London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared, and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
The Clash, 1979
By Rosa Vasilaki
Marx starts his famous analysis of the events leading to Luis Bonaparte’s coup d’ état in 1851 by offering a corrective to Hegel’s observation that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice, by noting: ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. Looking at the ironic use of the version of The Clash song London Calling – an anthem of rebellion in England of the late 1970s and since then, worldwide – for the countdown coverage of the London Olympics, may lead us to offer ourselves a corrective to Marx’s aphorism and add that tragedy comes back to haunt the farce for ridiculing its gravity. It seems like if the spirit of the song came to strike back the ideology of consumerist capitalism which strips from meaning the symbols of anti-conformism and resistance, from t-shirts of Che Guevara sold at Primark for £3 to depressing adverts of car insurance or butter featuring Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten respectively.
According to the government, the police and a considerable part of the mainstream media and the public, the London riots came out of nowhere. A general feeling of shock, moral indignation and anger seem to unite these different social actors and almost embodying the conservative vision of Big Society, which failing to take root as a positive concept, manifested itself as the moralising spirit following the London riots. In this climate, where any attempt of explanation of the political and sociological significance of this unprecedented event is automatically dismissed as ‘cordoning the violence’, the riots are unproblematically reduced to sheer criminality.
Indeed the peculiarity of London riots, i.e. the particular targeting of sites of consumerism, the predominant practice of looting and, above all, the political silence of riots have left perplexed many on the progressive or radical Left side of the spectrum. The political nature of the events has been, if not altogether denied, at least questioned as it seems that there is no clear political message or articulated political consciousness as such, as well as no involvement of political organizations or actors associated with demonstrations and riots, as we have witnessed, for instance, this summer in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Israel or the UK at the end of last year.
However, the political nature of these events cannot be so easily dismissed: first, because the riots, or in different words social unrest, is a collective phenomenon – which, incidentally, spread far beyond its initial context, the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police in Tottenham. Second, because these events have deep political roots. The social context of the riots – i.e. the endemic and chronic deprivation experienced by the rioters and their families reflected on the decaying state of their neighbourhoods, homes and schools, their depressing and badly paid jobs, if they exist at all, or to put it bluntly their social exclusion – cannot simply be ignored. The political causes of the riots are much deeper (albeit not altogether disconnected) than the recent cuts, as suggested by the Labour in an attempt of opportunistic point-scoring. They run back into years and generations of social exclusion, which Labour had its equal share in both creating and perpetuating. Incidentally, if the effect of the cuts can be somehow ‘previewed’ in the London riots, the same goes for their purpose: the heavy cuts on humanities and social sciences, for exemple, is a coordinated effort to uproot the kind of critical thinking which is capable analysing the complex political and social causes leading to the riots and question the simplistic, populist discourse of ‘criminality’. Third, these acts have also very disconcerting political consequences. The call for enhanced policing of the streets and hardening of approach (water cannons, plastic bullets, curfews and the use of the army have found enthusiasts amongst various quarters), the predominance of a moralising discourse of ‘discipline’, the endorsement of the practices of vigilantism which often have rather racist undertones (e.g. ‘Enfield Defence League’), the distinction between good ‘Asian’ and bad ‘Black’ ethnic groups (it is not that long ago, though, when Asian Muslims were automatically identified as potential ‘Islamist terrorists’), are all very alarming political developments.
But if we see these acts as political as we should, then what kind of politics do they point to and in what languages are they expressed? A crucial difference between the London riots and equivalent events elsewhere in the world, or in the UK itself, is that what is targeted are not the symbols of political power. On the contrary of the Greek or Spanish protests, for instance, the rioters do not attack the Parliament, the headquarters of political parties, the banks (the attacks on banks have been rather marginal) and they do not reclaim the squares of the city as a gesture of radical democratization, a practice that spread from the Arab countries to Europe. What these politically silent rioters target are the ultimate sites of capitalist affluence: the shops. In England of late capitalism, where what you own is what you are, where any form of communication is saturated by messages of consumption, the social stigma of economic deprivation is also experienced as an exclusion from the shops. Looting and violence is the voice of the frustrated, unprivileged and unheard youth to the brutality of modern consumerism and of the exclusions it creates and sustains. In that sense, the real surprise is not the riots per se but the fact that they do not happen more often. Even more, the rioters in London have perhaps understood instinctively something that seemed to have slipped from political analysis so far, that is, where the site of real power lies today: in the shopping malls and high streets, those inaccessible to the poor and yet-so-desired temples of consumerism, the most tangible manifestations of the ‘market’. What we experience today is the full force of neoliberalism as a form of govermentality: from the rioters to the police, the vigilantism and the moralism of the government and opposition alike, the raison d’ être of existence revolves around the shops and the consumers’ culture they represent. In that sense, the voiceless violence and its implicit political message as well as the populist, moralising response and legitimation of repression by the political elites, are the two sides of the same coin: manifestations of the politics of deprivation that the neoliberal governance inflicted in this country and to the rest of the world.
Rosa Vasilaki holds a PhD in History from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and she is currently reading for a PhD in Sociology at the University of Bristol.