An open letter to those who condemn looting (Part one)

Rioting in Brixton
Rioting in Brixton

An open letter from Socialism and/or barbarism about responses to looting.

Submitted by Ari on August 12, 2011

Dear you all,

I fear we have nothing to say to each other.

What follows may therefore represent one half of a dialogue in the way that yelling at a jukebox made of ice does. Perhaps the sheer exertion of speaking - a certain quantity of hot air - will soften the surface a bit, but it's a pretty one-sided discussion. And it doesn't mean you can or will stop repeating the records you have been given to play, those looping phrases and evasions.

After all, we've heard what you have to say. We too know the words by heart. We find it, at best, deeply unconvincing, and, at worst, bilious, evasive, racist, average, murderous pap not fit for mouths or ears. And there is very little that is best these days.

I expect you would say the same about our position, albeit with a different set of adjectives. Juvenile, destructive, unreasonable, and naive come to mind, if your previous history of accusations gives any indication. Unfortunately, given the structure of the media and the flow of information, we cannot but hear what you say while you can very easily continue to ignore what we do. Until lots of angry people are burning your city, at which point you might, in a fit of weakness, concede to listen to those who have some opinions on the matter. Unlikely, though. We live in noisy times.

It is too bad, though, because we actually agree on a few things. For you say of these riots, and this looting, that they are opportunistic. That they are unreasonable and stupid. That "this isn't a protest, this is a riot." That they are "not political." That "this is about individuals using the excuse of what happened the first two nights to make sure what happens the third night is worse". That this is "havoc." That this is "criminality pure and simple." That they do not "have the right" to do this. That "no benefit will come in the long term," from "looting a local shop," "setting a bus on fire," or "nicking a mobile phone." Above all, as you, Home Secretary put it, "There is no excuse for violence. There is no excuse for looting." (For a further litany and bestiary of speech, see here.)

And we agree.

There are some points of difference, it's true. We don't think "these people" are "apes," rats," "dogs". But we believe that you truly see them that way, and that what happens now is not the reason for your belief: it is merely a confirmation of how you've always thought of those who are definitely more poor and often more brown than you. As for the claim that your error lay in that "we should have helped the IPCC come closer to the Mark Duggan's family more quickly," it seems that you have already helped the police come plenty close to his family, in the worst way possible. One can't really say that it was the delay of the IPCC's approach to the family that is the problem here, can we? Doesn't it have more to do with the fact that he did not shoot at the police who murdered him?

Lastly, we disagree that "what we're witnessing now has absolutely nothing to do with" that shooting. And that is the real difference, the tiny crack between us that widens into a yawning gulf, a division that cannot be squared.

For we want to understand the world in its historical particularity, how and why it has gotten to be the way that it is, and why that is insupportable. You, however, simply want to make sure that it goes on as long as possible. Regardless of the quality, regardless of the consequences, regardless of anything other than your collected capacity to declare that it's a nasty world out there, but at least we have our decency. At least we sit high enough to look out over the killing fields. At least we got here by legal measures. And how dare they. How dare they.

But despite this, you've said much that is entirely correct. Let us, then, begin with where we agree.

1. This isn't political

"Political" here would seem to mean "that which has the character of politics" or "that which pertains to the set of concerns and questions addressed by the activity and category called politics." That seems clear enough.

What is meant by politics, not in general and always, but when we speak of it now?

Politics is the management of the social (i.e. the messy realm that acknowledges that there is not one person but many of them) and its contradictions. It does so through institutional representation of varying scales of involvement, ranging from the fantasy of one-to-one direct democracy to the election of presidents by millions of people. It runs alongside economics, which also bears on, determines, and relies upon the sphere of social existence. The economic order we have - the reproduction of capital - dictates a set of social relations between people and their world, and it understands those people, their time, and their exertion as a resource to be managed, extracted, tended, and circulated. Economics manages resources, through a set of relations dependent upon the material abstraction that is value. Politics manages subjects and their needs, through a set of representations dependent upon the material abstraction that is citizenship. One can't think politics without economics and vice versa, although there are periods of time in which one seems more determinant, in the first and last instance, than the other.

Given the polices you enact or support, it's hard to imagine you would disagree with this, although you probably don't like the language.

To take any account of this era, then, is to understand the rapidly increasing difficulty for either politics or economics to govern, handle, or structure the fact of masses, the fact of the social. This story shows itself most clearly in two ways.

First, the utter incapacity to provide adequate employment to an adequate number of people, such that the ranks of those who cannot be employed swells. This is a structural fact of the way capital develops. This is no accident of bad governance, though there is loads of ineptitude across the ruling board. This is not the fault of a "soft" immigration policy, in which growth rates would somehow have weathered the general collapse of manufacturing profitability for nearly forty years if only Britain could have been kept white, if post-colonial meant that those in the ex-colonies stayed put when the Empire found them too unruly to manage.

Second, the slow bleeding, coupled with a recent gutting unprecedented in its severity and rapidity, of the carcass of the welfare state, through attacks on social programs, housing, and pensions. Such that the ranks of those who are employed, but not rich, and those who cannot be employed are further distanced from the means to adequately reproduce their own lives and those of their friends and families. This inability to do so is coupled with the present and vicious face of an old fact: when the poor get poorer, their needs - and desires, that thing always mocked by the upper and middle classes as if wanting something you can't afford means you are a moron - do not have the good grace to disappear. They get more desperate, the zones of the city get more rigorously divided, and the police get rougher.

These are the basic axes on which we turn and which hang, deadly, over the heads of the mass. In short, the conditions which ground politics and economics - namely, citizenship and value - and produce the grounding assumption that both are natural and ongoing are in a shuddering, terrified disarray.

To say, then, that these riots and this looting are "not political" is to understand something very key indeed. Namely, that politics as it heretofore stands has shown itself, for many years and more clearly than ever, to be utterly inadequate in addressing the concerns and needs of those who barely fall beneath its shadow to start.

To mourn this fact is merely to insist, as you do, that "these people" should go back to their parts of the city and to the official channels of complaint, the ones that can be recognized as political, that you can know as such when you see it (even extending as far as a peaceful rally that knows when to go home!). Back to taking impossible shelter beneath a relation that has serves only as a dividing line that keeps them out. Back to not being considered as viable political subjects. As such, only when they act "not politically" (skipping the mediation of citizenship and representation to appear) does that term even appear, as a negative definition. But you've never understood them "politically." You look the other way and hope that they do the same.

But we are in Janus times, albeit ones where the two faces are wrenching their shred head apart in an attempt to spit in the face of the other.

Riots are the other side of democracy, when democracy means the capacity and legitimacy to vote into place measures that directly wound the very population they purport to represent.

Looting is the other side of credit, when credit entails the desperate scrambling of states and institutions to preserve a good line, cost to those who might borrow that credit be damned.

(It is, to be sure, a coincidence that these specific few days have seen at once the riots, the lowering of the US credit rating, and severe turbulence on stock markets. But it is not incidental. Rioting and looting are as old as the economic extraction and political management of populations. In a time in which such extraction and management stop working so well, in which work itself is seized up, how can stopping and seizing not come more to the fore?)

And "havoc," that which is being wrought? One of the earlier meanings of the word was not destruction as such (the thing wreaked) but the cry uttered that was the sign and injunction to start plundering. You cry havoc.

Havoc, then, is the other side of class, which itself meant - and means - both a division of people into classes for the purpose of extracting wealth (taxation) and a calling to arms. Havoc is held off by class and threatens to overwhelm it, the anarchic turn of stealing and laying waste that illuminates, negatively, this other relation, of legal theft and sanctioned destruction of lives and resources.

Havoc is the basic criminality of class. Are you surprised to see that it is hard to contain?

2. This isn't fair

This is a common rejoinder, and again, it is entirely true. Folded into it is a fully legitimate recognition of the damage and trauma being done, primarily through loss of property, to many who clearly are nowhere near rich, who also scrape to get by, who build up a small life over many years.

And for those who would ask us, in hopes of mocking us, yeah, but what if it was your house? Your car? Your shop? we say:

We would be furious. We would be devastated. How could we not?

Because the point here has nothing to do with "legitimating" violence or with disavowing the shock and horror of those caught in the crossfire. It is that insofar as the very standard of the political collapses, insofar as its basic capacity to adequately capture and express the contradictions of an enormous mass of lives, so too its basic conceptual standards.

Above all, the very notion of compromise which is fundamental to the blockage of real attempts to intervene in disastrous situations. The very idea of a cost-benefit analysis. And joined at the hip to economic concepts, the notion of equivalence and equality, such that you could adequate between the suffering and rage of desperately poor teen shat on by the country that mocks, loathes, and criminalizes him and the suffering and trauma of a poor shop-owner whose store was looted, whose capacity to get by is already stretched thin by gentrification-fueled rents, economic downturn.

For us to genuinely think beyond the deadly impasse of politics is to reject these forms of evaluation and weighing. To abjure fairness. And instead to say:

It is brutal that people are so cut off from access to bare necessities that they have to sell drugs and are consequently jailed for life for doing so.

It is brutal that a family watches their home burn because of a riot.

It is brutal that police shot first.

It is brutal that people need to defend their stores with baseball bats, in fear of losing them.

It is brutal that people have to spend their lives working in those stores, in fear of losing them.

None of these are mutually exclusive. They are all true. But it is precisely that notion of restricting dissent and struggle to "politics" that performs the operation of grouping them into sides, such that you could balance and weigh them.

They are incommensurable. They are also consequences of the same set of relations that make it extraordinarily difficult for much of the world to live.

And we are in a time in which such a double condition, of that which cannot be measured and that which cannot be accidental, rules. It rules in the breakdown of sides, of the metric of fairness, in the upsurge in the midst of all that we thought could be clearly divided. It is a scrambling of poles of identity. One doesn't defend a riot. It is not "good" or "bad." A riot is a scrambling of positions of belonging and of judgment.
Often, it is an internal dissolution of what might have appeared common lines of class.

It involves situations the likes of which we are sure to see more, the turning of the hopelessly poor against the poor-but-just-getting-by, between shop-owners and looters, between workers and rioters, between those breaking the windows and those who clean them, and, internally, between individuals themselves, who cannot always be split into one or the other.

This seems the way things are going now and are likely to go more in the coming decade, as the state recedes and regroups, intervenes brutally in explosive moments, but largely leaves both sides of the same poor to fend for themselves and to fight one another. They, and you, will come in only at the end to clean up the mess, take photos with brooms in hand, wring those hands, hope that everyone learned their lesson, and get back to the business of ignoring the legitimate concerns of those who are still there.

And of course what happens is terrifying, thrilling, idiotic, sad, staggering, and inevitable. Of course. We never expected anything otherwise. And neither did you.