A fleeting moment of power, pure joy and fulfilment
Our movement needs to provide hope for a generation of young people who have lost all hope - that can only be done by making real our vision of working class rule and socialism, argues Peter Manson
A positive and progressive rebellion against deprivation or unashamed and backward criminality? The reaction of the left to the riots in towns and cities across Britain has been polarised between these two extremes.
As readers will know, what started as a peaceful protest outside Tottenham Hale police station on Saturday August 6 was violently transformed after several hours and eventually sparked full-scale rioting and looting, first in London and then in major conurbations the length and breadth of the country. The original demonstration was against the brutal killing by police of Mark Duggan and their subsequent lying excuses and justifications.
As the ruling class bemoaned the fact that they had lost control of the streets, the authorities’ disgrace at their inability to prevent massive destruction, arson and theft turned to angry threats. After huge police reinforcements on August 9 managed to contain most of the violence in London (but not elsewhere), David Cameron assured the police that they would have all the material resources they needed - water cannons, armoured cars, baton rounds. The Tory MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell, said the use of the army should be considered.
For his part, Ed Miliband remarked that the imposition of a curfew should not be ruled out, while Labour’s former deputy leader, John Prescott, implied that the wearing of hoods and scarves to hide the face should be banned. In similar vein there were many expressions of frustration at the inability of the police to monitor or control the spreading of messages using Blackberry Messenger (BBM). Not only are these messages encrypted, but they are free to send, allowing people to communicate rapidly amongst ever expanding contacts.
David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, called for the BBM network to be shut down during the crisis, while Blackberry’s manufacturer said it would try to cooperate with detectives to identify ringleaders. Perhaps it will be able to think of a way of removing the encryption from now on or maybe consider how it could charge for each message (after all, raising the price of alcohol has really stopped binge drinking, hasn’t it?).
It is, of course, typical of the bourgeoisie to resort to attacks on our rights and freedoms - to dress as we like, to communicate freely, to drink beer or lager - when, even momentarily, they lose control. But the ruling class is ideologically bankrupt, and is totally unable to address rationally the huge social problems its own system produces. Capitalism in decline cannot but cause deepening alienation, most sharply felt amongst the economically and socially dispossessed and excluded.
As the whole left has pointed out, this alienation can only be exacerbated by round after round of spending cuts - although it is an exaggeration to claim, as Ken Livingstone did, that the cuts have caused the riots. According to the Socialist Workers Party, “the riots would not have happened without the attacks being launched by the Tory-led government”. Undoubtedly, this is too easy an explanation. There are surely much deeper causes at work. Today’s capitalist society is more and more focused on generating artificial needs and as a direct concomitant produces more and more alienation, hopelessness and despair. As the world of things expands, the world of people shrinks. Having hated school, being unemployed, or having a dead-end job, it is quite understandable why young people turn to petty criminality, hedonism and join street gangs.
So how should we assess the actions of the youth? They have wreaked wanton destruction - and it is by no means just big department stores or the police that have been targeted. In fact it is largely working class people and small shopkeepers who have been worse hit - violently assaulted, their homes burnt, their property stolen or destroyed. Despite the spark of Mark Duggan’s killing, the rioting has largely been without any political content. The best that it can be called is nihilism. There is a layer of young people who are angry, who couldn’t give a damn and get a huge buzz from lashing out, fighting the police and trashing anything they happen to fancy trashing and getting their hands on whatever they can. A fleeting moment of power, a fleeting moment of pure joy, a fleeting moment of fulfilment.
True, rioting represents a collective rebellion at one level and some may say it is a positive that so many reject the state’s authority. But the same can be said about the anti-social gangs that lurk on our council estates. They attempt to replace the state’s authority in a tiny area with that of their own, but the result is generally thoroughly unpleasant. It could also be said that looting effects some kind of minimal redistribution of society’s wealth, but the rioters were hardly Robin Hoods. The designer clothes and trainers they stole are for their own use - either that or to be sold on the black market.
But the SWP can only see the positives: “At some point people pushed to the wall will turn and fight back. That is what is happening now, just as it did during Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s, the great slump of the 1930s and the great depression of the 1880s - all periods which saw riots in Britain.”
All well and good, but does rioting take our movement forward? While the comrades rather feebly admit, “to stop the Tories more is needed”, they enthuse: “Riots are an expression of anger. As Martin Luther King said, they are ‘the language of the unheard’.”
And looting? Another SWP online article reads: “Karl Marx was exactly right when he talked about expropriating the expropriators, taking back what they have taken from us. That’s what looting by poor working class people represents and in that sense it is a deeply political act.”
“Deeply political”? That is plain crazy. No-one can deny that people react to the circumstances they find themselves in, including the current social and political order. But to rejoice in the ransacking of corner shops is to plumb the depths of idiocy. A “deeply political” act is usually considered to be one guided by an active political agenda.
When it comes to the violence of the rioters, the SWP is in denial: it “was aimed at the police who carry out violent attacks on working class communities on a daily basis, especially against black male youth”. Well, some of it was, as the SWP knows full well, but most of the victims (including the four killed) were not members of the police. Most of those mugged, assaulted on the streets or forced to flee their burning homes were the ‘ordinary workers’ to whom the SWP usually tries to appeal.
And a further article explains just how considerate the rioters were: “In Hackney the riot lasted for hours on Monday. Hundreds of young people were running from the police, but a bus was blocking their way. They surrounded it and suddenly realised the driver was still inside. Two young rioters knocked on the door and beckoned for her to get off. When she left the bus everyone clapped. Only then did they trash it”.
No, that is not meant to be a joke.
By contrast the Socialist Party in England and Wales correctly asserts: “The vast majority of people do not condone the riots and condemn the burning of homes, post offices and council services.” But the online article goes rapidly downhill from there, taking a diametrically opposite stance to that of the SWP: “There is widespread anger that the police did not act effectively to defend people’s homes and local small businesses and shops. Given how widely predicted rioting was, there was also anger that police were not prepared to protect local areas. Many blamed government cuts to police services.”
SPEW even approvingly quotes a representative of the Metropolitan Police Federation: “Morale among the police officers dealing with this incident, and within the police service as a whole, is at its lowest level ever due to the constant attacks on them by the home secretary and the government in the form of the reviews into police pay and conditions.”
This is as nauseating as the SWP line is stupid. It should be ABC for socialists that the prime role of the police, as an organ of the state, is not to protect working class communities, but to uphold existing property relations. Instead of appealing for the forces of law and order to tighten their control, we should be looking to our own resources.
But that is the problem with both the SWP and SPEW. It is all very well making a series of demands on the government, most of which are highly supportable. But what should we do? Instead of placing your hopes in either lumpen gangs or the state’s armed bodies of men, what about the power of organised workers?
The example of Turks and Kurds in Dalston is a positive one. In one part of Kingsland Road residents succeeded in driving away the rioters in the late evening of August 8. Although the media refer only to shopkeepers defending themselves, there were more people involved than a few kebab and coffee shop owners in this traditionally leftwing community.
The left should be looking to build permanent self-defence units. We need to provide our own protection against rioters, looters, English Defence League hoodlums and - yes - police thuggery. But most of all the working class needs to provide hope for a generation of young people who have lost all hope - that can only be done by replacing this sick society with a society that breaks with the market, profit, greed and production for the sake of production. We need to to win the youth to our vision of working class power and socialism, and we need to prioritise the fight for the weapon we need to make it reality - a Communist Party.
- SWP statement: www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=25645
- www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/12498/08- 08-2011/tottenham-riots-fatal-police-shooting-sparks-eruption-of-protest-amp-anger