Libya, the source of so many American nightmares, is fast becoming an American dream.
Reagan was tortured by Tripoli, and its big boss man, sassing the US. He imposed sanctions, and bombed the country, but had no peace. Bush the Younger was reconciled with the prodigal Colonel Gaddafi, but somehow this alliance seemed, well, un-American.
Obama, though, will have the privilege of being an ally of an ostensibly free Libya that he helped birth into existence. At minimal outlay (a mere $1 billion, which is peanuts in Pentagon terms), and with relatively few lives lost from bombing, a US-led operation has deposed a Middle East regime and empowered a transitional regime that is committed to human rights and free elections.
After the carnage of Iraq, such a simple, swift and (apparently) morally uncomplicated victory seemed impossible.
Lest we swoon too quickly, however, it is worth remembering that there are other ways to look at this.
"This is a bad time to be a black man in Libya," reported Alex Thomson on Channel 4 News on Sunday. Elsewhere, Kim Sengupta reported for the Independent on the 30 bodies lying decomposing in Tripoli. The majority of them, allegedly mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi, were black. They had been killed at a makeshift hospital, some on stretchers, some in an ambulance. "Libyan people don't like people with dark skins," a militiaman explained in reference to the arrests of black men.
The basis of this is rumours, disseminated early in the rebellion, of African mercenaries being unleashed on the opposition. Amnesty International's Donatella Rivera was among researchers who examined this allegation and found no evidence for it. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch similarly had not "identified one mercenary" among the scores of men being arrested and falsely labelled by journalists as such...
My articlefor the Australian progressive literary journal, Overland, is a retrospective piece on the impact of the 'war on terror' on the Left, focusing on the US:
The wars go on, interminably, but the ‘war on terror’ is over. Liberties lost have yet to be regained. Secret prisons, kidnapping and torture continue to operate, with the connivance of a post-Bush administration. Still, the war on terror is finished.
Now that it’s over, can we figure out what it was?
Common sense on the Left holds that the war on terror was an adventurist project for reshaping a strategically significant energy-producing region in the interests of the American ruling class. As a corollary, it enabled an authoritarian retooling of participating states in dealing with internal foes, under the rubric of ‘counter-terrorism’ – but the dominant logic was geopolitical, driven by competition between the US and potential rivals such as China and Russia, and centring on the control of energy resources. If the US controlled the oil spigot, then it could reduce the flow of oil to its rivals and impede their ability to grow. However, the wager on military force failed, the argument runs, leaving the US in a weaker position. The termination of the war on terror marks a strategy-shift signposted by the ‘realists’ in the Democratic Party, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, who favour consolidating US hegemony through tighter alliances with the EU and others.
This analysis has its strengths, but I wish to make a slightly different argument. If the war on terror was a bid to advance US hegemony internationally, it could also be understood as an attempt to restructure relations of force domestically, tilting them in favour of business and a stronger coercive state. The same sequence was repeated in numerous advanced capitalist states, notably those that explicitly allied with Bush, suppressing some of the emerging crises afflicting US-led neoliberal capitalism and decisively weakening oppositional forces for a time.
The Bush administration, however, ultimately rested on a narrow and highly unstable bloc, susceptible to the instability unleashed by its own policy gambles. By 2005, the occupation of Iraq was going badly, and the war was beginning to channel multiple sources of discontent with the administration, both among elites and popular constituencies. The administration that departed in 2008 was a lame duck. Even so, some of the political forces mobilised by the war on terror have had lasting effects that continue to operate in the context of the recession and the Obama presidency.
"This is a bad time to be a black man in Libya," reports Alex Thomson in this worrying segment:
There is frightening evidence of racist killings taking place across Libya as elements in the opposition-cum-regime now act on the unfounded rumours that "African" mercenaries acted as Qadhafi's fifth column. As Kim Septunga reports:
Around 30 men lay decomposing in the heat. Many of them had their hands tied behind their back, either with plastic handcuffs or ropes. One had a scarf stuffed into his mouth. Almost all of the victims were black men. Their bodies had been dumped near the scene of two of the fierce battles between rebel and regime forces in Tripoli.
"Come and see. These are blacks, Africans, hired by Gaddafi, mercenaries," shouted Ahmed Bin Sabri, lifting the tent flap to show the body of one dead patient, his grey T-shirt stained dark red with blood, the saline pipe running into his arm black with flies. Why had an injured man receiving treatment been executed? Mr Sabri, more a camp follower than a fighter, shrugged. It was seemingly incomprehensible to him that anything wrong had been done.
There have been lynchings, mass arrests and beatings previously. A painted slogan of the rebels in Misrata read, "the brigade for purging slaves, black skin". But this, taking place as it does in the aftermath of triumph, is a qualitatively distinct phase, and it is a disgrace to the original emancipatory upsurge. I argued previously that the more conservative, bourgeois elements in the opposition had every reason to promote racist scapegoating. Since they had no interest in revolutionising Libyan society, it made perfect sense for them to say that the problem is just Qadhafi and some imported mercenaries, that all of Libya was united against the dictator and would throw him off were it not for the fifth columnists. By mobilising the elements of racism that had thrived under Qadhafi, it displaces social antagonisms that are internal to Libya, reflecting class and other divisions, onto a nationalist plane. No one need think of expropriating the wealth of the capitalist dissident if they're busy usurping the life of the black worker. I also argued that this was one area in which the rebels could even do worse than Qadhafi. If racism was never the dominant motive in the rebellion, it was nonetheless a motive of those dominant in the rebellion. The prisons of Benghazi and elsewhere would not have filled with black and immigrant workers without the approval of the rebel leadership. The coming days will tell whether this barbarism is to last. I suspect the pressure from the new regime's international sponsors will be to come down hard on it, as racist lynch mobs tend to make a fool of anyone calling them - I don't know - "human rights dissidents". But the new regime does have a promise to keep with the EU, viz. upholding the blockade on immigration from Africa to Europe, which will tend to institutionalise racist practises.
At the onset of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya, the main justification for it was that Gaddafi’s forces would massacre the resistance and civilians living in the places taken by the resistance, especially Benghazi. What has been learned since then about how likely such a scenario was?
In situations of urgency, there is no better judge than the people directly concerned, and there was unanimity on that score. Did you ever hear of any significant group in Benghazi opposed to the request of a No-Fly zone made to the UN and advocating another way to prevent Gaddafi’s troops from taking the city? ... Anyone who from far away disputes the fact that Benghazi would have been crushed is just lacking decency in my view. Telling a besieged people from the safety of a Western city that they are cowards – because that’s what disputing their claim that they were facing a massacre amounts to – is just indecent. That’s about the balance of forces. What about the likelihood that if Benghazi had fallen there would have been a massacre? Isn’t that still a matter of speculation?
No, not at all. Let me first remind you that the repression that Gaddafi unleashed in February, from the very beginning of the Libyan uprising, was much greater than anything else we have seen since then. Take even the case of Syria: today, several months after the protest movement started in March, it is estimated that the number of people killed in Syria has reached 2,200. The range of estimates of the number of people who were killed in Libya in the first month alone, before the Western intervention, starts at more than that figure and reaches 10,000. The use by Gaddafi of all sorts of weapons, including his air force, was much more extensive and intensive than anything we have seen until now in other Arab countries.
... When Adolphe Thiers’s forces took back Paris at the time of the Commune in 1871, with much less lethal weaponry they killed and executed 25,000 persons. This is the kind of massacre that Benghazi was facing, and that is why I said under such circumstances – when the city’s population and the rebellion requested, even implored the UN to provide them with air cover, and in the absence of any alternative – that it was neither acceptable nor decent from the comfort of London or New York to say, ‘No to the no-fly zone’. Those on the left who did so were in my view reacting out of knee-jerk anti-imperialism, showing little care for the people concerned on the ground. That’s not my understanding of what it means to be on the left. [Emphases added]
How have we come from "a legitimate and necessary debate" to decrying opposition to NATO intervention as "indecent"? How has this lifelong anti-imperialist made this symptomatic descent into the trope of decency, the corollary of an attempt to morally browbeat opponents? It is probably indicative of a certain insecurity in Achcar's position. Let me explain. Achcar maintains that Benghazi was facing a massacre on a scale of Thiers' crushing of the Paris Commune - implicitly, by virtue of superior weaponry, it would be an even greater massacre in relative terms. If Achcar's example holds, then a proportionately similar massacre in Benghazi would have involved the systematic and indiscriminate killing of at least 8,000 people in a short space of time. Leaving aside the question of decency for a second, and also leaving aside the possibility of non-military resolutions to this crisis (no one else bothered to pursue this, so why should I?), have we any reason to doubt that something like this would have happened in the event of Benghazi being conquered?
We do. Taking Achcar's example further, a proportionately similar massacre in Misrata would result in the systematic and indiscriminate killing of about 5,000 people in a short space of time. But Human Rights Watch documents a total of 257 deaths over the first two months of war in the city of Misrata, including both combatants and civilians (though the majority are estimated to be combatants). Misrata suffered some of the worst, most sustained fighting. Its recapture by Qadhafi's forces during March would have provided the opportunity for a horrendous, indiscriminate massacre with thousands of executions. Yet nothing of the kind occured. Estimates of the total number of deaths vary, of course, and it is unlikely that HRW documented every single death. The highest estimate I've seen for the city is from a news report in mid-May, where the total number of deaths on all sides, from all war-related causes, was estimated at 1,000+. This is suggestive of deaths resulting from insurgency and counterinsurgency. In fact, there do not seem to be any documented massacres approaching the scale Achcar refers to, despite Qadhafi's advances in reclaiming much lost territory during the war. So, the entire case for the no-fly zone is indeed based on speculation. There are good grounds on which one may doubt it.
Deferring the question of decency for yet another moment, there is another problem here. Achcar depicts a range of estimates of deaths resulting from killings in the first month alone as ranging between somewhat higher than 2,200 and as high as 10,000. It is quite correct that Qadhafi went further, faster in repressing the rebellion than other Arab states had thus far done. Libyan police forces had opened machine gun fire on protesters. As the rebellion spread, Qadhafi opted to force a war on the opposition, presumably calculating that he stood a better chance of survival if he shifted the battle onto a terrain where had a clear advantage. Yet even given this, there is as yet no credible basis for the figure of 10,000 killed in the first month alone. Achcar has previously attributed this figure to the ICC. In the interview, the source for the estimates given is a Wikipedia entry, which cites an IRIB report attributing the figure to the ICC. In fact, the figure originates from a report initially posted on Twitter by the newspaper Al Arabiya, citing the comments of a Libyan ICC member based in Paris who claimed that after just one week of rebellion, the regime had killed 10,000 people and wounded 50,000. Bear in mind, that's not deaths on all sides and from all causes - it's regime killings during a single week. And it's not well founded. At the same time as this claim was being circulated, HRW put the total deaths at about 233. By the end of February, the UN general secretary estimated about 1,000 deaths. So Achcar misattributes his claim and gives it a credence it does not merit - the author of The Arabs and the Holocaust is not at his forensic best here, to put it no more strongly than that.
In fact, it was not until mid-June that such a figure was cited by a credible source. This was when the UN war crimes expert, Cherif Bassiouni, estimated that after four months of fighting including NATO bombing, there were potentially between 10-15,000 dead on all sides, both civilian and combatant. Parenthetically, Bassiouni's inquiry had presented evidence of war crimes by Qadhafi's forces, including attacks on civilians, as well as some by the opposition. But he did not allege indiscriminate massacres, and certainly nothing approaching a scale warned of by Achcar. So, there are yet further reasons to doubt Achcar's case that a massacre of close to ten thousand in one city alone was afoot in late March. We have not yet broached whether it would be decent to do so, but we'll come to that.
Another problem with Achcar's line of argument is that he refers to a "no-fly zone" as if this was what was under contention. It is now at the tail-end of August, and the argument over a no-fly zone has long since been passe. The UN resolution went far beyond a no-fly zone. NATO's intervention likewise went beyond a no-fly zone, involving a combination of bombardment, intelligence and special forces operations which subordinated the rebel movement to the military and political direction of external powers. This was precisely what was anticipated by the knee-jerk anti-imperialists. (Hitchens, much as one hates to cite him in this context, had a point when he used to say that a knee-jerk is a sign of a healthy reflex). But if there were reasons to doubt the idea of a coming massacre in Benghazi, and if the argument was not over a limited measure to prevent that outcome (a 'no-fly zone'), but rather over a more comprehensive intervention to subordinate the revolt to US interests, then what is left of Achcar's strictures? As he himself makes clear in the interview quoted above, the figures are important to his case. "One must compare the civilian casualties that resulted from NATO strikes with the potential civilian casualties that they prevented through limiting the firepower of Gaddafi's forces towards rebel-held populated areas." If he is right, then the intervention saved lives. If there is any reason for doubting it, then his position begins to look problematic. It won't do to pretend that such doubts amount to a claim that Benghazi rebels who supported intervention were "cowardly" - it's possible to understand the terrible position they were in, and the fears that they had of repression at Qadhafi's hands, without ceding the right to make an independent judgment. On the other hand, if a massacre really was afoot, and NATO intervention the only way to prevent it, is Achcar's critical-non-support and decent-non-opposition as wholesome as his strident posture suggests? Is anything short of active lobbying to secure the necessary intervention, even with all caveats and criticisms, "acceptable"? It begins to look like a very unstable, improvised and ultimately mealy-mouthed position. In fact, despite the strengths of his analysis, I think there are important aspects of his interpretation of events that have been flawed from inception.
For example, he began by asserting that Washington's interests indirectly and temporarily coincided with those of the opposition, in the following way: Qadhafi was likely to perpetrate a massacre to rival that in Hama in 1982. This would have obliged the US to seek an oil embargo against the regime which, at a time of rising global energy costs, was not sustainable. The invasion of Iraq notably came just as world oil prices were showing a structural tendency to rise. The only condition under which the US was prepared to relax sanctions against Iraq would be in the event of Hussein's overthrow. So, "regime change" became the mantra. Similarly, when Qadhafi's continued tenure threatened to drive up oil prices further, the US had an interest in overthrowing him.
Achcar continues to support this argument, but it falls down on a number of grounds. The first, obviously, is the dubious status of this coming massacre, leaving aside how the US would have been 'forced' to respond. The second is the actual imposition of sanctions affecting Libyan oil companies beginning in February. The third is the the fact that the US has not shown any sign of being particularly worried by high oil prices - indeed, while Achcar interprets the war on Iraq as an attempt to free up oil and reduce prices, he must be aware that one predictable consequence of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was to drive up energy prices to record highs. There is one more objection that we'll return to.
The above has some important implications. The imposition of the oil embargo, for example, was an important aspect of NATO's war, blocking the government's attempts to raise revenues. It meant that the opposition leadership could gain recognition, trading rights and permission to sell oil and thus survive as a viable material force calling itself a government - provided it satisfied its US and EU sponsors. So when Achcar asserted that NATO was deliberately drawing out the war and frustrating the rebels' chances of success, in order to give them time to bring the transitional council fully under control, he was arguably in denial about the extent to which the opposition was already fully under control. (In fact, the NATO strategy stands completely vindicated on military grounds alone. The targeted bombing, preventing the concentration of Qadhafi's forces and encouraging the fragmentation of the regime, ensured the opposition's ultimate success at minimal outlay and no real risk to NATO forces). If further evidence that Achcar is in denial on this score is needed, consider that he continued to depict the opposition leadership as "a mix of political and intellectual democratic and human rights dissidents", long after this had become a completely unrealistic and unworldly representation ignoring the multitude of former regime elements, businessmen, military figures, and people like Khalifa Hifter, who have no earthly business being called "human rights dissidents". It is they, people like General Abdallah Fatah Younes and Ibraham Dabbashi, who were the earliest and most vociferous advocates of an alliance with NATO. It is those elements whose hand was strengthened by NATO's intervention.
The biggest problem, though, is that his analysis of US strategy is far too reductionist, taking no account of the serious strategic cleavages evident at the top of the Washington foreign policy establishment. Some of the realists expressed a fear of being dragged into yet another Middle East 'quagmire'. Others were convinced that if Qadhafi was overthrown by a popular revolt, there would be a vacuum of authority in which jihadis would thrive. But the strongest supporters of intervention were 'humanitarian interventionists', whose case was similar to that of the liberal hawk, Anne-Marie Slaughter (who I believe has been an advisor of Obama on foreign policy). To wit, there's an expanding young and educated population in the Middle East, which has been deprived of political channels and economic opportunity, and which will therefore be a major problem for the US unless American power seems to champion their interests. The US, it is thus argued, must respond to this revolutionary wave by siding with reform and not just the old guard dictatorships. Leave aside the empirical basis of this analysis - it is sufficient to note that it is taken seriously by influential sectors of the US foreign policy elite. As such, the intervention can be seen less as a war for oil than an attempt to cohere a response to a revolution that threatened US control, limited enough to minimise the worries of realists and defence establishment figures like Robert Gates and Carter Ham while giving the US a chance to rebuild its 'humanitarian' credit.
This is what the indecent left opposed: not the staving off of a hypothetical massacre, but the predictable, successful hijacking of a popular revolt by imperialist powers in alliance with the relatively conservative elites dominant in the transitional council. By moralising about the decency or otherwise of anti-imperialist arguments, and pinning so much of his argument on the invocation of humanitarian emergency, Achcar obscures the politics of intervention. The question at stake was and is: should the population of Libya rule Libya? Since intervention ensured that the answer would be "no", it was correct to oppose it.
Not longer after the execution of Mark Duggan, I read a story about a man who was pepper sprayed and tasered to his death by police. Dale Burns, it seems, was tasered several times and pepper sprayed while police were arresting him. He died. The IPCC are investigating but, as usual, it is very unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted or charged as a result. Jacob Michaels was pepper sprayed repeatedly while being arrested by eleven police officers, after he had called the police over a threat made to him. Eyewitness accounts suggest the eleven officers beat him and punched him while he was on the ground, handcuffed. He died. The IPCC are investigating. In both cases, the police will no doubt argue that each arrestee was belligerent and a danger to the public. That is the pretext for using such weapons. They are retailed as safer alternatives to lethal weapons such as pistols or rifles where immediate, debilitating force is necessary.
In fact, both weapons simply tend to increase the range of possibilities for use of potentially lethal force. Amnesty points out that most cases where people have died from the use of Tasers involved unarmed people who did not pose a risk to anyone. (Neither Michaels nor Burns, as far as we know, were armed.) Similarly, pepper spray is associated with positional asphyxia, as it makes breathing much more difficult. So when a high-strength dose is used repeatedly on someone, there is a real risk of their being killed. Yet despite scientific reservations about its use, and worries over its potentially carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic effects, it was approved for widespread use in the US and is now being used by UK police. Self-evidently, the tendency for the UK to imitate US methods of repression is a danger to the public. And it could get much worse, particularly with all of this hysterical nonsense about 'feral youths' which could easily lead us down the route of turning schools into prisons and disseminating lethal technology among wider cadres of security officials and so on. In the US, tasers are routinely carried by security personnel in schools, and have been used on a number of children, in one case resulting in the child's death. And that could be coming to a school near you soon.
This is the problem with moral panics. A lot of people showed some very nasty streaks during the UK riots. Social media was groaning with almost Streicherite hate-mongering and calls for violent repression that a Ustashe would think twice about. Bring in the army! Water cannons! Plastic bullets! Live bullets! Shoot them all! Massacre them! Massacre them! And now that's all over and the state has regained control, and the explicit bloodthirst has receded back into its usual subterranean psychic flow, there's no need to do anything rash. The police will simply take whatever new repressive technologies are handed to them, add them to the repertoire and continue to maim and consume bodies, perhaps at a slightly higher rate. The intensified social antagonisms will be resolved with the carefully scripted, bureaucratic application of violence. A few hundred deaths, a few thousands injuries, a few bad headlines, a little more fear and resentment, more CCTV, and the retooling of the state for the age of austerity is complete.
The task is daunting but not hopeless. So far the rebels have done fairly well in policing the cities they have taken over. The fact they participated in the liberation of their country may have helped as there appears to be a sense of responsibility and ownership, something sorely absent in Iraq.
In the days ahead, looting – which so tainted the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 – must be prevented. Diehard supporters of the regime will have to be disarmed or defeated.
Tribal war must be averted. Justice and not revenge need to be the order of the day if Libya is not to come to resemble the civil war of post-Saddam Iraq in the first instance, or the chaos and terrorism of Somalia and Yemen.
Most former supporters of the regime should be integrated into the new Libya. Doing so would send a powerful signal to the country and the world that post-Gaddafi Libya will be governed by law and not revenge or whim.
All this poses serious challenges to the outside world. The 7,000 sorties flown by Nato aircraft played a central role in the rebel victory. The “humanitarian” intervention introduced to save lives believed to be threatened was, in fact, a political intervention introduced to bring about regime change. Now Nato has to deal with its own success.
International assistance, probably including an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to help restore and maintain order. The size and composition of the force will depend on what is requested and welcomed by the Libyan National Transitional Council and what is required by the situation on the ground.
President Barack Obama may need to reconsider his assertion that there would not be any American boots on the ground; leadership is hard to assert without a presence.
Qadhafi is finished, as I rashly predicted he would be. It looks like his personal bodyguards have surrendered, and rebels are marching through the centre of Tripoli. Moussa Ibrahim, performing this tragicomical Ali role, reportedly claims that the masses are on their way to Tripoli to protect the regime. Since he doesn't really believe this, no one else has to either. I have no doubt that there will be riotous celebrations in Benghazi, Tripoli, Zawiya and elsewhere tonight. The decomposition of the regime, just months after it seemed to have retaken control, will be what people are cheering for. And only a churl or a regime loyalist would begrudge it.
But mark the sequel. The rebel army is commanded by someone who is most likely a CIA agent. As far as I know, it has around 1,000 trained soldiers, within a total force of about 30-40,000 people (and within a population of 6.5m people). It is directed on the ground by intelligence and special forces. It isn't well armed, and it will probably now be either rapidly disarmed, or integrated into the post-Qadhafi state. There may be a small number of jihadis among them, but these will either adapt, integrate, or be hunted down and killed on the basis of the new Libya's remit of fighting 'Al Qaeda'. (Recall, preventing an 'Al Qaeda' takeover was one of the major justifications for intervention when the think-tanks started thinking tanks). There is as yet no political force through which the masses could act independently of the new government, were they even of a mind to do so. The rebels will be disarmed, and the initiative will rest with pro-US politicians and other ruling class spokespeople.
As a result, I would strongly caution against getting carried away with the prospect of permanent revolution here. I think the US and its allies will very quickly stabilise this situation. There will be no analogue to 'de-Baathification'. The old state structures will be preserved and adapted, and the new government will enjoy considerable legitimacy provided it delivers on a basic menu of elections and political rights. Moreover, the parties that win those elections will likely be the more pro-capitalist elements allied to the ruling class factions in the leadership of the transitional council. The government that now follows will be less oppressive and more democratic than the one it ousted, and it will probably be less sectional than the Qadhafi regime.
It would be hard for the coming government to do worse than Qadhafi. In one respect, however, they may do just that. EU powers will certainly demand that the new regime hold to their promise to continue Qadhafi's policy of containing immigration from Africa to the EU. Given the way that some elements in this rebellion have treated black and migrant workers - you know, lynchings and that - the EU can probably have full confidence in the new regime's handling of this remit. It always made sense, of course, for the bourgeois elements of the rebellion to scapegoat black workers as the 'alien' elements, the fifth column depended on by Qadhafi. In government, the temptation to resort to racist hysteria in order to frustrate and divide potential opposition will be magnified many times over.
So, I'm just saying, I don't think we're witnessing a revolutionary process here. I think that's been halted a long time ago. And it will take time and organisation before it resumes, if it does.
How quickly things change. It wasn't very long ago that most news articles highlighted the fractious, poorly armed, badly trained, indisciplined character of the opposition, and the territorial gains made by Qadhafi. After the killing of General Abdel Fattah Younes, the entirety of the Transitional National Council was sacked by its head, Mustafa Abdel Jalil. It looked utterly shamblic, more than ever locked in fratricidal power struggles, looking less and less like the real government that it claimed to be. Then there were the criticisms for atrocities toward 'African' (ie black) migrant workers and others, which undermined the appeal to human rights which many of the leading figures in the rebellion have built their reputation on.
Certainly, the claim to represent a popular mass movement was hardly credible. These were largely former regime elements wholly dependent on external powers, without whom they could not trade in oil or gain international recognition, and on whose military artillery and strategy they were completely reliant. They had been compelled to turn to imperialism partly to overcome their lack of authority within the revolt. Their weakest point had been the failure of the revolt to spread to Tripoli, which seemed unlikely to fall to the sorts of relatively light bombing sorties that NATO was deploying. Aerial bombing was no substitute for the spread of the revolution, which was actually receding as the initiative passed into the hands of Africom planners and others. Leading politicians in the UK and France were admitting that Qadhafi would not be driven out by military force, and calling for a negotiated settlement.
But after a week of gains, the rebels suddenly look as if they've got Tripoli surrounded, and Al Jazeera is reporting gunfire from within the capital. If I were the sort of person to make rash predictions, I would say that Qadhafi might not survive the next 48 hours. But then, let me be even more rash and suggest what would follow from that. I think we would see a recomposition of the old regime, without Qadhafi but with the basic state structures intact. The former regime elements would become regime elements, within a pro-US, neoliberal state with some limited political democracy. In addition, those calling for intervention in Syria would be strengthened, as the Pentagon's faith in military power would have been revived. This would be a significant regroupment for the US and allied states after recent setbacks. It doesn't matter how ridiculous this war has been, or how much of a mockery the process has made of the revolutionary process that instigated it. And it doesn't matter what subsequently happens inside Libya as long as it isn't outright civil war. Problems can be glossed over. The only thing that would register in the spectacle is that the US and its allies had successfully piloted their own model for the Middle East, with the word 'quagmire' barely uttered.
The supererogatory nature of many of these sentences, related - often very distantly related - to the riots, is eye-catching. Here we have a 22 year old woman locked up for six months for intention to steal. Here a couple of young man, 20 and 22, are locked up for four years for allegedly inciting riotous conduct on their Facebook pages, even though not a single incident could be said to have resulted from their behaviour. Here a 17 year old boy is given community service, a curfew and banned from social media sites for a joke on Facebook. These are in addition to the recent cases of a mother of two in Manchester being jailed for receiving looted shorts, a young man getting six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water, and another young man who will probably go to jail for stealing two scoops of ice cream. There will be more, no doubt. The logic of such harsh sentencing is disclosed in the homilies of judges:
Sitting at Manchester Crown Court, sentencing Judge Andrew Gilbart QC said: "I have no doubt at all that the principal purpose is that the courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in isolation.
"For those reasons I consider that the sentencing guidelines for specific offences are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from." [Emphasis added]
Camberwell magistrate Novello Noades let slip that courts were ordered to send all rioters and looters to jail.
Court clerk Claire Luxford said “guidance” had gone out “saying that when sentencing guidelines were written no one envisaged events like these—and therefore they do not apply”.
This has meant harsh sentences for crimes normally considered minor.
Judges throwing aside the guidelines and handing people ridiculously punitive sentences for petty or non-offences is a recipe for appeals. There will at the very least be plenty of work for defence lawyers. But that's not the point. Sentencing is only the logical terminus of a process that is off the leash. Think of the police who made the initial arrests, and pressed charges. Think of the prosecutor's office who approved the charges. Think of the police who charged two young men for organising a water fight in Colchester using their Blackberries, and then let the media know that they were doing this. The criminal justice system is engaged in a demonstration of the state's ability to control the territory, because that very ability is just what has recently been in doubt. The moral and ideological pedagogy behind this disciplining and consumption of bodies teaches us that the party of order is in control, because its claim to rule hinges considerably on its ability to rule. This is, of course, the hallmark of a very brittle social order.
"It is deplorable. It is tribal. And it is from America. It follows rag-time, blues, dixie, jazz, hot cha-cha and the boogie-woogie, which surely originated in the jungle. We sometimes wonder whether this is the negro's revenge."
I remember a time when a copper could clip a young fellow round the ear and send him on his way. I remember a time when the most violent thing in the charts was the Foxtrot, when nuns rode to morning service on bicycles, while mist rose from the countryside. And I remember when rioters had some respect, and some principles. Not like today's mob. Today's mob, would-you-Adam-and-Eve-it, have been known to half-inch items that they otherwise could not afford to purchase or otherwise honestly come by. This practise is described in the 'lingo' (a mutilated argot in which inarticulate young people communicate) as 'looting'. The 'looting' craze has swept the hitherto respectable subculture of rioting during the last generation, (not insignificantly, the generation after which I personally happened to arrive). Where once, rioters could be depended on to only hurt their own/outsiders (delete as appropriate), they now hurt their own/outsiders (delete as appropriate). It used to be possible, in the good old days of rioting, to leave your back door open. Today, however, consumerism has left us with stuff worth nicking. The new neoliberal rioter is a Thatcherite. The decent working class values of old - hard graft, family, community, and a good kick up the arse - have been replaced by the values of the Carphone Warehouse. 'Greed is good' is the slogan upon which these feral yobs have been raised. They are Thatcherites. That is why they should have their benefits taken away, and they should be reported to the police, conscripted, and deported. It never did me any harm... (Contd, p. 94, and ad infinitum).
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.
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.
I will have little to add to the commentary about David Starkey's racist outburst on television last night. By all accounts - watch it below, if you must satisfy your curiosity - Starkey began by vindicating Enoch Powell, then alleged that 'whites' had become 'black' (ie internalised 'black culture' which he claimed was violent - this is the social image that the idiotologeme of 'chavs' has been about progenerating), then launched into an imitation of West Indian patois. Starkey is a seasoned 'contrarian', which is to say a slightly better groomed version of a shock jock, whose vulgar, diminutive provocations on race have thrilled television and radio producers for years. He has now taken his carefully developed media persona, and concentrated it in a single, kamikaze attack on the country's hysterical psyche. This he was allowed to do at great, uninterrupted length, while talking over his opponents in a haughty, aggressive fashion. Good old BBC. As a result, the happiest person in Britain today is Nick Griffin, BNP leader, who suggested on his Twitter account that Starkey could be an honorary gold star member of the fascist party.
The plaudits of fascists and racists, as well as the tortuous apologias of well-wishers, are predictable. But this raises the question of what Starkey was trying to do. Clearly, he earnestly expressed his own views as a High Tory historian with a monarchist, nationalist bent. Yet, he evidently went farther than the political establishment, including the mainstream right, is prepared to go at the moment, and may well have gambled with his future television career. In fact, there would be a strong case for his being arrested and charged with incitement to racial hatred. There are two answers that make sense. The first is that is that the entire aggressively offensive performance was a calculated attempt to injure and smear the targets of its racialised invective. It was malice. And it was intended that racists should enjoy this degradation, uttered with relish as it was. The second is that the presentation, in its deliberately excessive way, invited the disgust and disorientation of the audience, such that, amid a generalised moral panic, he would recalibrate the scales of what is publicly acceptable in a radical way. The pathfinders of the racist right often seek the "chorus of execration", as Powell put it, revelling in the temporary ex-communication, enjoying the ambiguous status of the heretic and the prophetic. This is both because they expect to be vindicated, and because they can enjoy the spectacle of their execrators making use of the space of relative 'respectability' that their provocation has created.
No-one wants to hear social and economic justifications for rioting, least of all anyone in the UK political class. But justification is not what is at stake. The issue is explanation, as that will determine the response.
Prime Minister Cameron, and London mayor Boris Johnson, have a very simple explanation: it is opportunism, a chance to smash, grab, burn and run.
Their response, therefore, is a simple policing one. Increase the numbers of police forces on the street, and arrest more people. Some go further. Liberal MP Simon Hughes called for the use of the water cannon. Tory MEP Roger Helmer urged that the army be sent in, and looters shot on sight. With towns and cities rioting across the UK, involving at least thousands of youths, this would result in a bloodbath - if a condign one by Helmer's standards.
In fact, the government's response is totally empty: it amounts to saying, people loot because they want to loot, a circular argument that explains nothing. The question remains: why here, why now...?
I admit I was initially rather taken with the idea of #riotcleanup. The spectacle of dozens of people gathering in town centres to help clear up the debris seemed to be an attempt to find a response to the riots that wasn't merely trapped in the policing vocabulary. And it was being pushed on Twitter by nice folks, left-liberals, people who you would trust on this sort of thing. Yet before long it started to resemble something like submerged vigilantism - from the 'looters are scum' tops to the Blitz references to the piffle about 'taking pride in our communities' when it's patently obvious that these riots are happening because 'our communities' are going to the dogs. Luckily, the University of Strategic Optimism has patiently and carefully anatomised what's wrong with the whole thing:
It’s going to take more than posturing, ‘blitz-spirit’, keep-calm-and-carry-on clap-trap and colonial Kipling-esque “keeping your head” to fix this mess. The strikingly middle-class, broadly white efforts to sweep issues of inequality under the carpet of a simulated big-society photo-op has been a telling, if little discussed, aspect of the recent rioting, making little headway in the scramble of blogposts and tweets attempting hasty analyses of the unfolding turmoil. This doughty bunch of volunteer cleaners, the substitution for a non-existent community, appeared right on cue to fill the media narrative all day following a night of London’s most extensive social unrest in decades. Even Mayor Boris had leisurely returned from holiday to be snapped with the broom-wielding bourgeoisie of Clapham as they amassed for a bit of symbolic social cleansing.
Look at this debate between Harriet Harman and Michael Gove:
Gove's bulge-eyed incredulity gives the game away. He knows he's weak on the cuts, and Harman knows it too. They're both playing the game, pretending there's absolutely no connection between the riots and the Tories' attacks on working class communities. But it's a common sense out there that there is such a connection. And Harman is quite intelligently playing on that without admitting it (she can't possibly, or the media will eat her alive). But this should tell you something: when the smoke clears, and the rubble is swept away, when the siege mentality erodes and the hysteria fades, when the plastic bullets and water cannons are slipped into the figurative back pocket of the police for future use against protesters, one thing that will become patently obvious is the inadequacies of this government and it's complete lack of legitimacy. Yes, these riots have opened up a pathway for reactionaries and racists of all stripes. But the government certainly won't come out of this debacle looking good.
Tottenham, where Duggan was killed, is a Haringey neighbourhood which has among the highest unemployment rates in London - and a larger than average youth population. People of colour here have particularly felt the effects of deteriorating social services and targeted police harassment and violence, said author Richard Seymour.
"There's kids here who basically no one cares about, and nobody does anything for," said Seymour, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. "When the rioters themselves are asked, they will say that they are abused by police, harassed by them, and nobody's done a thing about it."
Seymour also explained that after many of the 333 deaths in police custody between 1998 and 2010 in Britain, "Large, peaceful protests in response [to the in-custody deaths] were more or less ignored" and not a single officer has been prosecuted.
As a result, Duggan's killing crossed a threshold for young people, angry with the systems that have left them behind, and tired of non-violent protest that goes without much response....
This is terrifying. I did tell you the Right was going crazy. Now, the racists have an opportunity to go on the rampage. In Enfield, dozens of white men aged between 30 and 40 were out earlier, chasing down Hertford Road yelling "Get the p**is". Paul Lewis reports:
It was only a minor skirmish, but a potentially bad sign for community relations. Police, who have flooded the streets, were quickly on the scene when about 70 men
started chasing local youths.
I wouldn't mention their ethnicity, but it seemed to be relevant. The men were white - in their 30s and 40s - and shouting that they wanted to get the "blacks" and "pakis". Lots of them seemed drunk. One man being held back by police shouted: "They're rats, they mugged my Auntie the other night."
Jay Bradley, 30, a witness, told me: "What happened here? What I just saw - everyone from this area aren't gonna have any looting.
What I saw was a couple of ethnic lads, if you can call them that, black lads, and they chased them away.
A lot of it is alcohol - I don't think the kids were doing anything. They were just on bikes and in masks.
But no-one around here is going to stand for any looting. What are we supposed to do. The Co-op is closed and we're running out of food."
I don't believe that this is just a spontaneous response to looters. When the BNP membership list was leaked, it emerged that there were a number of members scattered around the lower middle class areas, and I wouldn't be surprised if they, along with local EDL supporters, were among those out tonight. The emergence of racist vigilantism is not unique to Enfield. It's also emerged that racist Millwall fans are supposedly 'protecting' Eltham tonight. Apparently, the EDL have been marching through the area. [Update: local residents and Millwall fans both assure me that this is untrue, and that it's just locals protecting themselves. Which, if true, is a relief - but one is still uneasy about vigilantes in football gear posing as defenders of the community.] This is why we urgently need a political response to these riots that organises communities around the issue of justice for victims of police violence. The IPCC have said tonight that Mark Duggan did not shoot at police officers. This, to me, suggests that his death was an execution, and that the bullet in the police radio may have been post-mortem framing. Either way, the police certainly lied about the circumstances of Mark Duggan's death, and this is a major cause of the anger in black communities, as it should be everywhere. There urgently needs to be an intervention on this by anti-racists and the Left.
Update: Given that there are lots of unsupported rumours flying about, I think it's important to add a couple of important qualifications to this post. A lot of the rumours going about are originating from the far right themselves - part of their propaganda about being men of action, etc. And some of them could result in people getting hurt. Naturally, I have no wish to contribute to either, so I'm just being cautious. First of all, I have heard conflicting things about the far right being involved in Enfield, but as yet no proof of this has emerged. It may well be just local racists. Guardian journalist Paul Lewis is being careful to say he only witnessed a brief skirmish (though, from the footage I've seen, it was a really nasty, scary event). Second, loads of people have been tweeting me to say it's not the EDL in Eltham. (There is some footage of what appear to be EDL being kettled there, but not the 400-strong mob that the casuals were bragging about). I'm still not okay with vigilantism, but there are degrees of danger. I'm not arguing for complacency. There are some real fascist efforts at stirring. Most of it has been kettled by the cops so far, however. So, I would bear these points in mind when you're scanning social media for updates.
You've probably heard it said a dozen times today: "It's like 28 Days Later out there." Every thirty seconds, there's a new riot zone. I've rarely known the capital to be this wound up. It's kicked off in East Ham, then Whitechapel, then Ealing Broadway (really?), then Waltham Forest... It's kicked off in Croydon, then Birmingham, then (just a rumour so far) Bradford... The banlieues of Britain are erupting in mass civil unrest. Until now, the claim has been that this is merely a criminal enterprise. At a stretch, it was orchestrated criminality, using Twitter and Blackberry messenger. If you're following what's happening in the UK, that's an impossible position to sustain. A few looters here and there might be evidence of little more than opportunism. But clashes with police in several major cities, including the two largest cities, doesn't look like mere entrepreneurialism to me. And as it spreads to hitherto unexpected places, it certainly doesn't look orchestrated.
Part of the reason for the spread is probably that the aura of invincibility on the part of UK riot police has been seriously damaged by these riots. Protesters in the UK are used to being contained and out-manouevered by police. That makes it seem as if the police are omnipotent. This situation has underlined very clearly that law and order is generally maintained by consent, not coercion. The police are not all powerful, despite their technological and organizational advantages, which is why they rely on good 'community relations'. In those areas where there are long-standing grievances and sources of resentment, it seems, that consent has been withdrawn. As a result of the unpredictable way in which this unrest has unfolded, the police have ended up being out-played, and sometimes out-numbered.
Yet, as important, there is also an underlying crisis of ideology and political leadership for the police. Amid the Hackgate scandal, which has shattered their credibility, and following the killing of a suspect under circumstances that were only ineffectually and temporarily concealed, they are [potentially facing a complete collapse in relations with black British communities. Cameron and the police leadership will be evacuating themselves over this prospect. The painstaking attempts to overcome the complete mutual hatred and distrust that characterised such relations in the 1980s made some headway. Of course, police harrassment, brutality, killing in custody, and so on, did not come to an end. Institutional racism proved durable. But there was definitely an amelioration between Broadwater Farm and the Lawrence Inquiry. And that is one advance which, I believe, they don't want to put through the historical shredder.
So, despite politicians like the Liberal Simon Hughes ranting and demanding that the police use the water cannon, and despite the ritual denunciations and tough talk about the law from (another Liberal) Lynne Featherstone, I suspect the police are quite unsure as to how they're supposed to be handling this. The fact that Cameron has, with remarkable arrogance, hitherto refused to shift from his Tuscany villa and arouse parliament from its recess, cannot have helped here. (Boris Johnson's absence has merely allowed Ken Livingstone to start his re-election campaign early.) One doesn't expect this disorientation, if that's what it is, to last long. The police and the executive will coordinate some sort of policy response that seeks to isolate the 'troublemakers' while making reassuring noises about 'understanding' that 'people have many valid questions' etc. But for now, the crisis is sufficient to allow these openings and, as a result, riots are breaking out in new places with stunning frequency. (Just as I write, I've learned that Woolwich has joined the riot zones).
Though the media is putting a lot of labour into the effort of racialising this issue, the underlying class dimension is just as obvious. The US press seems to get it. The New York Times' report ascribes the riots to a combination of spending cuts and anti-police sentiment amid a generalised ideological crisis for the cops:
Frustration in this impoverished neighborhood, as in many others in Britain, has mounted as the government’s austerity budget has forced deep cuts in social services. At the same time, a widely held disdain for law enforcement here, where a large Afro-Caribbean population has felt singled out by the police for abuse, has only intensified through the drumbeat of scandal that has racked Scotland Yard in recent weeks and led to the resignation of the force’s two top commanders.
A new survey from Insite Security and IBOPE Zogby International of those with liquid assets of $1 million or more found that 94% of respondents are concerned about the global unrest around the world today. ... the numbers are backed up by other trends seen throughout the world of wealth today: the rich keeping a lower profile, hiring $230,000 guard dogs, and arming their yachts, planes and cars with military-style security features.
So, even if politicians are in denial, the rich aren't. You may well say, "bollocks, they're not taking on the ruling class, they're just destroying their own nest, hurting working class people and small businesses". I can hear this, just as I can hear the sanctimony in its enunciation. The truth is that riots almost always hurt poor, working class people. There's no riot that embodies a pure struggle for justice, that is not also partly a self-inflicted wound. There is no riot without looting, without anti-social behaviour, without a mixture of bad motives and bad politics. That still doesn't mean that the riot doesn't have a certain political focus; that it doesn't have consequences for the ability of the ruling class to keep control; that the contest with the police is somehow taking place outside of its usual context of suspicion borne of institutional racism and brutality. The rioters here, whenever they've been asked, have made it more than abundantly clear what their motives are - most basically, repaying years of police mistreatment.
Somewhat less on your high horse, you may go on: "but even if there is some sort of mediated logic of political class struggle unfolding here, the rich have nothing to fear as this sort of destruction is at best counterproductive". That may be correct, though it's the sort of thing people tend to assume rather than argue for. Major riots in the twentieth century included Soweto, in South Africa, and in US inner cities in the 1960s up to and including the Watts rebellion. Major riots in recent British history have included those in Brixton in 1981, and Broadwater Farm in 1986, as well as the poll tax riots in 1990. It would be foolish to claim that these made no contribution to achieving the objectives of their participants. The fact is that whatever problems riots bring to the communities affected by them - and they're real, no question - it can't just be assumed that they're stupid. The participants may not be glibly articulate, and some of them may be engaging in indefensible behaviour, but they shouldn't just be written off as mindless, apolitical thugs.
A more sensible assumption, perhaps, is that you have a lot of young people with complex motives - avarice and adventure, sure, but also anger and defiance - some of whom are educated in certain traditions of resistance. For example, The Guardian reporter Paul Lewis (who is worth following on Twitter, by the way) was surprised that Tottenham residents all knew of the IPCC and were very critical of it. This surprise was misplaced. Those who are most likely to suffer police repression, and thus have to make use of complaints procedures, are of course going to be in possession of certain repertoires of knowledge concerning policing and the criminal justice system. They would make it their business to be informed, out of self-defence. I don't buy the idea that these kids are just clueless about the political background of their oppression. And I think they're most likely on a learning curve now, as yet undecided as to what wider political conclusions they will draw from all of this. Like it or not, they are now part of the wider ideological crisis, now a key ingredient in the slow-motion collapse of the political leadership. How they see their involvement here, and how their perception changes, long after the smoke has cleared and the empty rhetoric has stopped, should be of some interest.
While we await a pronunciamento from Cameron (ie not from his butler), there is a seam of political reaction already in the post in response to the riots. The right-wing is going stir crazy over these events. You need only follow the Tweets relating to each new hotspot and the Twitterers who express, far more concisely than the 'vox pops' on the news, the instapundits, the right-wing blogs, and those politicians who have so far been dragged out their hangovers by the media, where this is all going. Here's a brief songsheet.
Bestiary: The people who did this are "animals", exhibiting a "pack mentality". (Cf, "plague of locusts") They should be "put down".
Mindless: These people have no issues. They're not protesting. It's just mindless violence for the sake of mindless violence. They should be shot.
Opportunists: These people are social lurkers, awaiting the opportunity for a bit of mayhem and looting. It's just "needless opportunistic theft and violence" (dixit the tea boy). They should be sent back.
Leftists: The rioters are leftists, and clearly express the criminal urges of the left. They are like UK Uncut. They should have their benefits taken away.
Violence: There is no excuse for violence. Unless it's police violence (which is 'mindful' violence). Bring back the water cannon, the rubber bullets, and internment. They should be sent to Afghanistan.
Multiculturalism: These rioters are black and Jewish. Multiculturalism has failed. This isn't Basra or Baghdad. This is Tottenham, South London [sic]. This is Enfield, Wood Green, Hackney, Brixton, Lewisham, New Cross, Waltham Cross, Croydon, East Ham, Islington, Peckham and now Birmingham. These people should be forcibly integrated, then sent back.
You may think this brief, sarcastic itinerary of reaction is exaggerated. But, if anything, I have understated the violence, panic and seige mentality of the right, for reasons of taste apart from anything else. If you doubt me, spend an hour or so scanning tweets about the riots. There's a genuinely nasty, resentful, frightened seam of opinion that seems to become more bunkered with every new challenge to the sense of relative security and prosperity they had enjoyed just five years ago.
Just to make this absolutely clear. There have been mass arrests in Enfield. But the rumours that were spread on Twitter, and apparently repeated at the Telegraph, of riots beginning in Enfield Town are absolutely untrue. I visited the town centre this afternoon to pick up some shopping, and saw none of the damage or violence people referred to. The falsehoods being put about include the idea that Enfield Town library is on fire. It's completely untrue. What I saw was a phalanx of police vans, and a large number of arrests taking place such as this one. The police are not arresting people because they've done anything, but because of what they were alleged to be intent on doing.
Specifically, police and local media claim that a large number of kids from outside the area had come in after rumours on social media indicating that there would be a riot. Shops were being closed down in anticipation of violence, apparently on the advice of police. I was told by shopkeepers and security that about 200 young people had been arrested this afternoon. (This was about 3.45pm). For its part, the Enfield Independentclaims (at about 5.45pm) that police are targeting around 100 young people who have gathered around the train station in small groups of four or five, wearing hoods. (For what it's worth, none of the people whom I saw being arrested were wearing hoods - as if that's against the law now. They were just boys dressed normally.)
Frankly, I don't find the Independent's story entirely credible. First because 100 people gathered around the train station would be very conspicuous - it's a tiny area - and breaking off into groups of four and five would be pointless. Second because if the area around the train station is extended to include the contiguous promenade of shops and the abutting roads and footpaths, then it's normally a well populated area with lots of young people about. It's an assumption on their part that these were troublemakers. Third because this paper is well known for scaremongering, and has been supporting the campaign by local Tory MPs Nick de Bois and David Burrowes to lower the age at which young boys can be jailed for violent offenses. (By the by, it's also a scab newspaper, as management worked flat out to break a recent NUJ reporters' strike.) It's just possible that the perceptions of whoever is manning the local rag's office have been shaped by the hysteria of police and local businesses.
At any rate, there is no evidence of anyone seeking to cause any kind of trouble in Enfield Town (except for these guys). There is only evidence of provocative behaviour by the police. People keep trying to justify this as a necessary preemptive step against further riots. A far better way to prevent further riots would be to stop shooting people, don't beat up sixteen year old girls, and stop aggravating citizens with provocative bullshit.
The Metropolitan Police shot dead a young man named Mark Duggan in Tottenham on Thursday. As soon as the news emerged, albeit in the rather coy presentation of the television media, it was obvious that something would kick off. The circumstances of the killing are not entirely clear. It is known that the police were from an Operation Trident unit, which deals with gun crime 'in the black community' (because black people need extra special policing, you know). It is known that they pursued Mark Duggan while he was a passenger in a cab, stopped the cab and, during the arrest, shot him dead on the scene. From what I can gather, they seem to have pulled him out of the cab and shot him four times on the spot.
The police seem to have let it be known that they were shot at first, and that a police officer was injured. The impression was thus given in the early media reports that they killed the young man in self-defence. Whatever the officer's injury, he was only kept in hospital overnight. Later, the police claimed that the bullet miraculously struck the officer's police radio which, like a bible or a piece of the true cross, absorbed the shot. They say that in the seconds following this they opened fire in self-defence. An eyewitness, however, claimed that the young man was already restrained on the ground when the shots were fired. If true, this would bear the hallmarks of an extra-legal execution. Suffice to say, anyone who takes the police's version of events at face value at this point must either be a fool, or enjoy being made a fool of.
In Tottenham today, a group of local residents set out to march in anger against the killing. The police allege that 'clashes' began when some marchers threw missiles at cop cars. For what it's worth, some of those present appear to believe these cars were left there as bait. However it began, though, it has certainly become a riot. This is not just a black community response to racist policing - several reports say that local Hasidic Jews have joined the protesters in force. Police cars have been set on fire. Numerous Twitter reports from people at the scene say the high street cop station itself is ablaze, though I have not yet seen this mentioned on the news. Buses are ablaze, as are shops and banks. Eyewitnesses say that locals have set up burning barricades to stop the police from advancing. This has posed a serious problem for riot cops attempting to charge at the crowds on horseback, as the horses can't penetrate the barriers. Meanwhile, the police's own attempt at setting up roadblocks have apparently faced difficulties as one roadblock south of the cop shop was 'taken out'. There are reports of the crowd being 'on the offensive'. But, importantly, the police have manpower, technology, and the advantage of having fully expected this to happen. They may well have lost control, especially as the protests appear to have swollen throughout the evening, but it would short-sighted not to anticipate a sophisticated operation to trap the main body of protesters.
There are rumours - just rumours for now - of deaths at the riots already. Frankly, I think we would have heard a bit more detail if that was true. But given that the police are sending dozens of vans full of riot squad to the scene, and given that at least one was witnessed speeding toward the riot with 'Knight Rider' music playing at top volume, I would not rule out the possibility of another killing. There are also rumours, which BBC Radio 5 Live appears to have fuelled, that riots have also spread to Brixton, Peckham and Croydon. I have seen no confirmation of this anywhere. And in fact, the overall thrust of the BBC's approach has been to play down the 'disturbances' and abort coverage for some stirring patriotic insight into Britain's Olympic aspirations. "Keep Calm and Carry On", as the irritatingly smug, not-quite-ironic, retro poster has it.
Tottenham is ablaze. Not for the first time in its history. Not for the first time over police violence and killing either. But nor is this is the first major riot since the Tories took office. It may well be the first to make a serious impact on national politics, but remember the riots in Bristol and Lewisham. The party of order expected this. That is why the police handling of protests has been so provocative and brutal. That is why 'exemplary' sentences have been handed out for minor protest offenses, with even Murdoch's pie-man being given a custodial sentence. The intention has been to show that the party of order can keep control throughout the coming battles. I hope, with every fibre in my being, that they cannot.
Obama has given in to the most reactionary elements in US politics. He has opted for deep cuts in public spending which will certainly include reductions in Medicare and Social Security (thus bad for Obama's base), and are certainly dysfunctional for US capitalism. There's no sense of a long-term strategy for reviving growth or sustainable profitability here. It has delivered for narrow sectors of US capital, specifically finance capital, but seemingly no one else. And yet, it's still not enough.
Standard & Poor's, the credit rating agency, has downgraded the US, which means that the cost of government borrowing will go up, and the ability to repay any deficit will be reduced. It will also hurt consumer spending, as every American will have to pay more to borrow. And, as we've already seen in Ireland, Greece and Spain, the attempt to pay it off by cutting spending only further weakens economies that depend significantly on such investment, thus reducing the revenues needed to pay any deficit. It can only contribute to pressures toward a 'double dip', as the Eurozone crisis brings us back to 2007/8. Corporate investment is weak, job growth is terrible, wage growth ditto, and consumer spending is fragile because households are still up to their ears in debt. It would take very little to tip the economy back into crisis. What's more, Wall Street traders appear to be perfectly well aware of this weakness, as they have been panic selling stocks since the debt deal was reached. S&P's rationale is as follows:
"The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics."
This is a raw exertion of class power. Making it more difficult to repay debts while demanding that the government repay its debts faster is only a reasonable step if you accept that finance capital can do whatever the bloody hell it likes. During the New York City fiscal crisis in the 1970s, created because lenders refused to roll over debts, a director at thew NY State Emergency Financial Control Board pithily explained: "The demands of the lender become reasonable because the lender is the lender." A poignant reminder that behind every rationality lies a sociology. Of course the hedge funds, ratings agencies, banks etc are less than concerned about the effect of underfunded infrastructures such as health and higher education. As far as they're concerned, spending is too high and they don't much care how it comes down. Theirs is a very narrow perspective. But why doesn't the Wall Street establishment seem overly concerned that 'fiscal consolidation' of this kind will compound the fragility of the US economy and possibly tip the world into a new recession-cum-depression?
The pathologies of the US economy are not exactly a secret. Michael Perelman identifies the following as weaknesses of US capitalism in its neoliberal phase: long-term underinvestment in research and development, low productivity resulting from a shift toward low wage service jobs, more financial vs productive investment, underinvestment in infrastructure, and an irrational military Keynesianism that results in the best innovation and research being conducted in secrecy, hoarded by the Pentagon etc.. Obama has performed sterling work on behalf of the Wall Street establishment, throwing his immense clout behind the bail outs, screening them from criticism, allowing them to continue to act with relatively little serious oversight, bringing them into government decision-making, and basically devising most of his policies with an eye to pleasing investment banks, bond traders and, at the outside, hedge funds. But what he doesn't done is re-orient US capitalism in a more rational direction. What he doesn't done is anything that could conceivably rescue the system from its pathologies. This raises the question of why the wider US ruling class isn't kicking up a stink about it?
David McNally has made a strong case for arguing that US capital, or at least dominant sectors of US capital, find more and more of their investments and sales overseas. Sluggish growth and profitability within the core capitalist economies has thus been more than offset by dynamism in south-east Asia. As a result of imperialism, then, much of American capital is at liberty to make significant returns without worrying too much about what happens to infrastructures, consumer power or labour productivity in the US. And with financialization, much of the US services and manufacturing economy generates revenues from financial investments rather than productive investment. The centrality of imperialism here may explain why reducing military spending to cover the deficit isn't on the agenda. It would also explain why the mandarins of Pennsylvania Avenue have appeared to be desperate to placate the ire of Republican tubthumpers, blasting away with biblical fury about the dangers of out-of-control spending.
So, we have an astonishing spectacle. The political leadership of the dominant capitalist states is now trying to shred the public investment that has hitherto acted as a lifeline to their economies. They are talking about savagely reducing labour costs, ostensibly to compete with China or India. And they're being urged on by the banks and business federations despite their awareness of the tremendous peril involved. This is actually going to undercut the conditions that led to their dominance in the first place. It's as if they've given up on the idea of having a relatively stable economy with a productive, educated, healthy workforce, and have decided instead to jack up the absolute rate of exploitation, take as much as possible until the economy crashes again, and then raise the flood barriers, hoard their capital, let others take the pain, and allow governments to police the inevitable fall out.
My assumption was that the austerity project was mainly opportunistic, that it condensed policies long desired by capital, and that it was pushed rapidly in order to preempt the Left and keep the initiative in the hands of the ruling class. As a result, I anticipated that they would have enough flexibility to backtrack on or delay any measure that looked like seriously endangering their long-term profitability. They could always return to the 'Keynesian' emergency management of 2008. Perhaps that is still the best assessment. But in these circumstances, ruling class opinion is likely to be fractured and highly unstable. And it's not impossible that as the economy continues in its parlous state, as the ruling ideologies lose their plausibility and traction, and as states lose the ability to coordinate workable policy responses, the weight of opinion will form behind the slash-and-burn option.