Once More About the London Riots

People show their brushes to London Mayor Boris Johnson, August 9, 2011. From boston.com.

Whenever there is a riot there are immediately two types of people: those who express utter surprise and those who express a complete lack of surprise. Afterwards, as things settle, everyone comes to accept the standard view: that tension had been rising for some time and the outcome had been almost inevitable. Common metaphors at this point involve the words tinderbox, match, spark, boiling, breaking-point, explosion, trigger. The occasion underlines a generation gap: those with stakes, however small, strongly disapprove. The ambivalence is left to younger people or serious political radicals, or the others who watch with a certain voyeuristic pleasure.

It is now almost two weeks since the English riots ended, and the state has been reasserting itself with a vigor that is disconcerting. As the courts openly distribute punitive sentences, the county’s prison population has reached record levels. There is much discussion of throwing families out of their houses if they have a connection to suspected rioters, of deterrent sentences like six months in prison for stealing bottled water, of tougher schools and zero tolerance. New prisons must be built, new powers given to a police force that has already been empowered by a decade of new laws on terrorism, stop-and-search, and “managing” protests. It is difficult to see from abroad just how much hatred for the Metropolitan Police exists in parts of London. There is little mention of it in the press, but then the disconnect between press and public opinion, especially among the poor, is most pronounced during periods of unrest. This week saw yet another death of a police suspect, as a 25-year-old man was arrested using pepper spray. He died less than two hours after his arrest.

The frenzy of the courts after the riots has revealed, somewhat unwittingly, the paltriness of so many of the acts that made up these riots. Two young men, aged 20 and 22, had set up Facebook pages encouraging riots that did not happen. They were each jailed for four years. An 18-year-old got two-and-a-half years for taking three shoes, which were not in pairs, and would have been impossible to either wear or sell. Another is due to be jailed this week for stealing two scoops of ice cream, which he gave to someone else because he didn’t like the flavor. Another was jailed for sixteen months for stealing a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts after leaving an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. (“He was hungry,” explains the news article, “having spent all his money on tobacco.”) Another got twenty four months for stealing skin moisturizer. It’s difficult to keep up with the sentences which are cascading through the justice system, many of them only reported in local newspapers, but two of Britain’s most significant legal figures—Lord MacDonald and Lord Carlile—have said that we are seeing a “collective loss of proportion” as courts pass jail terms that lack “humanity or justice.”

Here in New York, it is difficult to shake a lingering sense that all the wrong lessons are being learned in Britain, as the government presses on with its public sector dismantlement, the police gain extra powers, and the shopkeepers and consumer goods retailers count their losses. Last week, I was in a bar in Williamsburg with a group of liberal young professionals, mostly involved in the music industry, and we were discussing the riots. “It’s such a shame,” said a woman. “I know this happens elsewhere but you expect more from London.”

In England, it has been common to say as a matter of course that we should not describe the riots as a political action or as having political causes. I am confused by this, because if they are not political it seems they must simply represent some moral deficiency, a pathological tendency among a group of individuals that cannot be explained with reference to other individuals. Here the riots become a collective Oslo act: destruction without explanation. Commentators are split between those who offer highly tenuous explanations and those who disavow any explanation at all. It didn’t take long before the rioters were rubbed out with adjectives: “illiterate,” “innumerate,” “essentially wild beasts,” “an absolute deadweight upon society” who “respond only to instinctive animal impulses” and who live lives of “absolute futility.” (All these are from a single article in the middlebrow Daily Mail.) The same fury that every riot produces gives us the same adjectives: recall Sarkozy’s “racaille” to describe the French rioters, or the LAPD’s William Parker “monkeys in the zoo” in response to Watts. The destruction is always mindless, animalistic, and inexplicable, and it is always imperative that we condemn it as such. As the prisons fill, commentators are given names and faces which they can attach to these adjectives, and judges can express their outrage and disappointment in the children whose actions have shamed their parents and their communities, and a textbook illustration of moral panic is drawn.

James Scott, a well-known anthropologist, once critiqued the distinction that we often draw between “real” and “token” resistance. Often, it seems that real political resistance is organized, cooperative and selfless, while political acts that are unorganized, individualistic and selfish are considered of minimal importance; they are perhaps not even resistance at all. Yet consider mass desertions from an army or mass non-compliance with a government policy. Actions can constitute political resistance, argues Scott, even if they are conducted on an individual basis and for selfish reasons, and even if the people involved do not have very clear political ideas in mind. More than this: such actions are often more effective as agents of historical change than the big rebellions and peasant armies that grab historians’ attentions. Social scientists might prefer it if people expressed political preferences through quantifiable means—voting, joining parties, reading newspapers—but they would be naïve to rule out the possibility that seemingly random, senseless acts can constitute the continuation of politics by other means.

But, having seen the means, we should ask: which politics? The best commentators accept that the riots were not a political movement, but recognise that they cannot be wrenched apart from the politics of an austerity program of precisely the type that has been linked to riots since the 1980s. It is not an accident that the term “IMF riots” has become a social science cliché, or that Cameron’s public sector cuts mirror an IMF structural adjustment program. Gary Younge, writing for the Guardian, noted that serious social unrest was predicted “not just by the left but by, among others, the guardians of global capital”—including Moody’s, the police, and the head of the IMF. Nick Clegg, now deputy prime minister, had predicted “Greek-style unrest.”

For Younge, the hyper-capitalism of the rioters’ actions really marks the failure of an enervated British left to provide any viable movement or leadership that can challenge Conservative policies. (And yet, he remarks, the consequences of the outburst will be a strengthening of the government, the police, and austerity; a parallel point to Michael Sayeau’s in this space: right-wing policies hurt ordinary people and in doing so promote support for right-wing policies.) Naomi Klein’s analysis in the Nation underlined the political significance of riots in general, and made the connections, now popular, between the “daylight robbery” of the banks and politicians and the “night-time robbery” of the rioters: “This is the global Saqueo,” she wrote, “a time of great taking.” Resistance may be disorganized, ineffective, and sporadic, but it should at the very least be expected.

For Zizek, with his reflexive (and by now predictable) Hegelianism, this ineffectiveness—the complete lack, as such, of political demands—was significant: “Opposition to the system,” he wrote in the London Review of Books, “can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst.” And he cited Zygmunt Bauman’s characterisation of the riots as a form of consumerist fulfillment, as (Zizek’s paraphrase): “You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly—so here we are doing it the only way we can!” Much has been made of the riots as acts of consumerism, but this is too often unlinked from history: as if every previous outburst of the poor has formed orderly street protests while now, with x development in late capitalism, what should be protest has collapsed into looting.

What is instructive about this view is the historical revisionism it requires: the assumption that an individualistic, acquisitive outburst is something really new in politics. Isn’t it much more accurate to say that the organized politics of the poor–a Haitian Lavalas, a labor union movement, a national liberation struggle–takes place within a wider context of the poor simply trying to survive as best they can, and in the process doing what Hobsbawn (and, later, Scott) describes as, “Working the system . . . to their minimum disadvantage”? Zizek is entirely right to point out that the weakness of both the riots in England and recent protests in Spain is that they express “a spirit of revolt without revolution,” but I think he and others underplay just how historically reiterative this sense of undirected revolt is, and even how logical it can be when there seems little prospect of organized revolution. There seems to be an urge to apologize for the actions of the rioters via a rhetoric of historical despair. But this is what the protests of the poor have often looked like. The question for the left is what to do with it.

At the London tuition fee protests last year, many of us who were present saw that two things had changed as compared to protests in recent memory. The first was the level of anger being expressed. The second was the people who were expressing the anger. These were not the trade union and National Union of Students activists who had arrived expecting to lead the protests (and who were, to their surprise, largely ignored). They were younger people, almost all of them still in school, and some of them were very angry. They gave the protests the sense of being a real bread-and-butter battle, a fight for a certain type of survival that was really being threatened, and they formed groups that had some connections to the student movement but were to a large extent completely outside it. They were more racially diverse, and from less privileged backgrounds—“from the slums of London,” as one YouTube video had it.

Their inexperience was obvious—they didn’t mask up or carry bust cards at first—but this hardly mattered. At a time when every single protest coagulated behind police lines, numbers were dwindling, and no one could think of anything to do about it, it was this group that immediately thought of roaming protests that would disperse and reemerge somewhere else. In many ways a lack of protest experience worked in their favor: they were less afraid and more inventive. Once, having escaped a crushing kettle in Parliament Square in November last year, we found on Oxford Street a group of young people setting fires and destroying street furniture. At points like these it seemed that a riot was around the corner, or that it might have already begun.

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