Burning Britain Riot Fever as a Symptom of Systemic Failure

As the UK riots spread and intensify, Ceasefire columnist and author Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed charts, in an exclusive essay, the deeper implications of the social unrest. The real danger, he argues, lies in what happens next.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, August 9, 2011 20:21 - 10 Comments

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By Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Warzone

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 Nottingham.

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 past his car, but 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. Jody 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 injustice. 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 crises?

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 unmistakable race-dimension to class inequality. Simultaneously, black and ethnic minority (BME) groups also 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, warned 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 crimes, 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 mainland.

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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Live Blog UK Riots 2011 – Ceasefire Magazine
Aug 9, 2011 20:36

[...] 20.35: Ceasefire columnist Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed looks at the deeper implications of the social unrest. The real danger, he argues, lies in what happens next in “Riot Fever as a Symptom of Systemic Failure.” [...]

Burning Britain Riot Fever as a Symptom of Systemic Failure – Ceasefire Magazine « sunnyromy
Aug 9, 2011 20:50

Andy
Aug 9, 2011 21:21

Counterinsurgency nonsense. “Hold those accountable” = traumatise people out of further action through police/court terror – when you’ve absolutely no grounds to think they should be accountable to you or the system, since they’re by your own admission, utterly excluded. You’re inciting the state to another punitive crusade in which many innocent and vulnerable people will be caught up. “Robust measures” – you mean despicable police-state violence. You pretend not to condone violence but you condone police-state violence. Thousands homeless? Where’d you hear that? About 75 families at official count, most of those not from destroyed buildings just ones being checked for integrity – four or five families tragically homeless, this is due to fires in shops, not any deliberate attack. How do you know it’s not a revolt if you weren’t there? People who were there are reporting constant chanting against the police. Most “victims” were “ordinary working people” – really? You have statistics on which stores were targeted? Looks like mostly big department stores. It’s very easy to tell when someone’s getting their “facts” from the mainstream media and their textbooks from unreflexive one-nation ideology – expecting people to have loyalty to an authoritarian system which does not respect them and to which they owe nothing. Social war is an ever-present fact of life in a divided world, and the nation and community are just covers for the interests of the included. Go learn a bit of conflict theory (Marxism etc), read the stuff academics have written on Brixton and L.A., and come back when you have some idea what you’re talking about.

Nafeez
Aug 9, 2011 22:50

Andy: You accuse me of justifying police-state violence, when it did no such thing, merely by putting words in my mouth. Seems to me your preference to have the riots continue until the whole of the city is burnt to the ground, no accountability, no prosecutions. You think that’s how to challenge state-power? What an abject, pathetic joke. It’s pretty clear under the masquerade of “anti-state” verbiage, you’re just a knee-jerk apologist for mindless thuggery, looting, and plunder. You cite “conflict theory (Marxism etc)” to back-up your blatantly ideological rendition of the violence as a “revolt”, which only illustrates how little you understand about conflict studies and Marxist theory, not to mention the nature of a genuine working class uprising as understood by Marx, or even the nature of a genuine anarchist movement, as understood by Bakunin. Instead of pontificating from your self-styled revolutionary high-horse, you should go away and study what social movements are all about. Friends, family and colleagues have personally witnessed the violence in different parts of London. It was and is utterly regressive. Unless you think there’s something particularly glorious and revolutionary in looting “big department stores”? It is a matter of fact known to anyone actually living in London that hundreds of ordinary businesses have been destroyed in addition to bigger high street brands. It’s this kind of narrow-minded knee-jerk thinking that has left us in this mess.

Andy
Aug 10, 2011 9:40

Moral judgementalism is ALWAYS kneejerk reaction. YOU are being morally judgemental. Your vision of social movements is based on movements of the excluded. Your analysis of what happened is taken from the mainstream media. You have not unlearnt the judgemental/normative bourgeois mode of thought. You’re thinking in terms of a unipolar social reality and difference-as-other. What’s happened here is an interruption in the monologue of the power of the included. Instead of recognising the other voice, you deny it under a weight of empty slogans. You’ve never unlearnt the authoritarian delusion that we’re all part of a single nation/community to which we owe loyalty no matter how much it shits on us. This means you’re in denial about the fundamental fact that the unitary community does not exist – it is an illusion arising from the monological dominance of some over others.

Your friends who “observed” things know nothing. They just saw, they were not part of it. Of course, they also read the media, so they’re not “observing” without bias. If they haven’t actually talked to people involved, they have no idea what the motives are, and therefore, no right to infer significance. The dictatorship of the gaze of the observer is precisely what prevents a dialogical appreciation of what’s really happening.

Why are you refusing to admit that “accountability” means unfair bourgeois trials by the bourgeois state, with politically motivated sentences, while police who kill walk free? I am never going to start apologising for the police-state, no matter how bad or good things get. Yes, I’d rather ANYTHING than fascism. If you feel otherwise – don’t complain when they come for you.

Oh, and what’s got you (NOT us) in this mess is the social war waged by authoritarians against the excluded, and the fact that bigots cheered it on and liberals did too little to stop it. If you wage war on people, then sooner or later they will fight back. You showed them no respect, so they won’t respect you either. You can’t just stand round going “OMG we’re innocent, why did this happen”. You brought this about through the social war you were complicit in, or failed to stop. Examples of social war by the system: police killings, Asbo’s, CCTV, stop and search, authoritarian schooling, police brutality, security lockdowns, crackdowns of every kind. Because of this social war, the lives of the excluded are being ruined EVERY SINGLE DAY, people driven from their homes, killed, locked-up, cut off services, denied income… I’m sick of the included claiming “rights” to things they deny to others. If you didn’t complain when the lives of the excluded were being ruined, you’ve no right to complain now. And you’ve certainly no right to go crying to the very agencies of state fascism which have been ruining the lives of the excluded.

You push people till they snap, then you condemn them for snapping, and determine yourself to push them even further. All to make them “accountable” to you, instead of you to them – to keep in place monological silencing and hierarchy.

Nafeez
Aug 10, 2011 12:30

I don’t disagree with most of what you’ve just said above, in fact it’s very well said, and chimes with what I’ve written up in my piece.

I don’t get your facile attempt to pigeon-hole me up with the big authoritarian “them” you’ve just constructed. You talk about me being morally judgemental, but in both your comments you set-up a simplistic binary moral choice between “the included” and “the excluded”, a line which however you never clearly define in specific social, political, economic, or cultural terms. And then you heap moral judgements all over me, and all over the amorphous mass you describe as “the included” which clearly includes everybody who didn’t actually participate in the riots. I suppose the mere “included” “observers” also encompass the 3 men killed in the hit-and-run attack trying to defend their area from looters in Birmingham.

Oh but maybe that doesn’t bother you? It’s only 3 men after all. It’s “only”, in your words, 75 people who lost their homes. Whatever. They’re a bunch of bourgeoisie “included” types.

Just because people fight back after being pushed, it doesn’t justify their violence anymore than the original violence that might have prompted it. This is an elementary moral truism. And you cannot defeat that original violence, structural and otherwise, with more of the same. That’s the irony. Violence is violence, whether the perpetrators are “included” or “excluded” – and the maxim of “he started it” may well be useful in trying to understand, objectively, the causes of a spate of violence. But understanding that the riots were caused by decades of injustice and state-corporate violence, as my piece argues, does not translate into a glorification of it as some kind of holier-than-thou uprising which we have “no right” to condemn.

In fact, your entire spiel is nothing but an extended moral judgement on your self-defined projection of “the included”! “If you didn’t complain when the lives of the excluded were being ruined, you’ve no right to complain now. And you’ve certainly no right to go crying to the very agencies of state fascism which have been ruining the lives of the excluded.”

I’m not sure who made you the fuhrer of morality here, but what about if I did complain when the lives of the “excluded” were being ruined? Do I now have the right to complain?

Under capitalism the vast majority of the population is excluded and dispossessed in some form or another. Unfortunately, many of us don’t realise it. By reifying the heirarchical group-identity divisions that capitalism generates as if they are actually real, and then legitimizing the cycles of violence that these divisions solidify, you’re not challenging the system but merely inadvertently naturalising it.

Nafeez
Aug 10, 2011 12:55

Sista Resista
Aug 10, 2011 14:47

This article gives a good background on what led up to this week of riots but I fundamentally disagree with the author’s analysis that the actions of the rioters were not politically motivated. In a number of articles and interviews with people taking part it becomes obvious that they are keenly aware of the political and economic violence they experience and the structural inequalities affecting them and their communities. In light of these conditions, they state that they have made a choice to fight back.

See this Reuters article for more: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/08/09/uk-britain-riot-contrast-idUKTRE7785XQ20110809

An excerpt:

“The only way we can get out of this is education, and we’re not entitled to it, because of the cuts. Even for bricklaying you need a qualification and a waiting list for a course. I signed up in November, and still haven’t heard back,” the Kurdish man said.

The government has also raised university tuition fees since coming into power, putting a higher education further out of the reach of youths from places like Hackney.

“They’re screwing the system so only white middle-class kids can get an education,” said another man, who declined to be named. He said politicians were the real criminals, and pointed to a 2009 expenses scandal in which several lawmakers were revealed to have cheated the taxpayer out of thousands of pounds.

“The politicians say that we loot and rob. They are the original gangsters. They talk about copycat crimes. They’re the ones that’s looting, they’re the originals,” he said.

One of the Kurdish man’s friends pointed to alleged payments made to the police by journalists, claims currently under investigation as part of a wider phone-hacking scandal centred on the now defunct News of the World newspaper, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media conglomerate.

“Everyone’s heard about the police taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example. It’s time to loot,” the youth said.

Nafeez
Aug 10, 2011 15:54

Sister Resista – you make a fair-point. But it’s not surprising that many of the rioters have a consciousness of the deeply unequal society in which they live, and I’d expect that consciousness serves to justify the violence and looting we’ve seen. But that I’m not convinced that equates to political-motivation.

Many of the youth have clearly expressed their sense of injustice, and alienation from wider public goods, including their hatred of police and the state – “Fuck the Feds” / “We’re making a stand” / “We’re looting and showing the police they can’t stop us, so we have the real power not them” / “There’s no opportunity, no future. That’s why we’re out here.”

But expressing that deep sense of grievance and exclusion by itself doesn’t translate into a political-motivation – there’s no overall political direction or purpose behind the rioting. To the extent that it has focused very much on essentially stealing all kinds of goods, both luxury and staple things like clothes and food, as well as acts of arson and vandalism, it amounts to a concrete physical expression of rage and grievance, but there is no real political direction. They are “fighting back” but against what and to what end? They don’t know. They have no idea. The kids involved in this don’t really know what they’re doing or aiming for, beyond the generic and ultimately vacuous notion of “making a stand” – as if the embronic seeds of a new, progressive grassroots social movement lie in looting, plunder and the occasional murder.

To the contrary, the violence fits utterly within the fatalistic logic of capitalist-state dynamics – the unleashing of barbarism and violence serves to justify and legitimize the maximization of police-state powers, which in turn will only exacerbate grievances and lead to a further wave of violence. Is the way to overcoming the violence of capital and the police-state with which it is co-extensive to perpetuate and mimic that very same violence? I’m sorry but I think this is fundamentally flawed, and the following weeks, months and years will prove the outcome of the riots to be utterly regressive for progressive goals.

Without a fundamental understanding of the structural conditions in the context of which this cycle is perpetuated, and the systemic transformation of which is thus necessary to overcome it, such actions might be understandable – but that doesn’t escape the fact that they still boil down to mindless acts of enraged hedonism, exemplifying the capitalist values of self-maximization at any cost. Is the way to make a stand to enact the most grotesque values of capital accumulation and imperial plunder in the imperial metropolis?

What we have here is not a rebellion or an uprising but yet another rabid tentacle/chimera of capital itself, at crisis-point.

IPRD » Burning Britain: Riot Fever as a Symptom of Systemic Failure
Oct 4, 2012 14:48

[...] By Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, published by Ceasefire Magazine [...]

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