I’ve been away for a couple of days, so haven’t posted again on the aftermath of the night of looting that gripped various locations in London, and then spread to other cities in the UK. But in the mean time I’ve faced some criticism for my previous post for a) appearing to back away from the piracy ideas I’ve been explaining that I’m working on and b) for not being prepared to admit that these ‘riots’ are a genuine political act on the part of London’s poor.
I want to deal with the second part first. Some observers have wanted to put forward a thesis that these riots represent a rising up of a British underclass against a dominant culture that has grown in them material desires, while refusing to give them fair access to wealth to fulfil these desires. Actually, I do believe that a riot of this sort is possible in London, it’s just that I don’t accept that this was it. Why? Because a careful examination of the people involved in the disturbances and the places in which they occurred just doesn’t stack up to allow that. Yes, I’d love it to be really simple and to follow some historical precedent, or some careful theory about class violence, and yes, it is possible that there were pockets of this occurring, but the vast majority of people involved in these disturbances were not there to engage in political violence. As I’ve said before, they were there for the spectacle.
Now, it may be that the spectacle is itself something we need to analyse and think about, and that a society which has a large number of potentially bored and uninspired young people may be a tinderbox for this kind of looting, but if so we have to reject the idea that this is the poor of London rising up. It isn’t.
The Guardian have posted a map of London, coloured by degree of deprivation, and over-layed the areas of disturbance – asking the question if there is correlation between the two. It would be tempting to say that there is a strong correlation, but this is highly problematic, because we know that over 70% of those arrested were arrested in a different postcode from where they lived. People travelled to these places. The map also gives a false impression because it doesn’t grade the severity of incident in each place. Remember: some of the major centres of disturbance were Clapham Junction, Ealing Broadway, Croydon – none of which could be described as deprived areas.
Yes, poverty and alienation was and is a factor, but, as I said in the last post, it’s facile to suggest that this was a riotous uprising of the poor. It doesn’t add up.
Secondly, and connectedly, none of this has made me reconsider the work on piracy that I have been doing. If this were a riot with the poor rising up against a system that was blocking their access to the economic freedoms that others enjoy, I’d stand up and say that this could be interpreted as an act of orthodox piracy and understood in that context. But this isn’t that riot. Of course, I am working with what we might call the ‘ideal pirate’ and constructing things around that – and no act will probably be seen as this ‘ideal’ act of piracy, except what we see in the crucifixion, but that’s for another day!
I’m currently reading Marcus Rediker’s excellent book Villains of all Nations – Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, in which he looks closely at why pirates emerged at that particular time. Much of his socio-economic analysis is highly relevant for today, but none of it suggests that what we saw in London could be raised from the level of common theft to a true act of piracy.
One (flawed) piece that may be worth reading is David Goodhart’s in Prospect:
A rapper called JaJa, interviewed by Sky TV, said if he was younger he would have been out with the kids. He then admitted that most of them were doing it for fun, to feel powerful, “for 15 minutes of fame.” The actual rioters I saw interviewed on television did complain about the Duggan case, but the real complaint seemed to be the police’s power to stop them committing crime.
I dislike Goodhart’s lazy assumption about the racial make-up of the rioters, but some of his analysis is correct. It’s too easy to label this as ‘the poor rioting against the rich.’ I don’t believe it will serve London well to pursue this idea as a way of getting to the root of what is a far more complex problem.
Click here to receive updates, and hear first about new projects