UK riots. A fight without a cause?

A lot has been written about what happened recently in London and other UK cities.  A perfect opportunity for social scientists, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, political commentators and other intellectuals craving for some social disorder. Finally! Something to analyze – angry mob turns the streets of London into a battlefield. Intellectuals can now feed their desire to find the answers. So who are those people who riot: an angry mob, Baudrillardian silent majorities, or the multitude that Negri and Hardt write about?

Sadly, so far I find almost none of the understandings of London’s riots a satisfactory explanation for what happened. Please, don’t get me wrong, I know there is no such thing as one golden rule to understand social movements. But when people decide to go out to the streets is the only way to talk about in terms of the theories of mobile vulgus and solutions of ‘crowd psychology’? I will not try to explain anything here, but rather pose some questions and criticize the coverage of these events in mass-media. Is the image of burning London we are being served the accurate one? Is it simply a case of ‘a generation who don’t respect their parents or the police’?

My first major disappointment: international media claim that the outburst of violence has something to do with immigrants. Police shots a black man, then a demonstration against police violence takes place in a poor district of London and ‘suddenly’ (sic!) something goes out of control – all the pieces go together. Black man, shooting, bad neighborhood – voila! Immigrants! Nothing works better than a classic scapegoating strategy. You can use it whenever you want to, let it be riots in the UK, or tragedy in Norway, the first thing that comes to your mind when you’re a journalist is obviously an angry Muslim immigrant who fails to understand the rules of ‘our’ western, civilized and well-organized society. What had to be these commentators’ surprise when they discovered the crowd to consist mainly from white Brits. Not big actually, because once the close-up picture of an angry mob was clearer, those ‘brutal youngsters’ had to be classified as well.

Next step: comparisons. Who are those people in the streets of London? They are burning cars – Paris! Is this a repeat from Paris 2005? Some are pointing at the failure of diversity policies and lack of integration in certain communities both in France and Britain, but that’s just another point in the long list of multi-culti paradigm’s sins. What about Spain? According to many commentators, British urban fighters have nothing in common with Spanish young revolutionists, because the latter were rather peaceful, educated people who found themselves in a need to protest because of how they were affected by the global economic crisis. In this view, British youth haven’t even noticed the global financial crisis… So maybe they were more like protesters in Greece? Greeks were at least violent too. However, the so-called ‘500 Euro generation’ organized against the budget cuts. But a link between these three social events in Europe passes nearly unnoticed. Are British young people so desperate without any reason? Economic crisis affects them too. Finally, the comparison with the Arab Spring: they say that ‘the Tottenham summer’ has nothing to do with completely legitimized and strangely ‘dignified’ revolution in North Africa. Even, Zygmunt Bauman, a famous philosopher notes that:

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.”

 

The conclusion is that you have to be starving to start a protest that will be fully legitimized, otherwise for the public opinion (or those who create it) you’re just a spoiled brad out of control.

So now it’s time for the ultimate question: why? What pushed people to organize spontaneously, without any leader, to fight back, to take over the power? Here is where problems start: rebellious British youth seems not to have any agenda as a possible political movement, nor any demands as those who ‘terrorize London’. The fact that the riots were not centralized, but rather dispersed and seemed not to have a classically understood representation, made it become classified as irrational, brutal masses of uneducated losers of the liberal-capitalist game. Angry mob with no reason! Young people with no future, no perspectives, looters, criminals, bandits, lost generation, spoiled consumers that wanted another pair of jeans – just some of the labels for the participants of UK riots.

Let me focus on one particular label given to the rioters: ‘smartphone generation’. Blaming technology is another argument from the set of neoliberal explanations to inflammatory nature of social misbehavior. How to otherwise explain the crowd’s amazing mobility and organizational power? One can read in The Guardian:

Steve Kavanagh, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said that “really inflamatory, inaccurate” messages on Twitter were mainly to blame for the disorder. “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality,” he said at a press conference on Monday afternoon.

According to some, social networking websites showed their ‘dark side’ in what happened in London and other UK cities. I would say that the power of organizing people politically to that extent shows rather the brighter, more material and not-so-virtual side of social networking. Or maybe just shows the way people learn to use new technologies for political action, regardless its commercial nature. Another thing is the infamous Blackberry case:

Unlike text messaging or Twitter, BBM is a free, private social network where almost all messages are encrypted when they leave the sender’s phone – meaning that many messages are untraceable by the authorities.

Again, prove me wrong, but nobody seemed to notice any connection with the use of encrypted massaging system by the rioters and the fact that just recently Britain undergone the phone hacking scandal!

 

I actually found some pieces of valuable (in my eyes) analysis of the ‘strange upraising’. For example, pointing to the context that is easily ignored:

Britain, one of the world’s major economies, has a bigger gap between rich and poor than more than three-quarters of other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, according to a 2008 report. Charities in Britain say that inequality is most keenly felt in London.

And from the Guardian:

Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.

On rare occasions, some journalists actually bother to ask the participants for their causes:

“”They call it looting and criminality. It’s not that. There’s a real hatred against the system,” he added, listing what he saw as the police prejudice, discrimination and lack of opportunity that led him and his friends to loot shops, torch bins and hurl missiles at police Monday.

“There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more.

“There’s nothing for us.”

“Everyone’s heard about the police taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example. It’s time to loot,” the youth said.”

According to me, the best piece comes from a blogger:

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

Last but not least, I would like to share parts of a very interesting article for one particular reason – it will allow me to interweave a bit of posthumanist thought into this discussion. Max Hastings in the Daily Mail tries to show how British liberal system led to the uprising of irresponsible, uneducated and amoral generation. His accusations of the welfare state are just another right-wing wining. A reader might expect to come across: blaming the crumbling family structure, single motherhood, no role models for the young and their probably innate lack of a moral compass. However, taking aside this part of the article, what interests me the most is the use of animal metaphors to describe the rioters:

They are essentially wild beasts. I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable; of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong.

They respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.

Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week. They were doing what came naturally and, unlike the bear, no one even shot them for it.

According to Hastings, these ‘feral children’ have no aspirations and the only reason why they came out to the streets was to have some fun.

Only education — together with politicians, judges, policemen and teachers with the courage to force feral humans to obey rules the rest of us have accepted all our lives — can provide a way forward and a way out for these people. They are products of a culture which gives them so much unconditionally that they are let off learning how to become human beings. My dogs are better behaved and subscribe to a higher code of values than the young rioters of Tottenham, Hackney, Clapham and Birmingham.

Author inscribed excellently into a pattern of animalizing the Others. Hastings’ tone and his line of argumentation makes me think of an experimental behaviour-modification treatment called the Ludovico Technique from the dystopian Clockwork Orange. Bestial youngsters are categorized as nonhumans. Erroneous cultural code (liberalism = too much freedom) led to a bestial degeneration of the young, who in Hastings’ eyes cease to be human. He discovers inhumanity in the mute mob of rioters (they do not give any explanation to their ‘uncivilized’ behavior) and therefore resemble enftnts sauvages for him. Strangely enough, this bestialization of UK rioters shows the working of what Giorgio Agamben calls the ‘anthropological machine’ in its modern version:

If, in the machine of the moderns, the outside is produced through the exclusion of an inside and the inhuman produced by animalizing the human, here the inside is obtained through the inclusion of an outside, and the non-man is produced by the humanization of an animal: the man-ape, the enfimt sauvage or Homo ferus, but also and above all the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner, as figures of an animal in human form.[1]

From myself I would like to add that mobbing is actually a common behavior among non-human animals, especially birds. Animals usually mob a predator when they feel endangered. By collectively attacking it, animals of one species cooperate to protect themselves. So maybe Hastings should take into account a broader context of what animal behavior actually means.

I have endless doubts about the image of the riots that was presented in the media. Yes, London and other cities faced mass looting and destruction of public property. Yes, there were victims. However, one should not ignore the socio-economic context of this ‘strange upraising’. Some people for sure abused the situation, but it doesn’t mean the whole thing was not political. It was political! And it’s just as if the capitalist dream turned out to be nightmare – revolutionary instincts that were supposed to be tamed from Ford’s times suddenly overcame consumption.  It all starts at the base of the society, to use Marxist terms. Power intersects with resistance and thus buries the idea of ‘frictionless capitalism’. There is a lot of friction when power shifts!


[1] Giorgio Agamben , The Open, p. 37

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