Politics, class and the London riots

London's rioters may be engaging in indefensible behaviour, but they shouldn't be written off simply as mindless, apolitical thugs, writes Richard Seymour.

You've probably heard it said a dozen times today: "It's like 28 Days Later out there." Every thirty seconds, there's a new riot zone. I've rarely known the capital to be this wound up.  It's kicked off in East Ham, then Whitechapel, then Ealing Broadway (really?), then Waltham Forest...  It's kicked off in Croydon, then Birmingham, then (just a rumour so far) Bradford...  The banlieues of Britain are erupting in mass civil unrest. Until now, the claim has been that this is merely a criminal enterprise. At a stretch, it was orchestrated criminality, using Twitter and Blackberry messenger. If you're following what's happening in the UK, that's an impossible position to sustain. A few looters here and there might be evidence of little more than opportunism. But clashes with police in several major cities, including the two largest cities, doesn't look like mere entrepreneurialism to me. And as it spreads to hitherto unexpected places, it certainly doesn't look orchestrated.

Part of the reason for the spread is probably that the aura of invincibility on the part of UK riot police has been seriously damaged by these riots. Protesters in the UK are used to being contained and out-manouevered by police. That makes it seem as if the police are omnipotent. This situation has underlined very clearly that law and order is generally maintained by consent, not coercion. The police are not all powerful, despite their technological and organizational advantages, which is why they rely on good 'community relations'.  In those areas where there are long-standing grievances and sources of resentment, it seems, that consent has been withdrawn. As a result of the unpredictable way in which this unrest has unfolded, the police have ended up being out-played, and sometimes out-numbered.

Yet, as important, there is also an underlying crisis of ideology and political leadership for the police. Amid the Hackgate scandal, which has shattered their credibility, and following the killing of a suspect under circumstances that were only ineffectually and temporarily concealed, they are potentially facing a complete collapse in relations with black British communities. Cameron and the police leadership will be evacuating themselves over this prospect. The painstaking attempts to overcome the complete mutual hatred and distrust that characterised such relations in the 1980s made some headway. Of course, police harrassment, brutality, killing in custody, and so on, did not come to an end. Institutional racism proved durable. But there was definitely an amelioration between Broadwater Farm and the Lawrence Inquiry.  And that  is one advance which, I believe, they don't want to put through the historical shredder.

So, despite politicians like the Liberal Simon Hughes ranting and demanding that the police use the water cannon, and despite the ritual denunciations and tough talk about the law from (another Liberal) Lynne Featherstone, I suspect the police are quite unsure as to how they're supposed to be handling this. The fact that Cameron has, with remarkable arrogance, hitherto refused to shift from his Tuscany villa and arouse parliament from its recess, cannot have helped here*. (Boris Johnson's absence has merely allowed Ken Livingstone to start his re-election campaign early.) One doesn't expect this disorientation, if that's what it is, to last long. The police and the executive will coordinate some sort of policy response that seeks to isolate the 'troublemakers' while making reassuring noises about 'understanding' that 'people have many valid questions' etc. But for now, the crisis is sufficient to allow these openings and, as a result, riots are breaking out in new places with stunning frequency.  (Just as I write, I've learned that Woolwich has joined the riot zones.)

Though the media is putting a lot of labour into the effort of racialising this issue, the underlying class dimension is just as obvious. The US press seems to get it. The New York Times' report ascribes the riots to a combination of spending cuts and anti-police sentiment amid a generalised ideological crisis for the cops:

Frustration in this impoverished neighborhood, as in many others in Britain, has mounted as the government’s austerity budget has forced deep cuts in social services. At the same time, a widely held disdain for law enforcement here, where a large Afro-Caribbean population has felt singled out by the police for abuse, has only intensified through the drumbeat of scandal that has racked Scotland Yard in recent weeks and led to the resignation of the force’s two top commanders.

They also quote a rioter saying they're taking on "the ruling class". And of course, the ruling class press is deeply attuned to this sort of scenario. Only a month ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote of how the global rich fear the coming violence of the poor:

A new survey from Insite Security and IBOPE Zogby International of those with liquid assets of $1 million or more found that 94% of respondents are concerned about the global unrest around the world today. ... the numbers are backed up by other trends seen throughout the world of wealth today: the rich keeping a lower profile, hiring $230,000 guard dogs, and arming their yachts, planes and cars with military-style security features.

So, even if politicians are in denial, the rich aren't. You may well say, "bollocks, they're not taking on the ruling class, they're just destroying their own nest, hurting working class people and small businesses." I can hear this, just as I can hear the sanctimony in its enunciation. The truth is that riots almost always hurt poor, working class people. There's no riot that embodies a pure struggle for justice, that is not also partly a self-inflicted wound. There is no riot without looting, without anti-social behaviour, without a mixture of bad motives and bad politics. That still doesn't mean that the riot doesn't have a certain political focus; that it doesn't have consequences for the ability of the ruling class to keep control; that the contest with the police is somehow taking place outside of its usual context of suspicion borne of institutional racism and brutality. The rioters here, whenever they've been asked, have made it more than abundantly clear what their motives are - most basically, repaying years of police mistreatment.

Somewhat less on your high horse, you may go on: "But even if there is some sort of mediated logic of political class struggle unfolding here, the rich have nothing to fear as this sort of destruction is at best counterproductive." That may be correct, though it's the sort of thing people tend to assume rather than argue for. Major riots in the twentieth century included Soweto, in South Africa, and in US inner cities in the 1960s up to and including the Watts rebellion. Major riots in recent British history have included those in Brixton in 1981, and Broadwater Farm in 1986, as well as the poll tax riots in 1990. It would be foolish to claim that these made no contribution to achieving the objectives of their participants. The fact is that whatever problems riots bring to the communities affected by them - and they're real, no question - it can't just be assumed that they're stupid. The participants may not be glibly articulate, and some of them may be engaging in indefensible behaviour, but they shouldn't just be written off as mindless, apolitical thugs.

A more sensible assumption, perhaps, is that you have a lot of young people with complex motives - avarice and adventure, sure, but also anger and defiance - some of whom are educated in certain traditions of resistance. For example, The Guardian reporter Paul Lewis (who is worth following on Twitter, by the way) was surprised that Tottenham residents all knew of the IPCC and were very critical of it. This surprise was misplaced. Those who are most likely to suffer police repression, and thus have to make use of complaints procedures, are of course going to be in possession of certain repertoires of knowledge concerning policing and the criminal justice system. They would make it their business to be informed, out of self-defence. I don't buy the idea that these kids are just clueless about the political background of their oppression. And I think they're most likely on a learning curve now, as yet undecided as to what wider political conclusions they will draw from all of this. Like it or not, they are now part of the wider ideological crisis, now a key ingredient in the slow-motion collapse of the political leadership.  How they see their involvement here, and how their perception changes, long after the smoke has cleared and the empty rhetoric has stopped, should be of some interest.

*Update: David Cameron has since returned and parliament has been recalled.



Originally published on Lenin's Tomb.


Image top: Beacon Radio.