'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An Aside About the London Riots 

UPDATE 4: According to historian David Starkey, the riots have confirmed the prophecy of Enoch Powell as the whites have become black. Of course, the BBC allowed him to express his racist perspective about blacks and black culture unchallenged by the moderator, in marked contrast to the treatment of Darcus Howe when he attempted to explain the social context of the riots.

UPDATE 3: More, from Peter Oborne:

A great deal has been made over the past few days of the greed of the rioters for consumer goods, not least by Rotherham MP Denis MacShane who accurately remarked, What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption. This from a man who notoriously claimed £5,900 for eight laptops. Of course, as an MP he obtained these laptops legally through his expenses.

Yesterday, the veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman asked the Prime Minister to consider how these rioters can be reclaimed by society. Yes, this is indeed the same Gerald Kaufman who submitted a claim for three months’ expenses totalling £14,301.60, which included £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen television.

Or take the Salford MP Hazel Blears, who has been loudly calling for draconian action against the looters. I find it very hard to make any kind of ethical distinction between Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the straight robbery carried out by the looters.

What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption. Yes, this is why it is difficult to ascribe a leftist social ethos to many of the rioters. Instead, they participated in a populist embrace of the values by which they have been governed for decades. They did, however, collectively organize themselves in ways common among anti-authoritarians. Perhaps, this is a seed that can germinate into a rejection of the hierarchical world of commodity consumption that they sought to enter, however fleetingly, in the last few days.

UPDATE 2 Novelist Hari Kunzru gets it:

In a society that has abandoned or devalued most forms of mutual assistance in favour of a solipsistic entrepreneurialism, it's hardly surprising that, faced with the end of the good times, people help themselves. Fear and greed are our ruling passions. That's true of the kids smashing shop windows to steal trainers. It's also true of the MPs fiddling their expenses, the police officers taking backhanders, the journalists breaking into phones. Why wouldn't they? Why wouldn't any of us? The example has been set by our new masters, the one per cent for whom and by whom we're governed. The ability of powerful actors in the financial markets to socialise risk while privatising profit appears, to the financial peasantry, indistinguishable from organised crime. No reason for the rest of us to stand on ceremony.

Kunzu hits the nail on the head when he highlights the importance of the devaluation of mutual assistance. If the English unrest is to have any possibility of developing into a rejection of the existing social order, the rehabilitation of mutual assistance is a necessary precondition.

UPDATE 1: Oops, the Internal Police Complaints Commission make a mistake:

The police watchdog investigating the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked the first bout of rioting in London on Saturday, has said it may have inadvertently misled journalists into believing the Tottenham man had fired at police.

Responding to inquiries from the Guardian, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said in a statement: it seems possible that we may have verbally led journalists to believe that shots were exchanged.

Someone over at Lenin's Tomb described this process as lie immediately, recant at leisure, as manifested in other notorious episodes such as the killings of De Menezes and Tomlimson.

INITIAL POST: Prime Minister David Cameron rambled on and on about responsibility in relation to the London riots:

The prime minister revived his pre-election concerns about a broken society as he said that one of the main lessons from the riots was that too many children grew up not knowing the differences between right and wrong.

This is not about poverty, it's about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities. In too many cases the parents of these children – if they are still around – don't care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing. The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken.

The fact that many children ended up in gangs would be the subject of renewed ministerial interest. The prime minister said: At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes. They earn money through crime, particularly drugs, and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader. They have blighted life on their estates with gang-on-gang murders and unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders.

Much of the left response will probably be about the cause of the conditions condemned by Cameron, leaving aside the question as to whether he has exaggerated them. But there is another issue here that deserves more attention. For example, consider this statement: A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities. And who are some of the avatars of this culture? Let's identify them.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, former President George Bush, President Barack Obama and, yes, Prime Minister David Cameron, not to mention French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, among others. All of them have perpetually emphasized violence as a means of achieving their objectives, regardless of any legal, institutional or international impediments. Bush and Blair are, of course, notorious for their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, wrapped in the cloak of human rights. Neither acknowledged any responsibility for the death and destruction that they inflicted upon Iraq and Afghanistan, except as a profit making opportunity for US and UK corporations supposedly involved in rebuilding the country.

Meanwhile, Obama has expanded US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, participated in airstrikes in Libya, and relied upon covert operations in Yemen. Sarkozy and Cameron have played leading roles in the Libyan debacle. As for Netanyahu, do will really need to chronicle his brutalities in the occupied territories? Barely a week passed when one of these leaders did not either engage in military attacks upon other countries or threaten them. In making these remarks, Cameron indicted himself as a cause of the riots.

Leaders like Bush, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama have sent a clear message to young people: violence works. Or, to put it differently, might makes right, a message that has been most effectively reinforced by the conduct of the police in their neighborhoods. So, when the young people of north and south London discovered that the police could not prevent them from looting and burning businesses, they went for it. Just like Bush and Blair went for it in the fall of 2001 and the spring of 2003. A culture of imperialist state violence gave birth to a culture of collective violence against property. It remains to be seen whether this imperfect collective culture, a form of contemporary nihilism, is transitory, one that can be exploited by capital, as discussed yesterday, or one that has the potential to evolve into a challenge against the global capitalist order.

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