Carnival in the Capital: how England's riots recall a history stretching back to Dionysius

To understand the riots that swept across English cities, remember the carnival: a temporary lapse in the normal social order when the law is suspended and the oppressed become free

Stephen Humphreys and Yoriko Otomo
18 August 2011

How to respond? It has proven hard to make a case that these were, in fact, ‘political’ events. ‘Some people’ were surely protesting a murky police shooting in Tottenham – but nobody argues that the same protest migrated to Ealing and Salford. A strong case was made that the ‘protestors’ (as they were for a bit) were protesting austerity. But, if so, they didn’t seem interested in saying so. And is it really possible they were ‘protesting’ the state’s pending failure to keep them distracted with youth clubs, job centres and libraries?


A sinister carnival in the 1973 film 'The Wicker Man'

It would have been political if the ‘rioters’ (as they quickly became) had expressed a ‘cause’ of any sort. A response to excessive stop-and-search maybe. But what about the ‘cause’ of insufficient DVDs? Maybe the two girls interviewed on BBC on the Monday were unusually uninformed. Or maybe it really didn’t matter who’s in government as long as we get to show them, and the police, and the rich people, that ‘we can do what we want’. Point is, though, ‘It was good fun’. Fun! An unlicensed pleasure.

It would have been ‘political’ if it was a comment on our ‘culture of greed and impunity’. The message ‘the youth’ are getting everywhere is that to get ahead you must be conniving, corrupt, thieving. What matters is acquisition, and by any means necessary. Here the rioters are no different from our captains of state and industry. The MP expenses scandal brought to you live in Curry’s. The Bank bonus bailout, microcosmed in JD Sports. We take what we want, we don’t care. You pay. Fuck you, ini’? The patois of the City of London. On this story the looters turn out to be like all of us: little capitalists.

Variations on the theme: our communities are broken, it’s Thatcher’s fault, it’s the schools’ fault, it’s their parents’ fault their kids are ‘feral’. The rioters lack ‘role models’. Or on the contrary, it’s because we’ve been too soft and ‘liberal’. There’s been too much about kids’ rights, and not enough about responsibilities. Police are disempowered. Parents and teachers are disempowered. Kids can’t be smacked or locked in their rooms. Now the looters are not political actors at all – they are just vehicles for a deeper malaise, the failure of our society, politics, culture. Britain is broken. Society is sick.

At least if the cause was in fact a ‘virulent nihilistic subculture’, spreading across ethnicities, black and white, all speaking ‘Jamaican’, we’d recognise some agency. Because they would have actually done something. Represented something. Said something. That would have been political, right? But what did they say? I heart ‘shopping with violence’? Was it in fact just rampant consumerism come home to roost? If not, what was it? What just happened?

All these stories, like the Tories’ pure and simple crime story, try and submerge the actual events into a fairytale of higher meaning: they subjugate facts to interpretation. They are, as Sartre once put it, totalising, at the expense of the big picture, the totality.

Can the story be told in any other way?

Here’s an idea: perhaps what happened was carnivalesque. Not in the new Notting Hill sense but in the old sense of a momentary lapse of propriety. A moment when everything is up for grabs and nothing is forbidden. A spectacular inversion of the social symbolic order, when people wear masks and let rip, when they drink and are merry, when they break things, when the social mores vanish, just for a while. What if what happened was a Walpurgisnacht over several nights – a singular continuous exhilarating event?

Observers of the riots were constantly amazed by the ‘atmosphere’ (‘of a carnival’, one eyewitness put it). Like the girls interviewed on BBC, plenty of the rioters seemed to think the whole thing was a laugh. ‘If I heard [it] once I heard it a thousand times’, wrote another eye-witness, Hayley Matthews, in the Guardian: ‘“I just think it's funny!”’ What appalled Matthews most of all was the wanton destruction. ‘If they'd nicked the TVs and laptops I could almost understand it, but they simply brought them outside and smashed them to bits in the street’.

Numerous observers corroborated this odd fact: lots of ‘looters’ didn’t seem to want the loot. It was as though they weren’t driven by naked acquisitiveness after all, but revelling in the destruction of their objects of desire. They seemed, many of them, to be caught up in something bigger than themselves, bigger than the moment they were in. Here is the mother of Natasha Reid, the aspiring social worker who handed herself in: ‘She didn’t want a TV … She doesn’t even know why she took it. She doesn’t need a telly.

The carnival as a temporary spell of chaotic mayhem has a history as old as Europe itself. Lyrically celebrated by Rabelais and Nietzsche, it’s associated with the cults of Dionysius in Greece and Bacchus in Rome, and even with the emergence of religion itself.

But it was the Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin who best described the importance of the carnival to contemporary society. The carnival is a moment in which time is suspended. Law is suspended. In a world of increasing pressure, on our time, on our bodies, the carnival allows us to let off steam. It is a moment during which people who are ordinarily subject to extraordinary constraints get to be their own masters, in which the oppressed become free, just for a bit. It is a day on which the violence to which people are daily subjected becomes brutally visible. A visibility that paradoxically requires a mask, allowing each individual to parade their trauma and desire before the community. Most European countries institutionalised such a day: Mayday is an archetype.

But a curious thing happened over the last century or so. Hand in hand with the increasing exigency of the economy, the carnival vanished. In a world in which there are supposed to be no ‘peasants’ left, in which no-one is subject to a natural superior – the carnival appeared anachronous. When we are all ‘free’ all the time to set our own rules of engagement, at work and elsewhere – at least nominally – when the law is something we own, not something that owns us, when the police are our servants, not our masters, where we are all clients and agents, what purpose would a carnival possibly serve?

Has the carnival returned? In the last week, something erupted: an irrepressible need for impunity and invisibility, consumption and community. For one riotous moment, an ecstasy of unbridled communication burst through. The everyday violence of the economy was suddenly everywhere to be seen. It was liberating and horrific at once.

And Cameron’s response has been tightly targeted: there will be consequences. Your masks will not hide you: you are your mask and the law will see you. You may lose your home. There is no release from the future. You will remember what happens next. The carnival is over, for now.

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