Friday, 21 October 2011

Riots as Political Action

by Benjamin Fogel

Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don't mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick
An' everybody's doing
Just what they're told to
An' nobody wants
To go to jail!
White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own
White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own
All the power's in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street
Too chicken to even try it “
The Clash, White Riot

This  August in England, much of London and several other cities 'feral'  youth-as the Daily Mail likes to refer to them- rose up in what has subsequently been described as an  “outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes - individuals and families familiar with the justice system, who haven't been changed by their past punishments” (Clark, September 2011). In 4 days of uprising the forces of order were generally unable to handle the unrest and the very ability of the British government to maintain law and order was called into question. French philosopher  Alain Badiou. in a recent seminar made the claim that we are currently living in a time of riots, in which the crisis of capitalism we are currently experiencing has brought upon “social impasse, poverty, and the growing feeling that the system is not viable nor as magnificent as was previously said” (Badiou, 2011). Added to this is the trend of governments who have openly declared their loyalty to what David Harvey describes as the “Party of Wall Street” or the various incarnations of finance capital across the globe (Havey, 2010:10-11). Governments from Greece to the United States have been eager to facilitate the transfer of massive amounts of public wealth to the pockets of the financial oligarchy (see 2008 recession).   The point has been made that the  latent criminality of the financial sector goes unpunished, while the small scale looting of corporate businesses does not merit “phoney human rights concerns” (Glover, August 2011). As a measure of this the total costs of damage of the 2011 riots are estimated at 133 million pounds (Laville, Dodd and Carter, 2011), while the estimated total loss of assets of the 2008 recession are as a high as over 50 trillion dollars (Harvey, 2010:6). It seems then that riots will become even more common across the globe as cuts kick in and the world economy continues to struggle with the devastating consequences of this most recent crisis of capitalism. In this essay I will attempt to read the 2011 Riots as a political action and more generally  attempt to sketch a theoretical account of the political nature of the riot drawing on the work Alain Badiou and Jacues Ranciere in order to empathize the 'agency and subjecthood' of the rioters'.  I will also be drawing from historical accounts of the British riot provided by E.P. Thompson and Peter Linebaugh. Added to this I will argue that riots fail to articulate themselves as events with sufficient capacity to establish an alternative future. They are not events which one should express fidelity to in the Badioun sense. Noting this one can attempt to understand the riot and the rioters, without endorsing the riot a priori. as well as understanding that there are obviously different kinds of riots and whether one should or should not be supportive of a particular riot is contingent. 

The Riot as an anti-political phenomenon

Slovenian Hegelian provocateur Slavoj Zizek in a recent essay published in the London Review of Books maintained that the London riots failed to fit into the conventional Marxian description of 'the revolutionary' subject and instead fitted better into Hegel's articulation of 'rabble'. Those, according to Zizek's reading of Hegel, who are located outside of organized social space, who are only capable of expressing their discontent “through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’ (Zizek, 2011). Furthermore he makes the claim that the London Riots were “a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented.” (Zizek, 2011). In this essay I will attempt to argue against Zizek's framing of the riots as an act of 'abstract negativity' and the mainstream discourse of riots as a manifestation of latent criminality. Rather riots can be seen as generally political acts. It is all too easy and too comfortable for theory to reduce those who particpate in  riots to a feral mob of irrational energy, it in fact a manner to deny the agency of what is commonly called by the punditorcacy the 'underclasses' or 'feral youth'. 

Defining the political

A definition of the political is needed, before the question of the 'political' nature of riots can be put forward. I will be drawing specifically on Badiou's and Ranciere's conception of the political.  Badiou defines the political as “collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order” (Badiou, 2008:3). In essence this definition seeks to remove 'the political' from the domain of 'power' or the state and place it in the form of collective action. Ranciere proposes an understanding of the political that moves away from the concern of power. He contends that instead of being though of in terms of power: “ Politics ought to be defined on its own terms, as a mode of acting put into practice by a specific kind of subject and deriving from a particular form of reason.”(Ranciere, 2001:1).  According to Ranciere  reducing politics to “the struggle to posses power”, we reduce the possibilities of thinking politically and ultimately create our own 'political constraints (Ranciere, 2001:1). Instead politics begins with a paradoxical formulation ;  “politics is the ruling of equals, and the citizen is the one who part-takes in ruling and being ruled” (Ranciere, 2001:2). Politics is not located within the elite spaces of policy and power, rather politics belongs in the everyday in the axiomatic assertion of the ability of the 'demos'(people) to be able rule themselves. In this is an explicit denial of the notion that each person has a set place in society (Ranciere, 2001:5). Contentiously Ranciere denies the existence of politics as a clash of interest groups, in other words classes. He rather contends that politics exists so long as 'the people' are not identified nor reduced to any specific group in the form of class, race etcc.. (Ranciere, 2001:8). This point is contentious and I would argue wrong, but what I take here from Ranciere's understanding of politics is the notion of equality in the ability of the people to both rule and 'be-ruled'. Politics is then to use Badiou collective action trying to bring about social change and, using Ranciere politics is when the people present agency in their ability to both 'rule and be ruled', from this we can conclude that politics begins with ordinary people exercising some sort of agency. 

Defining the riot

A riot according to the Oxford English dictionary is a “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2011). This definition has a distinct genealogy, historically the riot can be seen as the praxis of the mob, the riot is the irrational outburst of violence of the masses.  This understanding of the riot according to the great British historian E.P. Thompson is the product of lazy and prejudicial historians. The riot instead emerged as a form of “(D)irect action on particular grievances” which merges with “the great political risings of the mob” or “organized forms of sustained illegal actions” (Thompson, 1966:62). Noting this it is difficult to form a clear distinction between the concept of the riot as an act of criminality and the riot as a distinctly political act, once distinctly political events have been framed in the language of criminality. This discourse of criminality can be traced back to this manner in which the history of resistance to what David Harvey terms 'accumulation by dispossession' has been recorded. Accumulation by dispossession is when capital is accumulated through the coercive seizure of land and the formation of money power in both legal and illegal, which occurred during the industrial revolution (Harvey, 2010:48-9). This occurred in the context of what Peter Linebaugh's describes as“the contrast between the abstract intellectualized argument for the national common, and the massive disparate experience in appropriating to themselves part of the product of their labour” (2003:436). In other words the transition towards wage labour and the discipline of the factory could only be enforced ans sustained by “(R)epression (fear, militarization and self-censorship)” (Linebaugh, 2003:436). Acts of 'rioting' targeted forms of repression ranging from bread cartels fixing prices (something that still triggers off riots today) to forced enclosure. Part of the authority’s  response to these forms of resistance was to remove the agency of those who took part in them. This denial of agency took the form of an insistence on the irrationality of the mob and the essential criminality of both the proletariat and the exercising of its political agency. Riots have continued to play a significant role in shaping British history, recent riots such as the Brixton and Grovenor Square riots have helped shaped generational consciousness, leaving their mark on the political history of the country. Another example of this form of 'direct action' is the famed football hooligan culture of the islands, which achieved much notoriety during  Thatcher's rule in the 1980s. Following this it is fair to assert that the riot is as much a part of the English national culture as Cricket and Tikka Masala. For the purposes of this essay I will be dealing only with what can be termed the 'Urban Riot', which emerges as forms of collective urban violence, this violence is usually unplanned and unorganized, but collective in nature.

A Brief history of the mob and the English riot.

The word mob has its origins in the abbreviation of a Latin neologism used by the ruling class in the 18th century “to describe the labouring poor beneath it: mobile vulgus was the cognate term”(Linebaugh, 2006:38). Linebaugh goes on to note that the term contains further aspects of older social grouping that require attention, firstly the term implies a tone of “imperious superiority” that such older terms as 'multitudes' or 'host' did not. Secondly despite the abbreviation the term retains connotations of motion expressed by its cognate, which might just as easily be translated as “the movement” (Linebaugh, 2006:38). Thompson suggests that 18th century 'riotous action took two forms: “that of more ore less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure by persons “above” or apart from the crowd” (Thompson, 1966:62-3). The first  form emerges from a more sophisticated understanding of 'politics' here as defined earlier, then the discourse of criminality surrounding the riot suggests. This form rested on the legitimization by an older “moral economy” which clashes with the 'market economy' in terms of setting value preference, for example the price of bread during the 18th century was the greatest marker of popular discontent. If the price was set too high, it was viewed through the transactions of 'the moral economy' which “taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people” (Thompson, 1966:63). This moral economy validated the direct action present in the food riot. This understanding of value present in the moral economy and the entirely legitimate reasons for direct action are completely missing from the understanding of the riot present in the “imperious superiority” of the tone suggested in the word 'mob'. The same tone of imperious superiority is to be found today in  the forms of the English Ruling classes, particularly in their aristocratic tory variety of such specimens as David Cameron, George Osborne and Kenneth Clark.

 Often a relationship formed between a criminal hero such as the infamous escape artist  Jack Sheppard (who escaped over 15 times from various prisons) and the 'mob', this relationship was particularly apparent at public hangings in which the 'mob' gathered in large numbers to wish off its hero. Furthermore, as Linebaugh goes on to argue, the criminal was made into a hero and the acts of the criminal were seen as acts of resistance to the ruling class and the discipline of Capital that was being imposed on the 'mob'. Such hero-worship found its way into songs and later books, there was a veritable genre of music devoted to criminal tales of the likes of Jack Sheppard (Linebaugh, 2006:38-40). Noting this, the absurdity of the likes of 'historian' David Starkey who recently, in a television appearance, exclaimed that black culture in the form of rap music was responsible for the riots. This black culture which glorifies 'criminal behavior' and which according to Starkey has made white youth black, is really what is wrong with England today (Quinn, August 2011). It seems then there is a long tradition of making music in which 'criminals' are seen as heroes in the UK itself,  this vilification of hip hop, shows not only a profound ignorance of hip hop, but also of British history.

This same conception of the riot as an expression of irrational and essential criminality, can also be discerned in the manner in which the discourse on the Brixton riots was initially framed. Events surrounding the Brixton riots closely follow the circumstances which led to the outbreak of the 2011 London Riots. According to Alexander Cockburn the riots of 1981  signified the uprising of black and white youth against “the police, against a desolate environment and zero expectations” (Cockburn, 1987:62). These same problems are still apparent in Cameron's Britain. The riots were kicked off, similarly to the 2011 riots, by 'reactive policing which especially targeted blacks' (Cockburn, 1987:64). Like the 2011 riots, the 1981 ones began in one area in this case Brixton and quickly spread to over 30 cities (Cockburn, 1987:66), while in 2011 the riots began in Tottanham and spread at a similar rate as far away as Manchester. Darcus Howe who made similar points when interviewed about the riots in August, noted that there was a dangerous tendency to invest the police with political power, while the police remain an unelected force (Cockburn, 1987;68). The very issue of police politics also played a significant role in sparking the fire of the 2011 riots, much of the Metropolitan police's leadership had resigned following the fall out of the phone hacking scandal and several ambitious police chiefs were looking to increase their arrest rate in order to better their chances of promotion. These similarities are important to note, in continuing on my earlier point of rioting as a part of English culture, far removed from the language of exception employed by politicians ignorant of history. 

The 2011 Riots

Much of the media coverage of the 2011 riots focused on specific incidents of violence directed against the police, individual and property, the media stressed how random acts of looting and arson destroyed family businesses. This is true, but the nature of the violence directed against symbols of the hegemonic consumer culture should be interpreted in a different manner. Zizek makes the distinction between what he terms 'Subjective Violence: “violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent” (Zizek, 2009:1) and 'Objective Violence' which according Zizek takes two forms: Symbolic Violence which is embodied in language and forms, and Systemic Violence: “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.' (Zizek,2009:1-2).  Both Symbolic and and Systemic violence in this sense were ever present in what can be identified as some of the root causes of the riot.

Over the last few decades beginning with the rise of Thatcher, and especially increasing with Blair, a dominant discourse in which the poor and working class citizens of the United Kingdom are vilified has been escalating. Portrayed as bottom feeders, leeching off the  welfare state, in other words the concept of the Chav, linked to this demonisation of the working class, is the third way banality of “we are all Middle Class Now”, assertions that the working class are responsible for their own misfortune dominate media portrayals. (Jones, 2011:6). According to Jones the concept of the chav “encompasses any negative traits associated with working -class people-violence, laziness, teenage pregnancies, racism, drunkenness and the rest”. This term has become almost synonymous with 'working-class youth'. (Jones, 2011:8).  This language used to describe the 'chav' can be seen here as a form of symbolic violence which is directed against youth, this official contempt and acceptable class hatred which takes a multiplicity of forms, is used to to justify the systematic violence of destroying the welfare state in the form of 'cuts'. David Cameron's Conservative government's assault on the welfare state is combined with the language of the feral underclass who leech off the taxpayer, this justifies the removal of their 'benefits'. The conservative campaign vilifying single mothers, as promiscuous harlots who have children to increase their benefits, stands out in all its crude bigotry.  Furthermore the police systematically target urban youth, particularly black urban youth. The crucial event that set off the riots, was the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29 year old black man who was 'reported' as being armed. Subsequent police reports have indicated otherwise (Laville, Lewis, Dodd and Davies, August 2011). 

Riots and Agency

Badiou makes an important distinction between riot and revolution.  He contends that riots call state power into question and exposes the state to the possibility of political change. Riots fail to embody this change, while a revolution in itself proposes an alternative (Badiou, 2011). The manner in which riots call state power into question is crucial, for articulating the contention of the riot as a political act, again Badiou provides a useful theoretical framework to operate in.  The event for Badiou is “purely  hapzard and cannot be  inferred from the situation” (Hallward, 2003:114). The event produces something new, something different  in being. It emerges “from beyond, undeserved, unjustified and unjustifiable”. It emerges as a surprise, it cannot be predicted or controlled. (Hallward, 2003:115)

 The event brings  as a maximal 'true' consequence of its own existence “the existence of of an in-existent”(Badiou, 2006:286). This can be viewed as through the rupture of the established order, in other words the event, subjecthood and political subjecthood at that is created where it previously did not exist.  This event produces a truth through which subjecthood is created through an intervention with an operator of fidelity to an event (Hallward, 2003:14). Through adhering as a  militant to the truth of the event the subject comes into being; “A subject which goes beyond the animal... needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in 'what there is'.” Something supplementary is needed, the event is the supplement  which produces “a new way of being” (Badiou, 2001:31).  What can be termed “fidelity” is the choice  to to relate “from the perspective of the eventual... supplement”(Badiou,2001:40-4). Fidelity to the event is to think of a situation in terms of the event. This can be phrased in terms of a political  example: the Paris Commune can be interpreted as form of a political praxis operating outside of the logic of the state, for Badiou this praxis is 'truth'. This truth is structured around a break with what proceeds in accordance with the new in the form of fidelity to the event (Badiou,2001:40-4).

Where Zizek's describes the rioters in terms of the Hegelian 'rabble' capable only of outbursts of 'abstract negativity' (Zizek, 2011). Badiou offers the idea that through the act of rioting the participants reclaim their subjecthood.  The riot operates here as a rupture or a break with the established order in which all state power is called into question (Badiou, 2011). The inability of the police to deal with the rioters and the violence directed against the police stemming from the experience of the systemic violence of policing operating towards young, mainly black males calls state power into question. This break produces people operating in a new fashion, in this sense there is agency, people are operating in a independent and new manner. For example youth used Blackberry Messenger to co-ordinate looting and running battles with the police in such a manner that  the police were often defeated. The inexistent, the oppressed, the excluded became existent in the eyes of the state and the world at large, for example a youth was questioned by a news crew and was asked if rioting really achieved anything, he replied; “You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you? ”(Penny, 2011). This can be seen as a reclamation of agency in this sense. What is crucial to note though is that the riot is not an event, it does not produce a militant truth,  an alternative vision of a possible future is not produced to remain faithful to. These riots called state power into question, but they did not provide a alternative to them, people in this sense limited themselves to looting and burning, a new politics fails to emerge from the riot[1] Although the riot fits Badiou's definition of the political in terms of collective action which aims at challenging the official order, the fact that it does not produce something new is important. The riot in this sense can be termed the 'almost event', it is an occurrence of a definite political nature, but it fails to produce the break which brings something new transcendental or from beyond into existence (Hallward, 2003:115).

London is the city with the greatest number of CCTV cameras on the planet. Chances are after walking out of your house and traveling to work everyday, a significant proportion of your day will be captured on CCTV.  It is estimated that as of 2005 there were over  4.8m CCTV camera in the UK(Lewis, 2009). Such intrusive surveillance proved to be one of the hallmarks of New Labour's rule, the zones of 'abstract negativity' and criminality which take the form of council housing estates contain a particularly high concentration of cameras. This can be understood using Ranciere's phrase as part of the “privitization of citizenship” which aims to exclude part of the population from the domain of collective life of the equality of citizens (Ranciere, 2006:59-60). This extends to public spaces which are decreasing limiting the ability of people from being present in much of the city. Some of the rioting can be interpreted in the demand of equality of access to these spaces, these spaces and public life in the UK requires certain rules and codes.  Often those who dress in certain fashions are prohibited from entering certain buildings, under the command of “No Hoodies” for example. The seizure of such spaces, in some sense is a demand of equal recognition, in that Ranciere's notion of democracy as beginning from an axiom of equality suggests that in some sense rioting is a 'democratic act'. This is also not to suggest that the riots should be regarded as a good thing, rather it is so to suggest that there is an essential political character contained within the riot. The ability of the youth to demonstrate some ability to organize an effective resistance to the power of the state or the police to use Ranciere's terminology (2001:8). In that sense rioting can be viewed as a one possible response of “a movement reaffirming the right of anyone and everyone to that incessantly privatized public sphere” (Ranciere,2006:58). As the riot is not an event, it is unlikely that the riot will produce a new form of militant working class politics in the United Kingdom, rather they called state power into question.


It can then be concluded, after noting that the history of riots has been entwined within a discourse of criminality , that the political nature of riots has been largely ignored in ways analogous to those discussed in the historical work of Thompson and Linebaugh.  Following on from the understanding of the political as a combination of direct action aimed at a political cause and the understanding of politics as emerging from the people, rather than that of power, riots seem to fall into loosely speaking a political category of action. This is because riots evidence both a form of direct action  and a principle of equality, in the sense that they are an assault on the privatization of public life and public spaces. Using Badiou's framework outlined earlier, a riot falls into the category of a rupture of the established order that creates a political subjecthood of sorts, but it fails to become an event, in the sense that it does not bring something completely new into being or provide an alternative vision for the future. Riots merely call the existing system into question. In this I have provided an argument that riots are political, noting that I have been referring specifically to the urban riot and interpreting the act of rioting through the recent English Riots. The significance in establishing the political nature of the riot, is the recognition of the agency of the persons involved, instead of dismissing them ala Zizek in the form of a rabble of abstract negativity.  Recognizing the political agency of any excluded group is key to building a future emancipatory politics and creating a meaningful solidarity, although this should not mean that one should unconditionally support rioting.

Works Cited
Badiou, Alain,2008, ”The Communist Hypothesis”, New Left Review, 49:29-42
Badiou, Alain,2001, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. London: Verso
Badiou, Alain, 2011,“ What does “change the world” mean? “, trans Charles T. Wolf, February,  date of access 07/09/2011
Badiou, Alain, 2006, Polemics,London: Verso
Clark, Kenneth. 2011 “Punish the feral rioters, but address our social deficit too”, Guardian, 5 September,  date of acesss 07/09/2011
Cockburn, Alexander, 1987, Corruptions of Empire: Life Stories & the Reagan Era, London: Verso
Glover, Juilan, 2011,“Cameron's marathon statement on the riots set the theme of responsibility”, The Guardian, 11 August.  date of access 07/09/2011
Hallward, Peter, 2003, Badiou: a Subject to Truth,Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press
Harvey, David,2010, The Enigma of Capital,London:Profile Books
Jones, Owen, 2011, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, London, Verso
Laville Sandra, Dodd Vikram and Carter, Helen, 2011, “England riots to cost taxpayers at least £133m in policing and compensation”,  6 September.  date of access 07/09/2011
Laville Sandra, Lewis, Paul Dodd Vikram and Davies, Caroline, “Doubts emerge over Duggan shooting as London burns”, the Guardian, Monday 8 August.  date of access 07/09/2011
Lewis, Paul, 2009, “Every step you take: UK underground centre that is spy capital of the world”, The Guardian,  2 March. date of acess 07/09/2011
Linebaugh, Peter, 2010, The London Hanged:Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century, London; Verso
Oxford English Dictionary, 2011,   date of access 08/09/2011
Penny, Laurie,2011, “Panic on the Streets of London” 8 August,
Ranciere, Jacques,2001, “10 Thesis’s on Politics”
Ranciere, Jacques, 2006, Hatred of Democracy, London: Verso
Quinn, Ben, 2011, “David Starkey claims 'the whites have become black'”, The Guardian, 13 August.  date of access 07/09/2011
Thompson, E.P., 1966, The Making of the English Working Class. London: Vintage
Zizek, Slavoj. 2011, “Shoplifters of the World Unite”, The London Review of Books , August,  date of access 07/09/2011
Zizek, Slavoj. 2009, Violence, London: Verso

[1]    There are however political riots, such as May 1968, in which confrontations of the basis of political ideology lead to a riot, but I would argue firstly that May 1968 was an almost-revolution, hence it transcends the category of the riot (see Ross, 2006) and secondly that ideology is produced and that clashes between the police and protestors like in Seattle 1999 are of a fundamentally different character.