On the riots

By Jonathan Maunder

The on-going violence across the UK is doubtless unpleasant and scary for those caught up in it. But much of the commentary in the media (for example this morning’s Today programme) seems to inhabit a fantasy world in which large numbers of young people have just gone wild, propelled by some kind of sudden bout of thuggishness.

But there is an obvious context for anyone who is really concerned about dealing with these tensions. Firstly, there is widespread hostility in these areas to the police, both over ‘stop and search’ and deaths in police custody – a friend of mine who teaches in east London tells me that all his students, including the ‘studious and sensible’ ones, strongly dislike the police.

Add to this the deepest cuts to social services and youth provision for decades, record youth unemployment, the cuts to EMA and benefits – and the social pressure building up on families and children (no doubt home life for these children is not great when parents lose their jobs, have their benefits removed etc) is very severe. Charities and organisations who deal with young people have been warning about the social affects of the cuts for the last couple of years. On 7th February Geraldine Blake, the chief executive of Community Links wrote:

Imagine what a long hot summer is likely to bring. A rise in anti-social behaviour, fewer young people looking forward to college as the withdrawal of Education Maintenance Allowance bites, or a job as youth unemployment rockets.

The riots aren’t a considered, well thought through response to these social pressures. There will be some unpleasant people involved, motivations will vary, targets may be random and wrong, but if the response to this social anger is repression, incomprehension, refusal to confront underlying problems then it will get worse.

The Met police anticipated a ‘summer of rage’ and Nick Clegg (before the election) warned of ‘economic, political and social disruption’, although now they tell us its just ‘mindless criminality’.

On July 31st, a week before the riots, the Guardian reported on the closure of 13 youth centres in Haringey under the headline ‘Haringey Youth club closures: there’ll be riots’.

In an interview a few years ago Slavoj Zizek offered what I think is a very relevant argument about ‘structural’ violence (poverty, oppression, racism) and ‘subjective’ violence (riots, terrorism etc):

 Today, we are fascinated by what I, following Badiou, call “subjective” violence, with an easily identifiable agent. Balibar has developed the idea, itself found in the Marxist tradition more generally, of a basic, structural violence in the functioning of capitalism itself. It is absolutely necessary to read explosions of subjective violence against this structural or objective violence. We shouldn’t focus exclusively on the subjective dimension. And we should also remember that violence is not necessarily activity, action. It is not always the case that social functions run by themselves and that it takes a lot of energy, a lot of violence to transform them. To the contrary, it often takes a lot of violence to make sure things stay the way they are. Sometimes, then, the truly violent act is doing nothing, a refusal to act.

The way this ‘structural violence’ works its way into people’s lives is shown by the strong evidence now available on the impact of inequality on the physical and mental health of the poorest in society. But our leaders and media commentators would have us believe that they are barely aware of this, or perhaps don’t really care.

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Laurie Penny. Foreword by Warren Ellis

Selected writings from a prominent voice of the new activist left. Reflections on being young, broke and angry in the twenty-first century.

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Civil Insurrection From Peterloo to the Present Day

Ian Hernon

Lively account of how people power has shaped British history — from Peterloo to the Poll tax and beyond.

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