A Soviet diplomat visiting the US once expressed incredulity toward the political content of mainstream newspapers there. In the USSR, he explained to his American interlocutors, it is necessary to threaten members of the press with torture in order to make them toe the correct political line. In the United States, however, you effect a similar result without coercion; the editors and journalists here seem to produce your propaganda of their own volition. How on earth do you manage it?
As with many jokes which express an important truth, there is always the danger it might be diminished by glib overuse. However, events this week have rejuvenated this particular joke in as much as they throw new light on the idea that there are ways of ensuring social conformity more subversive, and in some ways more dangerous, than the simple application of force.
Consider the reportage of the riots in much of the mainstream media, and the discussions and debates which have proliferated across TV channels and radio stations subsequently. It seems as though the discourse in its entirety has been permeated by an invisible but absolutely inviolable assumption. Those who have hinted that the causes of the riots might be derived from the social conditions from which they have exploded are immediately and shrilly denounced as ‘justifying’ the riots; by examining the roots of poverty and oppression, it is said, these people are suggesting it is a ‘progressive’ thing that people find themselves terrified and on the streets, burnt out of house and home, or that small businesses, who are hardly the backbone of global capitalism, are looted and destroyed.
I don’t know if there is anyone genuinely backward enough or naive enough to perceive in such occurrences a progressive agenda. I have yet to encounter someone who has put this type of argument forward and that is why I suspect it is more likely to be a fabulation, a fiction perpetrated by conservatives who are more concerned with shadow-boxing the infamous phantoms of ‘loony leftism’ instead of responding in kind to any concrete position put forward.
But how are such clearly unsustainable fictions sustained? How is it that any attempt to derive a sociological explanation for the riots is at once assimilated into a narrative where some ludicrously out-of-touch, politically-correct caricature tries to ‘justify’ the destruction of the property and livelihoods of mainly working class people?
The answer is, paradoxically, to be found in the question. The question — ‘Are these riots justified?’ — far from being a straight shooting request for a simple answer to a simple question — is entirely bogus. It requires a black and white response to a situation which is by its nature tainted with grey. Either you say ‘yes’ in which case you are linked to ‘justifying’ the looters as part of an absurd touchy feely liberalism, or you say ‘no’ in which case you confirm the down to earth paragons of common sense who realise that this is all the result of the legal restrictions placed on parents preventing them from mercilessly beating their children about the head.
In actual fact the actions which occur within a riot form a complex which channels a blend of motivations: acquisitive greed, resentment toward police, tensions between social groups etc. This or that criminal who burns someone’s house down is clearly and utterly unjustified in their actions but we cannot legitimately ask the same question of a riot itself. We cannot justify a riot any more than we can a volcano — all we can do is point to the various pressures which have accumulated to such a level as to yield the explosion.
And what of such pressures? Though it is little referenced in the right wing press, clearly the killing of Mark Duggan was the spark which ignited subsequent events. But this still falls short of a convincing sociological explanation. For that we have to factor in the general poverty accentuated by the economic crisis, cuts to education and public services — a looting and burning committed by our current government against the futures of the majority of young poor. To this mix we need to add the ongoing day to day experience which many young people have: the experience of being arbitrarily stopped and searched. It is this which fosters a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the knowledge that the police can at any time interrupt your life only for the fact that you are wearing the wrong type of clothes, drive the wrong type of car or have the wrong type of skin. Such random and often brutal interventions teach young people that the police have little respect for their day to day lives, and the ultimate confirmation of this comes when the police feel they have the liberty, not only to intrude on those lives, but also to take them.
The compulsion to extirpate these riots from the concrete social conditions which produced them has become so pronounced as to be ludicrous. The Daily Mail brigade are now, as part of the offensive against ‘political correctness’ more generally, suggesting that the riots occurred because police have been so hampered by bleeding heart liberal legislation that they are too tentative and fearful to go in hard and make an arrest. So fearful of being sued are they that they have to stand back and watch while Britain burns. The slight chink in this narrative comes from the fact that it was the police shooting and killing of a man in the first place which sparked these events, and which, in light of the evidence, increasingly looks to have been unlawful.
A riot cannot be justified in the way a political march can. The reasons for a political march are adduced in advance and it is coordinated according to a pre-planned route. But a riot is chaotic and uncontrolled and feeds on itself, much like the fires it leaves burning in its wake. To see in it only the ‘evil’ intentions of ‘looters’ and ‘hoodies’ is to leave any possibility of comprehension behind.
Tony McKenna regularly writes for Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory. He has also written for Counterfire and Socialist Unity.
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