Sunday 14 August 2011

Why I won't condemn the riots

As unexpected as the riots in England's cities were, the response was tediously predictable. Beside the hang-'em-high fulminations of the right-wing press, media consensus from the Guardian to the Telegraph was to deplore 'mindless', 'senseless' violence by 'feral youths', 'thugs', and so on. We're used to this: it's how they've talked about all clashes on Britain's streets since Millbank (and long before that).

The BBC's stance, too, was well-rehearsed. Their reporting was thoroughly on-message, narrowing the issue at stake to 'Is the police response effective or not?' The most distinctive characteristic of such reporting on Tory Britain, however, was that from Diane Abbott to Nigel Farage, anyone who had a microphone shoved in their face was asked to condemn the rioters before anything else.

Those who did not do so with sufficient force ran into trouble with their interviewers, as Darcus Howe found out. It's a test of loyalty: agree with our political elites or become a non-person, an Other as far as the media are concerned. Such ideological rigidity rather gives the lie to our liberal democracy's self-professed openness.

David Starkey's racist comments, on the other hand, were not condemned as vigorously. (Toby Young's incompetent attempt to exonerate Starkey is typical of the 'He wasn't racist' crowd.) I don't think Emily Maitlis gave Starkey a free pass: she challenged him repeatedly. The historian may simply have been ignorant: he confused Jamaican Patois with Textspeak and saw rap as the reason for the riots (one might ask him about the role of rap in 1790s riots).

But there's something more malicious and calculated here. Starkey consistently attempted to racialise the debate, reducing debates about gang culture (valid by themselves) to questions about 'black culture' (and Owen Jones was spot on when he pointed out that by 'white' Starkey meant 'respectable'). Of course, the last forty years have seen a change in the discourse: instead of skin colour the Right now talks about culture, understood as a fixed quality innate to human beings, not a constantly changing process influenced by all sorts of factors, i.e. dialectically. Thus the sign 'culture' still points to the signified 'skin colour', but without embarrassingly blatant racism.

There's the first reason we shouldn't condemn the rioters: the racist vocabulary in which they are being execrated. Starkey is only making explicit what has been implied in much of the condemnation: the rioters are, pardon my Disney, savages, barely even human. Here's Max Hastings's astonishing tirade:
The people who wrecked swathes of property, burned vehicles and terrorised communities have no moral compass to make them susceptible to guilt or shame... They are illiterate and innumerate, beyond maybe some dexterity with computer games and BlackBerries. They are essentially wild beasts. I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable; of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong. They respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others. (emphasis mine)
Hastings goes on to express regret that looters were not shot, and complains about their antisocial refusal to watch the royal wedding. Disadvantaged young people are constructed as an utterly alien and contemptible Other. This isn't new: the people we now dismiss as 'chavs' were once Burke's 'swinish multitude' and the Victorians' 'vicious, semi-criminal' urban poor. To smear an entire segment of the population as the forces of chaos is hardly ethical.

Secondly, this demonisation both ignores and facilitates neoliberal 'reforms'. The Right initially insisted that any attempt to search for root causes amounted to an endorsement, and with good reason: such a search might uncover that youth club closures left young people with nothing to do and nowhere to go. It might find that 20 per cent of youth and half of young black people are unemployed, or that black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white peers. By moralising looting and demonising the young such inconvenient facts can be ignored, while their 'feral' nature can be used to justify the attacks on jobs and services this government is anxious to push through.

Thirdly, the condemners keep bad company. The moralism now echoing through the Commons, from people who cheerfully defrauded the taxpayer, is nought but rank hypocrisy. David Cameron enjoyed smashing private property in his youth. The BNP and EDL racists now coming out of the woodwork to act as Freikorps are using understandable fear and anger to preach a message of hate. Frankly, I don't want to agree with these people on much at all.

Lastly and perhaps controversially, looting shows a response to real injustice, however poorly expressed. I hold that any attack on property is political - it claims that 'this should not belong to you'. What sort of politics this expresses depends on the situation: after all, imperialism or the current looting of the public sector are also attacks on the property of others. But the riots attacked a system in which corporations and the rich running them control the vast majority of human wealth, expropriating and withholding them from the majority. Ultimately, looting is an unhelpful, sporadic, localised response to this general malaise: a much better response would frankly be to expropriate all capital.

In refusing to condemn the riots, let's not fall into the trap of claiming they were not terrifying and destructive to many people, few of them wealthy. It's in the nature of riots that most of the people hurt will be subaltern, not the elites. But that doesn't mean we should collude in demonising the rioters: it means that we should argue for better working-class politics and engage with frustrated young people in building resistance movements. Riots are counter-violence, but ultimately they do little to hurt ruling-class violence. For that, we need revolutionary politcs.

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