Thursday, August 11, 2011

It's strange to live in a place with ongoing political instability when that place is a place, like London, which is reputed worldwide for its safety and predictability. The importance of word of mouth grows by leaps and bounds as the media struggles along with the police. Watching a given few minutes of the live news updates gives you a palpable sense that the media is confused and vague, stammering, playing videos they found on Twitter or Facebook that are a couple of days old, interviewing a myriad of people, who, with the exception of a few voices, Darcus Howe, Nina Power, and Ken Livingstone among them, condemn the general situation in a vanishingly narrow variety of ways.

Some people are angry and rude during this time, some are far more relaxed than usual. There are all kinds of emotional responses. The overwhelming sensation is one of dislocation, a rumbling tremor or a sociopolitical earthquake, something beneath the surface which is being released. That surface is the image of a society of propriety, a society too proper to suffer from any illegal relocations of private property on a massive scale, what David Cameron famously called a "Big Society," the most civil in the world. What lies beneath is not easy to name, but it has something to do with what has always been the subterranean, occluded engine of capitalism: the ignored, who by virtue of their condition both make possible and mark the impossibility of a society which profits from its capacity to beat them down, to attempt to convince them that their oppression is as natural and as just as the stars in the sky. The commentators have been using the word "monsters" to describe the youths, along with other epithets like "idiots" and "morons" (yet the term "anarchist" seems to be sidelined, seemingly reserved for the student [mostly middle class, mostly white] protestors earlier this year).

Certainly there are condemnable things that have been done by rioters, as in any situation when law is not enforced, such as the deaths in Birmingham and the people who lost their homes, as well as locally-owned business which were raided. But one must also inquire as to the long-term effect of chain stores like Curry's (The UK equivalent of Best Buy), Foot Locker, and Tesco (which owns Fresh & Easy and has a horrific labor relations record) on the poorest neighborhoods, the places where the riots first "kicked off." Poor neighborhoods like Hackney, Tottenham, and Peckham, Livingstone said on BBC, are both the same ones that have suffered the greatest public services cuts as well as the ones which are most occupied by massive, impersonal flourescent chain stores which regularly squash labor rights and pay minimum wage, maintaining high employee turnover as a way to keep afloat. As Dr Sofia Himmelblau wrote just now, "
It is no coincidence that the primary target of rioters, despite a media-narrative keen to play up the social impact of these events on small retailers, was large retail warehouse stores that cling parasitically to neighbourhoods at the periphery of inner cities."

In the media, the "critical" attention is focused on a false debate, between condemning and condoning the actions of the youths.
My flatmates disagree with me that this debate is false--they tell me that my refusal to engage with it is a kind of indifference or extremism, but I call it a false debate because there is really one side to it. That is to say, not a single public figure has come out in explicit support of the participants in the riots: even Darcus Howe, who was treated like a rioter himself by the BBC presenter because he tried to place it in the context of racial profiling and police brutality, condemned the riots from the beginning. One rapper from Peckham tweeted to his followers on Saturday that they should loot, perhaps sarcastically, and then deleted his twitter account because he was worried that the police, who already try to shut down each of his concerts, would punish him for it. The only public viewpoint lies within the boundaries of unequivocal condemnation, and the monopoly of opinion is such that those who try to explain the riots by placing them in context, just like figures who tried to place the 9/11 attacks in context, are either shouted down or ignored.

A major difference that may be hard to imagine for an American is the racial complexity of the situation. The UK is not segregated in the same way as the United States. While many social spaces are clearly white, there are a considerable number of so-called white people who live in city slums, which is quite different from a city like San Francisco or Oakland. The truth is that these youth are not all black but are to varying degrees responding to the way in which the police department treats both blacks and the poor, with several hundred suicides in their custody in the last decade. I say "blacks and the poor" because in a surreptitious way blackness stands in for poverty in the logics of neoliberalism, in the sense that people like Smiley Culture who were not or were no longer poor were still killed by the police with no government consequences. We cannot say that whites have not suffered from the climate of police terror, but we can safely say that wealthy whites (i.e. those millionaires who populate the cabinet and who run the country) have not found themselves in the conditions of pressure that these youth deal with every day, of which police terror is the most bare and hypocritical but not necessarily the worst. The conditions of pressure which led hordes of people, not merely youth and not merely black, to take what was not legally theirs were many and varied but have to do, broadly, with growing austerity measures designed to line the pockets of people like Boris Johnson and David Cameron and, in a bizarre "libertarian" paternalistic logic, to "motivate" them to be entrepreneurs by denying them any opportunities.

An American friend of mine just told me that her Dad didn't believe there were riots in London. This says quite a bit about the American perception of London but equally it might say something about London itself. On the one hand, why is it that Americans tend to imagine London as the relatively small space north of the Thames and south of Kilburn, west of Hackney, which is the most white and expensive part of the city? On the other hand, how does this completely false perception influence the climate of exasperation which led to the revolts?