Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Falling fine acidic rain,
The moral culture eats
At the ties and fabrics of the society
That makes, remakes, sustains and poisons it.
Tory politicians, magistrates and press, ranting about “criminality”, “pure criminality” and “only criminality”, whipping up a crusade of class hatred and class scapegoating against the poor, their language that of stark class hatred.
Judges and magistrates told by the Prime Minister and by their superiors to “ignore the rule book and lock up looters”. Police breaking into flats mob-handed looking for looted goods. The courts sitting all day and sometimes through the night.
Children and adolescents remanded without bail for petty offences and then sentenced to jail. Women with young children jailed for petty theft, or for “receiving” such things as a pair of trainers.
This is Britain in August 2011.
In response to the riots and the widespread outrage, the right has gone on the offensive, howling for blood. “Public opinion” has been mobilised on the basis of the ugliest social stigmatising, and hostility to the poor, the undereducated and excluded. They see their chance and they are grabbing it.
A 16-year-old boy gets six months imprisonment for robbing a few pounds worth of bottled water. What did the bankers get for robbing people of their homes, jobs, savings, hopes, prospects, sense of security? As the reader knows very well, they got public money on a vast scale, and most of them continue to draw bonuses on a scale that beggars belief.
What, exactly, happened in the four days of riots and looting in London and in cities across England? The picture is clear at the end of the cycle of riots, looting and burning.
It started in Tottenham with a peaceful protest against the killing by the police of a black man, Mark Duggan. It spread to other parts of London and then to cities outside London.
Beginning in the heavily black areas of London — Tottenham, Hackney, Peckham — and triggered by seething indignation against the police, rioting and looting spread quickly to layers of white youth in London and then outside London to Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and other places. Not-all-that-large groups of young people ran amock, most of them, deprived, under-educated, unemployed or in dead-end jobs. They broke windows, looted and burned on a small scale
With not too many exceptions, the looters targeted shops selling consumer goods they coveted — mobile phones, trainers, TVs, electrical goods. The riots were from the beginning, or quickly came to be, direct action to seize desirable things which they either could not afford or could afford only with great financial stress and strain.
Despite some looting of food in some places, these were not “hunger riots”. You can see what happens as a revolt of the hungry, but it wasn’t hunger for food. It was about things considered to be as fundamental as food by young people saturated in the values which incessantly bombard them from TV, newspapers, CDs, DVDs, and magazines in the media-saturated, commerce-mad society in which we live.
The looting which has caused such outrage in the bourgeois press was only the other side of the values and ideals of that press, the capitalist ruling class and of official society. The looters refused to abide by the rules of distribution in a market economy. They attempted to acquire what they wanted by direct action, strong-arm grabbing, despite the rules, and in defiance of the rules.
It was a wild revolt of the “lower” elements of commercial civilisation — in the great cause proclaimed and idealised incessantly by commerce itself. In a small way this was a revolt by a part of Britain’s commercial-capitalist civilisation against itself.
In that sense, and from that point of view, from a direct-actionist anarchist idea of politics, they can be seen as positively, rather than merely implicitly, “political”.
The outrage that saturated the press and TV coverage was in part the indignation of “respectable” people who stick to the rules against those who refused to. It was all a piece with the witch hunting of the poorest for benefit-fraud, benefit-abuse, benefit-drawing — for being. It was the — understandable — outrage of small shopkeepers who had been looted or feared they would be rooted. The press and politicians took it up, multiplied, magnified it. The Murdoch and Desmond press found a variation of their staple agitation against “undeserving” immigrants. Even OK magazine took it up!
The ghost of Tony Blair has come back to contradict Cameron’s verdict on the riots and looting, that it was all a matter of “criminality”, one aspect of a “broken society. Cameron is wrong, Blair insists, to talk about “a broken society” and a general moral decline in Britain: only specific identifiable families contributed people to the riots, only they are responsible for gangs on council estates. It has nothing to do with a general social malaise. These are youngsters, he implies, completely unaware of what’s going on in the rest of the society in which they live. For all his superstitious God-bothering, Tony Blair is morally blind, deaf and numb!
Of course, denouncing the riots as “pure criminality” is simply stupid. However many gangs exist in these areas and however much opportunist looting contributed to the outbreaks, it took more than criminal gangs to ignite these explosions.
The deprived young people who have come out on the streets to fight those they see as their enemy, the police, and to grab a little instant prosperity have good reason to feel that they are outsiders, that they have been excluded.
Unemployed or working in dead end, unskilled, low-paid jobs, they have come through the education system maimed and semi-literate. They live in a society where great robbers and swindlers are admired whether they are legal, semi-legal or downright criminal. Where they enrich themselves without any regard for other people.
Why, many of them will think, shouldn’t we help ourselves by looting shops and great stores, in a world where bankers can loot and get away with it? Where the politicians who serve them have looted society to bail out the bankers. Where the super rich know how to evade taxation.
No matter how inattentive to politics many of the young people may normally be, they will have gained a general impression about what has been going on at the top of society.
Many of the rioters in London live side by side with the very wealthy — the towers of Canary Warf are visible from half the London riot zones.
Those who are loudest in condemning the rioters and looters — the media, the politicians, the police, the racist and “anti-foreigner” agitators and the vengeful magistrates — bear most of the blame for these outbreak.
And they serve the bankers, the factory owners, the giant store owners and the stock exchange gamblers. They are responsible for creating the conditions and the mind-set that has led to the rioting and looting that has swept through Britain.
But there is nothing for the left to romanticise in these outbreaks, by giving them titles such as “insurrection”, “rebellion” and “resistance”. Socialist Worker has surpassed itself in an orgy of crypto-anarchist coverage of the riots and looting. Rioting is good! Looting is better! It’s a proper form of fighting back!
They write as if completely unaware of the effect of the riots, looting and burning on the society in which it occurs, including on the working class and the labour movement. They write as if they don’t notice the tremendous use which the Tories, the press and the whole Establishment is making of the riots to forward a regressive “law-and-order” agenda, in preparation for the resistance they expect from the working class when the cuts and the second-dip economic recession begin to bite seriously.
By contrast with Socialist Worker, Hannah Sell in The Socialist writes as if she lives in the same world as the rest of us, or near enough to it to know more-or-less what’s been going. She tried to tell the truth. But she too falsifies the picture. Though she notes the looting of electronic goods, Sell seems to think that these were hunger riots by people desperately looting for food. Although food was taken, surely they were not that.
The left must understand the significance of a revolt of mainly young people that took the form of rioting, looting and senseless burning. Despite the hostility which so many of them feel for the Establishment and their bitter sense of exclusion, the psychology, ideas, goals and aspirations of these young people are shaped and determined by the dominant ideas of the rulers of our society — the attitude summed up in American rapper 50 Cent’s maxim: “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’.”
The job of winning then to a different outlook, the working-class, socialist, class-struggle, Marxist outlook, is shown to be very urgent. That is easier to define than to accomplish. But it won’t be done so long as large parts of the left pretend that the riots were glorious resistance or sheer outbreaks of hunger-driven desperation.
However we analyse the riots and looting, socialists must fight to get the labour movement to defend the victims of the political backlash in which Britain is now gripped . We must insist, against the capitalist Establishment — the politicians, the press and the courts — that the responsibility for the blind raging anger that erupted across Britain in early August lies squarely with those who run British capitalist society.