It’s a full week since the riots started, and several days since they started to die down, so where are we now? New pieces of analysis are continuing to come out: I’d recommend the Commune’s “Or Does It Explode?”, ALARM’s statement on the riots, Owen Hatherley’s piece and Occupied London’s report as all being worth a look. For myself, I think anarchists are in a difficult position here: we’re facing a country that’s effectively divided between a non-rioting majority, which includes a lot of people who are prepared to support very reactionary and authoritarian solutions, and a small minority of rioters, who are prepared to attack the state and are currently facing heavy repression from it. I don’t think there’s a clear split of right and wrong or oppressor and oppressed here, which means that we need to be trying to relate to both sides. This sounds difficult – no, it is difficult – but I can’t see any way around it. And it could be worse: every time two nations go to war, we’re in the same position, but at least the two groups of people we’re trying to relate to here aren’t killing each other on a large scale. It’s not a comparison that I’ve seen anywhere else, but in some ways the situation reminds me of Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, the loss of life here has not been at anywhere near the level seen in New Orleans, but in both cases people were faced with the combination of the areas they lived in being physically devastated, and a racialised hysteria about looters. With that in mind, perhaps we should see if there’s anything we can learn from the responses of US anarchists to Katrina.
But back to my main point: how can we have anything coherent to say to such a divided population? In some ways, relating to the non/anti-rioting majority is relatively straightforward: in the short term, we promote community responses to the violence instead of relying on the police, such as the Deptford assembly (but see here for a more skeptical view), yesterday’s North London community demonstration (which seems to have been totally ignored in the mainstream press, except for the Iranian-owned PressTV), and Toxteth Against the Riots. In the long term, our task is basically the same as it was before: to bring people together while escalating the conflict between our class and those who have power in this society, stressing concrete projects that will bring real results. While much of the left seems to have returned to the state of hibernation they were in between March 26th and June 30th, the next week sees a flurry of interesting events in the South: a member of the inspirational Seattle Solidarity Network is giving talks in London, Bristol and Brighton, while another North American radical, this time a Canadian postie, is visiting London to talk about the recent struggles that’ve been taking place there. If you live in London, see here for information about a simple and easy tactic for publicising this talk to posties in your area. Finally, London IWW, fresh from their victory at Guildhall, has called a demonstration in support of cleaners fighting for the living wage at Heron Tower, so get to that if you can. Obviously, none of this is an immediate solution – I’m not saying that if you have a neighbour, workmate, relative or friend going on about sending in the army or bringing back hanging, you should tell them to go and listen to a Canadian anarchist talking about their experiences at work instead, that’d be as mad as interrupting a kid setting fire to their neighbour’s car to ask them to read Malatesta’s writings on insurrection – but they are small steps towards building the kind of fighting libertarian movement that can demonstrate its relevance by delivering real successes. There are lots of people out there with all kinds of fucked-up attitudes who have no intention of listening to anything we say, but only the most bigoted of them would refuse to work with us if we can actually demonstrate an ability to improve their lives in the way that SeaSol’s been able to.
So, if that’s how (I think) we should relate to “the general public” at large, what do we have to say to those actually involved in the rioting? To start off with, we need to be supporting those facing the wrath of the state. Even when it’s working normally, our “justice” system is horrifically fucked up (TRIGGER WARNING), so it’s no surprise that, in the current climate, there’s some really insane shit going down: Jason Ullet, who’s already been given 10 weeks despite the fact that there’s no suggestion he was involved in any rioting, his only crime was to respond negatively to police harassment, Ursula Nevin, the mum-of-two, also not involved in the riots, who’s been given five months for accepting a pair of shorts (Greater Manchester Police have now removed that tweet, but sadly not her sentence), and families in Wandsworth and Manchester facing eviction because of their children’s behaviour. To repeat, because this kind of atrocity takes a while to get your head around: innocent people are going to be made homeless because other people in their family committed offenses such as nicking a £7.49 bottle of wine. And this shit is supposed to return the country to peace? Just thinking about it makes me see red with rage. We need to be building up networks to take action against these evictions (see here for an event happening in London – there seems to be some weird infighting going on with the administration of the event, but that’s irrelevant and should be ignored, stopping this eviction is much more important than any facebook spat could ever be). While we’re at it, defending squats and people in debt against evictions and repossessions is also an important task and one we should be keeping in mind.
So, other than trying to fight evictions and support prisoners (as well as all other class struggle prisoners – see here for the latest news on anti-fascist prisoners, including a benefit CD which you can buy from here), do we really have anything to offer to rioting youth? No matter how exciting we may find pictures of burning cop cars and looted supermarkets, what we saw over the last week was clearly not the same thing as a movement aimed at abolishing capitalism, the state, class society and alienated work in order to bring about a new world of freedom, equality and solidarity. So how do we get there from here? Leaving out the crude Marxist idea that these people are somehow doomed by their “lumpen” status – and I wish I could say that was just a caricature, but it has been seriously expressed elsewhere – the answer has to lie somewhere between the two equally unlikely poles of the Leninist fantasy of revolutionaries bringing consciousness to the unenlightened masses, and the determinist fairytale that the logic of their situation will automatically lead them to adopt the “correct” ideas. There are things we can do to start trying to engage with disenfranchised youths, such as trying to use the experience of campaigns fighting police surveillance of activists to build a broader fightback against police harassment, but there are serious barriers to this. Unless my personal experiences have been very unusual, I think it’s safe to say that among both the left and anarchists, the proportion of people who’ve been to uni and/or have jobs in education or elsewhere in the public sector is somewhat higher than it is among the population as a whole, whereas among the rioters many more people will be unemployed and without any experience of further education. There’s no absolute contradiction here, since people in both groups have needs and desires that are in conflict with the logic of capitalism, and so have the potential to be part of a movement against this society, but these cultural differences do make genuine two-way communication more difficult. To return to an idea I considered in my last post, I think it’s worth thinking about the movement against EMA cuts, and possibly also the Stokes Croft riots earlier this year, as being moments when anti-capitalists found ourselves fighting alongside some of the people who’ve been on the streets this week. I wouldn’t generally define myself as part of the insurrectionist current, but I do think that, in this specific situation, when dealing with people who are ready and willing to attack the police, our best chance of having any influence on them is not to work out the perfect wording for a speech or manifesto or leaflet or blog post, but to create situations of conflict with the state that, if my analysis here has any connection to reality, which of course it may not, some of them will recognise their desires in and be moved to join in with.
Finally, just because things have been a bit interesting here doesn’t mean that the rest of the world’s stopped turning. The Black Orchid Collective have produced a pamphlet on recent cases of police brutality in Seattle and the reaction to them, 4,500 workers employed by Verizon in the US have come out on a strike that seems to have already gone beyond union-sanctioned tactics to include the use of sabotage, militant struggles over education are continuing in Chile, and the social movement in Israel that many pro-Palestinian lefties still seem too embarrassed to mention continues to gain strength – 100,000 joined protests across the country in the latest show of support for a movement that’s challenging entrenched ethnic divisions, causing government ministers to speculate about the government collapsing, and may well force a freeze in the IDF’s budget. A budget freeze for the IDF would have more of a practical effect in terms of undermining the Israeli state’s ability to oppress Palestinians than almost anything else I can think of, and certainly far more than anything Palestine solidarity protests over here have ever achieved, but will this embarrass those sections of the “socialist” left who’ve thrown their lot in with Islamic reactionaries into finally admitting that this movement exists? I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this post, or this blog in general, should be read as an attempt to encourage anyone to commit criminal acts.