Earlier this month, Britain exploded. Riots started on August 6th in the London borough of Tottenham, and the rebellion soon spread to other areas of the city, then to the rest of the country. At the time of this writing, five people have died, over sixteen reported injured, and over 3,100 people have been arrested; the estimated property damage exceeds two hundred million pounds.
Reactions to the outbursts were predictable enough. From the “right,” as the old tune goes, more law and order is needed to keep the “underclass” down in the shitpile where they belong. These poor unwanted losers of the economic game are permanently on reserve, either in the labor army or the real one. IED fodder. Cameron couldn’t undo his zipper fast enough to show off his own hard-on for violence, which he’d use as a truncheon in the streets if given half a chance. He located the cause of the riots in the “sick society,” proclaiming: “the sickness starts on welfare-addicted estates where feckless parents let children run wild.” At least he’s being honest. To be sure, this is how the managers of the state-economy view most of us. In fact, the thinking of the ruling class has never been otherwise. How could it? In effect, such logic represents the very definition of political power, and consolidates that power into an intractable political will—namely, a unilateral instrument of control. Hey, can’t trust the poor. They’re champing at the bit to run wild and will reveal their true/savage nature just as soon as the thin veneer of civilization falls off. Why can’t they just accept their station in life?
Some on the Idiot Left condescended that the rioters simply “knock it off.” By this I suppose they mean channel their rage into the appropriate avenues, more elections or organized protest—because drums, puppets, signs, and chants have been so effective in the past. Ultimately, this position only points out their own intellectual bad faith. Others, seemingly more honest, went so far as to recognize what is always generally assumed to be the underlying cause of such outbursts: it is the UK’s austerity measures that incite revolts like this; what we need, this line of so-called thinking goes, is more social welfare programs to lift just enough people out of poverty and into the paltry privileges of the Middle Class, that most obedient of all breeds, where they will be comfortable enough to never, ever raise a fuss. This continued belief in the miraculous healing power of the evaporating middle class reveals the bad faith of the left's orthodoxy. For them, the riots are a reaction the neo-liberal policies of the day, a demand of “economic justice.” Even David Harvey—Professor Emeritus of Fake Radicalism and Chief of the Marx Recuperators—denounced the coming cliches from mealy-mouthed pundits attempting to explain the riots—and then spat up a few of his own. One can easily discern what’s behind the curtains of these snake-oil salesmen—a return to some kind of Lenin-with-a-mohawk worker’s state, resurrecting the bureaucrats of the vanquished Left, and their Western lackeys, a gaggle of liars, dogmatists, and stool-pigeons we had been all too happy to see perish. Now these zombies can return in a postmodern democracy of the network...of the “multitude.”
To be sure, events like the London riots ring down the curtain on the whole political shit-show, forcing us observers to show our hand. Rightists calling for violent repression, though entirely on the wrong side, at least understand the terrain of the struggle—namely a clash of irreconcilable interests—while do-gooding liberals are again unmasked as the corporate dancing bears they are, trying to convince us that common ground, good will, and “economic justice” are possible in a system predicated on domination. Still others have nothing to offer but dead “leftist” rhetoric. When this happens, some even demonstrate an uncharacteristic, albeit temporary, keenness of observation. As one commentator noted, we must “reclaim the streets” because the language of the rioters is not one of manifestos and policies: “Although produced by our consumerist culture, they have no stake or identification with this society, no interests, and thus nothing to lose.” He then goes on, in a grossly inaccurate and dismissive fashion, to refer to the rioters as “boys,” and suggests that the people of Tottenham, which have a long tradition of “activism,” actually join forces with the police to take back the night or whatever. He is correct that the rioters display no identification with society, and that this isn’t about manifestos and “politics”—or rather it is political only insofar as politics is unable to address the monotony and misery of everyday life. No doubt if any orthodox Commie hacks came around thumping their copy of the Manifesto—if they could be said to have read it, let alone understand it—they would be summarily laughed out of town, as they were in Detroit back in 1967.
The London riots are not about a society run “greed” or neo-liberal capitalism or a failure of the welfare state or any of that worn-out nonsense. Put simply, they are a reaction to the normal state of affairs. When two looted-wine sipping girls claimed in the oft-repeated story “We’re showing the rich people we can do what we want,” it was hardly in protest of austerity measures, or a call to reinforce social democracy, that this statement was made. Nor was it a suggestion of mere revenge. For their part, the girls weren’t even sure who is in power: “conservatives...or...I don’t even know who it is. The government.” Oh, those feral bitches! Truth is, under the current economic arrangement, it doesn’t matter who’s in power. Naturally, the girls' honest answer was spun to conform to the gentleman’s agreement between left and right, and the underlying truth of their statement remained obscured. Such sentiments, however, are not about officially sanctioned issues of bourgeois-liberal democracy like austerity measures or progressive taxation, nor are they meant to pointlessly throw light on the glaring hypocrisy of the ownership/investment classes. No, staid observations of that type are what brilliant lapdog geniuses like Harvey are paid to do. Rather, such statements address the possibilities of existence, hinting at the actualized, meaningful life—the freedom to “do what we want”—that is forever denied by the crushing necessities of basic survival under the rule of the commodity economy. And it is important to remember that this forestalling occurs regardless of whether it is the “human” face of so-called social democracy or the gas-masked face of neo-liberalism doing the soul murdering. Recent events remind us that it is humanity itself, so often misdiagnosed as nihilism in these nihilistic times, that underlies these rebellions. This was not a race revolt, nor even a class revolt in the sense of class as one of an innumerable set of identity markers, like gender, race, or sexuality. Instead, it was a revolt against the humiliating, life-denying universal of Capital and the grim reality constructed under its rule. And this is why teachers, life guards, civil servants, chefs and people from all walks of life were drawn in (and, incidentally, negated the assumptions of the arguments presented by alleged experts about this being a youth rebellion, as if their own embarrassingly fallacious internal logic wasn’t enough to dismiss them out-of-hand). The “carnival spirit” of the riots, so incomprehensible to those who are content in their dumb resignation to a degrading, degraded existence, is in fact an explosion of humanity in a dehumanized world. When hierarchies collapse, when the state monopoly of violence is broken, even temporarily, when human needs and desires are violently asserted in and against conditions that are meant to violently prevent it, it is hardly surprising that the life-affirming aspects of the carnival would emerge and be misunderstood. But if only for a moment, in these instances of insurrection, the sanctity of the commodity becomes profane.
Looting is a natural reaction to these workaday horrors. Far from a desire to conspicuously participate in consumption, it is an outright rejection of consumption's dictates and seemingly implicit desirability. Once looted, the commodity is not the inevitable to-be-admired reward for our cowardice, fear, or stupidity, but an ordinary object—harmless, answerable, and under human control, rather than the other way around. In Detroit, Watts (1965), and Los Angeles (1992), looted items—other than food, alcohol, and firearms—were not generally hoarded, but were taken apart and left outside. No longer signs of status in the home, people turned stereos and televisions into playthings and let them rot in the streets. When looting occurs, the commodity emerges as just what it is: a bunch of shit that exists for our amusement and not as the unifying principle around which our entire society rests. Most intuitively grasp that this system has nearly perfected the art of self-defense. Most people realize there is no way out, that power has its bases covered. So, have a sip of wine in the streets, watch the whole prison-like edifice burn, and live like a human being, even for a little while.
As the state eventually reasserts control, things will return to their brutal normality, ultimately re-enforcing the supremacy of the economy, though naturally enough some scraps will be given to the poor to keep them amused and sedated. Meanwhile in leveling doses, force will continue to be applied as needed to keep them frightened and in check, for a while. But a guy can dream, can't he? Perhaps the sparks of Tottenham will ignite a fire to consume this whole washed-up civilization, and the last dying embers of this world will one day remind us of the fires of London.
(Edited and updated on 8/22/11)