fragments of an attempted writing.

the coming battle of Hastings.




A friend of mine asked me how I would respond to this article by Max Hastings concerning the riots in the UK.  I decided to make a post of my answer to her here:

There are so many problems with this article I hardly know where to begin.  There are plenty of things which one should quibble with – such as Hastings bitching about the high status of single motherhood in our culture without reference to the fact that Western women have only relatively recently been (for the most part) released from social and legal enslavement to husband and that after the liberation which brought about their legal ability to inherit property, purchase property, divorce, have reasonable protections in the workplace, and so forth, it is only natural that the pendulum would swing hard in the other direction, not to mention that it is often conservative policies which lower marriage rates.

Or I could point out that Hastings lauding the Eastern European workers working in the UK lacks mention of the fact that generally speaking these persons were among the better of the working class workers in Eastern Europe and (depending upon which country they came from) those with the means to get to the UK, and that one can find plenty of hopeless unmotivated underclass persons back in those Eastern European countries that send workers to the UK.  

Or I could ridicule Hastings’ point about shared meals being rare among the underclasses as it is well documented that shared meals are now uncommon among the middle classes (an acquaintance of mine who sells light fixtures to the very rich complains that they won’t spend money in their dining rooms anymore because they never use them).  

But for the sake of focus I will try to stick with the subjects of riots and rioters.

Hastings simultaneously holds that the current London rioters are "beasts" who act out of nothing more than base desire and at the same time compares them to the Detroit 1967 rioters and to 19th century underclass uprisings in the UK. 

First on the issue of "it was a great fire, man!"  Yes, in the Detroit 1967 riots many of the rioters were angry, stupid young men who were senselessly violent.  Most of the damage done (like unto many African American riots) was done to African American homes and businesses, though certainly not all.  But this does not mean that what brought about the riot and the primary motivating factor for the riot in the mind of most rioters was apolitical. 

Hastings’ inference that the 19th century working class and underclass uprisings in the UK were dealt with properly is chilling.  Hastings is a reactionary sociopath.  The conditions those workers worked and lived in were beyond brutal. 

The picture Hasting paints of an utterly coarse, unthinking, beastly youth engaged in these riots begs questions - for instance, why now? 

I suppose he could see the police killing of an innocent father of four as the instigating factor in these riots as something akin to caged pack animals reacting violently when another member of the pack is beaten by a zookeeper, but this would be a difficult analogy to pull off here - because police killings like the one that spurred on these riots have happened before in the UK without mass riots resulting. 

We see these riots happening at a time when several things have recently happened: the closing of youth centers across the UK’s urban areas; the reduction of entitlement programs; the reduction of education programs reaching poorer communities; the reduction of NHS services in poorer communities; a lack of jobs for youth in these communities; a lack of jobs for the parents of youth in these communities (in Tottenham unemployment has more than doubled in the last 3 years); a lack of quality jobs when new jobs are created; wage stagnation for those who have had jobs since prior to the recession; a disproportionate number of members from these poorer communities have been wounded and died in the UK's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently it has been revealed that cell phone data was illegally stolen from victims’ families by Rupert Murdoch's journalistic corporations; banks and financial industries have been bailed out by the UK gov't even though it is widely known those benefiting most directly from these bailouts are guilty of fraud and other crimes, and because of these bailouts (and war expenses) entitlement programs to the working classes and poor are being cut drastically.  There is your tender.  The killing of an innocent Tottenham man merely provides the spark. 

If these young rioters are nothing but brute beasts, why do they not riot all the time, or why do they not riot whenever an instigation is given, including these many recent social instigations?  Surely they have had those wild animal urges to burn buses and steal their birds new pairs of knickers before.  Why riot in this manner precisely now?  It seems to me that while stupidity and excess and thrill-seeking are most definitely involved here, to negate the political element to the riots is sheer nonsense. 

There is also what we might call an existential element that is not considered by Hastings.  I read several articles on the riots from Leftist perspectives recently which noted, with dismay, that the rioters were attacking and looting both small “mom and pop” independent shops as well as the big chain stores.  The inference here is that if these rioters were really politically motivated they would attack only the large chain stores.  These same Leftist writers also wrote with displeasure at the fact that the rioters seemed chiefly interested in stealing smartphones, tennis shoes, and popular clothing, which seems to point to a satisfaction of coarse desire rather than a political motivation behind their acts. 

To all this I say hogwash. 

Was it the welfare state that gave these youths their desire for smartphones and trendy sneakers?  Was it the welfare state that taught them to view the youth lifestyle as incomplete without these accoutrements?  No.  These underclass youths know damn well that the young people living in suburban middle class English homes have all these toys, and they have them because their parents have been financially buttressed by a political and economic ordo which will keep them in toyland come what may.  These underclass youths know damn well that many of the people who have money have done little or nothing substantial to earn it, or at least to earn as much of it as these rich folk have.  No matter how “beast”like the median intelligence may be in these communities like Tottenham, there is a trickle down of information concerning the financial scandals which results on the average guy on the street having a basic knowledge of his being screwed, thus in light of recent financial scandals, it is perfectly normal for poor youths to look about the world, (especially as mass media presents it to them), and think “these bastards have not worked for their toys, why the hell should I work for mine?”  The impulse is based on an intuition of fairness.  

It is assumed that this violent acquisition of technotoys and popular clothing represents a love of toys on the part of the young residents of Tottenham.  I think one could just as easily argue that the looting acts represent a hatred of toys - a despair corresponding to the fact that this is all there is - I grew up in Tottenham and all I got was this lousy looted $50 name brand t-shirt.  Of course the items stolen are cool, but this does not mean that the persons taking them have an actual affection for them.  They are commodities, and they represent power, status, socialization (especially cell phones), and an identity that is not distinguished by its lack.  And sure, some of them are neat gadgets which can take the mind off things.  But just like a man can inwardly hate the drug that takes his mind off of his life, so I suspect a British teenager can inwardly hate the video game he uses to escape the reality of his life, whether that teenager would ever express it that way or not.

Do I mean to suggest that all of the rioters are more or less benevolent Robin Hoods seeking a fair redistribution of wealth?  Of course not.  I committed enough acts of vandalism in my own teen years to know that the thrill of it is a better high than most drugs circulating impoverished neighborhoods.   It’s a rush, but part of that rush is not just the fact that you are getting to light buses on fire and throw bricks at police – a big part of the rush is that you are engaging in these acts with a whole lot of other people.  For many of these youths, these riots have been the biggest events of their lives, the first time perhaps that they felt a part of something much bigger than themselves – able to transcend the banal world in which the best they can aspire to is to be pawns in the games of the corrupt, brutal exploiters.  

Mr. Hastings would like these young poor folks to become well behaved.  He wants to re-educate them into a state of good behavior.  Which means he wants them to become obedient, cheap workers for those corporations who need obedient, cheap workers.   The fact is that most people from any culture of any size are not going to become doctors or lawyers or bankers.  Most are going to become retail workers or garbage men or work in the back of a restaurant or clean toilets or wipe the asses of the elderly or drive a truck or answer calls in a call center.  When those sorts of jobs offer increasingly stagnant wages, when the people working those jobs are denied means and opportunities of solidarity in their industries, at their workplaces, and among their class as a whole, when they are pawns in the game of rich men and have very little influence on their own workplaces, industries, communities and the like – when they have been taught that the meaning of life is the collection of the latest toys and the most popular and media pimped toys are harder and harder to grasp through their own reasonable efforts – these young people are not going to be inclined to cooperate with Mr. Hastings’ dream world of a compliant, subservient, and helpful (to him and his kind) underclass and working class. 

Mr. Hastings looks at the London riots through the lens of the sort of social psychology conservatives of his sort are addicted to (think Theodore Dalrymple as another example), and of course they are amateurs and hacks when crudely attempting to use the tools of critical theory.  But there is another lens through which we might look at the recent riots – war. 

The riots as acts of class warfare – in traditional warfare, particularly before it got so specialized, technocratically run, and commercialized, it was common that your first wave of attack would be your “cheap” footsoldiers made up of poor farming stock and not particularly the brightest bulbs on the tree.  These troops acted more or less as cannon fodder (or arrow fodder as the case may be) – they were crude and inefficient and lacking training and discipline and on the occasion they did succeed to overtake an enemy the result was haphazard and imprecise and often caused almost as many problems as they solved.  These crude first wave footsoldiers could be used effectively when there was a highly ordered and well-structured army – say the Roman army at its height.  

In the class war that exists today there is no central command or even a confederacy of central commands.  There is no leadership to efficiently direct the fuel of working class and underclass anger, at least not in most places in the world, and certainly not in London. 

But this does not mean that the only rioting phenomenon we have at hand are mindless footsoldiers muddling about.  We hear from men like Hastings about the cell phone and footwear shops that were looted, but what of the police stations, banks, and other overtly political targets being hit, such as the main London offices of Blackberry after their role in assisting police became public?  Who is hitting these targets?  Well, I suspect that the numerous anarchist groups that have been increasingly involved in this sort of activity in recent years and who have been speaking among their members about preparing for this sort of contingency are among those involved.  I’m especially inclined to believe this when anarchist groups post pictures of certain buildings burning on their FB pages and their friends congratulate them. 

This is not to say that every act is “purely political” – I’ve recently read anarchist friends talking about the “organic” means of using these mass riots to facilitate hits on overtly political targets.  Sometimes the “stupid” mass rioters merely act as cover – so much police attention is taken up with them that a coordinated anarchist group with a modicum of preparation can effectively take out a political target.  Other times anarchists acting within the masses can encourage mass attacks on the targets they want to see hit.  If you are on the street with 400 people breaking windows of shops and throwing in Molotov cocktails, and you start breaking the window of a local bank or financial firm or military recruitment center, it’s natural that some of those kids around will help you and toss some fire in there as well.  You might not even be a member of an anarchist group in this instance; perhaps you saw other anarchists engaging in this activity or perhaps you have read a little bit of anarchist literature and the thought “we should burn this police station while here” just occurred to you.  In this manner, some of the “energy” of the mass protests is fairly easily directed at more politically important targets. 

This sort of thing has been happening in London; the anarchists there are talking about what has happened and what they have learned, and with each set of riots anarchists and other radicals will perhaps become more strategically effective at working organically to bring about some “controlled burns” in the midst of the forest fire.   These same anarchist groups have encouraged youths to participate in the riots.  I am not saying that the ragtag collection of anarchist groups in London brought these riots about, of course they didn’t, but they are a social pressure encouraging them, and now seeing what tactical benefit the riots provide, they will likely press all the more when the next opportunity presents itself.  This political factor of agitating agents acting behind the “stupid” masses is not a negation of Hastings’ rant about crazed kids looking for cool gear, sex, drugs, cheap food, and so forth, but it is to suggest that such youths can very easily play a part in overt acts of class warfare without even knowing it or understanding it, though I have no doubt that they intuit as much.

As bad a picture as Mr. Hastings paints of the UK underclass, I’m not sure that many Americans appreciate the differences between the underclasses here and those there.  Yes there is a significant crime problem in Britain, by European standards.  But take the time and go listen to a dozen or two interviews with rioters in the UK.  Then go find a dozen or two “person on the street” interviews done by local News stations in Detroit or Memphis, etc.  The comparison is telling.  In most of the interviews I have heard with the rioters in the UK, the riff-raff there seem to have a better ability to articulate the what they are doing and the why they are doing it than one would expect from the underclasses in the U.S.   For all the lambasting of the welfare state in the UK, a much more comprehensive welfare state than what we have anywhere in the U.S., you take a person in the UK and a person in the U.S. - same race, both unemployed, both doing the same drugs, and both having 4 children by 4 different women, and the UK underclassman will be more articulate and thoughtful in analysis than the U.S. underclassman 19 times out of 20.   Indeed, it takes a certain degree of intelligence to revolt, even if it is a stupidly and selfishly and thrill seekingly carried out revolt.   When watching some of the video clips of rioters taking on police brigades, it is clear that there is a mix of the completely stupid and the not so stupid and the not  stupid at all.  The War Nerd recently noted the various “strategies” of mass riots when the Arab Spring was going on, and it seems that the London rioters have incorporated at least some of these tactics.  These require a degree of intelligence. 

For all of the laziness Hastings suggests, Tottenham’s level of unemployment is under 9%, up a great deal in recent years, but still considerably lower than what one finds in poor neighborhoods in America’s urban cities.  I’d love to have Hastings come visit us here in Memphis, and visit our ghettos which receive considerably less entitlements than Tottenham does, have higher crime rates, higher incarceration rates, considerably higher unemployment rates, higher rates of children growing up in homes without a biological father, lower graduation rates despite less rigorous standards than those in the UK, and so forth.  If it is the welfare state and entitlement programs which lead to unruly communities of “feral humans” unable to live the grown-up life, then why do America’s ghettos with lower levels of entitlement produce significantly higher numbers of persons of whom Hasting would undoubtedly also say “my dogs are better behaved and subscribe to a higher code of values” as he said of the UK’s rioters

I’ve spent most of a life living and working with the working and underclasses.  Hasting’s language concerning them – “feral humans,” “[t]hey respond only to instinctive animal impulses,” "[t]hey are essentially wild beasts" and the like is, in a certain way, refreshing.  These are the most common thoughts of the master classes concerning the underclasses, and it helps facilitate society moving forward when the master classes speak openly concerning their slaves and would-be slaves. 

There are many angles via which one could disagree with the use of such language, but I suppose here I will close by saying that in my experience the Hastings spin is incorrect.  Yes, there are some really stupid people in ghettos and barrios and trailer parks.  Yes, there is senseless violence and neglect and the like.  But there is certainly not usually a “lack of discipline” that is akin to responding only to instinctive animal impulses – it is simply a different kind of discipline than that which Hastings desires to be seen among the wage slaves.  Most urban gangs supply a level of discipline, some of them quite a bit of discipline.  Most of the guys I know who sell dope to make ends meet go about that business with earnestness and care – some of them are exceptional salesmen with good business sense.  In most of the ghettos, barrios, and trailer parks I have known there have been rules and social orders in place, including expected decorum, terms and actions of respect, a community safety net of sorts, and the like.  These didn’t always work well, but few communities have social orders that always work well.  There are socially excepted moral norms in poor communities, which are enforced to varying degrees, just as moral norms everywhere are enforced to varying degrees.  For all that Hastings stresses the base stupidity of the underclasses, in my experience once one learns the language one finds a wide array of wit, complex humor constructs, complex narrative constructs, and a complex linguistic order.  One finds within poor communities a wide variance of individual intelligences and the application of intelligence on the part of different persons.  Poorer communities are not much more given to parochialism in thought and posture than middle class communities – perhaps this is a result of mass media forming most minds whether poor, middle class, or rich.  What Mr. Hastings calls inhuman is not really inhuman at all – the rioters from Tottenham are as decidedly human as the sorts of humans Mr. Hastings likes.  They are simply humans who come from a culture which produces a fair number of people who make choices Mr. Hastings does not like, and, indeed, the rioters make choices which threaten the choices of Mr. Hastings and his friends.  That is really what this is all about.  


Are the poor of Tottenham annoying with all of their social pathologies?  Sure, though I suspect them to be no less annoying than Hastings at a dinner party.  But that’s just it – the issue here is not beastly vs. human behavior, or finding the correct means to re-educate the “feral humans.”  The real issue here is class, and what threatens Mr. Hastings should threaten him.  The underclass, in however inefficient, not-well-planned, fits-and-starts, frustrating a manner, is coming for Mr. Hastings.  As well they should.


10 comments:

  1. Again I have a problem with back highlighting in the text that I can't figure out how to fix. I apologize for the annoyance.

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  2. The bourgeoisie always tries to portray the actions of the masses as irrational mob rule. The Bolshevik Revolution was due to the megalomania of Russian intellectuals, the people who were protesting the Vietnam War were really just manifesting their Oedipus complex in the street, the Christian critique of original sin in the hearts of all men, etc. Apropos the Vietnam War protests, I heard a talk recently by an activist from that era saying that while the media just portrayed them as youth who were getting back at their oppressive fathers, he thought that they were actually protesting the fact that American imperialism was dumping thousands of gallons of napalm on Vietnamese villages. Go figure.

    On these riots specifically, one cannot help but see a moral asymmetry in the reactions. The police murder a man in cold blood, as they have murdered hundreds in the past several years, and people can only see a few bored and unemployed youth looting and burning things. Correct me if I am wrong, but have they killed anyone? Raped anyone? Have they even seriously maimed anyone? Are they the ones with the guns? Sure, do what you have to do to protect your property, but who is going to protect the working class' property and livelihood from international finance capital? That is by far a more compelling question.

    I also recall the famous quote from the Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James (Darcus Howe, his nephew, was rhetorically mugged by a BBC talking head in connection with all of this, so it is oddly appropriate):

    "The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased."

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  3. I wonder if any comments have been made connecting the riots with the recent royal wedding, an extravagant display of overconsumption celebrating the marriage of one of the U.K.'s best known welfare recipient to a rather ordinary upper-class Canadian woman.

    I stayed in Hackney many years ago.There used to be atent city for summer vacationers there. A true working class area far different from the posh Kensington area where I encountered Ava Gardner in a baseball uniform, ( Yankees). I went back to Hacney with my wife on another vacation. My wife and I attended Christmas services at an RC church where the service was simple but sincere.

    I wonder what the late lamented John Mortimer would say through his beloved Rumpole.

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  4. I have enjoyed watching these riots in contrast to the "mob scene" in Madison. In Madison they were so concerned with being seen as threatening anyone or having any property damage. I even took my little kids down. Nothing is every accomplished with violence is the mantra I hear ad nauseam.

    I quite frankly have a hard time figuring out what violence doesn't accomplish. The killer of the abortionist in Kansas did more to stop abortion than 1000s of nonviolent protests did. When all is said done, the violence in Britain will result in more attention being paid to the poorer communities. And when the wealthy think they can further neglect the poor again, there will be more violence.

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  5. mz,

    My brother and I took our kids to the "mob scene" in Madison too earlier this year (we were there the weekend Michael Moore spoke). Great time, but yeah, the weirdly intoned chant of "peace, peace, peace, peace...." every time it seemed liked protesters might act up was just sickeningly pathetic.

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  6. David Harvey reflects on the same article mentioned in this post, here: http://davidharvey.org/2011/08/feral-capitalism-hits-the-streets/

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  7. Sorry....I don't go for violence...especially against individuals who really have nothing to do with what's going on except to make a living, ( small storekeepers). I don't really care about the corporations per se...just the workers they have.

    How about advocating a "Buy Nothing Day"? No gas, no electricity, no shopping, no nada...total Sabbath, real Sabbath...

    A fantasy...one day...then maybe, maybe a Total Week...or a Total Month...

    Imagine the chaos...no money being spent...the Rich would have...."heart attacks"?

    Plan on it, store food, store water, plan ahead.

    That's the only real weapon....violence validates them...validates their reality...

    Of course, the "non-violence" crowd would really have to live up to theie motto...fat chance, but then....history does show some surprises.

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  8. ahahahaha "complex linguistics," "damn well aware"...clueless honky alert! Lord it is tough to see someone bent out of shape to white knight GIMMUH DATS riots.

    Let's hear some straight talk from the class warriors' Blackberrys instead.

    “Pure terror and havoc & Free stuff. Just smash shop windows and cart out da stuff u want!”

    "Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother... SALUT! if you see a fed... SHOOT!"

    Protip: brother means a melanin-endowed individual.

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  9. Oh, there were those sorts of Blackberrys sent. Well, I recant everything then.

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  10. Small shopkeepers do have to do with what's going on. There is nothing sacred about the petit bourgeoisie. They are exploiters on a smaller scale, supporting the political ordo of capital, which does violence to the working class.

    I think that real reform only takes place under the threat of violence, and a dismantling of the power structure can only take place through the use of force.

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