- Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844
"It was only a noise, but it was also a message, a bit of information producing panic: an interruption, a corruption, a rupture of information. Was this noise really a message?" - Michel Serres, The Parasite
"As for the numerous new civil wars and the vandalism in the downtowns of western cities, the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger states that “it is no longer about anything”. But to understand it, one must turn the answer around: “what is this nothing it is about?” It is the total emptiness of money elevated to an end-in-itself, which now definitively rules existence as the secularized god of modernity." - Robert Kurz, 'The Fatal Pressure of Competition'
Over the past few days, politicians and the mainstream media have been wheeling out their routine condemnations of the 'mindless violence' and 'thuggery' (a term whose etymology and connotations of hip-hop culture are consistent with the widespread tendency to racialise the current events) of the rioters in London and other British cities. Note well the double standard: these are the same politicians and the same media that endorse state terrorism abroad and the appalling social violence inflicted by the state on working-class people at home. Indeed, as Nina Power reminds us, the riots can only be understood in the context of decades of growing social inequality, large-scale unemployment, police oppression and murder, the ruthless reduction of benefits and the slashing of the social wage. The ruling class is - in recent days the point has almost become a leftist cliché - a class of looters. Nevertheless, the bourgeois state insists that its violence is both acceptable and necessary - it is simply 'the way things are' - while the explosions of the poor and the working class are 'totally unacceptable' (as the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May's put it in her boilerplate response to the disturbances).
Through phrases such as 'mindless violence', political and media - and, indeed, some academic - discourse about the riots has served to deny the political rationality of those who took part in them. As Teun Van Dijk points out in his book Racism and the Press, this has long been a strategy of conservative journalists, whose invectives 'tend to be chosen from very specific style registers, those of mental illness and irrationality, political and ideological intolerance and oppression, and finally that of threatening animals'. It is also a time-honoured strategy of conservatives in response to expressions of social contestation. Consider, for example, the medieval poet John Gower's description of the revolting peasants of 1381 in his Vox Clamantis:
Ecce dei subito fulsit in ilios,
Et mutans formas feceret esse feras.
Qui fuerent homines pruis innate rationis,
Brutorum species irrationis hebent.
[Behold, the curse of God flashed upon them, and changing their shapes, it had made them into wild beasts. They who had been men of reason before had the look of unreasoning beasts]
630 years later, a shopkeeper in a BBC interview calls the London rioters who broke into her premises 'feral rats', the Daily Mail journalist Max Hastings opines that the rioters are 'essentially wild beasts' who 'respond only to instinctive animal impulses' and another Daily Mail columnist, Richard Littlejohn, describes them as a 'wolfpack of feral inner-city waifs and strays' who needed to be clubbed 'like baby seals' (we might also recall the LAPD chief William Parker's racist description of the Watts rioters as 'monkeys in the zoo').
So far so predictable. But as well as overlooking the rioters' explicit verbal and physical expressions of political disaffection and their specific grievances (such as the anger over the beating of a teenage girl who protested at a police station after the killing of Mark Duggan, the 'stop and search' policy, etc.), the discourse of 'mindless violence' betrays an impoverished conception of political agency. While the rioters may not generally have acted in pursuance of a consciously formulated political demand, their actions can be seen as the explosive response of the political unconscious to the 'unknown knowns' (in Žižek's phrase) of the socio-political moment - that is, the deeply felt, if unarticulated experiences of social alienation and inequality.
Of course, it is true that some of the elements of the recent 'violence' have been socially irresponsible. Given the atomisation of the working class in recent decades, how could it be otherwise? The burning of people's homes is deplorable, endangering human life and providing the state with a pretext to hone its repressive apparatuses (indeed, we should certainly not discount the possibility that the state has had a hand in some of the rioting and arson for propaganda purposes). But at some point we have to reckon with the social context of sabotage, as outlined by Gilles Dauvé in 'The Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement':
"Since these acts are outside the boundaries of all economic planning, they are also outside the boundaries of “reason”. Newspapers have repeatedly defined them as “anti-social” and “mad”: the danger appears important enough for society to try to suppress it. Christian ideology admitted the suffering and social inequality of the workers; today capitalist ideology imposes equality in the face of wage-labour, but does not tolerate anything opposed to wage-labour. The need felt by the isolated individual to oppose physically his practical transformation into a being totally subjected to capital, shows that this submission is more and more intolerable. Destructive acts are part of an attempt to destroy the mediation of wage labour as the only form of social community. In the silence of the proletariat, sabotage appears as the first stammer of human speech."
And what about the 'looting'? Looting can uncomfortably mirror the bourgeois precept of 'might is right', as well as glorifying individualistic acquisitiveness and commodity fetishism. In this sense, looting hardly provides a model of resistance to the capitalist system. On the other hand, looting does adumbrate, however imperfectly, the communist principle of liberating use values and challenging what Debord called 'the oppressive rationality of the commodity'. At any rate, it is absurd to deny a few television sets and clothes to people who own very little.
It is sad, but hardly surprising that most of the negative impacts of these riots are being felt in working class communities (as happened in the Watts Riots, the UK riots of the 1980s, the Los Angeles riot in 1992, the French banlieues riots of 2005, and so on). These impacts have provoked a response from nationalist elements, which are now on the streets exploiting the situation in an attempt to spread their poison, further fracturing working class solidarity under the guise of 'protecting society'. There is a large and receptive audience for their ideological garbage. A middle-aged man turned to me yesterday evening, as we watched a burning building, and said, simply: 'too many immigrants'. That such cancerous thoughts can be expressed to a complete stranger, so casually and enthymematically, shows just how deeply the noxious fumes of capitalist ideology have been inhaled by many working class people.
These events are not simply a response to the 'neoliberalism' which it is fashionable for left-liberals to denounce (subtext: if only we could get rid of those nasty Tories and install a more clement, democratic system of exploitation...). Rather, they represent the death throes of the moribund system of capitalism. As the signs of social decomposition become harder to ignore, we should be very clear that the future offers, as Rosa Luxemburg postulated, only two possibilities: socialism or barbarism. The anti-social aspects of these riots, and the response to them by right-wing 'vigilante' groups, give us a glimpse of what that second possibility might look like: a Hobbesian war of each against all, fuelled by racism and nationalism and leading to what Marx and Engels, in one of their gloomier moments, called the 'mutual ruination of the contending classes'.
At the same time, the riots show that there is a limit to how much state oppression and economic misery people are prepared to take before they strike out, however contradictorily, against an inhuman social order. On this occasion, the people striking out may be a relatively small number of those with 'nothing to lose' by looting and burning - but it is in precisely this sense that they are exemplary. The framing of the riots by the media and politicians as a battle between 'them and us' - between decent British citizens and brain-dead yobbos - obscures the fact that we are all losers under capitalism. As average wages fall, rates of social mobility flatline, pensions vanish and the planet suffocates, it is clearer than ever that the entire working class (and arguably most of the ruling class) has nothing to gain from the continuation of the profit system.
Only class struggle, that is, large-scale organisation against the root cause of the social chaos - the capitalist system - offers a viable future perspective for humanity. As the International Communist Tendency's recent article on the riots puts it:
"It is not for communists to condemn the riots. They are a sign of capitalism’s crisis and decay. [...] So long as capitalism continues on its downward spiral of crisis with the rich getting richer and the poorest more and more excluded there will be more and more explosions like these. The race is on for the revival of a really liberating movement of the working class to present an alternative to capitalist barbarism."