To reiterate somewhat, there is a politics to these riots. Panicking, political leaders and many others, have queued up to deny this, labelling it “pure violence,” “criminality, pure and simple“, or “mindless violence“. Over and over again, the distance between the rioters and the ‘community’ or ‘Londoners’ has been set up and reinforced. This is not without some public backing. After all, many Londoners are, rightly, angry, frightened, upset, frustrated, shocked and saddened by the sight of homes and businesses not just smashed but burning voraciously into the night whilst looters showed off their new gear. We were a world away, it seemed, from the specific, dignified, coherent demands for justice being made by Mark Duggan’s family and their supporters. Many asked themselves: what do they want? The answer seemed to be: trainers. What could be political about stealing from Foot Locker?
First things first. This post is not about constructing a narrative of social apologia via moral determinism – i.e. the idea that people couldn’t help themselves, or were bound to do it by their economic status etc. Between this and the ‘mindless violence’ line of argument, there are plenty of fools (sadly many, powerful, wealthy, and in charge of your country) trading in pretty stupid accounts of human behaviour and social causation.
It seems impossible to publicly express concern for the rioters motivations without being attacked for defending arson, theft and assault. To understand is to forgive, it seems. Darcus Howe, for example, is not only accused of condoning riots but of being a historical participant in past riots (a false charge against him in 1970 of which he was acquitted) because the BBC anchorwoman apparently cannot abide his attempt to explain or understand the motivations of the angry young people razing London’s streets.
Despite the condemnations of police officers, politicians and the ‘man and/or woman on the street’, this is not ‘pure violence’ – the rioters are not a hurricane or a gang of psychopaths tearing apart London without purpose. Yet this identification of the destructive rabble as mindless, inhuman, destructive force is a defensive trope; just note how often and readily it is deployed. Our anxiety is telling and the denial of meaning, much less politics, arms us mentally and emotionally for the deployment of arms in the name of order.
Even when purposes are imputed to the rioters they must be base motives – wholly selfish, immoral and vicious. Upstanding citizens – brandishing brooms to clean up the broken glass, or calling for the fist of law and order to come down hard – are contrasted with the hoodies, hooligans and hoodlums irrationally looting their own neighborhoods, burning down people’s homes and showing a complete disregard for authority. They are criminals and criminals have no grievances; at best we can understand the structures that create criminals – though as we’ve seen even this is to give dangerous comfort to the forces of disorder.
The claim that the riots are not political, or as Boris Johnson suggests, that looking to the deeper political issues involved encourages more destruction, is in fact an overt act of de-politicisation. This is not to suggest that we can read ‘our’ politics onto the looters – they are not protesters; but it is to insist that we be clear that these attacks are directed, coordinated, purposeful and – for those able and willing to listen – meaningful. Yet it is at this point that prepared responses calling for a focus on social exclusion and poverty fall short. As important as these issues are they are not the demands of the rioters, whose politics are actually far more disturbing.
Knowingly or not, the rioters have imbibed the insights of Guy Debord: we live in a society of spectacles, in a politics of mediated performances. They have no scripts to express their rage, desire, humiliation and frustration, therefore they are unheard. They have only one role to play – silent, incomprehensible, villainous. To expect them to be upstanding citizens, peaceful protesters or even eloquent radicals is to demand transcendence. The political content, therefore, is the performance of the spectacle itself.
And what is the spectacle here? It is the deliberate, obscene transgression, the planned aggression, the fearless Fuck You, and above all, its enjoyment. It is the last bit which is the most indigestible and ugly, and therefore roundly ignored or bracketed, but also the most important in terms of what it means as a political statement: in short, we are not like you, we do not fear you, we have no stake in this place, we will take what we want, and we will enjoy it.
This is a solid, deep form of alienation built up not overnight, or over the last two years in response to cuts (shame on you Ken Livingstone) but one which is built into the fabric of the broad political settlement of the last decades and reflected in the city’s divisions between rich and poor, between black, brown and white, between young and old. Some, with talent, luck and hard work, manage to jump the barriers, although this is not evidence that barriers are not there. The riots rest on a conviction not just that the barriers are there, but that they are solid walls, through which none will pass. The reactions to them as ‘mindless violence’ simply confirm this fact. It is not that people are rioting because they don’t have jobs, but because they must believe, ultimately, gloomily, grimly, that there is nothing for them in their future.
People have good reasons for distancing themselves from the politics of riots, of refusing to look them in the face. It is a mirror that does not reflect how we see ourselves. How could we live with ourselves, if it were actually true that in a city boasting such wealth and luxury, that there were children who our political and social system had so comprehensively failed? If this failure had encompassed not only the state but the media, the public, the schools and the police? If, despite the best efforts of those working to change things and the mounting evidence of its effects, it was met with political tokenism and public apathy? It must not be true that this apparent orgy of violence reflects something real about our divided society.
-Meera and Joe