It’s time for another thread on the English riots, since the last one is now rather long.
To update on some of the analysis, the prediction that a number of the usual suspects would turn the events into a partisan football has unsurprisingly been borne out. “It’s all Labour’s fault, it’s the welfare state’s fault, etc.” To be fair, there’s a dollop of stupid on parts of the left side of the fence too.
So let’s ignore that, and have a look at what we know about what’s happened and what it means.
Guy Rundle made the important point in today’s Crikey that there’s no single cause because there are a series of inter-linked events occurring, in sequence. Rioting started in Tottenham, after a protest over the police shooting of Mark Duggan spun into violence. But, later, Rundle suggests, anarchist violence popped up in other areas, some quite demographically and socio-economically distinct from Tottenham.
Lastly, we have a combination of opportunistic and gang driven violence and looting, spreading to other English cities as London is locked down by the police response.
Two excellent attempts at providing explanation and context are from Daniel Hind at Al Jazeera and Monkey at Feminist Philosophers.
Civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning. When the Bastille was being stormed the thieves of Paris doubtless took advantage of the mayhem to rob houses and waylay unlucky revolutionaries. Sometimes the thieves were revolutionaries. Sometimes the revolutionaries were thieves. And it is reckless to start making confident claims about events that are spread across the country and that have many different elements. In Britain over the past few days there have been clashes between the police and young people. Crowds have set buildings, cars and buses on fire. Shops have been looted and passersby have been attacked. Only a fool would announce what it all means.
any breakdown of civil order is inescapably political. Quite large numbers of mostly young people have decided that, on balance, they want to take to the streets and attack the forces of law and order, damage property or steal goods. Their motives may differ – they are bound to differ. But their actions can only be understood adequately in political terms. While the recklessness of adrenaline has something to do with what is happening, the willingness to act is something to be explained.
First, those who claim the rioters have a political agenda are surely wrong. Whilst I don’t think that having a political agenda is an easy thing to capture (I doubt, e.g., that it must involve having explicit political motives and a detailed understanding of why one is doing what one does – which of us ever has such self-knowledge of, or control over our own actions?), I suspect it must involve at least some sort of political consciousness, which it’s not clear the rioters possess. People are rioting because breaking things is fun, and looting is a quick way to make some cash.
But second, those who think the rioters are merely mindless thugs, and there is no political dimension to the riots are surely also wrong. The rioters are (wannabe) gangsters, from some of the poorer neighbourhoods. It’s fairly easy to predict – if you know a city – where there will be rioting. And let me give you a clue, no-one’s predicting riots in the nicer suburbs. It’s no surprise either when the police announce they’ve arrested people from neighbourhoods x, y, and z because x, y, and z are poorer, rougher places.
So what does this mean? One part of the answer seems to be that to people in poorer, rougher areas, being a gangster looks like an attractive option. Not only is it attractive, it’s also a live option. What makes it an attractive and live option is surely that (i) one’s other prospects are bleak, (ii) one has been conditioned since birth (like everyone else living in a consumer capitalist society) to want the latest whatever, and to believe that one has the right to have it; (iii) one is surrounded by others living the gangster lifestyle. The roots of (iii) are no doubt fiercely complicated, but surely there’s some importance to the fact that being poor is stressful, stress breaks families apart, dysfunction creeps in, and once there, it reaches down the generations.
Things will no doubt become clearer with time. But for now, on behalf of all the families, shopkeepers, and other folk battening down the hatches after dark, let’s hope it’s true that the rain is coming, and rioters don’t like getting wet.
It’s also worth emphasising that the UK has the lowest level of social mobility in the OECD. Even the perception that overcoming deprivation is possible is an important legitimation of the social order. It may now be absent for a lot of people.
Hind is right to argue that large scale civil disorder is itself necessarily political, even if many participants have no explicit political motivation. But it’s also right that those projecting revolutionary fantasies onto these events are wrong.
I’d close by noting once again that events of this sort are intensely frightening for those living through them. That should not be forgotten.
Update: Another extremely interesting post at Potlach:
Sociologists and socialists are wary of blaming individuals, for events that they are not entirely in control of, and structures that they didn’t design. But surely a nuanced understanding of contemporary individualism recognises that it is no less real for having been politically constructed. Political and economic ideas and concepts can become more truthful over time, if there is enough power behind them. The neoliberal vision of the individual ego, choosing, desiring and consuming, independent of social norms or institutions, has grown more plausible over the past thirty years. Once it becomes adopted by people to understand and criticise their own lives and actions, then it attains a type of ‘performative’ and interpretive reality that class may have done in the past, but may never do again.
As David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, combine neo-classical economics with the 1960s rhetoric of emancipation, and you have a heady ideological cocktail, that draws people into conceiving of themselves as autonomous sovereign selves. Ask today’s rioter what he is doing, and he will reply using the language of self, pleasure, economic freedom and individual recognition. This borders on the concerns of the Left, when it enters into identity politics, but for the most part it is entirely neoliberal.