[NetBehaviour] Burning Britain (fwd)

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Thu Aug 11 05:28:18 CEST 2011

Date: Wed, 10 Aug 2011 23:13:19
From: Portside Moderator <moderator at PORTSIDE.ORG>
Subject: Burning Britain

The Economics Conditions Driving Riot Fever

Burning Britain

August 10, 2011

The rioting, looting and plunder that started in Tottenham
on Saturday has now spread like wildfire throughout the
capital. Shops were broken into, properties vandalized,
and flats and vehicles set alight by gangs of mostly young
men in Croydon, Clapham, Brixton, Hackney, Camden,
Lewisham, Peckham, Newham, East Ham, Ilford, Enfield,
Woolwich, Ealing, and Colliers Wood. Trouble was also
reported in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and

Described by witnesses as a 'warzone', these are the worst
riots to hit London in decades. Over the next few nights,
groups of young men, some armed with make-shift weapons
and petrol bombs, overwhelmed suburban areas in what was
essentially a spontaneous ransacking spree. The chaos has
disrupted the lives of thousands of people, rendering them
homeless, destroying their businesses, and endangering
their livelihoods.

On Monday, at about 4pm, I was talking on the phone to my
friend Muddassar Ahmed, CEO of Unitas Communications,
while he was driving about town in East Ham where he
lives. We were chatting about our plans for a meal round
his place to celebrate Ramadan. Suddenly, he said, "Oh my
God. There's a group of, like, 50 young guys and they're
running straight towards me!" Fortunately they ran passed
his car, but they continued onto Ilford Lane, which they'd
barricaded using crates and boxes.

On Tuesday morning, my dad and stepmother who live in
Croydon, where some of the worst violence occurred, told
me over the phone how they'd watched as the previous night
a gang of about 20 lads smashed their way into the Staples
opposite their house and emptied almost the entire
superstore. Indeed, many of the images of the carnage
captured by journalists have also been revealing - apart
from the stealing of expensive luxury items like flat
screen televisions and hi-fi systems, a lot of the
pillaging has focused on clothes and food.

Police Brutality

So it would be gravely mistaken to assume that the rioting
and violence erupting throughout London was motivated
fundamentally by opposing police brutality exemplified in
the killing of Mark Duggan. Police brutality almost
certainly played a role in sparking the initial rage.
Early inaccurate media reports claimed that Duggan had
fired first at the SO19 police officers who were tracking
him, and that the officer who was hit was only saved by
the bullet lodging itself in his radio. Forensic analysis
later confirmed that the bullet was in fact police-issued,
throwing doubt on the whole story.

Semone Wilson, Duggan's girlfriend, said: "I spoke to him
at about 5pm and he asked me if I'd cook dinner. He said
he spotted a police car following him. By 6.15 he had been
gunned down. I kept phoning and phoning to find out where
he was. He wasn't answering. I rushed down to where it
happened. They let me through the police lines but they
wouldn't let me see his body."

According to eyewitnesses, Duggan had been disabled by
police and was lying on the ground when he had been shot.
"About three or four police officers had both men pinned
on the ground at gunpoint", said one who was at the scene.
"They were really big guns and then I heard four loud
shots. The police shot him on the floor."

Pending further disclosure, the jury is still out on what
exactly happened, but at the moment the available evidence
does not lend confidence to the original version of events
put out by anonymous police sources.

To add insult to injury (or this case, murder), when a
16-year old girl amongst the protestors who had gathered
in Tottenham on Saturday approached the police to ask
questions, the officers "set upon her with batons",
according to one resident interviewed by the BBC.

Confusing the Issues

Then the fires started. What began as a peaceful but angry
demonstration against Duggan's killing by members of
Tottenham's local community was quickly overrun and
overtaken by hundreds of youths, who exploited the
circumstances to cause havoc and loot local businesses.

The scale of the violence on Saturday alone, and the
inability of police and emergency services to respond and
contain it effectively, was instrumental in inspiring
youths all over London's suburbs to mimic the violence
and, quite literally, use the opportunity to take what
they wanted.

Unfortunately, some activists have been confused by these
events. Jodi McIntyre described the riots as an
"uprising", and suggested it should "continue in an
effective manner" with better "organisation" - "Random
looting", he explained, "is not going to overcome police

But until then, the language of the unheard will continue
to be spoken." But to what end should such admittedly
pointless random looting therefore continue? How does
exhorting its continuation in any way fit into a genuinely
progressives agenda for the inclusive, community-led,
radical systemic transformation necessary to overcome our
converging social, political, economic and cultural

Responding to criticism for expressing support for the
riots, McIntyre wrote: "If it is a question of where my
solidarity lies, and the options are M&S and Footlocker
versus young people in the streets, then there is only one
answer." To be fair McIntyre expressed "sympathy" for
those who had their "homes or cornershops damaged" and
noted he has never supporting looting or arson - but
ultimately, his comments illustrate a serious lack of
understanding of what had happened.

There is no binary moral choice between support for the
'corporate establishment' and 'young people' - as if the
riots somehow manifest young people challenging corporate
power in a genuinely progressive way. The riots, the
looting, the plunder, did not in any way constitute an
"uprising" against corporate or even state power. On the
contrary, the violence represented the most regressive
manifestations of corporate and state inculcated values of
crude materialist, market-driven hedonism. The looters and
vandals were not politically-motivated, let alone
progressively-inspired. On the contrary, what precisely
illustrates the entirely self-destructive nature of this
phenomenon is that its main victims were not the
government, nor large corporates shielded by the promise
of insurance pay-outs - but simply ordinary working
people. If this was an uprising, it ended up targeting the
very communities from which these young people came, even
if these are communities from which they feel ostracized.

Boiling Point

McIntyre is right about one thing, though, when he says,
"Inequality is at the heart of this." Indeed, the violence
is a disturbing symptom of the protracted collapse-process
which industrial civilization now finds itself in.

The vast majority of perpetrators were young people, both
men and women although mostly men. Young people in Britain
have been hit hardest by the impact of recession.
Unemployment in the UK is now at a staggering 2.49
million, having risen steadily over the last decade -
increasingly so since the 2008 crash - with 1.46 million
claiming jobseekers allowance. Across the country, one in
five 16-24 year olds - just under a million young people -
are unemployed.

Figures released just this summer showed that the economic
gloom was deepening particularly across the capital, with
20 people chasing each available job in 22 of London's 73
parliamentary constituencies. In other areas, such as
Peckham and Hackney which were also sites of major
rioting, the number of people going after each job is over
40. And in almost every seat, this measure has worsened in
the last few months.

It won't get better soon - this year will see unemployment
rise to 2.7 million. And young people will face the brunt
of it, as they already have. In the quarter to May 2011,
the employment rate of working age men in London was lower
than the national average, and underwent a "dramatic fall
of 0.9 percentage points, while the national rate remained
the same." Almost a quarter of working-age Londoners are
economically inactive - 1.3 million people, and of these
397,000 people are aged 16 and over.

And there is an unmistakable race-dimension to class
inequality. Black and ethnic minority (BME) groups face
the brunt of the impact of economic crisis. Across the UK,
BME groups have the highest rates of income-poverty, and
in London, more than half of people living in low-income
households are from ethnic minorities. According to the
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 70 per cent of those in income
poverty in inner London are from minority ethnic groups,
as are 50 per cent in outer London.

There is an interplay between the wider racial contours of
social inequalities and institutional police racism.
Despite commendable progress in significant areas, black
people are still seven times more likely to be stopped and
searched than white. Asians are twice as likely to be
stopped and searched as white people. More than 30 per
cent of all black males living in Britain are on the
national DNA database, compared with about 10 per cent of
white males and 10 per cent of Asian males. Black men are
about four times more likely than white men to have their
DNA profiles stored on the DNA database.

Meanwhile, the British government's flagship 'Big
Society'-inspired policy to support young people amounts
to nothing less than ruthlessly slashing youth services,
and hoping the 'market' - which of course brought us into
this economic mess - will magically take care of them.
"One in four of England's youth services face catastrophic
cuts of between 21-30 per cent - three times higher than
the general level of council cuts", reports Kerry Jenkins,
operations officer of Unite the Unions - a merger between
two of Britain's leading Unions, the T&G and Amicus.

"Many authorities intend to get rid of their youth
services completely, while 80% of voluntary organisations
providing services for young people have said programmes
will be cut. Local authority chiefs predict that youth
service budgets will be slashed by #100 million, leading
to the loss of 3,000 full-time youth worker jobs."

Indeed, the government was warned. Less than a year ago,
Sir Paul Ennals, Head of the National Children's Bureau,
predicted that the combination of unemployment and cuts to
services would lead to young people becoming
"progressively disengaged from their own communities in a
way that we are seeing in France", which has already seen
riots and social unrest "driven by young people who are
alienated from their community."

And as late as 2nd August - less than a week before the
riots - criminologist Professor John Pitts, an advisor to
several local authorities on violent crime and youth
culture, warned that government cuts would lead to an
increase in violent crime this summer.

The Failure of Neoliberal Capitalism

The unprecedented economic crisis, linked to the global
political economy's fundamental breaching of ecological
and energy limits, has already generated outbreaks of
civil disorder all over the world in different regional
and socio-political contexts. In the Middle East, we have
seen the Arab spring, triggered by rocketing food prices,
driven by a combination of environmental, financial and
energy factors. In Europe, we have seen protests and
rioting in Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Turkey
and France, fuelled by the devastating impact of the
global recession. It is only a matter of time before these
crisis-conditions catch-up with the United States

In the UK, converging energy, economic and environmental
crises are being refracted through the lens of a deeply
unequal, yet vehemently consumerist, society. As Professor
Pitts argued in a later interview directly about the
riots: "Many of the people involved are likely to have
been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many,
if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future."
Widening social exclusion has pushed these young people
onto the margins of conventional morality - "Those things
that normally constrain people are not there. Much of this
was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social
question to be asked about young people with nothing to
lose." Entrenched structural inequalities thus generate a
sense of justification for looting: "They feel they can
rationalise it by targeting big corporations. There is a
sense that the companies have lots of money, while they
have very little." Simultaneously, the rioting and
violence lacked any progressive content whatsoever -
driven by conventional neoliberal values of excessive
consumerism, most looters used the opportunity not to
challenge capitalism, but to indulge manically in its most
materialistic values by simply stealing the items they
could not normally afford: "Where we used to be defined by
what we did, now we are defined by what we buy. These big
stores are in the business of tempting [the consumer] and
then suddenly these people find they can just walk into
the shop and have it all."

The young people involved in this spate of violence are
beyond the conventional alienation of repressed labour.
Instead, they suffer from a deeper, more dangerous
alienation of being utterly surplus to capitalist
requirements, irrelevant and ostracized, and thus doomed
to subsist on the margins, functionally illiterate,
without hope or aspiration. That is a mode of being which
is no longer capable of recognizing ethical constraints or
boundaries, precisely because the state has already
breached its contract of citizenship to them. The shooting
of Mark Duggan, and the underbelly of class and race
inequality it followed, was merely a match to a flame that
has already burned for too long.

However the government chooses to now respond to the
escalating violence, there can be no doubt that the
episode represents a fundamental turning-point for British
society, in a world that has already passed the tipping
point on a whole range of interconnected systemic crises.
The danger is that the authorities will offer the
traditional, knee-jerk, business-as-usual response of
maximizing police state powers, rather than addressing the
root causes of our predicament. Of course, robust measures
are clearly necessary to contain the violence and hold
those responsible accountable. But we are already on the
slippery slope of intensifying state-militarization - and
we won't be able to get off as long as we refuse, as
societies, to take responsibility for the systemic crises
we all now face.

Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the
Institute for Policy Research & Development. His latest
book is A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And
How to Save It (Pluto/Macmillan, 2010), which inspired the
forthcoming documentary feature film, The Crisis of
Civilization, to be released in October this year.


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