After the riots: thoughts and critique

At the moment I’m in the USA for the summer, undertaking research, and I welcomed the chance to escape a quiet summer in a university town that goes to sleep when the students are away. But, last week I wished I was back in Britain. When I heard the news that the riots were spreading, I was so excited I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t read or write anything except the unfolding news and the various responses.

As yet, I’ve written nothing at length on the riot for this blog. And it seems a little belated to enter the debate now. But, below are some links to good pieces, some quotes, some thoughts, and some copy and pasted discussions I had with various people.

The Guardian, Gary Younge:
“Despite historian David Starkey‘s best efforts, the epicentre of Britain’s moral panic moved from culture to class. The primary challenge of integration, it transpires, is convincing a sizeable section of British youth, of all races, that they can be integrated into a society that won’t educate or employ them.”

My response to The Guardian report that one young man had been sentenced to 6 months in jail for stealing £3.50 of water: “Well, the young British people who, having been shafted every day of their lives, enjoyed a brief revenge are now being treated despicably by the courts as the bourgeoisie’s political and judicial deputies crack down extra viciously to shore up their fraying, swaying, disintegrating hegemony.” When I checked back, this had caused a massive angry debate amongst my friends, involving over 40 posts and proving how divisive the issue is amongst (roughly) “middle-class” young people.

Similarly, this great piece posted by UFSO created a storm: http://wp.me/p1dbfG-9D . Being subscribed to UFSO I got in there nice an early and posted my response, which elicited a few responses of its own:

August 10, 2011 9:54 pm

This is really very good. Thanks for writing this. Everyone who reads it: disseminate by all means necessary!

The Left needs to defend the riots; not to valourise the burning of grannies’ cars, but to make clear that we reject the whole bourgeois construction of events, that we stand in solidarity with the oppressed and that, when it comes to it, we will, without hesitation, join the “rioters” to overthrow the legitimised exploitation, state-sanctioned violence and sham “democracy” that oppress us all.

  • polly permalink
    August 10, 2011 11:59 pm

    Agreed. I’m concerned how cowed the Left is currently by the backlash which is patently more frightening than the actual events. The easy shift to people openly talking about state sanctioned killing and persecution of these ‘rats’ ‘scum’ and ‘animals’ is truly frightening. We must battle it forcefull and immediately.

  • Chris permalink
    August 11, 2011 8:17 am

    Good luck with that. Really, good luck. Good luck. The best of British to you.

  • August 11, 2011 10:52 am

    Wit, “join the rioters” by this do you mean attempt to control and manipulate them, I don’t think joining something that does not understand itself is as simple as you put it. If you join them then in a sense you become them, and with that goes any aimed political angle. Coilition of the disgruntled. I think for the established “Left” – Why a capital letter? To oust this pseudo-democracy, sustained and legitimate argument is required in ever more inventive ways, or more short-term do what Iceland is doing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PadzhH5VAns&feature=channel_video_title .Old fashioned pull your finger out.

    I agree with alot of points in this piece and like the ending and is quite a relate-able utopian image, I don’t know how relevant that is in terms of change and progress and as a full on utopia doesn’t hit the heights for me. Would be lovely though

    • Smithereens permalink
      August 11, 2011 12:07 pm

      I am a socialist. Not a member of any party, but an ideological socialist. I come from a working class background that most would describe as poor.

      And Mr. Wit, you have not a clue what you are on about.

      These riots are not the howl of the oppressed – they are the zenith of consumerism. They are the psychopathic crowd-think of late capitalism. These people were not rioting for food or injustice. They were rioting for Adidas, Sony and Kappa.

      There’s is a nihilistic mission, with only two goals: destruction and acquisition.

      The Left cannot join with these rioters, any more than we can join with the EDL.

    • August 11, 2011 2:10 pm

      I just want to say Smithereens – that was beautifully put. Absolutely beautiful.

    • August 11, 2011 8:04 pm

      @Smithreens – correct!

    • concerned citizen permalink
      August 12, 2011 9:55 pm

      Smithereens, it is at best foolish to equate “the rioters” with the EDL, and at worst idiotic. The EDL consist of grown, organised men hell bent on realising the political goal of race war in the UK. Need I tell you they have many thousands of devoted followers; proven links with terrorist organisations; http://www.edlnews.co.uk/edl-news/edl-sought-funding-from-terrorist-group a sympathetic ally in the mass media; http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/45030/guardian-writer-greenslades-stupid-jewish-edl-stereotype and perhaps most importantly, FUNDING from similar groups across the world, and a membership of consisting of organised NF and BNP members with a history of hatred and violence.

      The diverse group who rioted across England consisted of thieves, thugs, arsonists, murderers and PROTESTERS, so to compare “them” with a highly organised and ideologically driven racist group is folly. Apart from EDL members who took part in the rioting, how many looters share a material ideological link with Anders Breivik? I dont stand shoulder to shoulder with looters, but I do recognise the need for their political education. Criminals though they may be, the majority are the exploited class after all. I’d expect any so called working class socialist to understand that basic reality in 2011.

  • August 12, 2011 12:27 am

    You have got to be joking! These rioters have no political stance, nor do they have any reason for their rioting apart from their own amusement and greed. They want a new pair of trainers or a plasma TV, so they’ll go and take it. This has nothing to do with the a political standing. Grow up, Wit!

    • August 12, 2011 11:27 pm

      Wow, I was reading the newst UFSO article and suddenly saw 170+ comments on this story! Amazing!

      Well, now, my comment was quite elliptical and maybe those who replied didn’t quite understand it. And, moreover, maybe they just didn’t quite understand the riots themselves.

      “The riots aren’t political; they’re mindless nihilism; they’re the ‘the zenith of consumerism’. There were not even any demands!”

      How can anything that happens in a specific social, political and economic conjuncture not be political? There is a contradiction here, and it is in the “apolitical” construction of events by the centre and right; i.e. the refusal by some commentators to understand their own reactions in political terms.

      How can any activity be mindless, unthinking, when all living people think? Can you stop a person from thinking? Perhaps if you shoot them in the face, as the Police shot Mark Duggan. But, excepting that, there is another contradiction here. The fact is not that these rioters were unthinking, but that their thoughts and opinions are subaltern. That they are not heard, that they are not articulated, that for many they do not count, can only be understood in political terms.

      As for demands, looting equals immediate demands: “I want that and that and that.” But, it is also a tactic that expresses a symbolic demand: the demand for political recognition and agency; the demand to express a collective anger that cannot find any other means of articulation. From where these demands spring, and whether or not they can be channelled in more productive and long-term ways is, again, an historical and political question.

      Another point of perplexity: “What do you mean, join the rioters??”

      This is, as midiadventuremachine points out, not simple. The first step is to begin to identify and engage with the social groups who chiefly composed the riots – i.e. the dispossessed of the inner-cities: black, asian and minority communities; the unemployed; the socially and economically alienated youth. The next step is to attempt to organise these social groups, to support the building leadership in these communities, to help them to articulate their demands, and to incorporate them into the wider movement against destructive and exploitative capitalism.

      That is to say, to try to aid the development of the political agency of these social groups so that they may begin to gain political direction and articulate their demands, so that they may begin to become self-determining and equal allies of other exploited social groups, e.g. the lower and middle-class public sector workers and students who have so far dominated leftist protest in 2009-2011.

      What I am not suggesting is that we run out to join in the burning and looting of the local corner shop (still in our slippers, as usual); too late, anyway, if you weren’t there then you missed your chance this time.

      I hope that makes more sense. And don’t tell me to grow up, you paternalistic shit.

Asher permalink
August 14, 2011 6:45 am

@Wit

Um, no, the vast majority of things that the vast majority of people has very little intentional thought behind it. This applies across all times and all spaces.

August 11, 2011 9:00 am

Whilst I agree that this is not the solution to any of the issues at hand; poverty, exclusion, disenfranchisement, gentrification etc etc – the idea that this is just a predominately white middle class thing is wrong. I was in Hackney and there was all sorts of people there. Working class, black, asian, women, men, young, old etc. Perhaps this reflects the greater degree of diversity in the borough (as opposed to Clapham, which is where your photo is from).
The riot clean up, as far as I experienced it, wasn’t expressly political or naive. It was just about getting the streets back to normal so we can all start addressing the reasons why this riot started. The fact that Hackney council had already done most of it made left the act itself fairly defunct, but to see lots of people out in one place, gathered through social networks, and discussing what just happened in our borough was a heartening thing.

Also – @Wit. These rioters were looting for high end capitalist products. That’s not something I want to stand in solidarity with. Fighting the state and the inequalities of the system is fine, but looting for the goods that oppress you is not.

 

I only saw the last comments today, but I think my argument before got to the heart of it. The middle-class left, which has something to lose – which is invested in the system, e.g. through education – cannot stomach the actions of the most exploited and disenfranchised members of society, i.e. those who really do have nothing to lose but their chains. And certainly awful things happened, e.g. the killing of those three men guarding their businesses, etc. But, here’s the important thing: what has been obvious to all those leftists with a brain is that the social groups that chiefly composed the rioters have not developed a sufficient strata of “intellectuals” (in the Gramscian sense) capable of giving political coherence and direction. The uprising (not movement, but uprising) was not able to police itself, because it lacked this sense of coherence.

By contrast, when a student threw a fire exinguisher off the Millbank roof, people started shouting as one: “Don’t throw shit, stop throwing shit”, &c. And it stopped. Students have indeed developed a strata of “organic” intellectuals – from the conservative SU warders to the most radical organisers; from the people with megaphones in the marches, to those like Aaron Porter who, admittedly occupy/occupied a liminal zone (and yet retain an organic link, moving and being moved by students).

Therefore the necessity, as I said in my first post, of “joining with the rioters” – i.e. of joining with these disenfranchised social groups, helping them to develop their own organisations, institutions, political agency and leadership.

Therefore, for example, the response from Kit, that “These rioters were looting for high end capitalist products. That’s not something I want to stand in solidarity with” is not only unhelpful but is expressive of a middle-class romantic sentimentalism, which in the end only wishes to stand alone looking at itself in the mirror.

More later, this post is getting long, and I’m tired.

Wit

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~ by Wit on August 15, 2011.

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