Four people who were alive a few days ago are now dead, nearly 2000 people have been arrested, thousands of businesses have been effected and over a hundred homes have been burnt out. I think most of us are glad the riots in England are over. Now, however, we have to listen to the ridiculous comments being made by the media and political establishment about the riots and their causes.
The usual right-wing imbecility
Cameron made a speech recently in which he said that Britain’s “security fightback must be matched by a social fightback.” A social fightback- sounds good. If he means more jobs, more resources for education and youth centres, democratic control over policing, etc. But of course he doesn’t mean that. His diagnosis for his “sick society” is that Britain has been going through a “slow-motion moral collapse.”
Poverty, deprivation and alienation are not issues- it’s simply a moral issue. All socio-economic factors are angrily written off as “excuses”. If there’s no socio-economic causes there conveniently need be no socio-economic response. If it’s a moral issue then all that’s required is a moral response- ie a speech by the Prime Minister and a media campaign demonizing people who need social welfare to survive.
Cameron only half-heartedly followed his implications to their conclusion: “Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices had no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibility. Communities without control.”
Other have been more definite. Historian David Starkey came to the conclusion that the problem was that “the chavs have become black. The whites have become black.” Dreda Say Mitchell writing in the Guardian points out that Starkey fails to draw the connection between speaking in a Jamaican accent and burning down a corner shop.
Lord Tebbit, and over here in Ireland Kevin Myers and David Quinn, have smacked the bush Cameron seems to be beating around. The problem, apparently, is the fact that we live in a society in which single mothers are supported by the state rather than being left to starve. These commentators put undue prominence on the father-figure issue as if it is the single overriding factor: these kids, they don’t have a man around to tell them what to do. Myers, for one, believes that social welfare for single mothers is part of a feminist conspiracy to make the male redundant. Of course it’s significant that a huge number of Tottenham youths have no fathers. But this is simply one symptom of a much wider and deeper issue than can be written off as a seeping “culture” of irresponsibility.
Not only do they neurotically focus on fatherhood to the exclusion of most else but they actually believe that a significant proportion of single mothers have had babies only so that they can claim social welfare. Let’s pause and contemplate how ridiculous this is: as if anyone would go through pregnancy and childbirth (alone) simply to live the next twenty years on peanuts.
Insistence that the rioting has nothing to do with cuts or poverty is another hallmark of the media and political response- rehashing isolated examples like “I heard on the radio them interviewing a rioter and he had a posh accent” or “some of them were students”. The people coming before the courts are, the vast majority of them, young, male and unemployed.
It’s not a revolution either
Some left-wing groups have glamorized and celebrated the riots. One in particular put up posters in affected areas saying “from riot to revolution”. Fundamentally, this analysis demands a lot of doublethink because people’s day-to-day experience of the riots doesn’t tally at all with the idea that it’s a progressive uprising. If it weren’t for the severe cruelty of many episodes during the riots, for the widespread destruction of people’s property and life it caused, and for the fear felt by so many, the right could not possibly have made the ideological offensive outlined above.
The riots have set the workers’ movement back. The state now has a greater repressive apparatus at its disposal (water cannon, plastic bullets) and a greater license to use it than before. The EDL and similar groups have taken the opportunity to play at vigilantes and increase their prestige. The political points voiced by many protestors have been undermined by the attacks on ordinary people that have taken place, and these polticial points were scattered and inchoate to begin with.
However, an article I read that tried to prove the riots had a Greek, Spanish, even Egyptian character was far more convincing that the platitudes of the right. There was no shortage of quotes from onlookers and participants alike to support this analysis. This is because the riots were a mixed bag. We need to understand in a way that few commentators have really acknowledged that “the rioters” weren’t a united group subscribing to any political programme. There were many different elements.
There were obviously opportunistic thugs, thieves, gangsters and psychopaths. There were people just letting rip after years of frustration on the dole or Minimum Wage or close. There were political protesters who have tried and failed to get attention in other ways. There were gang mambers or people associated with gangs just following the herd. There were people just looking for daily necessities or the luxury goods that capitalism spends hundreds of billions shoving in our face every year.
These groups are of course fluid- one could be many or all of the above. We need to think about broken window syndrome as well: someone else smashed the window in Currys and now everyone’s taking a widescreen TV- I really want one- the damage is done already anyway, I might as well- I’m high on adrenaline anyway- here we go.
We need to think about the mentality of years spent in communities that are overlooked and under-resourced by the state, about cameras and thugs instead of community policing. We need to think about areas already depressed, tense and badly-policed in which stops-and-searches are frequent, and over 20 times more likely if you’re black. Places where hanging around on the street corner is seen as a crime, but there’s nothing else to do and nowhere else to hang out.
Think about areas with few jobs and only low-paid ones at that, where mugging and drug-dealing are commonplace. Growing up there, you join a gang. You harden up. You get tough or die. When violence between gangs and individuals defines life, getting together and bringing that violence on a mass scale to the high street is not such a radical or shocking step. It’s actually logical enough.
Imagine the difficulty of bettering yourself in such an environment, of escaping. Then imagine if the government triples tuition fees, cuts grants and makes it impossible for any working-class person to attend college on their own resources. Imagine your youth centres are being closed down as only one part of £41 million worth of cuts in the area. Imagine the government tells you this is only the beginning, and the only other political force, meanwhile, is the Labour party which is urging the same cuts only not so fast.
Hundreds of people have died in the custody of the London Metropolitan Police in the last few decades. No police officer has ever even faced trial with relation to this. Every few years, some innocent person is shot dead. Imprisonment rates soared in the 90s and 00s, for no apparent reason as crime rates had been dropping.
In recent months thousands marched against police brutality in these same neighbourhoods. There was little media coverage.
Several hundred marched on Tottenham police station on the day it all kicked off because no police officer had yet spoken to Mark Duggan’s parents. The demonstrators waited for hours and no police official came to address them. Finally something happened: the police beat up a 16-year-old girl. The rest is history.
It’s not a coincidence that this happppened within a year of uprisings all across North Africa and the Middle East and serious protest movements all along the Mediterranean. Within Britain, the year has seen huge student campaigns, an enormous demonstration on March 26th, a strike of 3/4 of a million workers and many other smaller movements.
The riots, of course, have been very different from these. But clearly they should be viewed as part of the same narrative. Internationally, capitalism is in crisis. The credit bubbles of the last 20-30 years have proved unable to overcome its innate contradictions. Western Capitalism can’t afford the welfare state which alone has made capitalism bearable in the last few years. It can’t produce goods with sufficient profit unless that production is taking place in a dictatorship. Huge numbers of people have moved against these dictatorships in recent months and discontent in China is growing, with incalculable implications for Capitalism.
Cameron bewailed people “acting as if [their] choices had no consequences.”
Let’s reflect that those rioting are in their twenties and their thirties. They are the supposedly “post-industrial” generation. They are Thatcher’s offspring. They are the population of the scrap-heap of the services-based economy, the detritus of the Age of Credit.
Tories: you don’t destroy millions of manufacturing jobs without very serious consequences. You don’t try to smash the trade union movement without very serious consequences.
Labour: you don’t move irretrievably to the right and preside over an increasing marginalization and demonization of the working class without serious consequences.
The British working class, largely speaking, works in low-paid, mindless, odd-hours, insecure, non-unionized, non-socialized jobs. Huge numbers barely subsist on the dole. Ten million live in council housing. They are demonized as “Chavs”, as an “underclass”, and the social problems that have seeped in inevitably due to their socio-economic position have been pointed at the prove their utter essential depravity.
That large elements of this socio-economic class should return the favour and prove just as hostile should be no surprise. That they should do so in a violent, angry, apparently unpolitical way should be no surprise.
All the Tories’ plans amount to digging this hole ten times deeper, all the while removing the safety net of welfare. The Labour party proposes to dig the same hole, not as quickly, not as deeply, but just as surely.
War on gangs
Cameron in the same speech quoted above declared a “war on gangs and gang culture.”
The best way to undermine organized crime is simply to provide for people economically and socially. We are a social species and we will form groups the better to achieve things together and distribute the spoils of our victories among us. This is the function the state is supposed to serve for its citizens.
Instead it serves as a manager of the affairs of the rich, with the excuse that “private enterprise” and “the profit incentive” are the surest creators of wealth in society despite all the evidence to the contrary. All the while harvesting our tax money, they bail out the rich when they fail. When things go wrong, they send in men in uniform to beat the problem away.
Society is coming under a huge attack from the rich and the traditional institutions of struggle, bought out, are being totally complacent. The situation is crying out for a fighting trade union movement and a dedicated mass socialist party for the working class, to provide policies and ideas that relate to daily life. Only Socialism, with its message of democratic workers’ control over the economy, over wealth, production and organization in society, can address the urgent problems that have led to these riots. The existence of the rich and the super-rich is of course unconscionable, but of far greater importance is their control over the economy.
When the class anger that spilled over into riots is channeled into a peaceful but far more effective campaign- of general strikes, of mass civil disobedience, of occupations, nationalizations and democratic grass-roots organisation of a new society- then we can start controlling the economy and planning on industiral, local, regional, national and international levels. The only alternative is to continue allowing the economy- the sum of all decisions made by the richest and greediest people- determining almost every factor of our lives.
Some see any attempt at socio-economic analysis of the riots as an “excuse” for “mindless criminality”; apparently, I’m letting people off the hook for their actions. The question of individual responsibility, however, must be hugely limited when we don’t control the economy, while the economy determines whether we eat or starve, whether we work or don’t work, whether we live or just exist, whether we survive or die. Of course there’s good and bad, there’s degrees of choice for individuals- there’s some wriggle room, in other words. There are “degrees of choice”; some have 360; some, like myself, a middle-class Irish student, have a fair few. Those who wind up rioting are for the most part those with fuck all economic wriggle room and “degrees of choice” not worth a curse.