[This was written last night, while on a bus between Cloughjordan and Dublin, during which time I saw no news from the London riots. Oddly, between the time of writing and now, the first bit of the final “prophecy” came true: people started to clean up the mess.]
The UK government was very quick to adopt a stance of dismissal with regard to the London riots. The word “opportunistic” was used by everybody vaguely related to the government within a short time period, suggesting that it was coordinated as an effort to cast doubt on the action. As I noted on Twitter when I noticed this, this stance is either incredibly naïve, or intentionally dismissive of an act of political expression.
Although I prefer non-violent expression myself, the propaganda of the deed shall not be discounted. Some of the rioters are clearly moving with a strong and well understood political motive. The murder of a Tottenham man at the hands of the UK police was not the fuel for this rage, it was merely the spark that ignited it – the powderkegs had been stacked high over many years of increasing financial and social tensions and bad government policy.
The “Big Society” project was aptly noted by Dougald Hine as the beginning of the end, the point at which both government and market raised white flags and turned social management over to the general public. The same general public as has been progressively disenfranchised by the government and the market since time immemorial, more so since the industrial revolution than ever before.
When you line up a growing sense of procarity, massive government welfare cuts, including the recent privatisation of certain aspects of the healthcare system and the massive raising of school tuition fees, and increased signs of imminent societal collapse, you put a lot of tension on people. If those people had sufficient political freedom to act, they would still need a fair amount of self-actualization to do so. Putting tension on disenfrancised people who have no infrastructural capacity to resolve their problems and have been weened onto the state and the market as their first and last resort will only cause them to lash out when they feel threatened.
Add a little bit of random police violence, and the sense of threat becomes real. Boom.
For the great majority of the rioters, their actions – such as looting – are not direct manifestations of political will, but they are not opportunistic attempts to maximize gain from a chaotic situation either. Rather, they are a primal and instinctive reaction to the sense of imminent and unsurmountable danger. If you expect that you’re going to go through rough times, you will use every method at your disposal to ensure your survival during those times – if that means that you adopt a barbaric hunter-gatherer stance, so be it. If the most valuable thing to gather appears to be flatscreen TVs, fair enough. It’s not as if people had sat down and thought this through.
I can identify a couple of different groups here. There are the hunter-gatherers, who act out on poorly understood impulses for self-preservation. There are the politically aware and actively engaged, who consider their actions to be necessary evils for the betterment of society. There are the bystanders, who are being unnecessarily limbic and stifle their outrage, hiding it behind manners and tradition. There are those who are exerting the force.
The most dangerous are the force-wielders, as they are operating on the basis of legitimacy they no longer have, by virtue of having raised the white flag of the Big Society and forgot to turn in their guns.
The second most dangerous are the bystanders. These people appear on the face of it to be in the ethical right, but through their sheepish beliefs in the stability of the status quo, they risk misconstruing idleness for rigteousness. States are failing, markets are failing, everything we are used to is coming to an end, and when that happens, I don’t want anybody near me who isn’t willing to act out of self-preservation, because those people are going to threaten my ability to preserve myself.
The least dangerous are the hunter-gatherers. Why? They’ll snap out of it. They’ll loot for a while, and when there is no more looting, they will sit down and try to figure it out. And then they’ll start fixing things. At that point in time it’s people like me, the politically aware and actively engaged, who are going to be explaining the new theory of society to them. It’s at that point in time that we become the most dangerous people in this particular dramatis personae, and we should then prophylactically be put against the wall, lest some from our ranks suggest repeating the same mistaken control structures.