Let England shake : Reasoning Riots in the English Context

The riots which shook England in 2011 began in Tottenham, North London on August 6th. Following the shooting of a local man, Mark Duggan, by police on Thursday 4th August, local people marched to the police station in order to demand answers. Tottenham is a poor black area of London with a history of conflict between the community and the police who are seen as discriminatory.

In the case of Duggan, people disputed the police view of him as a gang leader, explaining that he was a law abiding family man. Uncertainty surrounded the circumstances of his death. It was unclear whether Duggan was armed, whether he shot first, and whether it is was necessary for police to shoot him dead. Further tension was caused by the fact that police did not notify his family of the shooting, leaving them to have to travel to the police station in order to discover his fate. Although the purpose of the demonstration on August 6th was to ask the police for answers to these questions, it did not take long for the crowd to lose patience with police who refused to engage in dialogue. Following initial confrontations, full scale rioting erupted as day turned to night on August 6th.

On August 7th, the violence spread from Tottenham to other London boroughs, including Brixton, Enfield, Islington, and Hackney. Other areas of London erupted into violence on August 8th, including Croydon, Hackney, Ealing, and Peckham, and for the first time rioting spread outside of the capital, taking in areas of the Midlands, such as Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester, and Wolverhampton.

Finally, on the 9th August, violence occurred in the centre of Manchester, Salford, and other areas of the North West of England. On the same night, three men were run over and killed in a hit and run collision in Birmingham. In many ways this event, which saw the deaths of Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali, and Abdul Musauir, led to the end of the riots.

On the 10th August the father of Haroon Jahan made an impassioned plea for an end to the violence, asking whether anybody else wanted family members to die as a result of the riots. Although much was made of the return of the Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson from holiday, and changes in police tactics have similarly been explained as the main factor in ending the riots, in many respects it may be argued that it was actually the death of three young men on August 9th that brought the violence to an end.

In the weeks that have followed the end of the riots, the volatile debate which took place as England’s cities burned has intensified, but this discussion has been limited by the dominance of a very particular criminological tone. That is to say that there has been little sense in which popular debate has concentrated on social and political issues and exploring the reasons why large numbers of people took to the streets of England’s cities and engaged in looting, violence, and destruction.

The purpose of my discussion in this work is to engage in this exercise and think through the meaning of the August riots. But first, I want to consider the reasons why this has not happened in the popular media. Why has there been no social and political discussion of the August riots ?



In reasoning the August riots, then, the first question we must ask is why they have not really been understood critically by the popular media or political elite. There is no social and political view of these disturbances. Why?

In order to answer this question I think we have to return to the late 1970s and the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher who began the neo-liberal revolution which has evolved over the course of the last thirty years. In many respects Thatcher’s greatest achievement, and an achievement which should not be underestimated, was to end the explicit sense of class war which had raged across Britain since the 19th century.

After Thatcher, we came to believe that there was no more class. In fact, we came to believe that there was no more society. In other words, it was now practically impossible to talk about social conflict, since everybody was an individual who made it, or failed in life, by virtue of their own attributes and abilities. In this world view, it was impossible to explain anybody’s situation in terms of anybody else’s situation because there was no connection. There is no social relation or power relation between people in this view.

The power of this ideological sleight of hand, which took place over the course of the early 1980s, has been enormously underestimated. By destroying the ideas of class and society, Thatcher essentially created a society of consensus where there was none and a society of free individuals on the basis of massive social inequality. In doing so she created a new ideological terrain and set the tone for social and political debate. We are still living within this ideological frame today.

In England Thatcher achieved this ideological domination by destroying the old working class. This was in turn achieved by destroying the industrial manufacturing sector and transforming workers into either upwardly mobile middle class people or wretched members of a new lumpenproletariat. Unfortunately, this distinction, which Thatcher and politicians since have argued is one that people make themselves, has never been based on individual choice. Nobody chooses to become a member of the lumpenproletariat, despite what David Cameron may believe. Instead, the destruction of working class industry left entire communities out of work and with no prospects of becoming middle class.

The Conservative response in the 1980s was to transform England’s industrial cities into new post-industrial centres, but this was always a capitalist utopian fantasy which has never worked. Even in the best cases, such as Manchester, what this process of regeneration achieved was the transformation of an old industrial heartland into a banal shopping city comprised of a vacuous middle class obsessed with conspicuous consumption and a violent underclass who were unable to make it into the new society for reasons beyond their control. This is the result of the Thatcher revolution: a hyper-divided society based in consumption and the obsession with commodities.

On the back of the Thatcher revolution which heralded the end of class and the end of society, the collapse of international communism in the late 1980s cemented the Conservative view – There is No Alternative. In the late 1980s we, thus, entered the epoch of endings – the end of class, the end of society, the end of history, the end of politics – and utopian consensus. In this new utopia there was only one way and political resistance was reconstructed as criminal.

Indeed, perhaps we need to be more precise, because it was not only political resistance that was deemed criminal, but also objective resistance that became deviant. What does this mean? What is objective resistance?

In the new neo-liberal utopia where there is no other way – There is No Alternative – it is not only that political resistance is repackaged as criminal activity, but also the failure to make the cut and become a utopian citizen. In other words, one must become an aspirational consumer. One must become middle class and middle English. The alternative is a life of crime and deviance. The existential horror of this situation is apparent in any English suburb where people die every day, but console themselves by worrying about property prices, the colour of their curtains, and the state of their neighbourhood, which is almost certainly under threat from some deviant group or other. And this is only the people who have made it in the new English utopia! Imagine the misery of this banality?

Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of the media reception of the riots was the realisation of some commentators that the rioters seemed to be having fun. In other words, the riot was a kind of carnival of crime. Given the repression and misery of middle English life, is it not possible that what normal England hated most about the rioters was that they were having fun? Unfortunately, this is also a pervasive stereotype about the poor in England – they enjoy themselves, while the middle classes toil away in misery. The truth is that poverty is no fun and that what happened in August was a representation of the carnivalesque – the moment analysed by Bakhtin when hierarchy is over-turned and no rules exist. Why was this necessary? This happened because Britain is a hyper-divided society. As for the misery of the middle classes – they have only themselves to blame and they should refrain from projecting their despair about their own lives onto others in the construction of a society of spite.

The psycho-social formation of the society of spite is largely responsible for the creation of the poor as deviant and criminal. In the society of spite those who cannot make the cut and become middle class are cast out – a life of deviance awaits. Their problem is that they do not need to be criminal to be criminalised. On the contrary, they are criminal by virtue of their objective opposition to the utopian ideology of the post-Thatcherite state. They have not made it and that is intolerable. This is a sign of their own failure, their own deviance, because it absolutely cannot be a sign of problems inside the social and political system. This cannot be acknowledged within the ideological structure that bans opposition.

In short this is why we need to employ the paranoid critical method in Britain today. This is why we need to make connections and construct oppositional narratives. We need to oppose the dominance of neo-liberal ideology and create de-ranged visions of our society. We need to see the other side of events.

(Manchester, 2011, september 3rd)

Texte © Mark Featherstone – Photos © 1 : The Wondering Brit – © 2 : DR – © 3 : ibtimes – © 4 : Times – © 5 : A11 – © 5 : Davey Thomas

Inédit : Bloody Winter / L’Hiver sanglant

Workshop proposé par D-Fiction sur le thème de l’émeute, tiré du journal de travail de Mark Featherstone :

Part 1 : Let England shake : The politics of the August Riots
Part 2 & 3 : Let England shake : Reasoning Riots in the English Context
Part 4 : Let England shake : The Rioter as Lumpenproletarian
Part 5 : Let england shake : The Looter as Desiring Machine
Part 6 : Let england shake : The Sick Society
Part 7 : Humanité de l’insurrection : Paris (germinal – prairial, an III), Londres (août 2011)
Part 8 : Let England Shake : Rats and other Vermin, the Pathological Other
Part 9 : Let England shake : Une émeute de rêve
Part 10 : Let england shake : The Normality of Crime

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