David Broder argues that the left has to be honest about the counter-productive nature of Britain’s riots
“It’s not just this country, there’s uprisings everywhere. It’s the whole world. Everyone’s fed up, no one has anything” – Hackney pensioners quoted in Socialist Worker, 9th August 2011
Watching the BBC’s rather tabloid coverage of the current riots, one would imagine it was simply a wave of criminality. As if coming from nowhere, young people suddenly have no respect for authority: they can only be kept down by bolder use of state force. Reporting their own coverage as ‘mounting calls for police action’, the BBC implicitly admit that the only way to appease the rioters is the muzzle, that there is no carrot but only stick.
The main leftist response to this has been to stress the context behind the disturbances: poverty, racism, police brutality. The idea is to downplay the significance of the rioters’ actions as compared to violence and oppression in society as a whole. But this is only half the picture: if this ‘context’ explains reasons why young people feel angry and alienated, why should they choose this particular means of response?
We hear a lot about how these kids have ‘nothing to lose’: one of the reasons they are so willing to resort to open defiance of the law, whether smashing windows in broad daylight or torching cars. The sheer extent of the disturbances has doubtless emboldened a spirit of recklessness, giving the impression it is possible to get away with looting: but these are also the actions of people without a stake in society. However, if they have ‘nothing to lose’, the rioters also have ‘nothing to win’: they have such little hope of any alternative that individual looting seems like a better way of getting ahead than does making common cause with other working-class people.
Days of rage
The left response to the current rioting in London has been rather confused. For sure, many have been quick to point to the bubbling social malaise underpinning the rebellion, but few have come close to open support for the rioters’ actions. Perhaps the closest yet was today’s Socialist Worker, and its front page headline ‘Rage erupts against injustice’. This timeless, vacuous wording of the headline of course merely reflects the uncertainty of their position: if this were really some great rebellion of the dispossessed, why not join in?
The riots have wrong-footed left opinion because it is untenable to condone attacks on ordinary people’s homes and cars. Many complain about establishment hypocrisy: but if the ‘real’ violence is war or the ‘real’ looting is the City of London, it is also hypocritical to ignore the damaging effects that these riots also have on Britain’s communities. I really struggle to imagine how you would sell a paper with a front page glorifying the riots, to anyone whose neighbour had their car torched or whose estate was beset by vandalism.
In a sense, this confusion on the left is nothing new. Reflecting its own inability to pose a positive alternative, for decades socialist groups have increasingly tailed just any form of resistance to the powers-that-be. For instance, supporting Islamist groups fighting against imperialism shows a bankruptcy of purpose where, recognising our own weakness, we can contract out our ‘resistance’ to forces with totally different objectives. So the argument goes: never mind what they intend to achieve: they are downtrodden, they suffer real oppression, and they are fighting our enemies. Leftists concerned only with the feelings of politicians can enjoy their predicament whilst ignoring the suffering of these rebels’ victims. Their motto: the resistance is everything, the end goal is nothing.
Left-wing support for rioters – even if they are attacking working-class people’s homes, even if they have no positive idea what they want – is essentially another version of the same phenomenon. Equally, the very fact of the riot is an expression of the weakness of radical or alternative ideas: unlike the Brixton or Toxteth riots of thirty years ago, there is no struggle and no enemy, simply an explosive reaction to being angry, fed-up and downtrodden.
The point, however, is not to ‘condemn’ or ‘condone’ the rioters. There is nothing to ‘condone’ or support; ‘condemning’ them is not a means of engaging with them, only an expression of submission to the dominant media and political discourse. Far from it: we are against arrests, we are against more police powers, and we are against the imprisonment of the people involved. We are opposed to the punishment of the dispossessed and opposed to more state power in the name of law-and-order.
And yes, we should try and engage the rioters in a positive alternative to a capitalist system which keeps them downtrodden. Yes, they should struggle against being shat upon. But that does not mean their current actions are part of the answer. That is a discussion to be had openly and honestly: if there is no point shaming these young people by wagging our fingers in moral disapproval, it is no better to patronisingly imagine they are not capable of better than this.
As communists we believe in a means of struggle which reflects a radically different set of social relations. To that end our fight against the government includes as many people as possible, organises in a democratic way, and seeks to promote an alternative social order in the here and now. This is a quite different attitude from blindly cheerleading any ‘resistance’ against the powers-that-be: it is a programme for collectively changing our mutual relations, a mass of people able to engage with each other in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical way. We don’t just want to make it known that we’re fed up, we want to revolutionise society.
Unfortunately the attitudes of the left, and its defeats in recent decades, mean that such ideas have had far too little weight in the current wave of struggles around the world: from the mass protests in Greece to the square camps in Spain, or even the Arab uprisings, they express mass anger without being able to articulate what they want instead. Despite the intentions and heroism of those involved, a lack of such perspective ultimately means besieging the ruling class with pressure until they come up with some means of appeasing the movement. This ultimately reproduces an order where decisions are made for us by others and large numbers of people have no stake in society at all.
The riots are a reflection of poverty and anger, and an extreme expression of the lack of any widespread positive vision for an alternative to the current society. But it is not enough just to try and politicise them a bit more by inviting the participants to existing left activity like TUC demos or the rally against the Tory conference. In the immediate that seems a very unlikely prospect, and it also skims over the need to draw lessons from what is happening. We must also be honest that the current riots are not even the embryo of the kind of movement we want. This is counter-productive behaviour whose only results will be division amongst working-class communities and an excuse for the state to step up its use of force.