The phenomenon of “interim” rioters
What about the rioters themselves? Gary Younge correctly states that “beyond Tottenham, those who took to the streets last week failed to advance any cause, embrace any ideal or articulate any agenda.” (Guardian Weekly, 19 August 2011, p. 19). However, as argued in Part I, the rioters had a fixed idea of the British society in their minds. Their ideas have not been eloquently articulated and formed into a serious political ideology but individuals that righteously voice their indignation about their living conditions are not apolitical and mere criminals. Although it is true that many copy-cat looters emerged on the scenes, enjoying their moment of gratis shopping, the frequently voiced justifications, in the days after the events took place, reveal that the rioters have been well aware of their socio-economic status. In the words of John Pitts, a youth culture expert: “Those things that normally constraint people are not there. Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.” (Taken from Guardian Weekly, 12 August 2011, p. 12)
Interestingly, these young people who have no legitimate future are not willing to take their existence into their own hands, but defiantly rely on the current political system as the practical solution to their problems. Therein they are a product of the bourgeois society and have not in any way failed to learn the accepted criteria of political correctness and morality. No alternative approaches are developed with the goal of challenging the political institutions and the economic system that are responsible for the production of their surplus existence. In neglecting such counter-philosophies rioters demonstrate their willingness to continue the life of the pre-riots era and, if anything, proudly gloat over the amount of items they have stolen from the ‘big companies’. In the end it must be concluded that, despite some interruptions, the “Big Society” that David Cameron evokes functions well: the government is going to adjust the parameters of social policy once more and parts of the middle and upper classes feel that their ideas about young deprived people are confirmed: “scum”, “feral rats”, and “they behave like animals” (Taken from Guardian Weekly 19 August 2011, p. 18 and Huffington Post, 20 August 2011, online edition). This is complemented by the retreat of the young paupers into their poor housing projects where they will continue their lives notwithstanding having no genuine future. It seems that these individuals can become accustomed with even the worst living conditions without seriously protesting against such conditions and giving oneself an account of the structural causes for life in poverty. The vaguely expressed ‘feeling of injustices’ had not been the starting-point for further and necessary critical reflections but proved to be a prelude for ongoing although defiant submission to the principles of capitalism, resulting in the phenomenon of “interim” rioters.
The crisis as a practical test for the political class
Coming to terms with the riots in England is no problem for the general public and less so for its leading politicians. Whenever illegitimate violence occurs it will not be long before a responsible politician presents himself as a hands-on leader accusing the person in charge of political misconduct. The riots and its underlying social questions are thus transformed into a question of how well these exceptional circumstances are handled by authorities. This criterion of success allows the current prime minister to distinguish himself from the rest of the political class whereas his main rivals try to make him appear incompetent. Ed Miliband, opposition leader in the House of Commons, masters this political game:
“A crisis tells us something about our political leaders. Day by day the prime minister has revealed himself to be reaching for shallow and superficial answers. [‘] If the prime minister wants to know the solutions, he should come to these communities and have the humility to listen. You should have nothing to fear from the truth.” (URL: http://www. politics.co.uk/news/2011/08/15/parting-of-the-ways-end-of-consensus-for-came)
In addition to this predictable and somewhat tiresome political staging, the British media raised and discussed various questions about the competence of the government and critically scrutinised the opposition’s alternatives: Did Mr Cameron stay for too long in his holiday retreat? Why did the police not decide to make use of rubber bullets and water cannons? Why did it take so long for those in charge to deploy more police officers in Central London after the first riots showed that there was a lack of competent policing? Etc.
Marx has polemically and correctly commented on this political staging as follows:
“The state will never discover the source of social evils in the ‘state and the organisation of society’. Wherever there are political parties each party will attribute every defect of society to the fact that its rival is at the helm of the state instead of itself.” (MECW, Vol. 3, online edition; URL: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/08/07.htm)
The evaluation of riots by the general public – a comprehensive cause study
The general public is enthusiastically involved in discussing the alleged misdemeanor of those police officials and politicians in charge. Everyone interviewed by the media during and after the riots was critically taking part in this discourse. After all, the general public is provided with decision guidance for the next general election by evaluating the performance of its leading political personnel. The socio-economic misery of the relative surplus population is therefore ultimately absorbed by the “Big Society” and its strictly constructive political agenda.
The public enjoys the competition between different lines of argument and profoundly follows or anticipates every argumentative and political maneuver. It is enthusiastic about any constructive approach to restore public order and is concerned with potentially harmful decisions that would have negative long-term effects on social coherence. In the end, the public discourse turns out to be nothing but a mere ’cause study’: the causes for young adults not to accept their socio-economic status for a few nights are passionately discussed. Whereas some blame the law-and-order policy as not being tough or robust enough, others emphasise the deeper roots of the disturbances such as inequality and deprivation. Others again have a more nuanced opinion that is positioned between these poles. All these discussions have only one result and that is to veer away from criticism of the politico-economic system. To make this clear: this is not an intentional strategy to undermine any potential insurrections. It is the other way around: the bourgeois society is based on and firmly believes in the rationality of its moral values, which are an adequate by-product of a society based on competition as its major organising principle. Moral misconduct and its denunciation are widespread phenomena and omnipresent in the capitalistic society. As if the cause of every defect in society is rooted in moral misbehavior and not a result of an economy that inevitably forces everyone to pursue his particular interests against the interests of others:
“It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of me-first, take-what-you-can culture. The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral. The MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral. The people who hacked phones to get stories to make money for themselves: greedy, selfish and immoral. People who talk about the sick behaviour of those without power, should talk equally about the sick behaviour of those with power.” (URL: http://www. politics.co.uk/news/2011/08/15/parting-of-the-ways-end-of-consensus-for-came)
This statement by opposition leader Ed Miliband touches upon the kernel of the public discourse. The ideal that when everyone restricts the implementation of his interests to an acceptable level, the national unity beyond class boundaries can be realised and social coherence maintained, exists alongside those politico-economic antagonisms that are implemented and maintained by force. This is the basic mode of thought of bourgeois individuals and thus an essential part of their ‘moral superstructure’ that is shared even by those rioting and looting on the streets of London and elsewhere. Given this, the idea of some leftist intellectuals that fringe groups could act as the decisive actor for changing the present political-economic system must once more be called into question because these groups, like the general public, are intellectually fully integrated into the bourgeois society and are unwilling to think outside the box. The current politico-economic system is the quasi-natural starting-point of their dealing with the consequences of capitalism.
I would like to finish with a marginal note: At the peak of the riots, a social worker living in London expressed his frustration on BBC television at the behaviour of those looting in the streets of Croydon. The major argument he brought forward for being disappointed was the fact that he was born and raised in the same district where the riots took place. He argued that his mother temporarily had three jobs at the same time and worked extremely hard to raise him, his brothers and sisters. The future social worker worked his way through the education system and graduated with a college degree. This is exactly the sort of attitude authorities demand from their surplus population: keeping still, working hard with no reasonable chance for further material improvement, and idolising as role models those who are the practical exceptions to the rule that is set by the socio-economic order. Despite their obvious failure to prevail in the capitalistic system, the deprived classes are not supposed to surrender morally to their existence at the very bottom of society and lose their way as loyal citizens. Any questioning of the positive effects of this ideal, for the material situation of those individuals negatively affected by the rule of money, is utterly misguided. As a matter of principle, authorities around the world are concerned with organising and maintaining competition and their national competitiveness to augment their political-economic power. The surplus population appears in this political program merely as a problem of public order and social care.
The complementary interplay between state authorities, the media, and the general public reveals that the “Big Society” already functions well in Britain and that the disturbances caused by adolescents unwilling to accept their devastating socio-economic situation for a few nights should not prevent critical commentators from realising that even rioters have developed an adequate mind-set for the demands of the bourgeois society. For them, the bourgeois society remains a ‘big offer’ for their materialism – at least in principle. This might be a thought-provoking conclusion, but prevents us from being naÃ¯ve about the generally affirmative attitudes of bourgeois individuals towards the ruling economic order when showing solidarity with the victims of this system. Because of their affirmative stance, the protagonists of the riots in England have resumed business as usual and continued to live their lives as if nothing happened in early August 2011. This is what we saw happen after the riots in the Banlieues of Paris and is a demonstration of how integrated the modern representatives of pauperism are. From a practical point of view, the question remains: whether the victims of capitalism are natural allies of progressive forces or whether they should be the subject of our criticism?Tags: Domestic (UK)
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This post was written by Matthias Dapprich