Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Riots: A grim mirror image of neoliberal Britain

Tom Fox on the riots sweeping through England's deprived urban areas.

August 10, 2011
8 min read

Three separate links can sum up the violence on Britain’s streets at the moment: two videos, and one news report. The first is a blog by an NBC reporter that quotes an exchange between a Londoner and another reporter who asked if rioting was the best way to express discontent:

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

The second is the now much-viewed video of a Hackney resident squaring up to looters. Fearlessly and knowingly, she chastises them, furious that rather than “doing it for a cause” they are destroying homes and businesses, all for some shoes and TVs.

The third is less moving, and in fact bleakly comic: Nick Clegg, after biscuits in his leafy suburban garden, warning Sky News back in April last year that if the Tories gained power and inflicted upon the population unmandated cuts, there would be riots.

Taken together, these represent the key elements of the present crisis: police incompetence and arrogance, media complicity and callousness, the short-sightedness of the rioters, and the contempt politicians have had for the public over the past year that evidently continued this week. The dismal conclusion is that we live in a fundamentally sick society, not just unable to resolve its injustices and inequalities but unable even to acknowledge them.

The Petri dish in which the riots emerged was decades of neglect, unemployment and deprivation: most areas affected by the riots have unemployment rates above the London average of 8.8 per cent. Hackney yearly vies with Manchester, Liverpool and Tower Hamlets as the most destitute local authority in the country. In London, the richest tenth of the population possess 273 times the wealth of the poorest, making it the “most unequal city in the West”. Across the country for the last thirty years, wages have dropped as a proportion of national wealth for everyone but a tiny minority. In twenty years, the gap between rich and poor will reach levels not seen since Queen Victoria was on the throne.

This is not an excuse for rampant destruction: for centuries, the poor have suffered, but they have at key moments over the past two centuries responded through organisation, protest and mutual aid, and through such united action real achievements have been made in a way that setting alight to their own communities never could. Nevertheless, it is an explanation, and an explanation is clearly demanded.

On top of this is the abysmal record of the nation’s police, particularly the Met. Having been deeply involved in the widespread phone hacking criminal conspiracy as co-conspirators rather than investigators, and with numerous high-profile cases of both them and the IPCC clearly covering-up their role in killings on London’s streets, it was hardly surprising that when they shot Mark Duggan they immediately came under angry scrutiny from locals.

Their inability to handle the simple questions they were asked is testament to their arrogance, but this was by no means isolated. The figures for the amount of deaths in police custody and following contact with the police are staggering. Since 1998, 333 people have died in custody with no officer ever convicted.

Their demeaning harassment of the youth through stop and search, with certain communities particularly targeted, is a clear burden incomprehensible to those who don’t have to put up with it. Nor was it very long ago that the Tories were planning to bring back the disastrous Sus laws. It should be unsurprising then that criminalising entire populations makes them more willing to commit criminal acts.

And where were politicians amongst this? Osborne was in Los Angeles, Cameron in Tuscany, Clegg in Spain, with Johnson refusing to state where he was and evidently reluctant to come back. The problem is not so much that they were on holiday, but more that a foreign holiday is a luxury few can now afford. When Tory MP Oliver Letwin said he didn’t want “people from Sheffield going on any more cheap holidays”, he revealed the class hatred that motivates many of his kind.

Such sentiment is the bitter fuel for the austerity drive that is breaking our country apart, and the targets of this assault are not just the poor youth of our inner city neighbourhoods but also workers such as the fire fighters battling to save those same neighbourhoods from flames. The insanity of the rioting becomes clearest here: we should be uniting against the greed and recklessness of austerity, not replicating it.

Yet some in the left are wrong to refuse to condemn the riots because they are instead the result of structural problems rather than merely bad parenting or the moral failure of the rioters. The early cheering that an “insurrection” was underway in Tottenham was dampened when the targets shifted from police cars to shops, and mostly dissipated when it became clear that hatred of the police was complimented by a desire to loot and burn non-political targets. Looting and burning is not the virtue of the left, but instead of neo-liberalism, and we now have a grim mirror image of capitalism’s savaging of our society over the last three decades.

The rioters are a microcosm of the ethics that resulted from that savaging: self-indulgence, competition, and violence. The reason the left should be condemning rather than excusing violence and looting is therefore precisely because it is the structural problem of a society that promotes wretched values. The woman filmed barracking the looters knew this: build something lasting rather than reflexively copy the dominant principles of the society we live in. We should indeed aspire for luxury for all, but it should be through production, not destruction.

The response has at times been terrifying. Demands for the army on the street and shoot to kill policies are hopefully not representative, or else no lesson has been learned from the disaster of Northern Ireland. The only lasting solution is an end to austerity, exclusion and brutality. More than that, we need a functioning, inclusive left rather than the self-interested and chronically romantic one we’ve been lumbered with over the last two decades, or the wing that pointlessly dreams of the return of a mythical Labour Party.

A proper response needs to constructively direct anger where it’s deserved and properly assault the destructive principles inculcated within us: self-interest and self-indulgence even to the point of violence. When youths loot it’s “sheer criminality”, when the rich loot it’s “austerity”. Both are born of the same society, and both need abolishing. We don’t need austerity, and no-one should need to steal.

From the ashes, communities are coming together to defend, reclaim and clean up their streets. Rage may be directed at rioters, but it is also directed at Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson’s tasteless photo-ops. The principles of mutual-aid and respect exist, and they can and will be more powerful than the army, police or any rioters. But they need to remain as our principles in the face of violence from both the rich and the dispossessed. Only through this can we hope to overcome a pathological society; in the words of the anonymous woman from Hackney, “do it for a cause”.

 

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


133