Opinion: The lumpen rebellion. What lies behind the riots seen on English streets three weeks ago?
What lies behind the riots seen on English streets three weeks ago?
In January ‘09, an IWCA analysis piece entitled ‘Dealing with the renegades’ stated: ‘Amidst all the concern about knife crime and gang culture, it is often tacitly assumed that the perpetrators are representative of alienated working class youth. Not so: what they are more generally representative of is a new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic. It needs to be recognised that these lumpen elements represent a grouping that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.’
It was a piece which provoked controversy, including within the IWCA itself. After all, right-wing commentators delight in denigrating the ‘underclass’: were we not now joining in? Whenever the right, or the liberal left, discuss this matter, there is an underlying assumption that ‘underclass’ and ‘working class’ are two interchangeable terms: the two groupings are one and the same, to be regarded with either pity or loathing depending on one’s orientation. By contrast, the IWCA analysis made clear that not only is the ‘underclass’ not synonymous with or representative of the working class, its instincts and actions are often opposed to the working class (who tend to constitute its primary prey). The term ‘lumpen proletariat’ is not a right-wing canard, but was coined by Karl Marx, who described this grouping as ‘the “dangerous class”’ whose ‘members felt the need of benefiting themselves at the expense of the labouring nation’. Our analysis explicitly distinguished between the working class and what we described as ‘a renegade section of the working class that has learned to embrace the ‘no-work ethic’’.
The riots and looting of three weeks ago mark the emergence of that renegade section onto the national stage. It became newsworthy because its actions have, for the first time, impacted on the middle class, particularly for those who choose to live in areas they like to describe as ‘edgy’. Previously reassured by the deference of Big Issue sellers and the unfailing good manners of street drinkers, the stepping up onto the stage of the militant wing will have caused profound shock.
The riots have been reported as though they were, in the first instance, a spontaneous reaction by the community to the killing of Mark Duggan by the Met. The background is in fact more complicated, and the initial rioting was much less impulsive and more organised than has generally been presented. Understanding this is key to understanding the riots, and the motives, reasoning and disposition of those involved.
A few days prior to the killing (execution?) of Duggan, police raided 25-30 homes on the Pembury estate in Hackney. A whole layer of drug-dealing middle-management were lifted and remanded in custody. This was the result of an eighteen-month ‘Wire’-style operation, so inevitably the remands were all custodial. One of the critical details largely missed by the media is that many of the gangs, who generally spend their leisure time gouging, stabbing and shooting each other, came under one flag for the jaunt. According to Daniel Weston, a youth worker in Brixton, Peckham, Clapham, Tulse Hill and Brixton ”came together and forgot their rivalries.” The Pembury, London Fields and Frampton Park similarly formed a united front in Hackney. The latter was very much an ‘old school riot’, in that they were ‘defending’ ‘their’ estate, as they saw it, from further police encroachment. As was Tottenham old-school, to a large degree led by rioters first, and looters second. Almost all the others inverted that order. Large gangs two hundred-plus strong were moving -or were being directed- from Croydon to Lewisham to Camden and wherever else took their fancy. The police were not the target, but were instead a force to be circumvented.
It was well known on the Pembury that there would be a return of serve after the arrests (shots from pellet guns were fired at caretakers the same day). The scale of the backlash may have been a result of gang leaders in Tottenham and Hackney deciding that the shooting of Duggan (who was a major player, and perhaps tellingly also something of an elusive pimpernel) and mass arrests were all part of the same dance. Prior to the riots the Met were moving against gangs across five London boroughs simultaneously. Though for operational reasons the boroughs have not been identified, it’s safe to assume that Haringey and Hackney are amongst them. So the united front may have come about in response to an escalation made against them by a common enemy, and would have been put together prior to riots in order to maximise impact and drive the message home to both police and politicians that ’leaving sleeping dogs lie’ is generally a wise adage.
Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester confirmed that rioters in Salford were specifically looking to “get back at police” after a clampdown on them in that area. In Newtown in Birmingham, police claim that they were shot eleven times, from four different guns. While in London, police estimate that of the 1500 arrested in the first week or so, ‘one in four’ were either gang members or ‘affiliates’. In 2007 there were an estimated 170 streets gangs in London, according to Scotland Yard’s Barry Norman. But on Question Time, Tory MP David Davis flagged up a figure of 240 (some of them up to a hundred strong).
The crack battalions of the lumpen class
Perhaps the most important characteristic of the recent riots has been the self-evident differences between these and those of the 1980s, something which is deeply illustrative. In 1985 after Cherry Groce was shot by the Met, ‘Paul’ -a long-term member of south London Anti-Fascist Action- estimates that the make-up of the subsequent Brixton riot “was approximately 90 per cent fighters to just 10 per cent looters.” Ten years later in 1995, in the disturbances after Wayne Douglas was killed, “it was more like 60-40.” Come 2001, after Andrew Kernan was shot down, “looting was the primary motivation, with the fighters already reduced to a tiny minority.” So if we follow the trend, of the 30,000 estimated by police to have played some part in the riots nationally, the politically progressive will at best, have made up no more than the smallest of fractions.
Furthermore, from studying the extensive television footage it is also clear that it was only the organised elements in the gangs who had the necessary authority and swagger to give the impetus to the riots. It was they who picked the shops, put in the windows, and where there was serious money to be made (other than where the vandalism and fire-setting was intended as a diversion) had pre-arranged for vans and cars to be available to make off with the loot. The looters summoned by social media to provide cover were generally patsies, who only followed on in the aftermath, while the former functioned as the crack battalions not just in the riots themselves, but of the lumpen class as a whole. So in that sense the riots were indeed politically motivated, but just not in the way the liberal left would be willing or capable of understanding.
Laughably, in a discussion with Michael Gove on Newsnight Harriet Harman had suggested that at least in part the rioters were incensed by the “tripling of tuition fees”. Cameron has promised to ‘declare war’ on the gangs, but after this show of force and with the Olympics just around the corner, discretion will likely trump valour. On discussion sites in the immediate aftermath, the prescience of the original IWCA article was rewarded with a collective flinch. Refreshingly, Rob Berkeley, a director of Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, was honest enough to admit that it is indeed “new phenomenon about which we know very little.”
If this is a ‘new phenomeneon’, where does it come from? That can be answered relatively easily. A pre-condition has been the ending of the full employment of the post-war boom era, with insecure employment and large-scale unemployment becoming the norm over the past thirty years (it is unlikely that unemployment has ever truly fallen below the three million mark of the Thatcher years), and the concomitant destruction of the working class movement that has accompanied it. This has brought about demoralisation, degradation and dependency where once there was pride, strength and independence. In many places it has created a generational culture of worklessness from which it is almost impossible for youngsters, often semi-literate and semi-numerate, to escape. Such a state of affairs would be bad enough in itself, but when the old values of solidarity, community and hard work are not just lost but increasingly replaced by neo-liberal morality –greed, avarice, pathological self regard- it leads to the creation of the sub-set that made their presence felt three weeks ago. Those who attempt to paint these riots ‘red’ –as some kind of political response to the cuts, or youth poverty and hopelessness- misunderstand both their character and how defeated and broken the last thirty years has left our side. These were neo-liberal riots in every sense.
Two years ago the journalist Peter Wilby wrote of the Thatcher revolution:
‘Once, western governments tried to subjugate the working class. The governments of the postwar era, by contrast, tried to pacify it. High wages, good working conditions, decent housing, stable employment, predictable pensions and, crucially, the power of a large state sector to head off deep recession through fiscal intervention delivered the workers’ consent to, even enthusiasm for, a capitalist economy. It also ensured the stable domestic markets that provided the basis for unprecedented economic growth. Thatcher offered what you might call a “third way”. The working class was not to be enslaved or tamed, but abolished. Everyone would become, in their private if not in their working life, a member of the bourgeoisie, owning a house, acquiring debt to improve themselves, trading in shares and bonds. With such financial commitments, they would be reluctant to sacrifice regular income by going on strike. Better still, they would vote Conservative, or at least for an alternative party that accepted, as new Labour did, the broad principles of Thatcherism. The spectre of communism or socialism would be exorcised.’ (New Statesman)
In short, the aim of neo-liberalism was to ensure everyone became a mini-capitalist: we were ‘all middle class now’ as John Prescott told us. Eliminating the working class as a political entity would, in turn, eliminate the threat of socialism. There would be no ‘working class’ any longer: there would be those who had managed to get on board and literally buy into the system (supposedly ranging from anyone with a mortgage up to Roman Abramovich, all forming part of the same strata), and those unfortunates who had not. The latter phenomenon forms the counterpoint of Wilby’s thesis: the working class wasn’t just to go through embourgeoisment at one end, but also lumpenisation at the other, and in all cases were to internalise the same neo-liberal values. While one may feel greater sympathy with the latter grouping (the former are soon to receive a particularly rude shock, as the economic crisis inexorably works itself out), from a tactical point of view once the neo-liberal mindset has been accepted the individual has to be viewed as being in the enemy camp. It was this layer who came to the fore in the riots.
Why not Oxford?
The Labour party has traditionally been happy to foster working class dependence, rather than independence. The Joan of Arc of British socialism, Beatrice Webb, came out against the 1926 General Strike, describing it as “a monstrous irrelevance in the sphere of social reform” and the notion of workers’ control of industry as “an absurd doctrine… a proletarian distemper which had to run its course – and like other distempers, it is well to have it over and done with at the cost of a lengthy convalescence”. It’s an attitude which Labour has never lost towards its constituency: something to be controlled, not controlled by. Gordon Brown’s ‘socialism’ was to remove all restraints on the City of London and use the tax receipts to buy what was left of Labour’s core vote. The notion of any kind of return to full, productive employment was never part of the game.
Labour’s stance towards the worst elements in its domain has usually been to either ignore them, excuse them or co-opt them. One place which saw no trouble in the riots was Oxford. One would think that somewhere like Blackbird Leys –one of the largest housing estates in Europe, and which saw rioting in 1991- would have been a prime candidate for copycat violence, but it never happened. It did happen in Gloucester fifty miles to the west, but not Oxford. Why was this? There may be many reasons, but one thing which is certain is that on Blackbird Leys the worst elements have, over a number of years, been identified and confronted instead of being appeased or pandered to, and this has been solely down to the efforts of Oxford IWCA. In the words of IWCA councillor Stuart Craft:
“Back in 2004 on Blackbird Leys, we proved that working class activists can also set the agenda. By exposing and challenging the authorities policy of containment of crack and heroin dealing – in particular the exploits of a recently arrived yardie gang implicated in at least two murders and two gang rapes on our estate – and by putting into place (or often merely threatening to) our own popular strategies to deal with these problems, we too had the political establishment, police and housing authorities desperate to be seen to address a problem that they had hitherto been happy to pretend didn’t exist. The pressure we brought to bear had a significant impact so that many of the worst elements fled the estate. It seems inconceivable that without the efforts of IWCA activists and residents that the ‘top shops’ area (which sits opposite the yardies’ old base, the Blackbird Leys Community Centre) would not have suffered the same fate as other such areas across the country.” (See ’IWCA calls for clean sweep at community centre bar‘ and ’Management to vacate community centre bar‘ on the Blackbird Leys IWCA website for further background.)
It speaks volumes about the character and nature of these riots that the rioters folded and melted away almost everywhere they encountered any kind of resistance. It is equally significant that these same elements were stopped from reaching critical mass through the promotion of working class first policies on Blackbird Leys. If the first rule of war is to know your enemy, identifying an opponent (the purpose of these articles) is arguably the first rule of politics.