Beyond understanding that the implicit violence of working class life is perfectly human under conditions of neo-liberal capitalism, it is also important to recognise that crime is completely normal in a society organised around the principle of material achievement at any cost. In this respect it is not only easy to understand why the contemporary dispossessed working class, the underclass, were violent in August 2011, but also why they turned to looting and theft.
The violence was already there. It pervades working class life. Unfortunately for middle England what happened in August was that this violence spilled out of the ruined spaces of the council estate and ran into the city centres and the leafy suburbs of the middle classes. Indeed, it is entirely possible that this is precisely why the riots have been perceived in such apocalyptic terms by the popular media. If they had been contained on the estates, the landscape of the underclass, they would have been easy to handle. However, the movement of the violence of the estate to the city centre, the space of consumption, was completely intolerable for neo-liberal England because of its disruptive effect on economic metabolism.
Understanding the reason for the movement of violence from the peripheral estate to the city centre shopping area is key and can helps us to figure out why crime is normal in contemporary England. Although this can never be recognised by normal society, which must continually reinforce the idea of the criminality or abnormality of crime, for our purposes, and in the name of the paranoid critical method, it is essential that we undertake this exercise and make this point.
Essentially, the reason the violence of the other moved from the periphery to the city centre is that the city centre is the space of consumption and site of the satisfaction of desire in neo-liberal society. As such, it is hardly surprising that the violence of the excluded other turned to looting and theft in the unrest of early August because this is where dreams are realised in the post-political consumer society. In terms of understanding why this was able to happen, we need only consult the works of the sociologist Robert Merton.
Writing in the context of 1930’s America Merton explained that in a society organised around the success theme it was normal to expect the excluded to find their own ways around the problem of their alienation from the legitimate means for the realisation of their desires. In other words, when society sets up particular ends as the route to the achievement of socially ordained success, well being, and happiness, and then systematically excludes a section of the population from the legitimate means to achieve these ends, the excluded will find alternative, criminal, means to reach the same objectives. As such, although it is true that property crime is a deviation from socially acceptable means, it is absolutely conformist in terms of the goals or ends neo-liberal society sets up for people.
This may have been news to people in the 1930’s, but in the contemporary cynical society explored by Peter Sloterdijk, everybody knows this to be the case. Crime is a normal part of society. This is why the rich are able to endlessly exploit their positions in the pursuit of illegally obtained gains. We know it is happening and we know that it is officially wrong, but we accept that it is happening any way.
Everybody knows that everybody is on the take in our neo-liberal society where the only social and political good is economic advancement. However, we behave as if the rule of law functions, because this is absolutely necessary to ensure that society does not descend into all out class war and fall apart completely. The pretence of the law is necessary to prevent the return to the original pre-social condition of warre identified by Hobbes in the 17th Century. We want to avoid 28 Days Later !
But if this is indeed the case, what is it about the crime of the excluded other that makes everything so different and requires the construction of the spectacle of crime ? The simple answer revolves around the principle of visibility.
The rich commit their crimes in private and thus maintain the illusion of law, while the poor, who have no stake in society, simply ignore the law, and behave as if they live in a state of nature, precisely because this is how society appears from their point of view. Herein resides the true crime of the poor and the excluded. It is not that they commit crimes, but that they do so visibly, in ways which require the law to realise its potential. While the rich need to evade the realisation of the power of the law because they have everything to lose, the poor have no interest in trying to hide their crimes since they have nothing to lose. In other words, they are already completely unfree and, for this reason, totally free, since even threat of un-freedom means nothing to them. This is why they must be so aggressively criminalised by the law through their identification with the horrific spectacle of the pathological other. The law must be excessive in dealing with the excremental other. All you can really do is lock them up. Deterrance is pointless.
The excess of the spectacle of crime, which is captured by Banksy’s image of the monstrous faceless other, is directly proportionate to the lack of any real law in neo-liberal society that is in truth a lawless space where might is right, but continues to exist as a social form only through the obsessive denial of this fact in the maintenance of a fantasy of legality.
The function of the spectacle of crime is, thus, necessary to obscure the true horror of the criminal society and what we may call the neo-liberal crime system. What is the crime system ? My idea of the crime system, which is perfectly captured by the TV series The Wire where everybody is in « the game », refers to the social system governed by the principle of crime, rather than the notion of law, even if this is officially upheld.
In the crime system the law does not really function, but rather exists as a kind of ideological supplement to obscure the reality of the criminal norm. But of course, it is not enough to simply state the existence of the law. It must be seen to work in practice. Thus the law requires a violent, criminal, other. The other is the condition of possibility of the law. She must be conjured into existence in order for the law to come into being.
This is exactly what happened in August when the horrific spectacle of the criminal other was imagined in order to restate the value of the law as a functioning social ordering principle. In the wake of the banking crisis, the MP expenses controversy, and the phone hacking scandal, which made it clear that everybody in power is on the take, and massive public sector cuts, which sent the message that the public needed to foot the bill for the deviance of the elite, the law began to look like an ideological tool that only functioned in the service of rich who could use it when, where, and how it suited them.
Against this vision of the law as a tool of exception, what has happened in the aftermath of the riots is that the law has been restated as an egalitarian principle through the construction of the demonic other. In other words, it is now not simply the elite who are clearly deviant, but also the poor, the underclass, the excluded, the scum who must be punished in the attack on the sick society. Savage irony : in order to restate the egalitarian nature of neo-liberal society it is now not simply that the poor must pick up the bill for the deviance of the rich, but that they are also criminalised for their objective resistance to their progressive exclusion. If this is not perverse enough, what is more is that large parts of English society that has no right to side with the elites are complicit in this excessive criminalisation of the poor simply because of their psychopathological overdog complex – the compulsion to side with the master, and maintain him as ego ideal, even as, or perhaps precisely because, he punishes, degrades, and hurts.
In other words, large sections of the working class who consider themselves aspirational, continue to identify with the elites even though they are part of the rump of society, which their neo-liberal masters want to punish through first, the destruction of the public sector, and second, demonisation and criminalisation. Thus we approach the issue of the perverse sexual core of the English class system.
Consider the sado-masochism of English class society : in direct proportion to the extent to which the elites enjoy punishing the mass of the population for their pathetic and miserable nature, the lower middle classes and working classes enjoy being hurt by their masters who they believe are naturally superior.
In order to understand how this sado-masochistic culture functions in practice perhaps we should close by thinking about the strange complicity between the other and spectacle revealed by the riots.
The sado-masochistic complicity between the other and the spectacle in the case of the riots revolves around the ways in which the English underclass, the new lumpenproletariat, is held under the spell of the fantastic image of the consumer society and at the same time constructed by the image machine and transformed into a monstrous other that can be safely hated by middle England. As such, the lumpenproletariat loves the image of the master – they live by TV, the great sign of the consumer society, which communicates the brash vulgar economic ideology of neo-liberalism – even though the social and political system excludes them from ever realising their desires legally. Indeed, this is where the true misery of the lumpenproletariat really resides: TV is their window on the world. They experience the world through TV and live lives of luxury and excess vicariously through brash celebrities whose function is to enjoy what they never can.
Although there would be no point in the other enjoying the middle class celebrity, who is all about normality, the trouble with the vulgar working class celebrity is that she at once confirms that it is possible to live a life of luxury, and reinforces the fact of lack that exists in the present. In other words, the vulgar excessive celebrity functions as a kind of utopian image for the new lumpenproletariat. She says, « this is what you could have, if you make it ».
Unfortunately, the result of Cameron’s austerity measures is that the not-yet of the consumer imaginary, the utopianism of celebrity culture, has lost all sense of reality for the lumpenproletariat. They no longer believe. The dream is over. It is this situation that has ultimately freed the socially excluded from the spectacle. Without hope, anything became possible, and England’s major cities shook. As we now know, it was this situation which required the construction of the monstrous symbol of the other, the realisation of the force of the law, and the hardening of the elite commitment to the principle of natural inequality in an already hyper-divided society. This is England today – a society of rich and poor, haves and have nots, self and other – and what is worse is that we are all complicit in this situation. This much is evident from the great symbol of the August riots – the widescreen TV – which the looters seemed to have a particular desire to steal.
(Manchester, 2011, november 10th)
Texte © Mark Featherstone – Photos © 1 : Library of Congress – © 2 : Leonard Gobeli – © 3 : Pistoletto
Bloody Winter / L’Hiver sanglant
Workshop proposé par D-Fiction sur le thème de l’émeute et de la publication exclusive 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 : Une émeute de rêve
Part 10 : Let england shake : The Normality of Crime