2011 saw great upsurge of resistance to bourgeois austerity measures and exploitation across the world: major struggles at the point of production in China and Bangladesh, the indignados in the Eurozone, the social upheavals in the Maghreb, and the Occupy movements in nearly 1000 cities around the world. Within this context, how do we evaluate the explosive outburst of rioting in England in August?
Starting in Tottenham, a deprived area of London, it spread around England within days, to become the widest outbreak of civic unrest in nearly 30 years. After a few days of intense confrontation on the streets between youth and police, extensive looting of high and low profile shops, and trashing and torching of working class neighbourhoods, the eruption subsided. The police and legal system set up a judicial conveyor belt to show the displeasure of the bourgeoisie and its desire for exemplary sentencing.
These events, however, except in the most general way showing resistance to bourgeois authority did not show the range of characteristics seen in current arenas of struggles elsewhere. So, what did the outbreak in England express? What issues did it throw up? What is the legacy for the working class struggle in general?
It Didn’t Come out of Nowhere
The conditions under which those involved in the events live did not arise from current Conservative and Liberal government policies but from decades of successive governments restructuring economic activity and stripping out of social life whatever they could to drive down the social wage. As elsewhere in the world, these policies have ejected millions from the production process in the UK. So many of our young people see no future in their situation; and they’re right. Vast swathes of the country (particularly in Midlands and Northern areas of England) that were at one time based on heavy industries have been economically devastated and have little prospect for re-building or for future employment opportunities.
The extent of the outbreak – spreading through most major cities –showed that many social conditions and feelings are widespread throughout the country. While all sectors of the working class are affected to a greater or lesser degree, the marginalisation of so many young people provides the source of much of the rage and nihilism that became so apparent last August. Many of the participants in the events are estranged from productive work and face long-term unemployment, and have little or no prospects in this society. In the current phase of capitalism’s development we might also call them the ‘disemployed’. Young people and racial minorities in particular also face in their daily lives an increasingly brutal police force and it is little wonder that they exploded against the police in the way they did.
At the same time, they see the most egregious displays of wealth, the worship of greed by the bankers, the scams by Members of Parliament syphoning outrageous expenses into their pockets, and most recently the exposure of the hugely profitable relationships between journalists, police, lawyers and politicians; everyone knew they were all corrupt, it’s just that the evidence is all pouring out. It’s little wonder that looters talked about ‘taking, just as the rich did’.
In Tottenham, the current events were triggered in the aftermath of what appeared to be and has since been shown to have been yet another summary state execution in an undercover police operation. The victim’s family went to the police station to ask why their relative had been shot and were turned away with no explanation. The callousness of the police to the family of the victim was evident – and not that unusual – and certainly riled local people. Later, there was a small demonstration which seemed to dissipate without violence. However, in the nearby streets and then across the whole of London conflict broke out between young people and the police. The following day, conflicts began to spread to the major cities of England.
From its beginnings as a conflict between youth and the police over a police killing, the eruption went on to develop other characterisations. Attacks were made on shops and on cars with many trashed and set alight. The much-publicised looting then began in earnest. Big iconic designer brand names were attacked, and so too were small neighbourhood corner-shops. The looting became, across the country, more and more extensive. Individual violence also grew and muggings became commonplace. The arson became dramatic and many stores were set alight and so too were houses – working class homes.
The police on some occasions were heavy-handed against rioters (which had escalated the eruption in the first place); on other occasions they laid back. This ambivalence in their response was related to their on-going arguments with the government over proposed cuts in the police budgets.
After a few days of substantially increased police deployment, the eruption subsided and the ruling class turned its attention to who or what to blame, how to punish. We’ll turn to that before going on to considering what critique to make from a proletarian perspective.
The judicial conveyor belt was turned up to full speed: somewhere around 2000 were sentenced as the courts stayed open day and night. Exemplary sentences were handed out to rioters and looters not only pour décourager les autres but also as a ‘respectable’ vent for the bourgeoisie’s own anger.
Looters were dealt with as one might expect; rioters more severely. But the heaviest punishments were meted out to inciters. Two men were charged with inciting disorder in Cheshire – they had used Facebook in an attempt to start a riot; no one turned up so they took the Facebook page down after some hours. They were still sent to prison for four years; a legal challenge was referred to the Appeal Court which upheld the sentences.
Justice Minister Ken Clarke has focussed on the rioters as ‘a feral underclass’ (a theme zealously taken up by the tabloid press) or members of the ‘criminal classes’. Clarke underpinned his claim with statistics: “the hardcore of the rioters were, in fact, known criminals. Close to three-quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction.” And just how were those charged selected, apart from those arrested in the act? One method involved the police examining photographs taken during the riots and comparing them with faces with those they knew and mug shots on record; probably face recognition software was also used. Ergo, these could be designated ‘hardcore’ and then by association the entire social outburst could be written off as being merely criminal. On the other hand the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has since had to concede that the riots were not caused by the activity of gangs. But these two views can sit happily together in the bourgeoisie’s propaganda.
Decoded, the argument in the ruling class is about how much use to make of modified social policies and how much of state repression. To date, they seem to be searching for some background set of conditions that can be superficially addressed with legislative measures and - in the foreground – a gang culture that can be explicitly targeted by the police. So Cameron, the Prime Minister, proposed to supplement state repression by dreaming up measures to fix his ‘broken society’ such as by stopping benefits payments to parents if their children truant from school. Tony Blair then entered the discussion with proposals, unsurprisingly, for the hard targeting of gangs by police.
While rejecting the bourgeois perspectives on the August events, pro-revolutionaries are confronted by a need to make a coherent and thorough critique of the events. Consider the following questions.
Who was involved? While there was some gang activity, it was such a small proportion of the totality it cannot be regarded as characteristic of the social eruption that took place in which young people, even young children, unemployed and employed workers were involved. Leaving aside a very small minority, the participants in the rioting and looting were overwhelmingly strata of the working class. This was not the expression of a feral underclass as Clarke and some of his bourgeois brethren assert, nor of the lumpenproletariat that Marx described in very different historical circumstances. However, if the eruption was constituted by members of the working class must we therefore say that this was class struggle? In my view, it is insufficient to leave the question at the level of social composition; there is much more to be considered before categorising a movement as a class action. In view of the highly negative aspects of much of the activity, it is all the more necessary to face the realities, good and ill, warts and all. That’s why an honest critique must not turn a blind eye to weaknesses and certainly not minimise the significance of activities that are profoundly contrary to the interests of the proletarian struggle – particularly the intra-class violence.
What did they do? There were riots, looting, arson, muggings and even killings in the mayhem. (The reason for the killings is to date unclear and so I’ll leave that aside in this article.) The rioting and fighting with the police was a direct consequence of the economic and social treatment handed out by the state and was, sooner or later, inevitable. Defending themselves against the police was the one positive factor in the events. The looting is another matter and on this matter I would refer anyone reading this to refer to the debate with Blaumachen in Internationalist Perspective 55 – specifically the last few paragraphs in the response by Sander and MacIntosh. Looting can be part of a proletarian struggle, as Sander and MacIntosh point out: “Looting to distribute use-values is one thing; looting as an expression of mere rage is another.” The smash and grab activity in England was not for social redistribution of unobtainable necessities; it was a physical re-enactment of what the bourgeoisie does to society.
Worse, crowds turned on the society about them. Not capitalism, but other strata of the working class about them. And not just in a wave of individual muggings. Working class neighbourhoods were trashed, workers’ homes were torched – not just as ‘collateral damage’ associated with attacks on shop, but as individually identifiable homes attacked deliberately; people had to jump for their lives. There are still many families homeless in Tottenham as a result of these attacks. This violence within the class has to be criticised strongly, and the criticism has to be made from within the class.
Were there signs of development of political consciousness? The riots were inchoate. The much-vaunted use of social networking was mainly used for warning of police movements; with no forums for reflection or discussion there was no development of a conscious class dimension to the events.
The looting was directed towards expensive personal consumer items and did not show any challenge to capitalist values. On the contrary, they showed a distorted perpetuation of many of those values. To my mind, the attempt (implicit in some critiques) to explain away this behaviour as an unconscious rejection of commodity relations is a non-starter.
Weren’t there any critiques made on the streets? Yes, there were. A few brave souls within the mayhem called for a redirection in the face of looting crowds . Others asked ‘why were we looting shops? – in Egypt they went for the government’. There were also insightful social critiques accompanied by a sense that this was not the way forward; these, of course, were a minority voice on television interviews which focussed on ‘mindlessness’ and ‘criminality’ and drowned discussion into moralistic pap. Some can still be found on Youtube.
It was impressive how many people on the streets had sound reflections on the events. Even some who had been victims of specific actions were able to say that they could see where the young people were coming from and why the riots had taken place.
Class or Crowd?
There is a world of difference between the nature and actions of crowds and of a class movement which must express itself in collective action. The latter may well start in the former, but when action is collective it surely means there is some discussion about what is going on and what to do, in other words, some organisational expression of struggle. There could be little realistic expectation in August of full-blown assemblies or councils but, however embryonic, these struggles need some forum where members of our class can discuss the issues they face. True, the conflicts with the police generated a battlefield solidarity and a cohesion to some degree, but collective action isn’t just that. Some also talk of collective action against stores? This makes a travesty of what it means to be collective.
I don’t see how we can talk about class activity in these circumstances but some would disagree. Out of the many commentaries on the August events I want to draw attention to some of the pernicious views propagated on the web from within the pro-revolutionary movement. As illustrations, consider some of the comments on the thread on the London Riots on the Libcom website .
For piter, (in comment # 410, 30 August 2011) “…the revolt expressed in rioting is in itself class consciousness.” This definition of class consciousness merely discards analysis and capitulates to the clamour of events.
Against someone who posted a comment against the intra-class violence taking place said he wanted it to stop, Samotnaf (in comment #68, 8 August) launched the following tirade: “... To want it to stop, as someone shitting his pants said, is to want it to not go further , to want it not to become more consistently against this society and those who defend it; but to want it to stop is to want young people not to go through their baptism of fire, to discover who are their true friends and true enemies; criticise, sure, distinguish between the stupid stuff that comes after 20 years of repressive counter-revolution in a society which has increasingly destroyed all sense of connection and solidarity at an unprecedented rate - but to want it to stop is to support the State.”
Samotnaf wanted ‘it’ to “go further. This ‘it’ is young peoples’ “baptism of fire.” He and the other flat-screen cheerleaders were so entranced by the drama of the eruption that they ignored sections of the working class turning on their class brothers and sisters, ignored the other workers whose ‘baptism of fire’ was not figurative but literal, and went on to encourage behaviour that amplified the destruction of – as he says himself – “all sense of connection and solidarity at an unprecedented rate.”
And his coup de grace, Samotnaf’s argument, “to want it to stop is to support the State”, just drives discussion between pro-revolutionaries into the sand.
A last example from the Libcom thread. On 9 August in comment #73, Serge Forward argued: “That said, in spite of the negative elements, I’d still say these riots are largely positive because nothing makes the ruling class shit themselves more than when working class people start to smash shit up and go full fuckin mental.” He’s grasping at straws. Whatever anger there was in the bourgeoisie about unruly behaviour by workers, the sight of workers turning against workers gives them no sleepless nights.
These adverse comments to the point of view I present here merely emphasise what was lacking in the August events: collective action, solidarity, a recognition of shared class interest, discussion about what to do, a sense of purpose and so on. These are not pious aspirations for struggle. They are intrinsic to the nature of the proletarian class struggle – however confused it is at a given moment.
And that’s why the August events did not constitute the movement of a class, but a crowd – irrespective of its sociological origins.
What have the events left us? Certainly, for the reasons I have discussed, they provide no model for future collective class action. Indeed, it would be dreadful if a similar breakout were confronted by other sections of the working class having to organise to defend themselves; you can just imagine the glee in state propaganda which would describe the police as guardians of the non-rioters, of ‘ordinary people’, as they usually put it. It can only be hoped that in homes and other meeting places, lessons are being drawn by participants, victims and families about what happened.
Considering the legacy in a wider context, there is a salutary lesson here. Last August, in one of the strongest economies, in the oldest capitalist country, we witnessed a massive social outburst that expressed atomisation, social alienation, nihilistic rage and a social class turning in on itself – even as it stood up to state repression. In our changing world, with its renewed possibilities for struggle against an overtly crisis-ridden capitalist system, class struggle cannot be taken for granted as an outcome only of immiseration and sociological origins. It also needs a source of class cohesion. The absence of struggle at the centres of production – where the proletariat has its greatest collective strength – thus weighed heavily on the August events.
My article already contains answers to several of the points Sander makes in his criticism and there’s little point in repeating them. We appear to have different perspectives on what is class action and how it relates to the development of class consciousness. Time will tell.
A Comment on Marlowe’s Text
I agree with most but not all of Marlowe’s view of the riots of past summer in England. He’s right that there was no victory for the working class. As happens so often when poor neighborhoods revolt, their own environment suffered the most. And the revolt was successfully used by the state to divide the working class, the opposite of what is needed. Of course it was to be expected that the media (which are part of the state in a broad sense, the structure of capital’s control over society) would use the occasion for anti-struggle propaganda and to portray the rebels as wild beasts that broke out of their cages. But this propaganda was so effective because it was based on real facts: the intra-class violence that occurred during the riots and that Marlowe rightly denounces.
Evidently, robbing a pop-and-mom-store, mugging a passer-by, burning people’s homes and other acts of senseless violence, are not class struggle. But I doubt whether they were as widespread as Marlowe thinks. Our view of the events was inevitably colored by the media through which we saw them. They showed us what they wanted to show us, which was the intra-class violence again and again. There were a few alternative news-sources, but despite their efforts, they too gave us only a fragmented picture. As Marlowe noted, the police at times was heavy-handed, and at other times just stood by. Marlowe thinks this was a negotiating tactic to warn the government not to lower the police-budget. Maybe. Or maybe they allowed the violence that was useful for propaganda to occur and repressed brutally what didn’t serve that purpose.
The media want us to believe that this senseless violence, aimed against other working class people, was all that happened. Marlowe almost concurs. For him, no class struggle occurred. It’s true that, even if there was less intra-class violence than the media makes it seem, it was still too much. None of it should have been tolerated. It would have been a sign of maturation of class consciousness if the rioters had prevented such things or stopped them. From what I heard, this may have happened at some places, but manifestly not at many others. That is indeed a sign of immaturity but not of absence of class struggle.
The riots were in their essence anti-police. This was predictable and it will happen again and again. On the one hand, the numbers of unemployed and disemployed will continue to swell. On the other, the efforts at pacifying them through other means than repression will continue to be reduced by austerity-measures. So the role of the police in keeping these masses of superfluous proletarians in their place becomes increasingly important. In the poor parts of our metropoles, they have unleashed a reign of terror with ‘stop and frisk’ actions aimed at installing fear for the power of the state. They are there to defend capitalism. When young proletarians decide not to take it anymore, overcome their fear in collective action and strike back, that’s class struggle.
The riots in England were part of something broader happening in the collective consciousness of the class in 2011. It was a year of losing fear through collective action, in all parts of the world. It was not yet a year in which clarity emerged on who or what the enemy is. The revolt in England was in that regard no exception. But it was part of that same loss of fear, the same will to resist, even if most people do not know what it is they are resisting.
On the looting that was going on, I disagree with Marlowe’s view that “the smash and grab activity was not for social redistribution”. It was in itself a social redistribution. I do not glorify these acts like some on Libcom did but neither do I condemn them because looters showed a preference for expensive items. It seems only logical that one, when looting, goes for the best. Granted, it’s not the same as looting to distribute goods to the poor, but neither was it, in most cases, “a physical re-enactment of what the bourgeoisie does to society”.
Marlowe thinks that there was no class struggle in the riots because there was no organisational expression of the struggle (beyond using the social media for collective action), no discussion on what to do (that is, as far as we know), no clarity on who the enemy is or on what to do next. It’s true that all these things were sorely lacking. We have to point that out but not while denying that these outbursts are part of a great class struggle unfolding.
Marlowe concludes by noting that “the absence of struggle at the centres of production – where the proletariat has its greatest collective strength – thus weighed heavily on the August events.” He’s right. The same can be said about the Indignados and the Occupy movement. It may take some time before the crisis of capitalism convinces the majority of the working part of the proletariat that it has ‘nothing to lose but its chains’. In the meantime, resistance to it not based in the workplaces will continue to develop. This presents many challenges to pro-revolutionaries. Their voice must be heard in these movements, from within and not from without, denouncing them as not part of the class struggle.
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