Monday, August 15, 2011


A large number of people whose blogs I read are writing about the British riots. I know nothing, really, about them, and my default idea on riots is that the Dead Kennedys pretty much said everything already in their song "Riot". (Chorus: "Riot- the unbeatable high / Riot- shoots your nerves to the sky / Riot- playing into their hands / Tomorrow you're homeless / Tonight it's a blast.") But I don't need to know about the riots themselves to know that some of what is being said about them on the left is pretty troubling, politically. And, of course, much more so on the right, but those people aren't worth my time.

But no one will take you seriously if you rely on the Dead Kennedys, so I went back and did what I always do when I think about social justice: re-read the Book of Amos. That is one strange, strange text, and it's foundational to how I think about social justice because some of its most evocative language was used for the U.S. Civil Rights movement. What does Amos say about riots? Or rather, what can I read him as saying about riots? Because of course I don't share any of the referents of the original context, really.

Well... Amos says that the great house shall be smashed to bits, and the little house to splinters. When retribution comes for social injustice, it's not going to be the rich people, or only the rich people, who suffer. The poor suffer even worse. (Dead Kennedys again: "But you get to the place / Where the real slavedrivers live / It's walled off by the riot squad / Aiming guns right at your head / So you turn right around / And play right into their hands / And set your own neighbourhood / Burning to the ground instead.") Here's Amos on people who hope for the day of justice:

Ah, you who wish
For the day of the Lord!
Why should you want
The day of the Lord?
It shall be darkness, not light!

--As if a man should run from a lion
And be attacked by a bear
Or if he got indoors,
Should lean his hand on the wall
And be bitten by a snake!
Surely the day of the Lord shall be
not light, but darkness,
Blackest night without a glimmer.

(translation from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures_, copyright 1985 by The Jewish Publication Society, ISBN 0-8276-0283-9)

Now, it used to be a staple of stupid leftist talk in the U.S. that some academic or media figure would say that people should have leftist solidarity and join in with rioters (I remember that particularly from an academic whose name I forget during the Washington, DC, Columbia Heights riot) or that rioters should or could act like a leftist rebellion (I remember Michael Moore pointing out where the real slavedrivers live on a map and saying that people should go there after the 1992 Los Angeles riots). I haven't seen anything like that this time. The condescension, hopeful assumption of partial responsibility for the riots (because rioters, after all, aren't ignored like leftists are), and fake solidarity is more subtle this time. Perhaps not even present in some cases. What are some of them?

I'll start with CR. CR is a person who used to comment on a blog we both read, The Valve, and who seems to me to have gotten a lot better, politically, since he started becoming a kind of advisor to student protestors. (I found, from my own student protest days, that it concentrates your mind on what you're really advocating tremendously when people are getting themselves arrested in demonstrations that you set up.) CR seems to have written mostly sensible things about the riots. However, CR also linked to a piece by Owen Hatherley that he found "excellent" and that I thought was pretty noxious. What does Hatherley say? Well, read it yourself, but in part:

Look at the looted, torched places, look at what they all have in common. Look at Bristol, a port where you could walk for miles and wonder where its working class had disappeared to, which seems to have been given over completely to post-hippy tourism, 'subversive' graffiti, students and shopping. Well, those invisible young, 'socially excluded' (how that mealy-mouthed phrase suddenly seems to acquired a certain truth) people arrived in the shiny new Cabot Circus mall and took what they wanted, what they couldn't afford, what they'd been told time and time again they were worthless without.

It's the hippies at fault! No, really, the post-hippies with their tame, scare-quoted subversive graffiti. And wow, the people who went to steal things during a riot would never have known to steal valuable, yet portable objects unless "they'd been told time and time again they were worthless without" them. You see, those chavs can't even *loot* things without being informed by the media-industrial complex in some cultural-criticism fashion that they should desire certain objects to maintain their self-image. Of course, all objects -- even gold bars! -- only have socially-mediated value in contemporary societies, so this isn't exactly new. No one would have blinked if rioters had stolen gold bars. Yet since the shops didn't have gold bars lying around, and did have expensive sneakers or radios or whatever, all of a sudden the rioters are responding to messages about how their worth depends on material objects when they steal them.

I'll move on from there to a post-hippy, Andrew Rilstone (well, really I'd describe him as a classic SF geek, but I'm not sure how that translates into Britishese). His article about the earlier Tesco riot was the best I'd read about it, really. Here's what he writes:

certainly, there were lots of forum comments in the evening post, and on twitter, saying that the people who lived on the croft, the people who objected to tescos, the people who think that chris chalkley's campaign of purposeful graffiti and street art was a good idea were street scum, rats, hippies, crusties, dole monkeys etc etc and that after the riots the next step was to drive us out of the area

just be careful what you wish for, that's all

To make clear one thing that I think is right about Rilstone's account, and bad about Hatherley's: I think that the left should really give up on authenticity via reflexive anti-middle-classism. Did austerity cause the riots? All right. Austerity is a policy pushed by upper class creeps, not by middle class post-hippies, not even really by middle class non-hippies. Hatherley criticises the smug, middle-class people who think that it's better in London than in Paris because London doesn't have banlieues. Well, it is better.
Are the people who care about that really the same people who decided that austerity was what was needed?

What other accounts of the riots did I encounter? Well, CR also links to an article by Michael Sayeau (yes, yes, I know). This article seems a lot more sensible to me. Where it starts to run into problems is here:

Leftists and liberals—of both the “public” and “student activist” stripes —have been incessantly asking themselves questions about the meaning of these riots and the pragmatics of handling them. Should those who have been defending the right to protest in the UK defend the rights of rioters who have looted electronics stores? Would distancing oneself from the rioters imply that previous claims of solidarity with the non-matriculating lower classes and the largely West Indian poor of Tottenham, Hackney, and elsewhere were only valid until the going got rough?

These are good questions, if there is any chance that they will actually be answered realistically. This is the problem of fake solidarity. The left, however defined, is addicted to claims that when students protest, it's really in solidarity with the working class. Or the poor, or at any rate someone other than the soon-to-be-middle-class students. Perhaps it's time to give up on speaking for other people and allow people real choices. Did some of the actual people who rioted actually show up at Sayeau's earlier demonstrations? Then certainly Sayeau should be in solidarity with them, if they weren't among those who committed crimes of violence; they were in solidarity with him. But, from the way in which they appear in this account as an unknown mass, without specific examples of people whom Sayeau knows, I don't think that they did. Why then is it so important for "leftists and liberals" to either defend the rioters or distance themselves? There's a relationship between two distinct groups of people there that seems much more important to those on one side than on the other.

Sayeau writes things that I agree with to a greater extent later on: if you dismantle the welfare state -- if you return to the capitalism of the 1930s -- then you should expect the horrors of the 1930s. That's what I take from my reading of Amos, in any case. The price is going to be paid, even though it's mostly going to be paid by poor people. And he's probably right that "the riots and their aftermath represent a painfully clear illustration of one of the most demonically perverse historical tendencies: that right-wing policies hurt ordinary people and in doing so promote support for right-wing policies." (Is he? Based on American precedents, I suspect that the aftermath of the riots will lead to police training in how not to cause incidents that spark riots. And that austerity of certain kinds may well be backed off on in response to social unrest. Whether the final result will be to promote the right-wing or not is still uncertain.)

I think that Ken McLeod addresses this whole issue more squarely.

The Grand Experiment was, of course, the postwar Keynes-Beveridge full-employment welfare state. Supported by the main parties of left and right, by the end of the sixties it was coming under attack from both flanks [...]

It seems obvious now that the postwar settlement had reached its limits by 1979. But I sometimes wonder if a more rational left than I was part of could have carried it forward, rather than helped to bring it down.

When leftists argue against austerity, they're implicitly arguing for the alternative to austerity, left-liberalism or left neo-liberalism. For Keynes, really, because the social-democratic alternative that doesn't come down to Keynes isn't really there any longer, as best as I can make out. Can there be student anti-austerity protests in favor of Keynesianism? If not, something about the left's myths is perhaps getting in the way. Or it isn't really austerity that's the problem.

P.S. (via Crooked Timber): Science!