Sunday, August 14, 2011

The competing common senses of the riots

The polls on the riots don't disclose a single logic, but two competing logics.  The first is the repressive response which we have become used to: blame gangs, use water cannons, bring in the army, support curfews, lock them up.  The other is the emerging consensus that Tory cuts are a substantial cause of the riots.  (Spending cuts doesn't really do it justice - we're talking about radical structural adjustment, which will severely reduce the income and living standards of the working class).  In a ComRes poll for the Indy, 50% blamed cuts, while 36% did not.  In a way, this is impressive given the hysterical media coverage and political taboo on mentioning such causes.  However, in another way, this is predictable: people do tend to entertain complex, conflicting ideas.  And no matter what politicians or hacks say, the relationship is fairly obvious.  The denial is purely performative, a theatrical gesture designed to buttress one's apparent probity.  The real problem is that, at the moment, the right-wing narrative is dominant.  This makes it important to get the argument right about the relationship between a Tory government implementing cuts (and it's important that it's a Tory government doing this - I suspect the SNP being in power in Scotland is one reason why no riots in Glasgow), and the incidence of riots.

The US social movements scholar Jack Goldstone points out the fruit of scholarship on this issue which, he points out in another forum, has been particularly detailed since the Rodney King riots.  The first significant point is this: "The key to understanding why people riot is not poverty – it is injustice."  In this case, the most pressing, acute injustice is that of police repression and institutional racism.  But the class injustices resulting in high youth unemployment, concentrations of poverty, almost static social mobility, and urban degeneration, are present here as well.  This is evident in the rioters' description of their motives in media interviews.  It's also evident in the historical pattern of rioting, and at least suggested in the prognoses made by figures as distinct as the TUC and Nick Clegg, both of whom anticipated riots as a result of austerity.

But of course, this would not be a sufficient condition by itself.  There would also need to be a proximate cause - some abuse, some intolerable injustice by the forces of law and order - as well as an opportunity provided by a breakdown in policing (related, I have argued, to a wider breakdown of the police leadership and the discourses securing the unity of the state).  Both of these conditions presented themselves here.  In light of this, the repressive responses have to be seen as ranging from the delusional to the obscene.  Among the delusional, bring back national service.  A simple point: Greece has national service.  You work it out.  Equally delusional are the hopes invested in using bigger and better weapons.  The policing breakdown here was not military - the gun that apparently killed Mark Duggan was not a toy.  Look at it.  That gun is a beast.  It's designed to decimate flesh.  Police use these weapons on citizens.  The idea that they haven't got enough weapons or powers is fuelled by a juvenile revenge fantasy, not reality.  What happened was a breakdown of leadership and legitimacy.  Resorting to more repression as a way of ironing out these problems will both intensify them in the long run and hurt and damage a lot of people along the way

Among the obscene: evict the families of rioters from council housing.  Wandsworth council has apparently already issued a family with an eviction notice.  I'm not even sure how this can be legal.  Other examples: put a guy in jail for six months for 'looting' £3.50 worth of bottled water. Jail a mother of two for accepting 'looted' shorts for five months - then gloat about it.  Arrest a 15 year old boy for a comment on Facebook.  The party of order has been seeking to demonstrate its willingness to break all signs of disorder with the most aggressive policing and sentencing, from the student protests onward.  This isn't simply a terroristic response: they don't just want to intimidate people into remaining compliant while their future is shredded.  It is always heavily moralised with the aim of isolating radicals and militants within society as a whole, which isolation comes from the mere act of punishment.  Punishment itself, whatever its merits, confers a degraded, marginalised social status.  In the case of riots, it isn't just about morally and socially isolating those who (allegedly) directly participated in rioting.  It's about associating rioting with the 'underclass' - hence the attacks on council housing tenants and the talking points about taking away their benefits, as if every rioter is a 'welfare scrounger' - and somehow quarantining dissent among the criminalised, socially reviled poor.  Obviously, racism plays a key role in this.  Since the cuts are going to hurt such people the most, the austerity agenda is validated when they are demonised as anti-social burdens best dealt with by bullets and batons.  Clearly, this does nothing to prevent future riots.  It's not supposed to.  In all likelihood it will produce further rioting.  But the point is to ensure that when it does, the ideological terrain is so prepared that people react to it as an outburst of raw feral energy rather than an intelligible response to injustice.  Which means that in resisting the right's interpretation of the riots, the Left has a particularly urgent need to challenge the obscenities being processed through the criminal justice system at the moment.

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ps: I expect most of you missed my two minutes of fame on BBC Sunday Morning Live, but I am reliably informed that, mic problems aside, I got the point across.  Which is as well, because the alternative is that you'd have to rely on Terry Christian to say something half-sensible.  I'll let you know if/as/when there's a video... pps: Okay, here it is.  About 36m 30 seconds in.