Paul Flewers

Afterword: Riots: Fish Rot From the Head

Author: Paul Flewers
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

We had almost completed the finishing touches of this issue of New Interventions when serious rioting broke out on three consecutive evenings in London, followed by disturbances in other cities in Britain.

Why should the fatal shooting by the police of a young black man lead within little more than a day to the most serious rioting that Britain has seen for over 25 years? The shooting of someone by the police is still front-page news in Britain, it is still considered as a serious incident. When, as in this case, the question of race intrudes, then it often becomes a politically volatile matter. But this was different: something far more deep, far more fundamental occurred. It is clear that the shooting of Mark Duggan was a trigger, a catalyst, that ignited an extremely explosive mixture that had long been fermenting within Britain’s inner-city areas.

The usual explanations do not suffice. One can treat those coming from the right — that it was pure criminality — with contempt. They are deliberately evading the real issues. Liberals and left-wingers promote the idea that the Tory Coalition government’s austerity measures, particularly the public expenditure cuts that are closing youth clubs and especially those bodies trying to deal positively with teenage gangs, are fundamentally to blame, along with rising unemployment and the lack of genuine opportunities for youngsters, and police treatment of black youth. None of this can be discounted, but the truly visceral nature of this outburst cannot be explained by the closure of this or that facility or the lack of work, nor by the day-to-day actions of the police, which are a far cry from the widespread harassment that lay behind the riots of 1981.

Unlike some anarchists, who see the riots as a carnival of the oppressed, socialists cannot be so sanguine. Riots express anger, but are no solution to the underlying problems. Their primal, explosive nature means that innocent people are hurt and even killed, small shops looted and put out of business, homes and local infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Community relations can be worsened, as, for example in North London, Turkish and Kurdish shop-owners systematically tooled up to repel (mainly) black would-be looters, and trust may be hard to rebuild. Sinister white vigilante groups lurked on the outskirts of urban areas. And, of course, the state will be using these disturbances to devise new ways to survey and control the population at large.

The current stage of capitalism, in which the worth of human activities is increasingly predicated upon whether they are immediately profitable, has resulted in social disaggregation. Old institutions, from the organised labour movement to organised religion, which in their various ways gave shape and coherence to society have declined and decayed, with nothing coming in to replace them. People feel more isolated these days, and current mores encourage a more self-centred attitude amongst people. All this, combined with long-term unemployment and social deprivation and the consequent feeling of hopelessness, has resulted in a certain degree of lumpenisation, especially amongst young people. Disaffected youth often attempt to deal with their situation through the fake solidarity of the local gang, which can bring them into criminal activities and further alienation from mainstream society. These young people have a deep hostility to the institutions of the state and to the political establishment, but one that is customarily expressed in anti-social attitudes and activities.

Fish rot from the head, and not just the Tories and their friends, but Labour too, will not be keen to point to a whole range of factors whose insidious consequences have seeped deeply into the pores of today’s Britain. Politicians and big-businessmen demand austerity from workers whilst jealously defending their own sizeable incomes. The Murdoch affair has shown how his empire established cosy relations with politicians and the police, and did not hesitate in breaking the law when tapping thousands of people’s telephones. Bankers kept their jobs and continue to pay themselves huge bonuses even after losing billions and having had to be bailed out by the state. Large numbers of well-paid MPs happily claimed excessive expenses or fiddled them outright. Successive British governments have thought nothing of attacking and invading foreign countries that posed no threat, and covering their reasons for so doing with lies worthy of Goebbels himself.

What are people to assume from this? That one can lie, fiddle, bribe, be hypocritical, break the law, attack others and generally act with impunity. If the rich and powerful are doing all this, when they are bending and breaking their own laws, then why should a young person, unemployed, treated with contempt by the authorities, with little sense of belonging to society, not feel that he has a right to lash out, to seize what he feels could be his? It is at first glance paradoxical that youth most alienated from society have acted in accordance with the national zeitgeist. But when the lessons implanted in society by the rich and powerful are ones of selfishness, dishonesty, irresponsibility, violence and outright criminality, then there is no mystery at all. Those at the bottom who are inclined towards anti-social behaviour have seen it indulged in at the very top. And that is the central problem of the riots that we have seen in Britain: not only are they a destructive dead-end, they are both a product and a reflection of the fundamental rottenness of British capitalism. It will take a great deal more than reversing the Tory cuts to put things right.



Last updated on 11 January 2018