One of the strangest platitudes that all political leaders seem compelled to utter this week is that there is "no excuse for looting" and that smashing up shops, setting fire to cars and hurling scaffold poles at policemen is "completely without justification". I'm glad to have this confirmed, or else I'd wonder if there were an entire avenue of legitimate self-expression that I'd been ignoring all these years. No, quite right. Nihilism is nihilistic. Don't touch it, kids.
The platitude seems to arise thanks to the following repeated media set-piece:
Interviewer: "Leftwing Pundit, do you have any idea why this is happening?"
Leftwing Pundit: "well I guess it may have something to do with the lack of hope, aspiration and firm parenting in Britain's cities"
Interviewer: "Rightwing Pundit, do you agree?"
Rightwing Pundit: "Absolutely not! There can be no excuse for looting. Destroying property and burning houses is completely without justification!"
In this set-piece, Rightwing Pundit certainly looks slightly more stupid, because he or she has firstly mistaken an explanation for a justification, and secondly failed to spot that Leftwing Pundit was simply answering the question that was put to him. But plus ca change.
However, I'm also troubled by how weak the sociological, socialist and structuralist analyses of these events have been over the last few days. Attempts by Ken Livingstone and Polly Toynbee to peg these events to the Coalition's economic policies look very flimsy, seeing as the cuts are only just beginning. Even if 15% of the public sector had been axed in May of last year, I think it would be crudely economistic to assume that people might therefore divert their energies from community drama projects to smashing up JD Sports within the space of 15 months. And while global capitalism may be in meltdown, this is not (yet) represented in the unemployment figures, which are not as bleak as many have expected.
The dilemma for the Left, and for sociologists, is the following: whether or not to trust people's own understanding of what they're doing. And if a young looter says nothing about politics or inequality, and displays no class consciousness, to what extent can a culturally sensitive democratic socialist disagree with them? For sure, the Old Left would have no problem re-framing the behaviour of an egomaniac teenager burning down his neighbour's shop in terms of class. That's what crude Marxist 'critical realism' meant. But the New Left, along with the 'cultural turn' in sociology, was meant to be slightly more capable of listening.
Anecdotes do more work than structural analysis, at least for the time being. This piece by Paul Lewis and James Harkin is interesting. Then watch this video from 14'30" onwards and listen to this interview with two female rioters, for more evidence on the rise of the 'criminal consumer'.
Many Londoners are less than flabbergasted by these riots. For one friend of mine, it reminded him of an incident in 1992 when 40 young teenagers emerged with weapons from an estate on Essex Road to hold him hostage in a shop, because he had accidentally knocked into one of them on the way in. When the police arrived, they drove him away, but that was it. I suffered something similar in a kebab shop on Mile End Road in 2000, leaving me hiding behind a deep fat fryer for three hours waiting for police who never arrived at all (in both cases, shopkeepers stood in the way of grave violence, while also fearing the repercussions for their businesses of doing so). The more astute middle classes of Hackney have recognised that their own gentrifying activities have been creating quite surreal forms of cultural apartheid for a while, as Iain Sinclair argued on Radio 4 yesterday, and this piece well describes.
The symptoms are familiar: fierce inarticulate aggression bordering on sadism, destruction as a form of creativity, sufficient boredom that an entire evening can be dedicated to hounding a single innocent individual, terrifying group norms whereby a 16-year-old is leading a pack of 14-year-olds. American friends of mine laugh when I've told them of experiences on London's streets in the past - "those kids'd totally get their asses kicked over here!" - but they may not appreciate the vacuum of public etiquette that a child can sense, and then flood with their own hatred for everything around them. Dating back to the first time I was mugged as a 16-year-old, by children my own age in a daylit Dalston street, I have never feared any adult as much as I've feared children on London's streets. New Labour deserves some credit for at least sensing this phenomenon, via its MPs' constituencies circa the 2001 election, leading to the ill-fated 'Respect' agenda and ASBOs. Due to the geography of Britain's electoral map, I doubt many Conservatives could have had a clue such behaviour was even possible.
Do these anecdotes and qualitative impressions mean that it isn't about class, that it isn't about capitalism? Not quite. But Marxists need to remember the Hegelian distinction between 'in itself' and 'for itself'. In themselves, these riots may indeed be about inequality: the concentration of wealth and power may simply have become too unwieldy, regardless of what the rioters think is going on. But for themselves, they are about power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not crediting the participants with being able to make sense of what they're doing. And if there's one thing likely to incite even more rioting, it's treating the participants as lacking independence of thought. In many ways, blame is what they each individually deserve, because recognition of their own individual agency is what they most desire.
Sociologists and socialists are wary of blaming individuals, for events that they are not entirely in control of, and structures that they didn't design. But surely a nuanced understanding of contemporary individualism recognises that it is no less real for having been politically constructed. Political and economic ideas and concepts can become more truthful over time, if there is enough power behind them. The neoliberal vision of the individual ego, choosing, desiring and consuming, independent of social norms or institutions, has grown more plausible over the past thirty years. Once it becomes adopted by people to understand and criticise their own lives and actions, then it attains a type of 'performative' and interpretive reality that class may have done in the past, but no longer does.
As David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, combine neo-classical economics with the 1960s rhetoric of emancipation, and you have a heady ideological cocktail, that draws people into conceiving of themselves as autonomous sovereign selves. Ask today's rioter what he is doing, and he will reply using the language of self, pleasure, economic freedom and individual recognition. This borders on the concerns of the Left, when it enters into identity politics, but for the most part it is entirely neoliberal. He didn't write this script, but he did choose to read from it.
As any student of the philosophy of social science knows, there is some interplay between the concepts used to explain another's action, and how that actor understands what they are doing. Often explanatory frameworks become adopted by the actors being analysed. This has a political dimension too. The Brixton and Toxteth riots of the 1980s were quite manifestly political. They had political spokespersons, grievances and shared demands, lending themselves to sociological analysis. In themselves and for themselves, they were about police brutality, racism and the devastation of urban economies. And for all these reasons, it became all the more important for Conservative politicians to describe them using the language of individual morality, self-control, blame and criminality. The more collectivist the phenomenon (both in itself and for itself), the more urgently the Right will mobilise its individualist explanatory frameworks.
Strangely, other than the repeated mantra that there is "no excuse" for looting, I've been surprised by how guarded the political classes have been on this occasion. I assumed that moralistic rhetoric would be raining down by now, focused on absent fathers, bringing back the birch, national service and banning computer games. But no. Could it be that the absence of politics, of sociological rationale, and of socialist ambition in these events means that they are, from a Rightwing perspective, comparatively safe? While they are, at least 'for themselves', acts of egoistic, hedonistic, moral transgressions, there is no need for Tory MPs to take to the airwaves and describe them as such. By acting as if there is 'no such thing as society', the rioters are already doing this for them.