Riot Capitalism

As I happened to be in England this past weekend, a lot of people have been asking for my perspective on the recent U.K. riots, which seem now to be winding down. Actually, I was hiking in the Peak District in the north of Derbyshire, about as far from civilization as you can get within Great Britain, and thus have nothing like a streetside perspective on the events. (Although, if the riots really represent the societal breakdown which many English folk seem to be taking them for, I can think of few better places to wait out the end of the world than the dales and glens of Derbyshire.) Like most of us, I witnessed the unfolding drama through the 24-hour circus spectacle that is the modern mass media – an illusion of immediate access concealing all sorts of hidden filters. Nevertheless, I do have a few thoughts to offer.

First, I was genuinely shocked. Not by the riots themselves (which seem to me, indeed, entirely predictable), but by the blatantly ideological coverage of the mainstream media. The morning after the riots first hit London, I watched the intensive coverage on the BBC. In a twenty-minute special report, about three quarters of the time was spent decrying the historic loss of a 1930s Art Deco monument in highly elegiac terms. Although this loss is no doubt genuine, it seemed indicative that the BBC would focus their coverage not on the people in the streets and their feelings of anger or powerlessness, but instead on precious landmark heritage sites. This feels analogous to covering the fall of the Bastille with an in-depth report on its unique architectural features. In other words, by focusing solely on the loss of and damage to property, the BBC was already implicitly siding with the property owners against the rioters.

This partisanship was only heightened in the few moments the BBC spared for speculation about the riots themselves. Actually, “speculation” is too polite a term: the BBC spent zero air-time analyzing the rioters’ motives, nor even talking to anyone who might represent the voice of disenfranchised youth; instead, they quoted a soundbite from the Deputy Prime Minister condemning the violence as “needless and opportunistic” and then simply continued, in a pattern long-familiar to the media, to repeat and trumpet the government’s claim as if this were the voice of objective truth. If I had drank a shot of whiskey for every mention of the word “opportunism,” I would have been passed out drunk within ten minutes. Meanwhile the only person they managed to interview from the actual community, an elderly school board councilor for Tottenham, wasted no time reassuring viewers that these events had nothing in common with the infamous riots of 1985. That event was, he said, a political one; while this, apparently, was not.

As should by now be apparent, I disagree strongly with the BBC’s angle of coverage. My analysis is as equally partisan, although unlike the BBC I won’t attempt to conceal that bias beneath a veneer of neutrality. So let me come out first and say it: my reflexive tendency is, if not to side with the rioters, then at least to sympathize with them.

First off, I think we need to define what we mean by “the political.” Every major public figure in Great Britain is hastening to define the riots as apolitical, to deny them any sort of political relevance whatsoever, and this should be the first indication for extreme caution. Indeed, I would argue that this urge to strip the riots of political agency is itself a highly politicized tactic, designed to allow the police to intervene in the events with little or no public outcry. Keep in mind that the U.K. Government was the first to defend the rights of the Egyptian rioters to occupy Tahrir Square and other public areas, and to condemn Mubarak’s crackdown as totalitarian. This now places them in an uneasy position in relation to their own rioters: a police crackdown might risk too clearly exposing the glaring hypocrisy of their position. Thus the attempt to paint the rioters as merely “opportunistic looters” allows them to deny the analogy between political discontent in Egypt and England –East and West– which would otherwise be all too apparent.

By this I do not mean to suggest that the events are identical; the situations are of course different, and they demand differing analyses. But we should bear in mind that the attempt to paint the rioters as “opportunistic looters” was the exact same tactic used by Mubarak himself, in virtually identical language, to de-legitimize his political opponents. This, again, should give us pause for thought.

If we define “the political” in terms of its etymological roots in the Greek politika, it would refer in the broadest sense to things concerning “the affairs of the city,” or polis. In that sense, the London riots are undeniably political. What the U.K. government seems to be doing is defining the political much more narrowly, in terms of the established procedures of the existing British State: legal tribunals, national elections, protests authorized by state permits, etc etc. Certainly these recent events deny this form of categorization. But it would then seem as if the first task of the State is to assert a monopoly on “legitimate” political tactics, if not on politics tout court, so as to de-legitamize the actions of those who reject this monopoly. This would be analogous to the way in which the law asserts a monopoly on violence, stating: you have no right to murder someone; if you do murder someone, the law may (legitimately) murder you. That is, the legal system does not eradicate violence but merely transfers its legitimation to the the State. In like manner, the State defines “the political” as the legitimizing tactics of the State itself, in a closed loop which permits no outside entry. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick, but no less powerful for all that.

There is an extreme irony in all of this. I have no doubt that the simmering anger which fueled the sudden explosion of mass rioting had something to do with a sense of powerlessness, of feeling incapable of exerting any effect on the political system in place. The areas which exploded over the last nights were among the most marginalized in Britain; while youth unemployment stands at a shocking 20% nationwide, rough statistics place that figure at closer to 70% in many of these poorer neighborhoods. The austerity measures passed by the government over the past years will only exacerbate those figures, cutting off access to education and other social services which might allow the disenfranchized to achieve some level of success, or at least normality. The result is a large swathe of the population with no work, no hope for future work (or indeed for the future), and no sense of representation in the current political process. When this population explodes (understandably), their actions are immediately decried as “opportunistic” and “apolitical,” and both Tory and Labor leaders rush in to condemn the events. Ironically, this only further illustrates their absolute exclusion from the existing political process, in which no one appears to be on their side, whether fighting for their interests or even simply trying to understand their anger and despair.

A great deal of the criticism lodged at the rioters (as “apolitical”) has to do with their unwillingness to act through official channels. Protests are accepted so long as they meet with state approval: acquiring permits, organizing marches, establishing a spokesperson or leader, and (say) involving the unions in official negotiation. But this is precisely the point: the rioters belong to a population which (or so I imagine) feels powerless, leaderless, and betrayed by all existing institutions. Their unwillingness to act through “establishment channels” is a clear condemnation of the establishment. Should one be shocked that a group who feel so utterly unrepresented by organized politics fail to organize their political actions?

And, of course, these events are in a sense organized; we are simply dealing with a new and different form of organization, or even (I would argue) a new organism. A great deal of attention has already been given to the way in which the rioters utilized Twitter and other social networking technology to coordinate action, establish contact zones, and communicate the movements of the police. The U.K. government has been rushing in to deal with this problem by subpoenaing digital records and threatening to shut down the technological grid. Again, both the rioters’ actions and the government’s response are here identical to what had happened in Egypt a few months back. This, again, should give us pause for thought.

Commentators will rush in to assert the many obvious differences between Tottenham and Tahrir Square, but the primary difference  seems to me that the Egyptian protesters largely eschewed both violence and vandalism. Yet here again the actions of the London rioters seem to me understandable, and even (in a certain sense) logical. First, peaceful protests in Western democracies simply no longer garner media attention, without which they lose virtually all effectiveness. This was already apparent in the run-up to the Iraq war almost a decade ago, in which, after the first few events, the mainstream media lost all interest in peaceful protest. In a spectacularized society, the only means to make your resistance heard and seen is by making it in some sense spectacular. Like it or not, the violence and looting of the last days has drawn widespread (indeed, global) attention in a way that even a thousand peaceful, organized protests would not.

Second, the looting of high-end retail outlets seems to me an entirely logical correlate of the message given to young perople by our consumer society, in which success (and happiness) is utterly equated with possession of commodity goods. If the message of the society, the media, and the advertising industry is that true happiness is synonymous with the possession of the most recently-released Blackberry, and if a generation of under-employed youth have no sanctioned access to these goods, it seems to me entirely logical to resort to theft.

Third, there is an extreme hypocrisy between the treatment of so-called criminal behavior in the upper and lower classes. That is to say, through their sheer greed for profit, the upper echelons of the social order, the bankers and investors, the “one percent,” came very close to destroying an entire economy and, indeed, society; in response to which the government rushed in to give them massive bailouts and million-dollar bonuses, while cutting virtually all funding to the lower and middle classes in the name of “austerity.” Great Britain was among the first to act in this manner, and their actions were among the most extreme; it is thus no surprise that the violence would hit London first. (Keeping in mind that London has the greatest income inequality of any first-world metropolis.) This is just a variant on the old axiom, “the best way to rob a bank is to buy one.” The investors who vandalized the global economy were rewarded for their mindless pillaging; meanwhile, if you raid Foot Locker for a pair of Nikes you’re carted off to prison. As always, we need to examine which violence we condone as “natural,” and which is automatically placed beyond the pale. (Hint: the violence of the rich is naturalized as the “workings of the market”; the violence of the poor is decried as evil and “opportunistic.”)

These points were hit upon in an editorial by Umair Haque in the Harvard Business Review, of all places:

Underneath the surface chatter about police brutality and parental responsibility is a deeper fear, and a not unfounded one: that a social contract’s been torn up. If you accept the possibility that there are many kinds of violence — not merely physical, but emotional, economic, financial, and social, to name just a few, then perhaps the social contract being offered by today’s polities goes something like this: “Some kinds of violence are more punishable than others. Blow up the financial system? Here’s a state-subsidized bonus. Steal a video game? You’re toast.” (To be painfully clear, I don’t think any form of violence is justifiable, excusable, or acceptable.)

Haque’s hasty reassurance that he does not consider any form of violence “justifiable” is highly interesting. In principle of course I would agree, but the key point is that capitalism by its very nature works upon violence. That is, it’s an inherently violent system. To say one opposes all forms of violence is the same as to say one opposes capitalism; I don’t disagree with that statement, even as I recognize that it is a highly utopian one. But, for the moment at least, in which capitalism does not seem anywhere close to its end, the question becomes which violence do we choose to support. For the moment, the choice seems to be between the extreme violence committed by the State, the banks, the corporations and the financial system, and the violence committed by the marginalized victims of this system, the multitudes of the poor and working classes whose quality of life is ever-increasingly devolving. Here, in response to the U.K. riots, this violence has been decried as “sheer opportunism.” But faced with the binary choice between state violence and the so-called opportunistic violence of the disenfranchised, I will side with the “opportunists” every time.

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