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.

The Libyan intervention and the Bay of Pigs: A Parallel

There is still much ado among socialists and left-wingers of various stripes as to the question of support for the Libyan rebels, and more particularly, what to make of the US/British/French/NATO intervention in that country. Now that the Americans, deeply fearing being enmeshed in a third hopeless and unwinnable enterprise, have quickly withdrawn, the onus is on the British and French to finish the job and drive out Ghadaffi without making it too obvious their aim is to drive out Ghadaffi: surely a task worthy of a second Suez. Since the respective leaders of the UK and France are about as intelligent and capable as their counterparts during the Suez ‘crisis’ were, this should come as no surprise. In practice, perhaps following instinct, virtually no left-wing parties and organizations whatever have actually come out in support of the foreign intervention against Ghadaffi. This seems to be entirely independent of the reported fact that some elements in the Revolutionary Council in Libya, an outfit of great political variety and opacity, had actively requested such intervention. However, among the general population there is less clarity. Although it seems that generally the majority opposes further war in Libya, probably due to war exhaustion, there is a general feeling in most responses as well as in the wider media of sympathy with any Western-led enterprise to at the very least punish the evil man Ghadaffi for his attacks on the rebels. The only prominent counterpart to this has been the consistent campaigning by MRZine and Counterpunch against the rebels themselves; they seem to have either bought “Colonel” Ghadaffi’s appeals to his Arab Jamahiriyan brand of sham socialism, or they have simply translated their habitual anti-imperialism into a position of ‘say the opposite of what your enemy says’. Neither seem to be very wise from any point of view.

That said, it does behoove us to address more fully the important question of a case like this, where there is rebellion against a disliked government, with a seeming progressive element in it, although it is unclear to what extent. At the same time, there is a potential imperialist element to the rebellion itself, because of the support from outside. This is a question of both political theory, in terms of what we take imperialism and anti-imperialism to be, as well as strategy, in that we need to decide to what extent we consider outside help by opposing forces to be acceptable to achieve generally desirable aims. To understand this, I believe it is useful to go back to an older discussion, now long forgotten: a discussion between Max Schachtman, a leader of an American socialist group originally committed to opposing both the US and the USSR in the Cold War but generally veering towards supporting the former, and Hal Draper, who had split off from the former’s group over exactly this issue, and insisted on considering each equally undesirable from the long-term point of view of socialism. The time here is the 1960s, and while one can debate the correctness of the assessment against the USSR and its allies, it may be clear that neither country involved really represented socialism as we think of it, or made any real moves towards getting there. It is in this context that the debate must be understood. The debate was about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which at the time appeared as an uprising within Cuba itself of anti-Castro forces; it was clear to all that those forces had the support of the US, but this being the second day of the invasion, it was not yet generally known that the whole thing was set up by the US to begin with, at least not to Schachtman. For our purposes this is not the interesting part, nor is the question of whether Castro following the Soviet line was really as bad a development as it is made out to be here, since there is no equivalent situation to that in Libya today. What is interesting to us is assuming that we think of Castro as a dictator, generally undesirable but flashing ‘progressive’ credentials (like Ghadaffi), and of the rebels as they were seen initially: a motley bunch with a left and a right, the politics being entirely undetermined as yet, claiming to fight the tyrant for a free politics in Cuba of whatever kind (similar to the rebels in Libya today). Continue reading “The Libyan intervention and the Bay of Pigs: A Parallel”

Is the end near for the Assad tyranny?

While the eyes of the world public have been on the internationalized conflagration in Libya, and we now have to bemoan the loss of Bahrain as a site of revolution after its bloody suppression with the connivance of Saudi-Arabia and the United States, events have been developing in a revolutionary fashion in Syria. This country is a longstanding opponent of American influence in the Middle East but also itself notorious for its meddling in the affairs of its neighbour Lebanon. The Assad clique, representing the Alevite minority in a strongly Sunni majority country, have professed themselves as most Arab dictators in such a position as forces for nationalism and progress as against the reactionary powers of sectarian politics and liberal openness to American power. With the Arab world divided in many ways between these three pathways, the Assad-Nasser-Saddam Hussein path of nationalism and state-building may appear to be the most progressive. At the least, one could be inclined to see in it a way towards the ‘developmental state’ that could lift the economic and social levels of the peoples concerned to a point where they would actually have the consciousness and ability to resist their domestic tyrants without the help of clergy or American bombers. But of course in practice they have proven as opportunistic, as stubborn and as tyrannical as their colleagues of the clerical or the Westernizing kind, and their appeals to ‘Arab socialism’ as a different way forward have long ago been revealed to be so much hollow talk. In Syria as much as in all such countries the order of the day is corruption, repression, and hypocrisy. The frequent adventures abroad and the talk of defending larger interests, whether of their so-called ‘socialism’ or the Palestinian case are but masks for the massive enrichment of a small elite at home while the people are held mute and ignorant, leaving them with little more than religious fervor to give them a sense of dignity and an ideological source for resistance. And the Assad clique has repressed even that with characteristic bloody-mindedness, virtually levelling the city of Hama when a religious rebellion against the regime of Assad sr. broke out in 1982. This suppression was done with such force that almost everyone in the city who had not fled was killed en masse, reminding one of the ‘liberating fervor’ of the Crusaders. The primary organizer was none other than Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the current President and his main competitor for this position, sidelined since. Continue reading “Is the end near for the Assad tyranny?”

Intervention in Libya

The United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force by member states in Libya to prevent the Ghadaffi regime from mass murdering its opponents, whom it hitherto had been getting the better of in the battlefield, has given a new dimension to the revolutionary wave in the Arab world. It has united all right and liberal forces in their enthousiasm for yet another campaign of war and intervention under the banner of the ‘humanitarianism’ of our great leaders, a humanitarianism that does not extend to the people of Bahrain or of Yemen, whose equally tyrannical and murderous regimes are even now being actively supported by those same liberal well-wishers. Yet merely pointing out the hypocrisy is not good enough, and the left, recognizing this, has been greatly divided on what to make of this new turn of events. On the one hand, nobody supports ‘Colonel’ Ghadaffi’s idiotic regime, whose socialism is as fake as is his anti-imperialist posture. On the other hand, many on the left think it behooves us to oppose any kind of military action which tends to support or increase the stranglehold of the great imperialist powers over the lesser brethren of our world, in particular in the greater Middle East and North Africa. Continue reading “Intervention in Libya”

The Arab Revolutionary Movement Expands

To the great joy of all progressive minded people in the world, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and its ad interim replacement by a military regime is not by any means the end of the current revolutionary wave in the ‘Arab world’. Quite on the contrary. Not only are many Egyptians not accepting arbitrary military rule by a clique of corrupt generals as sufficient (however much sympathy they may have for the individual conscript fellah‘s son), but in other countries the people are rising up as well. The next weakest links in the chain of oppression in the Middle East and North Africa seem to be at this moment Bahrain and Libya, and to a lesser extent Yemen and Algeria. In the latter cases, the outlook is difficult: the military in Algeria is already in full control of the country and is able to use the bogeyman of islamism very effectively, knowing full well that most Algerians despise the corrupt and impotent regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika but prefer it to another protracted period of civil war and massacre. Yemen’s decrepit rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came to power after the imperialist-supported side of Yemen annexed the Soviet-supported side, is not strong at all in terms of his own political power. However, the United States has had a constant military activity in the country since the start of the Obama presidency in order to destroy certain islamist forces there, and Saudi Arabia’s extensive military power is also regularly applied across the border to defeat certain insurgencies which it sees as proxies of Iran. In both cases, this implies the revolutionary groups among the people of these countries are directly confronted with substantial military power as their direct opponent, rather than being able to confront the state as an entity apart from the interests of the average soldier. The result is a much lesser likelihood of success, given the unequal strength prevailing between the sides.

In Libya’s second most signficant city, Benghazi, there have been major protests – which is a rare public show of dissatisfaction indeed against the clownish opportunistic regime of ‘Colonel’ Ghadaffi. This latter figure, the supposed protector of his people against all outside influences and powers, has shown his love for the people by having them shot at, killing at least 24 across the country. The secret police apparatus of the country has since then been in overdrive to find and repress any sign of resistance. Much like the other failed regimes that have now been overthrown, the first response of the government has besides been to organize a Potemkin ‘counterdemonstration’, which shows nothing so much as to what extent appearance and reality are constantly manipulated into diverging by the various Arab dictators, who fear nothing more than an informed population. (Another example of this is Ghadaffi’s instinctive response to blame WikiLeaks for the events: tyrants always are inclined to shoot the messenger, as the expression goes.) In Libya at least Ghadaffi will not have the opportunity of presenting himself as the savior of the Western interests against the specter of Islamism, though: both because of the virtual nonexistence of the latter as a political force there and because of Ghadaffi’s own showmanship against the United States in earlier periods of his reign. This ensures that at least it will be a direct confrontation between his government and his people, which is the best scenario for revolutionary change.

Bahrain appears to be the most interesting case at the moment. Despite the great wealth earned from oil in that country, the government is a reactionary absolute monarchy ruled by Sunnis, while the population is majority Shia and suffers from an almost complete lack of political or social freedom. Moreover, the Sunni aristocracy has been actively attempting to import other Sunni aristocrats from Saudi Arabia and other countries in order to strengthen their position, a cynical move which shows the utter disregard for the real social development of their nation’s people the governments of this region have. Inspired by the revolutionary uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and elsewhere, there have been severe protests and demonstrations in Bahrain as well. These protesters, representing the interests of the majority in Bahrain against the monarchists and their Saudi and American masters, have been brutally repressed and fired upon by the government forces, who apparently seek to destroy any potential for revolution there by swiftly drowning it in blood. They will, however, not succeed. When two previously impervious autocrats in larger countries have been overthrown by popular action, Mao’s observation that reactionaries are paper tigers will have passed mere abstraction and become an immediately perceptible reality to the peoples of the Middle East, including in Bahrain. This applies also to the United States’ major military presence there (the US has used the country ever since its pseudo-independence from Britain in 1971 as a staging base to threaten Iran with and to control the Gulf). The US will now have to show its true colors: will it support the bloody Sheikhs and so maintain its military strategic position at the expense of its supposed commitments to democracy and progress, or will it choose to support the revolt? Staying aloof will, depending on the course of events, be likely to be an implicit endorsement of the former, just like American inaction on the question of Egypt was based on the premise that any intervention in word or deed was likely to make the situation worse in terms of support for the US. Yet the consequence of inaction is that the default prevails, which usually means the persistence of tyranny: this the Western politicians, with all their ‘democratic’ credentials, usually praise under the banner of ‘stability’.