FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Fighting Back in London

“Capitalism is,” Mark Fisher explained, a few years ago, ‘what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.’

You could not think of a more perfect description of recent events in Britain.

The riots of London were not evidence of a ‘broken society’. Rather, to the extent that the poor and the disenfranchised turned on their own communities, their behaviour illustrated not a failure but a success: a striking illustration of the internalisation of neoliberalism.

In the twenty-first century, there is nothing anomalous about grabbing whatever you can, about scrambling over your neighbour so as to fill your arms with consumer tack. On the contrary, that’s how the system works.

It’s what’s meant to happen – it’s a feature, not a bug.

Back in the 1970s, the pioneers of neoliberalism understood perfectly they were unleashing an aggressive, insurgent doctrine that destroy collective identities, both those associated with the Left (trade unionism being the most obvious example) and those from older, precapitalist traditions.
‘Economics are the method,’ Thatcher declared, way back when, ‘but the object is to change the soul.’

Tory invocations of ‘The Spirit of the Blitz’, the maudlin yelpings about the Britain of Sunday cricket and country pubs and village fetes, are therefore as hypocritical as they are reactionary. That past has been systematically demolished by a bipartisan commitment to market forces as the exclusive form of human interaction. It’s gone, and it’s not coming back.

In 2011, the neoliberal citizen is not defined by class or ethnicity or locality or religious belief. He or she is someone who exchanges commodities: no more and no less.

So when the various tuppenny moralists urge us to join the two-minute hate directed against some hapless kid caught on camera nicking some trainers, we might borrow a quip of which Marx was fond: ‘Change the names and the tale is told of you.’ The most heinous acts by rioters were, quite literally, those that most closely paralleled the behaviour of their betters.

Consider the widely circulated footage of youths approaching an obviously injured boy and then, under the pretext of tending his wounds, rummaging through his backpack.

Anything seem familiar?

That incident was, almost exactly, a re-enactment, on a micro scale, of the conduct of the Murdoch tabloids.

You’ll recall how the News of the World editors befriended Sara Payne, the grieving mother of murdered Sarah – and then used the phone they gave her to eavesdrop on her conversations.

The teens were not imitating Rebekah Brooks. Rather, they shared her understanding of how the world worked. In a society of individual profit maximisers, empathy is for suckers, and anyone foolish believing otherwise is a pathetic pigeon ready for the plucking.

‘[Capital],’ someone once said, ‘has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.’

What the hacking scandal revealed is that for much of the British establishment that description might have served as an operating manual. On the one hand, Brooks and her cronies mawkishly drooled over terrorist survivors, returned veterans and victims of crime; on the other, they were systematically violating them, without pity or compunction.

Over the last week, we’ve seen market plunges wipe away billions of dollars, with catastrophic impacts on the real lives of real peoples. Will anyone be held responsible? The very suggestion amounts almost to a category error, like a demand that the ocean be put on trial after a tsunami or the earth apologise for a volcanic eruption.

In the face of such systemic moral autism, why would anyone expect the denizens of the ghetto to show responsibility? As Paul Foot once said, nothing corrupts like lack of power and it corrupts absolutely. You couldn’t blame the ordinary people of inner London for being depraved as its stockbrokers.

But here’s the thing – they weren’t.

Yes, terrible things happened during the riots. But let us not forget that the uprising began in response to the death of Mark Duggan.

Over the last decade, we’ve been taught over and over again that innocent people die all the time, and their deaths trouble nobody. Think of the invasion of Iraq, an overtly criminal venture that resulted in hundreds of thousands of killings. None of those responsible for that war have been brought to trial, and none of them ever will.

Likewise, with the Bush gang’s torture regime. If Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, can blankly explain that he’s looking forward rather than backward, as if pardoning torturers was something entirely straightforward and unexceptionable, why should anyone expect the marginalised of London to demand justice over another dead kid?

Over the last twelve years, more than 300 people have died in custody, without a single officer convicted. Next to all those corpses, what’s one victim?

Yet the people of Tottenham did protest, and through their protests, uncovered the official story of Duggan’s death as a lie.

In other words, what distinguished the rioters was not the amorality that some of them showed. There’s nothing remarkable about that. It’s capitalism’s default setting.

What distinguished them was that, in spite of everything, they demanded some kind of justice.

That rebellion might have been confused and contradictory, in all sorts of ways. But why wouldn’t it be?

‘The crisis,’ Gramsci argued, ‘consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

As we head for another recession, this is, self-evidently, an era of morbidity. The riots reflected that. But they also showed the glimmerings of something more healthy: a willingness to fight back.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Kathleen Wallace
The End of the Parasite Paradigm
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman
Anthony DiMaggio
Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media
Andrew Levine
Neither Biden Nor Trump: Imagine Cuomo
David Rosen
God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus
David Schultz
The Covid-19 Bailout: Another Failed Opportunity at Structural Change
Evaggelos Vallianatos
In the Grip of Disease
Edward Leer
Somebody Else’s World: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Robert Fisk
What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19
Daniel Warner
COVID-19: Health or Wealth?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism
Ramzy Baroud
BJP and Israel: Hindu Nationalism is Ravaging India’s Democracy
Richard Moser
Russia-gate: the Dead But Undead
Ron Jacobs
Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism
Chris Gilbert
Letter From Catalonia: Alarming Measures
Richard Eskow
Seven Rules for the Boeing Bailout
Jonathan Carp
Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
Andrew Bacevich
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
Peter Cohen
COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival
César Chelala - Alberto Luis Zuppi
The Pope is Wrong on Argentina
James Preston Allen
Alexander Cockburn Meets Charles Bukowski at a Sushi Bar in San Pedro
Jérôme Duval
The Only Oxygen Cylinder Factory in Europe is Shut down and Macron Refuses to Nationalize It
Neve Gordon
Gaza Has Been Under Siege for Years. Covid-19 Could Be Catastrophic
Alvaro Huerta
To Survive the Coronavirus, Americans Should Learn From Mexicans
Prabir Purkayastha
Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Fundamental Challenges to All Societies
Raouf Halaby
Fireside Chatterer Andrew Cuomo for President
Thomas Drake
The Sobering Realities of the American Dystopia
Negin Owliaei
Wash Your Hands…If You Have Water
Felice Pace
A New Threat to California’s Rivers:  Will the Rush to Develop Our Newest Water Source Destroy More Streams?
Ray Brescia
What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID-19
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
The Covid-19 Opportunity
John Kendall Hawkins
An Age of Intoxication: Pick Your Poison
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Propaganda Virus: Is Anyone Immune?
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 1: Dispatches From a Terrified Heartland
Nolan Higdon – Mickey Huff
Don’t Just Blame Trump for the COVID-19 Crisis: the U.S. Has Been Becoming a Failed State for Some Time
Susan Block
Coronavirus Spring
David Yearsley
Lutz Alone
CounterPunch News Service
Letter from Truthdig’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer to the Publisher Zuade Kaufman
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Striking Truthdig Workers
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail