Will 2013 Be a Year of Social Unrest in Britain?

The potentiality of 2013 proving one of the most convulsive and ugly in Britain’s social history is real.

The brunt of this Tory-led coalition government’s assault on welfare and public spending come on stream in April. Swingeing cuts in child benefit, housing benefit, and a cut in council tax benefit will plunge millions of UK families into the abyss of destitution and despair. Add to this a one percent freeze on Jobseekers Allowance, tantamount to a real terms cut, and the conditions for social unrest in the UK have hardly been more propitious.

Since coming to power 2010 this Tory-led coalition government, aided by its allies in the right wing press, has been diligent in its efforts to prepare the public for the economic tsunami that it intends to unleash on the public sector, the poor and benefit claimants. It has engaged in a concerted and determined propaganda campaign designed to demonize the unemployed, people on disability benefits, and public sector workers, the main targets of its attacks with the objective of turning what was and remains an economic crisis caused by private greed into a crisis of public spending. Pitting one section of working people against another has been a key plank of the Tory strategy to minimise resistance to the most egregious and brutal assault on the incomes and lives of poor people in living memory.

Save The Children calculate that currently in the UK 1.6million children are living in what they describe as severe poverty. Households mired in severe poverty are forced to make a choice between heating and eating each winter on an income of £15,000 or less. The extent of child poverty in the UK is a badge of shame in the word’s seventh largest economy. Indeed, along with food banks, it is this badge of shame and not the Olympics which is Britain’s lasting legacy in 2012.

Given the criminal lack of social and affordable housing in Britain, a consequence of Thatcher’s decimation of council housing stock throughout the 1980s, a policy continued throughout the nineties, wherein tenants were able to buy council properties at huge discount, and New Labour’s failure to address the yawning gap during its 13 years in office, millions of people are currently living on the edge of homelessness, victims of the inflated rents and insecure and short term tenancies offered by private landlords. With the collapse in the mortgage market, demand for private rented accommodation has spiked, which with the government’s intention of scrapping housing benefit for under 25′s and restricting it for everyone else is a recipe for disaster.

These facts, no matter how shocking, do not come close to describing the stress suffered by those on the receiving end of the government’s assault. This is a crime in itself, a cruel and brutal attack on the welfare of millions of men, women, and children, punished for daring to be poor by a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

Meanwhile, as 2013 gets underway, those same rich have never had it so good. Last year’s Sunday Times Rich List confirmed that the 1000 richest people in Britain have seen their wealth increase by a staggering £155 billion over the past three years of the worst economic recession since the 1930s, enough to wipe out the entire deficit with around £30 billion to spare. Yet thanks to the government’s decision to reward those earning £1 million a year or more with a £42,000 tax cut starting this spring, the rich can look forward to their wealth increasing still more. As for the corporations and businesses which many of them run, those are set to enjoy a two percent reduction in corporation tax in 2013, while VAT remains at 20 percent, a tax on consumption with a disproportionate impact on the poor.

Thanks in large part to the unstinting efforts of the campaign group UK Uncut when it comes to shining a light on the immorality of tax avoidance by the rich and big business, we now know the full extent of the theft committed by multinational companies such as Asda, Ikea, Starbucks,Vodafone, Google, Amazon, and others when it comes to exploiting tax loopholes to avoid paying anything like their fair share of tax on UK revenues. Plugging these loopholes at any time, never mind in the midst of the deepest recession since the 1930s, you would think would be done as a matter of urgency by a coalition government whose mantra since it entered Downing Street after the 2010 general election has been ‘fairness’ and ‘we are all in this together’.

The opposite has been the case. In fact, worse, the government has turned its guns on the poor and working class to make sure that the wealth and profits of the rich remain intact. It is class war by any other name.

The lack of investment by the private sector has led to a collapse in demand, which in other words means we are living through a crisis of underconsumption. It is a crisis screaming out for an investment-led response by the government to fill the vaccum left by the lack of private investment in the economy, specifically via the banks, the beneficiaries of billions in taxpayers money to keep them afloat at the height of the financial crisis.

The result is an economic shambles with injustice at its heart and the wonder is that we have yet to witness wholesale riots and civil unrest in towns and cities all over the country in response. 2013 may well see it erupt.

 

Police Massacre 34 Striking Miners in South Africa

34 workers were killed when police opened fire at striking miners in South Africa on Thursday. A further 78 were injured.

The platinum mine involved in the dispute is located at Marikana, 100km northwest of Johannesburg. It is operated by a UK-listed company, Lonmin, which is the third largest platinum producer in the world and has been the subject of past disputes at the same mine.

The men were on strike over pay and had gathered at the mine when the police arrived on the scene. The police claim that some of the miners charged them with clubs and machetes, shots were fired, and they had no choice but to open fire.

Meanwhile, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have accused the police of carrying out a massacre. “There was no need whatsoever for these people to be killed like that,” the union’s General Secretary Jeffrey Mphahlele told Reuters news agency.

The strike was taking place to the backdrop of a bitter dispute between two rival unions. The domination of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), whose leadership have been accused of being corrupt and too close to the ruling ANC by its critics and rivals, has come under increasing pressure from the AMCU, which takes a more militant stance on behalf of its members. The NUM had signed a deal over pay with the mining company, but the AMCU refused and instead were calling for the wages of its members, working as rock-drillers, to be trebled. They currently earn between 4000-5000 rand ($484 – $605) per month and were demanding a wage increase to 12,500 ($1,512) per month.

The miners work under harsh conditions. Many are from Eastern Cape province or neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, Swaziland or Zimbabwe and live in a nearby settlement in shacks. There is little or no provision made for the supply of clean water or refuse collection for the men, who work long hours underground.

South Africa is the largest platinum producer in the world and in light of the massacre renewed calls for the government to nationalise the country’s mining sector have been made by the ANC’s youth wing. This reflects the widening gap between the ANC leadership and government and many of its younger members, who are demanding more action when it comes to tackling the crippling poverty, unemployment, and huge inequality still suffered by millions of black South Africans post-apartheid.

Now for the Backlash

Within days of the unrest that has dominated the news the inevitable right wing backlash has been unleashed. Rushed court proceedings carried out through the night doling out draconian sentences in relation to the offences committed, local authorities issuing eviction notices to the families of some of those involved, have been complemented by the high profile recruitment by the government of the America’s own supercop in the shape of Bill Bratton to regale his British counterparts with his experience and expertise when it comes to dealing with gangs.

But as current President of the Association of Police Officers Sir Hugh Orde points out, with some 400 gangs currently still in existence in and around New York, claims of expertise when it comes to dealing with gangs and gang culture on the part of the former NYPD Commissioner are deserving of, to be kind, rather more circumspection than received truth.

For the fact is that amid all the fanfare and plaudits that Bratton has received throughout his career, it has not been without controversy. Accusations that while he was at the helm of both the NYPD and the LAPD incidents of racism and brutality by police officers were all too common were made repeatedly by various community leaders and various community groups in the neighbourhoods affected. They are accusations that point to a culture of aggression under Bratton’s watch which had a deleterious effect on relations between the police and the low income, predominately ethnic communities impacted.

The most significant aspect of Bratton’s recruitment by Cameron is how it bespeaks an emphasis on dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes of social breakdown by the present government. At a stroke this sharp turn to the right has ripped off the mask of modernism and woolly conservatism that Cameron and his advisors had painstakingly sought to cultivate prior to and just after the election in the after glow of the post coital political relationship they had forged with their new Lib-Dem coalition partners.

Not anymore. Now the true face of conservatism is being revealed to the country, with the Lib-Dems reduced like an abandoned lover to sniping from the sidelines with ever more irrelevance. Nick Clegg in particular has seen his political star plummet like the proverbial stone since the election, with the last vestige of credibility he may have enjoyed at one time disappearing into the ether on the vapour trails of his principles and influence. Indeed, increasingly it has fallen to Simon Hughes to provide what little Lib-Dem influence remains in the nation’s political discourse, with his recent warning of the dangers of the government’s commitment to knee-jerk reactions to the current crisis a welcome if rather hollow attempt at meaningful intervention.

When it comes to the issue of gangs and gang culture, evidence of the chasm in understanding that exists between those at the bottom of society and policymakers and the mainstream commentariat could not be clearer. Gangs reflect a need for human solidarity that has been denied young people who are unlucky enough to be born into that layer of society excluded from the mainstream. Disenfranchised, made to feel worthless and lacking life chances that now more than ever are governed not by ability and work ethic but family connections, the school you go to more than what you achieve at school, and low expectations inculcated by parents and an environment already abandoned as beyond the pale by economies in the West that are models of socialism for the rich and the free market for the poor, gangs fill the vacuum left as a consequence.

In this regard the words of Gavin Poole, Executive Director of the UK’s Centre for Social Justice, spoken in the aftermath of the riots, are words that the government and others in position of power ignore at the peril of us all:

“We will find a high majority of these young people have failed in schools where truancy is normal, behaviour is often disruptive and boundaries are not established. Many of them face a life on benefits in ghettos scarred by poor housing and street gangs, completely devoid of aspiration. In such communities, they have been written off by society repeatedly.”

These are the actions of people who live in chaos, hopelessness and poverty. What they are doing is criminal, completely wrong and must be punished. But it is not entirely random; they believe they have nothing to lose and no one to answer to. Some even consider it normal.

Yes, we need political leadership and a debate about policing techniques. But when the violence ends, we need deep rooted social reform which understands that a section of Britain is badly broken and needs to be rebuilt.”

Despite those salutary words of advice, the reaction of the Tories and their supporters in the pages of the right wing press to the wave of social unrest just passed is contained in the redoubtable words of John Major, “condemn more and understand less”.

While this approach may well issue a measure of comfort to those outraged at the scenes of mayhem that dominated our television screens last week, their lasting impact will be the dangerous precedent they set when it comes to policing and law and order matters going forward. With accusations from some quarters being levelled at the Met Police of timidity and a less than vigorous treatment of the rioters at the beginning of these events, the likelihood of a return to the aggressive approach people had become accustomed while engaged in their right to peaceful demonstration over recent years looms large. Of course it is hard to say at this point if the public recruitment of Bill Bratton by Cameron to advise on these matters was designed in part with the objective of embarrassing the Met hierarchy, but that has and will be the inevitable consequence of his appointment.

Perhaps the most telling conclusion to be drawn from both the riots and the government’s reaction to them is that the playing fields of Eton are the last place where an understanding of society and the impact of inequality, poverty and the social exclusion that inevitably results can hope to be reached.

Mama Said There’ll Be Days Like This

by Kevin Ovenden

What did people expect? Just over a year ago, during the general election campaign in Britain, I remember George Galloway on the stump warning that the last time the Tories came in to replace an already dead Labour government and pursue full-blooded, class war policies, Britain’s cities went up in flames. That was 1981. Three decades later the Sunday supplement features on Brixton, Toxteth and St Paul’s all situated those events in the aggressive policing, racist exclusion and darkening hopes of the young of the time.

The same papers in 1981 had amplified the Tories’ denunciations of the “mindless criminality” of those who rose up, and foreshadowed the hapless John Major’s injunction to “condemn more, and understand less”. That the Tories and the right are doing the same today comes as no surprise. They cannot accept that it is their policies, building on many more years of social polarisation and stigmatisation of the poorest that are the condition which has produced today’s riots. In a similar way, the Blair government could not bring itself to accept that its policies – at home and abroad – created the circumstances in which the 7/7 attacks took place in London in 2005. There was a hue and cry against anyone who said we should try to understand. Yet within a year, that understanding had become commonplace – from the analysts of MI5 to the mainstream of the labour movement.

A comparable political battle is now underway. For underneath all the attempts to create a moral panic and all the wearily predictable responses that knee-jerk from various ideological positions, this is above all now a political question. Its outcomes will provide the backdrop for the coming months in which the full force of the Condem structural adjustment programme is felt and, as seems quite likely, further devastating measures are taken as the centres of the world economy hover above another frightening spiral down to depression.

For the left as well, what could we reasonably expect? There is an uncomfortable truth which some on the left are seeking to sidestep – with hyperventilated condemnation of the looting in direct proportion to the stubborn facts they try to ignore. The left and labour movement have failed to provide thus far an answer to the despair that is ripping through society. So that section of liberal left opinion which is indulging in the most illiberal calls for retribution against the rioters is engaged in a double flight from responsibility: first in abandoning basic social democratic values which hold the rich and powerful responsible for the social conditions in which the poorest live and the bitterness that flows from that, rather than the “fecklessness” and “amorality” of the poor themselves. We have a contemporary gloss on this old reactionary contempt for the poor – people tweet from smart phones or blog from fast wifi connections about the selfish materialism of those who loot those things from High Street chains or who, denied a decent credit rating, rob from one of the “Money Shops” or other rip-off outfits that have sprung up in empty stores like modern-day tributary outposts of some ancient parasitic empire.

The second indulgent irresponsibility is deny that the failure or worse of the progressive coalition that has historically been headed by Labour to address the injustices that have been growing for decades is itself a large part of the problem. Worse still, it’s wrapped up in a faux concern for working class communities whereby those who are now being given appalling sentences are regarded as not part of the working class, not part of the decent community of “hard-working families”.

Some of those who are pumping out this reheated Victorian ideology of the deserving and undeserving poor have also been telling us, seemingly paradoxically, that Labour did fail to relate to its working class core and that, as the Blue Labour bandwagon puts it, it needs to reconnect with it.

The paradox is only apparent, however, and is resolved with the ubiquitous solvent of racialised or ethnicised pseudo-explanation and prejudice.

For many years the Muslim and more recent immigrant communities have been held to be the central obstacle to what was termed “social-cohesion”. With government policy held immune from predicted consequences like 7/7, those communities were held to blame. A section of the liberal left sank into the scapegoating quicksand. But older prejudices, born out of the need for false explanations of society’s ills, never went away. Now, with the return of “urban” unrest comes the recrudescence of the barely coded language of “gang”, “inner-city lawlessness”, “criminality”, “absent father figures”, “scum”… black. It has been bubbling away for years with so many on the liberal and centre left taking it as just a natural state of affairs that black children, of primary school age, are three to four times more likely to be excluded from school, 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched and far less likely to be in the best universities than their white counterparts. There were the cliched articles about “urban” hip-hop corrupting even white middle class kids. And knife and gun-crime, rolled out as a political football by Boris Johnson and the Tory papers before the last London Mayor election, only to be kicked back into touch once he was in.

Riots by their very nature involve inchoate violence as well as more consciously directed acts. Now we are witnessing further attempts by the government and authorities to avoid responsibility and sow division with new racialised narratives. Yesterday, it was Muslim communities that were self segregating (refusing to mix, unlike African-Caribbeans) and breeding criminality. Today they are the hard-working shopkeepers defending themselves against the mob. Just as some black people may have felt relieved that they were out of the crosshairs for much of the last two decades, so some Muslims may feel the same today. But to do so would be foolish.

What we are seeing with the desperate attempts by the state and a weak government to shore up their position in the face of the first whiff of the kind of social explosion that is spreading across Europe is that there are no depths to which they will not sink to balkanise our society so that a fantastically wealthy elite can cavort in comfort. The immense scale of the austerity offensive adds up to a class war unprecedented for 70 years. As before, the shock battalions in that war are vicious scapegoating of the marginalised, and manifold racist divide and rule.

There is nothing more cowardly in those circumstances for the left to concede that ground, or self-satisfiedly to proclaim that they would sympathise with those who are lashing out if only they did so in a more organised fashion, more constructively, with more regard to building a majority social force against the government, more… more like what we would do. But we haven’t done so effectively. And this is one consequence.

Truly recognising this means that things cannot go on as before. An effective response to this government and the historic structural adjustment it wants to impose cannot be whistled up out of thin air. But the left can single-mindedly and with unity of purpose seek to build on the beginnings of that resistance. That requires relegating to their proper place differences of opinion on secondary matters and instead holding to an uncompromising opposition the racism and class prejudice that are the great weapons in the other side’s arsenal.

For the Tories, talk of responsibility is cynical buck-passing; for the left, however, we must recognise our responsibility and act accordingly.

Riots: the Voice of the Powerless

by Neil Faulkner

International Socialist Group

Mob rule’. ‘Wanton destruction’. ‘Mindless thuggery’. ‘Sheer criminality’. Media, politicians, and police always say the same about urban riots and, lacking political organisation, riots can spin out of control and engulf ordinary people. But that does not alter the fact that they are rooted in social oppression. Criminals may take advantage of riots but they are not the cause of the riots. Criminals work in secret, not as armies of street-fighters. The long history of riots proves that their organisation does not depend on electronic social-networks. And the vast majority of the rioters on the streets in each area are local youths.

Riots have been a feature of capitalist society since its inception. Indeed, they go back much further, to earlier forms of class society. Modern urban riots represent the continuation of an older ‘pre-capitalist’ tradition of popular protest (see John Rees and Lindsey German’s article A Short History of the London Riot ).

Mass rioting erupted on demonstrations against unemployment in Central London in both the 1880s and the 1930s, a wave of riots swept Britain’s inner-cities in 1981, and the revolt against the poll-tax saw rioting outside local town-halls and a mass riot in the West End in 1989.

The events in Tottenham, Hackney, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester, and a dozen other urban areas over the last few days are not some sinister eruption of an underclass of criminals equipped with BlackBerries moving from one hot-spot to another. They are explosions of anger over lives blighted by poverty.

Fuck the Feds

What is clear, moreover, is that the police are the primary targets. ‘The moral of the story is “Fuck the Feds”,’ said one Tottenham youth questioned by a journalist about the riots.

Hundreds of youths on Hackney’s Pembury estate were eager to bring on a fight with the police. One man was seen spraying ‘Fuck Da Police’ on a wall in red paint. Another shouted, ‘Come and get us, man,’ as he hurled a bottle. ‘We ain’t going nowhere,’ declared a third; ‘this is our estate.’ A fourth explained, ‘I’ve been wanting to see us do this to the Feds for years.’

Festering hatred of the police on rundown working-class estates, above all among black youth, has been largely invisible to mainstream politicians and media, but is easy enough to understand for anyone interested in finding out.

Youth unemployment across Britain is currently running at one in five. Across London, it is closer to one in four. Among Afro-Caribbean youth, the proportion is much higher: barely half have jobs.

Capitalist crisis always works this way. Those who have jobs hold onto them if they can. It is young workers coming into the job market for the first time who face the grimmest job prospects. And among them, because of racial disadvantage and discrimination, young black workers find it hardest of all.

Con-Dem Cuts

Because of this, even those in employment are likely to be in low-paid, dead-end jobs: it is all they can get. At the same time, educational opportunities are being shut down by abolition of the EMA (Education Maintenance Grant) and university fees soaring to £9,000 a year. And with rents and house prices at record levels, any hope of moving out of overcrowded family homes and setting up independently can appear a distant prospect.

Meantime, councils are implementing massive cuts. Haringey (which covers Tottenham) has just agreed £84 million cuts in a £273 million budget, including 75% cuts in its Youth Service and the closure of 8 out of 13 Youth Centres.

All of this is set to get much worse. The Con-Dem programme of cuts and privatisation has only just begun, and, with the global financial system hovering on the brink of a second crash and a double-dip recession, some economists are talking about two decades of austerity before the debt hangover is worked off.

With good reason, ‘Fuck Cameron’ was sprayed on at least one wall in a riot zone. The riots are not ‘apolitical’. They may be spontaneous, chaotic, and leaderless; they may be focused on fighting the police, breaking windows, and looting shops; but that does not mean that they are not fuelled by a deep sense of injustice.

The anti-capitalist mood of the last decade has entered the pores of working-class Britain. Bankers awarding themselves 20% pay rises and million-pound bonuses out of taxpayers’ money has made riots more likely. Politicians fiddling their expenses and police taking bribes from tabloid journalists have made riots more likely. A society riddled with grotesque and growing inequality has made riots more likely.

In the depths of society, mostly hidden from view, in millions of homes on bleak estates, there is an accumulation of frustration, alienation, and bitter resentment. And a raw cutting-edge of this discontent is to be found in relations between young people and the police.

Their system, their crisis, their police

The role of the police in capitalist society is to protect property and maintain order so that exploitation and capital accumulation can proceed unhindered. The police operate en masse to contain collective working-class resistance, and routinely to suppress everyday petty crime and disorder in working-class areas.

It is inherent in the role of the police that they target the most oppressed sections of the working class, for the simple reason that the poorest are those most likely to be driven to petty-crime and disorder.

This is the root of the current moral panic over ‘gang culture’ and ‘knife crime’. There is no serious attempt to analyse the social conditions which foster these problems, and certainly no political will to provide real solutions. Instead, fears of a dangerous ‘underclass’ are mobilised in support of repressive policing of black youth on rundown estates.

Police harassment of working-class youth, especially if they are black, is completely routine. Veteran black activist Darcus Howe reports that his 15-year-old grandson cannot count the number of times he has been stopped and searched. In Haringey, two-thirds of those stopped are under 25, and you are three times more likely to have this happen if you are black.

A Hackney youth worker, surveying the damage on Tuesday this week, talked of seeing harassment all the time and of ‘police officers jumping out of vans, calling 18-year-olds bitches and niggers’.

‘It’s bloody hard for these kids,’ he continued. ‘There’s nothing to do at all. University fees have gone up. Education costs money. And there’s no jobs. This is them sending out a message.’

Riots are explosions of socio-economic discontent. But they require a trigger. And again and again, the trigger is provided by the police. Often, it is a police murder, or what appears as such. It was the death of Cynthia Jarrett that triggered the Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham in 1985, and it was the shooting of Mark Duggan that triggered the Tottenham riot last weekend. Behind the immediate trigger is years of experience of the corruption, racism, and violence of the police.

A chaotic release of social tension

Once it starts, there is a tremendous release of tension. Rioting seems like fun: it is exhilarating and cathartic. Humdrum lives are suddenly full of excitement and spectacle. Usually, there is powerlessness in the face of the bullying, rip-offs, and frustrations of everyday life. But in a riot this is replaced by feelings of solidarity, community, and collective strength. Temporary control of the streets can be experienced as a moment of heady-hazed liberation.

That control provides a rare opportunity to take that which is usually denied. The corporate targets of the rioters read like a roll-call of neoliberal retail capital: McDonalds and Starbucks; JD Sports and LA Fitness; Comet and PC World; Currys, Sony, and Carphone Warehouse. The riot was a chance for the poor to help themselves to the iPods, laptops, flatscreen TVs, and designer clothes and footwear that are daily invited to buy but cannot afford.

And the riot is empowering in another way. When the ruling class loses control of its urban heartlands – when there is fighting, looting, and burning on the streets – it grows scared and pays attention.

That is why politicians are jetting back from their luxury holidays to chair public-order summits and host press conferences. Expect a review of policing methods, a reining in of gung-ho firearms officers, and a more cautious approach to harassment of black youth. Expect a reassessment of priorities in making cuts to local services. Expect jittery unease in the face of any sort of protest. Scotland Yard has already issued an apology to the Duggan family. It is likely to be the first of many such ‘gestures’.

Up like a rocket, down like a stick

But, as a form of popular resistance, rioting also has strict limits and great dangers. Because it is not based on political organisation, it is always fleeting. A riot rises like a rocket and falls like stick. It issues a warning and wins some space, but any gains are likely to be momentary if there is nothing more.

Worse, because the riot is only powerful as long as it lasts, and because the rioters disperse to their homes when it is over, it leaves the police free to seek revenge. The state is far too powerful to be defeated by local street-fighters. It is bound to regain control of the streets after a riot. When it does so, further mass arrests and a long succession of show-trials may be the outcome.

Since the student revolt of late last year, the militarisation of policing and the criminalisation of protest have gathered momentum. A real danger now is that the rioters will be hounded, seized, and, in many cases, banged up for long periods. This will chime with the ‘law and order’ rhetoric by which our rulers seek to explain the riots and deny their social content and political significance.

Riots lend themselves to such interpretation. Because they are spontaneous, unplanned, and leaderless, they can quickly lose direction and become indiscriminate. This, clearly, has happened. Many small shops have been trashed. Often they are owned by ethnic-minority proprietors. Often they are owned by people who put up anti-war posters and stock anti-cuts leaflets.

Criminal gangs can use riots to loot for gain. This, too, has undoubtedly happened. Again, small traders suffer as well as corporate retail.

Fires may consume both small businesses and working-class homes. And, in the chaos of the riot, innocent bystanders may get beaten up, even, as we now learn, killed.

Because riots can result in indiscriminate attacks on local community targets, they can quickly degenerate into vigilantism and sectarian strife. On Monday night, the police turned part of Hackney into a ‘sterile area’ and allowed the ransacking of small shops to proceed. A group of around a hundred Turkish and Kurdish men are reported to have responded by arming themselves in self-defence against the rioters.

Rioting creates the possibility of splits inside working-class communities, an audience for ‘law and order’ rhetoric, and backing for a police crackdown.

The riots and the Left

These dangers impose serious responsibilities on the Left. We have to do three things.

First, we have to explain the class nature of the riots – the fact that they are rooted in unemployment, poverty, and oppression, and that they are triggered by the corruption, racism, and violence of the police.

Argument is raging across Britain, especially in the riot zones, and perhaps above all among the crowds involved in the local ‘clean-ups’. The argument is often finely balanced between those denouncing the rioters as hooligans and those talking about poverty and police harassment. Often enough, the same person deplores the devastation, but in the next sentence says, like one young woman in Hackney, ‘But maybe it’s a cry for help as well. People are doing it to be noticed, because there’s a problem.’

We have to put the argument about the real causes, and then, second, we have to link the problems of poverty and policing with the wider crisis of the system of which they are part. The experience of black youth unemployment and of racist, increasingly paramilitary policing cannot be separated from the financial crash, the deepening global slump, and the political corruption of the neoliberal elite.

Third, to prevent divide and rule, to ensure that working-class communities do not turn in on themselves, we have to transform anger and alienation into united mass resistance. That requires organisation.

Riots are the voice of the powerless. But, in relation to the power of the state and corporate capital, they are as a blunderbuss against a tank. Also, because of their unpredictable character, they can backfire on ordinary people, local communities, and the rioters themselves.

Popular protest tends to take this form of a riot when there is no other. Like now. The unions are much weakened, the strike rate remains rock-bottom, and the official leaderships are shackled by anti-union laws they are not prepared to break. The Labour Party has been hollowed out by neoliberalism and become an unashamed representative of the rich and big business. This creates a political vacuum on our side. The riots – for what will prove a brief moment – have filled it.

What we need is a mass movement to unite the entire resistance to the Con-Dem regime and its programme of cuts and privatisation. We need a framework for pulling all the struggles together and giving direction and purpose to every act of revolt from below.

Riots sometimes point the way to bigger and better things. Many of those who rioted in Central London in 1886 and 1887 were then involved in the wave of ‘New Unionism’ that swept the East End in 1889. The inner-city riots of 1981 were followed by some of the greatest class battles of 20th century British history, and though most went down to defeat, the decade ended with a spectacular victory in the Poll Tax Revolt – one which overturned a regressive local tax and led directly to the fall of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The riots represent the voice of the oppressed, but we must beware their limits and their dangers. We must seek to harness the anger and alienation they represent in a class-wide mass movement against crisis and austerity. It is the Coalition of Resistance that currently appears to offer the most promising vehicle for achieving that.

Leaders Playing with Fire

by George Galloway

I have already written here that our old Etonian government of white-tied Bullingdon Club multi-millionaires would set the country on fire while they fiddled and now they have.

Tottenham, like many parts of the country, is a toxic pyre of seething resentment against racist policing, bigotry, institutionalised discrimination, savage cuts in public services, mass unemployment and hopelessness. No meaningful political leadership exists in such places; no constructive channel exists for such rage to be heard. But everybody has heard them now.

Without leaders, the youth of Tottenham have cried out from beyond the political graveyard and said, “We exist. And you will listen to us.”

The last time Tottenham rose up, in 1985, a friend of mine, Bernie Grant, was the political dynamo on the streets there. New Labour’s face is that of David Lammy MP.

His identification with most of those rioting on Saturday night and those who suffered the damage begins and ends with the colour of his skin.

Bernie and his widow Sharon lived among their people. They felt their pain. Lammy is more likely to be found in The Hamptons than up the High Road in Tottenham.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer in Boris Johnson’s London and in David Cameron’s Britain.

It’s a long way from the high life to the High Road. But however uncertainly, the people have begun to move.

Riots and Condemnation Without Context

Just as the explosion of social unrest that has engulfed working class communities across London are a predictable outcome to the economic and social pressure said communities have been under, as the Tory-led coalition government doles out its punishment to the poor in response to an economic recession not of their making, and with the tension that has long existed between the alienated youth of our inner cities and the police, so has been the response by the political class and mainstream commentators.

Condemnation without context has been the stock in trade of those sitting at the apex of society, as they seek to explain away the unrest as nothing more than “wanton acts of criminality” or the actions of “mindless thugs”.

While this may be the accepted truth according to the norms of polite society, it fails utterly to get at the root causes. But no one should be under any illusion that this failure is the product of ignorance. On the contrary, it is exactly as intended. Assorted right wing commentators and politicians clearly have a vested interest in refusing to admit their own culpability in shaping a society more unequal than at any time since Charles Dickens was in his pomp as a searing critic of Victorian barbarism in the treatment of the nation’s poor and working class over a century past.

The current outburst of social unrest being played out on the streets of the country’s major cities has been cultivated over decades in the nation’s boardrooms and state rooms by a class which in its greed, venality, and looting of society’s surplus do more damage to the nation’s social fabric in one hour than gangs of marauding disaffected and alienated youth have done over the past few nights of rioting and looting. The only difference between the two is in scale and aesthetic.

Indeed, what we have seen being played out these past few nights is stark evidence, if any more were needed, that we are living in two Britains. One is populated by the rich and the connected, the children of inherited wealth, status and ostentation, living in rich ghettoes like Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, and their equivalents in cities and towns across the country. Theirs are lives of luxury and comfort, people for whom recession is merely a word in the dictionary with no concrete meaning in their day to day lives. It is their moral values and the lie that obscene wealth, status, and individual success constitute the pinnacle of fulfillment and human happiness that dominates the nation’s culture, driving the blanket condemnation of those normally invisible members of society, the children of the lower orders in their eyes, for daring to raise their heads and assert their will in a mass carnival of rioting and looting; the only recourse to self expression and self assertion left those who are expected to suffer in silence.

Of course, the looting and rioting we’ve seen engulf London, Manchester and the West Midlands over the past few nights by predominately young people has not been undertaken out of any concrete political or even progressive motivation. It is however driven by a primitive and instinctive rejection of a society that has long since rejected those involved and their communities. Gang culture grows out of need not desire, the need to inhabit an alternative society to the one whose values, culture, lexicon, and laws are associated with a status quo that has clearly and unequivocally been stamped out of bounds. In other words, the norms of polite society are as alien to those rioting and looting as they themselves are to those in power proffering condemnation from the vantage point of lives defined by comfort, respectability and social status.

It is said that a criminal act is an act of unconscious rebellion, certainly those criminal acts motivated by personal material gain. A spontaneous eruption of unrestrained and destructive liberation on the part of young people who from hard experience have early imbibed the most basic lesson of any capitalist society – namely that in life you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you take – has left mainstream opinion formers and politicians alike verily bursting with self righteous indignation.

The sight of politicians, members of a class who’ve been looting the public purse for years, clogging our TV screens to pour vitriol on those involved in the rioting and looting of shops and businesses has been stomach churning to behold in its hypocrisy.

The surprise isn’t that this unrest is taking place. The surprise is that is hasn’t taken place sooner, with Bertolt Brecht explaining the phenomenon most succinctly when he wrote, “The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don’t understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it”.

As David Cameron et al look on with horror at the devastation that is being wrought around the country perhaps they would do well to consider that as with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, they are merely looking at a grotesque reflection of themselves and the society of greed, rampant consumerism and individualism which they themselves have forged.