The Return of the English Riot

By Richard Pithouse · 11 Aug 2011

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Picture credit: II Fatto Quotidiano
Picture credit: II Fatto Quotidiano

The riot has been a feature of English life for a lot longer than William Shakespeare, village cricket matches or, for that matter, The Clash. The English have rioted against the enclosure of common land, fences, press gangs, factories, prisons, bread prices, tolls and banks. Arson, tearing down fences, smashing machines, setting prices from below, looting and throwing prisons open are all time honoured tactics.

The historians of the English riot stress that elites have, usually in hysterical panic, portrayed rioters as the rabble, a swinish multitude, and the riot as consequent to external conspiracy, irredeemable criminality, collective madness and inexplicable evil. But riots have their own organisation, discipline and purpose and this needs to be recognised.

The riots that have torn through England in recent days are not a new phenomenon. But they are the most intense social disorder since 1981 when the Brixton Riots, largely a rebellion against racist policing, ripped into Margaret Thatcher's third year in power. Linton Kwesi Johnson's dub poem, now absorbed into the cannon of English poetry after being anthologised by Penguin Classics, celebrated it as Di Great Insohreckshan, an event that made “di rulah dem andastan/dat wi naw tek noh more a dem oppreshan.” But Thatcher, who would famously go on to deny that there was any such thing as society, didn't learn her lesson the first time around. The Poll Tax riot in central London in 1990 was a key factor in her eventual downfall. She learnt the hard way that society does exist and that, from time to time, it can assert itself, outside of the official channels of engagement and against the law or the iron will of a Prime Minister.

Here in South Africa, the SABC screened the footage of the Brixton Riots, in loving detail, over and over again. The implicit message, supported by similarly relentless attempt to reduce the South African drama to the Cold War and to link the ANC to the IRA and the PLO, was that our problems were not unique and were a matter of generic black criminality, international communist conspiracy and terrorism rather than injustice. The apartheid state wanted to claim that, like other states, it was dealing with mass perversity rather than mass politics.

Thirty years later, London has been convulsed by rioting on a massive scale. It's estimated that on Monday night more than 30 000 young people seized control of parts of the city from the police. Journalists, senior police officers, politicians and experts of various sorts have, endlessly repeating the same four or five clichés, lined up to declare this insurrection of the children of the urban poor as criminal, mad, evil and, not, not in any way, political. The spectacle of the same elites that bombed, occupied and looted Iraq and demanded that ordinary people pay for the financial crisis condemning the rioters for their 'mindless violence' and 'sickening greed' is distinctly cartoonish. David Cameron appears as more of a baby faced Mr Burns from The Simpsons than a Winston Churchill at war with the enemy within.

These riots did not come out of nowhere. They were triggered, like so many riots, by the killing of a young man by the police. In a country where young black men are much more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than young white men its certainly not irrelevant that it was a young black man that had been killed by the police.

These have not been political riots in the sense that recent riots in, say, Athens, have had an explicit political content. But these riots certainly do have a political context which is that the rapidly increasing social abandonment of poor young people in England has been accompanied by both their increasing social stigmatisation and a serious attempt to contain them with aggressive surveillance and policing. The equally rapid privatisation and commodification of public spaces in English cities has further locked people out of a life in common. All of this has been massively exacerbated by Cameron's cuts to social spending that mean that crèches, youth clubs, sports facilities and libraries are being closed and opportunities for education withdrawn. Evictions and spatial exclusion are becoming rampant. Cameron is ruthlessly exploiting the financial crisis to escalate the long attack, begun by Thatcher, on the class compromise forged after the Second World War.

The young people contained in decaying council estates are bombarded by relentless corporate propaganda conflating access to consumer goods with meaning, beauty and dignity. Cameron likes to say that there are communities in England that are broken. But it is a society that tells young people that they have to consume to live with dignity but denies them work or the money to consume that is broken.

In the age of enclosure, rioters tore down fences. In the age of mechanisation, rioters smashed machines. Its hardly surprising that in the age of consumerism some people should leave their grim and fearful council estates, with their stairwells littered with needles and rank with the stench of urine, to, for a night or two, occupy, smash and loot the temples of consumerism.

A moment of revolt is not, not at all, necessarily revolutionary. It can be disastrous. But the militant collective assertion of presence that has characterised these riots is unmistakable. Young people, women and men, white and black, have refused to be invisible. They have seized public space, desecrated the temples of consumerism, a religion from which they are structurally barred from full inclusion, and affirmed their existence in a society that holds them in contempt and insists that they keep to their place.

There has, to be sure, been vile and tragic behaviour amidst the upheaval. And while vile acts must always be resolutely opposed we should recall that in a riot, an event that is spectacularly outside of the norm, every perverse act is hyper visible and will be exploited to stand in for and to condemn the whole. In the everyday passing of time the structural vileness of society, some of which, like the occupation of Iraq or the hundreds of deaths in policy custody in the UK in recent years, is murderous, is masked as normal and remains largely invisible.

The time when poverty in England was a matter of scarcity has long passed. And it’s not a matter of technical problems effecting distribution that can be resolved by policy wonks. It's also not consequent to the mysteries of a market requiring ever more arcane methods of divination by economists. It's a matter of contempt, sheer contempt. And the structural underpinning of that contempt, of the absence of any political will to deal with the situation, is that, unlike in the days when the working class could be represented to some degree by trade unions and the Labour Party, these young people have no institutionalised forms of representation in society. They are largely unorganised. The English left, often holding onto failed dogmas rather than immersing themselves in the living realities of the now, have largely been irrelevant to this insurrection.

Condemning the riotous youth of England as simply perverse and proposing more effective policing as the solution to this perversity will only entrench their alienation and result in a greater risk of anti-social behaviour in the future. The only reasonable way forward is for England is to acknowledge the depth of alienation on the part of poor young people and to engage with these people to build a future in which they can see a viable and decent future for themselves. There needs to be a clear and unflinching acknowledgement of the political context of what has happened and the need for a political solution that is inclusive and democratic rather than exclusionary and authoritarian.

After almost twenty years under the ANC we have a state that responds to popular protest, even entirely peaceful protest, with vastly more brutality than the Tories are willing to grant their police in England. In England plenty of people are baying, rabidly, for rubber bullets and water cannons to be brought home from Ulster and Basra, but so far, that line has not been crossed. Here in South Africa an old woman can be shot in the back, at point blank range, with a fusillade of rubber bullets at an entirely peaceful protest without it even making the news.

And here in South Africa many of us remain invested in the fantasy that we are slowly building an inclusive nation, and that the ANC will, in time, recognise and act on the suffering of so many people. We don't have anything like the depth of alienation and resentment that is so palpable in the housing estates in places like Hackney or Tottenham.

But if the ANC continues to play the game of pretending that popular protest is always a result of criminality and sinister machinations of various sorts, we will, in time, end up amidst our own version of the smouldering ruins that are the underside of what the all too cosy nexus between big money, big media and the political elite has done to England over the last thirty years.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Comments

Rory Short
12 Aug

Alienation

I agree with Richard's analysis of both the UK and our own society here in SA. I was working in the UK when Thatcher came to power and what struck me then was her complete lack of understanding of the 'other'. The Labour Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown continued that misunderstanding and it continues under the new coalition. The ANC by criminalising citizen protest is showing signs of the same illness.

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A pox on all politicians
29 Aug

Thatcher was Slandered

Margaret Thatcher has been horribly misrepresented and slandered over her 'there is no such thing as society' interview, to be an unfeeling, uncaring person. I read it carefully, several times.

In the interview her argument was that the State can never take the place of community, and that it is folly to look to the State to solve our problems. She was making the point that the community is made up of individuals, who must first take responsibility for themselves and THEN look out for their neighbour (from a position of strength) 'as Jesus commanded us to do'.

Nothing wrong or evil with that as a belief.

As for the riots, well, they rather proved her point, didn't they? The welfare state as it is currently structured, which works as a huge disincentive to people looking for work in the legitimate economy (the tax on which can be as high as 78%), traps the unemployed on benefit. The comprehensive education system has failed miserably, turning out 16 year olds with a reading age of 7. This underclass has no stake in society, and no sanctions for kicking off. As some of them replied to a journalist: of course we know we are doing wrong. But who is going to stop us? They will arrest 100 others before they get me. And if they get me, what are they going to do, give me a slap on the wrist?

The riots have been a failure of the STATE, not the community (who came out with brooms and condemnation). Who wish for: an end to welfare, proper education, an end to immigration and harsher punishment for crime.

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