While the ongoing crisis in the US has taken on the form of a farcical political confrontation over raising the debt ceiling, it has erupted in the much more immediate form of violent riots in England. The common feature of these very different events, and what indelibly marks them as belonging to our present moment, is their tragically frustrated character, that they seem unable to produce any awareness of a path beyond the irresolvable contradictions that constitute our current lived reality.
In the media, the contradictory nature of the riots has appeared as a question of politics. Or rather, as a question of whether these riots can be called political. Commentators have come down on both sides of the question. Many have made a plea to understand the social context—the very real political issues—that explains the violence and destruction. The rioting began in response to the shooting death of a black man allegedly carried out by police. There are also the accelerating policies of austerity that have had an enormous hand in incubating the rage against government and businesses alike that has shown itself all too clearly.
On the other hand, some suggest that the widespread looting shows that there is no real political consciousness behind the chaos, merely avarice and undisciplined consumerism gone hopelessly out of control. In a darkly absurd speech, Prime Minister David Cameron responded to the rioting with the familiar refrain of the neo-liberal politician, blaming a lack of responsibility and degraded values and families for the crumbling of civility, implicitly rejecting legitimate grievances behind this anti-social explosion.
“[C]riminality, pure and simple” and “gang culture[,]” according to Cameron, are the problems here, as if those were things that sprang full grown from a certain segment of the population with no broader social causes. Of course, the darker implications here are obvious. When taken to their extreme, the arguments about criminality and culture that Cameron deploys amount to a wholesale rejection of not only the citizenship of the rioters, but also of their humanity. This would not only be a catastrophe for those accused of criminality and the people that they share communities with, it would also be an unmitigated disaster for a leftist movement to allow entire segments of the population to be excluded from conceptions of the collective good, however weak they may currently be.
But however we judge the government and those who applaud the harshest measures for quelling social disorder, it is true of course that the rioting cannot be seen as productive, and that even the harshest critics of the oppression of England’s poor youth and people of color can hardly defend the actions of the looters.
So on one hand the rioting seems incomprehensible without reference to the social, economic, and political conditions that gave rise to it. And yet, given the form that this reaction has taken, the smashing of shop windows, the theft of fashionable shoes and electronics, and assaults against innocent bystanders, one can hardly argue that these actions are in themselves political. While it is vital to analyze the riots as a social phenomenon and an appearance of the crisis of capitalism, I do not believe that it is productive to become mired in this debate.
I would argue that a truly “political” response to the conditions of austerity and the powerlessness of concerned citizens in England, or anywhere, must be able to project a path beyond the contradictions of neo-liberalism: the appearance of heightening crises that seem resolvable only through collective action and the reduction of the collective social imaginary to the austere form of the free market along with its constituents, atomized consumers, seemingly incapable of effective collective action.
The system of neo-liberalism has resulted in forms of subjectivity, that is to say ways of experiencing and interacting with society, that are greatly predisposed toward seeing the world in terms of economic rationality. This systemic determination of people's outlook on the social world tends to make it seem as though human nature is primarily concerned with obtaining the best results for the self above all others. Yet the crises that we are beset by, all ripples projected by the fundamental crisis of the neo-liberal order, do not seem soluble by humans that are disinclined toward collective action and finding value in the common good.
This mismatching of our ways of understanding the terms of our existence in the world and the challenges that we now face results in the frustration of attempts to confront the visible forms of the crisis. Any action against existing social conditions is likely to appear as motivated by greed or a desire to defend unfair privileges. While the London riots began as a protest against the police, they have found their most enduring images in scenes of looting and even the robbery of victims of violence, actions of avaricious criminality.
For an instructive comparison, consider how campaigns by public sector union members in the US to salvage some measure of their bargaining rights have been framed as motivated by a greedy desire to hang on to benefits that private sector workers have long since lost and can hardly hope to regain. Given the tendency of neo-liberal subjects to view human pursuits in terms of self-interest, it is quite easy for many to see public sector unionized workers as wanting to hang on to their privilege of collective bargaining even at the cost of tax payers who are reponsible for paying these workers. The current focus on budget deficits has only heightened these perceptions.
To the extent that looting really has been widespread in London, it would seem to justify this viewpoint. As stated above, I believe that it would be a mistake to disingenuously avoid criticism of violence and wanton destruction. Just as the clearest legacy of the many riots and politically-motivated ‘insurgencies’ in the US in the 1960s was the culture war, mass violence and looting will undoubtedly increase police repression, heighten security culture (already notorious in closed circuit camera-suffused London), and add to existing racial and class tension.
If as I have suggested, a really political vision is one that embraces a path out of this mess, then it will have to appeal to as broad a range of the population as possible, and naïve glorification of violent reaction would be a serious barrier to this.
But as stated earlier, this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that condemnation of violence and criminality constitutes a meaningful analysis of a social phenomenon as complex as what we are currently witnessing, or that riots should not be critically examined. And the moral lens will just as surely fail to reveal anything meaningful when applied to the ‘haves’ as when applied to the ‘have nots.’ David Harvey’s recent commentary on the riots played “a predatory and feral global capitalism[,]” along with its mostly feral capitalist class against “mindless rioters[.]”
In stressing the moral failings of the directors of the state and finance, Harvey would have us believe that a ruthless class of capitalists alone could be responsible for creating this massive “scam” of neo-liberalism. Yet this boils down to little more than a massive conspiracy theory that can only crudely address political ideologies such as those held by the tea party. The existence of these ideologies requires one to look beyond class interests and conspiracies to understand why people hold beliefs that do not line up with their “interests” in any obvious way. This is why moral condemnations of capitalists or rioters are bound to lead us away from a deeper understanding of what is really going on in this moment.
So if we reject looking at the riots through a simplistic moralistic lens and also reject reading them with an uncritical, actionist valorization of striking out blindly at the status quo, then how should we see them? Most fundamentally, these riots are a deepening of the current crisis. Apart from the likelihood that they will exacerbate racial and class tensions, they reflect a profound inability to address the challenges of austerity and debt crises.
Even if the rioters had expressed a coherent critique of austerity, there is no reason to believe that the government would moderate its policies in response to violence and plunder. In deepening the fragmentation of the population and adding to the calls for curtailment of social welfare policies supposedly contributing to moral and cultural decay, the riots have merely intensified the ongoing crisis.
Furthermore, they remind us that we do not face merely an economic crisis. Just as the ‘Tea Party downgrade’ was not at root an economic problem, but rather the result of political and moral ideology, the riots also represent a political challenge in the face of which leaders have nothing but hollow rhetoric to fall back on, and which has left the populace seemingly bewildered.
While it is too early to know what changes may emerge in the wake of the riots, so far we have not seen any coherent response that suggests a compelling vision for the future. “Spontaneous” cleanup efforts so far suggest little more than feel-good affirmations of civic pride (or as some would have it passive-aggressive conscience salving), however well-intentioned they may be.
But perhaps to take this pessimistic view is to overlook the spirit of volunteerism that has endured and even flourished under neo-liberalism. One need only look to urban gardening projects, non-profit neighborhood centers, and the myriad social organizations that exist on every college campus to confirm this. And this doesn't even take into account the many who forgo more lucrative opportunities to work in the non-profit sector.
Given our understanding of neo-liberalism, the existence of this spirit demands further investigation as it is clearly not what we would expect of neo-liberal subjects. This also argues that we should be willing to look with an open mind at instances of people working together for common goals outside of their rational self-interest. Could it be that within such pursuits lies the possibility to inhabit a new type of subjectivity determined not by self-interest, but by larger, collective goals?
For now, we should understand the riots in the context of the terminal crisis of neo-liberalism. These events reflect some uncomfortable truths about our society, ones we should not accept, but seek to overcome. As we come to a better understanding of what has transpired, hopefully attention can still be given to other efforts that may have more potential to address underlying social problems.