Making Sense of the London Riots: “Emotional but Never Mindless” Acts of Alienation

On Thursday, August 4th, in Tottenham, a poor neighbourhood in the north of London, police shot and killed Mark Duggan, a black man who worked at a local airport. The following Saturday, locals marched to their station demanding answers. The police refused to talk to them and assaulted a 16-year-old demonstrator. That night, the riots began. For four nights, shops were burnt and looted, police stations set on fire, housing estates barricaded, and pitched battles fought between police and rioters. The conflagration spread from Tottenham, to flashpoints across London, and then to major cities throughout England.

Much has been written about the inhuman quality of the riots; the coverage used phrases like “the contagion is spreading to the north.” Rioters were called “feral rats.” The media picked up on genuine instances of inhumanity, such as the Malaysian student caught on video being “helped” by rioters, who assaulted and then robbed him.

The Right has had a field day. Having always feared the poor, right-wingers now have evidence the poor are dangerous. Prime Minister David Cameron, forced to return from his holiday in Tuscany, promised swift retribution. The head of the Prison Governors’ Association accused the government of creating a feeding frenzy in which rioters receive twenty five percent longer sentences and much higher incarceration rates than normal. Seventy-three percent of those charged have previous convictions or cautions — which means either these are hardened violent thugs, or many young people already have no stake in society.

The influx of over 700 new prisoners has created overcrowding in Britain’s already-full prisons; the incarcerated rioters are sharing cells for 20 hours a day. Ongoing incidents of self-harm and further violence as new prisoners band together for safety suggest that the justice system isn’t as efficient a tool for revenge that the Right would like.

This hasn’t stopped the Right from dusting off its favourite Victorian stereotypes: while professing sympathy, long-time Tory Iain Duncan Smith has blamed drugs, gangs and something called “welfare dependency,” as if being maintained in poverty on a pittance provided through a demeaning bureaucracy makes you dependent.

Does this mean we should celebrate the riots as rebellion, poor people fighting back the only way they know how? Yes and no. Yes because poor people suffer daily humiliations they’re not allowed to respond to. The fear of being homeless, hunger pangs, the petty terror exercised by bureaucrats who can deny money and subject recipients to humiliating and byzantine rules, the arrogance and often fatal violence of police. Poor people are supposed to bear these trials with good humour and resignation. If they erupt individually, they take it out on each other and go to jail.

The riots were about deprivation and inequality. Most rioters were from poor backgrounds and were long-term unemployed. They came from communities devastated not only by recent government cutbacks to social programs, but from long-term underinvestment. Poor people took their frustrations at living in ghettos and projected them outwards, towards the police and shops. For that they deserve praise, since riots can have important political consequences. As Socialist Worker argues: “The riots in Britain in the 1980s forced the state to retreat from hardline policing. The government was forced to spend money on inner city areas. And they cemented the anti-racist atmosphere as black and white young people fought together.”

But if it’s correct for leftists to show rioters had good reasons to riot, this isn’t the whole story. The riots terrified and confused those not participating. The tragic deaths of three Asian shopkeepers in Birmingham murdered by looters cannot be so easily brushed aside. The police seemed helpless to stem the violence and politicians were slow to respond. We’re not obliged to sympathize with those causing mayhem: there’s nothing revolutionary about destroying the city you live in. Worse, a majority of Britons are now more hostile toward and scared of minorities, even though they recognize the riots weren’t the actions of any particular minority. Rioting created fear and rage, not sympathy.

But just because we don’t support riots as a political strategy, this doesn’t absolve us from understanding why they’re happening. The problem is that the Right and Left occupy different rhetorical grounds: the former speak of psychological abandon, the latter of social injustice. By stating “It’s all about poverty,” the Left implies that, if it’s about new running shoes and Ipods instead, then riots aren’t legitimate expressions of anything. This cedes too much ground to the Right. There is a psychological dimension, and it’s also political. Put differently, you can want new shoes and hate capitalism at the same time.

The Revenge of May 68

The May 1968 uprisings, when French students and workers staged general strikes and sparked a near-revolution, came at a time of rising prosperity for Europeans. Radicals saw that this new wealth wasn’t being distributed equally, and more fundamentally that a career of humiliating, monotonous work was the best capitalism had to offer most people. Capitalism wasn’t just about exploitation, someone getting rich off you; it was also about alienation, being forced to do repetitive, boring jobs, with shallow, meaningless leisure and consumption as a reward.

The Right responded by ridiculing how selfish and naive leftists were to talk about dreams and aspirations, and by launching a sustained attack on the welfare state. The Left retreated into defending social programs and jobs. These aren’t bad things, but they’re not liberation. Even the best welfare state, with cradle-to-grave social protection, doesn’t address the fundamental contradiction of capitalism: being forced to work for a wage, with little to no control over how that happens. Over 40 years later, the 68ers appear to be right: you can’t talk about capitalism without talking about alienation too.

Some more astute commentators have mentioned the lack of “buy-in” by the poor into mainstream society, but it’s more than that. Just because you’ve got a roof over your head and a chip shop at the end of the terrace, doesn’t mean the system works. If your best-case future is a job with little autonomy, and no means to express any creativity, why buy in? Rioters did take basic necessities like diapers and toilet paper. But the fact that they also stole expensive goods proves, once again, that we don’t live by bread alone: in a society that deems superphones a worthwhile goal, and spends billions convincing us to get them, no one should be surprised when people follow the advice.

The Rowntree Foundation and The Guardian newspaper are conducting empirical studies of the riots, talking to rioters and cops and analyzing tweets. While this kind of research is welcome, it’s not going to reveal as much as the researchers hope, because the rioters didn’t act entirely consciously. What we say and what we do are different things, because exploitation and oppression don’t begin inside our heads. Our consciousness is shaped by the world around us, and, as Marxists often say, it’s contradictory. People can hate politicians in general but think activists disrupting Parliament is “going too far.” Or they can want lower taxes and a strong military. This contradiction isn’t limited to the readers of right-wing tabloids: it exists in the rioters’ heads as well.

So Many Chickens, So Many Roosts

This is not the same as the Right claiming rioters are mindless. The latter deserve credit for articulating class hatred, like the young woman who was asked by the BBC why she was targeting local shops and said, “We’re just showing the rich people we can do what we want.” The man in this intense interview makes it clear rioters are poor, subject to racial harassment and angry: “Why were people confronting the police if it was all about thievery? It wasn’t all about thievery, but there was thievery going on in it. But it was about giving the police a taste of their own medicine.”

If riots are a form of confused class war, there were moments of open, conscious class war too: rioters hit a Michelin-starred restaurant and stole diners’ mobile phones and plates of food. This kind of social violence may be emotional, but it’s never mindless. For every day of their lives, people have been told 1) property is sacrosanct and 2) you can’t have any. When they decide collectively that yes, we can, and that the best-case alternative of bad jobs either isn’t much to shout about or isn’t available, they’ll act.

There’s no corresponding, worked out political platform to go along with it, and the research isn’t going to find any. Alton Burnet, director of the Afro-Caribbean Millennium Centre in Birmingham, confounds a reporter who asks why rioters stole nice things: “What they’re attacking is the symbols of capitalism, and that is business and property. The youth is totally disaffected, they are rejecting the values of this society.”

Politics is about understanding how people conform to, or resist, structures that work well beyond them. At key historical moments, people come to understand how to change those structures. The riots weren’t one of those moments, not entirely: rather, they were the inchoate expression of class anger and consumer demand. They reveal the social contradictions of capitalist inequality, and — more troubling for right-wing politicians and the police — a nascent understanding of that unfairness by vast numbers of young people.

Broken glass can be swept up; looters can be imprisoned. But exploitation and alienation can’t be cleaned, punished or studied away. In a society where a tiny percentage of the population control most of the wealth, and sentence the working class to lives of misery and unemployment, riots are inevitable. People may respond in anti-social, even terrifying ways; but unfortunately for the Right, people are human, not feral rats, and humans don’t put up with indignity for too long.

Greg Sharzer wants a 60 inch flat-screen TV and is a member of the Toronto New Socialists.