Is Greece a ‘Weimar’?

With the crisis progressing ever further to its inevitable denouement, restoring the rate of profit at the expense of the working class and society in general, the political spectrum is inevitably shifted to a more radical composition. This is certainly true of Greece, where the government – a ruthless ‘technocracy’ imposed from above by the creditor states of the European Union – has finally announced they will hold elections soon. The 6th of May will see the last-ditch effort at some semblance of democratic legitimation of the bankers’ coup that saw the PASOK government suborned by the will of international capital, in particular the finance system. The irony of this is that it is the very same finance system which has blossomed out of all proportion due to the inability of capital to find productive investments over the last 20-30 years. The neoliberal era is one of capitalist retrenchment, not just in the face of the working class strength and organization of the 1950s-1970s, nor the many social and cultural revolutions of this period, but at least as much in the face of the fall in the rate of profit. To this is added in the Western countries, where this political paradigm prevails, the effect of ever-increasing competition from eastern and southern Asia. This will in due time reconfigure the world-system to the long-term decline of the primary imperialist powers and those countries dependent on their trade.

Things, in other words, do not look good for the Hellenic Republic on the eve of this historical election, and the political polling reflects this. While the liberal-conservative ND maintains its position somewhat, especially combined with the support of the anti-austerity splitoff, as everywhere else the social-democratic reformists of PASOK have undergone electoral collapse. There is some reason for rejoicing over this, as the corrupt, family and region based duopoly of PASOK and ND has done nothing for the Greek people and has betrayed them at every turn. It was they who saddled the Greek people with impossible debts while spending this money on prestige projects, enriching the middle class in Kolonaki, and buying weaponry to threaten the Turks. It was they who took the inheritance of the overthrow of the Colonels and subsumed Greece to the rule of German and French capital and hitched them to the NATO imperial bandwagon in the name of preserving stability. So, good riddance to them. The left parties, split along sectarian lines but each representing a meaningful proposition for the country, are doing as well as 30% combined; although we must not forget the likelihood of a low turnout among the country’s left out of a justified disillusion with ‘liberal democracy’.

A real concern however, as always with such developments, is the possibility that the rise of the revolutionary democracy is pre-empted by attempts at capitalist restoration at the expense of any remaining democratic norms and restraints – i.e., fascism. This is no mere illusion, and this is shown clearly in Greece. The tabloid press as well as the mainstream papers and TV stations have launched a renewed philistine offensive to pin the blame of Greece’s predicament on the influx of mainly illegal migrants to the country, whether Albanian, from Africa or otherwise. Such cheap foreigner-baiting is a perennial fact of life in Western countries, but always rises in times of crisis and presents a real threat to the safety of foreign workers in Europe and elsewhere. While poor economic climates do deter migration to some extent, the very real differences in wealth for working people between the West and the rest will continue to draw migrants. In the absence of a committed socialist vision among the working class, it is not too difficult to bait them by pointing to the effect of migrants on lowering the wage level, on adding labour competition, and so forth. This is a vulgar economic view, and precisely the sort of superficial analysis Marxist theory is created to combat, but so far neither the KKE nor others have taken their duty entirely seriously in this regard – a reflection of the power of the labour aristocratic ideology in all Western countries.

In addition to this, there has been the rise not just of the reactionary party LAOS, but more significantly of Chrysi Avyi, the “Golden Dawn”. This eloquently named movement is an explicitly neo-Nazi party, presenting a vision of a Greece by and for “Aryans” only, to which by some trick of historical imagination the Greeks themselves are apparently to be counted; having switched from the silly worship of Zeus to a neo-Orthodoxy, they appeal to clerical elements in competition with LAOS; and they explicitly use Nazi symbolism in flags, rallies, and so forth, taking care to make themselves a physical presence in working class neighbourhoods in Athens and elsewhere. Normally, such movements remain fringe, fall apart under internal contradictions, and cannot move beyond the occasional lynching of an unfortunate migrant. But under the pressure of the crisis, the situation hardens, and this movement in its explicitly fascist form is now polling at 5%, sufficient to present MPs in the Vouli in May.

This raises the real threat of fascist consolidation in the political sphere. They go far beyond the prospects of a BNP, and shed their ‘national’ and ‘democratic’ hypocrisy to a far greater degree still than the Front National in France or even the NPD in Germany, but the rise of such movements with considerable mass support across Europe is a deeply worrying development. Hungary has already demonstrated that mainstream, liberal politics is by no means capable of resisting the fascist challenge when confronted with it. It is a real threat in a time when capitalism along liberal-‘democratic’ lines seems to offer no way out and the left is not (yet) capable of rising to the challenge itself. For now, in most countries the groups are still marginal, and even in Hungary by no means yet ready to seize power. But the historical examples of fascism in Europe demonstrate how quickly such a transformation can occur – it takes but a few years of extended crisis and inability of the parties of the mainstream to deal with it. This is by no means inconceivable today.

Does this mean Greece is in a Weimar situation? My answer is: not yet. Chrysi Avyi nor LAOS has sufficient mass support to make this a reality, and Greece is in fact (to its great credit) one of the few countries where the left forces are overtaking the right in responding to the crisis of capitalism; a pattern we may yet see in France as well. Nonetheless, the predicament Greece is in must not be underestimated, nor should the consequences be. Greece has effectively defaulted on a portion of its debt already, but is still unable to repay, and must therefore default more systematically. The only way to do this within capitalism and without enormous losses of living standards is by devaluation of the currency, confiscation through taxes or otherwise of much of the assets of the wealthy inside and outside the country, and finally a repudation of the debts to foreign creditors combined with a national investment programme forcing the liquid assets to be used productively. However, such solutions are and will remain impossible on the basis of any government beholden to the interests of foreign creditors and the European Union political commitments to that class, as the German response to the possibility of devaluation (by leaving the Eurozone) has shown. Moreover, ND will never be capable of such a response as they are too reliant on precisely those classes that have benefited from the situation: the Greek commercial capitalists, bankers and shipping magnates, the tax-dodging doctors and lawyers of Kolonaki, and even the labour aristocrats from those sectors dependent on German and French investment.

For these reasons, unless some sudden change of perspective grips either the comprador technocrats ruling Greece or the creditors’ representatives wrapping themselves in the flag of the Pan-European Idea, we will continue to see a gridlocked government in Greece while the living standards can be expected to decline further. Under such circumstances, a fascist solution or a coup de main is not off the table. Already, the Greek cabinet members cannot show themselves in public unguarded for fear of their lives, and one of the last acts of the original PASOK government was to replace the heads of the military branches, whose loyalty was apparently not certain. This is not yet quite Weimar, 1932, but it could perhaps be compared to Weimar, 1928. The fascists in Greece hitherto lack any annexationist impulse, and have none of the class potential to that effect that supported the NSDAP in Germany, as I analyzed in previous writing. We must therefore hope the left in Greece can overcome its divisions in the face of this remote, but real threat. With an eye to elections in France, to the situation in Hungary and Romania, and the prospects of a socialist answer to the crisis of capitalism, much may turn out to depend on this.

A Question of Votes?

Among many progressive-minded people in the United Kingdom, the seemingly perpetual and unstoppable rightward trend of the Labour Party is a constant source of frustration and anger. Many have remarked on the massive gap in general political orientation between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party activists, and in turn between the party activists and the Labour voter population one would normally expect. Yet the Blairite stalwarts always defend the course, slowly set in under Callaghan and Kinnock and totally dominant since the election of Blair himself, as essential to electoral victory for Labour. Without the votes, the argument runs, Labour cannot win a majority in Parliament, and without a majority in Parliament it cannot make policies, and to win the votes, it needs to ‘capture the centre’. Leaving aside the questionable sense of principle and the point of political parties this particular refrain exhibits, it is important to make the argument that it is also strategically wrong. Continue reading “A Question of Votes?”

Greece: The Domino Falls?

KKE banners on the Akropolis

KKE banners flutter on the Akropolis, calling on the peoples of Europe to rise up. A general strike has paralyzed the country; hundreds of thousands are on the march or stopped work; foreign leaders express their dismay; the government considers a national unity cabinet. Surely this must have been the scenario feared by the Royalists and reactionaries in the Greek Civil War, and by the colonels in their coup of 1967. But thanks to the greatest economic crisis capitalism has caused since the 1930s, it has become reality in the Hellenic Republic in these staid times of ‘liberal democracy’. With the financial and economic crisis hitting the debtor nations the hardest, the Greek government has been utterly unable to pay its outstanding debts and in order to save the European common currency it has to negotiate with its creditors in Europe and the IMF for a ‘bailout’ rescue plan if it is not to declare bankruptcy altogether. In first instance, it seemed a rescue package worth several billions spread over several tranches would be sufficient to save the Greek government’s financial position, but with economic conditions deteriorating by the day even these have not sufficed. The latest negotiations have seen creditors and ‘rescuers’ forced to accept an effective partial default of Greece on all its outstanding bonds of at least 50%, probably more.

However, such things are not done out of the goodness of the hearts of the friends of civilisation and freedom in Paris and Berlin. The penalty is to be paid by the people of Greece, as well as those of other southern European countries put at risk by the domino effect of ever diminishing bondholder confidence. The capitalist system knows no mercy, only the harsh demand that every debt is a credit, and this equation must equalize at whatever cost. With the threat of wholesale European monetary and credit collapse looming over them, the social-democratic government of Georgios Papandreou has seen no other choice but to implement the harshest programme of austerity Greece has known since the 19th century. This has led to a general strike against him and a chaotic confrontation outside the Greek parliament, in a sense the true ‘mother of all parliaments’, with KKE unionists and other demonstrators clashing with each other as well as riot police, while the assemblage of MPs passed the measures which would present the costs of the credibility of the eurozone in times of crisis to the Greek people. In a last-ditch attempt to salvage their democratic credibility, the PASOK leadership under Papandreou announced, without even informing their own cabinet, that a referendum was to be held on the question of continued Euro membership.

The very notion of a democratic decision on the economic future of the country was met with howls of outrage from the creditor’s governments abroad, as well as the liberal opposition party ND and even Papandreou’s own Finance Minister, Evangelos Venizelos jr. Papandreou was forced to withdraw the proposal. Even as I write, he has narrowly survived a confidence vote but is effectively forced to create a ‘national unity’ government with the opposition under Venizelos’ leadership, which will use its great majority of MPs (never elected under such a platform) to pass futher punitive measures on the Greeks. As always, when in a ‘liberal democracy’ liberalism and democracy come into conflict, it is the latter that loses. All the parliamentary formalities that normally hide the operation of the bourgeois state are thrown aside – the veil is lifted, and briefly all can see that the interests of small numbers of bondholders in Athens, Berlin, Paris and Washington supercede anything the Greek people may desire.

But such moments in which liberalism shows its true face are always moments of crisis in the double sense of the word. The Greeks themselves bequeathed this word to us, and it means a moment of confrontation, a moment where all can go wrong but also a moment of decision. All eyes are now on Greece as the first of the debtor nations which may buckle and collapse under the force of capitalism’s crisis. If it does so, others are expected to follow, such as the severely weakened economies of Italy and Spain. For the Greek people themselves, however, the cure is worse than the disease. To resolve the crisis of capitalism by capitalist means implies the restoration of the profitability of the banks, the credibility of the Euro bonds, and the victory of the creditor over the debtor: it means the great suffering of the majority in the interest of the wealthy minority whose property and interests are at stake. Now is the moment the Greek people and all of us decide whether we choose this path.

An alternative path exists. While most Greeks still have faith in the Euro as the guarantee of peace in Europe and the stability of their savings, a withdrawal from the currency would give Greece the opportunity for an independent policy. For this to be meaningfully on an international scale, it is not sufficient simply to devaluate under a Drachma and in so doing wipe out the creditors and the people’s savings alike. It must go further: the only opportunity is for Greece to declare a general default, to announce what David Graeber has biblically called a ‘Jubilee’ cancelling all outstanding non-commercial and state debts, and to prepare the way for an independent, socialist Greece which will never again risk its people’s living standards by hitching it to the destructive Juggernaut of international capitalism. This, too, means a better use of the state’s finances: instead of spending a proportionally massive percentage of its budget on sabre-rattling on the Turkish border, it would do better to restore Greek industry, improve the lamentable condition and inequality of Greek healthcare and education, and to disempower the monopolistic shipbuilders as well as the reigning political cliques. It also means the willingness of all Greeks to contribute their share to the reconstruction of the country, which in turn can only be done when a new government with a new approach regains the people’s trust. Only in this way can Greece have a lasting future.

One should not be so naive as to expect the powers in Washington, Berlin and Paris will allow this, nor will the ruling elites in Greece itself. It is no coincidence that the outgoing Papandreou government replaced, by surprise, its military commanders. The Greeks have all too fresh a memory of the Colonels’ Regime of 1967-1973, when right-wing militarists seized powers out of fear for the victory of the left; thousands were tortured, imprisoned, exiled and murdered in order to assure NATO her frontline base in the Cold War and the shipbuilders and landowners their property. Such a thing is not inconceivable even today. While it is not in the interests of Merkel or Sarkozy to drop liberal democracy just like that, big business interests may consider the option – Forbes already ‘jokingly’ suggested it. More likely is the ability of a ‘unity government’ to declare a state of emergency and in so doing attempt to destroy the unions’ and the demonstrators’ independent ability to resist the programme of austerity. Only the organised power of the Greeks can oppose them and prevent this, and in this they will need all the practical support from their friends in Germany, France, the United States and elsewhere they can get.

One should not imagine this crisis has seen its worst yet, and no Chinese deus ex machina will step in to save capitalism – it cannot be saved but at a cost so great that it is not worth paying. In the 19th century, the bankruptcy of many minor and middle-level powers, consciously engineered by their Western creditors, allowed the colonial or quasi-colonial takeover by Britain, Germany or France. In the 1930s, the Great Depression could only be overcome by the destruction of the Second World War, the greatest military cataclysm the world has ever seen. Only this wholesale destruction could destroy enough value to restore profit rates to the survivors so the system could continue. Shall our motto once again be: Vae Victis? Or shall we finally do away with this system, and say this time: Workers of the World, Unite?

NB: There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the article I wrote on the effects of the crisis in Greece in February 2010, when the effects were only just being fully felt. I was right to predict the necessity of a bailout for the EU major powers, but sadly the individual pressure on an isolated Greece I warned against has come to pass.

The People versus the Stock-Jobbers II: Some Lessons

Two weeks on from my previous article on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, it is useful to comment on some of the developments since that time; as a wit might say, to take stock of events. Most heartening and most immediately obvious is the great spread of movements of a similar nature in other countries. This is not so much because the Occupy Wall Street movement was itself the first major response to the current great depression; the Spanish and Greek peoples had been moving onto the streets and mobilizing strikes in their hundreds of thousands before it. But it gave the very idea of a popular movement against our prevailing economic system, however widely or narrowly defined, a visibility and a focus that it had not had before. The Western media is chauvinistic and superficial, and easily writes off class struggle even in countries like Greece and Spain as mere indignation from lazy rabble in inefficient countries. Having, for the first time in the living memory of many, a mass movement that is very close to open anti-capitalism in the lion’s den itself is a different thing, and is bound to draw the attention even of the ‘great and good’.

This is not to dismiss the significance of the struggles in southern Europe and elsewhere. They play not only a major role in showing how class struggle can and should be done, and that it can be done anywhere; but they also have a significant effect on the political-economic constellation of forces, since in many ways the very fate of the European Monetary Union depends on the willingness of the peoples of southern Europe to accept any imposition by the north. Their resistance is therefore more than a ‘merely domestic’ affair. A rebellion in Judea will never quite be the same as a rebellion on the streets of Rome, as Jesus was never as much a threat as Spartacus was; at the same time, the latter’s ideological power has greatly outlasted the former’s. So it may well be here. One of the conclusions that must be drawn from events today is the absolute importance of the international dimension of the movement, not just in terms of political strategy, but also in terms of the battle of ideas. So far, one of the weaknesses of the movement has been its character as the ‘awakening of the white people’, the emphasis on the rebellion being an event in the rich countries: but this is only a major event precisely because of its rarity. That it happens at all is to be applauded, but if this movement is to survive, it must become a movement at least as much of the truly oppressed of the globe as it is a movement of the indebted and dissatisfied workers of the West. This holds true at least for as long as the protestors in New York, London and Berlin do not move their demands beyond their own immediate, domestic interests, and as long as they have no intention of actually threatening the rule of international capital in any way. Merely camping outside St. Paul’s does not harm anyone, and therefore achieves nothing.

But here also lies an opportunity. As Marx wrote, “one step of real movement is better than a thousand programmes”, and this movement has taken several major steps in a very short time. Splits and contentions in such a movement are inevitable and a sign of health rather than weakness, insofar as they lead to the further and further confrontation of those involved with the true nature of the prevailing system and its defensive structures. Every further step will lead some to halt in fear of what lies ahead, but it will also lead some to identify and overcome barriers where they had never known them before, and in so doing to grasp more and more clearly the full outline of our capitalist maze. While the nature of the First World is such that it’s ‘aristocracy of labor’ is the least likely to rebel against the dominion of capital, it is also true that if and when they do, it has the greatest impact. The current crisis, as crises tend to do, has opened the eyes of millions to the reality of the system in a way that no socialist pamphlet or labor conference could possibly do. This alone is invaluable. The real nature of this movement is shown precisely by the fact that even in the United States, the tendency within it towards fascism, chauvinism, and petty-bourgeois white populism has been insignificant in the extreme. Neither the ‘Tea Party’ nor the fanboys of Ron Paul have had any success in diverting it from its fundamental political understanding, however undeveloped that may yet be. This, again, is encouraging in the extreme.

If these analyses may seem contradictory, it is because the movement itself is. In fact, it could not be otherwise. Its diversity of goals and aims, and of causes for protest, is potentially a weakness; it is also potentially a strength. As Vijay Prashad, hardly a First World petty reformist, put it about the American branch of the movement:

Our strength comes in our diversity, in our realization that no single issue discounts any other issue. The interconnected web of injuries draws us into our anti-systemic politics. Some see the sheer diversity of our movement as a failing, asking that we concentrate on one or two issues, on the main issue, which more often then not strips bare life into a cartoonish abstraction (is the “economy” really absent race and gender?). To such frivolous objections, here are at least two reactions. First, it is precisely that the American Left is constituted by this vastness that makes it imperative to recognize the right of the many to castigate all wrongs. More people should be welcome into the American Left,certainly into OWS, bringing with them their many complaints and dreams. Our movement must promise more to each of us than what is available in the present. Second, no one claim to human freedom is essentially more important than another. In time, there will be a serious debate in our movement over how to frame our core issues, and how to move one part of the agenda before another. That is inevitable. But that does not mean that at the start we should already be closing our doors to these or those issues.


All that said, anyone who thinks that at this point they know exactly what its historical significance will be, where it will go and whether it will succeed or fade out is deluding themselves. Nonetheless, I suggest a number of political points must be made and understood by all involved if success is to be more likely, at least.

1) We may safely assume that the current Depression will last for a considerable time still. In fact, there is no basic reason in political economy to expect living standards in the West to return to the levels they previously were, or even to expect anything other than slow but certain decline. As in all situations of crisis, this will lead to a radicalization of a considerable number of the population, both towards the left and the right. The natural instincts of the masses in the West may be fascist, but this is not a necessity, and can be opposed with right politics.

2) Such a politics has the absolute duties of both promoting any real movement that, whether it is aware of it or not, is aimed against the formal and real rule of capitalism. It does not in this context much matter under what banner or slogan such a movement operates, as long as its goals are in the fundament incompatible with the current capitalist order.

3) Where the demands of the movement are compatible with the current order, and are merely aimed at one or another form of domestic relief, they are insufficient. But as long as they are made in opposition to the capitalist class, and do not take on a chauvinistic or reactionary character, they can and should be moved to develop in the direction of anti-capitalism. Anything that finds its natural final outcome in opposition to capitalism has potential.

4) Insofar as the demands have chauvinist and labour aristocratic elements, these are to be opposed, but by demonstrating the incompatibility of such demands with true opposition to the rule of capital. This will, in the West, inevitably over time lead to splits in the movement. Such splits are healthy. For example, one must point out the significance of Western imperialism, and this will separate the wheat from the ‘patriotic’ chaff. To do this in such a manner that it promotes understanding of the interrelation between the death of millions in the Third World, the disempowerment of blacks and Native Americans, the endless warfare regardless of the will of the peoples of the West, and the independent power developed by the ‘military-industrial complex’ to the destruction of even any formal democracy: these are the tasks of the socialist in the West. They are not easy, but if even one-tenth of those on the march now and in future months will develop this political consciousness, it will be a very serious gain. It is imperative that we do not forget that for socialism to succeed politically, one does not need an absolute majority of any population being active Party members or the like. This has never happened and never will. All one needs is literally and figuratively a critical mass, and a constellation of political forces such that the great majority will prefer the victory of the socialists to that of their opponents.

5) For socialists outside the West, the task is a much more straightforward one, if not therefore any easier and considerably more dangerous. The popular democratic movements in the Arab world and the Maoists in Nepal and India have nonetheless shown these to be as potently pregnant with possibility as any other, and they have shown that they no more ‘necessarily’ lead to socialism than elsewhere. This is the real stuff of politics, which cannot be reduced to a static, mechanistic view of economic interests.

6) The final target must be to promote a politics which makes the connection between these movements clear: not by papering over the difference in economic and class position between a teacher in New York and a landless peasant in Chattisgarh, but by showing to the former that the target of their rightful anger is the same as which oppresses the latter. Even where their material position is widely divergent, the crisis and the popular response against it are great political and economic forces which push towards a convergence, even if it is nowhere yet near reaching that point. The future of such countries as China and India will determine the future of the United States; but they will no more succeed along the capitalist road than anyone else has, and in the zero-sum game of competition, there can only be so many winners. Any gain by them is a loss for the Americans and Brits and Germans and so forth, but one would be mistaken in seeing here only a problem for socialists in the West: as the current movement shows, this is equally a ripening of possibilities that have not been seen since the years between the great wars.

7) The main power that can divert this movement in the West is the strength of social-democracy, the ideology of the aristocracy of labor. But the more the crisis endures, the weaker social-democracy is. It has no answers that are not either co-opted by the left or co-opted by the right, and the great mass of people is ever more aware of this. Hitherto, disillusion with social-democracy has translated mainly into disaffection with politics altogether. This movement has the potential to change that. The great virtue of mass movements for economic change, however underdeveloped, is that they reveal the workings of many things to many people. Once taught, these are lessons people do not soon forget. This is why all the charlatans and figureheads of social-democracy from Obama to Jeffrey Sachs have rushed to co-opt the movement and to imbue them with their own ‘lessons’, which all amount to nothing else but further debasement before the golden calf of parliamentary liberalism. The fact they saw the need to do so – and no need at all to do so in the case of the ‘Tea Party’ – shows precisely that they are well aware of the ability of movements of this kind to teach real lessons in political economy, once that cannot be found in the books of Krugman or Mankiw.

London Burning: One Week After the Riots

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.