Rioting Poms.

A short while ago we were treated to the spectacle of a Royal Westminster wedding, a royal tour of Canada and the US, then another lesser royal wedding. The UK and colonial media went crazy with 24/7 coverage of the fairy tale personae involved, and the image conveyed was of stability and continuity in British foundational politics.  All was well in the Realm.

In the months since the first royal celebration things have grown dimmer. There is the hacking scandal in which politicians and the police appear to be complicit in the illegal tapping of private information by media corporations (primarily but not exclusively Murdoch-owned assets). Added to this sign of elite criminal coziness, now there is a police shooting followed by wildcat riots that represent criminal opportunism rather than outrage about the death itself. The UK media are swamped with reporters, police spokespersons and politicians all chanting in unison about the “mindless thuggery” and criminality of the youth who are widening the scope of violence beyond Tottenham and London itself.

The official emphasis on criminality cannot hide a number of things that depict a reality that s a far cry from royal bliss. The youth involved, while criminally opportunistic in their looting and vandalism, are a mix of ethnicities, but all seeming of working class or unemployed status (On TV I actually saw some young Hassidic Jews amongst the rioters in Tottenham). Some may have participated in earlier demonstrations and rioting about restrictions on access to higher education and the cost of basic services. They appear to be coordinated–in yet another tweeter and smart phone fashion–enough to stay a step ahead of the thinly stretched British Police. The fire service is not attending to full alarm fires because of fears for their security and the Police cannot predict when the next smash, burn and grab will happen. The mob is ahead of the Man, and the mob is angry.

So far the British government has declined to send in the army even though suggestions have been made that they have very robust anti-riot capabilities in Northern Ireland. The language used to justify that non-action is precious: the government states that it does not deploy such hard assets on British soil. So the riot police in London chase rioters using shields, helmets, horses and batons while the British Army uses armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and live ammunition to keep the peace in Belfast and beyond. Some Imperial habits are hard to break, even though the Empire is long gone and its post-colonial consequences have come home to roost in the capital itself.

The hard fact is that the criminality of the rioters is a political act whether or not those involved or the government and corporate media would like to admit it. At a time when the PM, Police Commissioner, Mayor of London, and assorted other leading officials were on vacation in places like Ibiza, Tuscany and Milos, the youth now on riotous display swelter in the housing estates where unemployment, racial separatism, ethnic conflict and everyday economic insecurity are rife. Like their counterparts in any number of less developed countries, they can see up close the material lifestyles and commodity consumption of the royals, celebrities, sportsmen and corporate elites, but do not have (and likely will never have) the means of access to them. Worse yet, they live in a world where the institutional framework is stacked against them, leading to the violent turn inwards when the opportunity presents itself. The Police response is to ask parents to lock up their children.

Be it Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Guevara, Marighella, Ayman al-Zawahari, or Muqtada al-Sadr, revolutionaries understand the potential of the criminal mass engaged in collective violence. Lumpenproletarians are the street vanguard who, however unconsciously, help to bring social contradictions to a head and expose the weakness of the elite response and the inherent fragility (sclerosis?) of the status quo as a whole. Where instigated or abetted by politically conscious cadres (and there is some evidence of this at play here), their actions are designed to accelerate the organic crisis of the State, in which economic, social and political cleavages overlap and congeal into compound fractures not resolvable by force, reform-mongering or after-the-fact piecemeal pacification. Given the ongoing repercussions of the 2008 recession and the increasingly global debt crisis, and no matter how they are disguised by ethnic and religious division, the structural foundations for a larger class war in the UK may be fixing in place.

This does not mean that the British government will not be able to quell the disturbances this time around. But what these riots may be is a dress rehearsal for more to come, perhaps in conjunction with the Olympics next year, where militant planners accelerate the pace, focus and intensity of mass collective violence at a time when the British elite are exposed to global scrutiny and their security resources are already working at full capacity. That raises the issue of whether the official approach to rioters will shift to the more lethal Northern Irish “solution” set, and whether those charged with adopting a more lethal approach will have the ideological conviction to respond in such a way to the actions of fellow citizens rather than foreigners (I note that it will be possible for the official narrative  to scapegoat “outsiders” drawn from minority ethnic communities that hold non-Western beliefs, but even that may fail to overcome foot soldier or beat police reluctance to turn their weapons on their own).

In any event, we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence operating in seemingly opportunistic and decentralised fashion in the face of official incompetence or lack of will. That, by most reasoning, is a good sign of a pre-revolutionary situation, one that has the potential to become more of an existential threat to the status quo should tactical guidance and coherent ideological justification be given to it. After all, if what we are experiencing is a crisis of capitalism in the liberal democratic world, then it was only a matter of time before superstructural conditions and precipitating events would combine into a violent rejection of the system as given in countries in which the societal contradictions were most apparent. Be it in Greece, in France, in Spain or now in the UK, should these contradictions continue to fester and combine, it will not be Tea Party-type clones that will lead the insurrectionary charge, nor will they be as polite.


PS: Before Red Dave and other ideologically militant readers opine that I am belatedly joining their ranks, let me state that I do not see this as the beginning of a global revolution or necessarily of one in the UK. It is a pre-revolutionary moment, which means that the UK government still has the ability to engage in divide-and-conquer, selective application of force and reform-mongering tactics (along the lines I mentioned with regard to the Arab uprisings in an earlier  post dedicated to them). There is a fair bit of ground to cover before the Arab Spring gives way to a Red European summer.

25 thoughts on “Rioting Poms.

  1. Well they *could* send in the army, introduce detention without trial, etc.

    It worked in 1968 in Northern Ireland – if you define “worked” as starting a low-level war that went on for thirty years and ended with the UK government forced into compromise. The UK underclass are rather more numerous than the NI Catholics, too. They’d probably run out of soldiers and have to introduce conscription.

    I wonder how happy the UK middle classes will be with their kids being drafted into the Army and sent to Tottenham?

  2. The most striking thing to me about these riots is the sudden way the apparent calm has been shattered. The ruling elites often imagine themselves omnipotent and the status quo unmovable (how else can we explain their apparent indifference and nonchalance to the widespread economic pain caused by their excesses?). But history tells us the Tsar was unquestioned ruler of a troubled but quiescent Russia at Christmas 1916, yet by Easter 1917 his dynasty was no more.

    Europeans have a much greater tradition of street violence as an expression of widespread anger and inchoate political frustration. But the suddeness of it all makes me wonder if such an outburst of looting and violence could happen “out of the blue” tomorrow in Otara and Mangere?

  3. Rich:

    If there is ideological consensus and organisational discipline in the ranks of the security apparatus, then a militarised approach to a working class revolt might prove successful, assuming that it is supported by the majority. Part of that may involve invoking ethno-religious stereotypes against immigrant communities in order to facilitate popular demonisation of the new-coming “others,” something that facilitates the use of force against them.

    The security forces can avoid the dilemma of militarisation of riot control by detaining the cadres that seek to exploit the moment while engaging in “hard charge” street tactics using low-level force (tear gas, water cannon, tasers, dogs and horses along with the batons). To that end they might employ the social media channels used by the rioters and looters.

    If these tactics work, the ideologically uncommitted in the rioters will see their moment of opportunity gone and retreat back into anomie (or Mum’s place). The loss of cadres to the courts will impede the collective organsation of the ideologically dubious or wavering who remain angry. If that situation holds through the Olympics, Scotland Yard will be thrilled. The longer term problem remains.

  4. we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence…

    or it could be that it’s not the football season.

    you’re presenting an hypothesis, “we should see” is not a form of proof.

  5. Re the scapegoating of ‘Ausländer’, one really interesting dimension of these riots is that some of the highest-profile anti-riot action has been undertaken by immigrant communities banding together to defend their homes, businesses and neighbourhoods against alienated, dislocated black youths — English-born-and-bred, but lacking deep engagement with their communities.

    Of course, both those perpetrating the unrest and those seeking to limit it will be heterogenous. That may not necessarily prevent such racial scapegoating, though — as someone wryly remarked on the tweets, Nick Griffin is hardly going to praise those Turks who armed themselves with broomhandles to defend their shopfronts, or the Pakistanis who offered displaced women and children shelter in their mosque.

    Probably the most iconic scene thus far is the anonymous “Hackney Woman“, whose fury at looters is directed not at the fact that they are rioting, but at the ideological paucity of their cause. Her speech will surely be co-opted by the establishment, but it’s not an establishment position, it’s a call to action. Excuse the language, but it’s worth it:

    “Get it real, black people, get real! Do it for a cause! If we’re fighting for a cause, let’s fight for a fucking cause! You lot piss me the fuck off, I’m ashamed to be a Hackney person. Cos we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker and thieving shoes. Dirty thieves, y’know?”

    She’s probably the only person coming out of this situation looking good. Her words will be remembered by history.


  6. The West Indian versus Asian component in these riots does not obscure the alienation from the Anglo elite that binds them, nor does it alter the fact that, Hackney Woman’s concerns notwithstanding, this constitutes a pre-revolutionary moment that can be exploited by well-organised vanguards.

  7. it is an opinion, phrased assertively.

    a couple of thousand looters at most. I doubt Cameron will bother having planes from Switzerland checked.

  8. This is indicative of a pre revolutionary situation even if the riots stop forthwith. The state forces have been tactically stretched, people not directly involved will have learnt a few things (as will left cadres). More citizens will be further questioning what is going on in their country.

    The UK has structural unemployment, top cops resigning over the Murdoch hacking affair, major cuts to education and the public service including the military. Finance capital rules but for how much longer? Lumpen looters while not a conscious revolutionary force are a proxy for the alienation of millions of Brits.

  9. I sense little more than “adolescents” aware of their power when in a mob to challenge the authority figure, the tendency to vandalism and opportunistic looting has little pre-revolutionary about it. It continues only in a power vaccuum or in a failed state.

    It’s yoof on the hoof in the hood being bad.

    The pre-revolutionary side of it is only in the public debate about it and who wins that debate wins that battle for Downing Street.

    Immigration – those who want to work and locals who don’t. Those who integrate into the economy and those who don’t. Those who integrate into the society and those who don’t. Words like integrate being used for consensus about community rather than multi-cultural or assimilation. Unemployment and welfare dependency. Disparity and opportunity being the battleground.

  10. Funny how these malcontents didn’t go to the wealthy parts of London to express their views, funny how so many stole from businesses owned by locals, many immigrants with little else, funny how it has included turning on an injured boy in broad daylight and stealing him. Funny how most people living in the areas of deprivation including one of their leading leftwing MPs – Diane Abbott- is demanding a curfew and a hardline to be taken, because they are hurting others who are living in hardship.

    but keep up the reality evasion and quaint pontification of revolution – the masses want a crackdown and if they don’t get it, they will use vigilante justice. See most people don’t feel sorry for bored malcontents in the school holidays who do violence against others to get what they want.

  11. Mike: I use “Pom” the way I may use “Yank” or “Ozzie” or “Pinoy.” It is not used pejoratively and certainly is not racist.

    Liberty Scott: I suggest a read of “The Mass Strike” by Rosa Luxemburg. The turning on each other and backlash effects are part of the early process of mass mobilisation. Where it goes from there depends on whether there are organised cadres to take advantage of the moment and on the state’s will and ability to impose order while looking to address the underlying issues. Or do you think there are no underlying issues and it is just chavs, blacks and asians having a bit of sport during the summer holidays? Talk about reality evasion!

  12. Anyone who doesn’t think these riots are political should consider this NBC report

    “…a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
    “Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
    “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

    Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere…”

    If that isn’t a political statement, I don’t know what is.

  13. It’s certainly relevant enough to the circumstance of many of the unemployed of “multi-cultural” areas of the cities of England to be political in impact, but I suspect that the teenager profile of many of those involved speaks to a less than politically engaged mob at large on the street.

    Will any of the older unemployed that subsist on economic independence provided by dependence on welfare bovver to protest about the politics of disparity and lack of opportunity or even join in those led by others – and would anyone else lead them before the capacity to control any descent back to riots was first demonstrated by the government they were seeking to influence?

  14. Intriguing to observe the supposed ‘unemployed’ destroying the very sources of their welfare support or future employment opportunities. Recognise that sheer enjoyment exists in the wilful destruction of property, especially that belonging to someone else, safe in the knowledge that the probability of getting caught is low. Further, abetted by weak leadership (Cameron) and a generation of academics and social commentators who identify the rioters as victims (of what?). Significant social issues are created through unrestrained immigration, and inadequate social infrastructure in many European cities. Couple that with weak leadership and a lack of responsibility created through insignificant consequences (8 – 10 weeks in prison playing computer games) and voila! What is also telling is the lack of support displayed by law-abiding Englishmen and women – they too have shown a distinct lack of courage to adversity. They didn’t in WWI and WWII!

  15. I would like to hear Pablo’s views on what looks to me to be an astonishing rampage of state vengeance in the UK, in particular the use – without apparently a murmur of dissent – of government intelligence organisations such as MI5 and the GCHQ to gather information in a domestic law enforcement context. Combined with a direction to the courts to “suspend” normal sentencing guidelines and treat rioters with unprecedented harshness and the general rhetoric of the UK establishment and it seems to me that a) these riots have frightened the Tory establishment much more than they would ever admit (that is, they recognise a pre-revolutionary movement when they see one, even as their rhetoric denies it is anything but criminality) and b) Britian has probably already passed a tipping point and is heading towards a governance model that within twenty years will see the emergence in that country of a full blown police state.

  16. I’m not sure about GCHQ, but using MI5 for this purpose is definitely within the government’s rights (providing the relevant laws are respected, which they may not have been). MI5’s main goal is internal security, and riot control definitely falls under that.

  17. Sanctuary:

    I am not surprised by the resort to expanding the powers and reach of the repressive state apparatuses at a time of ideological crisis (which the riots represent even if the elite will not admit it). It is a bit rich for the Tories to be talking about “moral breakage” and “sickness” in UK society (and particularly the underclasses) when the rot so clearly starts at the top. The hypocrisy is phenomenal, which is another reason why the Tory resort to repression was a certain response.

    This is where the Gramscian view comes in: “At a certain point in time in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties…When such crisis occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic men of destiny” (from the State and Civil Society, in the Prison Notebooks 1971:210). Gramsci may have been watching Mussolini’s rise, but the structural and social dislocations he discusses provided an opening for a passive revolutionary response such as fascism, and in its own way this what is guiding the Tory response today.

    Not that the Tory response is fascist, nor could it be given structural and ideological conditions. But it represents a variant of contemporary rightist responses to crisis, of which conservative xenophobic nationalism is another. The response is to blame the underclasses for their fate and to gloss over the structural, social and political inequalities that limit their life choices in a way that the elites prefer not to acknowledge. After all, “chav-bashing” has been on a bit of a popular culture run for a few years now, so it should not be surprising that the government response is to continue the trend with coercive emphasis.

    What I find outrageous in the response of the Right is that the riots are considered to be a result of the failure of individual responsibility and criminal opportunism rather than as a superstructural manifestation of the negative social climate fostered by the culture of institutional greed and individual avarice exhibited by largely unchecked corporate entities connected to political elites in oligopolistic fashion. Not all people are born into the world equal in terms of social circumstance, and when democracy does not offer a political and institutional balance to structurally-given inequality, and the elites do not even care to address the core issues even in the face of spontaneous collective violence, then it has reached the point of illegitimacy. Cue the passive revolution.

  18. There are a series of issues here that, for the benefit of informed sense making, should be separated.

    1) Motivation for the riots – some macro-environmental drivers (unemployment, disenfranchisement etc…)coupled with the sheer fun of it. It is naive to simply bash the Tories, and lay the blame at MNCs. I hope you are not suggesting that a British Labour government would have responded differently. Successive British governments have exported the nation’s productive base – the problem mostly resides with ‘The City’, where the creation of wealth has been uncoupled from doing anything remotely productive. And, as in my earlier post do not dismiss the sheer fun (an intoxicating adrenalin rush) to be had from rioting!

    2) Be clear about the distinction between equal opportunities or equal outcomes – Marx and Stalin were proponents of the latter. Most democracries drive communities and economies through the former. Few have yet to get the balance right. Even those that come close are not immune from catastrophies – Norway for example.

    3) Law enforcement – this concerns me as well. Has the conventional law enforcement system been compromised? What are the consequences? Does this simply fuel further unrest? Probably. Is this a case of guilty until proven innocent? Probably. What other choices are available? Don’t know.

    4) Long term malaise. Britain has always ‘welcomed’ immigration, consider the Fuegians & Maori at the turn of the 19th Century. What do they do now with the unemployed in huge cities? Ditto NZ youth unemployment.

    5) Take care in explaining away unacceptable behaviour. The State has a legal, ethical and moral obligation to protect people and property. Period. When this breaks down violence is normalised. NZ is ‘probably’ on the verge of this now with respect to domestic violence, and our extreme level of infant mortality. Play Station is more important than a crying infant. Again, violence has been normalised (as it is in wartime).

    Yep, there is a major problem. Yep, it is unlikely to go away. But, do that to my business and I will respond accordingly – an Auckland Chemist got it right. Why did the broader population sit back and let it happen night after night? Would Kiwis sit back and let Wellington or Auckland burn?

  19. James:

    I agree that Labour in the UK has to shoulder a significant amount of blame in setting the backdrop. In fact, the poverty of the “Third Way” has clearly been exposed by the result of its policies, akin to the blame that the 5th Labour govt must shoulder for adhering to market driven logics during its tenure. The idea that there is no downside to market-driven economic policy, or at worst a lag between market opening and social distribution, is now being put paid to. And you are right: the uncoupling of production from wealth creation is the root cause of the current crisis of capitalism (as I mention in the subsequent post).

    Obviously violence should never be normalised in a democracy (I say “in a democracy” because political violence against tyranny is acceptable to me). But it should be understood for what it represents in terms of social anger and alienation. Handing out harsh sentences to rioters in special courts does not address that fundamental fact, and while serving as a future deterrent to some, it is no solution to the fundamental problems afflicting British society.

    As for the rush of rioting. I have been in a few and agree that there is adrenalin involved, but motivation for participation is not reducible to the “rush.” After all, people are by nature mostly risk-adverse tactical maximizers of opportunity, so the decision to riot is predicated not only on a costs/benefits calculation given what the State has in the way of countervailing enforcement capability, but also on the degree of political organisation and collective solidarity of those who see in rioting an avenue of direct action that transcends looting and vandalism.

  20. I find it amusing that the people I hear who complain the most about the decoupling of wealth from production of physical objects are usually people who work in industries that don’t physically produce anything.

    Personally I see this, not as a problem, but as one of the most positive developments of human history. (It’s not really a new thing, though)

  21. I reckon David Cameron’s moves will be doomed to fail, because they fundamentally attack the symptom. Closer to home, the current lot in power fall for the same fallacy.

    And the riots were in no way an uprising, they were too disorganised for that.

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