Criminality and RewardsTagged as: cuts londonriots looting property riots social_struggles theft
What is the crime of looting a corporate chain store next to the crime of owning one?
-- Luther Brecht
Looters don't give many press conferences. This made all of the conversations on today's BBC morning show a little bit one-sided.
Having been out last night in Brixton, I feel as qualified as anybody to offer at least a bit of perspective as an anarchist living in the area for the past six years.
First things first. None of the people hauling ass out of Currys last night will ever pay £9000 annual tuition to David Cameron's shiny new neo-liberal university system, so beloved by the young people of London. Although Britain has a bit more social mobility now than in the Victorian era which Cameron seems to idolize, the racist overtones in the Great British societal symphony are still pretty loud. Most of the black people who participated in last night's looting of the Currys over on Effra Road may never make it off their housing estates and into the Big Society. They don't have a hell of a lot to lose.
Despite this, the fairly mixed (for Brixton) crowd of several hundred was feeling festive last night, as cars lined up on both sides of the road, all the way to Brixton Water Lane. They're not people who are used to winning very often. The chance to haul away several hundred thousand pounds worth of electronics, right under the helpless noses of the police who routinely harass, beat, and kill them, made it a great night. The fourteen year old girls heading for that 60 inch plasma TV of their dreams were polite enough to say "excuse me", quite sincerely, as they bumped into me while springing into the Currys parking lot. Last night, everybody on Effra Road was in a great mood.
This morning, killjoys in the corporate media disagreed.
Many commentators decried the lack of a clear political motive in the riots, and seemed worried about how unrespectable the looting makes it all seem. According to this line of thought, poverty is not political.
On the radio, on the web, and in the papers, there's a lot of talk right now about the 'stupidity' of the rioters, burning down their own neighbourhoods. All of the commentators who follow this line of argument haven't considered some pretty basic facts.
Outraged Guardian readers, I say to you: you're only partially correct. It's true that the guy carrying that cash register past Brixton Academy last night probably didn't conceptualize his actions according to rational choice economic theories. However, when compared with four years of failed state capitalist attempts to catapult us out of the economic crisis, his maneuvers were in fact the height of rationality. Destroying evidence by turning on the gas cooker full-blast and burning down the Stockwell Road Nandos is pretty crazy. But it makes a lot more economic sense, for Brixton, than anything so far attempted by Labour, the Conservatives, or the wizard brains of the City of London.
Smashing windows in Brixton is probably a surer road to prosperity for most people than any of the more respectable paths already explored.
The guy who showed up today to fix the smashed windows on Brixton Road may live just down the street from the shattered glass lying on the pavement; it's unlikely that he's a currency speculator or a hedge fund manager on the side. Any money he makes from fixing the windows will be mostly spent back in the local community.
The merits of endlessly sucking money out of the pockets of working people into the reserve accounts of the supercharged risk-takers at Canary wharf are quite a bit less clear to me, at present. The crisis is entering year five. Throwing hundreds of billions into the endless rounds of bank bailouts, corporate tax breaks, and other props for a global economy which increasingly resembles that of the USSR circa 1987 is not clearly a winning strategy.
The eruption of economic chaos in the Eurozone, and the police bullets which ripped into Mark Duggan, ending his life, are now two events which are bound together in a massive sequence of riots in London, the European continent's largest financial centre.
These riots are remarkable chiefly for the role-reversals they bring about, and most of the outrage in the corporate media is a reflection of this. The outrage is really interesting if you stop to think about it.
For instance: retail profit is a kind of theft. It's economic value which is hoovered out of a local community via corporate cash registers. The decisions about where to re-invest the profits are the preserve of corporate managers and shareholders, not the decision of the people from whom the value was extracted. The whole process is fundamentally anti-democratic.
This daily denial of basic democratic political rights is "normal", and may last for years, decades or centuries. Corporations may steal from poor people - but any attempt on the part of poor people to steal back must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
Similarly, I had multiple conversations today about Saturday night's riots in Tottenham. They invariably referenced the case of Keith Blakelock, the police officer who was killed during the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Not one of the conversations I had included any reference to Cynthia Jarrett, the woman whose killing during a search of her apartment sparked those riots in the first place.
In the same way, I doubt whether any of the outraged middle-class commentators on the BBC 4 radio show this morning gave much thought to the dozens of people that the cops have killed in custody, or to the more or less daily humiliation of black youths who get stopped and searched outside my house. The message conveyed by all of this is pretty clear: police attacks on poor people who can't defend themselves (especially black ones) are normal. Conversely, popular attacks on police are an outrage, especially if they happen to succeed. And don't ask that guy who nicked the cash register to give his side of the story.
None of this is to say that the fire truck which just screamed past my window is a good thing. The political and economic problems of Brixton are complex. It's too easy to spout platitudes about how nothing will ever be the same again - but for a few hours last night, walking down Effra road with plasma screen TVs and Macintosh laptops, the losers were the winners. And that could have a powerful effect.