The Summer of Rage
Image Kuhn/ Bird
August 2011 saw parts of London, Birmingham, Manchester and several other areas of England ignite into days of rioting and disorder. Police struggled to keep order on the streets, four people lost their lives, homes and businesses burned down, politicians rushed back from their holidays to deal with the crisis. In the aftermath of the riots there have been no shortage of commentators looking to provide explanations. Many of these have been crude in the extreme. Not just the rioters, but actually whole communities have been labeled as a feral underclass lacking basic moral principles and driven by greed and wickedness.
David Cameron proposed some solutions that were nothing more than populist soundbites and others which were ominously authoritarian. There would be longer sentences, police would have greater powers and in echoes of the dictators of Egypt and China social media such as facebook, twitter and Blackberry Messenger could be closed down by the government for periods of time. What was not up for discussion by the government was any u-turn on cuts to police, fire services, ambulance staff or local authority workers who had dealt directly with this crisis. As for providing jobs or free education, dream on.
What was lacking in this discussion was any recognition of the part played by capitalism itself in creating this crisis. That did not begin simply with the cuts of the Cameron government. The neo-liberal revolution that has swept the world has taken it upon itself to pare down the role of the state, to privatise and cut back services such as health and education. At the same time the disparity between the rich and the poor has soared, increasing under all governments. The rich have been getting richer than ever before and the poor poorer. The neo-liberals have created more poverty and weakened the structures that exist to deal with that poverty. With poverty comes debt and poor health. For some it can mean drug and alcohol problems which can have devastating effects on families.
Some commentators have said that the riots were not political. This is a more complex question. Firstly the spark for the riots was the killing of Tottenham man Mark Duggan by armed police. A demonstration to the police station did not result in any answers from the police and local youth erupted in fury. There was tension between local youth and the police as a result of ‘stop and search’ tactics which targeted black youth. The subsequent spread of looting and nihilistic violence followed on from this trigger. The cause of that aspect of the rioting was political too.
Youth looting trainers and games consoles are behaving in a way that has been encouraged by modern capitalism. The last phase of western capitalism saw low interest rates and a massive extension of consumer credit as a way to promote growth and extend the ‘boom’. We were all to be consumers; able to get the house, car and TV we wanted, with payment at reasonable rates of interest. The adverts are still there but the credit is gone, as are the wages to pay the credit card bill or mortgage. In the looting of shops we saw the poor lash against a system that could never fulfill its promises and which instead delivered poverty and despair.
The young people who rioted had nothing to lose. They had little stake in society. The economic crisis of capitalism has left them with no hope of a decent job, and little hope of any job at all. The prospect of going to university or college has been taken away with the proposed removal of Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMA) and the rise in university fees in England and Wales to up to £9000 per term.
The anger and rage of these youth could have had an organized and political focus but that was generally lacking due to the weakened state of the labour movement and the left. Even the press could hardly bring themselves to produce the usual bogeymen of socialist and anarchist agitators, they just weren’t there. In fact many of these communities are increasingly disengaged from politics of any shade. The smashing of the unions and the relentless attacks on any form of collective struggle by the Tories, or indeed New Labour who did nothing to reverse the Tory anti trade-union laws, have seen to that.
Neo-liberal capitalism saw the smashing of the trade-unions, the left and the organizations of the working class. It saw a massive extension of personal debt through the expansion of credit and yawning chasms emerge between the incomes of the rich and the poor. The massive economic collapse that has hit capitalism is a direct result of this failed neo-liberal model. The riots of August 2011 sprang from that failure also.
Capitalism has created a society that celebrates greed. The looters at RBS, Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock etc have taken billions from us. The politicians, press and the police they bribed have been exposed as similarly greed and corrupt. Riots are not new to our society. They have existed as long as poverty has. The deepening crisis of capitalism means that we will see them more and more often. The task of socialists is to organize, to provide an alternative and to harness the rage of young people in a disciplined resistance to austerity and despair.