Some Thoughts on the London Riots

The disorder London has seen in the past three days has certainly been unusual. Last night similar, although much smaller-scale, incidents took place in a number of other major English cities. Here’s how my thoughts stand on this at the moment. I’m responding here mostly to things friends have said over the past few days; I may in places be tilting at windmills, and I may change my views with hindsight, but it seemed worth recording my reactions as they are now.

Last night the riots were being hysterically reported by the news media as the end of civilisation, with the same three or four pictures of something on fire being recycled over and over again. It certainly looked scary: the impression was so striking that I went out to see whether it was safe for my wife to walk home from her usual train station, about a mile from the centre of Lewisham. I saw groups of young men — perhaps 30 or 40 in all in the course of a 15-minute walk — some with their faces covered and carrying objects that could serve as weapons. The atmosphere was tense but I saw no crimes in progress. Some have said that this may have been typical, and that the events may not have been as bad as they seemed if you were only watching the rolling news.

Indeed, a number of people have offered up the opinion that the riots have merely damaged a few items of property, and that this is not very important. All that’s happened, they say, is that a few insurance premiums have gone up and a few middle class people have got worried about their house prices. I suppose these people have never been burgled, since they don’t understand that this kind of thing is about more than just losing a few gadgets that can readily be replaced. I also assume they haven’t seen any footage showing families with young children literally burned out of their flats and made homeless. I guess they imagine everyone is insured for everything, which they’re not. To claim that these are victimless crimes, or that they are “not really violent”, is simply a denial of the obvious.

Yet, at least as of yesterday, there remained a few on the left who seemed to feel as if this was the beginning of their revolution, and that somehow these events marked a step towards the downfall of capitalism. Yet, just as Marx predicted, the lumpenproletariat are rather obviously repeating the ideological formations under which they live by going shopping for trainers and tellies. Well, if you think Supermarket Sweep is your revolution, put your best hat on and get out there. The truth is that all crime — insider trading, rape, parking on a double yellow, racial abuse — is civil disobedience by its very nature. That doesn’t make it laudable even if you don’t like the society you live in, and it doesn’t make it revolutionary either.

As everyone now knows, the spark was a small, peaceful protest about the police-involved shooting of Mark Duggan two days earlier. Relationships between the police and the non-white urban poor in Britain have been bad since time out of mind, and remain so today, as Alex Wheatle and Nina Power remind us. The raised prominence of Mark Duggan’s death might lead to a more transparent inquiry than would otherwise have happened, and could conceivably lead to structural changes. That would be a Good Thing but right now there’s no reason to believe the opposite won’t happen. Linking the riots with the long and difficult work of campaigners dedicated to police reform dignifies the former without acknowledging the harm they could do to the latter.

Blogger Laurie Penny quotes a participant telling a reporter that the disorder has achieved something because the media are now focussing on problems that peaceful protest has failed to raise to prominence. If nothing else I suppose that serves to remind us of the importance everyone seems to attach to the attention economy these days. The fact is that media coverage doesn’t change lives: laws do. NBC does not have the power to pass laws and its influence on lawmakers is hard to predict or control. Again, this is a failure to have any kind of strategy of resistance or any real idea about how the world works.

I suspect (but do not know, and nor at the time of writing do you) that the people on the streets are overwhelmingly those who have been hurt by recent austerity measures, and it seems unlikely that this is a coincidence. As just one concrete example, many of those I saw out around Lewisham yesterday looked about the same age as the teenagers I taught in an FE college a couple of years ago. In those days those kids were on the EMA, which the government has scrapped in favour of a bursary system that colleges award to whomever they choose, and that is much smaller in total value. In some cases the EMA — a tiny sum — was an important part of the household income. Those families are now poorer and those young people have had a source of self-respect taken away from them. They can’t get jobs instead because there aren’t enough jobs, and certainly not enough they’d be qualified to do. And all the while our popular culture tells them their worth is measured by how much money they have. It’d be surprising if they didn’t act out, perhaps by acquiring the chief goods they feel society has made inaccessible to them: consumption and freedom, the latter expressed through a kind of joyous destruction. Some people seem to think that proposing an explanation like this counts as excusing what was done. A little reflection makes it obvious that it doesn’t.

So what will be the outcome of this outburst? I’m sure the government would be delighted to use it as a way to show they’re tough on crime and to reassure their middle-class core voters that they’re safe in their homes. If this e-petition is successful (and it’s a long way off that) we could see a parliamentary debate on the reintroduction of capital punishment that may very well provide a background against which extended police powers could be made to appear liberal by comparison. That would be a product of the attention economy, too, being the work of right-wing blogger Paul Staines, but see what a difference it can make when you have a plan?

[EDIT: Fixed a gaff about the petition. Thanks to Ben Henley for the correction (via FB).]