Clarence Road in Hackney, on Monday night (August 8) saw mass participation in looting in the presence/participation of large sections of the community from Pembury estate. Perhaps unlike in other areas, here the looting looked less like ‘criminality pure and simple’ and more like people breaking into a shop and quietly, with a tacit mutual agreement taking what they needed for free from the store – some kind of an instant general will backing it up. At least two hundred people were present. With wheelie bins smouldering in the road, police helicopters droning overhead, a group of black women holding hands burst into Bob Marley’s ‘Rastaman chant’ as a car went up in flames. For a moment I thought it was Marley’s ‘Looting and Burning Tonight’ but it wasn’t. Complete with this fitting music, the disorder seemed orderly, particularly considering the hundreds of people collectively participating in it. At one moment a guy climbs up a lamp-post and tries to pull down the CCTV camera – the crowd below obviously cheers and applauds.
Large sections of ‘responsible’ society, including its progressive sections, feel violated by this mass looting and illegality, some would say, immorality. And yet the underclass seemed to establish and assert themselves precisely in and through their worthlessness and illegality. The cheap thrill element was there. And yet there was something else slightly deeper going on too.
Two influential approaches are most visible to the problem. One criminalizes the ongoing protests/looting, treating them as a problem of crime in general and the breakdown of parenting in particular. The other, apparently opposed to this first one, views it as a by-product of poverty, unemployment, cuts and so forth – it says, let us look at the context. Both approaches however deny the protests/looting their specificity.
Let us take the ‘context’ argument. While cuts and unemployment do provide the context, the angry youths seem to be castigating ‘public order’ and ‘society’ in more fundamental ways than is warranted by such economic hardships. There is an excess in these actions which refuses to be reduced to some prior set of explanatory factors. It stands out, reconfiguring things in new ways.
For contrast, take the student protests last year. Very militant and sometimes violent too – and yet they had a clear demand and could be referred back to specific government policies, so that the dominant fabric of society as such was not their target. They represented particular organizations and the agents were identifiable as students and so on. Not this one though. This time it is more like an anonymous ‘rabble’ attacking no identifiable body and no demands have been put forth – nothing and no one, in short, for the powers-that-be to engage with. The so-called community leaders (calling for an end to the protests/riots) themselves appear so out of touch with this ‘rabble’, thereby completing the picture.
Far from making demands and seeking upward mobility, there is instead a rejection of society, a conscious violation of public order. And nobody saw this ‘intifada of the underclass’ coming, even if everybody knew the ‘context’ - of poverty and marginalisation. Like proletarian shock troopers appearing from the forgotten inner recess of society, they seem to castigate and violate ‘our way of life’ and social norms.
Here are those at the bottom of society no longer wanting to suffer or undergo the regimentation and socialization and discipline (what Cameron calls ‘learning to take responsibility’) in order to go up in life, become decent citizens and so on. Many of them refuse to be integrated and assimilated. Often means that they then get hired/used to do the dirty criminal work for those in power. But there is also an unmistakable political tendency here going back to the Black Panthers (well, you had the British Black Panthers too) of refusing to get assimilated in/by mainstream society – part of what the Panthers called ‘self-determination’. These political ideas circulate in various forms, often very incoherently, in the black community, in popular memory, as a line in hip hop lyrics, a random quote from Malcolm X (‘by any means necessary’) – often as thought, an ‘unconscious’ response or deeply ingrained leaning, a propensity.
To say that the protests and riots are mere objective effects of a bad socio-economic context is to take away the thought, the politics or subjective leaning suffusing them. In being arraigned against capital and not really racial, this ‘thought’ or politics can allow a wider class based solidarity cutting the race barrier. Sometimes however this politics gets intertwined with the fact of this underclass’s complicity in the shadowy world of gangs and criminals. The result is what we witnessed: a violent consumerism and looting alongside the anti-authoritarianism of ‘fuck the police’, ‘fight the feds’ – an unmediated direct confrontation with the police and social/public order.
Totally oblivious of any of this, those at the top echelons, those at the helm of affairs, gloating on their success, feel suddenly swept away by a hurricane which they are striving to name as looting, criminality, vandalism and so on. Is there any politics in the mish-mash of a protest/riot/looting that surprised both those on the right and left?
To struggle against the cuts, it is pointed out, is legitimate but not these protests/riots by the looters and yobs living off social benefits and carrying guns. But consider this: aren’t we told that cuts are an attack on the working people? So, will the working people always do no more than merely demand that these massive cuts be withdrawn from implementation or repealed. Will they not at some point counter-attack, stop marching in an orderly manner to Westminster, and resort to other ‘means’? Moreover, those who face not just the brunt of the cuts, fee hikes and other economic hardships, but also undergo the humiliation of police brutality, might do more than join marches and protests. For students getting kettled might be part of your heady, radical days, to be recounted in sober years of your maturity. But getting ‘stopped and searched’ your entire life till you reach the grave, is something altogether different. You need not go to a demonstration to experience it, when a life is kettled that life may explode. Someone said, “these kids are telling their life stories”.
As for the Prime Minister’s “criminality pure and simple”, recall the nursery rhyme: “The law locks up the man or woman, Who steals the goose from off the common, But leaves the greater villain loose, Who steals the common from off the goose”. Today, CCTV peers down on the commons. The immediate experience is of transparency and seamless mobility, a cityscape that assumes you are not one of those who will break in and loot, already eliciting your collaboration if not your complicity – the insufferable axis of the willing.
But then the rabble from the bottom of society comes and smashes this ideal world, targeting areas of ‘fair exchange’, of buying and selling and not the overt symbols of authority or power. But what looked like disorderly looting and ‘yobs gone wild’ was still well-directed. It carried some unarticulated thought or insight and was more than just stealing things. That which surreptitiously and cleverly assumed our complicity, without really taking our consent, has been smashed – it is this which pinches and agitates those in power, rather than the things stolen or looted or the stories of the victims. It was really not about ‘theft’ but the boldness, subversiveness and explosive charge involved – the underlying challenge to authority and the dominant order. And that it was those at the bottom of society marching into and smashing ‘our’ high streets. Hence it was not just theft or criminality.
The media images have concentrated on the looting, where those collecting the goods are grabbing things and running away like thieves. But in some cases it was not like this. On Clarence Road the entire neighborhood had turned up, and people were standing facing the shop and the burning car, lighting a cigarette, catching up with each other, some people singing. There was more than a palpable tension in the air but it did not feel like grab and run looting, but like a deftly elaborate community affair.
In the main cheap, violent consumerism was all too evident in this intifada – also opportunistic, often highly individualistic, aggressive, macho and acquisitive. Yet the mass protest/looting on Clarence Road felt as if from now on, from this spot, one might be able to tell just how repressive society normally is. The freedom the rabble was enjoying was a critique of regimentation and repression. Seeing the sheer joy among the looters carrying the goods, it felt as if the fetishistic powers of the commodity have been proletarianised. Yet, sadly it was also the proletariat commodified – not just lumpenised. The poor can be just as under the spell of the magical powers of the commodity as the rich and their looting then is not a redistribution of wealth, as some anarchists have opined, but testimony to their enslavement to brands. Can London be stopped and searched without being enslaved to the commodity?