Driving People into Rebellion

Over the last week, politicians and the mainstream media in the UK have been wheeling out their routine condemnations of the ‘mindless violence’ and ‘thuggery’ (a term whose etymology and connotations of black, hip-hop culture are consistent with the widespread tendency to racialize these events) of the rioters in London and other British cities. Note well the double standard: these are the same politicians and the same media that endorse state terrorism abroad and the appalling social violence inflicted by the state on working-class people at home. Indeed, as Nina Power reminds us, the riots can only be understood in the context of decades of growing social inequality, large-scale unemployment, police oppression and murder, the ruthless reduction of benefits and the slashing of the social wage. The ruling class is, in fact, a class of looters. Nevertheless, the bourgeois state insists that its violence is both acceptable and necessary — it is simply ‘the way things are’ — while the explosions of the poor and the working class are ‘totally unacceptable’ (in the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May’s stale phrase).

Of course, it is true that some of the elements of the recent ‘violence’ are socially irresponsible. Given the atomisation of the British working class in recent decades, how could it be otherwise? The burning of people’s homes is deplorable, endangering human life and providing the state with a pretext to hone its repressive apparatuses. Other elements are more complex, however. Take looting, for example. Looting does adumbrate, however imperfectly, the communist principle of liberating use values and it is absurd to deny a few television sets and clothes to people who own very little. On the other hand, looting can also uncomfortably mirror the bourgeois precept of ‘might is right’, as well as glorifying individualistic acquisitiveness and commodity fetishism. In this sense, looting hardly provides a model of resistance to the capitalist system.

It is sad, but hardly surprising that most of the negative impacts of these riots are being felt in working class communities (compare the Watts Riots, the Los Angeles riot in 1992, the French banlieues riots of 2005, and so on). This has provoked a response from nationalist elements, which are now on the streets exploiting the situation in order to inject the poisons of patriotism and racism into the social body, further fracturing working class solidarity (all under the guise of ‘protecting society’). There is a large and receptive audience for their ideological garbage. A middle-aged man turned to me on Tuesday evening, as we watched a burning building, and said, simply: ‘too many immigrants’. That such cancerous thoughts can be expressed to a complete stranger, so casually and enthymematically, shows just how deeply the noxious fumes of capitalist ideology have been inhaled by many working class people.

These events are not simply a response to the ‘neoliberalism’ which it is fashionable for left-liberals like to denounce (subtext: if only we could ditch those nasty Tories and install a more clement, democratic system of exploitation, then everything would be alright). Rather, they represent the death throes of the moribund system of capitalism. As the signs of social decomposition become harder to ignore, we should be very clear that the future offers, as Rosa Luxemburg postulated, only two possibilities: socialism or barbarism. The anti-social aspects of these riots, and the response to them by right-wing ‘vigilante’ groups, give us a glimpse of what that second possibility might look like: a Hobbesian war of each against all, fuelled by racism and nationalism and leading to what Marx and Engels, in one of their gloomier moments, called the ‘mutual ruination of the contending classes’.

At the same time, the riots show that there is a limit to how much state oppression and economic misery people are prepared to take before they strike out, however contradictorily, against an inhuman social order. On this occasion, the people striking out may be a relatively small number of those with ‘nothing to lose’ by looting and burning – but it is in precisely this sense that they are exemplary. The framing of the riots by the media and politicians as a battle between ‘them and us‘ – between decent British citizens and mindless yobbos – obscures the fact that we are all losers under capitalism. As average wages fall, rates of social mobility flatline, pensions vanish and the planet suffocates, it is clearer than ever that the entire working class (and arguably most of the ruling class) has nothing to gain from the continuation of the profit system.

Only class struggle, that is, large-scale organisation against the root cause of the social chaos — the capitalist system — offers a viable future perspective for humanity. As the International Communist Tendency’s recent article on the riots puts it:

It is not for communists to condemn the riots. They are a sign of capitalism’s crisis and decay. […] So long as capitalism continues on its downward spiral of crisis with the rich getting richer and the poorest more and more excluded there will be more and more explosions like these. The race is on for the revival of a really liberating movement of the working class to present an alternative to capitalist barbarism.

Dr Stephen Harper is a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the School of Creative Arts, Film and Media, University of Portsmouth. Read other articles by Stephen.