Reflections on the riots of August 2011 (part 2)

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This article is a contribution to the discussion within the revolutionary movement about the nature of the riots that took place in Britain last August. In the first part of this article, published online[1], we put the question of ‘riots’ within the context of the historical struggle of the working class and argued that the response of revolutionaries to any particular event is not determined by the language and analysis of the ruling class but by the extent to which it advances or holds back the interests of the working class and that this can essentially be determined by the impact it has on the organisation and consciousness of the working class. We looked briefly at how this has been elaborated in theory and practice in the history of the working class. In this second part we turn to the events of last summer and attempt to apply the framework developed in the first part.

Last summer’s riots cannot be understood outside the historical context of the deepening economic crisis that is destroying both the natural and the human world and that takes away hope for the future from all workers and most of all from the young, even to the extent of stealing the very awareness of what it is that has been taken. Internationally and nationally the working class faces growing poverty and unemployment coupled with harassment by the various forces of order such as the police, benefits agencies and border controls. Workers live in a climate of surveillance and growing social control on the one hand and of exclusion from the possibility of a better life on the other where the conditions of existence are deteriorating such that for many even mere survival becomes uncertain. Workers are thrown into an immediate struggle for survival where day to day existence stifles hope for the future. In particular, many of the young find themselves excluded from worthwhile work, unable to participate in the scramble for commodities that make up what passes for society, their hopes and aspirations unrealised or unformed and facing a future over which they have no control. Immediate survival dominates and many take what they can when they can from a world that they are not really part of.

This echoes the analysis made by Engels in the 1840s of the response of the newly emerged working class to its situation: “The failings of the workers in general may be traced to an unbridled thirst for pleasures, to want of providence, and of flexibility in fitting into the social order, to the general inability to sacrifice the pleasure of the moment to a remoter advantage. But is that to be wondered at? When a class can purchase few and only the most sensual pleasures by its wearying toil, must it not give itself over blindly and madly to those pleasures? A class about whose education no one troubles himself, which is a playball to a thousand chances, knows no security in life – what incentives has such a class to providence, to ‘respectability’, to sacrifice the pleasure of the moment for a remoter enjoyment, most uncertain precisely by reason of the perpetually varying, shifting conditions under which the proletariat lives? A class which bears all the disadvantages of the social order without enjoying its advantages, one to which the social system appears in purely hostile aspects – who can demand that such a class respect this social order? Verily that is asking much! But the working-man cannot escape the present arrangement of society so long as it exists, and when the individual worker resists it, the greatest injury falls upon himself.”[2] Today, that part of the working class that the bourgeoisie variously describes as the “underclass”, “the criminal elements” or in their more apoplectic moments as scroungers and vermin and “feral youth”, lives in a way that echoes the first decades of the working class. Thus bourgeois society in its senility returns to the weaknesses of its infancy.

The limited nature of the riots

The riots themselves were actually of fairly short duration, scattered across a number of major cities in England,[3] and, with some notable exceptions, causing relatively little lasting damage.[4] In all, it has been reported that about 15,000 took part, but few of the individual incidents seem to have involved very large numbers. The figures collated of those arrested gives a picture of those involved as being mainly young males, from the most deprived areas of the cities involved and often with histories of previous convictions.[5] However, as Aufheben point out in their useful empirical examination of the riots this partly reflects the fact that it was easier to arrest those already known to the police who allowed their faces to be seen.[6]

The primary target seems to have been the acquisition of commodities, usually through breaking into shops, principally large retail chains but also smaller ‘local’ shops. The destruction of people’s homes seems to have been a result of thoughtlessness and indifference rather than deliberate targeting. The police and other symbols of the state were also targets, with the rioters interviewed particularly emphasising this aspect. To a lesser extent ‘the rich’ were also targeted, although it is unclear how intentional this actually was or whether this was a consequence of going after the more expensive commodities in such areas.[7]

Interviews with young people either involved in the riots or living in the areas where they occurred give a mix of explanations, but there is a stress on the lack of hope in the future and the anger this provokes: “People are angry, some people wanted to get the government to listen, some are angry but don’t know why yet ... the younger ones anyway, they’ve got the same shit to come as us, nowhere to go and it will be worse by the time they’re 17 and 18.”;[8] “I’m not saying I know why people kicked off, but I do think most people ... and kids are angry, angry about jobs, no housing, no training... just that theres no help, no way to do better”;[9] “[the looting] was an opportunity to stick two fingers up at the police… People have no respect [for the police] because the police have no respect ... they abuse the badge.”[10] This chimes with research undertaken for the government: “The document said they [the participants in the riots] were motivated by ‘the thrill of getting free stuff – things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have’, and antipathy towards the police. The death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police initially prompted protests in Tottenham on 6 August, which were followed by rioting, motivated some in London to ‘get back’ at the police, the report said. It added: ‘Outside London, the rioting was not generally attributed to the Mark Duggan case. However, the attitude and behaviour of the police locally was consistently cited as a trigger outside as well as within London.’”[11]

This is not to belittle the physical harm suffered by those innocently caught up in the events or targeted by those involved, nor the distress of those who lost their homes and livelihoods. For some of those individuals the impact has been devastating and will remain with them for the rest of their lives. However, every day now workers are losing their livelihoods and their homes as a result of the attacks of the ruling class and many will never recover. Of this the bourgeoisie says nothing, or merely that it is the price “we” have to pay for the extravagance of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow. 

The riots damaged the working class not capitalism

How do this summer’s riots relate to the framework we have set out?

Firstly, the riots reflected the domination of the commodity culture rather than being any challenge to it. In the looting that took place it seems to have been the exchange value of commodities that predominated. The looting of commodities was an end in itself, repeating in a distorted form the message of the bourgeoisie that the accumulation of commodities is how one is defined. To steal a TV without the means to use it – to take the example given by the Situationists in 1965 and echoed in one of the commentaries on the riots[12] – is not to question the commodity spectacle of capitalism but to succumb to it (although the real explanation is probably far more prosaic, with the TV being sold to get the means to buy commodities that the “appropriator” can use – understandable but hardly a threat to the commodity of the spectacle). The notion of “proletarian shopping” put forward as a concept by some, may appear to be opposed to bourgeois laws and morality but outside the proletarian framework of collective action to defend common interests, the individual acquisition of commodities actually never escapes the most basic premise of capitalism: property. At best, such individual appropriation may allow the individual and those around them to survive a little better than before. Again, understandable, but again no threat to the commodity culture.[13]

Secondly, and most damagingly, the riots divided the working class and handed the bourgeoisie an opportunity to undermine the tentative signs of militancy and unity in the working class that have been expressed in some scattered struggles in recent years and which are part of the international development of class struggle and consciousness that is a possibility today. The response of fairly large numbers of people, including members of the working class, of seeking to defend themselves, their families and homes against the riots, while also understandable, did not take place on working class terrain, as some anarchist groups seem to suggest,[14] but on that of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie. This could be seen most clearly in the participation in the clean up campaign that saw the likes of Boris Johnson ostentatiously waving a broom around in the air for the cameras.

The riots threw the ideology of the bourgeoisie back into its face. Those involved are no less moral than the ‘responsible’ bourgeoisie whose morality keeps this society of exploitation and despair ticking over. However, the main victim was the working class, partly physically but above all ideologically. The bourgeoisie was not only unscathed but emerged stronger and has pursued a constant ideological campaign since then. The working class did not gain through the experience of self-organisation, quite the opposite, and its consciousness was attacked by the reinforcing of the ideology of look after number one that resulted and of reliance on the state for security. The way the riots have been used by the bourgeoisie to reinforce its material and ideological weapons of control is far more significant than the riots themselves.

Thus, we have to ask to what extent did the bourgeoisie allow the riots to happen? The response of the police to the Duggan family’s protest was provocative, but possibly not more than is often experienced by those on the receiving end of police violence. Much is made of the failures of the police in the first hours, of the lack of numbers, their retreat from the streets and their failure to protect homes and shops. Were the police simply caught off-guard? Possibly. But it is also possible that once the spark had ignited they stood back. In this scenario, the ‘outrage’ of the press and politicians at the police abandoning the streets and the reports of families and ‘communities’ being left to fend for themselves all worked towards the same end of setting one part of the working class against another and of drowning any recognition of its common class interests in a morass of fear and anger.

The working class’ struggle has to go beyond the confines imposed by the bourgeoisie whether it be passivity or riots. Both express the domination of bourgeois ideology that the class struggle has to challenge through its solidarity and collective action and by opposing its perspective of the liberation of humanity from the domination of the commodity and the whole class society that it encompasses to that of the bourgeoisie. In the 19th century this was achieved through the unions as the mass organs of struggle and through the working class’ political organisations. In the present period, faced with the changed historical situation where capitalism is unable to decisively escape from its crisis and faced with betrayals of the unions and many of the original workers’ organisations in dragging workers in war and selling them out in deals with the bosses, the form but not the content of these struggles has changed. Today the mass organisations of the working class tend to form and disappear in the rhythm of the struggle, expressed in open mass assemblies while its political organisations are restricted to small minorities, largely isolated from the working class and frequently hostile to eachother. Nonetheless, they express the historical dynamic of the working class and in future, large scale and more decisive confrontations with the ruling class, the potential exists for the working class to go from mass assemblies to workers councils uniting and organising the collective power of the working class internationally,[15] within which the political organisations that defend the class interests of the working class have the obligation to work together to push forward the class dynamic by offering an analysis based on the historical experiences of the working class and by developing an intervention built on that analysis that enables the working class to navigate its course against the bourgeoisie to victory. 

North 25/01/12


[2]. The Condition of the Working Class in England, “Results”, Collected Works, Vol.4, p 424.


[3]. A table compiled by the Guardian lists all of the locations identified. Including individual London boroughs this totals 42 locations and 245 separate incidents. Some of these, such as waste bins being set alight in Oxford hardly qualify as ‘rioting’. Most of the rioting occurred in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester.


[4]. It has been estimated that the total cost of the riots to the state will be £133m. Guardian 06/09/11 “Riots cost taxpayer at least £133m, MPs told”. Losses to individuals and businesses are not included in this total.


[5]. Figures issued by the Ministry of Justice in October show that of the 1,400 people arrested and awaiting a final outcome, over half were aged between 18 and 24 with just 64 being over 40. See also Guardian 18/08/11 “England rioters: young, poor and unemployed”.


[6]. Intakes: Communities, commodities and class in the August 2011 riots.


[7]. The broad categorisation of the targets of the riots draws on the evidence gathered by the research sponsored by the Guardian and on the analysis made by Aufheben.


[8]. Guardian 5/9/11 “Behind the Salford riots: ‘the kids are angry’”.


[9]. Ibid.


[10]. Guardian, “Behind the Wood Green riots: ‘a chance to stick two fingers up at the police’”


[11]. Guardian 3/11/11 “Opportunism and dissatisfaction with police drove rioters, study finds”.


[12]. “An open letter to those who condemn looting” by Socialism and/or Barbarism.


[13]. Nor is this a new idea. In a letter to August Bebel (15th February 1886, Collected Works, Vol.47, p.407-8) Engels comments on the smashing of shop windows and the looting of wineshops “the better to set up an impromptu consumers club in the street”. However, Engels, perhaps, did not see this as a threat to bourgeois order.


[14]. See “ALARM on the riots” 13/08/11


[15]. Here the intelligence and energy displayed by some of the rioters in their use of social media to organise and respond to events and to outwit the forces of law and order will find a creative outlet.



UK riots