September 2011        

London burning


A warm evening in the early 80s. Rioting in neighbouring Brixton in South London had reached my High Street. The police were nervously confronting a crowd of young people who fairly accurately reflected the rich cross-section of ethnic origins that characterised Balham.
     Predictably, it all kicked off. Eventually, and only after a young woman officer managed to organise her colleagues into some kind of disciplined action (sidelining in the process her much higher-ranked superior), the fighting subsided.
     The most striking image I took away from that evening was that of a young guy jubilantly bounding down the street shouting, “Riot, riot!”
     Later, as I motorcycled home, I passed the entrance of the local Catholic school. From the corner of my eye I saw a group of cops beating a young black guy. Parking the bike, I rushed back to take a couple of pictures, including one as a baton-wielding officer pointed at me and warned his colleagues.
     Discretion being the better part of valour when pursued by a gaggle of hyped-up cops, I legged it, taking the precaution of winding on the film and dumping it behind a garden wall. Just as well, as I ran into a police van coming towards me the other way. The subsequent battering was poor compensation for the pictures that made it into the next edition of the Morning Star.
     The following morning, as we gazed on the sight of a wrecked police car with its windscreen smashed in with a party pin looted from his off-licence, I commiserated with Séamus as he railed against the rioters and struggled to come up with an explanation for the violence. A little contradictory, I thought to myself, from a bloke who strongly supported the Provisionals.
     We eventually settled on a partial explanation: it was against the police. But it was, of course, about more than that. The early 80s riots—along with the defeat of the miners’ strike—marked the Thatcherite restructuring of Britain’s economy and class relations and resulted in a series of measures to both weaken the capacity of the working class to respond collectively to attacks on its wages and living standards and to create an aspirational middle class from within marginalised communities
     If, as Marx said, revolution is the festival of the oppressed, then Britain’s 2011 riots are the warm-up revels.
     These latest riots are an index of poverty pay, unemployment, housing need, and urban misery; but they are represented by politicians, pundits and the prime minister, Cameron as pure “criminality,” as, “thuggery.”
     I wrote these lines seconds before the millionaire David Cameron (Eton and Oxford) appeared on television news to denounce the “criminality pure and simple” of young people with little prospect of a well-paid job, a decent higher education, a house of their own, the chance to raise children in comfort and security, or a proper pension.
     The deeply irrational response of much of authority, government and the media is to accuse those who seek explanations for these events in the material facts of economic life as “justifying” criminality.
     Reactionary and intellectually primitive ideas of inherent, innate and inborn criminality are surfacing, expressed overtly by some, covertly by the more sophisticated. The atavistic class hatred of our rulers finds a target in the blind actions of the looters but expresses a deeper fear of the masses.
     The Education Secretary, Michael Gove—among the most reactionary of Cameron’s ministers—attempted to mobilise the public’s natural feelings of outrage and fear into a crusade against organised criminality and gang culture—as if the chaotic actions of London’s notoriously disorganised youth gangs were enough to checkmate the country’s largest police force.
     These events drove news reports of the economic basis of the crisis—the collapse in share prices, the downgrading of the United States’ credit rating, the crisis in the euro zone—off the front pages. But rioting and looting is no less a basic expression of crisis in the capitalist system.
     The economic crisis is proving intractable. Inflation is eroding wages, and the Con-Dem government is stripping away the features of the welfare state and income support that make life for millions in the minimum-wage economy barely possible. This, combined with anger at the corruption of the political elite and the corporate cuddle that bails out the banks with money taken from the millions, is eroding the fragile basis of the political settlement (or ideological truce between the three major parties) that is a guarantee of continuity for bankers, bosses, and bureaucrats.
     In the aftermath of the 1980s riots Lord Scarman, a wily defender of the system, warned the political elite to listen. “When there is conflict in society it is always the powerful institutions which find it easy to put out a version of the events which—even if it is based on hearsay—is reported in the mass media as if there is no other truth,” he said.
     A generation later, listening alone will not resolve this crisis. There will be an attempt to confine the debate to the prosaic and necessarily technical questions of public-order policing. Some bemedalled chests will take a hit. Some top brass will be tarnished. But the police is not simply a force, it is also an aggregate of human beings with a long institutional memory.
     I would also not be surprised to find that at some level the relative “failure” of the police to deploy effectively has something to do with the widespread feeling among the police—following the cuts announced in police numbers—that the government needs to be taught a lesson.
     There will be a powerful impetus to beef up the public-order capability of the police and employ more powerful weaponry. But it won’t do. For all their many faults, today’s police managers, or most of them, know just how fragile social peace is. They understand that there is a material basis for crime and disorder.
     Indeed they could not do their job, or make sense of their work, without adopting a fairly materialist and “sociological” approach to the ground they police.
     This contradiction, which finds its sharpest expression on the streets, eats away at the capacity of the state to overcome the conflicts that inevitably and inescapably arise when the interests of the two contending classes cannot be reconciled.
[NW]

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