Daniel Harvey gives a short personal reflection on the riots.
There exists in England an underclass that does not exist anywhere else in Europe. White, little educated, without any means of social evolution, they are a perfect example of the results of Anglo-Saxon capitalism and its dehumanising program. The English perversion is to make this population proud of their misery and their ignorance. The situation is hopeless. I’ve more hope for the youth of our banlieues.
Jean-Baptiste Clamence; Albert Camus’s ‘The Fall’, 1956.
Someone turned to me this morning and said he thought there was something strange about this country, in the way there has always been this underclass that most other countries in Europe have avoided. I replied about the trouble a few years ago in the banlieues of Paris, but his point was still a true one. These countries put out this sickly image of sophistication, haute cuisine, high culture, civilised values, tea, and intellectualism, yet in both places the obscene underside erupts to reveal itself to everyone.
It is something that might be called a Fritzl culture, after the Austrian man who managed to maintain a pleasant façade in his suburban home, chatted with his neighbours, went to work, raised children, whilst all along keeping this horrifying secret in his basement, the hidden incestuous family he was raising. That is what our neo-liberal society is like, and it is mirrored by the BBC reporters pointing at the trendy cafés with their windows smashed in Enfield, droning on in their bland, uncomprehending chatter.
What has been revealed in the last few days? Well we can see that this is quite obviously not the same as the riots of the 80s in Brixton or Broadwater Farm, or even Notting Hill back in 58. It seems that the opening events in Tottenham may have been sparked by the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police, but this has clearly lit a touch paper to something far greater than issues surrounding the police and race. Within hours, rioters, mainly youths, and many black, but with all races well represented, set light to parts of the High Street, and smashed and looted the shops along the road. The “community leaders” were predictably wheeled out on the television; David Lammy offering his patronising condemnation over the chants of hecklers in the background, and the Reverend Nims Obunge, offering his similarly patronising concern over inequality with added muted talk about how unnecessary the violence was.
But in reality, the situation was clearly out of their control by this stage. This was not a race riot, or even that political. What is new about these riots is they look perversely un-political, and almost purely economic. This has so far not been a riot against the police as such, but against shiny glass shop windows. The destruction has mostly been against businesses, raiding phone stores, invading McDonalds and making burgers, taking over shops and handing out drinks. The image on the television has been the looters of Debenhams, who for one and half hours had the free run of the place, carrying anything and everything they could. There is a transgressive and carnivalesque feel too – why target a shop full of fancy dress costumes? The huge fires that lit up the city skyline seem to add rather than detract from this as well.
So what we have is indeed as Theresa May says “mindless thuggery”, but, of course, that phrase is already devalued because its use against UK Uncut and the student demonstrators. But this time the left is already wavering in that direction too. Now it is not unqualified support – the IWW has come out and said on Facebook that they do not support the attacks against ‘working class homes’ in poor areas – not I should say a wrong assessment at all, this is politically right, but it must also be considered how this fits with the media and government presentation of the riot as terroristic destruction for destructions sake. The Commune’s commentary on Twitter illustrates this tension better, asking how we ‘balance the right and legitimacy of the riot’ against the legitimacy of the people who are scared by the ‘mindless’ stuff’.
That is a largely irrelevant question, as if it even matters how “we”, the small milieu on the radical left, choose to balance it, or what we think about it – we are irrelevant, our judgement is irrelevant, and any attempt to pass moral judgement between different kinds of violence is a betrayal of the revolutionary principle. It is not a revolutionary way of thinking because it fails to look at society and the violence within it as a totality. What is happening is happening, it is the result of forces that it is our task to try and comprehend. And here I think the Fritzl analogy is the right one, because what we have is a new dialectic between the neo-liberal consumerist regime, and the looter, what someone has called the ‘failed consumers’ who no longer see the need to put their demands in political terms, but simply to take what they want.
And that is serious, that is not to denigrate them, that is perhaps the only way in which this could happen, how all those young people left on the margins of our society can engage with it and resist it. This is their expression, the state will do its best to suppress it, but we know for a fact that it will not go away, all the while this society intensifies its austerity. The state is being hollowed out by the demands of finance capitalism and all talk of returning to social democracy is a fallacy and a dream.
We have to remain loyal to this crisis. We have to support the eruption of the unheard and the unspoken in our obscene society. It is pretty fitting that the stock-markets are crashing all around the world, and at the same time, this story is being eclipsed by the violence from below. These are the best conditions we could ever hope for, but now we have to realise that the problem is not the excesses of this or that action, it is that the rioters are simply not radical enough. We have to radicalise them further, we have to politicise them and turn them against the real targets of our alienation and poverty – not working class homes, but the faltering capitalist regime. We have to support the anger, but make the anger political, and thereby turn it into something genuinely powerful and dangerous – a revolutionary moment rather than a riot.