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I live by the river

The London (and beyond) riots seem to me completely comprehensible. Not in the sense that every or any particular act is comprehensible, but as a social phenomenon they are completely easy to understand–even overdetermined by youth unemployment, budget austerity, racism, police brutality (highlighted by a police murder), official corruption on open display, etc. Not two months ago, the Daily Mail (UK) ran a nifty piece on how the rich were loading up on private security; and if even rich people have noticed something, it’s scarcely clear how one could make it more obvious.

So I was not at all impressed with Jonathan Freedland’s argument that “[i]t’s striking that the targets have not been town halls or, say, Tory HQ – stormed by students last November – but branches of Dixons, Boots and Carphone Warehouse.” Well, a riot is a riot, not an insurrection or an organized mass action. In retrospect we’ll probably discover hidden patterns and subconscious “politics” in the gestalt of destruction; but in any event, is it awfully hard to dig why poor (or even not-so-poor) youngsters might want to abscond with pleasurable things that are ordinarily denied them? Is it really so difficult to think these things through?

And that’s actually what I think is the trickier question: not why the riots occurred (which is obvious), nor why they seem so superficially nihilistic (which is typical)–but why liberalism (and the social-democracy that is no longer any different from it) has been so unable to give an answer to the aforementioned, either to the right wing or indeed to itself. Here I think the Freedland–which is by no means without insight–is rather helpful.

Freedland argues that the rioters–he prefers the criminalized term “looters”–reflect a broader social skepticism about “democratic politicians,” “democratic institutions,” and ultimately “democratic politics.” Now he’s undoubtedly correct that people are deeply skeptical–or worse–about politicians, institutions, and politics. But that’s not because these things are democratic, but precisely because they fail to be democratic. As pollster Stanley Greenberg points out, working people’s complaints about politics revolve more or less entirely around the fact that a minority controls the system through money; ie, there’s a lack of democracy in the most rudimentary sense of majority rule. (Greenberg is discussing the US, but it’s the same thing in the UK.) In other words, the public isn’t bemoaning democratic politics–it’s bemoaning politics without a democratic content.

In fact, it’s not the masses that have lost faith in democracy, but the liberal intelligentsia, from the neoliberals whose admiration of China had gone from grudging to genuflectory; all the way to the “soft lefts” who no longer have the wherewithal to contextualize riots or any other form of mass action that is not strictly ceremonial (ie, inoffensive or ideally fun to the consumer-gentry). The liberal of the bourgeois marketplace wants to see decisive political leadership but repudiates any politician who would “stir up” the social forces required to be really decisive. On the other hand, the liberal of the academy or the foundation mainly wants everyone to “participate,” but only in consensual and “nice” ways that ultimately boil down to mere empty formalisms buttressed by technocratic reforms, inasmuch as democracy in a class society cannot be anything but conflictual (to the extent that it can exist at all).

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” And those who think that “agitation” means getting out the vote or having a rally every now and again, haven’t stood out in a storm, or listened to the ocean.

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  1. August 23, 2011 at 12:24 am

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