Analysing the riots from a working class standpoint
How do we respond to the recent riots from a working class point of view? As well as the statement put out by the ICC (http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2011/august/uk-riots), there have been statements from the International Communist Tendency, Solidarity Federation and others, and there has been lively and sometimes heated discussion on various discussion forums, including libcom. Here we will try and take up the main issues rather than look in detail at any particular contribution.
First and foremost, the statements by the three organisations all start by denouncing both the bourgeoisie’s hypocritical campaign to demonise the rioters in the media, which also prepares the ground for the harsh sentences meted out, and the worsening conditions faced by the working class today that underpins the tensions that erupted in rioting. This is absolutely basic regardless of the fact that the riots took place – causing disruption and sometimes danger – in areas where workers and the most disadvantaged live. These are also the areas which suffer most from poverty, unemployment and police repression – the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham being the spark that set the whole thing off.
An effort to understand
“It is not for communists to condemn the riots. They are a sign of capitalism’s crisis and decay. Neither do we romanticise the riotous act as an effective form of struggle against capitalist exploitation” (ICT, http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2011-08-09/riots-in-britain-the-fruit-of-forty-years-of-capitalist-crisis). And SolFed “will not condemn or condone those we don't know for taking back some of the wealth they have been denied all their lives” (http://libcom.org/news/north-london-solfeds-response-london-riots-09082011?page=1). This does not mean the working class has nothing to say on the question of behaviour. SolFed, finding the riots blamed on anarchism, their political heritage, say clearly “there should be no excuses for the burning of homes, the terrorising of working people. Whoever did such things has no cause for support” and “people should band together to defend themselves when such violence threatens homes and communities”.
The Solfed statement was generally well received among the anarchists, and in general the question of behaviour, of ‘proletarian morality’ (even if not called that), came up in a lot of the online discussions in the libertarian milieu. The dominant mood was of reflection and concern, not one of blindly cheerleading the riots.
Illusions in the looting
However, there remains a widespread uncritical attitude to the issue of looting in particular. Posts such as “we shall critically sympathise the rioters, showing what is good (bourgeoisie rule and property contested) and also what is bad (hurting working class fellows) in the riots” (piter on libcom) see something positive in the looting, and others that tell us that as revolution will not be ‘pure’ we should accept the riots in their entirety, divisive and anti-proletarian behaviour included. Socialism and/or barbarism goes even further and, while recognising that this is not the negation of capitalism, looks at “the insurrectionary aspect … the fact that many of those rioting are getting themselves organised” and then extends the positive to include shopkeepers defending their property with baseball bats “taking action without waiting for the mediation of the police” (http://socialismandorbarbarism.blogspot.com/2011/08/open-letter-to-those-who-condemn_10.html). As if the bourgeoisie, and the British in particular, had not spent hundreds of years honing the art of divide and rule, of setting different groups against each other and using it to their advantage!
A number of people have argued that looting somehow undermines commodity relations – if not subjectively then objectively as one poster on libcom put it. But this view fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the communist revolution and the role of consciousness within it. Under capitalism, commodity relations dominate everything, like a natural force. They can only be overcome by the ‘subjective’ determination of the working class to organise itself, expropriate the ruling class, and redistribute the social product on the basis of need. In massive struggles of the working class that have fallen short of the revolution itself we have seen clear tendencies in this direction. But looting, even when carried out in large groups, does not lead towards such a collective, social awareness: if anything it reinforces the grip of the commodity over the individual. Thus the ICT are correct to argue that “Far from being a liberating form of activity, this sort of ‘expropriation’ is simply a reflection of capitalist ideology”. The nature of the riots was put to the test in practice by several contributors to libcom when they first started. They went to see what was happening, and left because the situation was dangerous and there was no opportunity for any positive intervention. A more successful initiative was the one taken by Solfed members in Deptford, who called a street meeting that attracted about 100 people with the concern to put out any fires - an act of solidarity - but also to discuss the causes of the riots: “Many people spoke of the problems that young people and the whole working class is facing and the need to act collectively to make changes. Out of the discussion came a decision to hold an emergency demonstration the next day against the cuts and to highlight some of the causes behind the riots” (http://libcom.org/blog/deptford-hackney-tottenham-respond-10082011).
The Deptford meeting was focused on discussing the situation and trying to understand it. It did not participate in the riot.
We do not look for a ‘pure’ class struggle. Wherever there is proletarian life and struggle this is always contested by the bourgeoisie. For instance in the assemblies in Spain we confronted the Real Democracy Now ideology aimed at reforming the capitalist state; in any strike workers come up against union efforts to keep them within the legal restrictions on pickets, solidarity and extension – but the key thing is that there is a real workers’ struggle being expressed, a struggle that by its very nature can open out to other sectors of the working class and draw them in. In the riots there was no such possibility. On the contrary, the very methods used by the riots tended to create fear and division within the working class, providing an alibi for increased repression and further austerity.
The question of perspective
“We believe that the legitimate anger of the rioters can be far more powerful if it is directed in a collective, democratic way and seeks not to victimise other workers, but to create a world free of the exploitation and inequality inherent to capitalism” (SolFed). True the rioters have much to be angry about, but riots are not the way to do anything about it, quite the reverse. But it is not enough just to address the legitimate anger of rioters – what about the legitimate indignation of the whole working class? Here we agree with the ICT: “unless and until the working class begins to see there is an alternative to capitalism and begins to struggle politically there will be more outbursts from those who have no stake in this society…”. It is the struggle of the working class as a whole that will provide a perspective for all those in society who have no stake in capitalism. Riots express the lack of perspective that results from the absence of a clear proletarian alternative.
Capitalism has repeatedly faced the working class with situations where worsening conditions become increasingly unbearable. At certain moments the exploited have responded by launching a collective revolutionary assault on capitalism, as in Paris in 1871, Russia 1917, or Germany 1919-23. In the 1930s, when the revolutionary wave had already been defeated, there were hunger marches of unemployed workers as well as other struggles and strikes – but all the time the working class was being tied more closely into the bourgeoisie’s ideology and perspective, the insane, murderous perspective of imperialist conflict on a global scale. Today the bourgeoisie cannot provide any perspective for society, they cannot even agree on whether they should emphasise austerity or quantitative easing. Nor, as the ICT point out, has the working class struggle reached the level where it can pose the alternative to capitalism (except for the tiny minority that is convinced of the possibility of communist revolution).
In a post on the ICC forum, a member of the CWO, Jock, makes this comment: “Everyone of us who commented had expected and ICC response that it was "all down to decomposition" but instead we find a materialist analysis which most of us agree with. Ironic therefore that Baboon should then criticise our statement for not mentioning decomposition when we were relieved to find that the ICC had not done so either! After 40 years of capitalist stagnation it is not surprising that social disintegration is taking place…” In fact, the last sentence accords entirely with our analysis of decomposition: it is precisely the long-drawn out nature of the crisis which is at the root of the present tendency towards “social disintegration”. The whole ICC statement on the riots is framed in our materialist analysis of “capitalism’s crisis and decay” in circumstances in which the bourgeoisie cannot impose any perspective on society, however destructive and insane, and where “the race is on for the revival of a really liberating movement of the working class to present an alternative to capitalist barbarism” to use some of the ICT’s words. It is no surprise that the ICT recognise so many aspects of the decomposition of capitalism, even if they do not share our analysis, because that is the reality of the world today.