What were the riots really about?

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?


3 thoughts on “What were the riots really about?

  1. In a society where being self-serving is “common sense”, where proposing radical change is seen as utopian or just plain crazy, where “everyone knows” that people “naturally” seek their own economic (or sexual) advantage, why wouldn’t rioters, who haven’t had the possibility to go to universities where they read Zizek or Gramsci or to find these authors in public libraries, due to budget cuts and dumbing down, look for the “best stuff” for themselves?

    They’d have to be crazy or irrational to do otherwise.

    Really, I have to compliment the rioters on their good sense.

    My only reservation is one that Bertrand Russell expressed after being jailed during World War 1. Asked about his experience with the other “criminals”, Lord Russell remarked that they were like everyone else, except possibly a bit less intelligent, since they had gotten caught.

  2. SW, before I picked up on your comments, I should note that there have been earlier posts on the riots. I’m sufficiently perplexed not to be clear where we’ve agreed or disagreed, which is why I haven’t take on those issues.

    Now, SW, I think the point of Zizek’s comments is that from many perspectives the rioters were not picking up the best stuff for them, and that it is an extremely significant fact that in the context set by English society that is what they were doing. In effect, the society has given them no/those impoverished alternatives. Which they grab willingly.

    I hope this makes sense; I’m not at all sure we are disagreeing.

  3. I think that asking why people riot is asking the wrong question. We should be asking why they don’t.

    Random street violence is virtually inevitable and it’s also likely that occasionally enough people will become involved at some time that it reaches a tipping point, where bystanders adrenalin gets flowing and they’re drawn in. All things being equal, who doesn’t want to participate in a mob scene? Who isn’t tempted to violence? And who doesn’t want to get something for free: when the brakes are off, when there are people looting, of course others will be drawn into the act. It’s a natural impulse to want to do violence, to participate in exciting mob scenes, and to take everything you can get: I would certainly be tempted myself.

    We don’t do it if we’re prudent, if we recognize that there are likely to be bad consequences. But if we aren’t accustomed to thinking about the future or if we have nothing to lose, we join in. Even if we know better, it takes self-control to keep from joining in the fun.

    The thing to recognize is that it IS fun. Violence, as I think Abbie Hoffman said, is as American as apple pie. The impulse to do damage is natural. Maybe it’s the impulse just to feel intensity, but it’s something people will do unless they have good reason not to.

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