…or does it explode?

13 08 2011

Joe Thorne looks for the meaning of the recent wave of inner city riots

Eventually, it always explodes.  But what dream has been deferred, how, and by whom?  Who are the rioters, what motivated them – and does it matter?  Was there a radical kernel to the riots which would speak to us, if only we would listen? Or were they the mute reflex of a nihilist or egoistic sub-generation of looter-consumers – pitiable, and understandable, but nothing more?

Clarence Road, Hackney, Monday night.

To the former idea corresponds a romanticised account of the figure of the rioter as a new vanguard-subject in the class struggle, flawed, but in essence communistic.  To the later idea corresponds the view that the rioters need to be rescued by the political programme or organisation of some other segment of the working class: the primary significance of their disorder is as a moral rebuke to the movement which has forgotten them.  Both are attempts to constrain a complex reality under too-easy an analysis.  There is no ‘essence’ to the riots; beyond their expression of a particular phase in the recomposition of the class-relation in Britain’s inner cities.  As we shall see, the riots were partly products of a real, positive and intentional class consciousness, albeit the consciousness of a very particular sub-section of the class.  There were also elements in it that were not only nihilistic and selfish, but vicious and cruel. 

These tendencies are not expressed as distinct groups of participants: a few ‘proper’ class-struggle rioters, and a few thugs.  There probably were some rioters with a clear class-related ethic, just as there were certainly a number who saw the disturbances primarily as cover for mugging and burning their neighbours’ cars.   But what is more likely is that such agendas were interpolated throughout the crowd, present to different degrees in different individuals, and differently in any given individual at different times throughout the night.

The romantic idea is easiest to dispense with.  Writing for the Commune, Daniel Harvey proposes “loyalty” to the phenomenon of the riots.  “We have to support the eruption of the unheard and the unspoken in our obscene society.”  Therefore, “the problem is not the excesses of this or that action, it is that the rioters are simply not radical enough.”  Of course, there is no one problem which is ‘the problem’.  But it is certainly a very big problem that 100 families have been made homeless, and terrified in the process.  It is understandable that a broad swathe of opinion will focus on such events, as well as on the destruction of small family-owned shops.  Five people have been killed in the riots since Sunday, none by the police.

Many of the differences with the inner-city riots of the 1980s have been exaggerated (for example, burning and looting were common then too, and race was not the major factor overall, however important they were in specific areas.)   However, it does seem that there has been an escalation in the use of careless violence.  Contrast the burning of family homes from the following sentiment expressed in Liverpool in 1981.  “We do not hit family homes’ ‘What about the garage on the corner, people work there’ – ‘Yeah but they don’t own the place, it’s owned by Shell’.”  Perhaps the general context of class consciousness has subsided, perhaps 30 years of neoliberalism has produced a material environment so destructive for young minds that they simply don’t care.

(The other major difference, in my perception, is that there were far fewer police injuries and far more arrests.  111 police officers were injured in London over four days of rioting in London, and so far more than 1,000 arrests have been made.  In comparison, in the 1981 Brixton riots, 229 officers were injured and 82 arrests were made at the time – though at least 280 were arrested later.  This partly reflects superior police training and equipment, but may also reflect poorer organisation and less aggression on the part of rioters – or perhaps too much preoccupation with loot over and above fighting the police.  Chris Harman reported that analysis of figures from different areas in 1981 showed that the “greater the number of police injuries, the fewer were the arrests”.)

Much of the looting appears – from anecdotal accounts – to have been more or less a black market capitalist enterprise.  “Gang leaders stood back while the younger ones ran into the shops”, reports Jonathan Tomlinson.   I saw in Hackney what friends reported in South London: adult men in cars directing groups of children on bikes.  A friend described the looting of the Burberry factory outlet: cars with blacked-out windows pulled up, and men loaded in goods by the box-load.  We saw opportunistic muggings in Hackney, and one particularly disgusting occurrence of this sort was captured on film. In such a context, it is impossible to avoid criticising “this or that” action, not because it would be unpopular not to do so, but because it is impossible to pick out the valid class content of the riots without being able to distinguish, politically, a burning police car from a burning home.

Class, hedonism, and despair

Will Davies has written one of the most interesting analyses of the week’s riots, but in doing so promotes the idea of the rioter as apolitical consumer.

In themselves, these riots may indeed be about inequality: the concentration of wealth and power may simply have become too unwieldy, regardless of what the rioters think is going on. But for themselves, they are about power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not crediting the participants with being able to make sense of what they’re doing.

Contrary to what Will Davies says, if we credit the participants with being able to make sense of what they are doing, the class politics are abundantly clear.

One man in Tottenham on Saturday night told a reporter that he saw it as a “battle” against the “ruling class”.  Elsewhere, a rioter told Sky news that there “isn’t a future for young people, that’s how I see it because the government they are not helping anyone out except the rich people. They don’t care for us.”  One of his friends demanded the restoration of Education Maintenance Allowance, more help for single mothers, and a reversal of tuition fee rises.  Two girls from Croydon, drinking looted rosé at 9.30am on Tuesday morning put it like this: “it’s the government’s fault . . . it’s about showing the police we can do what we want . . . all this has happened because of the rich people, so we’re showing the rich people we can do what we want”.  In a lull in the rioting on Mare St on Monday, one 21 year-old woman who had lived in Hackney her whole life gave me her interpretation.

It’s kids revolting against the capitalist bonds that bind them, shops like Game and JD where they been told they need to shop by the media . . . half the people here have no politics, it doesn’t mean there’s no politics in it . . . they hit the Ladbrokes, I was really pleased about that . . . living in an area like this, you understand.

Police harassment is the other common theme.  For many Black people, such harassment is interpreted, probably in part correctly, through the prism of race, and racism.  “My son is 12 years old”, says Michelle from Hackney, “and he already knows that police do not work for black people”.  A man calling himself L concurred. “This supposed law and order is dishonest. I get stopped and searched. You won’t”, he told a reporter. “They should just say ‘I’m stopping you because you’re black’.”  Figures show that black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.  (They are less than 5 times more likely, on average, to be convicted for related offences.)  However, police harassment was also identified as a principle motivating factor by many white rioters in areas such as Enfield and Manchester.  The nature of stop and search is that it works on the basis of identifying people based on their demographic, which is why those stopped under evidence-led powers are less likely to be black.  Consequently, a large number of those who are repeatedly stopped – often in an extremely disrespectful manner – are innocent.  The proportion of stop and searches which lead to any arrest is low: most, therefore, appear to those stopped as harassment.

At a closed meeting held by community workers in Hackney on Tuesday, a number of young people spoke about the motivations for the riots, as they saw them.  They listed a) a lack of jobs, and particular resentment about the lack of Olympic jobs, b) police mistreatment during frequent stop and searches, and c) resentment of ‘newcomers’ or ‘yuppies’, who they believe the intense stop and search regime panders to, and who they accuse of booking-out local sports facilities, making them inaccessible for locals.  That morning, on Clarence Road, one man of Caribbean descent told me that the number of children without engaged fathers in the area was partly because those fathers had often been deported.

Some readers may believe that these quotes have been laboriously selected to allow me to build up a picture which suits my ideological prejudices.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Virtually every published statement in the press on the part of rioters tells the same story: the rich have got it all, we’ve got no future, we want the police to stop hassling us, and, right now, we’re going to do what we need to do to achieve those things.  There are a few exceptions, including some racist comments – “the Polish are taking the jobs, so we’ve got to do something”, one man from Manchester told Radio 4 – but the comments quoted are overwhelmingly representative of the opinions which have been reported in the media, and which I have heard in Hackney.

What are the elements of the consciousness which we can infer from these fragments?  The rioters understand that we live in a class society, divided between the rich (in whose interests the government and police work), and that cuts to welfare provision represent an attack on their class, by the ruling one.  They understand everything from unemployment to consumerism to gambling in class terms.  In short, participants in the riots understand everything that the liberal commentariat understand, and more.  They are as unrevolutionary as the rest of the proletariat, but accept that illegal direct action is legitimate and necessary.

This account is, necessarily, based on those who are able to articulate themselves, and who choose to do so.  No doubt, the same conditions which breed poverty currently breed inarticulacy, and a lack of confidence in self-expression.  And the form of the riot mitigates against allowing a visible, vocal leadership to emerge, at least in the short term.  But the point is that, insofar as any political ideas have been articulated, they are class ones.

The idea of Will Davies is that although the riots are objectively caused by relative deprivation and police harassment, subjectively they are not about these things, but about consumption and power.  Presumably this is also what David Broder means when he says that “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.”  But such ideas do not stand up to even the most casual attempt to listen to the people involved.  No one ever ‘just reacts’, everyone understands what they do through some general framework, more or less sophisticated or accurate.

The ideas of one rioter as expressed through graffiti. Bad: Tories, police. Good: satanism, anarchy, automatic weapons.

This does not mean that there is no evidence of “power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego” – and, we might add, the thrill of the mob.  However, such motivations are themselves far from necessarily apolitical.  If one’s protest is against a class dynamic which provides one with disempowerment, material privation, boredom, and the diminution of the ego, it is entirely reasonable to expect a response to involve a negation of those elements.  Furthermore, when we re-read that list, we cannot fail to see that it might as well describe the modus operandi of a great many senior bourgeois politicians.  Such figures repeatedly accept, uncontroversially and in public, that they enjoy the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics.  Their scandals betray their love of an ego-driven, lavish lifestyle that makes the excesses of the rioters seem puny by comparison.  This is not merely the well-worn point that the ruling class are hypocritical – the arsonist Clegg, or the vandal Cameron.  It is to say that what is seen as exceptional in the riot is rather less so than first impressions might suggest, there really is no realm of purely principled political action.  A Hackney resident called Ariom described the sense of solidarity and community he felt during the riot in terms similar to those used by workers talking about their experience during large strikes.

It’s like the old days. It’s bringing the community spirit back. Even though it’s a sad way to do it, it’s bringing the community together.  If the riots kick off again, I’m going. . .  I loved Hackney during the riot. I loved every minute of it. It was great to see the people coming together to show the authorities that they cannot just come out here bullying.

“Rioting is a politics of despair”, says Owen Hatherley, as if it is the product of some sort of adolescent existential crisis, rather than a politics which responds to the material situation of those who riot.  They are frequently unemployed, hence unable to strike, and (for various reasons) unable to affect change through voting.  As Piven and Cloward put it, “some of the poor are sometimes so isolated from significant institutional participation that the only ‘contribution’ they can withhold is that of quiescence in civil life: they can riot.”[1]

In this section, I have stressed what is positive in the riots, and I have done so in order to bring to the surface one element in what is, as I have said, a profoundly contradictory situation.  I have  dwelt more on it than on the other aspect I have highlighted – thuggish, nihilist criminality – not because I necessarily believe it to be more important, or prevalent, but because it is more common to deny its existence at all.  Indeed, I cannot claim that I am able to judge the balance; or even that the lines between the different sorts of motivation are always sharp and well drawn.  But I believe that I have demonstrated that accounts which deny rioters are capable of thinking politically for themselves are based on a failure to engage with what they themselves have to say.

The left responds

The Socialist Party, which is nothing if not predictable, says that the riots demand a “mass, trade union-led workers’ response”.  The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has a broadly similar view.  The riots “can have no directly positive effects on the lives of those who riot or on the lives of their families”, and all the agency is in the hands of “the labour movement”, by which they meant the Labour party and trade unions.  “A key context for the riots is the decline of labour movement organisation”, apparently, despite the fact that riots were much bigger during the 1981 when unions were close to their peak membership.  This is the relatively institutionally-minded wing of the Trotskyist movement.

What is wrong with it?  First of all, the trade unions (let alone the Labour Party!), who currently seem unable to organise their members in defence of even their own immediate interests, have no capacity to supply a solution to inner-city youth.  Historically, unemployed people and youth have proved more than capable of autonomous self-organisation, and there is no reason that they will not be able to do so again. The unemployed workers’ movement of the US or UK in the 1930s frequently and effectively employed looting and riot, and were organised directly by the unemployed, not by the trade unions.  The same goes for ethnic-minority youth organisations such as the Black Panthers or Asian Youth Movement.  Furthermore, the institutional-Trotskyist perspective totally denies the potential efficacy of riots as a weapon in the class struggle.  Like strikes, riots are frequently unsuccessful, but nonetheless have a more or less effective record in winning concessions from the ruling class.  For example, the end of the ‘Sus’ laws in the 1980s, and the injection of money into the inner cities which followed the Brixton riots and the Scarman report.  In other words, it achieved two of the immediate political objectives of the rioters.

Meanwhile, an article in Socialist Worker white-washed the riots, making them out to be far better and less complicated than they were.

No one set out to try and kill or injure those living above those premises. They were venting their anger against an unequal society.  Karl Marx was exactly right when he talked about expropriating the expropriators, taking back what they have taken from us. That’s what looting by poor working class people represents and in that sense it is a deeply political act.  And as far as violence goes, that was aimed at the police who carry out violent attacks on working class communities on a daily basis, especially against black male youth.

The arsonists may not have been specifically trying to kill anyone, but are nonetheless culpable for burning people’s homes down, whether by intention or omission.  The violence was not all aimed at police, and anyone who was present during the riots could see that.  The looting was sometimes expropriating the expropriators, sometimes gang-capitalism, and sometimes petty destruction of the very smallest of petit bourgeois livelihoods.  The SP and AWL seem not to admit that it had any positive character at all – but this seems wrong.  Looting from big chain stores, from a class point of view, is fundamentally legitimate.  We don’t fetishise the law: we support unlawful strikes for example, blocking roads, and so on.  One way to supplement one’s income whilst causing economic damage to capitalists is to strike for higher wages: another way is to loot.  So there’s no need to condemn looting in the abstract, any more than smashing windows or fighting the police.[2]

Conclusions

I lived on the Pembury Estate, the epicentre of the most destructive rioting in Hackney, for six months in 2009.  In that time, at least five people died violent deaths within 200 metres of my door, including Christelle Pardo, and Jahmal Mason-Blair, who was 17.  Hackney in general, and the Pembury in particular, is plagued by high unemployment, poor housing, falling incomes, and resentment against the borough’s ostentatiously wealthy newcomers.   For every available job there are 24 job seekers. The total impact of proposed spending and benefits changes on the poorest 10% in society is equivalent to 38% of net personal income.  Nationally, half of young black men are unemployed, and the figure is probably higher in Hackney where total unemployment runs at around 20%.  Cuts to youth clubs in Haringey and Hackney led one youth worker to predict in late July that ‘there will be riots’.

An ongoing analysis of those so far brought to court over involvement in the riots suggests that 73% are under 25 and only 12% are women.  Reporting on court cases suggest that rioters strongly tend to be unemployed, or working in low-paid jobs.  Observers agree that the riots were ethnically mixed, “young men from poor areas”.  In other words, the rioters correspond to the profile which we would expect, on the basis of the concerns and demands recorded above.  But the same social ground which breeds such class-resentment also breeds a degree of aggression, callousness, and low political ambition.  Across the country, between Saturday and Tuesday, both exploded simultaneously, in the same neighbourhoods, and often in the same person.

Any useful political response will take time and enquiry to develop.  We can further explore the potential for organising amongst the unemployed, amongst youth, and in opposition to stop and search.  Revolutionaries are socially and demographically isolated from the elements of the working class which produced these riots, and doing anything to bridge that gap will be very far from easy.  We need to listen to the rioters, and the community members who chose not to riot, many of whom did so for perfectly good political reasons – and acknowledge that the marches and placards of the traditional left have very little to offer, day to day, to many inner city youth.  They need a different political practice.  So, therefore, do we.

The title of the article is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes

A selected online reading list on riots

The unemployed workers’ movement in the US 1930-1939, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward

Like a summer with a thousand Julys – an account of the 1981-82 inner city riots by BM Blob

Hot time: Summer on the estates: Riots in the UK 1991-2

The university, the car factory and the working class – specifically on the 1991 Oxford riots

LA ’92: The Context of a Proletarian Uprising – Aufheben

The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis – Chris Harman (Socialist Workers’ Party)

Brixton 1981: Workers’ Power ; Daily Mail

Toxteth 1981: BBC; Liverpool Daily Post

The recent violence in the French suburbs is difficult to integrate into the general class combat, 2005 and What happened after the Paris suburb riots? – Mouvement Communiste

Rioting in Nottingham: a different pattern? AWL report on the 2011 disturbances in Nottingham

Austerity and anarchy: budget cuts and social unrest in Europe, 1919 – 2009 - Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth


[1] Poor People’s Movements (1977:25)

[2] The fact is that for many people it will not prove worthwhile.  They will go to prison.  But to critique the tactic on that ground is very different from making disproving noises about looting in the abstract.  It is also the case that destroying small shops in many areas is not only attacking people who are very little distant from the proletariat, but likely to inflame ethnic tension.

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27 responses

13 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

My comment will have to be quick, and it will make me late today, but I don’t quite understand why your treatment of my article is so dismissive in this case. Despite it being produced quickly and being far shorter than yours, and with less time for consideration that you have taken, I did manage to make most of the points you allude to in other articles. I do put across the Hegelian distinction between riots objectively being about an underclass and subjectively a new form of nihilistic consumerism. I didn’t emphasise that the rioters themselves do have more awareness of class than they are credited with, but I do essentially make the same conclusions, them not being radical enough is exactly a precis of this point about them not actually being brave enough to deploy their anger in a political and revolutionary way. I don’t understand why you put across my view is naive and “romantic” in that case. I do, despite the unfairness and off-hand treatment of my own article, think your conclusions are right, but you still haven’t really expunged that paternalism that you and David seem to exude over these riots, you are still a smart-alec critic outsider in this piece.

13 08 2011
David

An interesting piece. But I don’t think you really integrate the contradictions you list together. I also think you attribute a lot of positive aspects to it which do not really seem to bear out in reality. I totally agree with the conclusion: the need to listen. But we also need to listen to what is actually happening and interpret it for its real meaning…

“it is impossible to avoid criticising “this or that” action, not because it would be unpopular not to do so, but because it is impossible to pick out the valid class content of the riots without being able to distinguish, politically, a burning police car from a burning home.”

When people say it is not about judging “this or that action”, whatever their view on the riots, the intention is surely to reflect that the rioter’s mindset is contradictory. Breaking it down into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts may generally expose the riot’s limitation, but does not really tell us much about the rioters’ subjective intentions. For example, if someone chucks bricks or whatever at a policeman, and also torches a house, how can you say the first is ‘about’ class whereas the second is not, when the mix of actions suggest that both cases are expressions of nihilism?

The rioters and politicians both show signs of hypocrisy, so “there really is no realm of purely principled political action” – really?

“Virtually every published statement in the press on the part of rioters tells the same story: the rich have got it all, we’ve got no future, we want the police to stop hassling us, and, right now, we’re going to do what we need to do to achieve those things… “The rioters understand that we live in a class society, divided between the rich (in whose interests the government and police work), and that cuts to welfare provision represent an attack on their class, by the ruling one.”

A pretty bold assertion? The use of the word class seems out of place, since even awareness of the rich/unfairness/exploitation does not as such create a sense of class, which is a feeling of collectivity. Millions of people are against elites, toffs etc without having any class feeling, i.e. the recognition of a subjective factor which can challenge the way things are. And when I read this I can only ask the question: why then this kind of action. If as you say we would expect people resisting a capitalist conditions to negate its dynamic, why then some of the things you describe yourself – stealing for black market capitalist enterprises, attacks on homes, torching cars, setting off fires etc.

A lot of people interviewed have said it is about austerity. That is a good conceptual framework for understanding its general causes. But you cannot deduce the actions themselves, from these causes of anger. Of course, the rioters weren’t exactly lining up to tell the media about what their*actions were for. And the rather mixed choice of means of actions would suggest a disconnect between causation and subjective reaction. Perhaps you allude to this in your title and first paragraph: the whole notion of explosion suggests uncontrollable, ballistic, unplanned…

This is why you are mistaken to write…

“The idea of Will Davies is that although the riots are objectively caused by relative deprivation and police harassment, subjectively they are not about these things, but about consumption and power. Presumably this is also what David Broder means when he says that “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.” But such ideas do not stand up to even the most casual attempt to listen to the people involved. No one ever ‘just reacts’, everyone understands what they do through some general framework, more or less sophisticated or accurate.”

… It is not just a ‘reaction’, but the way it develops is not necessarily subjectively political. For example, why did it spread? Not solely, but at least partly, because the police couldn’t handle it, people’s friends were doing it, it was exciting, it provided some sort of moment of cathartic lashing-out. It had a force of momentum, which then dissipated. And as we know from our experience on the left, people often have all sorts of contradictory ideas at the same time (or else a ‘fuck everything’ attitude) and don’t necessarily behave in a manner which reflects their sobre thinking or philosophy. We see this in arsonists’ behaviour, which clearly doesn’t fulfil any sort of ‘agenda’. If we did get them to say what their actions were about, what would they say?

You (and others) turn things on their head by imposing real objective causes on the participants’ subjective actions. But these things are very different – the whole reason capitalism survives is that people’s consciousness lags behind the development of material conditions which mean they are exploited but also give them the opportunity to overthrow capitalist relations. Revolution is ‘possible’ but people are not organised for it. In fact “if we credit the participants with being able to make sense of what they are doing” and give them subjectivity, we also have to recognise this human understanding is a contradictory process where we have to work things out for ourselves, and as such all of us are often mistaken, confused, etc.

Absolutely, yes, the people involved in the riots are able to think politically themselves. They are totally able to think what they are doing, to plan, to act with each other. But that is not a carte blanche defence of what they think already: there is an ongoing contest of ideas, and people learn in struggle. They do not necessarily have class politics at the outset, still less are anyone’s views ever settled and complete. That is why we should not impose our own subjective/political categories on the rioters’ actions, but rather look at the situation and what they are doing, engage with them and listen to what they are really saying.

14 08 2011
c0mmunard

Dan – no, there’s no paternalism.

Breaking it down into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts may generally expose the riot’s limitation, but does not really tell us much about the rioters’ subjective intentions. For example, if someone chucks bricks whatever at a policeman, and also torches a house, how can you say the first is ‘about’ class whereas the second is not, when the mix of actions suggest that both cases are expressions of nihilism?

Well, you can’t, though equally, of course, it’s possible that they were. But a very small minority torched houses, or other normal people’s cars for that matter. It is also possible that in many cases those who did so merely meant to torch shops, and didn’t think about whether there were flats overhead – which doesn’t at all excuse it, but does mean that they maybe weren’t being ‘nihilistic’.

What’s more likely is that the first was a mix of class and (perhaps) nihilism, and the second was merely nihilism. Obviously there’s no way to prove that. You’ve got to make a judgement based on the evidence we have: the things people say when asked, and how people behaved.

The use of the word class seems out of place, since even awareness of the rich/unfairness/exploitation does not as such create a sense of class, which is a feeling of collectivity. Millions of people are against elites, toffs etc without having any class feeling, i.e. the recognition of a subjective factor which can challenge the way things are.

But that obviously doesn’t apply in a case where people are rioting and directly challenging the police for control of the streets (partly) on the basis of that awareness. People say they were doing what they were doing in order to challenge the way things are.

Furthermore, I think you’re applying standards of class conciousness which you don’t apply in other cases. For example, when workers strike for higher wages, everyone agrees it’s an instance of a class driven action, based on some sort of class conciousness. But all they are doing, most often, is defending their own sectional material interests against a group – e.g. the government or the bosses – who they vaguely perceive to be on a different side. There is generally little identification with the interests of the whole working class as we would conceive it, in any way at all, let alone any idea that the class constitutes a political subject. Still less a revolutionary one.

You (and others) turn things on their head by imposing real objective causes on the participants’ subjective actions. . . That is why we should not impose our own subjective/political categories on the rioters’ actions, but rather look at the situation and what they are doing, engage with them and listen to what they are really saying.

No, that’s exactly it – I’m saying that when you listen to what the people themselves say they explain their own subjective motivations in class terms. So you have, I’m saying a) X is the objective cause, b) X is identified subjectively as the motivation, c) X is identified subjectively as being a function of a power structure in which the rich run the government and fuck everyone else over – what more do you want?

I spoke to another (non white, hackney resident) person today about the riots. I asked her what she thought of them. Response: “it’s a class war, the rich against the poor.” How many times do people have to say things like this before others listen?

Apparently in Deptford, there were no attacks on small independent grocers. Everything that was attacked was, from our point of view, a ‘legitimate’ target. How do you explain that? Coincidence? Obviously the dynamic played out differently in diff

I think, at root, your and Dan’s ideas are grounded in the same problem which is, a) not being there, and b) not really doing any research (that I can see) about the nature of the riots other than a fairly cursory received impression through the bourgeois media. For example, it all seems to you very negative, but that’s partly because you didn’t watch hundreds of working class youth resist a police stop and search, and then fight a running battle with said police down Mare St for 2 hours using fireworks and other projectiles. It was really good, but you didn’t have that experience, and it hasn’t informed how you react to it. I mean, what are you basing all this on? Where is it coming from? Obviously I accept that you don’t necessarily have to be in a situation to comment on it, but a) as a substitute, it is necessary to do proper research, and b) listen to those who were there. The first account we published from Hackney is good. I know that several other people who were there think that the analysis I’ve suggested above is pretty good. But you’re just asserting that it had a certain character, and not explaining why you see it that way.

14 08 2011
Boffy

Actually, many of those doing the looting have said when asked why they did it, “Because we could!” A number of gang members have set out why they are in gangs, and what their intnetions were. They said, most want to make a couple of hundred grand, and then get out. Far from any sense of class most are motivated by extreme individualism, and many see themselves essentially as entrepreneurs. That is why they are involved in selling drugs, and other black market activity.

In fact, given experience in the States there may be some postive aspects of this if it is organised and oriented to properly. I’m in the process of writing a blog about how elements of the black Power movement related to that. Opposition to “The Man”, was translated into the idea of black pride, of black communtiy self-organisation, and black local enterprise. I should hasten to say I’m not implying by this that those involved in the riots in the UK were exclusively or even predominantly black. The evidence coming out suggests that those involved reflected gang composition in the respective area of the country, predominantly black in London, predominantly white in Manchester.

What I am suggesting is that where you get people who are enterprising there is a potential to orient this postively. The problem in the US was that the re-orientation mainly focussed on black private enterprise. We need to focus it on working-class, co-operative enterprise. Another feature of that, and one the left tends to reinforce rather than undermine, is the idea that jobs can only be create by Capital be it private capital or State capital. It reinforces the dominant Welfarist, Dependency ideology that there is nothing we can do for ourselves. If that is true then the hope for Socialism is fucked. It would imply that a Workers State surrounded by a sea of Capitalism, not only would have to confront and compete against them, but would be dependent upon them for providing it with Capital and so on. It implies our hands are tied to do anything to help oursleves, other than to make pleas to Capital for work, for higher pay etc. It reproduces the Capital-Labour relation, and reinforces it ideologically.

Our message in deprived communties should not be one of despair based on pleas to the State to create work, but should be based on the idea fundamental to Socialism that where there are needs, and also resources to meet those needs, it is possible to bring the two together fruitfully. We should not sit back and complain or make pleas to the bosses and their state, but stand up, say it loud, we’re working class and we’re proud, and begin to put the unused resources together with the unment needs oursleves, thereby creating work, and the income required to expand needs further. But, it would also require a sharp shift in focus for many socialists who have entrapped themselves in the dependecny culture of Welfarism, because just as the 19th century Co-operative Movement sought to create jobs for its unemployed members, by providing them with useful work, so it also implies the implementation of that otehr basic Socialist principle spelled out by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme -”He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” It is one thing to oppose Workfare when it is imposed by the bosses and their State, it is another when it is applied as a principle ourselves within our own communities and economies. A Workers State would last no time at all if the current ideas of Welfarism were to continue into it.

14 08 2011
David

@ Communard. you are putting a certain spin on the events by claiming certain things you hear are the predominant views of the rioters. I know you went along to Hackney for a few hours. But for obvious reasons many of the people you quote directly are external to the riots, not participants (in other cases the wording you use makes it unclear).

Equally, people who did things out of mere opportunism or criminality would not necessarily formulate that as a political explanation of what they are doing for BBC, Guardian interviewers, or yourself, would they? No-one attributes dark motives to themselves, which is why we do not analyse politics by mere words (Cameron believes in ‘fairness’, Clegg believes in ‘hope’) but by their actions. So you could have a bit more humility about the significance of these conversations.

For instance, where Will Davies says the riots are political because of the causes, but not political in subjectivity but rather driven by hedonism, power etc., you write “Contrary to what Will Davies says, if we credit the participants with being able to make sense of what they are doing, the class politics are abundantly clear.” But that reasoning is tautological. You are arguing that the real objective cause is X, the rioters have lived this experience, and so if they are conscious of what they want, then X must also be their political cause and reason behind their actions.

But that doesn’t follow at all. They may positively feel grievances but also be driven by hedonism, the chance to feel empowered, opportunist stealing, etc., all at once. That is why people can take actions with opposite or differing ‘political sense’ (attacking police, attacking homes) at the same time. People’s *ability* to make sense of their actions doesn’t mean they always purely conceive of their actions in line with what you consider the correct cool/rational ideological framework for them. When I see a guy pushing someone off their bike as to steal it, I think he’s probably not really thinking about what he’s doing. Of course, you are right that neither is it true that a strike is necessarily an expression of revolutionary intention, or even broad class awareness: but the action itself does produce real collectivity, the possibility of lasting gains, the material possibility of this linking up with other sections of the class (which we would always encourage). It is about people rising together to get a common improvement, so is not the same as one individual trying to get a bit richer times 100 or 1000. I’m not sure if those dynamics play out here, or that you can make an analogy.

Baldly asserting that I haven’t read up on what’s going on is one thing, but then to counter what I say with the comments of individuals, or generalising from specific instances, is nonsense. No doubt it is impressive to see people standing up to police (did see it actually, felt similar) but then surely you are also horrified by the killings, the fire, etc.? Yes, it played out differently in different areas, e.g. Nottingham, but then its contradictory character is the whole point. But your arguments don’t reflect that. It’s a bit like in different sections of your article you attribute varying degrees of importance to its positive and negative aspects, as if you are constantly championing one or the other argument but never resolve it. So the comparison between yours, mine and Dan’s articles doesn’t ring true: he says it is great, I say it is very contradictory, you say: no, you weren’t there! It was great! but with terrible bits! I do not say it is ‘negative’, but that it is contradictory and you cannot simply pick it apart into good and bad.

What you describe about poverty/alienation is indeed much discussed but as I keep saying you have to ask how far *specific actions* reflect that. You also have to address the reality of opportunism, criminality, other people’s very negative response. I’m sure at the Pembury estate you will have found lots of people who, even if they knew broader contextual reasons for the riots, would still have been very unhappy about what went on and not praised it as a class fightback. We should listen to those people too: really listening is not just listening to people who say what you want to hear.

14 08 2011
c0mmunard

But that’s exactly the point, and the running theme of my article is that I recognise both sides, the “contradictory character”, whereas yours only recognises one, because you deny there’s any class subjectivity at work. (In Will Davies’s terms, you see it has being driven by class in itself but not for itself.) As you’ll see if you read the first section of the article, I explicitly address the “opportunism, criminality, other people’s very negative response”. And the need to listen to the people who view it negatively as well:

“We need to listen to the rioters, and the community members who chose not to riot, many of whom did so for perfectly good political reasons”

– so I think you’re just making points that I made very explicitly and clearly.

And you’re wrong in that the people I’ve quoted were participants. That’s the point. It’s not just me either. Every journalist, as I’ve already said, from media organisations from Sky to the BBC to the Guardian to the FT, has heard more or less the same story. That’s the point. It’s not selective, it’s just the overwhelming impression which comes through from the available evidence. And every time you say ‘but look, that’s not much evidence’, I think ‘yeah, but it’s still heaps more than you’ve got’.

e.g. FT today on police harassment: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/df5180a0-c4ed-11e0-9c4d-00144feabdc0.html

The Guardian yesterday used a headline which doesn’t appear on the internet: “they think the youths go mental. We don’t. We just want a job” – a quote from another riot participant. More in the online version: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/12/uk-riots-analysis

So when Trish says: “I’m still paying my student loan. That’s why I looted all I could,” what do you say? No, Trish, you looted because you’re a nihilist? No, of course you don’t say that. But then what do you say? Why can’t reporters find more than a smattering of nihilist comments?

As she takes a drag of a cigarette to calm her nerves The Guardian asks why she looted. She says it was to feed her brothers. But then she also says, “It’s not about the shops. It’s about retaliating against the government system, making us live poor lives…. we ain’t got nothing out here. So if people are going out to demonstrate, we’re going to riot mate.”

Another article in the same issue has a few kids summing it up pretty well.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/12/west-midlands-riots-looting-response

Why did people do it?

“Free shit,” said a voice. “And fucking the system.”

“You smash up the shops,” said a boy who would only identify himself as Corey, “and you get free stuff. Everything’s about money these days, innit?”

“If they’re stopping EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance],” added another, “what do they want us to do?” Hearing this, I wondered whether this was a line cynically pinched from some talking head on the TV, and parroted back at me, but all six said they wanted to go to college – a music course was mentioned, with retakes of GCSEs – but in the absence of the EMA, they were now wondering whether it was worth it.

Free shit, and fucking the system; we want to go to college but now we don’t know if we can. What would all those kids have to say in order to convince you that they’re more than just venting rage

Zoe Wiliams quotes a psychologist saying “There is no higher purpose, you just have a high volume of people with a history of impulsive behaviour, having a giant adventure.” In today’s Observer there’s someone talking about “emotional contagion”. I just think it’s totally patronising. I don’t think there’s even much ‘nihilism’ as such. I think it’s a combination of self-interest that’s compatible with broader class objectives, and self-interest which is totally reactionary.

p.s. just for the record, what a total bastard: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2024284/UK-riots-2011-Liberal-dogma-spawned-generation-brutalised-youths.html

14 08 2011
David

- As I said, “…people who did things out of mere opportunism or criminality would not necessarily formulate that as a political explanation of what they are doing for BBC, Guardian interviewers, or yourself, would they? No-one attributes dark motives to themselves, which is why we do not analyse politics by mere words (Cameron believes in ‘fairness’, Clegg believes in ‘hope’) but by their actions.” The interviewing/media angle of asking people what they want produces a self-selecting political narrative, which as you must accept we can’t rely on alone. After all, what was the overwhelming response of rioters to the media, during the riots? Not wanting to talk to them.

- My point is you recognise both sides but make no attempt to reconcile or give a framework for why both exist at once. This exists due to a lack of collective purpose, the weakness of radical ideas, etc.

- I did not broadly characterise the riots as nihilistic. Saying they largely lack purpose or have counter-productive effects is not to say they are ‘nihilistic’. Even if some people are. But, for example, to take your example of someone setting fire to a building, with no subjective intention that it will burn the flat above. Is that ‘nihilism’? No, that is not the conscious motor for action. But then it is clearly reckless, thoughtless and totally inconsiderate of other people, which is why it is right to think it is ‘adventurist’ and counter-productive.

14 08 2011
c0mmunard

My point is you recognise both sides but make no attempt to reconcile or give a framework for why both exist at once.

I do give a framework, albeit briefly, which is very simple: the material privation in inner cities.

The interviewing/media angle of asking people what they want produces a self-selecting political narrative, which as you must accept we can’t rely on alone.

But what’s the alternative? People sitting at home decide what the meaning of an individual action is on the basis of their pre-existing prejudices or assumptions? What’s the alternative evidential ground?

On your final point, fine, we agree.

14 08 2011
David

The material privation in inner cities is the, or a major, reason behind the anger and just sense of grievance fuelling the riots. Even some of the Lib Dems know that. But what we are discussing is the *specific actions themselves* and the subjectivity of the rioters, not just general social influences.

Poverty or police brutality do not necessarily lead to a specific type of behaviour. It could just grind people down, it could cause an ‘explosion’ like this, it also provides the basis for organising to change things. If people’s behaviour simply expressed material circumstances, then organising would be pointless, and indeed hopeless.

The “alternative evidential ground” is to consider what people say through the prism of their actions, and vice versa, at the same time, because people’s ideas and actions are not just the same, but do interact.

14 08 2011
Barry

Tom has interpreted comments made by rioters in the media and on North London streets as a form of class consciousness. For instance the rich have got it all, we have nothing,they have money we can now get it as well,we have no future and no voice,police hassle us, now its pay back time,the police and government work with the police,benefits and servies to young people have been cut, the government look after the rich in canary wharf no people in the flats on the estates. Surely this is an accurate assessment. It is embryonic class consciousness at the very least.

But David is cool and sceptical declaring that “even awareness of rich/unfairness /exploitation does not as such create a sense of class which is a feeling of collectivity” It seems the rioters fall well short of his understanding of what constitutes collective action. Furthermore he warns against deducing conclusions about the rioters actions from the causes for the riot which have been identified. It would be difficult to provide evidence to satisfy him, if only because he sees the riot as a spitit of recklessness not a spirit of rebellion.

But the actions of the rioters is elemental class consciousness. Collective resistance by thousands of people in a common experience: identifying themselves against the police government,the rich,comparing their life situation with them in parliament and canary wharf. Youth from different areas came together againt the common enemy to fight police. one of the prorities of the police was to protect big business. They failed since the looting was concentrated successfully on Boots JD Sports 02 currys argos PC World,commet.

David finds Torching cars difficult to accept. But Burning cars have been part of modern street fighting for some time. Bricks on Garden walls,paving stones have historically been ammunition for rioters.Here is a comment from solidarity on the events in Paris 1968:

“on the night of the Barricades,burnt out cars lined the pavement,thier carcasses a dirty grey under the missing paint”

History is people taking action,making their own history but not in circumstances of their own making. Rioters and revolutionaries from the paris commune onwards have chosen or compelled for various reasons to fight in their own neighbourhoods leading to detruction of workplaces and sometimes homes next to workplaces or urban battlefields. Look at the history of the great unrest 1910/14.

Sometimes people cannot wait for the overwhelming majority of the class to move into action or have the patience or inclination to put up with proper channels,compromise negotiation, or things left festering,unresolved or swept under the carpet. This is not to glorify riots but simply to state what capitalism and its effects are like.

14 08 2011
KCMilitant

What it do? I’m an American communist new to the Commune and have been following it with great interest. I’ve also been trying to closely follow the riots and out of 8-10 opinion pieces I’ve read on the UK riots, this is by far the most sophisticated and comprehensive. I appreciate the more dialectical approach of this piece which place the riots as contradictory, a contradiction that can even find expression in a singular actor in them. I was pretty unsatisfied with the “nothing to lose, nothing to win” post. I thought it spoke to the abstentionist and borderline racist (or lack of a race analysis) of the Left and Ultraleft. (Some of the conversations I read on libcom.org sometimes seem just a step away from burning crosses and white sheets.)

In particular I’d like to know more about the racial composition of the riots and of those small shops that were attacked. In the ’92 riots in LA dozens or hundreds of small shops were burned save for those that were black owned. If it were the United States I would vehemently oppose that perspective because of the racial composition of small shop keepers as many black folks’ direct experiences around race and class are with the small shopkeepers, Arab and South Asian, and the decision to strike against those shops during the LA riots of 1992 was highly political and there was a lot of foreboding in hip-hop culture (Ice Cube’s “Black Korea,” for instance). But in the UK, I understand, most Arabs and South Asians are thoroughly working class and I’ve heard some are taking part in the riots. What is the racial composition of the small shops being attacked and how do they figure into the existential oppression of black youth there if at all?

How much has race in general figured in to the crisis, the austerity, and the subjectivity of the riots? I thought the stats posted were useful but is there a sense that this objectivity will translate into a black political consciousness? How about those white and South Asian folks who are participating? In the US, many whites and Latinos identify with the sensibilities of hip-hop generation black youth. Is that the case with UK white and Third World youth? I saw a talk on BBC with David Starkey and while, let’s be real, that dude is a straight-up cracker, his more trivial take that working class white youth are more identifying with black youth than with the white middle class is an interesting observation. Where is the Left on this question? That’s been the most advanced shit I’ve heard on race so far and it is coming from someone who is a part of the bourgeois education elite.

One thing I want to highlight for further discussion is the author’s defense of small shopkeepers against big retailers as if the decision to loot small shops speaks more to the nihilist side of the contradiction within the riots. Again, this can’t be abstracted from race but I do realize my own American blinders could be creeping in on this question. Can their be positive racial and class content to the “looting” and destruction of small property as well?

Help an American out.

14 08 2011
KCMilitant

I wasn’t clear above. What I meant to say is that I’m against automatically subsuming attacks on small shops within the category of “nihilism,” because they can sometimes be animated by racial and political experiences as they were with Black youth in LA during ’92.

Sorry for the confusion.

14 08 2011
Boffy

There was an element of race involved in some of the attacks. In Birmingham, for instance, there is a long history of racism by Afro-Carribeans against Asians. In fact, its quite common across much of Britain. There are not an insignificant number of afro-caribbeans who associate with groups like the EDL, precisely because of that.

14 08 2011
Henry

The EDL is a predominantly white Anglo Saxon mob now masquerading as a defence squad.
But they are a fair representation of the debasement of the working class.

Race plays a role in these riots but not because of Arfo Carribean racism (has Boffy ever been to an anti EDL rally I wonder?) but of racism against this group, which is institutional. Also austerity is primarily aimed at the poor, who live by the margins anyway. They are being backed into a corner and have no other outlet.

Interesting comments about the US KC.

14 08 2011
Boffy

I didn’t say that the EDL were NOT predominantly white!!! But, racism by Afro-Caribbeans against Asian goes back a long way. During the 1970′s, a lot of the Afro-Caribbeans I knew were also involved with skin heads in football violence, and it tended to spread over into other areas. The EDL have tried to intervene in community defence, but have everywhere, pretty much been shunned by local communities, as happened for example in Eltham.

There is undoubtedly racism by the State directed at Afro-Caribeans, and some of that has provided fule to the riots, though not as I say in many palces outside London. In Manchester, the rioters were predominantly white. But, that is not to show that there is not also racism displayed by Afro-Caribeans against Asians, anymore than in the US, racism by the State against Blacks prevents there being racism by people like Farakan againest Jews.

In Birmingham, the history of tension between the Afro-Caribean and Asian communities goes back many years, and has led to several flare ups. In fact, that is so much the case that there was considerable worry that the murder of the three young Asian men, who were protecting their community, by what appears to be an organised group of Afro-Caribeans driving cars at them, would lead to another such flare up. The main thing preventing that seems to have been the powerful intervention of the Father of one of the men killed. Fortunately, the peace rally in Birmingham, also seems to have helped to soothe tensions between the two communties.

However, denying that such tensions, and conflict exists seems to me totally silly. It is of course by definition true that austerity affects the poor most adversely, but the list of those who have so far gone through the courts, shows them to be far from the poorest in society.

14 08 2011
c0mmunard

Boffy – tbh, I would argue, there’s as much racism flowing back the other way across that divide. I don’t think there’s any substantial number of afro-caribbeans who associate with the EDL, though I’m sure there’s a handful here and there.

David – But what we are discussing is the *specific actions themselves* and the subjectivity of the rioters, not just general social influences.

Obv. But it’s perverse to interpret the subjectivity, or the majority of actions, through the prism of a minority of actions, rather than the majority which are totally legitimate from our point of view (albeit not necessarily tactically judicious), and flying in the face of the subjectivity which the participants express themselves. At least given an obviously diverse and uncoordinated crowd. You’re all but totally abstracting subjectivity from influences, as if – despite what they say – the rioters’ subjectivity could not be explicitly and consciously formed around awareness and opposition to those influences.

btw as Paul Lewis put it “Even in the midst of the seeming immorality of rioting without a cause, there were signs of a moral compass, with young men trying to reign back others they felt were going too far.”

Hi KC, about the small shops, I think the thing is that in many cases they’re the section of the small bourgeoisie which is ever at risk of sinking into the proletariat (I think Marx said something about this), and were it not for online campaigns of donations many would have been proletarianised over night by the destruction and looting. In many cases they’ll be poorer than better-paid workers. I don’t know that for a fact, but culturally that’s my perception. I’m no saying there couldn’t ever be a case for it, but the local working class reaction to what happened has been pretty strongly against that sort of thing.

Many small shops are kept by Asians and Turks or Arabs. But the exact ethnic composition will differ enormously nationally.

On race, I think the fact is that the riots were pretty multi-racial. Even in the ’80s, when they were interpreted as race riots, everywhere except Brixton they were pretty multi-racial too. From the FT article I linked to above:

Jermaine, a 17-year-old who joked that he was “busy” in Hackney this week, said: “The police don’t like black kids. But they have a problem with all urban youth. All youth. White, black, whatever.”

So my hope would be that there will be a development of a class conciousness which includes a critique of racism rather than a separate black conciousness as an overarching ideological prism, legitimate as autonomous organising is in principle. I think that would accurately reflect the reality identified by Jermaine. I think Starkey is just a racist and doesn’t have any real insight at all. I don’t think white youth identify as having some sort of black identity, much as they probably tend to listen to music ‘of black origin’.

EDIT: a couple of other interesting articles.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/young-british-rioters-political-actions
http://www.bunker8.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/misc/inaug.htm

14 08 2011
KCMilitant

Thanks, Boffy, Henry, and Communard.

It can be a tricky mess. I don’t know much about English politics (trying to learn) but from what I gather the English Defense League has a fascist orientation, correct? So if the EDL were to attack small shops owned by Turks or Arabs in Britain obviously it would be necessary for their to be some kind of defense of those shops because communists should be anti-racist in principle.

On the other hand, while I think Communard is correct to the extent that historically the small shopkeepers get pushed into the proletariat, on what terms does a strategic conversation take place contextualized in the terms of the lived, day-to-day relations between the proletariat and the petit-bourgeois? It isn’t enough to say that the petit-bourgeoisie gets pushed into the proletariat (and by the way, Communard, I’m not laying blame at your feet here). A small shopkeeper, good or not, on the verge of foreclosure or not, is still a shopkeeper, one that deals in the exchange of the products of alienated labor and sometimes will go further in the defense of such products by blowing off your head (in the US at least); whereas you steal from a Target and you do a few days or weeks in jail (then again, Target has the backing of the State and people are known to be killed here for theft or fare dodging). Sure, the shopkeepers have a greater stake in their merchandise because it is their livelihood, but so do the folks who shop there which explains why their merchandise gets redistributed in times of upheaval. So to return to this question of strategy, how do we militantly and principally defend shopkeepers from racist attacks by the EDL while preventing falling into straight-up popular frontism or where we are just defending their property? Furthermore, if we do join a popular front with the petit-bourgeois, is it they who liquidate their demands or the workers who liquidate theirs?

But this is where I have trouble separating British from American conditions. In America, race and class are historically bound at the hip and class struggle largely plays out in very conscious racialized forms (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst). But I know that race and class have their own historical development in Britain as well.

The 1992 LA riots were two-pronged: on the one hand against the State, primarily the police (in fact this was the main orientation of the gangs), on the other against small shops in hoods owned by Asians. But petit-bourgeois Asians in South Central LA were refusing to serve black patrons, treating them like pieces of shit, and when there were incidences of theft, they would be shot dead. So when black LA rises up against them, the mainstream press says its anti-Asian violence, that black people are being racist which negates the historic development of that violence. This cannot be equated with the EDL or some American fascist grouping attacking an Asian business merely because they’re Asian. Is this not a valid form of class struggle even if there are strategic and organizational weaknesses?

I have one other question completely unrelated and I apologize for being off-topic. I wanted to know what, if any, relations the Commune project has with Aufheben? There seems to be some theoretical affinity though I’m not aware to what extent Aufheben organizes. Thanks.

15 08 2011
c0mmunard

Hi KC, we don’t have any formal relations with Aufheben, but I’m sure we appreciate their work.

I don’t have an answer to your question about small shopkeepers, although I’m very wary of generalisations, such as that “petit-bourgeois Asians” as a whole were doing anything. I’m sure they weren’t all doing so, and that plenty of people innocent of the things you list were also attacked. I think if there are racist attacks being carried out (as well as some legitimate action against people who’ve shot shop-lifters etc.) I’d tend to think of that as being more than a ‘strategic and organisational’ weakness.

I also don’t think you necessarily have a front of any sort with a group merely my virtue of not smashing their things up. I’m sure there are contexts where it would make sense to smash up a given small shop. But I think at the moment most people on the surrounding estate see it as a bit pointless. I mean, why? Obviously the large corporations are attacked as symbols of wealth, in order to acquire valuable goods, and because people sense they have political/systemic power. They can attack the state via attacking the businesses. But is that true of the ‘little guy’? Could be in principle, but it doesn’t feel like that at the moment.

15 08 2011
Boffy

Most small shopkeepers are not in danger of becomin proletarians – they already are effectively proletarians. The shop they own is little different in reality to the house that two-thirds of workers own – including the fact that the real ownership in the majority of cases rests with the Bank or Building Society. The majority of small shopkeepers are not benefitting from anyone’s alienated labour other than their own, or their families, and as Communard said above, most are actually poorer, and work longer hours than an avergae worker.

They are our natural allies. It is not a matter of a Popular Front, which is a Governmental/Administrative arrangement in which the representatives of the bourgeois and the workers bloc. The Paris Commune, for instance was composed in large part of small shopkeepers, artisans and so on, and these forces had made up the majority of the Communist League. The German SPD made a conscious decision to try to recruit both as members and as supporters the small business people, and, of course, the classic theorist of such an alliance is Lenin, who stressed the need to win over the poor peasants, and to neutralise the middle peasants through the smytchka.

It is right to defend the shops and communties in which they reside not only against the EDL, but against any other attacks, and in doing so to forge local community ownership and control.

17 08 2011
Rising

The little shopkeeper is petty bourgeois insofar as he is the trader of goods dependent on the margin of profit between supplier and buyer, he as an intermediary needing both, unless he sells the complete product of his own manufacture, which could only be food – garden or field grown. Not many of these in urban environment – save for farmers markets! Boffy is wrong. Virtually every commodity sold in shops is the product of alienated labour and he doesn’t consider this when purchasing from wholesaler, also petty bourgeois in that chain. The larger shopkeeper is invariably a salaried manager working for a corporate company – national and international – and staffed fluidly on fluctuating trade with suitable transfers within the business. This is said not ‘judge’ the shopkeeper nor to justify looting as a less or more excusable undertaking, but simply to explain a small but important point.

17 08 2011
Boffy

The point is that the small shopkeeper is not making a profit from employing Labour and extracting Surplus Value from it. The Surplus Value is extracted at the point of production. The income of most small shopkeepers – and this is what is decisive in determining their relation to the means of production – is derived from the performance of their own Labour not from the ownership of Capital.

This puts them in the same position as, for example, the poor peasant, and again the important point is that it has always been a feature of Marxist strategy, and tactics to try to win over this section as allies of the workers. That does not mean subordinating workers interests to that aim, but recognises that it is more than possible for the working-class to develop a programme that meets its own interests, and those of these Middle Classes.

The main problem with the strategy of the Left certainly since WWII is that it has adopted a Fabian/lassallean strategy of statism/reformism based not on attacking the power of Capital, but on reformist policies of redistribution, and those polciies have inevitably meant taxing the Middle Class and better off sections of workers to re3distribute to poorer workers. The inevitable consequence has also been that such policies failed to actually achive any menaingful redistribution, whilst also pissing off the better paid workers and middle classes, and riving them into the hands of more right-wing parties.

21 08 2011
Kaze no Kae

“They understand everything from unemployment to consumerism to gambling in class terms. In short, participants in the riots understand everything that the liberal commentariat understand, and more.”
I find it bizarre that you imply a uniform level of class consciousness, a few paragraphs down from acknowledging a spectrum of motivations (I’d actually ascribe a multidimensional spectrum of motivations and objectives). Overall, a good article though

21 08 2011
c0mmunard

Hi Kaze no Kae, well exactly – I wasn’t implying a uniform level of class consciousness precisely because I’d made it clear already, and furthermore did so later in the article as well, that there was no such uniformity. But the article is built around pointing out two extreme aspects of the riots for illustrative purposes, and the section you quote from is meant to document the more class-conscious pole within the riots. It wasn’t possible to describe the whole spectrum in detail, so picking out two poles seemed like the best way to illustrate it.

23 08 2011
Jacob Richter

Greetings,

Re. the article’s first paragraph, I am inclined to side with the latter. Without a revolutionary program there can be no revolutionary movement.

The rioting prior to the looting was, while employing questionable tactics from a left perspective, in the context of police harassment/brutality/etc. The looting, however, is not something that should be condoned by the left.

This isn’t an attempt to sympathize with the small petit-bourgeois shopkeepers like Boffy did above. That they may be heavily indebted doesn’t change their relations to overall production or to its legal trappings, so they’re more of an “urban peasantry.” The pre-war SPD may have tried to woo petit-bourgeois elements over, but it took the likes of Kautsky and Zetkin to overcome Bebel’s more ambitious scheme of letting peasants into the party as voting members, and thus compromising the principle of Arbeiterklasse (“worker-class”) independence – a principle which the disciple Lenin tossed aside in his dying days.

It is possible that there was gang-based looting for sale on the black market, and if this is the case, then this plus the drive of the shopkeepers towards “law and order” signify merely the illegal business types competing with the legal business types.

The general looting was an illegal expression of consumption fetishism and not much else (I won’t use the word “consumerism” because this has long disrespected activism for consumer protection laws). While the typical denouncers may side with the implicit, bourgeois class divide of consumer goods whereby the poorer elements of society can loot only basic necessities and not even other typical everyday items, I say that more room for discussion on political potential could have arisen if the rioters resorted to “Pillage and Burn” instead of looting, especially for luxury items.

That would demonstrate in my eyes a rejection of the Shop-Till-You-Drop mentality.

In solidarity,

JR

24 08 2011
Boffy

Jacob,

In the vast majority of cases it IS wrong to describe these small shopkeepers as petit-bourgeois in economic terms, and not because of indebtedness. It is wrong rather because their incomes are derived from their own Labour not from the ownership of Capital! If anyhting they are exploited as providers of that Labour Power, by the real Capitalists who sell the products to them, using the labour-Power of the shopkeeper to realise the Surplus Value made in production!

Yes, its true that the Surplus Value is produced by workers at the point of production, and that, therefore, the shopkeeper is dependent upon this “alienated labour” to provide their income, but so too is the ordinary worker at Tesco, who is only able to be paid a wage by TESCO, because productive Capitalists sell goods to them below their price of production, thereby sharing the created Surplus Value with TESCO and its workers!!!

In fact, as was stated above, the small shopkeepers usually have lower incomes – certainly if you take the lack of sickness, holiday pay into consideration – than many, if not most workers. If you were to Value their Labour Power in accordance with its market Value, you would undoubtedly find that the consequence would be that they made negative profits!

However, as Engels sets out in relation to the Marxist theory of class, in his letter to Bloch, it is not just or even mainly economics or the relation to the means of production that determines class. It is that whole matrix of experience that is involved. The small shopkeepers may well be petit-bourgeois from the perspective of their general outlook based upon individual self-reliance, like the Peasant. I was at pains to make clear that treating them as allies, did not entail bringing them into the Workers Party, or subordinating workers interests to them. But, it is clear that a revolutionary socialist as opposed to a Fabian reformist, redistributionist programme can address the concerns of such layers as well as those of the workers, and thereby turn them into allies.

24 08 2011
Jacob Richter

“It is wrong rather because their incomes are derived from their own Labour not from the ownership of Capital!”

That they do perform labour on their own does not preclude their hiring of labour for profit. Either that, or they have voluntary helping hands by means of the Economic Family (appropriating the labour of spouses, children, siblings, immediate niblings, etc.). Either way, labour-power is appropriated to make a profit.

“That does not mean subordinating workers interests to that aim, but recognises that it is more than possible for the working-class to develop a programme that meets its own interests, and those of these Middle Classes.”

On this I definitely agree. This is the “Hegemony Strategy” coined by historian Lars Lih with regards to the Erfurtist aim of becoming a Volkspartei. Of course, the devil’s in the details when it comes to proletarian demographic majorities vs. proletarian demographic minorities (the need in much of the Third World to precisely tail the peasant and urban “patriotic” petit-bourgeois left-populist movements).

24 08 2011
Boffy

I said in the majority of cases, not all cases. Clearly in SOME cases wage labour is employed. Technically, of course, it is not from THIS particular Labour that a profit is made. As Marx made clear the Surplus Value is created by Labour at the point of production. Any Labour employed in selling the goods is necessary labour, but not productive Labour i.e. not productive of Surplus Value. It merely enables the Surplus Value already embodied in the commodity to be realised.

I think it is somewhat pedantic to classify the Labour Power provided by other members of the family in the same way as other employed wage labour. Such a set up is far more common, but it is surely more appropriate to see the operation of the shop then as a family business rather than a business owned by one member of the family exploiting its other members!

My main point in relation to Programme is that because the Left, particularly since WWII, has adopted a Fabian/lassallean position based on Welfarism and redistribution (higher taxes that essentially fall on the middel Class and better paid workers to pay for a burgeoning Capitalist State, including its welfarist elements, but also the focus on industrial militancy and wage bargaining) rather than a strategy that actually attacks Capital, by challenging the hegemony of Capitalist property relations, it has necessarily driven increasing numbers of those workers, and the Middle Class away from the Workers Parties (even where they have not advanced the kinds of even more extreme variants put forward by the Left) and into the hands of the right-wing populists such as the tories in Britain the CDU in Germany, the republicans and tea Party in the US, the Gaullists in France, and so on.




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