There seems to have been a distinctive feature, for me, of the explanation(s) of the recent riots in England. A lot of commentators have agreed that there were factors that were contributing causes – for example, a decay in schooling, failures in the social safety net, astonishing unemployment, and so on – but these singularly fail to be constitutive causes. By and large, that is, many commentators do NOT think that the looting and burning was a claim for change in anything like the way the earlier student riots were. The contributing causes did not tell us about the goals of the riots.
If the rioters were not exactly dedicated criminals, the riots consisted in a wide spread engagement in criminal – and self-serving – activity.
What I’ve found worrying about such explanations is that it seems rather extraordinary that one can find little or nothing in values or goals that connects the society that in which one participates with one of its major events. One might think of this in terms of “six degrees of separation.” Speaking as a citizen of the US, there’s a clear sense in which, for example, I have no connection with the movement toward the legalization of medical marijuana nor with the increase in violence on American campuses. Nonetheless, there are connections between my segment of society and the values and choices that creates these others, though perhaps not direct one. There are degrees of separation, but also connections.
In sum, the picture I was getting of the riots in England was that there were, as it were, enabling connections, but not ones that connected the goals of the riots to those of ordinary folk. To put it as its most simple, prevailing explanations leave us with the thought there is in fact a lack of connection in values here.
One way to deal with such a situation is to turn it around and say, that’s just the point. That is, the point is that there is nothing to connect to. Slavoj Žižek may be saying this when he claims,
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
This description does make it seem that we live in Metropolis, where the relief in the repetitiveness of the society comes best from powerful accidents. Baumann is cited to give more content to the riots as protest:
Zygmunt Bauman characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’: more than anything else, they were a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. As such, they also contain a moment of genuine protest, in the form of an ironic response to consumerist ideology: ‘You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly – so here we are doing it the only way we can!’ The riots are a demonstration of the material force of ideology – so much, perhaps, for the ‘post-ideological society’. From a revolutionary point of view, the problem with the riots is not the violence as such, but the fact that the violence is not truly self-assertive. It is impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival.
Not myself even a reader of Žižek normally, I was impressed by the daring of the following linkage, even though one has to worry that it may be obligatory in this sort of genre:
The riots should be situated in relation to another type of violence that the liberal majority today perceives as a threat to our way of life: terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. In both instances, violence and counter-violence are caught up in a vicious circle, each generating the forces it tries to combat. In both cases, we are dealing with blind passages à l’acte, in which violence is an implicit admission of impotence. The difference is that, in contrast to the riots in the UK or in Paris, terrorist attacks are carried out in service of the absolute Meaning provided by religion.
These are quite possible the connections that will drawn in 30, 40 or 50 years times. My bet is that we’re enriched by trying to reach this sort of perspective now.
What do you think?