This is NOT Just About the Poor | Are Looters Pirates to be Celebrated?

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.



10 responses to “This is NOT Just About the Poor | Are Looters Pirates to be Celebrated?”

  1. First up, looking forward to catching up soon at GB! Secondly, loving your piracy work. Thirdly, while I agree that the vast majority taking part were not there to participate in political violence, is this really relevant? Some of the most watched video’s on the BBC news seem to be of interviews with the young rioters themselves. Some well educated, reserved, yet irate BBC journalist asks “why” and we the listener get to enjoy an incoherent, internally contradictory answer. Then the journalist basically points out that this is a group of feral kids out to get new shoes.

    The problem with this for me is that of course many, if not most of the rioters won’t be able to justify or explain their behavior, but that this is as relevant as the opposite where one finds someone articulate taking part in a riot, protest or looting. In other words, not being able to explain why does not make it wrong or bad at a macro level just as being able to offer a reason doesn’t make it right or good.

    Instead we must attempt to avoid the trap of considering the rioters subjective experience of what is happening and ask questions concerning what is bubbling that fuels what we see.

    Now I guess you would largely agree and I am guessing that for those reasons you might want to question the historical significance of what we are seeing, I just want to push back on your references to the reasons why people are there… it is possible that they do not know the reasons why they are there and that the evidence for their unknowing is manifest in the reality of the incoherent and internally contradictory answers they give.

    What we are seeing could be described as either a message or perhaps a reaction to the messages that have been communicated to these people over the years. I tend toward the latter thought, in this sense we could describe what we are seeing as political violence of a sort. We should remember Hegel’s thoughts on the cunning of reason… we may have no reasons for what we do other than fame, power, money, new plasma TV, but that does not mean that reason is not working through us in the objective reality of our actions.

  2. I’d agree with that, and am prepared to have this identified as ‘political violence’ – though not of the clearly-defined-objective type. My problem with a lot of what has been thrown up is that it focuses on poverty as the root cause of this. And I just don’t accept that. The causes are far wider, and to focus only on financial poverty is, I believe to fall into the same capitalist crap that got us here in the first place. We need to look to the wider and deeper poverty – of experience, of empathy – rather than just bank balances.

    This is the basic point of Peter Oborne’s article: there is a similar poverty in the ruling class as there is in this supposed ‘underclass.’ But what he misses, I believe fundamentally, is that this allows us to explain why so many of those who rioted were not financially poor.

  3. Acetate Monkey

    Some interesting thoughts both on your blog and the discussion you have elsewhere. Having grown up in Enfield, I agree that the use of boroughs is not a fine enough assessment of local deprivation as they are mixed bags. Having said that, until an assessment of each offender’s disposable income is available (which it won’t be), it’s all guess work as high-income does not mean low debt. That’s dependent on money-management to an extent.

    I think Peter’s point about (not) relying upon interviews to understand motives is spot on. Interviews are not naive realist portals into the reality of lived experience, but locally co-constructed ‘accounts’ (both in the description, narration and justification senses of the word) which often rely on cliches and stories. Just because Bob says it’s about the police or money or whatever does not meant that it was. It may have been, or that may be a convenient hook to explain their his inexplicable actions to himself and the world, or it may be just one of millions of conscious and unconscious motives all jostling for a place. Attention does have to be paid to what they said, but it’s naive to treat them as THE reason.

  4. Acetate Monkey

    Just to add, I think when you have processed this a bit more, I’d still really like to read your thoughts on this related to piracy. To assume that pirates were solely challenging a blocked system doesn’t account for the fact that for all we know they might really have just loved the blood, guts, glory, spectacle, money and adventure of the acts they committed. Labelling as ‘orthodox’ or not isn’t easy as one man’s pirate was another Queen’s patriotic sailor, and despite ‘the code’ I’m not sure they would have clear classifications of pirate vs thieving scum vs driven by poverty. How were the riots not TAZs? Is Turner’s work on liminal/liminoid helpful in the analysis? I’m sure there are lots of such questions so I’d be very interested to read your thoughts (eventually) 🙂

  5. ‎”This isn’t that riot” is a great summary of your perspective. In response to an MLK quote I posted on the futility of riots, a friend suggested that we need “riots of light” & then got into some sci-fi correlation between Matthew 21:12, the Rush song 2112, & the date December 21, 2012.

    Ever since the Situationists tried to unpack Watts 1965, left & postleft social theorists have been grasping at the smoke that wafts from these bonfires of vanity.

    I hope the direction you’re going takes us away from the riots of the repressed which are mere mirrors of the larger riot of repression itself that parades as our social reality, drawing us closer instead to the un-riot of the cross & the resurrection of riotous love & life that cures repression.

  6. I’ve been enjoying your talking and writing about pirates. This post, especially, was in my mind when I drew this illustration:


    So it turns out most of the rioters rounded up were young and poor, 40% of them from the most deprived areas of the country.

    I hope we are going to see both an apology and a retraction for you on this matter.

    In passing, you know that the inventors of TAZs was a child molester, right? Unfortunate, because it is a genuinely useful term!

  8. Yes, I did know that, which I why I was very careful when I quoted him in my work on TAZ to point out that he was not someone who should be trusted on everything!

    With regards an apology and retraction, I think I need to apologise for not being clearer about what I was saying, both here and on AUFS. If you read the original post I wrote, I said that this was about disenfranchisement, and was about poverty – but that we shouldn’t rush to say that it’s just about those things. If I didn’t make that clear enough, then yes, I apologise.

    The reason I wanted to make that point was that I felt that people were jumping far too quickly to try to get a water-tight understanding of the causes of these riots, and that jumping on to poverty/deprivation – while important factors – risked us missing some other important causes. Those causes I’d perhaps say now are about a deeper poverty – of values and spirit perhaps – and to reduce things to material poverty risks falling into the same traps: make everyone more wealthy and things will be fine.

    I think the IPPR report and the The Guardian piece go some way towards this. Correlation is not causation – and as a statistician I’d still want to look at other factors (ethnicity, gender etc.) as well as looking at a higher resolution than ‘London borough’.

    I guess I just hope that the government doesn’t act in a simplistic way on this, which is always the danger. Yes, poverty is a factor. But it’s not as simple as that, and I felt that Anthony’s post wasn’t nuanced enough on that, and actually presented a slightly fetishistic analysis, aching with some unfulfilled longing for revolution of some sort. But I may be wrong.

  9. Its quite funny watching my activist anarchist mates trying not to describe something as a TAZ when it really fits, because they don’t want to use Hakim Bey’s terminology considering his other “associations”!

    Okay, but the “deeper poverty” stuff is a difficult area. Because this bleeds into the neoliberal approach to poverty reduction, based upon concepts of social capital, that denies that material equality has any good effect – this is rubbish. And on the other it bleeds into a separating Victorian moralism and othering. The point is not to make everyone more wealthy, but to make society more equal.

  10. Yes – I’ve come across that fear of TAZ too!

    Of course, ‘deeper poverty’ is tricky, and I don’t deny that. But an equal danger, which I felt needed to be flagged, was a simplistic denomination of ‘poor’ which too easily can lead to a ‘them’, leading us to think that nothing about what happened is to do with ‘us’. But you’re right – income equality is absolutely key. I’d be interested to hear Pickett and Wilkinson and whether they have any data which might prove instructive.