by Alex Callinicos
The riots are essentially an elemental explosion by young deprived working-class people in the inner cities. The driving force was their hatred of the police, which acted as a lighting rod for all the different sources of their discontent. In its fundamentals, Chris Harman’s classic analysis of the 1981 riots applies to what has been happening these last few days. All the features that have been denounced were features of the 1980s riots, and indeed of the American ghetto risings of the 1960s and the LA rising of 1992.
But there are some differences. For example,
(i) The political alienation is greater than thirty years ago – partly thanks to New Labour, but also because of the decline of black nationalism and the hard Labour left, both lively and increasingly intertwined phenomena in the 1980s;
(ii) This doesn’t mean that the riots are depoliticized ‘criminality’, as idiots of all persuasions keep on repeating: I am sure that many of the rioters participated, as FE and 6th form college students, in the student protests last winter. This is reflected in the way in which the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance has been repeatedly cited as a grievance these past few days;
(iii) Looting as a form of do-it-yourself consumerism is a stronger feature than it was thirty years ago, reflecting the intensive commodification of desires in the neoliberal era: this doesn’t mean that the looters are automata driven by commodity fetishism, but their rebellion is inevitably shaped by the prevailing values in society;
(iv) More interesting is the impact of the changing economic geography of London: site of one of the top two global financial centres, London is of course marked by a flagrant polarization between rich and poor. But, because of how gentrification has developed, you have neighbourhoods – Clapham is a good example, but even my own Dalston these days – where rich and poor live cheek by jowl. This makes possible outrages like the one reported by a shocked Danny Kruger, ex-adviser to David Cameron: ‘A mob attacked the Ledbury, the best restaurant in Notting Hill.’ This co-existence of rich and poor was much less advanced in the early 1980s. Hence the element of class hatred you can feel in the scenes of broom-waving debs in Clapham and Ealing.
These riots are not conscious political movements. But they can only be understood by a political analysis that starts from the class antagonism that ever more deeply shapes all our lives. Any revolutionary left that plans to have a future must stand firm in the face of the moral panic being shouted up by the media and politicians and refuse to condemn the rioters – not because they are a new vanguard but because the responsibility for what happens lies with those who have allowed inequality, poverty, racism and police violence to fester and grow.
Alex Callinicos 10 August 2011
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