Tuesday, 09 August 2011
Published by In Defence of Marxism
The former leader of the Conservative Party Margaret (now Lady) Thatcher once said: “There is no such thing as society”. Three decades later society has given a harsh reminder of its existence to the British ruling class.
In the space of 48 hours Britain has been rocked by a wave of rioting. Fires blazed across London in a third night of looting and disorder. Hundreds of people were arrested as police were attacked; police vehicles damaged and shops looted. This morning many parts of the city awoke to scenes that resembled a war zone.
The trouble started on Thursday when a young black man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by the police in Tottenham, north London. The events surrounding this incident are still unclear. What happened was part of what is called a “pre-planned” event, under Operation Trident, which investigates gun crime in London’s African and Caribbean communities. Such activities have created a sensation in those communities that they are being unfairly targeted by the police.
It appears the police had stopped a minicab which Mr Duggan had been travelling in. The initial police report stated that he had been killed in a fire fight, that he had a gun in his hand, and that he had fired shots at the police. The police lied. It has now been established that there was no fire fight. Only two bullets were fired – both of them from police firearms. This clumsy attempt at a cover-up only served to pour petrol on the flames.
In a protest demonstration in Tottenham on Saturday, people, led by Mr Duggan’s family, marched to the police station demanding an explanation for the death. None was given and the crowd was made to wait for hours and hours. But this was swiftly overtaken by an explosion of rioting. It seems that the immediate spark was the brutal treatment of a 16 year old girl by the police. The unrest spread into nearby Wood Green and Tottenham Hale. When asked why he was rioting, one young man, his face covered, replied. “The police have too much power and they are using it. It’s wrong, man.”
However, the immediate issue of the shooting and police cover-up was rapidly pushed into the background, as a general sense of rage and frustration seized the streets in mainly poor areas with a high concentration of unemployed youth, a high proportion of them black. The rioting last night and Sunday was different in character to the rioting on Saturday. In Tottenham the rioting was started by youngsters aggrieved about police persecution. But this was only the tip of a very large iceberg. It has now been transformed into something qualitatively different.
The BBC reported: “There were people in their cars, youngsters on bicycles, moving very rapidly, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. As soon as you moved to one location they would move on to the next one.
“The police were doing their best to catch up with them. You had police vehicles going backwards and forwards, blue lights flashing, riot police coming out of their vehicles.
Ten minutes later they’d get back in again and go off to the next location – essentially trying to fight the fires, metaphorically, that were spreading all over London.”
The riots spread
Clashes broke out in Enfield, north London, on Sunday evening where shop windows were smashed and a police car damaged. But on Monday the rioting spread like wildfire to many areas: Hackney in the east, Ealing in the west, Walthamstow and Waltham Forest in north London and to Clapham, Croydon, Lewisham and Brixton in the south of the city.
Large numbers of youths have taken to the streets, vandalising and looting shops even in the main tourist shopping area of in Oxford Circus, central London. There were reports of a gang of up to 200 youths looting shops and charging police in Coldharbour Lane and the High Street in Brixton, the scene of major riots in the 1980s.
BBC London’s Paraic O’Brien said he had witnessed widespread looting in Brixton.
He said: “They smashed a William Hill [betting shop], they set bins on fire.
“And now what we’re seeing as the night progresses is that replicated, sort of flashpoints all along Brixton High Street.
Press Association photographer Lewis Whyld saw looters battle police at a Currys store in Brixton.
He said: “A couple of hundred youths were rioting and looting. Riot police went in to get them out and there was a big fight in the street.
“Youths were throwing rocks and bottles and there was a bin on fire. They used a fire extinguisher to push the police back so they could get back into Currys and continue taking things out.”
Similar scenes were reported in many other areas. In Croydon, in south London, a furniture factory was set ablaze and reduced to ashes in a couple of hours.
Travel was disrupted as some Tube stations were closed and bus routes diverted to avoid the riots. The police have closed roads and there is talk of “no-go areas”.
Everywhere the police give the impression of complete impotence. During the three nights of rioting they have often been reduced to the role of helpless spectators, outnumbered by the rioters and unable to do anything. Any attempt on their part to take offensive action – even to arrest looters – threatened to produce the most serious consequences.
Metroplitan Police Commander Christine Jones said: “Officers are shocked at the outrageous level of violence directed against them”. Already, some 35 officers have been injured. Three officers were hurt when a vehicle hit them as they tried to make an arrest in Waltham Forest, not far from where I live in east London. A police vehicle was attacked in Islington, north London. The scenes on television were more reminiscent of the civil war in Beirut thirty years ago than London in the middle of August.
Of criminals and criminality
Suddenly the British political class has been shaken out of its summer torpor. In an undignified scramble, the leaders of the main parties cut short their holiday to hurry back to the UK to give some semblance of control. But control on the streets has been lost – at least for now.
The political establishment has reacted in a predictable way. Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor of London and Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, fretted over the impact on London’s image on the eve of the Olympic Games. He described the scenes of the last two nights as “disgusting and shocking” and said the police did a good job.
He added: “Obviously there are people in this city, sadly, who are intent on violence, who are looking for the opportunity to steal and set fire to buildings and create a sense of mayhem, whether they’re anarchists or part of organised gangs or just feral youth frankly, who fancy a new pair of trainers.”
Home Secretary Teresa May was quick to denounce the disorders as “mere criminality”, and to brand all those responsible as criminals who would be punished with the full weight of the law. She said: “Last night, police officers again put themselves in harm’s way to protect Londoners and their property.
“Londoners have made clear that there are no excuses for violence, and I call on all members of local communities to work constructively with the police to help them bring these criminals to justice.”
Of course, the criminal element is always present in capitalist society. Marx refers to it in The Communist Manifesto as “the “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.”
Among this layer of society there are some de-classed and criminal elements who are always ready to loot and burn. There are also professional criminals. But the great majority of the thousands of young people who went on the rampage last night were not of this kind. There were criminals present, no doubt. But they were a small minority. The great majority were moved by other considerations.
Do these riots have anything to do with broader social and economic problems in Britain? Are they perhaps connected with a high rate of unemployment among young people, especially young blacks? Could they perhaps be related to the vicious cuts imposed by the Lib-Dem government, which are causing a sharp reduction in living standards and which fall disproportionately on the shoulders of the poorest layers of society? What about the racist stop and search operations of the police targeting Black and Asian youth?
No! The political leaders are unanimous. This is “sheer criminality” and the perpetrators must feel the full weight of the Law. Here we have the police mentality in its crudest and most ignorant expression. The idea that thousands of youth could take to the streets and attack the police just because they wanted a new pair of trainers is the height of stupidity. And if they were all criminals, they must have been criminals before. Why did the riots only occur now and not two, five or ten years ago?
Let us put the question very simply, so that even a Tory Home Secretary could understand it. If a young person has a job that is reasonably paid, he has no need to break into a shop in order to obtain a new pair of trainers. That is the reason why very few bankers are convicted of shoplifting. They have no reason to break into a shop and steal money from the till because they have their fingers in a far bigger till – the National Exchequer, which has shovelled billions of pounds of public money into their coffers, while informing poor communities that there is no money for schools and housing.
Capitalist society is a sick society, and it breeds a moral sickness that is the poisoned soil on which crime of all sorts flourishes. There are the big criminals who prosper and grow fat and rich and who end up in the House of Lords, and there are the small criminals who live in slums, who try to better their lot by individualistic actions, and who end up as guests of Her Britannic Majesty in rather less comfortable surroundings.
Solon the Great of Athens once said: “The Law is like a spider’s web. The small are caught, and the great tear it up.” The media fulminates against the rioters who are allegedly motivated by an insatiable greed for a pair of new trainers. But wait a moment. Is there not some flaw in this logic? If a poor black kid wrecks a shop in Brixton, he is sent to prison. But if the bankers wreck the nation’s economy, they are rewarded with billions of pounds.
The political class fulminates against greed and criminality on the streets of Hackney and Brixton. But what right do our politicians have to give lectures on moral rectitude to the young people of Britain or anyone else? These are the same ladies and gentlemen who were exposed not so long ago for lying, cheating and swindling. They stole large amounts of public money to refurbish luxury flats, pay for non-existent premises and even repair moats around castles. What is this, if it is not greed and criminality?
And the same prostitute press that is now howling and baying for the blood of the “criminal” youth of Britain? Is it not that self same press that is now on trial for hacking the mobile phones of murdered teenage girls, of bribing police officers, and of suborning and blackmailing the holders of the Highest Office in the Land. Compared to the greed and criminality of the press gang, the average rioter in Hackney and Lambeth is like an innocent little lamb.
Do we condone riots?
Do Marxists condone rioting, looting and vandalism? No, of course we do not. We do not condone cancer, either. But as everybody knows, it is not enough to condemn cancer. It is necessary to discover its causes and find a cure.
We reject rioting and looting utterly. But our rejection has nothing in common with the stinking hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. We reject them because they are a pointless and destructive exercise that does nothing to solve the problems of young people and actually make them worse. How does the wrecking and burning of shops and businesses help provide more jobs for young people?
We reject them also because the main victims of the riots are poor people, like the rioters themselves. The shops and businesses that are looted and torched are mainly small concerns run by local people. The rich do not live in Brixton and Hackney. The real criminals are not threatened by the breakdown of law and order, which they observe from a safe distance, well protected by the police who were conspicuous by their absence last night in the poorer areas of London. It is poor families who have lost their homes and possessions because of the mindless madness of the arsonists. And that is certainly a crime.
Most of all we reject these methods because they provide the ruling class with powerful ammunition for their propaganda machine. They help to blacken the name of all who are fighting for a new and better world. They enable the poisonous media to criminalise the youth of Britain, making them collectively responsible for the stupidity of a mindless minority and a small number of actual criminals who always take advantage of any social disturbance to loot and burn.
Already the reactionaries are taking advantage of the situation to press for more repressive measures. Prime Minister David Cameron held a press conference this morning in which he repeated the line that this was “criminality pure and simple”.” He promised that those responsible would receive “the full force of the law” and that the “courts would be speeded up” to send many of them to prison. Sky News is running a particularly vicious campaign demanding that the police be allowed to use tear gas and rubber bullets, that the Army should be brought out on the streets.
If the Labour Movement lived up to its responsibilities, it would long ago have taken steps to organize the unemployed and the youth, and draw them closer to the organized working class. But the trade union leaders have adopted a narrow minded approach. They have not taken serious steps to organize the unorganized.
As for the right wing leaders of the Labour Party, they are a thousand miles removed from the crude reality of working class life. The parliamentary Labour Party is full of middle class careerists: lawyers, doctors, economists and the like, who have no conception of what it is like to live on unemployment benefit on one of these impoverished estates.
Last night it was announced that Ed Miliband was hurrying back from his holiday home in Devon (a very pretty place). I have not seen his declarations on the riots, but I already know what he will say. Last night a “Labour” MP from Birmingham (where there was also rioting) said that it was all the actions of common criminals and the full force of the law must be applied etc., etc. That is to say, exactly the same melody that is sung by the Tories, with exactly the same lyrics.
Deprived of a voice, the unorganized youth is left to face up to the effects of the capitalist crisis on its own, to draw its own conclusions and act on its own behalf. On the one hand, they are faced with a daily barrage of propaganda on television that shows them the good life that others enjoy, but from which they are radically excluded. They are enticed by glossy advertisements to join the merry party of consumerism but then find the door slammed in their face.
“Why should the rich have everything and we nothing?” The question is a reasonable one. But in the absence of a revolutionary party that can show them how to win emancipation by collective means, whereby the whole of society is lifted out of the swamp of poverty and raised to a higher level, they will inevitably seek salvation on an individual basis: by attempting to seize the things they lack, as we saw last night.
This is deplorable, but it is an inescapable consequence of capitalism and the morality of the market place. Capitalism teaches people to be selfish and greedy because greed and selfishness are its principal motor force. Capitalism is governed by the laws of the jungle, in which the strong must win and the weak must be trampled underfoot. This is now the world of business operates. Why complain if ordinary folk behave in the same way?
Rioting is actually an expression of impotent rage. For a few nights the rioters are filled with false sense of power. They become intoxicated, not just with the effects of stolen booze, but with that rush of adrenaline that always accompanies mass action. The kids think it is fun: “this is better than a football match”, they will say. It is certainly a lot cheaper.
But like the after effects of a drunken binge, the fumes of exhilaration soon wear off. In the cold light of day, last night’s activities appear somewhat differently. The state’s apparatus of repression, which has momentarily been thrown off balance, will recover its poise. Plans will be laid to retake the city, area by area, street by street, house by house. Arrests will be made. Trials will be held, and many of those youngsters who seemed to be masters of the streets last night will be made to pay a heavy price for it.
New explosions inevitable
The capitalist crisis has already produced mass demonstrations, strikes and general strikes in one country after another. It was the real cause of the Arab Revolution, which led to the downfall of two dictators and is still raging. In Greece and Spain it has brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. Even Israel has been rocked by mass demonstrations.
The riots in Britain must be seen as part of this general picture. They took the establishment by surprise. But in fact they were entirely predictable. The dead end of capitalism has condemned whole layers of youth to the living death of unemployment. Millions live in slums and inadequate social housing, while millions of homes stand empty or under-occupied. Social housing is not being built, but only the rich can afford to buy even the most modest house in London.
Beneath the surface of calm and order, a seething anger was building up in the depths of British society. For decades society was content to close its eyes to the ugly reality of what are really ghettoes where the poor fester in ever deeper poverty and debt, and where drugs and guns are more easily available than decent health treatment, education or leisure facilities. There is plenty of money for the parasites in the City of London, where the bankers award themselves lavish bonuses paid for out of public funds. But there is no money to provide even the conditions of a semi-civilized existence for the people of Brixton.
This is a new and interesting interpretation of the Bible: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” Is it any wonder therefore that there is a general sense of rage and frustration, especially among the young people in these communities?
The riots have coincided with a general crisis on the stock markets of the world. This reflects a general nervousness on the part of the bourgeoisie, which has finally woken up to the fact that the economic recovery has run out of steam. The announcement of exceptionally low growth of the US economy and the EU was sufficient to provoke a universal panic in the Market, which was already spooked by the debt crisis on both sides of the Atlantic. Now the economists are openly talking of a double-dip recession, which may come sooner rather than later.
There is no doubt that the policy of cuts and austerity can only make the present crisis worse. By cutting living standards, they are reducing demand and this aggravating the crisis of overproduction. To that extent the Keynesians and reformists are correct. However, they have no alternative to offer. How can they increase state expenditure when every government in the western world is struggling with huge deficits?
The only answer is so-called quantitative easing, that is, the printing of money. But that will only stoke the fire of inflation, preparing the way for an even deeper slump at a later date. The bourgeoisie finds itself trapped between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
Cameron may get a temporary boost by posing as the representative of Order and the enemy of anarchy. But the real anarchy is the anarchy of the capitalist system, the anarchy of the Market. It is that which has deprived millions of people of work, housing and hope. And it is the absence of these things that gives rise to desperate outbreaks and violent upheavals.
In the longer term, the riots will have serious political consequences. They will deepen the splits in the Lib-Dem Tory coalition. The “slash and burn” tactics of the Tories, who are using the crisis and the huge public debt to destroy Britain’s social services and decimate the public sector, are now in deep trouble.
The riots in Britain are only a symptom of the general crisis of capitalism. The crisis is deepening all the time, and the bourgeoisie has no way out. Every attempt to restore the economic equilibrium only serves to undermine the social and political equilibrium. That will not be solved by speeding up the action of the courts and filling the already crowded prisons.
New explosions are being prepared. Tomorrow there will be new upheavals. The youth is trying to find a way out of the blind alley to which capitalism has condemned it. They will soon find that rioting is just another blind alley. They must find a better and surer way of freeing themselves from capitalist slavery.
The Marxists will not join with the bourgeoisie and its agents in their hypocritical chorus of denunciation. We will follow the sound advice of Spinoza: “Neither weep nor laugh, but understand.” Our duty is to find a road to the youth, to help them to find the right road – the revolutionary road, the road to the socialist reconstruction of society.
London 9th August, 2011.
London riots reveal society’s decay – Steve Jones
Tottenham riots, a community on the edge – Sam Ashton