London’s Melted Furnace
Like many radicals, the wave of rebellions sweeping across Britain has engaged my consciousness for the past week. However, despite many hours of reading and viewing the mainstream (and other) media, I have yet to come up with an understanding of the nature of these riots that satisfies my political curiosity. Naturally, I can’t help but be reminded of Margaret Thatcher and her neoliberal 1980s, complete with a soundtrack by the Clash and post mortem by British novelist David Peace. However, that was almost thirty years ago and times change, even when they stay the same. I am also reminded of the series of riots and rebellions that broke out in the French banlieues in 2005. So, this past week I engaged a couple working-class activists from London in an email exchange about what they were seeing and what their impressions were. For security reasons, they prefer to remain anonymous. After all, Scotland Yard is going after facebook and blackberry users reporting on the rebellions. The interaction follows. –Ron J.
Ron: What is your take on the wave of insurrection going on in Britain?
Activist 1: There is a certain inevitability to it: the recent experiences of confronting the police during the student demonstrations and the TUC march earlier in the year, combined with the ridiculously two-faced attitude of the police and various Coalition politicians towards the pacific occupiers of Fortnum and Masons (nearly all of whom have had their charges dropped in the past fortnight) has led to a radicalisation of many people - who are now not remotely scared of the judicial system or its enforcers.
Of course, now that the Coalition’s cuts are really beginning to bite across all segments of the population, all the pissed-off bile that has been fermenting for the past year is rising up. Passive, democratic methods of protest have been perceived to be inadequate.
Activist 2: My take on what’s happened is the following:
You have a vast underclass youth who’s suffered multiple forms of structural violence:
- Endemic neighbourhood and familial poverty in one of the most superficial and commodified consumer societies there is, where one is constantly bombarded with the manufactured desires of modern marketing, advertising, and PR.
- Neighbourhoods rife with social problems, criminality and gang violence, due to endemic poverty, unemployment, and political/economic neglect.
- Neighbourhoods with ancient, crumbling, underfunded public infrastructures.
- The government’s swingeing public service and welfare cuts that directly affect these youths and their families: Youth centre closures, old people’s homes closing, all manners of social support services closing, etc.
- Endemic unemployment with no job prospects except rare precarious, underpaid, unrewarding jobs that present no opportunities and that effectively strip workers of their rights.
- “Workfare” policies for the unemployed whereby in order to keep their meager job seekers’ allowance, unemplyed youths must work, effectively for no wage, regularly, like veritable slaves, doing menial jobs for exploitative corporate outlets.
- No prospects whatsoever for upward social mobility: underfunded second rate colleges to which these youths can no longer even afford to go because EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) benefits have been scrapped; these kids know they have NO CHANCE of going to university because of the massive tuition fees and debt involved — University fees have just been trippled to an average of £9000 a year. They know they have almost no chance of securing the loans to get to these universities.
- Constant police harassment, disrespect and arbitrary section 40 and section 60 stop and search based on class and racial profiling.
- Constant class and race discrimination from the white middle and upper classes.
Furthermore these kids are far from stupid and uninformed: they have an unprecedented, very clear political and economic awareness of being completely defrauded, disenfranchised, disempowered, and oppressed by the ruling classes for the economic and social collapse that the ruling classes themselves caused, because:
- They are extremely social-media and alternative-media savvy: these kids are broadly aware of the fraudulent causes of the economic meltdown via various news sources. They know that the economy’s tanked because of the banks and the rich. They know that they, as a class, are at the sharp end of the welfare cuts, and are being made to pay for the mismanagement and theft of the economy by the rich.
- Many of these kids went out and protested against the EMA cuts and Tuition Fee hikes. They were met with constant police intimidation, kettles, beatings, police manipulation, and the general contempt of the political classes, elites and middle classes.
- They are fully aware of the corruption of the political classes.
- They are fully aware of the bias and lies and distortions of the media: they saw how the media misrepresented them during the student uprising.
- They are fully aware of the cynicism, pathetic disengagement, navel gazing, and indifference of the upper and middle classes; and the contempt and prejudice the middle classes display towards them.
Then, finally, the police shoot one of theirs under very suspicious circumstances. The police then proceeded to totally ignore a peaceful protest where the community, lead by the family of the deceased, pleaded not only for answers, but also demanded that the police provide the family with the support that the law obliges them to provide and which they neglected to do. Then, when a 16 year old girl advances on the police line to demand an explanation, she apparently throws a bottle at them in anger and frustration, and the the police retaliated by batoning her.
The result: all the years of pent up, explosive frustration detonates.
Add social media networking via blackberry phone messaging and you have an unstoppable horizontal network fuelled by pure rage. In addition, you obviously have masses of deprived kids who find the opportunity not only to get back at the police, but to assuage the years of frustrated, though completely illusory, consumer cravings stoked by the marketing and advertising industry.
Some call it looting. I call it a natural leveling of the totally skewed distribution of wealth under the state and capitalism.
Yes it is mainly a negative, negating, angry, raging, destructive, self-harming reaction. Yes poor innocent working class people are suffering from this indiscriminate rage. Yes this is a deplorable aspect of these riots. But isn’t that to be expected from youths who have been completely abandoned and oppressed by almost every social structure there is?
This is a complex phenomenon and should not be taken as one big whole block. I claim the right to cherry pick: I totally agree with some aspects of the rioting, the legitimate political aspects, and I totally and absolutely reject and deplore other aspects of it, the wanton blind violence against innocents. As someone who believes in the need for a libertarian-socialist revolution, I find these aspects very hopeful and I wholeheartedly support them. Burning police cars, running battles with police, barricading the streets, and looting and trashing big corporate outlets is totally fine and legitimate by me; but burning down homes and small shops, mugging ordinary people, destroying public infrastructure, trashing post offices, and burning down means of production that could be collectivised, that is totally wrong and counterproductive. Not only that: it will inevitably stoke a reactionary, authoritarian and populist backlash that will just make things worse.
The mainstream journalists, the politicians, and the police would have us believe that this is an expression of the inherent, latent “Hobbesian” wolf-horde that dwells within the heart of the masses, and that the State’s repression is necessary for keeping in check.
That is rubbish.
What you are seeing in London is the sociopathic violence inherent to the State and Capitalism, which has infected the underclass through its injustices, created a massive psycho-social trauma of pure and absolute frustration, and which has been transduced into pure rage that lashes out blindly at everything around it.
This is a typical reaction of all victims of trauma: they feel infected by a poisonous “gift” of arbitrary evil, injustice and misfortune whose reasons and causes are so impossible to fathom that the only thing they can do is throw it back out at those whom they feel infected them with it: the police; the big consumer outlets whose goods they craved but could not afford and which employed them as underpaid precarious wage slaves; adults in general.
I am somewhat baffled by attacks on small shop owners; I think that might be explained by the fact that many locals described seeing kids from other boroughs taking the opportunity to vent and loot… It can also be explained, like their burning and the burning of homes above the shops, as resulting from the blindness to consequences and lack of awareness of very young minds that are completely possessed by rage. A number of my anarchist/libertarian-socialist comrades were out on the street attempting to direct the rioting away from illegitimate targets and onto more legitimate ones (it should be underlined that they were not rioting themselves and had nothing to do with “organising” the riots; they were just trying to mitigate its negative aspects and redirect it towards legitimate targets). They reported that many of the youths involved immediately took in the point of being more discriminating in their targeting, and willingly turned away from small shops and houses when sympathetic young activists intervened. My comrades in the streets thus managed to save a number of small shops from looting and arson like this; but that’s something you’ll never hear in the mainstream media.
These riots are a symptom of deep-seated systemic problem. What they are doing is a symptom of the total dereliction of this bankrupt and corrupted social, economic and political system, the responsibility of which lies squarely on the shoulders of the ruling classes.
Ron: Who is participating? Would you consider the rebellions class-based, ethnic-based or some combination of the two?
Activist 1: I think to limit the protagonists to class and ethnicity would be misleading, it’s much broader than that. What is curious is the extreme youth of some of the participants; according to reports in The Guardian and The Daily Mail some are as young as ten or eight respectively. This gives an interesting insight into Teresa May’s comments earlier on Radio 4′s “Today” programme about not letting London become a “new Belfast”.
Activist 2: This is first and foremost a class-based rebellion, though it is not necessarily fully class-conscious (as one comrade puts it, a lot of the behaviour present capitalistic, egoistic, consumeristic, dog-eat-dog elements). It does present some elements of rebellion against the structural racism inherent to both state authority and society as a whole. However, it is sociologically an uprising of the poor urban youths that has obviously crossed ethnic divides.
Ron: I can’t help thinking of the 1980s, the rebellions in Brixton and elsewhere, the miner’s strikes and the neoliberal policies that brought those situations on. Do you all see a historical comparison being the case here? If so,how? If not, why?
Activist 1: Yes and no. Personally I participated in one of the Brixton riots and had many friends who were at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham. These were very much directed against the Police in particular – and justifiably so under the circumstances. I understand that Toxteth (Liverpool) and St Pauls (Bristol) were very similar.
The current waves of unrest – and this may indicate why I’m avoiding loaded terms like “insurrection” and “rebellion” – seem to be much more diverse and localised. There is a much greater focus on appropriation of commodities this time around too it seems, but that may just be me falling into the current media pose or viewing my past overly-romantically.
Certainly comparisons between the neoliberal policies of Thatcher and the Coalition should be made, but it should also be recalled that we’d already had two years of Thatcher’s vicious policies by 1981. Many of the Coalition’s policies are in fact only starting to be put into practice, so I’d also look at things like the global rise of food and fuel prices as well as the suppression of wages, cutting of benefits and so on. (Although, there have actually been a couple decades of Thatcher and post-Thatcher neoliberal policies that led up to Cameron and his latest mutation of said policies—Ron) Mind you, as someone who has just started working again after two plus years of unemployment it was a lot less hassle on the dole under Thatcher: much less “sanctioning” of benefits, far fewer training courses… and of course the age which you could claim Unemployment Benefit was lower then too.
Activist 2: I was not in the UK at the time and am too young to have been involved, so I cannot answer this question. I have heard many people evoking these parallels.
Ron: The mainstream media is repeating the police characterization of the rioters as thugs and members of a conspiracy. What is your take on this portrayal?
Activist 1: If I remember correctly in the eyes of the law conspiracy to riot is three people with a common purpose, so on that level they’d be right. After all, anyone who stands up against the state is by necessity labeled criminal for breaking the social contract. The thugs bit is just pejorative nonsense though.
Activist 2: I find such characterisations to be ridiculous, dangerously naive, and sociologically myopic. I do not know if it is deliberate, but all it breeds is misplaced resentment, and all it will do is encourage a misplaced, reactionary, authoritarian and repressive populist backlash which will do nothing but intensify the very roots of the problem rather than provide any solutions. As usual, those responsible for the root systemic causes are not only escaping all blame, they are being called upon as authorities with solutions — it is no surprise since the mainstream media is structured to serve ruling class interests.
Ron: In my mind, it is the thuggery of the police that has helped to precipitate the angry response of the people in the streets. When one adds the economic thuggery of the austerity measures, one wonders where this might end. What is your prognosis?
Activist 1: Yes, the economic thuggery is certainly a factor common to all the areas that have so far been reported as having riots: all poor areas with the poorer London boroughs.
I can’t speak for all the different regions regarding the thuggery of the police, but all the reports so far have made it plain that the original murder of Mark Duggan in Tottenham was utterly unnecessary, and it has shades of the De Menenzies case writ large across it. There is certainly some interesting psychological thuggery going on though; the Metro newspaper this morning carried a report of “a senior policeman” who stated: “My only message to them is this. We will find you, we will bring you to justice, when you are watching your brand new 42in flatscreen TV, fear every single knock at your door, we are coming”. If people are dumb enough to keep the stolen property at home you may get some, mate, but pretty soon loads of you are going to be redundant too…
Which may actually explain why many of the rabid right-wing commentators seem to be expressing surprise at the so-called “stand offishness” of the police and are calling for the Army to be bought in. As I was writing that I got a call from my partner warning me that there are now supposedly 16,000 police between my workplace and my home… guess they’ve finally got their overtime authorised.
I think the best that can happen is that it may split the government, though this seems unlikely given that Cameron has recalled Parliament, so all parties can “stand together in condemnation” of the events. What is certain is that the will be a huge backlash: the Deputy Commissioner has issued the Met with rubber bullets today, and it only takes a brief glimpse at the public’s comments on the BBC news website to see just how horribly keen a large sector of the population is to start using them on these “feral” kids.
Of course it may be that the youth have actually seen a way through our economic difficulties: with all these razed buildings, burnt-out cars and damaged businesses someone somewhere has to make some money out of the forthcoming regeneration and repair work!
Activist 2: As is clear from my answer to the first question, I think it is pretty obvious that the thuggery of the police has not only helped to precipitate the angry response, by acting as the spark and catalyst, but is also one of the systemic causes of the accumulated explosive anger that has exploded during the past three days.
Many of us are not only active syndicalists but also activists in other libertarian-socialist or socialist movements which means that we participate in numerous forms of civil protest and direct action. I am a student activist, and I have also been deeply angered and radicalised by the perverse and sometimes brutal tactics that the police have used on myself and my comrades, deliberately used as tools of intimidation and repression of dissent: such as the use of kettling, squeeze-kettles, baton charges, mounted horse charges, and stop and search.
I completely sympathise with these youths anger towards the police. Many of these youths participated in the protests against EMA cuts and were also at the sharp end of these tactics in addition to the daily police intimidation they face in their own neighbourhoods for simply being young, poor and black/brown.
Ron: I noticed that your group Facebook page has issued statements of support for the firefighters and rescue workers. Can you explain why you think this is necessary?
Activist 1: Did we? I must be out of the loop on that one, sorry.
Activist 2: Yes, as the mandated administrator of my activist group’s Facebook page I did that because it seemed the obvious and right thing to do. We are a union for workers and the working class. Firefighters and rescue workers are members of that class. I have many friends in the fire brigade. They too are facing major funding cuts and unjust changes to their employment conditions. They have been working non stop to douse the many fires and in some cases have faced attacks by misguided rioters. I felt it was important to show solidarity with these fellow workers.
Ron: Would you like to add anything?
Activist 1: Not really. I’ll have enough trouble justifying what I’ve already said to some of my fellow workers
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex,Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titledTripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel isThe Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org