Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.
– Konstantinos Kavafis, “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1904), tr. Edmond Keeley
If there was ever any doubt as to the meaning and significance of the concept of political consciousness, that should now be laid to rest. One week after the (seeming) end of the worst riots the United Kingdom – and particularly London – has seen since the Second World War, politicians, police, and the public are still trying to understand the causes and motives behind the events. After the death of Mark Duggan, a suspected gangster from Tottenham, by a police bullet the city erupted in a multiple day spree of looting, aggression and arson which saw everything from estate agents’ offices to the Victorian-era carpet store ‘House of Reeves’ go up in flames. The outburst of violence, mainly centered in neighbourhoods with a proportionally large black population but by no means exclusively perpetrated by black citizens, then spread quickly to middle-class areas as well as other cities of the country, with Birmingham and Manchester seeing some of the most severe violence. The police and government were caught entirely by surprise. Cameron and Johnson had to return from their respective holidays in a hurry while the Metropolitan Police had to call in assistance from as far as Wales and Cumbria to restore ‘law and order’. The government’s response was nonetheless clear: it put a total of 16.000 policemen onto the streets of London and with most stores closing early or altogether, the riots ended as suddenly as they had started, leaving politicians and analysts from left to right rudderless in their wake.
In order to appear serious and in control, the predictable response of the Coalition government has been to use the heavy hand of the law on everyone even vaguely associated with the looting and the riots. In scenes almost reminiscent of Victorian or even 18th century British ‘justice’, one man has been sentenced to six months imprisonment for stealing 3.50 worth of mineral water, whereas two hot-headed gentlemen have been given a full four years for inciting to rioting in a message on Facebook. The government has furthermore called for extending the powers of the police to implement curfews within London, not excluding minors, and various borough councils are seeking to make homeless the families of convicted rioters with the full backing of the cabinet. Of course, this harsh and collective form of punishment will do nothing but add to the grievances that already exist among many of the poor and minority groups in the country, not least in the capital. For there are many of these and they are real, and the fact they have not been taken seriously for three decades is the true cause of these riots, however they may have been experienced subjectively. Much has already been written by commentators less on the side of law, Bentham and private property about the enormous and rising inequality in the United Kingdom, which not only puts the country to shame even in comparison with the mediocre nonentities ruling many continental nations, but also encourages the formation of gangs and the disaffection from society generally experienced by many young people today. When nobody is looking out for you and there is no hope and no prospect, how is anyone expected to give a damn about ‘law-abiding citizens’ and their property? Why would any of the young black people, suffering 50% unemployment between the ages of 16 and 25, have any warm feelings towards the managers of electronics chain stores or even small shopkeepers in their own neighbourhoods?
It will not do to pretend that the formation of gangs, who were in any case only marginally involved in the riots (with 3/4ths of identified rioters having had no gang connection whatsoever), is some sort of natural growth. After all, mould only grows there where the structure is allowed to rot, and that is exactly what has happened in this case. With the parliamentary chatterers, ever more difficult to tell apart in policy or rhetoric, stealing tens of thousands out of the public purse with barely any repercussions, with the most savage cuts to public services and support for the poor while hundreds of billions are awarded to private banks to reward them for their failure even by the standards of capitalism itself, and with widespread corruption among the country’s premier police force and the country’s greedy vultures of the tabloid press alike, it is obvious even to the least politically aware that there is something fundamentally rotten in the state of Britain. But so far, this has only caused the confidence of the British public in its government and institutions to be lower than at perhaps any point in history.
What is missing is a politically conscious response, an awareness of these circumstances as being more than incidental cases of corruption, but being immediately part and parcel of the reshaping of society by the ideology of neoliberalism (even in its ‘Big Society’ form) interacting with the incentives of the capitalist system generally. Tony Blair has played the role of Deng Xiaoping, and in his unprecedented three terms in office told his precious middle classes ‘to get rich is glorious’; and with the country already in the stranglehold of the City financiers, those who were clever or unscrupulous enough to stock-job, bribe, or flatter their way upwards have done so, taking no prisoners on their way. This has left the country with inequality not seen since the days of Disraeli, an economic depression that is soon to enter its fourth year, and now the poorest areas burning while Russian and Arab oligarchs use the low value of sterling to ‘invest’ in properties in Kensington and Knightsbridge. But while there is a general sense of corruption and something being amiss even among normally such establishment papers as the Daily Telegraph, neither the commentators (with the occasional exception of the Guardian‘s remaining ‘left’) nor the rioters themselves seemed much interested in connecting cause and effect.
The latter in particular is to be regretted. Although in these matters I should speak for myself, I think all socialists here have experienced the events with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, the destruction of some local stores, petty thievery, and the burning of independent carpet shops hardly constitutes a serious case of class warfare, and we should not forget that to give the government a full licence to further restrict and repress the few liberties yet unaffected by almost 20 years of ‘new politics’ is a serious matter. The part of the working class still fortunate enough to have a job to go to does not approve of the destruction of their homes and neighbourhoods, and little is achieved by burning a vehicle or two (if it did anything, Sarkozy would not still be in office). One can’t blame anyone but the government for its singularly repressive, unimaginative, and revealing response to the events, but we can recognize that provoking the public more generally into hatred of overt signs of resistance is not in our favour. With the student demonstrations as well as the TUC one, there was the general sympathy of much of the population, and the targeting of more explicitly political sites – such as tax evading stores and bailed-out banks – is a different case. The latter also happened in the recent riots, but the mainstay of the action consisted of the looting of televisions and brand-name sneakers, and this does not constitute socialist or any politics by anyone’s measure.
Yet this is not a condemnation as such, and that is the other side of the equation. Frustration has been building up among many of the poor and neglected people, and there are ever more of those. Frustration with the searching powers of the Metropolitan police, which have been so overwhelmingly aimed at black youth that they constitute a case of racial harrassment on their own. Frustration with the lack of jobs, not just among blacks, but increasingly among all sections of the working class. Frustration with the housing problem, with decaying council blocks increasingly being next door to shiny new developments for a gentrifying middle class commuting to the finance jobs where the salary for interns is often significantly more than the median wage and which these people will never have. And with successive governments not having built any serious amount of public housing since Thatcher ended councils’ obligation to do so, this is worsening year by year. Frustration with the blatant corruption, ineptness, and venality of a ruling class which wastes the public money on duck ponds and wars in Afghanistan while cutting poor people’s subsidies for education and forcing disabled people into work they are unable to perform. Frustration with the government’s attempts to sell off the country’s most socialist and most popular institution, the National Health Service, under the pretext of ‘efficiency gains’ when the abysmal state of the country’s privatized railways show the folly of such ideas daily even to middle class commuters. Frustration with the class warfare from the top, in short, whether it’s abolishing social programs for ‘disadvantaged’ youth or lowering the tax rate for people making several times the median wage when the country is supposedly out of money.
What is truly to be regretted, therefore, is not the property damage as such. While this serves no particular purpose, and the opportunistic intervention of gangs (often themselves composed of people who are bored and desperate at once) has made the events deadly where they did not need to be, this is just the symptom. The real issue is not that the riots were wrong, but that they were the wrong riots: because the people involved, insofar as they were not just opportunistic in the first place, had no political consciousness and no awareness of what social structures and changes they are part of, the only target for their frustration were obvious icons in the local area: the local stores reminding them every day of the restrictive effect of poverty, the chain stores selling goods they could never afford to buy legally on a 65 pound per week ‘benefit’ check, estate agents displaying proudly the highest rents in Europe as a result of a mercenary and totally unregulated private rental market, and so forth. Moreover, one should not underestimate the importance of people utterly impotent to affect anything in their lives having some semblance of power for once – the adrenalin rush alone makes it tempting. But the poorest of the local petty bourgeoisie is not the cause of the despair and your average Sikh off-licence manager is no better off than anyone with a job in Tottenham or Salford. Neither will Carphone Warehouse or Foxton’s suffer much from the damage – the costs go to their insurer, who will pass it on to the likes of Swiss Re, giants of finance capital in gleaming offices in Zürich that no gang member from Croydon will even have heard of.
In fact, this spontaneous outbursting of rebellion is much like those of medieval peasants, of poor Victorian artisans or even the much-maligned Communards, and no more deserves condemnation by socialists per se than those did. We now recognize in those the signs of class struggle, regardless of the flaws of some of their strategies and the subjective notions of the participants. The fact the government is responding not too much unlike the government did at Peterloo, be it less deadly, is telling in this regard. But what had been an opportunity for showing the strength of a frustrated, neglected, and depressed populace in taking seriously the real looting – the looting of the wealth they have created by those who already have most of it – turned into an affair more reminiscent of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, in which the poor black population vented its anger onto random Korean shopowners and achieved nothing but further repression and emptying of their neighbourhoods for their efforts. That the House of Reeves burned instead of Canary Wharf’s chrome monoliths is the real tragedy of these times. For socialists, this shows how much work we have to do to rebuild a conscious movement.