London’s Burning – Some Observations

August 24, 2011 at 2:40 pm (Uncategorized)

By a member of Internationalist Perspective


There’s madness in the air – of rioters and rulers, of quite different kinds, and what’s to be made of it?  The majority of the population looks on with near-disbelief.   But, class activity there is none.  

The extent of the riots – in many major cities – following on from the first in London shows that the social conditions and feelings are widespread throughout this country.   Clearly, the marginalisation of vast swathes of young people provides the condition from which much of the rage and nihilism comes from.   The condition under which they live did not arise from current government policy (as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harman, said this week) but from decades of successive governments restructuring economic activity and stripping out of social life whatever it could to drive down the social wage.    As everywhere else in the world, this process has ejected millions from the production process in the UK.   So many of our young people see no future in this situation; and they’re right.   At the same time, they see the most egregious displays of wealth, the worship of greed by the bankers, the scams by Members of Parliament syphoning outrageous expenses into their pockets, and most recently the exposure of the hugely profitable relationships between journalists, police, lawyers and politicians; everyone knew they were all corrupt, it’s just that the evidence is all pouring out.   It’s little wonder that looters talked about ‘taking’ just as the rich did.

Many swept on by social adrenaline were caught up in the action.  Rioting and looting are not the same thing.   Youngsters and children involved.   Fights with the police.   Targeting the more impersonal stores; also some iconic brands.   But also a wildness that led to looting of small local shops, setting fire to homes and to killings; effectively turning against their own neighbours.   It wasn’t just unemployed youth and children; those turning up at the courts have included adult employed.

This looting and arson had nothing to do with the social distribution of unobtainable necessities; it was a physical re-enactment of what the bourgeoisie does to society.   So far as I’ve found yet, there was no class content.   Regarding positive collective activity, this could be seen in local people getting together to defend their neighbourhoods.  In other words, they were defending their neighbourhoods, not against the violence of the thugs of a Maghreb state but against the madness of local young people.   However, there was a current of thoughtfulness to which I’ll return.

The madness in the state and in the ruling class is of a different kind – reaching from their side of the streets all the way to the global markets – and shows in the tortuous issues and relationships that entwine the bourgeoisie.   In Tottenham, the current events were triggered in the aftermath of what appears to have been yet another summary state execution in an undercover police operation.   The callousness of the police to the family of the victim was evident – and not that unusual – and certainly riled local people.   In the police reaction then and over the next few days, the already severe tensions between them and the government have only heightened.   On top of the plans for large cuts in police budgets and manpower London’s Metropolitan Police has had its Chief Commissioner and an Assistant Chief Commissioner resign in recent weeks over their roles in the phone-hacking rackets.   The lack of ‘appropriate response’ to the riots, as the politicians now put it, might well be seen as a warning to the government  of the consequences of acting against their interests.   And even now the police spokesmen and the government are still slagging each other off publicly while the embers of the street fires have not yet cooled.

Not that the police are not the only ones pressing on the government.   Industry – particularly the SMEs (small and medium enterprises) – are still complaining vociferously about the behaviour of the banks towards them and the difficulty of getting the kind of financing they need to expand.   They want the government to do more to support this section of industry.   The military rumble on about the commitments they are given while budgets shrink.   The Health Service is being turned into a shambles.   These budget cuts are digging into all aspects of the state and most other sections of capital; the favoured area remains the financial services sector.   Still the government stands on its policy of hard spending cuts to the worry of more sections of the ruling class.   It would seem that its objective is still to look to finance as a way of staving off the effects of the global crisis.   This week the Chancellor, Osborne, was still banging on about the importance of having the world see the UK as a haven, a refuge for global capital.   Of course, the sight of London Burning does not fit the image for a politically and socially stable haven for their capital.  

The recent scandals and the new-found courage of British politicians to criticise the Murdoch empire have provided a smokescreen that has diverted public attention in the UK away from the worsening state of the world economy and the shenanigans in the Eurozone.   Osborne and the other European finance ministers all know that the economic outlook is dire and just don’t know what to do.   They can see that they have no solution – but they have to do something.   They are faced with a system that is awash with money, and it is nonetheless bankrupt.   No wonder they exude a sense of madness.   (The behaviour of the US political class over the debt ceiling legislation shows that the UK bourgeoisie is not alone.)

They may have no solution to their problems but the UK ruling class – like all others – will have to follow some course of action, part of which will be to face up to the social disaffection across the country.   When they have sorted out their disputes with the police, whatever else, they will turn on the streets and we’ll all be targets.   It will be soon.

I said there is evidence of a current of thoughtfulness.   Although the media has focussed on ‘mindlessness’ and ‘criminality’ and continues to set up interviews to denounce or to drown discussion into moralistic pap, some people on the streets have had sound reflections on the events.   It was impressive how many people – some were victims of specific actions – said that they were against the actions but could see where the young people were coming from and why they had erupted.   Others asked ‘why were we looting shops? – in Egypt they went for the government’.   There were also insightful social critiques accompanied by a sense that this was not the way forward; these, of course, are a minority voice on television.

Anger is necessary to want to revolt against the system, but this mix of rage and opportunism had no perspective.   For me it shows the absolute necessity for a class expression that can provide a context for the development of consciousness, and a focus for collective action.   Outside of this, explosions of anger can be dangerously self-defeating.   I don’t know how this is to come about, and it has been frustrating not to have seen more explicit political expression.   It certainly shows that immiseration on its own doesn’t generate consciousness.   We’ll see what develops in the aftermath.

Marlowe / 12 August 2011



The judicial conveyor belt is running at full speed:  over 1400 people have been sentenced so far as the courts stay open day and night.   Exemplary sentences are being handed out to rioters and looters not only pour décourager les autres but also as a ‘respectable’ vent for the bourgeoisie’s own anger.  

The riots have been a godsend to the police as they fight against the budget and manpower cuts the government wants to make and hostilities have been open over the past couple of weeks.   Exchanges of blows and insults have been overt and covert.   Cameron has taken on the American ‘supercop’ William Bratton as unpaid advisor onto the UK government concerning gang violence; the Independent (sic) Police Complaints Commission exonerating the recently-resigned Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner and others from misconduct over the phone-hacking scandal.  More hidden arguments are taking place within the appointment process for the next Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

Other sections of the bourgeoisie are groping for the public explanation for the riots.   ‘Sheer criminality and nothing else’, goes one refrain.   Cameron has resurrected his ‘broken society’ bleat, a more difficult metaphor for his right wing to deal with given the actual experience of the riots.   Both he and Miliband, the Labour opposition leader, talk of the moral decay in British society; Blair now enters the domestic scene arguing against his classmates to appeal for a focus on dealing with people who are ‘beyond the pale’.   Decoded, the argument is about how much is to be dealt with by modified social policies and how much by state repression. To date, they seem to be searching for some background set of conditions that can be superficially addressed with legislative measures and – in the foreground – a gang culture that can be explicitly targeted by the police.   All the arguments about what are the appropriate cuts and expenditures takes place in the context of the austerity promoted as a result of the global crisis.  

But not only is this the context within which the ruling class in the UK has to decide how to deal with economic problems and social challenges, it is the context for all the social processes taking place today.   There have been decades of corrosion of social and individual worth by the relentless development of the value-form exacerbated by politico-cultural specificities in different parts of the country.   In Northern Ireland, the violence of the para-militaries is again on the streets – with bombs and bullets – showing up the so-called peace process for what it is.   In Scotland, sectarian hostilities have been intensifying and they are again on the devolved national agenda.   The explosion of anger seen on the English streets a few weeks ago has its specificities – including the police activity in major cities against young people, and especially against racial minorities.   Also, in vast swathes of the country – particularly in Midlands and Northern areas of England – that were at one time based on heavy industries and have little perspective for future employment or re-building..

As Marxists, we always look for expressions of the development of consciousness within activity that is directed against the structures of capitalist society.   What do we see here?   The riots were inchoate, the looting directed towards expensive personal consumer items with no political project and did not show any challenge to capitalist norms.   No class struggle is ‘pure’, without the accompaniment of ‘rioting’ and ‘disorder’ to a greater or lesser extent in the wider society.   But, if the riots cannot be considered as ‘just gangsterism’ even if there were gang elements present, neither was there a conscious class dimension.   And to my mind, the idea of an unconscious rejection of commodity relations implicit in some critiques is a non-starter.   All of the social unrest we see across the world has roots in the deepening crisis of capitalism and with it has come substantial variations in political consciousness.   The English riots share the same roots and illustrate the futility of reaction when there is no expression of communisation and a political project.   There were a few brave souls within the mayhem who called for a redirection of energies (see Youtube for examples); future confrontations with the state will need a very different expression.




1 Comment

  1. mondialiste said,

    Very good analysis.

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