The Riots: Not the Way to Help Ourselves

Self-regarding and typically under-employed, those exotically nominated experts in human behaviour have offered many wordless thanks for the unheralded events that enlivened the streets during those August nights. Suddenly they found the immediate future looking decidedly rosy with the prospect of well-paid sessions of unexciting analysis from TV sofas responding to badgering by equally tedious chat-show figureheads. Then there was the blossoming market for anaesthetic contributions to the newspapers, offering the seamier among them some help in recovering from the consequences of their exposed habit of phone-tapping. All of which sprang from the reassuring assumption that there was an easily accessible explanation, handily encapsulated in a slogan or even a single word, for the mobs with their rioting, looting and violence. This was a process to be helped in accordance with the weight of the qualifications of the “expert”. Even more so if their theories or explanations could be presented as original but neglected.

There is, as usual, no lack of precedent offered by those same experts and commentators. For example from London’s recent history there were the events in Brixton in 1981 and the disturbance in Broadwater Farm Estate in 1985 in which a policeman was killed, for which a black man was sentenced to life imprisonment only to be exonerated in 1991. Inevitably, there were official enquiries after the disturbances, yielding the assurance that “lessons will be learned” – a phrase which has been worked to exhaustion in response to the present crisis, demonstrating how futile and misleading it is. Because the “lessons” have often revealed faults – shortcomings, errors or deliberate provocations such as racist bigotry on the part of the police – which have persisted to the present. So when it comes to the inevitable probing of this year’s disturbances the starting point should be the police killing of Mark Duggan on 4 August and the attempt to dismiss the family’s concern until, on 6 August, the threat of serious demonstrations on the streets burst out, spreading across London and to other cities.

In their response – or perhaps lack of it – the police seemed to be following an established procedure. This was not the first such case in which the official version, coming immediately after the event, was quickly shown to have a worryingly tenuous relationship with the truth. It brought back memories of the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 demonstrations in 2009. It then required some years of probing before the facts of Tomlinson’s death were established and, however reluctantly, accepted by the police. One result is that a police officer, condemned by the inquest, is now due to stand trial for manslaughter.

In the case of Mark Duggan the police said initially that they had been forced to shoot him after he fired the first shot at a police officer, whose life was saved only because the bullet struck his radio. It did not take long for this version to be blown away, when the Independent Police Complaints Commission stated that there was no evidence to prove that Duggan had fired a gun. But beyond this confusion – if that is an adequate word for it – there is the hard reality of the actual social situation, of unyielding divisions, of inequality, poverty, sickness, despair…  The police can deny any obligations arising from this, except to act as the enforcers of the essential principles of capitalist society, whatever misery they cause.

We have not seen the last of the verbal strategies used to conceal the nastiest facts about those recent public disorders. For example there was a newly minted vocabulary to denounce the looters, which had them as “opportunistic” offenders against property. This paid no heed to the fact that we are actively encouraged to accept that very word in admiration of much of what is rapturously accepted within capitalist society. Like the bankers and their infamous bonuses, or hedge traders gambling on a forecast movement in share prices. Like the exploitation of any and every development for whatever advantage it can allow a political party. Like the flood of lies designed to conceal the tragic reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them opportunistic.

Then there was the dismissal of the looters’ claim that as things are now they can have little sense of ambition for their future and were merely trying to ease their poverty by helping themselves from the shelves of convenience stores or giants like ASDA. A youth worker from East Ham told the media that young people feel “trapped in the system…disconnected from the system and they just don’t care”. This was countered with the argument that young people can hardly complain about poverty when they are wielding the latest models in so-called social networking technology, suggesting that they could cope with their problems as stoically as others such as elderly vulnerable people.

The limits of this case were shown by a social worker in a part of London unaccustomed to social disorder among its leafy green open spaces who was almost speechless with rage on behalf of one of his clients who is housebound, blind and incontinent, and whose (paltry) special laundry allowance has been cut off by the local council. This woman is scared of the rioters in her locality, and the social worker, while not at all likely to join them, has something of an understanding of their motivation. He is not at all impressed by the millionaire ex-Etonian, David Cameron whining about “…sickening scenes… This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated” – which brings us stark memories of Thatcher’s opinions about the riots which periodically broke out while she was doing something called putting the Great back into Great Britain: “Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened…They were criminal, criminal…”

And in case there is any doubt it should be made clear that she was not referring to the earlier activities of Cameron, Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson who helped themselves ease the boredom of swotting during their time at Oxford by joining the Bullingdon Club which, apart from dressing up in fancy evening suits devoted themselves to wrecking restaurants and other such places, often to the fear and annoyance of other people there. It was Johnson who came back from his very costly recent holiday to join the chorus about the looters’ behaviour being “criminal” without recalling those leisure time activities of his younger days; perhaps he had forgotten that in his case there was a rich parent to defuse any resentment and dissuade the Bullingdon’s victims from any intention to refer the matter to the courts.

But for anyone caught up in, or suffering from, those recent nocturnal mob activities, there was no such relief; their lot was fear and anxiety about their safety – or even their survival. For them any anger, desire for revenge about the looters would be perfectly understandable, if as futile as the whole machinery of so-called justice and order. The fact is that riots do not emerge from nowhere or nothing. Social disorder, damage to life and home, are part of the daily assumptions about life within capitalism. Even David Cameron has had to acknowledge that these forces are inexorably at work when he referred to “120,000 most troubled families” in this country (he did not mean those with someone in the Bullingdon Club).

The police sent to control this year’s outbreaks were stronger in their weaponry and protective clothing than those in the past. This is represented as progress in the verbiage of the politicians and of those experts when what it in fact demonstrates is that the problems persist and show no sign of fading into history. Any meaningful investigation of the origins of the riots and looting cannot disregard their link to the effects of unemployment and the other persistent features of working class life – to poverty whether unemployed or in work, to poor housing and unnecessary disease all adding up to a burden of social deprivation which needs a relatively minor provocation to bring an explosion of anger and violence.

Is this the best we can expect in a world capable of satisfying human needs? Must our society be distorted by the toxicity of social ulcers? The looters deceived themselves that through the shattered shop fronts they were not just helping themselves to material goods but in a sense re-arranging social assumptions. As the enquiries into those events will eventually tell us, there are lessons to be learned here, but we reject the notion that these come best from those who claim the right to teach us, discipline us and punish us. Better to help ourselves by working for a peaceful, co-operative, abundant community.

‘Present-day society, which breeds hostility between the individual man and everyone else, thus produces a social war of all against all which inevitably in individual cases, notably among uneducated people, assumes a brutal, barbarously violent form — that of crime. In order to protect itself against crime, against direct acts of violence, society requires an extensive, complicated system of administrative and judicial bodies which requires an immense labour force. In communist society this would likewise be vastly simplified, and precisely because — strange though it may sound — precisely because the administrative body in this society would have to manage not merely individual aspects of social life, but the whole of social life, in all its various activities, in all its aspects. We eliminate the contradiction between the individual man and all others, we counterpose social peace to social war, we put the axe to the root of crime — and thereby render the greatest, by far the greatest, part of the present activity of the administrative and judicial bodies superfluous. Even now crimes of passion are becoming fewer and fewer in comparison with calculated crimes, crimes of interest — crimes against persons are declining, crimes against property are on the increase. Advancing civilisation moderates violent outbreaks of passion even in our present-day society, which is on a war footing; how much more will this be the case in communist, peaceful society! Crimes against property cease of their own accord where everyone receives what he needs to satisfy his natural and his spiritual urges, where social gradations and distinctions cease to exist. justice concerned with criminal cases ceases of itself, that dealing with civil cases, which are almost all rooted in the property relations or at least in such relations as arise from the situation of social war, likewise disappears; conflicts can then be only rare exceptions, whereas they are now the natural result of general hostility, and will be easily settled by arbitrators. The activities of the administrative bodies at present have likewise their source in the continual social war — the police and the entire administration do nothing else but see to it that the war remains concealed and indirect and does not erupt into open violence, into crimes. But if it is infinitely easier to maintain peace than to keep war within certain limits, so it is vastly more easy to administer a communist community rather than a competitive one. And if civilisation has already taught men to seek their interest in the maintenance of public order, public security, and the public interest, and therefore to make the police, administration and justice as superfluous as possible, how much more will this be the case in a society in which community of interests has become the basic principle, bind in which the public interest is no longer distinct from that of each individual! What already exists now, in spite of the social organisation, how much more will it exist when it is no longer hindered, but supported by the social institutions! We may thus also in this regard count on a considerable increase in the labour force through that part of the labour force of which society is deprived by the present social condition.’
Friedrich Engels, speech in Elberfeld, February 1845 (

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