The Guardian has a live blog reporting on the civil disorder in London (and now some other cities in the UK).
Of particular interest is the way in which subcultural and behavioural patterns are shaped by exclusion from access to social and economic rewards (through work and education), and a consequent refusal of the institutional structures which are designed to provide such access.
This is not a new or an unexpected dynamic: it’s a dynamic which produces social ordering (gangs, territorial fights, deviant status hierarchies, violent masculinities) but a form of social ordering which is dissonant with dominant cultural norms.
Nevertheless, such social deviance adopts other cultural signals from the dominant order. Stafford Scott’s piece is acute on this:
First, looting comes from the belief that if you cannot get equality and cannot expect justice, then you better make sure that you “get paid”. “It’s all about the money!” is the motto of too many young black men, who have given up all hope of attainment in a white man’s world. This is an absolute belief for those looting at the weekend – borne not only out of their experiences but their parents’, too. They want to follow the rappers and athletes who live ghetto-fabulous lifestyles based on natural talents, as opposed to learned skills. They can’t see that coming through education: those who live on estates generally survive from one wage packet to the next. Sadly this mindset also makes it easier to legitimise the selling of drugs, as that too “brings in the money”.
Another sign was when they allowed themselves to be referred to by the n-word. They weren’t simply seeking to reclaim a word. They were telling the world that they were the offspring of the “field negro”, not the trained “house negro” from slavery days. The field negro’s sole intent was to escape, and maybe even to cause a little damage to the master and his property.
I think it’s a mistake to see this civil disorder as too closely linked to current political and economic conditions. It has a proximate cause which is related to race, but it’s a tinderbox which could be set on fire at almost any moment.
It’s more about the failure of forms of social discipline (“address social exclusion through providing positive and negative incentives to study and work”) which are massively inadequate to the underlying causes. Tariq Ali is absolutely right that it has happened before and will happen again, and for the same basic reasons.
It would also be a mistake to see these events as an “organic crisis of capitalism”. The sense-making that people affected (and however many bricks or petrol bombs are thrown through the windows of Louis Vuitton shops, the people most immediately affected are those living in the areas of deprivation where disorder erupts) engage in is unrelated to immediate or long term political or economic demands. That’s precisely why these sort of events recur.
And, at the level of the state, the events are very quickly re-inscribed in a narrative of crime and senselessness, or turned into another political talking point. And so it goes, until next time.
So I’m not sure that Nina Power is right that ‘austerity measures’ are directly to blame, though to be fair, that’s perhaps more implicit in her claim that they provide context for the events than directly asserted. Many of those engaging in the forms of violent behaviour we are witnessing are usually outside the structure of the welfare economy, something that is also very rarely addressed by the mainstream policy discourse on social exclusion.
Nevertheless, she is absolutely right that underlying all this is deep inequality, which is causal insofar as it creates the subcultures where setting the town alight can be perceived as a rational action. The thing is that addressing those causes would require a vision of a different form of society altogether, and a political force which would take people there.
Update: Penny Red.
Update: Further to the question of whether this constitutes a legitimacy crisis, I’ll summarise some of what I’ve said in comments on this thread and on Facebook.
First, I think the “cuts=riots” equation is wrong. However, there is likely to be a meaningful relationship (if not a direct causal one) in that the forms of social discipline (miminal welfare, workfare, ‘youth centres’ and so on) becoming more stick and less carrot may incline some of those more attached to the logic of the system to become less so. It’s still important to remember that often those who are central to subcultural hierarchies are more often part of the informal economy than the social discipline of the official welfare economy.
Secondly, the question of ‘orchestration’ as opposed to ‘random’ is a false, and ultimately, meaningless dichotomy. As I read the reports, what is going on is the extensability of existing gang and community networks being fostered through demonstration effects, and through word of mouth and mobile devices. In some instances, this appears to be leading to inter and intra-communal violence, along existing cleavages, without the police being involved. We also have to recall that the police, as an ‘armed band’, also produce a reaction in force simply through being deployed en masse.
These situations reach a point where their momentum begins to outweigh their initial causes, and they are intensely frightening for people to live through. It’s at the point when violence becomes generalised that it becomes more (not entirely) ‘random’, and it’s at that point when a clash of orders starts to resemble real disorder. Here, we are a long way from politics, and we also should be a long way from celebrating ‘resistance’. Politics, after all, may be about the intensification of conflict, but it’s also about its containment.
Thirdly, I do think that there are points when social strain intensifies, and what will perhaps become most important is the short and medium term response of the state. There is only so much strain a system can bear before it breaks, or before its reconfiguration alters some of its characteristics, perhaps fundamentally. To what degree will this be capable of being inscribed in a ‘law and order’ narrative of ‘senselessness’ and how far can a repressive social order be pushed? Certainly, I would agree that those elites with most stake in the continuance of current arrangements would not want this to go on much longer, but, conversely, the force of the response itself may upend some of its legitimacy.
But we still need to place these events in a historical perspective. A lot of the sensemaking that goes on – not least among those immediately affected – reinforces or draws on the dominant cultural register. If this is a major legitimacy crisis, was Brixton in the early 80s also one, and how was it resolved?
Lastly, there’s always been a distinction between large scale civil disorder and political shifts. For the latter to accompany the former, a lot of the groundwork has to have been laid by changes in attitudes among some of the elite and political class (the French revolution is the best example) *as well as* a political force capable of channelling civil disorder.
Both those are absent, and the rise of racist movements is also another argument against there being any real ‘organic crisis’ going on here, in the sense that racial division reinforces rather than erodes the dominant system logic.
Having said all that, I’d close by repeating that there’s always the question of how much strain a system can bear. In Immanuel Wallerstein’s terms, we may be at a point of bifurcation. How it all plays out is as yet unknowable.
Update: New post here.