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Why here, why now?

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Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause? Pure accident? Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life? The coalition politicians (including new New Labour, who might well sign up to a national government if the recession continues apace) with their petrified ideologies can’t say that because all three parties are equally responsible for the crisis. They made the mess.

They privilege the wealthy. They let it be known that judges and magistrates should set an example by giving punitive sentences to protesters found with peashooters. They never seriously question why no policeman is ever prosecuted for the 1000-plus deaths in custody since 1990. Whatever the party, whatever the skin colour of the MP, they spout the same clichés. Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong. But why is it happening now? Why didn’t it happen last year? Because grievances build up over time, because when the system wills the death of a young black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.

And it might get worse if the politicians and the business elite, with the support of the tame state television and Murdoch networks, fail to deal with the economy, and punish the poor and the less well-off for government policies they have been promoting for more than three decades. Dehumanising the ‘enemy’, at home or abroad, creating fear and imprisonment without trial cannot work for ever.

Were there a serious political opposition party in this country it would be arguing for dismantling the shaky scaffolding of the neo-liberal system before it crumbles and hurts even more people. Throughout Europe, the distinguishing features that once separated centre-left from centre-right, conservatives from social democrats, have disappeared. The sameness of official politics dispossesses the less privileged segments of the electorate, the majority.

The young unemployed or semi-employed blacks in Tottenham and Hackney, Enfield and Brixton know full well that the system is stacked against them. The politicians’ braying has no real impact on most people, let alone those lighting the fires in the streets. The fires will be put out. There will be some pathetic inquiry or other to ascertain why Mark Duggan was shot dead, regrets will be expressed, there will be flowers from the police at the funeral. The arrested protesters will be punished and everyone will heave a sigh of relief and move on till it happens again.

Comments on “Why here, why now?”

  1. Ben_Stanley says:

    How does this ‘explanation’ square with the fact that riots do not occur with anything like the same degree of predictability in many other places in the UK where problems of social exclusion are just as acute?

  2. While I think Tariq Ali has correctly identified some of the contributing factors to the riots, it is not the complete explanation. However, his recognition of the blurring of lines among political tendencies is important; this blurring may have results we do not fully realize, and in an objective sense limit policy alternatives.

    I think Ben Stanley raises an interesting question when he notes “the fact that riots do not occur with anything like the same degree of predictability in many other places in the UK where problems of social exclusion are just as acute?” Certainly it is worthwhile to determine what factors may be different in these areas where violence does not occur.

    There is yet another aspect to the riots, which for those of us on the left is sometimes harder to acknowledge: Notwithstanding the issues and context raised by Mr Ali, there is a component to the riots which seems to reflect thuggery for its own sake, a romancing with violence, and a spewing of venom in the form of sexism and homophobia. Writer Sonny Singh has recognized and commented on this aspect on Twitter (and perhaps elsewhere, but it is on Twitter where I’ve seen her remarks), and I think she is right when she says such behaviour is inexcusable. Nonetheless, we need to respond to it in ways which may lead to solutions, though in the circumstance we may have no sense of what such a response may be.

    Perhaps such criminality is an outcome one might expect from the issues Mr Ali has raised; as Ms Singh notes, regardless, it is inexcusable.

    On one hand I am prepared to say some of the thuggery may be the result of social, economic, and accompanying psychological oppression. On the other, I wonder whether all the participants in this behaviour are from the groups referenced by Mr Ali. Certainly, in riots elsewhere, we’ve seen that the thug element which seems to delight in transforming protest into riot are often not from the protester cohort, and are frequently sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes.

    Drawing on my Aboriginal culture and an ongoing concern for our youth in Canada, where violence, gangs, and suicide are all too common, I believe we need stretch the limits of our compassion, creativity, and commitment to building relationships with youth.

    Daly

  3. Geoff Roberts says:

    Is it, I wonder, a coincidence that the world’s financial system is breaking down just as these riots break out? There must be some conspiracy theories out there. Aren’t the rioters doing to retail stores exactly what the financial wizards are doing to the markets right now? Seizing the chances offered when there is no control? I’d say we need to back off from capitalism – what we are seeing is the two sides of the neo-liberal medal.

  4. modest moose says:

    If this is so political why are local passersby, journalists, cyclists and buses being attacked? Why is the violence channeled not to any articulation of demand or grievance (as in Syria and Egypt), but to trainers and burgers? And why does similar outcry, vigil, and protest never seem to take place when dozens of young innocent lives are lost through black on black gun/knife crime? Or is the latter also down to the ‘grimness ‘ of life and government cuts? Isn’t Tariq Ali falling into the same old middle class leftist trap of patronising these young ‘rioters’ , by depriving them a priori and en masse of subjecthood and responsibility for their own actions? I’m not saying there aren’t reasons for a culture of thuggery and crime taking root in certain run-down communities, but placing it all squarely on Tory repression and somehow singularly ‘grim’ conditions won’t wash…

    • outofdate says:

      Now now. I’m a reactionary myself, but are you saying these are simply what dear Michael Howard used to call ‘criminil pipil’? Then may I refer you to the question in the headline…

      • modest moose says:

        Wistful old lefties (among whom I count myself) might like to will this an insurrection, but it’s the rioters who are – figuratively and literally speaking -‘reactionary’. That’s all they’ve done: react, thoughtlessly and without a shred of political or tactical nous. And the only people hurt by this are not the government, or local forces of repression, but the same people who are always stepped on and over in situations like this – honest law abiding working class people (among whom I also count myself). I live on a solidly working class and ethnically none-more-diverse estate in Finsbury Park, and I’ve walked all around this area for the past two days without seeing a peep of tension or trouble. And when the pseudo-apocalyptic dust settles the more interesting Q might be of such hold-out and hold-together places – why NOT here? I have my own theories, but right now I’m in no rush to either judge or, well, merely react …

        • Geoff Roberts says:

          French intellectuals were faced with the same agonising problem when the banlieus blew up a few years ago. The trigger event was a similar one too. Where would the rioters get their political nous I wonder? As far as the areas that get hit are concerned, I’d guess that it depends on the distribution of Blackberries in a particular area. Revolutions break out because of a fairly simple spontaneous trigger event (1789, 1905, 1918 and so on) The underlying problems and the power factor determine whether it takes off (1789) or dies a death (1905, 1918)

          • modest moose says:

            How much political nous does it take, not to attack and despoil the basic structure and fabric of your own community? The more “agonising” problems are those now facing (e.g.) the owners of small businesses in such communities, who have been ruined. The black writer Ishmael Reed used to execrate what he called ‘gliberals’ like Norman Mailer et al who romanticised the ‘outlaw’ mentality of bullies and criminals, while caring nothing for the problems of those who often tirelessly and quietly serve their communities for years. I think there is a deeper problem on both sides of the intellectual barricade here – the idea that violence per se is THE revolutionary act or solution, with a concomitant and rather macho contempt for smaller scale progress, patience, the domestic, hospitality, education, care, etc.

            • Attrition says:

              Violence has worked very well for the boss class wouldn’t you say?

              • Geoff Roberts says:

                Yes, abstract violence but violence nontheless. What Schumpeter called ‘the creative force of destruction.’ Tony Judt called it the ‘wrecking ball of capitalism.’ And that’s the problem. The rioters are keeping thousands of police at work, creating openings for builders and affiliated trades, for suppliers of Blackberrys and plasma screens and preparing the world for a new phase of capitalist expansion. What did Marx say? Oh, forget it.

            • monsieurtartuffe says:

              You really consider electronics, jewelry, and sports apparel stores to be the “basic structure and fabric” of these communities? And you really think the looters and rioters consider them that way? There’s a real problem with your sense of perspective and our society at large if these retailers are to be considered as one of the more important structural elements of our communities or if retail consumption is how we define our inter-relations.

              Get real.

              • modest moose says:

                The short hand phrase “basic structure and fabric” was meant to indicate local shops and services, homes, buses, electricity, not to mention less tangible and harder to repair things like trust, care, cohesiveness, etc. Not to mention all the money that will now have to be diverted into rebuilding etc; not to mention insurance premiums etc (and other matters I know little about so will leave there). I thought this would be obvious; sorry if it wasn’t.

                Tottenham – supposedly so ‘grim’ and deprived as to be unsurvivable – had made huge steps in the last 30 years, a lot of it down to the dedicated and often thankless work of local outreach workers, youth projects, etc. But to listen to some commentators you’d think time had stood still since Thatcher. Maybe they should actually visit some of these places instead of pontificating from afar. Never mind the cliche of the “boss class” or the repressive actions of some police (which, BTW the way, I never denied) – the real villains here are the gang leaders; it is community leaders and youth project workers and others who are trying to steer youth out of self-limiting ideas of themselves and their potential that the gangs REALLY hate, not the police or government. (Read some Fanon; there is such a thing as carrying residues of awful self hatred around.) Thus – ‘you got played, bruv’. The gang members who orchestrated a lot of this violence and looting knew what they were doing.

                I’m not an idiot. I know a) that conditions are bad and b) that it’s not all just about trainers and plasma screens. But to imagine it’s as simple as blaming Tory cuts and a somehow hypnotic brainwashing media hegemony before which young kids are powerless to resist – well, I’M SORRY, but I continue to find this simplistic and patronising. The problems in these communities are complex and multi hued. Like I say – I’m not an idiot. I’ve lived in this area 30 years. I know about police harassment and racism. But there has been some progress on this – to deny it would be stupid. There has also been the sea-change of gang culture, complete with knifes, guns, homophobia, etc. (I grew up here in the far different and more inclusive Rasta era, and was deeply involved with that culture.) What would you have the police do in this situation? There are simultaneously pressured to DO SOMETHING NOW, and preached at to go softly softly while they’re at it. Some of the highest despair and strongest demand for solutions to the gang problem come from sections of the black community itself: i.e. mothers who despair of the poison being fed to otherwise intelligent and sensitive sons, that any aspiration to better yourself in any way is “strictly white man business”. Yes cuts, yes police repression – but to pretend that’s the whole story: no.

                As I said before -the people who always get the worse of such events are the ordinary law-abiding working class people of all races. Talk to them; find out how angry they are; find out whether they accept some of the current excuses being proffered.

  5. khammond says:

    The rage and looting across urban Britain, and especially in London, is the negation of the negation in daily life. Those from whom everything has been taken are taking whatever they can. As an American one wonders why our own streets are not full of the angry and the frustrated. Spontaneous uprising is not enough to transform the world, but without it there is no way to launch the struggle.

  6. modest moose says:

    “Those from whom everything has been taken are taking whatever they can”? I’m sorry – this is meaningless hyperbole; it is an insult both to the working class of the past who genuinely lived in deprivation, but did so with dignity and fierceness and pride. It is also an insult to those in the rest of the world who live in real ghettoes, with all basics of life and democracy far out of reach. Only in some topsy turvy make believe land could 14 year old kids in £100 trainers with £300 Blackberries be called “those from whom everything has been taken.” (I don’t even own a Blackberry!) And in the final analysis you are doing such already misguided youth NO favours with this grotesque pantomime of fake empathy, fake pity, fake politique.

    • cigar says:

      “I’m sorry – this is meaningless hyperbole;”
      I don’t understand this tendency of a certain kind of dogmatic bore to apologize before offending with lies and deception. You claim to stand for the working class, but only mention in passing the question of race, which for you boils down to Caviar gauche platitudes such as “ethnically none-more-diverse estate”. Most of the posters here have completely ignored what Ali wrote about Blacks: indeed they have endured decades not only of discrimination, but also of outright violence. Young blacks get stopped by the police and are searched for no reason at all – just because they happened to be around another corrupt, racist cop. Here’s the kind of report Mr Not at all Modest Moose won’t want us to read:

      http://counterpunch.org/austin08092011.html

      So on top of the oh-so modest greetings they get from the police, they have to endure discrimination *right on their own neighborhood businesses*! The owners are non-black immigrants who commute in from other neighborhoods, and so are the workers they hire. And so it isn’t surprising to find these kind of views:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biJgILxGK0o&feature=player_embedded

      Why not turn that modesty into generosity, Mr Working Class Moose, and put yourself in the place of the interviewee? Would your anger be so deceptively modest if you had to face the same kind of repression on your own street? Would you be as craven with the established, rotten order when your own son complains about it? What would you feel then, aware of the impossibility of seeking any kind of serious legal redress for such insult and injury against your family and your entire people?

      But I can guess, from the wimpy tone of your posts, that, like the BBC newscaster at the end, you would wince, and with a not so modest “I’am so sorry, but…”, cut and so censor any views threatening the manicured lawns of your own.

      But I will be unmodestly generous and leave the rest of this august forum to you, to rant against me to your own oh-so modest heart’s pleasure. I know your type – argument for your kind is an exercise in softening the sharp edges of conservative hypocrisy. Bybye!

      • modest moose says:

        I’ve replied to some points above.

        But if we’re swapping You Tube clips try this:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIpATMs-dHU

        This is the Star Gang N17 who Mark Duggan belonged to; and as you will see from the video there is a positively pornographic and ugly fetishisation and promotion of guns.

        Yes, the reasons for Duggan’s death are beginning to look more dubious than at first asserted. But bear in mind that what he was carrying wasn’t ‘just a replica': it had been converted for use; bear in mind too that he wasn’t just picked out of the blue on the street by ignorant racist police; this was a long term Operation Trident surveillance to do with his gang activities. (Also, contra Darcus Howe’s needlessly inflammatory assertion he did NOT “have his head blown off”.) I’m not saying any of this justified his shooting (whether he aimed his gun at the police or otherwise – altho’, BTW, how are police supposed to know something is a replica at such a distance?), but it is important to keep track of ALL the facts here at a time when things are so tinderbox. These gangs make life hellish for EVERYONE of all races in their communities.

        Thank you for the link to the Hal Austin article – parts of which are indeed acute, and useful, and telling. Although I’m left slightly confused – genuinely -as the first half of his article seems to lay most of the blame at the door of the “invading army” of the police, as well as non-black shop keepers, and others too lazy or racist to find out the full picture. (And some of this is undoubtedly true.) But in the final 5 or 6 paragraphs of his piece (starting “In the final analysis…”) he seems to despairingly and angrily acknowledge a far wider and deeper and long-term failure of will and political nerve and community effort in the black community itself.

        Which is not exactly what I was saying myself – but it is heartening to hear at least one voice acknowledge that things are far more complex and difficult than other commentators are willing to say. The Austin article also touches on something that I fear may be the most worrying aspect of all this – the possibility that, post-riot, communities that were otherwise scraping by together might begin to divide down ethnic lines… Sikh/Muslim/more recent immigrants, with businesses and family concerns, united against what they see as feckless, disrespectful, out of control and criminal elements both black AND white. (Which, coincidentally, only an idiot can have failed to notice that a lot of the rioting was, if anything, in some places, predominantly white.)

        • modest moose says:

          PS, just for the record, here’s another interesting view, from the ground:

          thequietus.com/articles/06730-hackney-riots

          E.g.:

          “The area of Hackney where I live is no longer the bleak, prostitution and drug-riddled sinkhole that it was ten years ago. I spoke to one taxi driver who had lived on the Pembury Estate (from where most of the trouble seems to have come) describing how drug gangs would force him to drive around London, pay his fare, then pull a gun on him and demand it back. He moved out to Leyton, and told me he would not bring his black son up in Hackney. He was full of praise for the massive changes – and yes, gentrification – that has happened in the Borough over the past ten years. The Pembury Estate has recently undergone a massive refurbishment programme.

          “The nearest secondary school to Clarence Road, where most of the violence took place, is the Mossbourne Academy. This was built on the site of the Hackney Downs School (former pupil, Harold Pinter) that in the 1990s was described as “the worst school in Britain”. Earlier this year, Mossbourne Academy was praised as “a spectacular breakthrough” by Ofstead.”

          • Thomas Jones says:

            Interesting stuff. Though it doesn’t not support the view that government policy makes a difference: couldn’t this be taken as evidence that Labour’s mildly amelioriative social policies slowly improved things, and the coalition’s rolling them back is suddenly making things worse?

    • Attrition says:

      Where have you been, Rip Van Winkle? There has been a class war on since the 1970s. This is what you get when you institutionalise mass unemployment, long-term unemployment, colonial gendarmerie/militia, summary ‘justice’ and bad manners.

    • monsieurtartuffe says:

      Attrition has got it right.

      modest moose, your frame of reference on this is so narrow you can’t see the forest for the trees. Deprivation doesn’t necessarily always mean material deprivation – deprivation of opportunity is equally as damaging and unjust. Just because someone has access to a cellular telephone doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to repressive forces, or have been excluded from a certain way of life because of the socio-economic circumstances of their birth and upbringing. You can’t honestly tell me, with the tuition rises, cuts in youth programs and healthcare, and overtly violent, repressive policing, that some of the people in these communities are being deprived of opportunities and lives that those in a higher income bracket can take for granted.

      None of this justifies violence, or theft, but your comments seem to consistently try to elide the real material and societal circumstances underlying what is happening.

    • outofdate says:

      No, the point is that these are not politicians or activists, it’s not a considered response to the ‘underlying’ problems, these are people who blow (say) their dole cheques on blackberries and overpriced plastic shoes but live on a diet of — not exactly broken biscuits maybe but probably a lot of potatoes, salt and saturated fat. Did you hear those girls on the BBC who said it was ‘fun though’ and shows the police and ‘rich people’ (meaning off-license owners) ‘that we can do what we want’?

      Those are the lines along which they feel the divide runs; doesn’t matter whether they’re right or not. The culture into which they’re trained doesn’t offer them any values other than consumer goods. When deprivation becomes endemic it doesn’t mean people don’t have any spending money at all; the questions are where they get it, whether they’re in a position to spend it wisely, and whether they’re ever likely to get out of Croydon.

      It’s smug to say you don’t own a Blackberry (neither do I, that’s oddly enough an indicator of privilege), it’s probably disingenuous to claim you’re working class, or at any rate you can write coherently and say ‘politique’, which very much leads me to suspect you went to university: already you’re not on their side but on mine, so it’s pointless trying to argue with the rioters as it were from within.

  7. modest moose says:

    I started to respond to this but soon found myself lost in dozens of pages of notes – the questions raised by the riots are many and various and need more space than a comment box. I simply repeat that so far I have been disappointed (and infuriated) by the traditional Left’s own flat-earth response to events (as exemplified here by Tariq Ali and others) – it seems patronising and out of touch and way out of time. And just for the record – no, I never attended university or any college of further education; I am that once common (and splendid) thing, a working class autodidact. I will admit being partial to a spot of disingenuousness, but am somewhat darkly suspicious of your accusations of coherence. I live among these ‘rioters’ and know them far better than I want to; know their combination of sophistication and blankness, cynicism and naivete, tribalism and masquerade. A particular phrase keeps resounding through my aching, over-stimulated head: ‘You got played, bruv.’

    • JWA says:

      That sounds like the right line to me – where will I get to read your considered reflections?

    • outofdate says:

      What? You want we should look at them as fully responsible adults who make their own choices and whatnot? As in blaming the system after the age of 19 is really rather pathetic? I think you’re wrong, they’re not, and we must patronise. Otherwise why clamour for better education for all — even if you did well enough without it — unless we can admit that not-so-good-education produces (how would you put this?) perhaps less staunch contributors to the civil society?

  8. echothx says:

    What’s the overwhelming pressure on the young these days? It isn’t work hard for social change, it isn’t fight the system, get an education, do something for your community etc. It’s get rich, consume, get bling, get laid. We’re told that education’s going to be unaffordable, healthcare’s going to be privatised, and there’s going to be no money to care for them if they get old.They think they’ll make more money dealing drugs than flipping burgers and get more out of life living fast and dying young. What reason do these rioters have to believe the western democratic dream of equal opportunities if we don’t? The riots were anarcho-street capitalism, the brutal appropriation of commodities to be fenced in minutes for hard cash and more good times.
    Jonathon Tomlinson. Narrow Way, Hackney http://abetternhs.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/last-night/

  9. Dr Paul says:

    Fish rot from the head, and the government will not be keen to point to a whole range of manifestations whose insidious consequences have seeped deeply into the pores of society.

    Politicians and big-businessmen demand austerity whilst jealously defending their own incomes. The recent Murdoch scandal has shown how his empire established corrupt relations with politicians and the police, and did not hesitate in breaking the law when tapping thousands of people’s telephones. Bankers continue to pay themselves huge bonuses even after losing billions and having had to be bailed out by the state. Large numbers of well-paid MPs happily claimed excessive expenses or fiddled them outright. Successive British governments have thought nothing of attacking and invading foreign countries that posed no threat, and covering their reasons for so doing with lies and distortions.

    What are people to assume from this? That one can lie, fiddle, bribe, be hypocritical, break the law and attack others with impunity. If the rich and powerful are doing all this, when they are bending and breaking their own laws, then why should a young person, unemployed, treated with contempt by the authorities, with no sense of belonging to society, not feel that he has a right to lash out, to seize what he feels could be his?

    Those who have participated in or have encouraged such behaviour should not be surprised when others, especially those who feel excluded from society, act in a similarly selfish and even criminal manner.

    With such social mores seeping down from the top, we are very fortunate not to have seen more riots in our inner-cities. Something very fundamental has to change before we can be sure that such riots do not happen again.

  10. neilb says:

    Neoliberalism’s chickens come home to roost, no…eternal return: again and again and again and again…Criminal or not, these events are self-referential in that they refer back to the very capacity to do what people are doing, whether it’s damage private property, fuck with police in the streets, steal shit, or defend one’s little island of everyday life. What’s closer to ‘a little bit of the ol’ ultraviolence': the ‘subjective’ acts of ‘opportunistic thugs and rioters’ or the naturalized ground of capital, speculation, and culture of toxic social and economic debts?

  11. jekal says:

    no no no, the only reason this has happened Now is because for the first time in rudeboy history they realised that via cooperation they could achieve far more than they ever could have alone (in their individual gangs) – that’s unprecedented. It’s probably the first time it’s ever happened in the entire history of 20th/ 21st century gang culture. These rudeboys ultimately limit their terror by their own passion for territorialism. This hasn’t been a slow-bubbling socio-economic volcano which has finally erupted, this has been a very sharp realisation put into action, wholly stimulated by the visuals of people looting – people stealing things that they want and the police doing nothing. We’ve had rudeboys in this exact state in this exact way for decades. They usually manage their terror between them, for those three nights, to massive advantage, they shared it. All the soup has always been the same; since we’ve been born, nothing’s changed much – the deciding factor is whether enough youts will choose to come together or not. If they do, no single police force in the world would be able to manage them.

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