The ruling class in Britain has offered a number of explanations for the recent riots. Whatever their individual analyses, those in parliament recalled to discuss the four nights of riots stood united behind the wave of state repression in some of the country's most deprived areas. Speakers queued up with suggestions about how the capitalist state can exercise social control, intimidate groups and individuals, monitor all our communications, and beef up its ability to physically confront any threat it chooses to identify. In practice, courts have carried on sentencing overnight, people have been remanded for sentencing in higher courts; there have been dawn raids with doors broken down, and the press have published galleries of people in the hope that others will, in the words of the Sun, “shop a moron.”
After riots in the 1980s the Conservative government acknowledged that poverty and unemployment were factors in the situation. Today Prime Minister Cameron says “This is criminality, pure and simple.” Beyond that he's said "There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick.” Leaving aside the reality of a capitalist society that is actually incurably sick in its fundamentals, Dr Cameron's 'treatment' following this 'diagnosis' seems to be mostly violent state repression.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband has attacked Cameron for being “shallow and superficial” and thinks there's something more “complex” that has to be understood. He thinks the riots echo something beyond 'criminality'. “We have got to avoid simplistic answers. There's a debate some people are starting: is it culture, is it poverty and lack of opportunity? It's probably both.” On the 'culture' side of the equation Miliband says “It's not the first time we've seen this kind of 'me-first, take what you can' culture” and goes on to list “The bankers who took millions while destroying people's savings” and “the MPs who fiddled their expenses” and “the people who hacked phones at the expense of victims” all of them described as “greedy, selfish and immoral.”
The differences with Cameron are only at the level of rhetoric. When it comes to supporting repressive measures Miliband had no hesitations; indeed he complained that Cameron had “undermined” the police. On the left wing of the Labour Party, Ken Livingstone and Dianne Abbott were among those who backed an increase in police numbers, with the latter also in favour of curfews, that would have to be enforced by police swamping of the poorest areas.
SWP conflate riots and struggles
The riots mostly occurred in areas of high unemployment and deprivation. Many people have a natural sympathy for those living in the poorest circumstances and left-wing groups have for a long time tapped into that feeling. Posing as an 'alternative' to the consensus in parliament the Socialist Workers Party in various headlines (13/8/11) announced an “urban revolt spreading across Britain”, declared the riots (using an expression from Martin Luther King) as “the voice of the unheard” and as “One of the most powerful expressions of anger for decades.” In the articles themselves they write about an “explosion of bitterness and rage.”
Anger can be channelled into activity that is productive. It can also lead to behaviour that is destructive and counter-productive. In the recent events, the initial protests against Mark Duggan's killing, and the attacks on a number of police stations expressed a basic response to state repression. But this initial focus was very quickly overwhelmed by the indiscriminate burning of vehicles and buildings, muggings, looting of status symbols, attacks on strangers, and all the rest of the phenomena that the media has had such a feeding frenzy over. These actions were expressions of nihilism, despair and the emptiness in people's lives. There was anger to start with, but, as time went on, there was little left but cynical outbursts of imitation.
In an article in WR 344 on the class struggle we identify three distinct responses from the working class: survival, struggle and capitulation. The majority of workers are still tending to accept the current situation and just trying to survive through fear of poverty and unemployment. A small minority has taken the path of struggle. However, “part of the working class is overwhelmed by its situation and falls into a lumpen mass where it may resort to crime, preying on other members of the class, or it may become lost in drugs and alcohol or become fodder for racist and other extremist groups. There are many variations in the individual route taken but they are all marked by the absence of a sense of being part of a class defined by the qualities of solidarity and collective struggle.”Whatever the social origins of those who participated in the riots, the dead-end and destructive actions were in continuity with those who have capitulated in the face of the force of the economic crisis. It's true that not only workers (in work and out of work for various lengths of time) but also those still at school or college, petit-bourgeois, career criminals, and others took part in the random burnings and similar acts. The social position becomes secondary in such events; but we can say quite unambiguously that the working class as a class was absent from the riots. No matter how many were involved across the country they only ever amounted to a mass of desperate individuals.
The SWP protest that “It’s not about people smashing up their local area for no reason. It’s about them expressing their anger, wherever they happen to be.” If you're at home and you smash it up, you might well be expressing your anger, but you're certainly not fighting for anything. Against the accusations of “mindless violence” one SWP article insisted that “the destruction of property has been targeted”. This is blatantly untrue. The burning of the furniture store in Croydon, the derelict buildings that were torched just to make a spectacular blaze, the homes that people lost when they were gutted by fire – none of these were planned, and, whether they were or not, it rather seems that the SWP writes them off as so much 'collateral damage'.
The SWP (15/8/11) claims that “The state lost control”. This is clearly a lie. Those on the street were not organised to do anything much more than loot, nor were they around in the sort of numbers that could cause the police any problems. Right wing Tories might bang on about the difficulties faced by the police, but the police tactics seemed to be a typical response to the situation, in line with what they've done in the past.
Ultimately the SWP's propaganda conflates rioting and class struggle. This is what all factions of the bourgeoisie habitually do. Any protest can be described as a 'riot' in order to justify an attack from the forces of law and order. On the other hand, confusion over the significance of anti-social rioting can undermine workers’ capacity for struggle. To those who live on the poorest estates, and in the most deprived neighbourhoods, revolutionaries need to offer their solidarity, but also the only perspective for the transformation of society, that is, the conscious, self-organised struggle of the international working class.