and looting and burning. but, as every media outlet seems to be (either explicitly or implicitly) asking, are these events (in the red corner) POLITICAL, or are they simply (in the blue corner) CRIMINALITY?
aside from all the other crucial issues raised by the riots, the nature of this juxtaposition is well worthy of some reflection. it roughly maps, of course, onto the divide between left and right wing political philosophies and their distinct conceptions of the nature of history.
[before moving on, let’s pause for a small recap – so we’re all on the same page]
in line with the classic Liberal tradition, those on the right tend to emphasise the role of the individual and see history as largely directed by the exercise of reason or the will, and therefore tend to emphasise the importance of moral responsibility and social roles.
in line with the Radical tradition, those on the left tend to emphasise the role of the masses and understand history as a force directed by the movement of the people, and, as such, tend to emphasise the role of social conditions.
in terms of goals, the left tends towards the idea that equality equates to stability and flourishing, whereas the right tends to see these as best served by hierarchy and the rule of law. the left strives for equality of access (to social ‘goods’); the right, for equality of opportunity (to move up).
these descriptions are, of course, merely sketches of stereotypes, but they roughly define the boundaries of the philosophies that are in play.
and so we have seen in the responses to the riots in London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Nottingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Leeds and Bristol (i hope i haven’t left anyone out). those on the right have consistently downplayed the role of politics and sought to characterise the riots as a collection of illegal acts committed by individuals who will be brought to justice, oh yes. Theresa May, and her constant recourse to the language of ‘sheer criminality’ (a phrase she must have used ten times in two minutes on The Today Programme yesterday), is a good example.
the left-leaners, on the other hand, have generally wanted to emphasise the social conditions and context from which the riots have erupted, and Darcus Howe’s revealing contribution to the BBC News channel yesterday, or their interview of Ken Livingstone on Monday would serve as a perfect examples here.
it’s also not hard to see that, aside from the philosophy that undergirds their politics, those currently in office have a vested interest in downplaying political causes, whereas those in opposition have the opposite investment. given that a centre-right coalition holds the reins and a centre-left party stands in opposition, this dynamic is currently set at ‘maximum skew’.
the question, however, of the role of politics per se, is more complex than this. it seems fairly clear that the motivations of the majority of rioters are not explicitly political – these are not ‘protests gone violent’ – but does that mean that they are utterly apolitical phenomena in the way Boris Johnson or Michael Gove would have us believe?
in one sense, if you stop to think about it, how can they be? politics is not just about voting, the party system and banner-waving, it’s about everything that affects and impacts society. in one sense, everything is political, or should i say nothing is apolitical. however, speaking in more specific terms, any mass movement of people, any expression of dissatisfaction, any insurrection, any wanton group lawlessness of this sort must have a political aspect.
what seems to have gone ignored in much of the right-wing rhetoric is the fact that riots are an established phenomenon. Boris Johnson spoke yesterday as if what has happened in London over the last few nights was utterly unprecedented. yes, the role of social networking adds a small novel element, but a riot is a riot.
the reality is that these are marginalised people who languish under the effects of massive inequality – of both access and opportunity – and who have seen the escalation of violent crime, the spread of deprivation and the removal of social resources within their communities, and as a result the widespread asphyxiation of cohesion, pride and hope.
when young people who’ve grown up with these kind of realities sense an opportunity to vent their anger, their fear, their hopelessness, they do not write to their local MP on thick, recycled paper. they do not organise a march and paint brightly coloured banners. these people smash, and grab, and burn. they do everything they can to show their contempt for the world in which they live and at the same time reveal (somewhat pathetically) their desire for/faith in material goods as harbingers of ‘the good life’.
such events are called riots – they’re not new, that’s why we have a word for them. yes, they are made up of a mass of criminal acts, but does that make them meaningless?
remember St Paul’s, Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Salford and Chapeltown in 1980, ’81, ’85, ’87, ’90? remember Los Angeles in 1992? do we think of these as meaningless, apolitical, criminal events, or as eruptions of socio-political discontent from members of disadvantaged, marginalised and otherwise dying communities?
for the last few nights, (mainly) young people have smashed, looted and burned their own neighbourhoods and those nearby, and what is more (and perhaps most disturbing to middle-class onlookers) they’ve expressed pleasure in doing so. “you can’t control us” a boy cheerily shouted towards a BBC camera in Croydon on Monday night – i wonder if he really believed that himself, and if so, if he’s ever felt that way before. i also wonder how long the feeling lasted.
we might not want to condone the acts of violence, theft and arson that comprise these disturbances, but we dismiss them as meaningless at our peril. the riots might not be explicitly political in the way a protest march is, but they are a manifestation of a political reality which, if we are to deal with the root and not only the thorn, demands a political as well as judicial response.