1981 and 2011: from social democratic to neoliberal rioting - Paul Gilroy

Very little historical analysis has focused directly on the wave of urban rioting that spread across Britain in 1981 and its complex effects on the country’s political life. A comforting narrative filled up the space in which a more sustained analysis might have taken shape.

Submitted by Anonymous on August 8, 2013

It suggested that following the deaths of thirteen young people in a fire in Deptford, southeast London, a militant and self-conscious social and political movement arose against the indifference and contempt that were displayed in the poor responses of the government and the Crown to the tragedy. In answer to discriminatory deployment of state power and the partiality of the media, Britain’s black communities assumed a coherent, oppositional shape for the very first time at the national level. The impact of the rioting on the institutions of formal politics, particularly local government, was left largely unexplored. The local and national history of the Labour Party and of ethnic minority organization inside it, the response of capital(s) and the private sector to the challenge of urban disorder, and the growth of “diversity management” as the favoured technocratic solution to the grievances in which the riots were grounded have all been passed over.

Massed in the town halls, the Left was dwindling fast and it faded even faster after the miners’ strike of 1984–85 when the militarization of police power fostered by the riots proved to have broader applications (Coulter et al. 1984). Examining radical publications of the period suggests that, in spite of strategic and theoretical differences across the political spectrum of socialism, there was a marked convergence around economistic interpretations of the urban unrest.

The relevance of questions of political culture was dismissed out of hand by Labourism’s ascendant “realist criminology” (Lea and Young 1986). Voices closer to the movement of disenchanted youth were either ignored as reductive or condemned as romantic for their approach to rebellion and resistance. Although the challenge of reading the riots as political culture reappeared with each new outburst, discussion was often diverted into debates about the manifold pleasures (or irrelevancy) of consumer capitalism, the contested impact of post-Fordism, the rise of Thatcher(ism), and the complicated genealogies of authoritarian statism and neoliberalism.

Those debates sometimes yielded useful observations, but their lofty tone contributed an overly abstract approach which suggested that the world could be reduced to an elegant set of theoretical categories. Additional problems appeared as too many dubious assumptions were made about the importance of the national state to governmental power, about the character and tempo of economic, technological, and cultural change, about the relationship of resistance to resignation, and about the boundaries and articulations of class conflict. In the meantime, the architects of the social market economy and state went quietly about their business (Centre for Policy Studies 1975).

Back to the future

The rioting of summer 2011 returned us to a host of questions that had been left pending by the general failure to come to terms either with 1981 or the morbid, postcolonial politics of race, class, and nation that animated it. In seeking answers to even the simplest questions such as how these different phases of the rioting might be connected, we become obliged to reopen Britain’s disorderly history and the vexed issue of what might be called the earlier rioting’s productive character. The 1980s disorders fed the militarization of policing and the instrumentalization of law and order, but they had other, less clear-cut if not exactly progressive consequences too.

The riots of 1981 were the culmination of more than a decade of bitter conflict between Britain’s “coloured school leavers” and the police charged with controlling the problems “black youth” were said to represent if not embody (Islington 18 Defence Committee 1977). Though they should not now be reduced to a mass rejection of the forms of work that were then available, the struggles of those desperate young people to escape the kind of work their immigrant parents had undertaken as a “super-exploited stratum” and a “reserve army of labour” must be seen to encompass that important element. Youth’s battle to be free from “shit work” was buoyed up by an ill-defined but nonetheless alternative conception of social life, affirmed in the unruly, dissident (sub)culture that they improvised from the residues of insurgent Ethiopianism, Black Power, and democratic, anti- racist sentiment.1

The example of Northern Ireland’s low-intensity war loomed large in the minds of those in charge of the police and the army. They feared the possibility that a similar breakdown of law and order might appear in Britain’s noisy pockets of minority settlement, which would then become “no-go areas.” The race war that had been predicted by the racist Conservative politician Enoch Powell in 1968 appeared more plausible once the scale of antipolice rioting had shifted from quotidian resentment to spectacular resistance at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. In a sign of what would soon be a routine feature of acting locally and thinking globally, that riotous crowd, mindful of what had been going on in the embattled schools of apartheid South Africa, began to chant “Soweto, Soweto” at London’s bewildered and defeated police force. The same patterns continued as dusk fell on the west London street celebrations a year later, and the bricks and bottles started to fly overhead once again. The same righteous militancy echoed through the many confrontations with white supremacist skinheads and organized neofascists that led up to the 1979 election that brought Margaret Thatcher’s government to power (NCCL 1979).

The rioting that continued sporadically between April and July of 1981 was rooted in the young’s particular experiences of inequality and injustice. It was also configured by a dawning sense of chronic crisis and the unholy forces unleashed by accelerating deindustrialization of urban zones. Both were mirrored in a pervasive sense of hopelessness. The 1981 arrest data revealed that participation in the nationwide riots was far from confined to the country’s “ethnic minorities” (Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis 1982). While the Economist trumpeted that the events demonstrated the failure of Britain’s welfare state settlement, the New York Times offered a more thoughtful and considered interpretation than was publishable in the UK press at the time:

Spreading urban violence erupted in more than a dozen cities and towns across England yesterday and early today as policemen and firemen fought to control thousands of black, white and Asian youths on a spree of rioting, burning and looting. A senior Government official said that the disturbances, which came as the epidemic of violence in the dilapidated inner cities entered its second week, were the most widespread to date. In some cities, he said, “we are facing anarchy.” By 5 A.M., most of the violence had been brought under control, but sirens and burglar alarms could still be heard through the streets of London, and palls of smoke rose from half a dozen districts. From Battersea and Brixton in the south to Stoke Newington in the north, and from Chiswick in the west to Walthamstow in the east, rocks and shattered glass littered at least 10 multiracial neighbourhoods. (Apple 1981)

Burning and looting

Thirty years after that shocking, transformative eruption, the same streets in England’s cities were again aflame. This time, there was no rioting in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, and this time, no progressive reforms of discriminatory policing or uneven, colour coded law would follow. No deepening of democracy would be considered as part of any postriot adjustments to the country’s politics of inclusion. Democracy’s steady evacuation by the governmental agents of corporate and managerial populism was too far advanced. The market state that had been dreamed about was now a rapacious and destructive actor, privatizing and outsourcing government functions while managing to incorporate those who had the most to lose into the destruction of the public institutions on which they relied.

Though the 2011 riots had been widely predicted by an extraordinary range of discrepant political opinions, the initial cause of the rioting and looting had been anger at a single act of police violence. A young man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police officers in hotly disputed circumstances that resounded with earlier instances of unaccountable and reckless use of deadly force. Less important than either the veracity or legitimacy of the police action in taking the young man’s life was the subsequent behaviour of the force in dealing with his family and the broader community in which he lived.

Tottenham, where the killing took place, is an area uniquely saturated with histories of conflict between the community and the police. Its fragile equilibrium would be swiftly unsettled by yet another violent death perpetrated by the police. The local police commander’s refusal to meet with family representatives and to share even the most basic information about Mark Duggan’s end with them compounded the loss and suffering involved.

Understandably, there was grave disenchantment and anger at this perceived injustice. It was augmented by what seemed to be the institutionalization of the old double standards that were still operating informally in line with anachronistic racial hierarchies in spite of refined police management of news media, organizational modernization, and loud professions of corporate commitment to diversity.

More than that, the policing of the crowd that had gathered and waited outside the police station as darkness fell was in line with the contempt, disregard, and hostility common to decades of interaction between the Metropolitan Police and London’s black communities. This point establishes the continuity of personnel across a twenty-five-year period. In a clear attempt to defuse and avoid the mistakes of the past, the 2011 demonstrators had ensured that their protest was directed and represented by local women, led by Mark Duggan’s relatives.

In 1981 and again in 1986, apocryphal, strongly gendered tales of racist brutality meted out routinely by police officers in habitual patterns less ideological than merely thoughtless or stupid were found at the core of the rioters’ sense of their own legitimacy. Loudly amplified by the emphatically pre- digital power of rumour, anger was channelled through the idea that contemptuous police had struck or injured a woman. That fundamental image formed a rampart of righteousness regardless of whether it could be proved. What mattered more than any concrete evidence was the moral and legal climate in which the hateful possibility of reckless police violence became plausible. That ecology was something that had been built up over many years during which “police nigger hunts” and torture inside police stations became unremarkable features of London’s policing.

Thirty years later still, the ability to imagine those scenarios is probably less potent than it was. However, by way of compensation, the precise moment in which a young black woman demonstrating outside Tottenham Police Station was viciously and needlessly struck by an officer apparently less familiar than he should have been with the history of the area and apparently disinterested in the ways in which small actions can generate enormous unanticipated consequences could be captured with all the veracity of phone-shot footage and then uploaded to YouTube (2011) for sixty-nine thousand viewers to see.

In 1981, a framing narrative had emerged across government, state, and media to explain but never to excuse the crimes of the rioters. It centred on the idea of the black communities’ familial pathology and related identity conflicts. The mob’s public crimes were the result of cultural difference visible along generational lines: primarily between the Victorian attitudes of immigrant parents and the more modern outlook of their disobedient, locally born children whose vulnerability was compounded by their psychological and cultural disorientation.

Drawing heavily on US discourse of the Kerner/Moynihan variety, this approach was given the official imprimatur in the report into the riots that was written for the government by Lord Justice Scarman (1981).2 He identified the pattern of female-headed households and the intergenerational tensions but held firmly to an explanation that strove to present the actions of the rioters within a coherent sociological framework. At that time, acceptable political speech was not so narrowly focused on ritual acts of denunciation that serve as points of entry into the possibility of being taken seriously. In other words, a gap was still audible between explanations of the riots and sympathy with the rioters. In that sense, Scarman’s approach did not deviate far from the demotic attempt at contextualization presented at the time by Jerry Dammers’ 2 Tone group, the Specials, whose classic commentary “Ghost Town” held the number one chart position while the flames scraped skyward.

The summer 2011 riots had also been preceded and perhaps anticipated by the previous winter’s protests over the increasing of university tuition fees and the termination of the educational maintenance allowance, which provided financial assistance for teenage students from poorer families. The depth of the neoliberal revolution that Britain had undergone during the three intervening decades was conveyed above all by the way that the new norms specified by generalized individuation and privatization were able to reframe the disorders as a brisk sequence of criminal events and transgressions that could be intelligible only when seen on the scale of personal conduct. Similarly, repairing the damage accomplished by the rioters was not primarily a social phenomenon but rather a matter of individual responsibility. Society had been abolished long ago. It was no surprise that the black communities, already being riven into the two great neoliberal tribes of winners and losers, were internally divided. One regularly repeated popular sentiment suggested that thirty years earlier there had really been things to complain about, while nowadays, things were not so bad as to justify the rioters’ “mindless violence.”

The official statistics on unemployment, street stops and searches, and school exclusions told a different story about the institutionalization of racialized inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. Casual talk of “black youth” had been replaced by superficially anodyne, technical disquisitions on “antisocial behaviour” and the quantifiable perils of ungovernable gang culture. The pampered young rioters and looters of 2011 were selfish, sensation seeking, and probably bored. They seized the things that only their fecklessness prevented them from being able to buy in the normal manner. The neoliberal catechism repeated in inner city “academies” and mentorship programs insisted that the preconditions for personal success are now in place regardless of growing inequality. That message is often, though by no means only, sourced in myths of uplift drawn from the lexicon of black America’s vernacular conservatism. As I write, Cecil Martin, a former National Football League player, is touring London’s schools spreading the message, “It’s your time; seize it!” His cruel urging anticipates the default judgment that these days failure is a matter of one’s own personal responsibility. In a post- secular celebrity-obsessed culture that conceives of selfishness as an innate virtue, the rioters’ greed and gratification, though undesirable, misplaced, and criminal, were also morally insufficient to make them truly deviant. We can see that their pursuit of gratification is in fact a mainstream attitude common to corrupt bankers, expenses-fiddling politicians, and others seeking the addictive thrill of acquiring something for nothing.

Betting shops, solicitors’ offices, and job centres were among the principal targets for destruction, but the lack of any legible pattern in the destruction and a reckless disregard for the lives of those who shared their communities made the perpetrators of these disorders into an infrahuman or alien parasitic “scum.” Their wretched lives contrasted sharply with the noble, armoured Poujadism of more recent incomers: nonpostcolonial settler-migrants determined to protect their shops, businesses, and uplift strategies from the feral mob by any means necessary.3

It was thought to be significant that the 2011 riots had taken place during the holy month of Ramadan—timing that helped to explain the limited scale of the eruption and the relatively small contribution of young south Asian men to the events. The political geography of the 2011 riots expressed the fact that so many young Muslims exhausted by the long summer days without food were inclined to prioritize their nightly Iftar over the pleasures of money-free shopping and pseudoinsurrection.

This shift toward the salience of faith points to the way that “Muslim” now serves as a quasiracial category shaped by a long antipathy to strangers, settlers, and aliens and closely conditioned by the discriminatory operation of UK immigration laws. Combined with instruments designed to manage the state of exception in Ireland, that body of legal tools provided the basis for new apparatuses of security that have been built up after September 11, 2001, in the name of antiterrorist activity. The clash of civilizations provides an overarching, metatheoretical construct that explains how British troops fight in Afghanistan in order to keep domestic streets safe and secure. It is very hard to tell how many people fall for this patriotic, postcolonial froth.

Despite talk of withdrawal, war is now an apparently endless feature of our diminished democracy, and the British army—always already the best in the world—is uniformly heroic now regardless of its occasional excesses (Ware 2012).

Olympic redemption

In the summer of 2012, the Olympic Games came to London as the welcome redemption of a riot-torn nation. Mohammed Farrar, the iconic Somali refugee turned champion runner, re-emerged as Mo, and swathed protectively in a Union Jack like so many black British athletes before him, he joined the Sheffield-based “mixed race” heptathlete Jessica Ennis in a vivid demonstration of what an alternative, less belligerent multicultural Britain might actually look like. They were not the kind of “muscular liberalism” that Prime Minister David Cameron (2011) had in mind in his Munich denunciation of failed multiculturalism. Whatever else was being transacted in enthusiasm for this odd couple, the popular pleasure that was generated by the epiphany of these particular “golden Brits” expressed the submerged yearning for a different country, less burdened by the past and less anxious in the face of alterity. Domesticated racial difference bolstered by a palpably convivial multiculture supplied the means to demonstrate a break with the past. But that precious glimpse of organic plurality displacing brittle unanimism was far from secure. It would be easy to lapse back into the melancholic desire for restored imperial greatness signalled slyly in the mayor’s address to the victory parade and the prime minister’s insistence (BBC News 2012) that the 2012 Olympics would be “like 1966” in the national psyche.

Of course the proliferation of digital bread and virtual circuses heralds the emergence of a different kind of society—a market society. We are told that it will be secure, more militarized, more unequal, and perhaps also beyond the reach of satire. The novel nomos required by that variety of control makes us all suspect, all surveilled. Mass incarceration is a basic rule and containment a founding principle of the expedient governance that marks the divorce of capitalism from democracy. The parapolitical power of anti- Islam sentiment is likely to increase and be brutally instrumentalized by dog- whistling, ethnoracial populism. The very best we can hope for may be that the old chestnuts of whiteness and blackness will fade away into generic, market- based identities or “life styles.” That may prove to be a hollow victory amidst the manifold neocolonial, biopolitical, and environmental dangers that await us on the perilous pathway of our country’s mismanaged decline.


Apple, Raymond W. 1981. “New Riots Sweep England’s Cities: Anarchy Feared.” New York Times, July 11. www.nytimes.com/1981/07/11/world/new-riots-sweep-england-s-cities-anarchy-feared.html.

BBC News. 2012. “Cameron: 2012 Brought ‘A Golden Summer’ for Britain.” September 10. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19544414.

Cameron, David. 2011. “PM’s Speech at Munich Security Conference.” British Prime Minister’s Office, February 5. www.number10.gov.uk/news/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference/.

Centre for Policy Studies. 1975. Why Britain Needs a Social Market Economy. London: CPS.

Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. 1982. Repor t of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis for the Year 1981– 1982. Cmnd. 8569. London: HMSO.

Coulter, Jim, et al. 1984. State of Siege. London: Canary Press.

Islington 18 Defence Committee. 1977. Under Heavy Manners: Report of the Labour Movement Enquiry into Police Brutality and the Position of Black Youth in Islington, Held on Saturday July 23, 1977. London: Islington 18 Defence Committee.

Lea, John, and Jock Young. 1986. What’s to Be Done about Law and Order? Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL). 1979. National Council for Civil Liberties Report of the Unofficial Enquiry on the Police Riot in Southall, 23 April 1979. London: NCCL .

Scarman, Lord. 1981. The Brixton Disorders 10 – 12 April 1981. Cmnd. 8427. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Ware, Vron. 2012. Military Migrants: Fighting for Your Country. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave.

YouTube. 201 1. “16 Year Old Girl Attacked by Tottenham Riot Police!” August 7. www.youtube.com/watch? v=YX9qZVsMQP8 (accessed November 14, 2012).

  • 1Ethiopianism refers to a spiritual as well as political current, both predating and intersecting with Pan-Africanism, emerging from South and southeastern Africa in response to European colonialism and white settlement.
  • 2While the 1968 Kerner Report argued the series of ongoing urban uprisings in the United States resulted from the lack of opportunities available to African Americans, the Moynihan Report, published three years earlier, had attributed this experience of poverty to the supposed absence of positive male role models.
  • 3Poujadism was a conservative movement, established in France in the 1950s by Pierre Poujade, that sought to protect the interests of particularly small businesses.