In the second in our debate on the riots, Alex Gabriel asks can we talk about the violence? He believes that we can say what we like, these riots were political in every sense.
There are lots of reasons I haven’t written for this site in a while, mostly to do with how busy I’ve been. But if one of them was not knowing how to sound more unfashionably like an old lefty than I previously did, the past few days have given me an excuse.
The odd thing is that only a week ago, I was expecting an unusually calm summer in the world of politics. It’s sometimes questionable why our parliament even bothers with a summer recess – for the past few years, political heat was the only sort you could count on in a British summer. Last year we had the Labour leadership contest; before that in 2009, the expenses scandal; the Conservatives’ record poll leads in 2008; a new Prime Minister in 2007.
Up till the start of this month, summer 2011 had looked less exciting. Polling figures were more or less stagnant, Westminster’s major scandal of the year was out of the way, grassroots activists didn’t seem to be grabbing headlines and ministers were away in foreign restaurants forgetting to tip the waiters – or, in the leader of the opposition’s case, on holiday in Devon. (Ed Miliband. Bless.) Then, apparently quite out of the blue, a summer that had promised to be apolitical turned quite literally into a riot.
Of course, the media reaction to the last few days has carefully advanced the idea that it isn’t political anyway – that riots and lootings across our major cities are no different from any other crimes a government might face. Buzzwords like ‘idiots’, ‘stupid chavs’ and ‘mindless violence’ spread on Facebook and Twitter, consoling us that vandals with no higher principles can’t really be that scary. (Smashing windows in Tottenham might be a crime, but smashing them at Conservative HQ – now that’s disturbing.)
Inconveniently, it’s analytically wrong to see riots as apolitical. Maybe people aren’t thinking about VAT rises or education cuts while they throw things at riot police or run from baton charges, but politics runs through the violence on the news. The police force, after all, is the armed wing of the state: to fight the police on the street or to break the state’s laws publicly is only ever a political decision, whether or not it’s taken consciously. And lest we forget, these riots only began when the police shot Mark Duggan.
Nick Clegg says Duggan’s death had nothing to do with most of the British people who are rioting. Most rightists do – and they’re correct. It probably didn’t. The idea that people in Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and London would simultaneously be spurred into violence purely because police killed a man in Tottenham is just too tenuous to be convincing. Those people are too disparate, too far from each other even in the age of Twitter, for Mark Duggan’s death to have motivated all their actions. That alone could never cause nationwide riots.
Actually, that’s the point.
Whether or not it motivated everything we’re now watching on the news, that singular event in Tottenham, and the (temporarily) peaceful protest which followed it, was where violence started: however opportunistic or unthinking rioters and looters in Salford might be, and however unconcerned about police brutality in Tottenham, they wouldn’t now be on the streets if Mark Duggan were still alive. Their actions are the ripples of what began in London. And for such a comparatively small occurrence to have such dramatic ripples across a country, there needs already to be a very specific social climate.
In the final analysis, the only explanation is that everything which has occurred in the last few days was already waiting to happen. Sooner or later, widespread violence was going to erupt the way it has. The catalyst in an explosive reaction, Mark Duggan’s death set tensions alight which already existed in Britain. The discussion about what where those tensions came from is the one to be had in the coming days; from opposite ends of the political spectrum, David Cameron and Ken Livingstone have both already weighed in on it.
The problem according to Cameron is that some people ‘feel that the world owes them something’. In other words, cutting the state is the solution and not the problem: keep on building a (big) society where nothing’s free and provision is a dirty word, and the riots will stop. (Presumably, the Prime Minister’s attack on entitlement includes the press barons, retail moguls and billion pound corporations claiming police protection while not paying taxes.)
However much those of us are stigmatized who want to acknowledge austerity as a factor, there’s a reason riots don’t happen in Knightsbridge or Surrey. The Tory narrative of ‘personal responsibility’ tells us that individual selfishness, bad attitudes and inferior ‘culture’ lie at the heart of social unrest, but none of these can be mapped the way the riots can. There are selfish individuals in every community who live by exploiting others: gangs in Peckham, yes, but also upper class vandals in Oxford and Lake District husbands who live off the earnings of the wives they beat. Irresponsibility exists everywhere, but it only occasions public disorder in the most deprived areas.
Sayeeda Warsi said on Newsnight that trying to explain the longterm causes of violence stops us condemning it. It doesn’t, any more than psychoanalyzing serial killers excuses murder. We need to understand why this happened in the most deprived parts of our country, how we reached a situation where an isolated shooting triggered mass rioting across Britain.
On reflection, it’s surprising it took so long to happen.
When national corporations with local monopolies – yes, like Currys and Foot Locker – transfer money away from communities like Brixton, what is there for them to depend on except the state? When the state abandons them, is it all that surprising for the crime rate to soar and the drug trade to boom? When it sends a police force with a brutal, racist history into their homes, why wouldn’t an atmosphere of resentment reach boiling point? And when education is a luxury, what response to any of this should we expect but violence?
In the BBC’s news coverage on Tuesday, two young rioters said they were showing the rich and the government they did what they wanted. We don’t have to condone that behaviour, but to describe it as mindless would be wrong. Their actions are intended as an interaction with the state and the class system, which makes them political by definition. That might not be how they seem to the rest of us, or how they’re articulated to the interviewer, but doesn’t relative privilege inform our understanding of what politics is?
13 schools, 12 of them private, produced 10 percent of our MPs. 90 percent went to university, like more than half of the richest children but only a fifth of the poorest. (That figure was taken before last year’s fee hike.) For people whose education is restricted enough by circumstance, accessing the politics either intellectually or pragmatically which we write about on sites like this is impossible; of the 20 percent of children who can’t read fluently at 11, how many will grow up able to express political feeling except by brute force?
The language of the government and media portrays rioters in Britain as dysfunctional, contagiously infected bodies: ‘not just broken but sick’ in the Prime Minister’s view, mindless in the press’s, idiotic in the public’s on Facebook. David Lammy said Tottenham’s heart had been torn out; more widely, Cameron once said the comprehensive schools which produced most rioters were heartless and gutless. As Diane Abbott asked on BBC Two – is it helpful to suggest parts of our society became violent not because of past experiences or inarticulate frustrations, but because they’re defective? We might not object to the idea of stigmatizing criminals, but we also shouldn’t confuse that with explanation and forget the emotional impulses which lay behind their actions. To be violent is not to be mindless or apolitical.
Only privilege leads us to forget that violence is the original political method. Around the developing world, warfare and devastation create new nations and extinguish others. Gender roles are established through mutilation, rape and the threat of murder. Folkloric traditions even distract from the memory of genocide. We base our own state, class system and national identity on the superior ability of some people’s ancestors to kill others’ and take their possessions. Not wanting to acknowledge that politics is as violent as violence is political, we habitually employ the euphemism of ‘law and order’ when most people want more state violence toward criminals.
And they do.
As David Cameron responds to the past seven days by promising us a future police force we can watch firing guns and water cannon at lawbreakers, all but blaming welfare payments for their behaviour, it’s difficult to know how only Ken Livingstone was accused of political opportunism. By the PM’s own admission, his analysis of the fighting on our streets fell just as conveniently into line with his prior policy agenda: having experimented with just how many kettles were needed for peaceful protests in November to boil over, all against the backdrop of unprecedented reductions in public spending, he now argues we should strip those of social housing whose relatives rioted and arm the police with a shiny new range of weapons.
To say that we can’t blame the austerity programme of a government which hasn’t been here long is to miss the point of Livingstone’s remarks. The last time inner city riots were sparked by controversial police behaviour at the height of an austerity programme and spread nationally, the government responded the same way it did to all the social tensions it encountered: by cutting back public spending still more sharply and arming the police force even more strongly. Ever since, the tendency has continued. Even under comparatively openhanded Labour governments, the most deprived areas remained so while our civil liberties were gradually eroded one new stop and search power at a time.
Now here we are in 2011, facing the same outbreaks of violence Britain faced in 1981.
Austerity and authoritarianism aren’t new suggestions. We’ve tried them, as we have David Cameron’s politics in general. And they don’t work.
What spurred me to write for this site again after so long was that as I heard his speech this week – as I heard our head of government say no measures wouldn’t be considered, no options left off the table, no powers of arrest hindered by ‘phoney’ human rights concerns – I felt scared for the first time. A riot can usually, if necessary, be fled; a burning building eventually extinguished, and even the occasional rioter convinced to back down. But when the state awards itself the power to shoot us, what consolation can we find? What terrifies me most of all is that most of the people I know aren’t bothered by this.
When black blocs cover their faces on marches, it’s not (as authorities would have us believe) to prevent their constituent members from being identitified. The aim is self-transformative: become a single, amorphous political entity and you’re no longer bound by the same inner fears or external coercion as a mere group of individuals. To disguise with a mask or scarf the features that mark out your personal identity, merging into a field of black attire, makes you capable of things you never otherwise would be in your life. There’s another black bloc no one ever notices – a mass group who turn up in uniform black at protests and riots with no names or visible faces, carrying weapons and pre-padded for violence. What marks them out is that when they act violently, it doesn’t make headlines. See what I mean?
At the same time, those people all around London who organized to protect their communities in solidarity were labelled vigilantes and cautioned by the police force. State violence against criminals is usually justified on the basis that police act on everyone else’s behalf, enforcing democratically decided laws – but when we read that these people ‘take the law into their own hands’, we should probably wonder whose property the law is if not theirs. Laws, historically and constitutionally, are a function of government after all – so what that narrative really suggests is that it’s okay to perform violent acts if you represent the state, but never otherwise.
If not somewhere in the leaves of the remaining tabloids, then certainly nestled among the lower strata of the blogosphere, there’s another phrase we can bet has been used for a punchy headline to the past week’s events: ANARCHY IN THE UK. Except once you look at the reality of Britain’s political situation today, you don’t see any kind of anarchy. You see the opposite.
You see the most deprived communities pushed closer to breaking point by government cuts. You see the people declared a cancerous tumour who attack each other once they reach that point, and people declared outlaws who defend each other. You see the state claiming only it has a right to violence, arming its forces with new weapons and means of coercion.
You see a big society burning to the ground, one building at a time.