Finally someone has come out and said it. It’s taken all week, but Gary Younge in the Guardian says: it’s a class thing. Fuck Starkey. Racism is the last refuge of the historian who won’t embrace historical materialism. Eventually, in a desperate hunt for a reason, and in the absence of a charismatic figure they can build a narrative around, they seize on race as the motivating force. On this occasion the race card is such an absurd one to play that Starkey has to resort to the claim that so many white people were involved because they are culturally black. There can’t be a single person in Britain (bar Nick Griffin, who is offering to make Starkey a Gold Member of the BNP) that buys this bollocks. No. Younge has got it right. You look to the economy for your analysis. That’s how history works.
Now the right are terrified of doing this. They know they’ll hate the answers. So their analysis stops at ‘mindless criminality’ ((c) every Tory Cabinet member), as if that is an answer in itself. Why would one investigate any further? Once you’ve got as far as ‘mindless criminality’ there can be no deeper one can dig.
Which means they are genuinely comfortable in the belief that all of the innately mindless criminals in London emerged, at the same time, on the same night, like some kind of zombie movie, to perform their criminal acts in one, single, uncoordinated spontaneous act. Or, failing that, they believe some kind of Fagan figure was coordinating it, via these magic, criminal Blackberry devices. The point is, it was simple criminality. Nothing more.
We’re not allowed to ask what made them ‘mindless criminals’. Were they born that way? To even ask the question is, apparently, to excuse their behaviour. We are not allowed to ask what might have caused it all to happen in one rush of adrenalin. That would be to excuse their behaviour. We can’t ask how a swathe of Londoners, so bereft of hope, should resort to this rather than focus their anger on a specific underlying problem. That would be to excuse their behaviour. We can’t ask why they attacked businesses rather than public buildings (on Newsnight Starkey used this as evidence that it was not political – that, right there, is a perfect example of how narrow the right’s definition of politics is). That would be to suggest there was method in their madness. We can’t even ask why, when given a free run in the city’s shops, these kids wanted branded clothing and goods that the advertising industry has thrust in their faces all their lives, and which offer the very definition of those who have ‘made it’ (and, in their absence, those who haven’t). To ask that question would be to excuse their behaviour. We also can’t ask why it has happened in England, but not in Scotland or Wales, under their left of centre governments. To ask that question would be to excuse their behaviour.
So the orthodoxy has been established. This is ‘mindless criminality’. To suggest otherwise is to be an apologist for thugs.
Well, excuse us, but we don’t think that stretching an analysis beyond the convenient is to apologise for thuggery. The riots fucked up the lives of working class Londoners more than they fucked up the lives of the enemy. For this reason, more than any other, we condemn them*. But it is stone cold stupid to dismiss it as mindless criminality. Well, it’s tactically astute if you’re the Tory Cabinet, or the Telegraph leader writer, or the Met Police. If you’re anyone else, you need to harvest the crust from your eyes.
You know how the world works. It’s the way the economic base is organised that offers the foundations upon which we build the superstructural arrangements. We’ve had a long period of Labour government, where people ostensibly on our side were running the politics. As always, capitalism carried on doing its thing, while Labour made some worthwhile tweaks to stop capitalism’s worst excesses (the minimum wage, trade union recognition and so on). Eventually the establishment tired of Labour, and we were all directed to vote Tory. Which lots of people did.
The thing you get with a Tory government is class war. Or, rather, an onslaught of class politics. Witness Osborne’s insistence that the most vital tweak to the economy we all need is to ditch the 50% top income tax rate, which affects less than 1% of the population. Witness the immediate rise in VAT – a regressive tax – rather than higher rates of income tax – a progressive tax. Witness the attack on the public sector – people who have, in Tory eyes inexplicably, chosen to devote their careers to public service rather than to chasing profits in some horrible enterprise. We almost called it class war. It isn’t. It’s only class war if you fight back.
There’s been some fighting back. From organised labour, for example. The PCS, the RMT and the NUJ are absolutely at the forefront of this. Comrades have stood up to be counted, and have refused to take what the government is throwing at them. There’s been some fighting back from the likes of UK Uncut or the SWP. But the level of organisation is specific, rather than general, and it represents groups who find it easy to articulate their concerns. Unionised workers, political activists and so on all have analytical tools and a clear understanding of the rights and wrongs. They know what they’re fighting against, and they know who is their friend and who is their enemy.
But the kids we saw torching London this week don’t know any of that. They’re being offered no leadership. The Labour Party is seemingly saying nothing at the moment that might give them a sense of hope. No one will employ them, or educate them, so the NUS and the trades’ unions can’t offer them leadership or guidance. The community leaders who would hand out CLR James pamphlets, or lead discussion of whether Malcolm or Dr King offer the best route out, are 20 years older than they were in the last round of metropolitan riots. UK Uncut, and the other ‘down with this sort of thing’ are too busy with press-friendly spectaculars than recruiting the genuinely lost and disaffected. These kids have nothing to join, no one speaking on their behalf, and no one holding up a flag and saying ‘come on comrades, let’s use this energy and build a better tomorrow’.
In fact, they are completely sold on capitalism and its trappings. The Man has worked his magic on these kids. Thee Faction and other bang on about fighting a war of position, and establishing a counter-hegemonic culture. Well these kids know nothing about it. They genuinely believe that salvation is to be found in wearing the right daps and the right labels. These are the foot soldiers the consumerist phase of capitalism desperately wanted and needed.But they’re not quite playing by the rules. Either we recruit them, or capital finds a way of adjusting their trajectory back in line with the system’s strategic aims. They think they love the system. They just can’t access its rewards as easily as Cameron and Osborne’s old schoolmates can.
So this was their fightback. They didn’t necessarily say so. None of them articulated it clearly. None of them defined the enemy. But why would they? Who is helping them shape an analysis? No one. They’re marginalised, disaffected, and very very very angry. But this was a week that was waiting to happen. Things were at boiling point. They boiled over. They boiled over for a whole bunch of very angry, confused, leaderless, rudderless, helpless, hopeless kids. They did the wrong thing. They did a whole heap of very very wrong things, and fucked everything up for a lot of working people whose lives are tough enough already. But why did they do it? Cos they have no hope, no help and no direction.
The answer isn’t to lock them up. The answer is to recruit them to something useful. Use that energy to build a better tomorrow. Kassandra Krossing, in these pages earlier in the week, set about those who call these kids ‘chavs’ or ‘scum’. These are labels which allow the smug to de-humanize the rioters and prescribe Mikado-esque pair-of-eyes-for-an-eye retribution. She was right. She also pointed out that, until the riots, these rioters were the people next to us on the bus. They were the same as us.
Yes they were. But there was one crucial difference. They were one step closer to not taking it any more than the rest of us, and one step further away from caring about the consequences of making a big big noise. But that feeling is simmering in all of us. We’re not going to take it. It’s a class-based onslaught that the Tories and the ruling class are sending our way. It’s only class war if you fight back. And there’s going to come a moment when organised labour, organised politics and organised civil society activity all start to move in exactly the same direction, at the same time, at a serious pace. At that moment we must offer leadership to those helpless, hopeless, misguided kids, and show them that there is no need to shit in our own dog bowl. Solidarity and unity amongst all of us. That’s what makes us strong.
Harness that, and we’ll be fucking invincible, comrade. Let’s make it happen. Thee Faction will be doing their bit. Will you do yours?
*we have no doubt that this sentence will be forgotten by most readers and that this piece will be read as some kind of tribute to the rioters. If that’s how you’ve read it, we apologise for our poor writing. That was never the point.