[Marxism] Planet of slums, age of riots

Fred Feldman ffeldman at verizon.net
Fri Aug 12 13:10:37 MDT 2011

Weekend Edition
August 12 - 14, 2011

 From Tottenham to Oakland
Planet of Slums, Age of Riots

Tottenham, Chile, Tunis…
There are too many to count

Oakland, Brixton, Taybat al-Imam…
We almost can’t keep the names straight.

Clichy-sous-Bois, Caracas, Los Angeles…

The phrase “riot in London” echoed strangely in my ear, prompting only 
muted interest. I have been present for a few riots in London and in 
nearby Cambridge, marches against the war and the perennial Mayday 
battle between anarchists and the Metropolitan Police. From these to the 
more recent anti-cuts marches which ended in sporadic clashes with 
police, my interest has gradually waned, and when I most recently heard 
this phrase “riot in London,” I expected it would be followed by yet 
another description of a ritualized protest, with some marchers 
“kettled” and some anarchists fighting police. This is not simply a 
criticism: I was not not excited, but I was certainly not excited either.

TInstead, the details began to emerge: the immediate spark was the 
police murder of a Black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot to death by 
police, and the beating of a 16-year old woman demanding answers from 
police about Duggan’s death. The fuel for the fire had been long 
accumulating, however: institutionalized racism in the form of poverty, 
police stop-and-search methods, and more recent Conservative Party 
cutbacks in the name of “austerity,” this year’s chosen catchword if 
“revolution” doesn’t eclipse it entirely.

The similarities with other serious waves of social rebellion then began 
to emerge with increasing clarity. This was both about Mark Duggan and 
it was not (here we can agree with the British Prime Minister David 
Cameron, albeit toward the opposite end), just as the recent rebellions 
in Oakland in 2009 were both about more than Oscar Grant, just as 2008 
Athens was about more than Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 1992 L.A. was about 
more than Rodney King, the 1965 Watts Rebellion about more than 
Marquette Frye, and so on. And like these previous moments, the London 
rebellions are spreading with a degree of spontaneity and a flexibility 
of organizational forms that has left police utterly confounded. There 
have already been more than 1,000 arrests, and as hysterical media 
outlets up the rhetorical ante with talk of “guerrilla warfare,” the 
police are gearing up for far more.

Mob Hysteria
When economic violence reaches a certain point, social counter-violence 
soon follows, and yet it is rarely the bankers or the politicians, the 
purveyors of global austerity measures, who bear the brunt. It begins 
with name-calling, and no name has more political and historical 
resonance than “the mob,” the most traditional of slurs. From 
Philadelphia to London, we are told, the specter of the mob looms, and 
to the image of the “baying mob,” that keystone of journalistic 
integrity The Sun has also added the image of the “trouble-making rabble.”
Irrational, uncontrollable, impermeable to logic and unpredictable in 
its movements, these undesirables have once again ruined the party for 
everyone, as they have done from Paris 1789 to Caracas 1989. In Fanon’s 
inimitable words: “the masses, without waiting for the chairs to be 
placed around the negotiating table, take matters into their own hands 
and start burning…”

To use the word “mob” is a fundamentally political gesture. It is an 
effort by governing elites and conservative forces to delegitimize and 
denigrate popular resistance, to empty it of all political content by 
drawing a line of rationality in the sand. To make demands is 
reasonable, but since “the mob” is the embodiment of unreason, it cannot 
possibly make demands. Never mind the very clearly political motivations 
that sparked the rebellions around London, as well as the growing and 
equally political concerns about economic inequality and racist 
policing: these have been well documented, no matter how little many 
Britons want to hear it.
But I want to address directly the idea that the riots are fundamentally 
irrational, as the smear of “the mob” would symbolically insist. Let’s 
listen closely, let’s block out the torrent of media denunciation and 
hear what the rebels are saying themselves:

Argument 1: Nothing Else Has Worked, This Might.
When ITV asked one young rebel what, if anything, rioting would achieve, 
his response was as matter-of-fact as it was profound:

“You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?... Two 
months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all 
blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in 
the press.

Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
As another put it: “you can’t do nothing that’s normal for it to happen 
right.” In other words, legitimate discontent has not been heard through 
official channels, and so those suffering turn to unofficial ones. If 
someone has an effective counter-argument to this, I’m all ears. This is 
not to suggest that the rebellions have a singular logic shared by every 
participant, but that there is logic to be found nonetheless.

This isn’t the only time riots have worked, either: in 2009 Oakland, it 
was riots and only riots that led to the arrest, prosecution, and 
conviction of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the death of 
Oscar Grant. And this effectiveness extends to the tactical, while the 
left marches and is surrounded by police, these street rebels have 
proven far less susceptible to tactics like “kettling”: as The Guardian 
put it,
roaming groups of youths cannot be effectively kettled. And unlike 
activists they will often return to the site of trouble, seeking direct 
confrontation with police.The looters appear to have been more savvy. 
Large groups targeting shops have been melting into a nearby estate in 
seconds at the first sound of sirens arriving.

Argument 2: The Rich Can Do It, Why Can’t We?
Poor people aren’t stupid enough not to have noticed what’s been going 
on in the world around them. As capitalist crisis has set in a massive 
redistribution of wealth has taken place, with banks and investors 
bailed out at the expense of the population, effectively rewarding them 
for predatory behavior and leveraging national debt into economic 
growth. The rich line their profits as essential services and benefits 
are slashed, and faced with such obvious “looting,” we are somehow 
expected not to notice.

One onlooker to the London riots puts it precisely:
This is about youth not having a future… a lot of these people are 
unemployed, a lot of these people have their youth center closed down 
for years, and they’re basically seeing the normal things: the bankers 
getting away with what they’re getting away with… this is the youth 
actually saying to themselves, guess what? These people can get away 
with that, then how come we can’t tell people what we feel?

As one young female looter told The Sun, “We’re getting our taxes back,” 
and as another told The Guardian, “The politicians say that we loot and 
rob, they are the original gangsters.”

Argument 3: Locating the Riots.
Essential to the imagery of the irrational mob is the insistence that 
the bulk of the destruction is centered on working-class communities, 
and here the logic is fundamentally colonial. The poor and the Blacks 
can’t be trusted: look what they do to their own. Incapable of governing 
themselves, they must be taught civilization, by blows if necessary. 
Here again Oakland resonates, as after the riots there a solitary 
African braid shop, one of many whose windows were smashed, became the 
media symbol of the ‘irrationality’ of rioters hell-bent on destruction 
and nothing more. It is worth noting that the poor rarely “own” anything 
at all, even in their “own” communities.

To break this narrative, we must read the actions of the rebels as well 
as listening to their words. While working-class communities have indeed 
suffered damage (we should note that working-class communities always 
bear the brunt of upheaval), there has been less talk of more overtly 
political targeting: police stations burned to the ground, criminal 
courts windows smashed by those who had passed through them, and the 
tacitly political nature of youth streaming into neighboring areas to 
target luxury and chain stores. On just the first night, rioters in 
Tottenham Hale targeted “Boots, JD Sports, O2, Currys, Argos, Orange, PC 
World and Comet,” whereas some in nearby Wood Green ransacking the 
hulking HMV and H&M before bartering leisurely with their newly acquired 

This tendency was seemingly lost on analysts at The Guardian, who were 
left scratching their heads when the riot locations did not correspond 
directly to the areas with the highest poverty. And it’s not just the 
lefty news outlets that let such details slip: Danny Kruger, ex-adviser 
to David Cameron observed that: “The districts that took the brunt of 
the rioting on Monday night were not sink estates. Enfield, Ealing, 
Croydon, Clapham... these places have Tory MPs, for goodness’ sake. A 
mob attacked the Ledbury, the best restaurant in Notting Hill.”

While refusing to denounce the rebellions, socialist thinker Alex 
Callinicos nevertheless suggests that such looting is “a form of 
do-it-yourself consumerism… reflecting the intensive commodification of 
desires in the neoliberal era.” This view misses the far more complex 
role of the commodity during a riot, which was as evident in Oakland as 
in Venezuela: not only is the looting of luxury consumer items far more 
complex than Callinicos suggests, but the argument of looting as 
consumerism would have a hard time explaining both the destruction of 
luxuries and appropriation of necessities that often ensues
Despite the ideological deployment of the specter of mob hysteria, in 
the words of one observer, there is “nothing mindless” about the London 

“An Insurrection of the Masses”
British media has by now largely closed ranks against the rebellion, 
providing a seamless tapestry of denunciation that oscillates between 
the violently reactionary and the comically hysterical. But this was not 
without first making a serious mistake, an error in judgment that pried 
open but the tiniest crack into which stepped a man who has since become 
a focal point for resistance to the media hype. Darcus Howe, nephew of 
the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, seems to have inherited his 
uncle’s acute capacity for seeing through the racist hype about “mobs” 
and discerning the political kernel of seemingly apolitical daily acts 
of resistance, of recognizing the new even amid the crumbling shell of 
the old.

When asked in a live BBC interview to characterize the recent outbursts, 
How spoke the following words:
I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the 
people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s 
happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and 
that is the nature of the historical moment…

When Howe refused to follow the self-generating script, one so 
well-known that no orders for its reading usually need be given, the 
flailing BBC correspondent turned first to bad logic and then to ad 
hominem attack. If Howe was attempting to explain the context of the 
rebellions he must also be condoning their effects, and wasn’t he, by 
the way, himself a rioter as a youth? He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, 
but he was certainly accused of being one: Howe was tried for affray and 
riot at the Old Bailey in 1971 only to be acquitted. After Howe’s later 
release on charges of assaulting a police officer, Linton Kwesi Johnson 
penned a tribute, “Man Free,” which featured the following words
Him stand up in the court like a mighty lion, him stand up in the court 
like a man of iron, Darcus out of jail, Shabba!

(A video of the interview recorded from a living room has spread like 
wildfire, with more than 2.3 million hits as I write, and the Beeb has 
since been forced to apologize, blaming unspecified “technical issues”).

“The Nature of the Historical Moment”
Darcus Howe is right: there is something peculiar about “the nature of 
the historical moment.” Maybe it began in 1989 in the South, when 
Venezuelans rose up against neoliberalism in the Caracazo rebellions 
only to be crushed in blood and fire with up to 3,000 dead. Who was the 
subject of that near-insurrection, that world-historical detonator which 
forever transformed Venezuela and unleashed all that has come since? The 
poor dwellers of the barrios surrounding Caracas and other Venezuelan 
cities, the product of decades of systematic underdevelopment and the 
nascent neoliberalism that had accelerated its effects. These were the 
residents of the slums of which our planet was soon composed, in Mike 
Davis’s haunting words, and without access to political power or a 
workplace to strike in, they had discovered the location of their 
political action in practice: the streets.

But as jobs have moved South, crisis has come North. Or rather, it has 
been here all along, in the South of the North and the North of the 
South, but austerity measures have begun to shift the effects of the 
contemporary crisis to reach a far broader demographic. In this context, 
critiquing the effects of riots in our historical moment is about as 
effective as bemoaning the existence of gravity. Those taking to the 
streets of London and elsewhere are the social product of capitalist 
restructuring in the long term and austerity measures in the short term. 
But a historical subject does not gain its status merely from being a 
product: first it must act.
Darcus Howe’s uncle, the late C.L.R. James, was straightforward in 
insisting that it is in such action that the new world emerges from the 
shell of the old, and here I only hope to note some hopeful indications 
of this. First and foremost is the unprecedented spirit of unity that 
has emerged in the streets of London and elsewhere. As The Guardian reports

"…the rioting has been unifying a cross-section of deprived young men 
who identify with each other… Kast gave the example of how territorial 
markers which would usually delineate young people's residential areas – 
known as ‘endz,’ ‘bits’ and ‘gates’ – appear to have melted away. “On a 
normal day it wouldn’t be allowed – going in to someone else’s area… Now 
they can go wherever they want. They’re recognising themselves from the 
people they see on the TV [rioting]. This is bringing them together.”

This sense of unity is not merely among different sets from different 
areas, but also extends to the unprecedented multi-ethnic demographic 
that has participated: poor whites, Black British, African and 
Afro-Caribbean immigrants, South Asians, Muslims, and Jews have all 
played a role. While some in the Jewish community have complained of 
being singled out for the participation of Hasidic Jews in the first 
night’s rioting in Tottenham, this should instead be read against 
assumptions that the crowd was only Black or only Muslim. All ages have 
participated as well, with entire families spotted either looting or 
warning looters of approaching police. The youth, and especially young 
men, have nevertheless constituted the functional spearhead of the 
rebellions, with one observer insisting that “this is a movement of the 
youth, of the young people saying, guess what mister, I’ve got no voice, 
no future, no leadership.”

But if C.L.R. James saw the potential for unity amid such rebellions, 
cracks in the shell of the old often produce dangerous shards, and so he 
was also keenly aware of the equal potential for the opposite: racist 
backlash among even poor whites. Thus while the more the more liberal 
wing of white supremacy has appeared in the form of “broom armies” 
cleaning up the aftermath of the rebellions (wearing t-shirts emblazoned 
with such heartwarming slogans as “rioters are scum”), “mobs” of white 
racists like the “Enfield Army” have also emerged, offering their 
services to the police against the rioters (this alongside the more 
organized white supremacy of the English Defence League).

“The Left Must Respond”
In a short web comment, Daniel Harvey expressed the sentiment of many on 
the radical left seeking to walk the fine line between uncritically 
embracing the English rebellions and falling into the right-wing media 
strategy of denunciation:

We have to remain loyal to this crisis. We have to support the eruption 
of the unheard and the unspoken in our obscene society… the problem is 
not the excesses of this or that action, it is that the rioters are 
simply not radical enough. We have to radicalise them further… We have 
to support the anger, but make the anger political, and thereby turn it 
into something genuinely powerful and dangerous – a revolutionary moment 
rather than a riot.

This is certainly true in one sense, but it runs the risk of neglecting 
the fact that “the left” is far behind the rebels in the streets. In 
some key ways, these riots are far more radical and more effective than 
the left has proven itself to be, and the rebels have certainly 
surpassed the left in tactical savvy as in sheer bravado. Who is really 
more radical?

Certainly, “the left must respond” as one op-ed puts it, if only to 
fight the messaging of the right, but only if we recognize that there is 
much we can learn from those rushing through the London streets. As one 
observer puts it, these youth “got nothing to lose,” to which we might 
be tempted to add, ‘but their chains…’

George Ciccariello-Maher is Assistant Professor of Political Science at 
Drexel University. He is completing a people’s history of the Bolivarian 
Revolution in Venezuela and beginning a history of rabbles, mobs, and 
gangs. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

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