The riots and the state of exception

The best responses to the riots in London and other British cities have come not from the main British media outlets, particularly not the ideologically collusive BBC (the Guardian and Independent have, predictably, fared better), but from foreign media (see this superb Süddeutsche Zeitung article) and the blogosphere. A number of Twitter commentators have observed that claims, after the riots, that the rioters are not ‘the real London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool etc.’ reflect the political attitude – and political economy – that created the possibility for the riots in the first place. One particularly fine critique of the response focused by the #riotcleanup hashtag on Twitter argues that the exclusion of the rioters, either as ‘scum’ or simply as ‘inauthentic Londoners’ or whatever, is the symbolic means of defining a core, a ‘true’ society, around the eradication of this perverse element.

Now, before I go any further I should address one of the most dogged inanities of the present situation. In our political discourse in the UK it’s necessary to stress that examining the causes of the riots is not the same as condoning them. (Witness Harriet Harman’s wriggling in the Newsnight interview above.) This is the Right’s way of claiming that the Left is in favour of violence, of the destruction of homes and people’s lives. I suppose I should say that I’m not in favour of the riots, just as I’m not in favour of sticking pins into the eyes of kittens (and like that, I shouldn’t have to clarify that I’m not in favour: only an idiot would think I were). Of course the real truth is that to examine the causes is to redouble the condemnation of the riots. When commentators – in this case at some stages the majority of the British population – explained Blair’s Iraq war as undertaken ‘just to get the oil’, they were not condoning the war: they were redoubling their disgust at it. Not only is it venal to determine foreign policy around provision of oil to power the productive industries of capital, but to go to war about it, to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in its pursuit, is intolerable. So, when commentators suggest today that material conditions in modern Britain have created the possibility for riots to take place, they are more, not less disgusted than the right-wingers who call for immediate indeterminate prison sentences, shooting with water cannon or rubber bullets, sacrifice of human rights. Those who explain the riots are disgusted both by the riots and by the material conditions – created by the Right and colluded in by the majority of what passes for the Left in parliament – that created the possibility of riots, and will continue to create that possibility if they are not checked.

Bearing this redoubling in mind, we can point to various causes for the riots. Proximally the spark that lit the tinder box was the death of Mark Duggan, but a more meaningful beginning was twenty or more years ago.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

Events leading up to and focused in the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the end of history (with Western capitalism the highest point of human economic and moral development), and the subsequent triumph, under post Thatcherite–Reaganite neoliberal economic policies of welfare-state-shrinking, greedy inducements for finance capital, etc., have all contributed to making Britain one of the most unequal countries in the world, at any time in the history of human civilization, and to a global neoliberal capitalist Real that cannot be addressed by our discourse. The unfettered Rightist (bourgeois) control of the machinery of state and its centralization on the interests of the City of London, has created an increasingly insufferable situation in which a tiny – but enormously powerful – group of the megarich are the only people whose interests are valued: in a totalizing binary of included/excluded, the majority have no voice. While almost all people simply bugger along (because the relatively meagre inducements thrown to them by capital enable a standard of living that keeps them pacified), a small minority, feeling the force of the government’s cuts most powerfully, does not have the same fortitude. (I’ve blogged elsewhere on the wisdom of Mrs Thatcher, the only Prime Minister in my lifetime ever to have uttered a truth statement: ‘There is no such thing as society’ precisely because it is fundamentally fractured along this included/excluded binary.)

We are all on the excluded side of the binary (I presume that no finance capitalists are reading this blog and that I can say ‘we all’ safely). But the genius of the symbolic framework of our public discourse ensures that within the vast mass of the excluded, a smaller group is formed, the ‘underclass’, the ‘rabble’, that sets fire to London. The University for Strategic Optimism post situates this in opposition to those who have ‘the right to the city’, but a more useful term is Agamben’s homo sacer. This figure is excluded not only from the confines of ‘normal behaviour’ (which is what the #riotcleanup movement insists) but also from the political sphere (which is what the internally enforced silence of politicians and most of the media on the question of causes, of political reasons, achieves). The rioters and looters are, then, not only ‘no part of our city’ but also ‘politically unconscious’, without mind or political right. We should not think about the political economy that generates them; they have no space in our politics. (See again the YouTube clip at the top of this post: it is not possible, which is to say nobody is ideologically permitted, to formulate these riots in any political terms: the rioters are not political, excluded entirely from political space.)

This ideology of exclusion is not, however, unique to extreme situations such as these we find in the aftermath of riots. Definitions of nation, of sexuality, of the individual person, are all based on the logic of the exception. This might seem counterintuitive. Surely to define what it is to be English I could, as Max Hastings does in a reprehensible and profoundly unintelligent Daily Mail article, list qualities such as fondness for cricket or royal weddings. But that soon runs into difficulties, because Indians, Australians, and so on like cricket; and Canadians and even those freedom-loving Americans like a good royal wedding. So we must immediately exclude: cricket-lovers who are not Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan…; royalists who are not Canadian, Australian, Malaysian… Definitions are therefore structured fundamentally around a void, a pure negative. That external nothingness, the Lacanian objet a that is external to us but necessary for our definition, to fill the gap in our subjectivity, then becomes essential: we depend on it. That’s why we keep pursuing sexual relationships (to ‘make us whole’), and commodities of all kinds. (Again, I’ve blogged recently on the addictive effects of this pursuit of the objet a.)

For the Right, and in a different way for the #riotcleanup (or the ostrichism of #operationcupoftea), the rioters and looters have become, perhaps briefly, an objet a for us, a homo sacer whose evident exclusion from normal mores and political discourse is being fetishized. This fetishization makes us seem to cohere as ‘society’, a ‘single nation’, and disguises the profound division between included/excluded: the fetishization works, in short, in favour of the powerful – which is precisely why Cameron and Miliband alike, and all their party minions, are trumpeting the same banal message (‘this cannot stand’, ‘we must meet violence with rubber bullets’, etc.). The pressing question, we keep being told, is how we can effectively police the situation. The police are congratulated for having prevented another night of violence last night. And while I wholeheartedly celebrate the lessening of the incidence of violence and do not want to see any more of it, focusing on policing is precisely the wrong thing to do. We will not solve this problem by handing out ‘exemplary’ sentences or increasing the general police presence (though as a propaganda tool for police attempting to save jobs, all of this is of course a darkly positive turn of events). It is not by focusing on how to exclude the rioters but how to deal with our own exclusion, how to bring about the historic defeat of capitalism, that we can generate anything positive out of this bonfire. We can be certain that capitalism, like all phenomena of history, will certainly pass. The pressing goal, however, is to end it now, in our lifetimes, because every day it persists is a catastrophe for humanity. It should disgust, terrify, and grieve us all the more to reflect on the inextricable bond between capitalism – even ‘capitalism with a human face’ – and the destruction of British cities, homes, and businesses, than to focus on the rioting alone.

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4 comments

  1. One of the consequences to be drawn from this, which you point to in your last paragraph, is thinking about ‘capitalism with a human face’. This is a myth (in the sense that James Frazer meant it, as explanation, contra Malinowski) that serves to explain and therefore justify the domination of some by others. Perhaps this is one of the first steps in the deconstruction/destruction of capitalism?

    • Yes, it’s one of the most pressing problems. People think too readily that if they remove just one excess (bankers being the current focus) then the capitalist system will function well, and to the benefit of all. But as Marx’s analysis demonstrates, even when everyone is acting ‘fairly’, paying a fair wage to workers, buying raw materials and goods at a fair price, and so on, the structural foundation on the generation of surplus value makes exploitation inevitable, however ‘human’ and well-meaning the participants in the system are. And though it blunders along without too much mass panic most of the time, in moments of crisis, such as we’ve been suffering for the last three years, the situation becomes more tense. But we need to make it clear that the crisis has not generated the problem; it has merely revealed it.

      • And part of THAT problem is trying to communicate to people that a crisis can be something that is long-lasting, rather than instantaneous. The idea of a crisis of 3 years duration is hard for many to comprehend, I think.

  2. ‘Man and womenkind, sitting (still rather well-fed) in their (stil rather well-heated) rooms, feel a considerable tenderness toward themsellves. Upperdog, mostly white, mankind, that is. And throughout its bloody history, mankind has labelled as fanatics, agitators, and troublemakers all those who have felt less tender and rosy about the world.’ (Hans Koning, writer & journalist)

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