective conditions’ are simply those elements – decreased social mobility, rising living costs, unemployment, destroyed public services and the entrenchment of market power – that have defined the neoliberal project wherever it has taken root.  What attempts there are to engage with the communities, seen here here and here, suggest that these factors are also partly fueling the unrest we saw last week.

Moreover, as these consequences of economic policy would remain regardless of whether the riots had happened or not, we need to reflect harshly on the often singular focus of the demonstrations and the frequently international focus of the radical left (the Iraq war, the international summit-hopping, and climate change, etc) in the context of the wider issues facing the UK. It is not that we should lose focus on these issues, but that the movement that confronts them should first address the inequality in Britain today and mean that, whatever the future holds, the concerns of the destitute aspects of our society are taken into account and overcome. Only together can we overcome the current crisis, and this may turn into a genuine opportunity for the left to distance itself from the two parties of City of London. What’s more, there is very little to be gained from the left speaking only in terms of condemnation: the right will do it far better and the left will only lose potential allies. This is particularly true if, like so many I have spoken to, the only alternative to theft and lawlessness you can offer is an exhausting, brutal struggle to legitimately make ends meet in a context of widening hopelessness. What might happen if the left would effectively unite the concerns of the marginal with what remains of the labour movement and the emerging student movement is interesting to contemplate. I will be intrigued to see how the various student organizations respond to the unrest when they regroup later this year.

[1] “Statistical evidence shows that black people in England and Wales are six times

more likely to be stop/searched than would be expected based on their numbers

in the general population. This per capita racial disparity applies to all stop and

search powers for which information is available and is most extensive where dis-

cretion is widest.” “Nothing has been more damaging to the relationship between the police and the black community than the ill-judged use of stop and search powers. For young black men in particular, the humiliating experience of being repeatedly stopped and searched is a sad fact of life, in some parts of London at least. It is hardly surprising that those on the receiving end of this treatment should develop hostile attitudes towards the police.” Bowling, B and Phillips, C Disproportionate and Discriminatory: Reviewing the Evidence on Police Stop and Search (2007) The Modern Law Review Vol. 70 No. 6 pp. 936-961

[2] Zizek, S The Parallax View (2009) MIT Press pp. 4

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