Burning Britain

The rioting, looting and plunder that started in Tottenham on Saturday has now spread like wildfire throughout the capital. Shops were broken into, properties vandalized, and flats and vehicles set alight by gangs of mostly young men in Croydon, Clapham, Brixton, Hackney, Camden, Lewisham, Peckham, Newham, East Ham, Ilford, Enfield, Woolwich, Ealing, and Colliers Wood. Trouble was also reported in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and Nottingham.

Described by witnesses as a ‘warzone’, these are the worst riots to hit London in decades. Over the next few nights, groups of young men, some armed with make-shift weapons and petrol bombs, overwhelmed suburban areas in what was essentially a spontaneous ransacking spree. The chaos has disrupted the lives of thousands of people, rendering them homeless, destroying their businesses, and endangering their livelihoods.

On Monday, at about 4pm, I was talking on the phone to my friend Muddassar Ahmed, CEO of Unitas Communications, while he was driving about town in East Ham where he lives. We were chatting about our plans for a meal round his place to celebrate Ramadan. Suddenly, he said, “Oh my God. There’s a group of, like, 50 young guys and they’re running straight towards me!” Fortunately they ran passed his car, but they continued onto Ilford Lane, which they’d barricaded using crates and boxes.

On Tuesday morning, my dad and stepmother who live in Croydon, where some of the worst violence occurred, told me over the phone how they’d watched as the previous night a gang of about 20 lads smashed their way into the Staples opposite their house and emptied almost the entire superstore. Indeed, many of the images of the carnage captured by journalists have also been revealing – apart from the stealing of expensive luxury items like flat screen televisions and hi-fi systems, a lot of the pillaging has focused on clothes and food.

Police Brutality

So it would be gravely mistaken to assume that the rioting and violence erupting throughout London was motivated fundamentally by opposing police brutality exemplified in the killing of Mark Duggan. Police brutality almost certainly played a role in sparking the initial rage. Early inaccurate media reports claimed that Duggan had fired first at the SO19 police officers who were tracking him, and that the officer who was hit was only saved by the bullet lodging itself in his radio. Forensic analysis later confirmed that the bullet was in fact police-issued, throwing doubt on the whole story.

Semone Wilson, Duggan’s girlfriend, said: “I spoke to him at about 5pm and
he asked me if I’d cook dinner. He said he spotted a police car following him. By 6.15 he had been gunned down. I kept phoning and phoning to find out where he was. He wasn’t answering. I rushed down to where it happened. They let me through the police lines but they wouldn’t let me see his body.”

According to eyewitnesses, Duggan had been disabled by police and was lying on the ground when he had been shot. “About three or four police officers had both men pinned on the ground at gunpoint”, said one who was at the scene. “They were really big guns and then I heard four loud shots. The police shot him on the floor.”

Pending further disclosure, the jury is still out on what exactly happened, but at the moment the available evidence does not lend confidence to the original version of events put out by anonymous police sources.

To add insult to injury (or this case, murder), when a 16-year old girl amongst the protestors who had gathered in Tottenham on Saturday approached the police to ask questions, the officers “set upon her with batons”, according to one resident interviewed by the BBC.

Confusing the Issues

Then the fires started. What began as a peaceful but angry demonstration against Duggan’s killing by members of Tottenham’s local community was quickly overrun and overtaken by hundreds of youths, who exploited the circumstances to cause havoc and loot local businesses.

The scale of the violence on Saturday alone, and the inability of police and emergency services to respond and contain it effectively, was instrumental in inspiring youths all over London’s suburbs to mimic the violence and, quite literally, use the opportunity to take what they wanted.

Unfortunately, some activists have been confused by these events. Jodi McIntyre described the riots as an “uprising”, and suggested it should “continue in an effective manner” with better “organisation” – “Random looting”, he explained, “is not going to overcome police injustice.

But until then, the language of the unheard will continue to be spoken.” But to what end should such admittedly pointless random looting therefore continue? How does exhorting its continuation in any way fit into a genuinely progressives agenda for the inclusive, community-led, radical systemic transformation necessary to overcome our converging social, political, economic and cultural crises?

Responding to criticism for expressing support for the riots, McIntyre wrote: “If it is a question of where my solidarity lies, and the options are M&S and Footlocker versus young people in the streets, then there is only one answer.” To be fair McIntyre expressed “sympathy” for those who had their “homes or cornershops damaged” and noted he has never supporting looting or arson – but ultimately, his comments illustrate a serious lack of understanding of what had happened.

There is no binary moral choice between support for the ‘corporate establishment’ and ‘young people’ – as if the riots somehow manifest young people challenging corporate power in a genuinely progressive way. The riots, the looting, the plunder, did not in any way constitute an “uprising” against corporate or even state power. On the contrary, the violence represented the most regressive manifestations of corporate and state inculcated values of crude materialist, market-driven hedonism. The looters and vandals were not politically-motivated, let alone progressively-inspired. On the contrary, what precisely illustrates the entirely self-destructive nature of this phenomenon is that its main victims were not the government, nor large corporates shielded by the promise of insurance pay-outs – but simply ordinary working people. If this was an uprising, it ended up targeting the very communities from which these young people came, even if these are communities from which they feel ostracized.

Boiling Point

McIntyre is right about one thing, though, when he says, “Inequality is at the heart of this.” Indeed, the violence is a disturbing symptom of the protracted collapse-process which industrial civilization now finds itself in.

The vast majority of perpetrators were young people, both men and women although mostly men. Young people in Britain have been hit hardest by the impact of recession. Unemployment in the UK is now at a staggering 2.49 million, having risen steadily over the last decade – increasingly so since the 2008 crash – with 1.46 million claiming jobseekers allowance. Across the country, one in five 16-24 year olds – just under a million young people – are unemployed.

Figures released just this summer showed that the economic gloom was deepening particularly across the capital, with 20 people chasing each available job in 22 of London’s 73 parliamentary constituencies. In other areas, such as Peckham and Hackney which were also sites of major rioting, the number of people going after each job is over 40. And in almost every seat, this measure has worsened in the last few months.

It won’t get better soon – this year will see unemployment rise to 2.7 million. And young people will face the brunt of it, as they already have. In the quarter to May 2011, the employment rate of working age men in London was lower than the national average, and underwent a “dramatic fall of 0.9 percentage points, while the national rate remained the same.” Almost a quarter of working-age Londoners are economically inactive – 1.3 million people, and of these 397,000 people are aged 16 and over.

And there is an unmistakable race-dimension to class inequality. Black and ethnic minority (BME) groups face the brunt of the impact of economic crisis. Across the UK, BME groups have the highest rates of income-poverty, and in London, more than half of people living in low-income households are from ethnic minorities. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 70 per cent of those in income poverty in inner London are from minority ethnic groups, as are 50 per cent in outer London.

There is an interplay between the wider racial contours of social inequalities and institutional police racism. Despite commendable progress in significant areas, black people are still seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white. Asians are twice as likely to be stopped and searched as white people. More than 30 per cent of all black males living in Britain are on the national DNA database, compared with about 10 per cent of white males and 10 per cent of Asian males. Black men are about four times more likely than white men to have their DNA profiles stored on the DNA database.

Meanwhile, the British government’s flagship ‘Big Society’-inspired policy to support young people amounts to nothing less than ruthlessly slashing youth services, and hoping the ‘market’ – which of course brought us into this economic mess – will magically take care of them. “One in four of England’s youth services face catastrophic cuts of between 21-30 per cent – three times higher than the general level of council cuts”, reports Kerry Jenkins, operations officer of Unite the Unions – a merger between two of Britain’s leading Unions, the T&G and Amicus.

“Many authorities intend to get rid of their youth services completely, while 80% of voluntary organisations providing services for young people have said programmes will be cut. Local authority chiefs predict that youth service budgets will be slashed by £100 million, leading to the loss of 3,000 full-time youth worker jobs.”

Indeed, the government was warned. Less than a year ago, Sir Paul Ennals, Head of the National Children’s Bureau, predicted that the combination of unemployment and cuts to services would lead to young people becoming “progressively disengaged from their own communities in a way that we are seeing in France”, which has already seen riots and social unrest “driven by young people who are alienated from their community.”

And as late as 2nd August – less than a week before the riots – criminologist Professor John Pitts, an advisor to several local authorities on violent crime and youth culture, warned that government cuts would lead to an increase in violent crime this summer.

The Failure of Neoliberal Capitalism

The unprecedented economic crisis, linked to the global political economy’s fundamental breaching of ecological and energy limits, has already generated outbreaks of civil disorder all over the world in different regional and socio-political contexts. In the Middle East, we have seen the Arab spring, triggered by rocketing food prices, driven by a combination of environmental, financial and energy factors. In Europe, we have seen protests and rioting in Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Turkey and France, fuelled by the devastating impact of the global recession. It is only a matter of time before these crisis-conditions catch-up with the United States mainland.

In the UK, converging energy, economic and environmental crises are being refracted through the lens of a deeply unequal, yet vehemently consumerist, society. As Professor Pitts argued in a later interview directly about the riots: “Many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future.” Widening social exclusion has pushed these young people onto the margins of conventional morality – “Those things that normally constrain people are not there. Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.” Entrenched structural inequalities thus generate a sense of justification for looting: “They feel they can rationalise it by targeting big corporations. There is a sense that the companies have lots of money, while they have very little.” Simultaneously, the rioting and violence lacked any progressive content whatsoever – driven by conventional neoliberal values of excessive consumerism, most looters used the opportunity not to challenge capitalism, but to indulge manically in its most materialistic values by simply stealing the items they could not normally afford: “Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy. These big stores are in the business of tempting [the consumer] and then suddenly these people find they can just walk into the shop and have it all.”

The young people involved in this spate of violence are beyond the conventional alienation of repressed labour. Instead, they suffer from a deeper, more dangerous alienation of being utterly surplus to capitalist requirements, irrelevant and ostracized, and thus doomed to subsist on the margins, functionally illiterate, without hope or aspiration. That is a mode of being which is no longer capable of recognizing ethical constraints or boundaries, precisely because the state has already breached its contract of citizenship to them. The shooting of Mark Duggan, and the underbelly of class and race inequality it followed, was merely a match to a flame that has already burned for too long.

However the government chooses to now respond to the escalating violence, there can be no doubt that the episode represents a fundamental turning-point for British society, in a world that has already passed the tipping point on a whole range of interconnected systemic crises. The danger is that the authorities will offer the traditional, knee-jerk, business-as-usual response of maximizing police state powers, rather than addressing the root causes of our predicament. Of course, robust measures are clearly necessary to contain the violence and hold those responsible accountable. But we are already on the slippery slope of intensifying state-militarization – and we won’t be able to get off as long as we refuse, as societies, to take responsibility for the systemic crises we all now face.

Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (Pluto/Macmillan, 2010), which inspired the forthcoming documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization, to be released in October this year.