“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” wrote the 19th century Whig historian Thomas Macaulay.
Well, I can think of nothing more revolting than the sight of elites all discredited by their own scandals—politicians, journalists, the Metropolitan Police—in a frenzy of moral denunciation.
Leading the pack was David Cameron, proclaiming: “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture.” This is the most contemptible attempt to evade responsibility.
To begin with, it ignores that the riots began with the police shooting of Mark Duggan.
Admissions by the “Independent” Police Complaints Commission—that Duggan hadn’t fired at the police and that it had briefed the press that he had—received remarkably little coverage.
The riots were essentially an elemental explosion by young deprived working class people in inner cities. The driving force was hatred of the police, which acted as a lightning rod for all the different sources of their discontent.
Some of the most ridiculous commentaries, often from figures supposedly on the left, contrast these riots unfavourably with those of the 1980s.
Everything denounced now—such as looting and lack of proper parenting—has featured in previous establishment responses to riots. They include the 1980s riots, the US ghetto revolts of the 1960s and the 1992 Los Angeles rising.
That doesn’t mean there are no differences. In the first place, the political alienation is greater than it was 30 years ago. This is partly thanks to the immensely disillusioning experience of New Labour.
It is also because of the decline of black nationalism and the hard Labour left, both lively and increasingly intertwined phenomena in the 1980s.
But this doesn’t mean that the riots are depoliticised “criminality”, as idiots of all persuasions keep repeating.
I am sure that many rioters participated, as college students, in the student protests last winter.
The Guardian reported last Saturday, “In interviews with the young people it was clear that they were shocked and angered that their futures had suddenly been made so uncertain by the hiking of student fees and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance.
“They also knew that even upon graduation from university or college, they were unlikely to get a job in an economic climate when there are 83 graduates to every job and youth employment is hovering just below the million mark.”
Looting as a form of do-it-yourself consumerism was a stronger feature than it was 30 years ago. No doubt this reflects the intensive commodification of desires in the neoliberal era. This doesn’t mean the looters were unthinking machines driven by commodity fetishism, but their rebellion was inevitably shaped by the prevailing values in society.
More interesting is the impact of the changing economic geography of London. London is marked by a flagrant polarisation between rich and poor. It is the most unequal city in the developed world.
But, because of how gentrification has developed, you have neighbourhoods—Clapham is a good example—where rich and poor live cheek by jowl.
A shocked Danny Kruger, ex-adviser to David Cameron, complained in the Financial Times, “A mob attacked the Ledbury, the best restaurant in Notting Hill.”
This co-existence of rich and poor was much less advanced in the early 1980s. Hence the class hatred of the poor you can feel in the scenes of broom-waving debutantes in Clapham and Ealing.
These riots are not conscious political movements.
But they can only be understood by a political analysis that starts from the class antagonism that ever more deeply shapes all our lives.
Any revolutionary left that plans to have a future must reject the moral panic of the media and politicians and refuse to condemn the rioters. This is not because they are a new political vanguard.
It is because responsibility for what happens lies with those who have allowed inequality, poverty, racism and police violence to fester and grow.