As it happens, I’d been meaning to write a fairly abstract theoretical piece about roles, anonymity, lulzsec and the Black Bloc; I still hope to get around to that at some point, but the events of the last few days have made it seem slightly irrelevant now. Secondly, I’m aware that, compared to a lot of people, I’ve been pretty slow with coming out with any kind of comment on the riots; I wanted to wait until I was fairly confident I had some idea what was going on before writing anything. I’m glad of this, because my immediate reaction when it all started was a fairly straightforward “all power to King Mob!” feeling, and it’s become obvious that things are a lot more complicated than that. I’m starting to feel like a liberal fence-sitter here, because this is one of the only occasions I can think of where I can see good reasons to be on both sides of the barricades. There are only two things we can say about the situation with any real certainty: anyone who mourns the violence of the rioters, but doesn’t condemn the police murder of Mark Duggan, is a sickening hypocrite, and anyone who thinks that Boris Johnson coming back earlier would’ve helped in any way is an utter fuckwit.
Which side are you on? Which side am I on?
No-one who genuinely opposes this society can have any objection to attacks on the police or looting of big chain stores – I’ll stay out of the tricky question of which, if any, small local shops are “legitimate” targets and which ones aren’t – but if people who’ve never had their home burnt down dismiss the problems of those who have, then they’re just as callous as people who’ve never lived in poverty and dismiss the riots as mindless thuggery. Both the rioters and the “anti-rioters” (“riot wombles”, #riotcleanup, crowds of people driving rioters out of their areas, etc) have positive and negative features: the riots combine a very justified attack on the police and big business with some utterly unsupportable destructive behaviour, the “anti-rioters” combine spontaneous community self-organisation with a defence of corporate property, and often other reactionary or racist attitudes, as we’re seeing with the EDL presence at Enfield. So I can see good reasons for revolutionaries to join in with either crowd, depending on their personal situation and the situation in their area: I don’t want to end up in court with these poor kids, so I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide what kind of action you think it’d be useful to get positively involved in, but anyone genuinely wanting to argue against anti-social arson would have an easier job doing it from within the crowd, engaging with people directly, as well as being able to distribute information to help protect people from legal repression. Likewise, I can see good reasons why people would want to engage with the community reactions coming from non-rioters, supporting these initiatives while arguing for class solidarity and against racist and authoritarian responses. For examples of these community initatives, see this fairly measured statement from Hackney Unites, and the demonstrations now being organised in Deptford and Tottenham.
A quick survey of reactions from people I have some time for: Infantile Disorder, Nomadic Utopianism, North London Solidarity Federation, Laurie Penny, the Great Unrest, the Commune, Juan Conatz and Mark Steel all have more-or-less nuanced responses. It’s obvious that there’s no simple “correct” response to what’s going on. Responses have varied from Ian Bone’s enthusiasm and Anti-Cuts Space’s completely uncritical defence of the riots to, at the other extreme, Boffy’s absurd claim that “The kinds of lumpen elements involved in these actions, are the kinds of people who on another day, would be joining in with the EDL, in rampaging through workers communities.” I really doubt that many of the black and Asian kids looting in London are ever likely to stand beside a crowd of football hooligans chanting “we hate pakis more than you” (to clarify: I’m not trying to say that only people from ethnic minorities are involved in what’s going on, this seems to be a genuinely multicultural event, but that still makes it a very noticeable contrast to EDL events), but I would bet good money some of them were involved in the EMA riots that everyone was getting excited by at the end of last year.
At this point, it might be worth thinking about the riots we’ve seen over the past 12 months or so. To massively oversimplify things, I’d say the student/youth revolt that lasted from Millbank till December saw a politicised social movement clashing with the state and attracting support from a substantial mass of disaffected youth, the black bloc on March 26th saw a politicised group clash with the state but fail to draw in that critical mass of support, and the current riots are that same constituency of urban youth rebelling without any political direction. Thinking about it, the logic of this analysis would seem to suggest that, assuming the anger fuelling these riots remains, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t, one activity that revolutionaries might usefully engage in is providing flashpoints like the education demos, where the logic of the situation points towards “good” rioting, hitting the state and business, rather than “bad” rioting, hitting other working-class people. But I’m hesitant to fully endorse this approach, since I can see at least two very obvious problems with it: first that riots are unpredictable things, and this started out in Tottenham as a focused, at-least-partially-political revolt and lost that sense of direction very quickly, and secondly that, despite all the media scare stories, “anarchist ringleaders” and other politicised minorities find it hard to have that much influence – as I’ve noted before, organised revolutionary groups played very little role in the student riots, while the black bloc on March 26th clearly didn’t inspire imitators on anything like the scale this has. It’s an idea worth thinking about, but it’s not one I’m actively encouraging.
How deep does the problem go?
Ignoring the obviously racist and deeply reactionary narratives dominating the media, the main area of debate seems to be about how much weight to put on long-term causes and short-term triggers – people have brought up Nick Clegg’s pre-election warning that this would happen, as well as the video of Haringey teenagers discussing the likelihood of riots after their youth centre was closed, but from another point of view, these riots aren’t an exceptional eruption of violence, but a very predictable chapter in our long history of riots stretching through Wat Tyler, the Luddites, the Gordon riots, the Captain Swing riots, Notting Hill, Brixton and the other ‘81 uprisings, Broadwater Farm, the Poll Tax…
For my part, I lean towards taking the long view – the speed with which these riots have spread over the country means that they can’t be reduced to the effects of local factors like closures or the Duggan shooting, and I suspect that they can’t even just be reduced to this economic crisis. Looked at from a historical perspective, the continuing appeal of mass violence seems to suggest that these kind of events are just part of the society we live in. This approach means that, no matter how much we dislike what’s going on, we can’t just hope for a return to normality. A balanced, sober assessment of the situation (which David Allen Green makes a useful contribution to here) tells us that we live in a society where poor people do horrible things to other poor people on a fairly regular basis, without anyone making much of a fuss about it, and also riot from time to time, which means that they start attacking police officers and businesses, which causes a huge fuss, as well as doing horrible things to other poor people on a greater, or at least faster, level. So, those of us who are genuinely shocked and upset by people being mugged or burnt out of their houses can’t just wish for things to go back to being the way they were before, since that’d just mean a return to a constant low level of anti-social crime, along with, sooner or later, the inevitable return of this kind of uprising.
Dark days for Dave, bad times for the Bullington boys
While it’s clear that these problems are deeply rooted in the structure of this society, it is remarkable how closely tory goverments and social unrest seem to coincide. There’s not an exact correlation – Major’s rule was fairly peaceful, at least at home, while Oldham and Bradford rioted under Blair – but overall the 13 years of Labour rule now seem like an oasis of calm between the violent social conflict of the Thatcher era and the new period of class war that’s just getting started. That’s not to praise Labour, since their mass slaughter in Iraq was indescribably worse than anything that’s happened over the last few days, and I spent a lot of their time in office wishing for any sign of an insurrection, but it is quite noticeable. Cameron’s strategy seems to be have been based on sacrificing social peace for economic growth, and it’s starting to look like he’s lost the bet badly – at a cost of provoking Millbank and the student riots, March 26th, the closest thing to militancy we’ve seen from the unions in years, and now massive riots, he’s managed to gain… absolutely fuck-all economic growth, and he’s had hackgate fall into his lap on top of it all. It’s possible that we’re going to see the state coming out of this a lot stronger, but we could also see a total crisis of confidence within the ruling class. I can’t make up my mind whether the Telegraph article promoting social democracy and the Mail article on the failings of capitalism that appeared just before the riots are just isolated examples I’m cherrypicking out of a sea of hard-right rhetoric or whether they actually represent a significant section of the establishment starting to hedge their bets. It’d be stupid to make firm predictions – after all, Thatcher carried on for a full decade after the ‘81 riots – but I wouldn’t be surprised if the coalition collapsed in the near future, as the Lib Dems decide to try and get out of a sinking ship.
So, it’s hard to draw up a balance sheet for the riots. A lot of people are suffering, I’m not sure how many, and a second life’s been lost, meaning the police are no longer the only murderers around. At the same time, there are definitely positive sides: a large amount of wealth has been redistributed from big business to poor people, who will now be slightly more comfortable as a result. A lot of kids will have gained a taste of how it feels to fight the police and win. Even if they’re not connecting their experience to the class struggle now, it’s impossible to say what could happen in the future. And finally, no matter what else happens, I think it’s going to be a very long time before any smug fucker tries to tell us that “we’re all middle class now”.
Disclaimer: nothing in this post, or this blog in general, should be seen as a direct attempt to incite or encourage any kind of criminal behaviour.