A recurrent trope in the abundant commentary of the recent London riots was the “senselessness” and the “meaninglessness” of the violence witnessed, with the apparent lack of any clear or systematic political demands from rioters and the arson or vandalism of property that did not even seem to carry the symbolic charge that such acts might otherwise be seen to hold had the targets been obvious governmental or corporate institutions. In that respect, looting was much less discomforting in that it at least appeared to obey a discernable intent and acquisitive rationale and could be readily interpreted as the actions of “defective and disqualified consumers.” Perhaps the most common response by commentators has been to recognise the senselessness of some of the violence while simultaneously viewing such meaninglessness as rich with meaning. Žižek thus identified the riots as “zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing” but which by its very nature had the effect of revealing to us that under our current predicament “the only form protest can take is meaningless violence.” Such a hermeneutics of the event has by no means been the preserve of any particular political persuasion, even if that which has been read into the violence varies wildly. In the days and weeks that followed the riots, moral collapse, family breakdown, materialism and rap music were, among other things, all blamed for the events, including by those who had initially refused to hear anything else than condemnation. What all seemed to be able to agree on however was the significance of the riots, that this unfocused outburst of violence had torn the veil behind which unpalatable truths about our society lay. One is left with the apparent paradox that a more orderly and articulate protest would likely have been endowed with much less meaning than the “senseless violence” of early August.
(…cheers…) Please welcome, in your traditional way, the latest in the expanding list of Disorder-ed contributors. Rahul Rao, currently Lecturer in International Security at SOAS, author most recently of the fascinating Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, as well as a number of articles on cosmopolitanism, world order and empire. He is currently working on projects aimed at provincialising Westphalia and introducing queer theory to IR.
There is a great deal that I don’t understand about the world, but I do know a little about that part of it where the Kingsland Road becomes Stoke Newington Road (London N16/E8, if that’s how you work). As the dust clears from what BBC Panorama recently called The August Riots – as if to distinguish them from those to come in September, October, November and December – it is difficult to walk around without wondering whether everyone is judging everyone else on the basis of age, race, class and sartorial preference. Multiculturalism in Dalston can sometimes feel like a polite version of separate-but-equal with the hipsters (mostly white, but equal opportunity for those with the right facial hair, skinny jeans, loafers with no socks, university education, fixie bikes and Apple accoutrements) patronising hipster cafés, the Turks hanging out in members-only social clubs, the Caribbeans in venues such as Open the Gate. Everyone goes to the Turkish restaurants, but gastronomy has always been the least challenging site for racial mixing. As gentrification has proceeded apace – a phenomenon driven by middle class professionals like myself – I cannot help but notice that Dalston Superstore is always full and the Caribbean restaurant in Centerprise (East London’s oldest and most famous black bookshop) often empty. (Oddly, the spell check on this blog thinks that the word ‘gentrifying’ does not exist and suggests replacing it with ‘petrifying’. There might be something to that.)
On August 8 when the riots reached Hackney, Dalston hit the headlines as the place where the riots caused little damage, its Turkish and Kurdish business owners much feted for their role in beating back the rioters. I have to confess to an immediate reaction (always a betrayal of one’s class identification) of gratitude to a local community of people who trusted and knew each other well enough to work together at a moment’s notice – a community to which I do not belong, but on whose efforts I was able to free-ride (like Zoe Williams, I watched these events on a live feed, it never having occurred to me that I could have gone on to my high street to defend anything). In the cold light of dawn, second thoughts: when the facade of the Leviathan had cracked, security had become a function of ethnic solidarity. Welcome to Sarajevo.
The reaction of the local business owners in Dalston poses two questions. Continue reading
Belief in magic did not cease when the coarser forms of superstitious practice ceased. The principle of magic is found whenever it is hoped to get results without intelligent control of means; and also when it is supposed that means can exist and yet remain inert and inoperative. In morals and politics such expectation still prevail, and in so far the most important phases of human action are still affected by magic. We think that by feeling strongly enough about something, by wishing hard enough, we can get a desirable result, such as virtuous execution of a good resolve, or peace among nations, or good will in industry. We slur over the necessity of the cooperative action of objective conditions, and the fact that this cooperation is assured only by persistent and close study. Or, on the other hand, we fancy we can get these results by external machinery, by tools or potential means, without a corresponding functioning of human desires and capacities. Often times these two false and contradictory beliefs are combined in the same person. The man who feels that his virtues are his own personal accomplishment is likely to be also the one who thinks that by passing laws he can throw the fear of God into others and make them virtuous by edict and prohibition.
-John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct
The blogosphere has a million corners, countless nooks and several large echo-chambers, complete with their own centres of self-congratulatory gravity. All have been aflame over the last week, saturating events, riots and insurgencies with the weight of historical expectation, the political memory of past iteration and the awesome condescension of easy interpretation. Gaps persist: gender and the dynamics of formally opposed masculinities have escaped all but the most cursory attention. It is one paradox of all this profuse commentary that decrying the statements and manifestos of others is the most satisfying and patronising manifesto of all. At its worst, it engages in the fullest of narcissisms (let’s make this about us and the quality of our analysis) whilst proudly displaying its contempt for thought (now is not the time for theory!). And of course, the problems and challenges are real. Much more real than we can face, too real for the sordid postures of moralising (I denounce Satan and all his works!) and liable to stay as real once we paper over them and return to our default settings.
Oh, and I find myself in unsurprising agreement with Joe and Meera (although I think Ken Livingstone’s attempts to make the link to cuts and social marginalisation is more ham-fisted than shameful). Which is all by way of introduction. There are reams to be written on the way the punditocracy and assorted commentariat are deploying (and misapplying) categories of cause, the unstable and multiple uses made of ‘politics’, the questions of historical precedent and historical return, and on and on. Exhaustion at the war of position prevents any such post. Instead, a mix-tape of diagnosis and critique, with both the smooth joins and the subtle dissonances that implies. More useful than a 1,000 faux-fresh words.
These looters are doing what they’re supposed to; grabbing the goods they see in the shops and can’t buy in a recession. They loot the bling – the sports shoes, gold watches, mobile phones and plasma TVs; and you can recognize the very poor when you see a woman looting potatoes from a corner shop. These acquisitive looters are certainly copying the gold standard of a social contract eroded by and evaporating with the money. These are riots in the cause of consumer goods. Burning and robbing other people’s things is one thing, but soon enough, and with no social cause or justice worth the name, people too become indistinguishable from things: witness the widely-circulated photo of the woman leaping for her life from a burning building; such potential deaths still threaten to bring the house down on top of us. This whole distressing episode began with the police shooting dead a black man in north London they said was a gunman; no evidence he fired a shot, we’re told, but the man was already indistinguishable from his gun.
Gabriel Gbadamosi, ‘The Blazing Light In August’
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. Continue reading