THE FIRE THIS TIME: Rioting in English Cities

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

Frederick Douglas Speech on the
24th anniversary of emancipation,
Washington DC, 1886

At the time of writing, (August 12), rioting by thousands of young people on the streets of English cities, which first exploded last weekend, appears to have died down. The relative quiet of the past three nights may be no more than the lull before another storm. As the circumstances that gave rise to the rioting and looting have not changed and are unlikely to change, it is probable that before long there will be further outbursts. But for the time being, a greatly increased police presence and the threat of water cannon and rubber bullets seems to have prevented a repetition of disturbances on the scale witnessed on the first three nights. What has caused these riots?

Not surprisingly, opinions about the causes, and attitudes towards the riots themselves, differ wildly. For the Tories and the news media that support them, the explanation is simple: those responsible are simply asocial mindless thugs, ignorant and indolent, products of dysfunctional families. They have no sense of social responsibility or morality. The only way to deal with them is to bring them to justice and lock them up. Such a view rests upon no sophisticated causal explanation about the presence of so many hardened criminal elements in our midst. That is the way they are and any attempt by bleeding-heart liberals and deluded leftists to seek explanation or excuse for such behaviour, amounts to complicity in their criminality. According to Prime Minister David Cameron, the root cause is “mindless selfishness and complete lack of responsibility in our society.” It’s worth pondering that phrase.

The financial crisis that broke in 2008 saw the near meltdown of the banking system. Those responsible had for years indulged in a bonanza of profligate multi-billion pound risk-taking based on the accumulation of ever increasing volumes of debt. When their antics brought the system to the brink of collapse, catastrophe was only avoided by bailing out the banks, deemed “too big to fail”, at taxpayers’ expense. The draconian austerity measures introduced by the Con Dem government are a direct consequence of the gross irresponsibility of the bankers. Now the bailed-out banks are back in business as usual and the bankers are paying themselves the same mega-bonuses as before. But they have not been accused by the government of mindless selfishness and complete lack of social responsibility. The consequences of their selfishness and irresponsibility are incomparably greater than the damage done on Britain’s streets over the past couple of days. The global operation of finance capital over which they and their kind preside has not recovered from the crisis into which they have plunged the economy. The casualties of their dysfunctional system are numbered in ever-growing millions throughout the world.

There is a connection between the deepening financial and economic crisis which is rapidly assuming global proportions, and the riots on Britain’s streets. It is not one that representatives of the ruling class in Britain are keen to admit, but to those with eyes to see, it is inescapable. Britain is one of the most socially unequal countries in the developed world. In terms of inequality of income, Britain rates 20th amongst 23 affluent states. Only the USA, Portugal and Singapore are more unequal. In a 2010 study of social inequality in Britain (Injustice: Why Britain’s Social Inequality Persists. Polity Press, 2010) Danny Dorling wrote: “In countries like Britain, people last lived lives as unequal as today measured by wage inequality, in 1854, when Charles Dickens was writing ‘Hard Times’.” As this inequality gap has grown, the super-rich have accumulated record levels of wealth.

To treat the riots that exploded on the streets of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester as though they had nothing to do with this grim and growing social inequality can only be regarded as willful blindness. Yet the leaders of the three main parliamentary parties have done just that. Parliament was recalled from the summer recess. Party leaders and London’s mayor rushed back from their holidays. They all spoke from the same script. This was pure criminality and the crack-down would come swiftly and sharply. Magistrates’ courts are already handing down stiff custodial sentences. The only dispute between the government and opposition parties is about the policing of the riots. Labour leader Ed Miliband is leading the demand to abandon the proposed cuts to police numbers. In this he clearly has the support of the Metropolitan Police themselves.

So, not surprisingly there are no signs of serious analysis from that quarter. How then, is this sudden upsurge of looting and burning to be explained? Some sections of the left beyond the Labour party seem to have a simple answer. The riots, they believe are “an explosion of bitterness and rage” by a “lost generation created by the Tories.” The disturbances are described as “struggles” by those who have been pushed to the wall and are now fighting back. Such a view, while apparently addressing the social deprivation at the heart of the unrest, is hopelessly romantic and simplistic. Only by the wildest stretch of the imagination can the activities of the rioters be considered “struggles”. The term has a long and meaningful pedigree on the left. It is used to refer to the ongoing conflict between classes, between oppressor and oppressed. The “class struggle” referred to by Marx and his followers, refers primarily to the politically conscious engagement of the working class and other subordinate classes against the exploitative rule of capital. To say the least, the term “struggle” is not appropriate to describe the upsurge on the city streets last week. The rioters were not the harbingers of revolution.

At the outset, on Saturday August 6, the riots were sparked by the fatal shooting by the Met of Mark Duggan. What had started as a peaceful protest and demand for information outside Tottenham police station, soon escalated into much more serious disturbances. In communities blighted by high levels of unemployment, and subjected to heavy-handed police stop-and-search operations targeting young black men, the fact that there is deep-rooted resentment of the police comes as no surprise. The shooting of Duggan and what seems certain to have been a false claim by the police that he had fired at them, was certainly the spark that lit the tinder box. The combustible material was waiting to explode. However, to claim, as some on the left have done, that all that happened subsequently was a conscious reaction to Duggan’s shooting, is to give the events a political character they do not deserve. Certainly the rioting has political significance, but this is primarily in the sense that the sheer scale and bravado of the thousands of young people involved is symptomatic of the terrible alienation and desperation that scars their lives. It would be encouraging if this class of culturally, educationally and materially impoverished young people, casualties of a brutal system that has given them no hope, had been enrolled in a political movement capable of challenging the system that has blighted their lives. But they have not. So their inchoate rebellion can only express itself in terms of the destructive, anti-human norms of the dominant culture of rampant consumerism and possessive individualism. And if they behave violently it should come as no surprise, given the violent imagery that surrounds them - both real in the form of a decade of wars, and simulated in the video games that many watch compulsively.


This is the inescapable reality. Every waking hour of their lives – indeed of all our lives – is saturated with images encouraging them to consume endlessly. Myriads of commodities are “must have” and “to die for.” The value of life is measured in brand names. Built-in obsolescence compels them to possess only the latest technological gadgetry. “I shop, therefore I am” is the unspoken motto of the age. But for so many of those who took to the streets to loot last week, so many of the commodities they want, so much of what they are encouraged to believe is essential to establish their identity and command respect, is unattainable. They do not have the means to purchase the inessential things they have been persuaded are absolutely essential.

One of the most depressing and alarming aspects of the rioting was the extensive damaging done to shops, houses and cars, and to other members of the community who tried to stop the rioting. This included physical attacks on innocent people which resulted in five deaths. Hundreds of people have been burned out of their homes, losing everything. It is worth recalling a few details because some of the reporting on the left has failed to mention, let alone deal with this. Three young Asian men, seeking to protect their property were deliberately mown down and killed by a car. A 68 year old man in London who tried to put out a fire that had been lit, was beaten to the ground by several young people. He later died from his wounds. Another man was shot in the head at point blank range as he sat in his car. In another case, caught on CCTV, a young Malaysian student who had been beaten was helped to his feet by rioters who then went on to rob him. The fact that these instances were widely publicized and no doubt used to demonize all the rioters, in no way detracts from the brutal callousness of such acts. One left-wing journal argued that the rioting and looting was not an attack on the community as the shops looted and burned were chains such as J.D. Sports and Curry’s. This won’t wash. One store was burned out despite being located beneath an apartment block. Everyone living there lost their homes. Small shops were attacked; in one part of London the waiters in Turkish restaurants defended their workplaces with baseball bats.

This is mentioned not to reinforce the rightist agenda which seeks to deflect attention from the underlying causes of the rioting, but to counter the evasiveness by some sections of the left who seem reluctant to face up to the alarming behaviour of some of those who took part in the riots. Likewise, there seems to be reluctance to acknowledge the extraordinary community spirit of those hundreds of people, from all ethnic groups and backgrounds, who came together with brooms, on the morning following the last of the riots in London, and began to clear up the mess.

Unless the underlying conditions of alienation and impoverishment that gave rise to these events are confronted and dealt with, they will recur and the government will use them to turn different communities against each other and prevent the growth of a united popular opposition to the cuts they are trying to impose. Dealing with those conditions will require the mobilization of just such a mass movement, capable eventually of confronting the power of the state. Romanticizing an inchoate upsurge of rioting and looting by disenfranchised and alienated youth will not help to build such a movement.