- DEPTFORD UNITED, a Lewisham activist.
- ANDREW SANCHEZ, an anthropologist.
- DAVID HARVEY, the well-known radical geographer.
The mass media reports are, as usual, not telling the whole story. The latest developments appear to be a result of a combination of factors; policing, state racism, unemployment, poverty, lack of opportunities, the increasing cycle of desperation which so many people find themselves in and of course the public sector cuts. I read in Socialist Worker online that one witness saw someone looting nappies and toilet rolls.
All of this needs to be put in some perspective. Apparently there was some looting in our local High St. but this was unconfirmed, I went to take a look–there had been no looting but I believe there was some looting in the centre of the borough. There has clearly been some disorder, burning of cars, some buildings and some looting etc. at various locations across London & some other British cities. Terrible for those people burnt out above stores, small shopkeepers affected and so on but affecting relatively small numbers of people. Disorder appears to involve relatively small numbers of young people at present. The mass media have been hyping up a disorder situation in some streets in some boroughs into “mayhem in borough x” as if the whole of borough x is affected. Disorder broke out about a mile away from me so some bloke said “don’t go up there this afternoon mate!” as he was calmly walking along the road to probably get a pint of milk or something like that. Unless it generalises into clear political demands over the next 2 days I think it will fizzle out. What counts now is justice for the murdered man’s family and social justice for the rest of us.
I think the disturbances may be a precursor to a very hot autumn of demonstrations, strikes and other public order disturbances including widespread political rioting if the government doesn’t listen to the people. On the other hand, this may be a flash point which dies down again very quickly.
On Tuesday evening of 9th August an evening street meeting on Deptford High Street took place which involved 75 – 100 people throughout the evening. We were concerned about safety in our local community. The meeting formed an ad hoc organisation called “Deptford United” and decided to call an emergency demonstration for Wednesday 10th August which was promoted by e-mail, SMS and Twitter #weareunitedyourinvited. During the afternoon of Wednesday 10th August we printed a leaflet to hand out on the local high street which advertised the following:
- AGAINST all attacks on our communities
- AGAINST national government and Lewisham Council cuts which leave our youth desperate and hopeless.
- FOR the unity of all Deptford residents.
- FOR universal health care and free education for all.
and called for a march to Lewisham Town Hall in an effort to direct the mass anger against our political representatives who have backed the savage cuts. The resulting demonstration was disciplined, organised and peaceful and we encountered no arrests among at least 200 – 250 people who turned up for the protest. We made a big point about the importance of discipline, organisation and peaceful nature of the demonstration prior to starting the demo. One of the best national TV investigative news broadcasters, Channel 4 News, turned up to interview us and even said we may get a live broadcast from Lewisham Town Hall. Sadly, we didn’t make the final cut for Channel 4 news but the fact Deptford United put out a press release to nine local and national media organisations and the resulting interviews which may be used at a later date shows the significance of proper organisation. The demonstration also grew in size as we marched to the Town Hall and we picked up a lot of support from local working class people waving at the demonstration. It is also important to remember the demo was called at 18 hours notice.
A follow up street meeting has been planned for Saturday 13th August in Lewisham town centre in an effort to connect with wide numbers of people who are totally alienated from society. We want to organise everyone who is angry into a peaceful, cohesive, disciplined and powerful force which forms part of a future mass movement against the ConDem government.
As I write this article on August 10th 2011, the UK is awaking from four nights of widespread civil unrest which initially grew from a lonely spark in a highly combustible atmosphere. The shooting of a man in Tottenham, North London, by the Metropolitan Police invited community condemnation which initially expressed itself in a street vigil and a demonstration. In a matter of hours, the Tottenham demonstration had become an outpouring of rage and alienation which expressed itself as a riot. By the end of the evening, the hopelessness of working class life under a conservative government had begun to express itself as self-harm, as hundreds of young people looted and then burned their own neighbourhood. Forty eight hours later, most of the city’s major provincial shopping centres and a number of large housing estates were experiencing widespread acts of arson and looting as thousands of teenagers battled police for control of the streets.
Mainstream media sources claim that violence of this form and scale has not been seen in London since the early 1980s, when rioting in predominantly black communities reacted to the brutalising and profoundly alienating institutions of British society. Many of my associates in the British far left are broadly in concurrence with this analysis, and draw parallels between the social context of the 2011 riots and the austerity of the Thatcher era. It is true that the current government is engaged in an attack on the welfare state which will knowingly disenfranchise the British working class on a tremendous scale, and that this programme is decidedly Thatcherite in form. It is also true that as in the 1980s, the Metropolitan police currently enjoys an exceptionally low level of public confidence following highly publicised abuses of power and serious allegations of corruption. However, the tendency to read today’s riots as though they were anachronistic echoes of the struggles of the previous generation is misguided, and unwittingly downplays the level of social problems currently faced by sections of the British working class.
The riots of the 1980s articulated the disenfranchisement of certain communities from the wider British society. What they did not articulate was the alienation of individuals within those communities from one another. The urban riots of the 1980s emerged from communities that had a powerful and confident sense of their own worth, and an even deeper level of belief in the redemptive powers of social solidarity. These riots enjoyed widespread support in the communities from which they emerged, and were taken to express anger at broadly common problems. Accordingly, violence was generally directed to specific targets perceived to be antagonistic to the community, and the aftermath of the riots saw that vital solidarity emerge intact, if not in fact stronger. There is of course a good reason why this was possible; Black Britain in the 1970s and 1980s laboured under a great many hardships and deprivations, but it did so from the vantage point of a highly politicised community consciousness. This was a cultural and class consciousness which united interests as varied as combating police brutality, reforming the education system, supporting black-owned businesses, fighting for squatters’ rights and confronting racial violence. It is a brave member of the far left community that finds fault with the forms that working class action assumes. However, the potential absence of productively applied class solidarity is an aspect of the recent riots that requires careful attention if their momentum is to be maintained.
Rioting is by its very nature an unpredictable weapon of resistance. The truth about riots, so seldom articulated in any form of serious writing on the subject, is that they are usually exhilarating for those that take part in them. They involve the purging of feelings of worthlessness and impotence in sudden displays of absolute and completely visible power. The experience of taking control of a street, breaking a police line or simply standing one’s ground in the face of a once terrifying opposition is usually one that is as surprising to the participant as it is to the worried onlooker. That fleeting sensation of power can be one that is productive and demystifying, it can help individuals to reassess the essentially unjust and untenable structures of the state. Breaking a window can shatter the abstract yet profoundly more durable edifices of hegemony, and it is my impression that this is exactly what must have occurred in the consciousness of many thousands of young people who unexpectedly found themselves embroiled in this week’s riots. My hope is that this realisation does not leave the minds of the rioters, and that they are inclined to know with absolute certainty that they have the power to more fully confront the state if they so wish. However, my qualification is that this will only be possible if they do not first use the weapons of rioting and looting to unwittingly harm themselves instead.
The events of the past week have seen the fury and the sheer power of the young British working class turned against the world in a manner that is nothing short of spectacular. It is now known without question that the teenagers of London are angry, fearless, committed and ingenious. Whatever the parameters of their struggle, they have been seen to fight where so many left wing activists have failed or stalled. Their potential it seems to me is incredible, and must surely now be considered the most important resource to be counted in any radical political activity in the city. However, over the previous days, this potential has not been tapped as effectively as it might have been. The rioters have spoken, and they have spoken loudly, but the sound of their voice may yet be drowned out by the complaints of working class people that have been victim of assault and theft over the previous days. They may also be drowned out by those voices which wonder why in these riots we have witnessed a focus on looting that has no significant parallel in British history.
Objectively, it is clear to this author that the widespread and often reasonably systematic looting of shops stems from a fetishism of commodities that is integral to consumer capitalism. To stay functional, the economy from which the riots emerge must find ways to reinvest its profits. A key means through which this is achieved is through the production of an ever increasing number of commodities whose need is decidedly limited, but whose potential for generating profits is immense. These commodities are characterised by persistent technological innovation and stylistic trends, which ensure that consumers must continue to purchase newer goods in order to access the social rewards which are believed to come through possessing them. That such commodities are highly valued in societies where working and living conditions for the majority of people are alienating is not at all surprising, since it is the consumer’s fear of losing an already rather tenuous status which producers depend upon to create and sustain their markets. In a capitalist economy, the rising value of things has a direct relationship to the falling value of people, as commodities begin to substitute meaningful social relationships.
When people define the integral dimensions of their own self as worthless and replace them with the value of inanimate things, it is obvious that the disaffected will seek power through coveting and accumulating goods. This complex can negate even the most basic of community responsibilities, resulting in the looting and destruction of small businesses owned by local working class people. That this culture exists at all in this city is a product of capitalism and the state. That it exists so pervasively that it potentially derails the most important expression of mass disaffection that this city has ever seen, is at least partly the fault of those of us on the far left. The mass resistance to the government’s public spending reforms has recently seen inspiring outbursts of political activity across the city. These events have notably included a large number of school children who stood side by side with education activists such as myself in the Whitehall and Parliament Square riots of last year. However, it is evident that the far left has failed to productively engage with large sections of the city’s working class youth, who it is now apparent may have the greatest amount of revolutionary potential.
The events of the previous days indicate a deep and persistent alienation which has at last been concretised. The riots suggest that many young Londoners count direct confrontation with the state as a viable means of action. However, what the riots do not indicate at this stage is that this power has broken free from the constraining influence of a culture of materialism and individualism which subordinates the interests of community. Rioting and looting can do much to challenge the psychological and intellectual foundations on which the myth of the legitimate and unassailable state rest. However, the Arab Uprisings of this year teach us that it is the solidarity and social consciousness of mass movements which make revolutionary change, not the looting of one’s neighbourhood. If the spark of the London riots is to become a flame of national change, it is up to us on the far left to now reach out to London’s rioters, to help turn the type of consciousness which harms itself into the type which truly confronts it antagonists.
Dr Andrew Sanchez
Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science
“Nihilistic and feral teenagers” the Daily Mail called them: the crazy youths from all walks of life who raced around the streets mindlessly and desperately hurling bricks, stones and bottles at the cops while looting here and setting bonfires there, leading the authorities on a merry chase of catch-as-catch-can as they tweeted their way from one strategic target to another.
The word “feral” pulled me up short. It reminded me of how the communards in Paris in 1871 were depicted as wild animals, as hyenas, that deserved to be (and often were) summarily executed in the name of the sanctity of private property, morality, religion, and the family. But then the word conjured up another association: Tony Blair attacking the “feral media,” having for so long been comfortably lodged in the left pocket of Rupert Murdoch only later to be substituted as Murdoch reached into his right pocket to pluck out David Cameron.
There will of course be the usual hysterical debate between those prone to view the riots as a matter of pure, unbridled and inexcusable criminality, and those anxious to contextualize events against a background of bad policing; continuing racism and unjustified persecution of youths and minorities; mass unemployment of the young; burgeoning social deprivation; and a mindless politics of austerity that has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with the perpetuation and consolidation of personal wealth and power. Some may even get around to condemning the meaningless and alienating qualities of so many jobs and so much of daily life in the midst of immense but unevenly distributed potentiality for human flourishing.
If we are lucky, we will have commissions and reports to say all over again what was said of Brixton and Toxteth in the Thatcher years. I say ‘lucky’ because the feral instincts of the current Prime Minister seem more attuned to turn on the water cannons, to call in the tear gas brigade and use the rubber bullets while pontificating unctuously about the loss of moral compass, the decline of civility and the sad deterioration of family values and discipline among errant youths.
But the problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth, telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills, shopkeepers price gouge, and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.
A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery, particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected, has become the order of the day. Does anyone believe it is possible to find an honest capitalist, an honest banker, an honest politician, an honest shopkeeper or an honest police commisioner any more? Yes, they do exist. But only as a minority that everyone else regards as stupid. Get smart. Get Easy Profits. Defraud and steal! The odds of getting caught are low. And in any case there are plenty of ways to shield personal wealth from the costs of corporate malfeasance.
What I say may sound shocking. Most of us don’t see it because we don’t want to. Certainly no politician dare say it and the press would only print it to heap scorn upon the sayer. But my guess is that every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way – more blatently and visibly in the streets. Thatcherism unchained the feral instincts of capitalism (the “animal spirits” of the entreprenuer they coyly named it) and nothing has transpired to curb them since. Slash and burn is now openly the motto of the ruling classes pretty much everywhere.
This is the new normal in which we live. This is what the next grand commission of enquiry should address. Everyone, not just the rioters, should be held to account. Feral capitalism should be put on trial for crimes against humanity as well as for crimes against nature.
Sadly, this is what these mindless rioters cannot see or demand. Everything conspires to prevent us from seeing and demanding it also. This is why political power so hastily dons the robes of superior morality and unctuous reason so that no one might see it as so nakedly corrupt and stupidly irrational.
But there are various glimmers of hope and Light around the world. The indignados movements in Spain and Greece, the revolutionary impulses in Latin America, the peasant movements in Asia, are all beginning to see through the vast scam that a predatory and feral global capitalism has unleashed upon the world. What will it take for the rest of us to see and act upon it? How can we begin all over again? What direction should we take? The answers are not easy. But one thing we do know for certain: we can only get to the right answers by asking the right questions.
David Harvey is Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is The Enigma of Capital, and the Crises of Capitalism.