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"The Game is Up": Unrest, Policing and the War on the Underclass

Ten years after 9/11, the 'War on Terror' in Britain is being replaced by a 'War on the Underclass' as exceptional legal powers and the militarization of the police come to constitute the new normal.

In a previous article I alluded to Giorgio Agamben's idea of the 'state of exception' as a useful concept in understanding the deployment of Section 60 (allowing stop and search withoutout suspicion) in the Borough of Westminster during the Royal Wedding and more troublingly across the whole of London during the recent Notting Hill Carnival.

For last weekend's 'static' EDL demonstration in Tower Hamlets yet another Section 60 was issued across the whole of London ( a piece of legislation originally intended for 'specified localities' such as a single borough). This was to be enforced alongside the previously declared ban on marching across 5 London boroughs for 30 days inclusive of the EDL and UAF demonstrations on the Saturday in question.

To clarify, both measures issued on a London-wide basis are truly exceptional and yet have received little to no critical attention from the mainstream media. I have it on good account that during the Notting Hill Carnival young men as far east as Bethnal Green were being stopped and searched under Section 60 legislation – yet they were not committing criminal activity nor were they entertaining the possibility of attending carnival itself. Such searches  miles away from Carnival are nothing other than an abuse of power by the officers in question. The fact is that such abuses of power - by both the Home Office in talk of restricting social media and in banning marches for 30 days, as well as by officers on the ground on a daily basis - are as frequent as they are under-examined by the mainstream media.

Perhaps the continued misuse of Section 60 may now be acting as a surrogate for the now repealed Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act. Section 44 enabled the police and the Home Secretary to define any area in the country as well as a time period wherein they could stop and search any vehicle or person, and seize "articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism". Unlike other stop-and-search powers that the police still possess, Section 44 did not require the police to have "reasonable suspicion" that an offence has been committed and to subsequently search an individual.

In 2009, over 100,000 searches were conducted under the powers, but none of these resulted in people being arrested for terrorism offences. There were however 504 arrests during this time for other offences. In January 2010 the stop-and-search powers granted under Section 44 were ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. It held that Article 8 of the ECHR had been violated in the case of two people stopped in 2003 outside the Excel Convention centre in London, which at the time was hosting a military equipment exhibition. The Court found the powers were "not sufficiently circumscribed" and lacked "adequate legal safeguards against abuse", over-ruling a 2003 High Court judgement upheld at the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. That same verdict issued by the European Court of Human Rights would fit just as well with the continuing misuse of Section 60.

While there has been a speeding up of the state of exception in light of the English Riots, with curfews on youngsters being touted and bans on individuals with criminal records entering certain cities, it is perhaps best to view the current state of affairs as an extension of the same norms which informed the 2000 Terrorism Act and the subsequent CONTEST and PREVENT strategies that were intended for radical islamism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Thus, rather then seeing marked paradigm shift in policing towards British citizens what we are instead witnessing is a continuation and escalation in the state of exception with the role of radical islamist as 'extremist other' being replaced and held alongside those groups perceived as primary participants within the riots, the long-term unemployed, poorer inner-city BME communities and NEETS (youths aged 16-24 not in education, employment or training).

As Our Kingdom co-editor, Guy Aitchison, wrote on Twitter “With the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, following on so closely from the English riots, we are witnessing the end of the "War on Terror" and its replacement by the "War on the Underclass" as the governing paradigm of state-authoritarian technocracy. Under this new scheme, the hoodie replaces the jihadi as the hostile internal Other.” I am inclined to agree.

The hypothesis of the 'state of exception' is that the contemporary state, operating amid a highly fractured, diverse and decomposed civil society, responds to such decomposition with a form of crisis management. This crisis management rears itself through the continued deployment of exceptions to the law with the justification that it is only through such exceptions that the law can be 'maintained'.

One can understand this as the legal-political basis of the 'new normal' where order can only be maintained through increased incarceration rates and a form of low-level civil war with increased surveillance between the police and the what Marx referred to as the 'lumpfenprolateriat'. The term civil war is not one I use lightly, but with the militarisation of the police they are increasingly coming to see themsemlves as paramilitaries, as for example in this interview where one officer talks of his 'tour of duty' in Manchester.

In this new normal people start talking more of security than they do of liberty (or even democracy) as a primary social good. Meanwhile the law is 'temporarily' suspended. As Pierce Penniless writes,

The new normal: wherein you can have the glass and dazzle of the Olympics, but be wary that their tin smiles and hollow luxury are now so precarious that their only guarantor is an ever more frenzied and powerful state; wherein the condition of even a tense and sickly order is a collective amnesia about police murder; wherein temporary events like riots are used to underwrite ever more permanent powers, like curfew, or arbitrary detention, or the broadening of stop-and-search. Here, in the phase of its anxious establishment as the new normal its authoritarian contours are obvious, terrifying to us, each day pummeling us with new messages about natural criminality, about dangerous forms of collectivity, with police bristling out of every corner, and unconcealed, gloating revenge plastered on the front pages of every newspaper: what happens when we stop noticing?

'The Game is Up': A Police Take on the State of Exception 

I recently read a rather enlightened comment made on the prominent police blog Inspector Gadget saluting the contribution of Notting Hill Carnival to the cultural life of Britain (a rare event on the blog in question). The comment, in response to the authoritarian tone of the article and comments, was as follows,

An event with nearly 50 years’ history, a cultural impact respected around Europe, and the finest minds in the police force, as represented on this blog, can think of nothing more constructive to say than “shut it down”.

'Gadget' who is the blog's writer and protagonist-in-chief deigned to respond to such a rarely critical contribution,

'...a cultural impact respected around Europe’ Really? What absolute bollocks. Since the riots, the games up fella, and everyone can see it. Cultural impact LOL

We are told then, by a reasonably authoritative and respected voice among the online police community (who is more in touch with the rank-and-file then the leadership could ever dream of being) that after the English riots, 'the game is up'.

One can understand 'the game being up' as the essential and final recognition of a number of things and with them the acceptance of the neccessity of the state of exception in maintaining public order.

This recognition is that from here on in, the maintenance of public order will be through the deployment of the 'exception' – a permanent breaking of the law in order to keep a pretence of law - and an increasingly militarized police.

In substantive terms one imagines that 'the game' being up means a number of things for Gadget and like-minded commentators and officers. Primarily, it appears, the 'game is up' with regards to the project of multiculturalism attempted in Britain since the first West Indian 'windrush' immigrants who arrived immediately after the Second World War. No doubt Gadget's 'solutions' would be less 'community policing', greater levels of surveillance and even more authoritarian policing practices. Comments on the thread illustrate the structural racism that remains within swathes of the British police and indeed our media.

There is also a sense of collective vindication among the comments. All those elements that Gadget, the policing establishment and the right-wing media have identified over the years as problematic – multiculturalism, community policing and political protest can now be lumped together as the underlying causes of the public disorder this country has witnessed over the last 12 months. The worst excesses of stop-and-search, anti-terrorist legislation and the ubiquity of closed circuit television on London's streets are all justifiable. The 333 people who have died in police custody since 1998 obviously go unmentioned. 

A Public Event is a Criminal Event

Another comment on the Inspector Gaget blog neatly sums up where some of the police would logically like to take the level of state surveillance,

These “carnivals” should be held in a large park somewher,lock the gates,No police presence. Condition of entry is a full search where appropriate and full CCTV, no face coverings.

Agamben points out such thoughts are central to understanding state power within modernity. He recalls that when Francis Galton and Alphonse Bertillon invented "judicial photography" for 'anthropometric identification' the procedure was reserved for criminals only. By contrast, today's society tends toward a generalization of this procedure to all citizens, placing the population under permanent suspicion and surveillance. As Agamben writes, “The political body thus has become a criminal body".The only solution Gadget's respondent has to social problems in one of the worst surveillance states on the planet is yet further surveillance. To combat criminality, everyone must be presumed to be a criminal.

Indeed the assumption made among most commenters is that every attendee at carnival was a potential criminal – a microcosm of how they regard the public at large. 

Revealingly the next comment was, “Full search, and if found to have no weapons weapons will be provided.” . Another commenter wrote,  “the rules need to be rigid, and they sometimes need to be ‘enforced’...rigidly by rough men who stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” As Gian Maria Volonte says in Elio Petri's cinematic masterpiece 'Investigation of a Citizen Beyond Suspicion' 'repression is civilisation' – the writer of that comment would most probably agree. 

Escalation in the State of Exception

As tensions become more exacerbated and austerity comes home to bite political protest of all kinds, be it workers, students or the far right, is likely to increase.

A "post-political subjectivity" will continue to inform events such as the riots and the mobilisation of counter-vigilante groups. In Tottenham I heard young black men and women talking in the most political tones possible – some spoke of a new black rights movement to challenge a systemically racist and authoritarian police force. Many did not however. This is not to say their behaviour 'wasn't political'. On the contrary, it is that in its current form it is a primal scream against a powerlessness that is cultural, economic and political. It currently seeks to negate, not propose.

The London Metropolitan Police, from the rank-and-file to the leadership,is capable of seeing something that their political masters just can't admit. As we step into a prolonged period of economic uncertainty amid a highly decomposed civil society, public order maintained by consent will prove increasingly difficult. While last weekend's EDL march in Tower Hamlets was small, in its de-industrialised heartlands of Stoke, Bolton and elsewhere it is far stronger and will only grow as increasing unemployment, high inflation and ever-more-scarce state benefits come to bite. The rise of the EDL has a specific economic context that is as easily dismissed as that which informed the recent riots (go to 3:30 of this video where 'Gaz' talks about his own prospects).

With the arrival of 'GFC 2' we will almost certainly see economic crisis translate to the increased 'suspension' of law and our 'rights' in order to maintain them. Carl Schmitt writes as much with regards to Germany in the early 1930's. Agamben reminds us that Hitler never abrogated the Weimar Constitution but that he merely suspended it with the Reichstag Fire Decree issued on 28 February 1933. Indefinite suspension of law is what characterizes the state of exception. Such a suspension was the politically expedient way of maintaining a veneer of continuity with the status quo while in fact moving Germany after 1933 in a drastically new direction. If economic crisis turns to social crisis, as it did in Europe during the 1930's, expect the same to occur in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Unlike the Greeks and Spaniards we have a more striated and decomposed civil society, and a government which has maintained a more authoritarian technocracy since 9/11. The 'End of History' and the lack of any discernible hostile threat after the end of the Cold War meant that in the wake of 9/11 the figure of enemy was displaced onto the hostile 'Jihadi' 'other' – the apparatus configured to deal with this invisible threat is now being turned onto 'hoodies' and primarily BME males in urban areas.

From Guantanamo to "Feral Youth"

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11 it appears that the figure of 'homo sacer', he or she without rights or legal person-hood is slowing gravitating, from the Islamist of Guantanamo to the urban poor of Anglo-American cities. Not only was there talk of removing housing and benefits from families of those who may have had participants within the riots but amid certain quarters there was also talk of taking away their right to vote, a point I frequently saw discussed on Twitter.

Agamben offers an explanation of the concept of 'Homo Sacer' within his own ouevre,

Sovereignty, then, is conceived from ancient times as the power which determines what or who is to be incorporated into the political body (in accord with its 'bios') by means of the more originary exclusion (or exception) of what is to remain outside of the political body—which is at the same time the source of that body's composition ('zoe')

Post 9/11 sovereignty, then, consists of two elements. Firstly, the isolation and exclusion of the 'terrorist' other from the body-politic through the deployment of the figure of 'Homo Sacer' and the displacement of the enemy onto this politically excluded figure. Secondly, as we have seen, there is the state of exception – a theme that persists within the political appartus of modernity where sovereignty is no longer held in the body of one person but rather is disembodied within the logic of an appartus of governmentality.

Amid the ongoing global financial crisis and the immediate aftermath of the London riots, it seems that on both counts we are seeing a shift in who constitutes the 'enemy' and the legitimating narrative that permits 'exception'. As Aitchison pointed out, we are witnessing the end of the "War on Terror" and its replacement by the "War on the Underclass". This is not just a war over economic and social rights but also of political and legal status. Nowhere else is this more evident then when Matthew Vadem of the American Spectator argued that the poor should not vote,

It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country...encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn't about helping the poor...it's about helping the poor to help themselves to others' money.

While commenting about a piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about people lining up for housing assistance, another 'eminent' individual on the American right, Rush Limbaugh asked, “If people can’t even feed and clothe themselves should they be allowed to vote? Should they be voting?” Within the 'New Normal' criminality and poverty are as interchangeable as they were for Cesare Lombroso and 19th century criminologists.

The rhetoric of 'feckless' and 'feral' rioters is that of the exclusionary Other. The manner in which they are said to have attacked communities, it is as though they descended from the sky as some foreign entity as opposed to living in those 'communities' themselves. They are a part of it, a consequence of it – the otherness that opposes them to the 'community' is inaccurate and insufficient.

The Ground Zero of the Global Financial Crisis

The Section 60s, the huge policing presence at Carnival (5,0000 officers) and the EDL demo (3,000 officers) and the 30 day suspension of marching in five boroughs is only the tip of an iceberg. The Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee will certainly prove interesting, especially if they occur within the context of double-dip recession. Suspension of liberties and rights in the name of 'security' could be far greater then we even now can imagine. The displacement of the 'war on terror' becoming one of a 'war against a criminal underclass' will almost certainly escalate.

Over the coming years the political establishment has two options. They can decide to either engage with issues of structurally high unemployment, housing, debt, low-pay (all issues of huge importance in the EDL heartlands of Stoke and Lancashire), tax justice and an increasingly authoritarian police or they can ignore all of this, and persist in the belief that 'security'  can be feasibly maintained through the increasing deployment of 'exceptional' powers.

One is reminded of the intro to Mathieu Kassowitz's 1995 film about the struggle for existence in the Parisian banlieues La Haine where a man who is falling from a skyscraper keeps saying to himself 'so far, so good...' . That is the overwhelming sentiment one takes from the political and mainstream media establishment about recent events – we have had policing operations on a par with that of the Royal Wedding twice in as many weeks in London and yet the BBC has said virtually nothing on the matter.

We can reasonably predict which 'solution' will be adopted. Through the greater deployment of the state of exception the British state will render the existing situation worse. Section 44 may have been repealed, but the spirit which brought it about is as strong as ever. Ironically, it is only political activists and rank-and-file police officers who seem to recognise that the worst is yet to come. While their politics and proposed solutions to the problem are diametrically opposed - both groups recognise something Westminster and a supplicant media are singly incapable of admitting. Section 60's every week and declaring events where hundreds are arrested as peaceful is now 'business as usual'.

Ten years after 9/11, the 'War on Terror' is being replaced by a 'War on the Underclass'. In a post-growth Britain where the global financial crisis is being recognised as something more akin to Japan's lost decade(s) rather then a temporary blip it should come as no surprise that we see a return to the semantics of the 'enemy within' albeit within a fundamentally new and intensified form.

About the author

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media and Silke Digital. He is an expert on digital media, protest and political communications and has published with, among others, the Guardian, Vice and the LRB. He is currently completing a Ph.D at the New Political Communications Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can follow him on twitter @aaronbastani


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