The black youth, together with the ‘feral scum’ of other colours, has always been stopped and searched, detained. But what happens when he stops and searches, detains the city?
Clarence Road in Hackney, on Monday night ( August 8 ) saw mass participation in looting in the presence/participation of large sections of the community from Pembury estate. Perhaps unlike in other areas, here the looting looked less like ‘criminality pure and simple’ and more like people breaking into a shop and quietly, with a tacit understated mutual understanding, walking away with what they needed for free from the store – looting as the expression of some kind of a general will. At least two hundred people were present and participating. With wheelie bins smouldering in the road and police helicopters droning overhead, a group of black women holding hands burst into Bob Marley’s ‘Rastaman chant’ as a car went up in flames. For a moment I thought it was Marley’s ‘Looting and Burning Tonight’ but it wasn’t. Complete with this fitting music, the disorder seemed orderly, particularly considering the hundreds of people collectively participating in it without any violence to each other. At one moment someone climbs up a lamp-post and tries to pull down the CCTV camera – the crowd below obviously cheers and applauds.
Large sections of ‘responsible’ society, including its progressive sections, feel violated by this mass looting, illegality and, some would say, immorality. And yet the underclass seemed to establish and assert themselves precisely in and through their worthlessness and illegality. The ‘cheap thrill’ element of looting petty consumer items was there. And yet there was something else going on too. Hence even though some of those in it did feel moral compunctions about looting as something immoral, they would still go along with the overall spirit and ‘idea’ behind it. Indeed, in some cases, people went ahead with the collective wisdom of looting and arson even when it posed a danger to them and their property. Was it irrationality, or acting politically?
Consider this: “A middle aged Iraqi political refugee clutched to his chest his valuable personal documents that he’d salvaged, and worried that the car burning in the street might ignite his flat just above, but was torn by sympathy for the youth, who were up against the very same forces who’d turned his own country into a killing ground” (http://www.revcom.us/a/242/AWTWNS_london_burning-en.html). This only means that the looting and arson was on the whole, and through associations not so obvious, somehow placed on the side of those fighting power and the repressive machinery. The main thrust of it was subversive and anti-authoritarian even if far from being formally anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and so on.
It is to suppress this that those in power have whipped up so much hypocritical affect to invoke so-called moral values and responsibility to denounce it as mere looting and criminality. This approach criminalizes the ongoing protests/looting, treating them as a problem of crime in general and the breakdown of parenting in particular. The other so-called left or progressive approach is no better. Apparently opposed to the first one, it views the protests/looting as a by-product of poverty, unemployment, cuts and so forth – it says, let us look at the context. Both approaches however deny the protests/looting their specificity.
Let us take the ‘context’ argument. While cuts and unemployment do provide the context, the angry youths seem to be castigating ‘public order’ and ‘society’ in more fundamental ways than is warranted by such economic hardships. There is an excess in these actions which refuses to be reduced to some prior set of explanatory factors. It stands out, reconfiguring things in new ways.
For contrast, take the student protests last year. Very militant and sometimes violent too – and yet they had a clear demand and could be referred back to specific government policies, so that the dominant fabric of society as such was not their target. They represented particular organizations and the agents were identifiable as students and so on. Not this one though. This time it is more like an anonymous ‘rabble’ attacking no identifiable body and no demands have been put forth – nothing and no one, in short, for the powers-that-be to engage with. The so-called community leaders (calling for an end to the protests/riots) themselves appear so out of touch with this ‘rabble’, thereby completing the picture.
Far from making demands and seeking upward mobility, there is instead a rejection of society, a conscious violation of public order. And nobody saw this ‘intifada of the underclass’ coming, even if everybody knew the ‘context’ – of poverty and marginalisation. Like proletarian shock troopers appearing from the forgotten inner recess of society, they seem to castigate and violate ‘our way of life’ and social norms.
Here are those at the bottom of society no longer wanting to suffer or undergo the regimentation and socialization and discipline (what Cameron calls ‘learning to take responsibility’) in order to go up in life, become decent citizens and so on. Many of them refuse to be integrated and assimilated – while this often means that they then get hired/used to do the dirty criminal work for those in power (Fanon’s ‘lumpen proletariat’), the consequences are not always so grim. For there is also an unmistakable political tendency here going back to the Black Panthers (well, you had the British Black Panthers too) of refusing to get assimilated in/by mainstream society – part of what the Panthers called ‘self-determination’. These political ideas circulate in various forms, often very incoherently, in the black community, in popular memory, as a line in hip hop lyrics, a random quote from Malcolm X (‘by any means necessary’) – often as thought, an ‘unconscious’ response or deeply ingrained leaning, a propensity.
To say that the protests and riots are mere objective effects of a bad socio-economic context is to take away the thought, the politics or subjective leaning suffusing them. In being arraigned against capital and not really racial, this ‘thought’ or politics can allow a wider class based solidarity cutting the race barrier. Sometimes however this politics gets intertwined with the fact of this underclass’s complicity in the shadowy world of gangs and criminals. The result is what we witnessed: a violent consumerism and looting alongside the anti-authoritarianism of ‘fuck the police’, ‘fight the feds’ – an unmediated direct confrontation with the police and social/public order.
Totally oblivious of any of this, those at the top echelons, those at the helm of affairs, gloating on their success, feel suddenly swept away by a hurricane which they are striving to name as looting, criminality, vandalism and so on. This mish-mash of a protest/riot/looting surprised both those on the right as well as those on the left. So let us make sense of this hurricane and try to retrieve what is political in it.
The struggle against the cuts, it is pointed out, was legitimate but not these protests/riots by the looters and yobs living off social benefits and carrying guns. But consider this: aren’t we told that cuts are an attack on the working people? So, will the working people always do no more than merely demand that these massive cuts be withdrawn from implementation or repealed. Will they not at some point counter-attack, stop marching in an orderly manner to Westminster, and resort to other ‘means’? Moreover, those who face not just the brunt of the cuts, fee hikes and other economic hardships, but also undergo the humiliation of police brutality, might do more than join marches and protests. Here are those who get kettled every day and perhaps for generations – they need not go to a demonstration to experience it. Getting kettled might be part of your heady, radical student days, to be recounted in sober years of your maturity. But getting ‘stopped and searched’ your entire life till you reach the grave, is something altogether different.
The structural violence of poverty and unemployment is combined with subjective, personalized, targeted daily torture. Hence the reaction to ‘stop and search’ cannot be only a planned and peaceful demonstration. Something of the hurricane will be part of the reaction. No wonder then that those involved are the poor black youth and the white underclass at the forefront of this war – youth who are no radical anti-establishment rebels reading Sartre and watching Ken Loach, but who just feel like ‘turning the shit up’, hitting and punching back. It is not radical thought leading to radical action bt it is primarily action coming out of life experience. As somebody said, “these kids are telling their life stories”. Looking at it from the inside, the protests/looting do not quite match David Cameron’s description as “criminality, pure and simple”.
Crucially, this counter attack by the poor could never be an orderly business since the Order of the oppressive system is much wider and includes almost all of social life, including, let us say, the small businesses that got attacked. Didn’t some Sorbonne-educated French philosophers tell us how the prevailing norms of the status quo, the social order and its ritual practices, get normalized as neutral norms and hence are against the interests of the working people? Or is it that when members of the upper middle class and intellectuals violate social order they are counted as radicals, poised to become a venerated writer or public intellectual in later life, whereas the poor would be treated as mere criminals.
In any case the law and moral norms that supposedly apply to all somehow allow the bigger looters to get away. Ah, how can we not recall: ‘The law locks up the man or woman, Who steals the goose from off the common, But leaves the greater villain loose, Who steals the common from off the goose’. Now that the court cases against the protestors/looters are proceeding we see what they are accused of stealing: two mobile phones, pair of jeans, a TV set and so on. Don’t we know of far bigger loot happening in this country? Looks like, you need to loot really big in order not to be seen as a looter or criminal. The smallness of the loot strangely does not work in their favor – nobody wants to excuse since they were after all stealing just a few things. Instead this smallness works against the accused – they appear really mean and petty. The media is of course going overboard highlighting these ‘horrible crimes’.
In short, normal, everyday, routine life with apparently no looting and based on hard work and responsibility and so on, automatically reproduces capitalism and its inequalities. So much so that the direct coercive power of the authorities and the raw power of big corporations are not always necessary. Indeed, in a ‘leisure society’ where you ‘either buy or die’ it is no longer the old Parliament or the Home Office buildings that symbolize ‘order’. ‘Order’, ‘the good life’ is now symbolized by the high streets and fancy stores lined up with rows of gleaming products that seduce and speak to you through transparent glass panes – such 24/7 transparency that shops in high streets have long since done away with iron shutters. This transparency is only as real as the false apparition of fair competition, the rewarding of hard work and so on.
Indeed, even though CCTV cameras peer down on the high streets, the immediate experience is one of transparency and seamless mobility. Such trusting, transparent cityscape already assumes that you are not one of those who will break in and loot, already in that sense eliciting your complicity – the insufferable axis of the willing. But then the rabble from the bottom of society comes and smashes this ideal world, targeting areas of ‘fair exchange’, of buying and selling and not really overt symbols of authority or power. No wonder authorities in London are referring to what their counterparts in Philadelphia have done: impose an evening curfew to prevent neighborhood kids from entering the main high streets. The BBC ran a story on this.
Thus what looked like disorderly looting and ‘yobs gone wild’ was still well-directed. It carried some unarticulated thought or insight and was more than just stealing things. Nor were these merely a stimuli-response effect of an adverse context. Hence the feeling – how can they do this to ‘our London’? Obviously, it seems like the handiwork of what Cameron calls ‘broken and sick’ society. No excuses for this. That which surreptitiously and cleverly assumed our complicity, without really taking our consent, has been smashed – it is this which pinches and agitates those in power rather than that things were stolen or looted. It was really not about ‘theft’ but the boldness, subversiveness and explosive charge involved – the underlying challenge to authority and the dominant order. And that it was those at the bottom of society marching into and smashing ‘our’ high streets. Hence it was far more than theft or criminality, or far more than what adverse socio-economic context can possibly warrant. Cameron said in Parliament today (August 10, 2011) that “what happened had nothing to do with politics or protest but was theft”. He is in denial.
What must be pointed out however is the cheap, violent consumerism all too evident in this intifada – also opportunistic, often highly individualistic, aggressive, macho and acquisitive. And yet at that moment of the mass protest/looting on Clarence Road the rest of normal society, Big Society seemed so misplaced and unjust. It felt as if from now on, from this spot, one might finally be able to tell just how repressive society as it normally exists is. The freedom the rabble was enjoying seemed to offer one a handle from which to critique the regimentation and repression that constitutes society. Seeing the sheer joy among the looters carrying the goods, it felt as if the fetishistic powers of the commodity have been proletarianised, or, sadly, the proletariat commodified – not just lumpenised. The poor seemed more under the spell of the magical powers of the commodity than the rich. Looting not as the redistribution of wealth, as some anarchists have opined, but as testimony to the enslavement of the proletariat to the commodity. Can London be stopped and searched without being enslaved to the commodity?
Saroj Giri is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.