“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.
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.