A few quick clarifications on the recent riots

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Joined: 28-08-11
Aug 28 2011 17:16
A few quick clarifications on the recent riots

1. Commentators left and right argue whether mere materialism drove people to riot and loot. Were they perhaps 'only' after a new plasma TV and had no higher aspirations? Predominately left and liberal commentators point to other riots elsewhere (the Arab spring) or in the past (1980s riots in the UK), i.e., those riots which they consider acceptable, and complain about London's youth, that they failed to live up to these expectations. Others are quick to defend them against such horrendous accusations as materialism and point out that these riots were sparked by racist policing and social deprivation. Hence, whilst its expression was apolitical and 'merely' materialistic, its 'deeper' roots were political, they argue. Yet, what they all seem to be missing is the obvious. The fact that ownership and transfer thereof is in itself a political question, a question pointing to the basic pillars of this society. Those who claim that poverty – be it lack of bread, sneakers or plasma TVs – is not a political question defend this society and with it exclusion and poverty.

2. The public invitation to rioters and looters to aspire to 'higher' goals of democracy, anti-racism and a future is an invitation to aspire to less. After a successful loot of a plasma TV one has a new plasma TV. After a riot against cuts or tuition fees one - immediately - has nothing. After a riot for democracy and even union rights one might get the necessary means for stuff such as plasma TVs and being spared harassment, but nothing more. Quite often these means even turn out to be rather inefficient in actually achieving these goals. Those on the streets maximised their utility, i.e. they did that what is expected of them in this society.

3. Looting is a violent form of transfer of ownership and it is this violent negation of the will of the owner that many people denounce now. Yet, what prevents people getting the stuff they want under normal, non-looting conditions? State violence! In recent days quite visibly so: 16,000 people on the streets trained in and ready to smash peoples heads' in and to shoot them with rubber bullets, helicopters in the air to assist them, maximum sentences for people arrested near the riots, such as the guy only carrying a plastic bag and balaclava. This is the violence that is necessary to keep stuff away from those people who merely want but cannot afford them. A society so fundamentally based on violence complains about violence - oh the irony!

4. Yet, the looting of shops is only part of the picture. Shops were burned to the ground, people were being made homeless because their flats were above or next to said shops, a gay book shop was singled out, people were murdered, quite a few muggings and at least some racist attacks took place. While the looting of a supermarket is a transgression of this society's principles, most of these things were nasty expressions of them. This simple observation, which isn't lost on most observers, could be a first step to develop an understanding of what the riots were. Yet, all that people seem to be doing is to take sides, besting each other in moral purity. Either by condemning the 'mindless' violence or by delivering a standard disclaimer condemning them, only to then quickly point out more cheerful events such as a free-booze street party in front of looted supermarket. Of course, no one now goes round praising people becoming homeless, that would be pretty vicious. As vicious as those 200,000 and counting people who currently e-petition to make looters, rioters and their flatmates homeless, i.e. those people signing the "Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits". These riots were not ours. The violent transfer and destruction of property is not the same as the negation and abolition of it. Yet, this was not the riot of a fascist mob as some portray it now. This was one version of what happens when the subjects of a modern capitalist society express their anger.

5. Another variant is the current outrage against the riots. What seems to puzzle or outrage many people is that small corner shops were attacked. Even some Anarchists seem to jump in to defend these businesses. Yet, it does not matter whether it is Tesco or some small corner shop which charges for that which one wants. Both big and small retailers act as a visible barrier between want and the object of that want. Also, anyone who has been to a few London corner shops knows how many of them quite openly distrust kids. It is not very surprising if shops get attacked when they have signs allowing "at most two kids in at the same time". Just as it is understandable that they have put up these signs in the first place.

6. In light of these conflicting interests it is puzzling to see so many - among them Anarchists - defending "communities" and denouncing attacks on them. These communities are not communes, no free associations of producers and consumers, not groups with common interests, but ensembles of conflicting ones. Shop owners, workers, estate kids, council workers, small and large scale capitalists, they do not have the same interests, many of them have directly conflicting ones. The call for community spirit in disregard of what these communities are is, in essence, the same as a nationalist call for unity: a call to subject ones' own interests to that of the "common good". A common good that asks for subordination and restriction. This appreciation of the moralistic collective is what appeals to right-wing, left-wing and some radical writers alike.

7. These treasured communities are often defined and separated - by many of their members and by the powers that be - along "cultural" and "ethnic" lines. Just because people migrated from a particular country, follow a particular religion or have a particular skin colour, they are expected to stick together and form a community: multi-cultural racism.

8. In the right-wing, liberal and sometimes left-wing press this fascination for subordination under a community is perfectly illustrated by positive references to "community leaders". No one seems to ask how these people get to be these leaders and what their "leadership" means for the poor sods in their communities. When religious figures of authority or local businessmen represent "their" communities, this usually means nothing good for those who are subject to them.

9. But there is even more agreement among conservative and radical commentators. They share contempt for moral decay at the bottom and at the top. By pointing out how crooked Parliament, government and the police are themselves (phone hacking, expenses scandal, ...) they mean to strip these institutions of their moral authority to cast judgment over rioters and looters. However, in doing so, they declare that it is deviation from the law that they object to. The same law which is now employed to throw people in jail for nicking a case of water and the same law which separates people without money from the stuff they want in the first place. This law is appreciated while self-interest is - in all seriousness - denounced.

10. Some people pursue their self-interest quite openly, yet in the appropriate moralised form. Under the hashtag #riotcleanup the first wave of gentrifiers - media types, artists and other 20something middle-class people, set out to clean the streets of London of debris and to reclaim the "real London" from those who are "scum". Their broom-wielding photo shoots only express what they do in practice, whether they want or not, anyway: to turn London areas in their areas, to deny them to those who they deem not like them, to clean out the trash that used to live there.

11. Despite all the looting, these riots were not expressions of straight-forward materialism. When people riot to "show that we can do what we want" (some kids quoted on the BBC), when people attack a shop because it denied them a job (also quoted on the news), when people loot a big bag of rice worth almost nothing, their material conditions do not change at all. It might provide a bit of excitement, it might confirm their own status as subjects of their own life instead of mere objects of the cops, it might feel right to them. But all these deeply bourgeois, and hence understandable, desires and motives do not change how fundamentally powerless their bearers are. One week after the riots they are back to the status quo. Anyone who translates the experience of the riot as a victory, has already given up on changing the current conditions.

A group, London

Caiman del Barrio
Joined: 28-09-04
Aug 28 2011 17:32

Who wrote this? Can't it go in the Library? And have you read http://libcom.org/news/open-letter-those-who-condemn-looting-part-one-11082011

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Joined: 7-05-06
Aug 28 2011 23:25
a gay book shop was singled out

The attack on the gay bookshop ('Gay's the Word' in Bloomsbury) was miles away from any riot - it just happened on a night of rioting elsewhere. No other shops were attacked in the same street, nor in nearby shopping centres with expensive lootable gear. The shop has occasionally been attacked in the past (last time 2006). The media seem to have opportunistically played this up as a homophobic smear to pin on the rioters.

cantdocartwheels's picture
Joined: 15-03-04
Aug 29 2011 06:55

Point 6- surely the point of anarchism is to make ''workers, estate kids, council workers'',and your fruit and veg stall owner all realise that their class interests lie in getting rid of the bosses and creating a new world. As an old lady in tottenham said to me, ''why burn us out, why dont they go burn their mansions'', to me simply dismissing this increasingly common feeling as a defense of community is a bit clumsy. The rich and powerful don't live on the estates in question or on deptford high street either, so yeah its about class not community, but theirs often a pretty big overlap. Likewise with point 5, it would seem to be an easy generalisation, not so easy to make when you have to go meet the family of some tiny fruit and veg stall for dnner the next day.
That said they are still both good points to make and a good criticism to be had of anarchists ourselves included. Afterall many of us went on that hackney community march for example, which definitely had its flaws, and one shouldn;t shy away from them, but they are made in a somewhat sweeping fashion. The approaches to ''community'' displayed in tottenham, hackney, deptford or brixton are all very different, let alone those in nottingham or liverpool or enfield and eltham for that matter.

Thought that overall the piece was very good though, i felt it summed up how i feel about a lot of it, especially the desperate attempts to pin things into a narrative..Definitely one for the library.