Let England shake : The Rioter as Lumpenproletarian


This issue of the impossibility of critique today is perfectly illustrated by events following the global economic crash. In the English context a crucial ideological shift took place at some point in 2010. In the wake of the crash, we understood the problem in terms of a culture of greed and risk taking in the financial sector. By 2010, the problem of our society was less greed and the desire to make money and more the bloated state which was seen to have been unjustly supporting people for years. In fact, it turns out that what we need is more aggressive capitalism and less care for people who are simply lazy and need to wake up.

In the popular political discourse surrounding the crash until 2010, the folk devil was the high earning banker. In the same discourse focussed on dealing with the fallout of the crash post 2010, the new folk devil became the bloated social state and the deviant lumpenproletariat.

Thus the discourse of the cuts advanced by the Conservative Party, and various Liberal Democratic hangers on, has been that England needs less of everything, apart from capitalism, and that the poor should simply look after themselves.

In other words, Cameron’s Big Society is simply a positive incarnation of wilful social and political irresponsibility on the part of a government that governs in the name of the super rich.

It would be wrong to say that none of this has been understood. Perhaps a better way of expressing the situation would be to use the term recognised, and say that none of this has been recognised, since there is a sense in which everybody knows what has taken place but chooses to ignore it because we live in a cynical society.

As Sloterdijk explains, we know that much of what takes place today is unjust, but we fail to act, and thus silently consent, because we accept the basic premise of the ideological position that says that there is no other way.

Thus the Conservative’s austerity measures, and I call the measures Conservative measures because it appears that their Liberal Democratic partners are now Conservatives with absolutely no view of their own, have not really been recognised politically or systematically. Where they have been opposed – student demonstrations and large scale strikes – by people who are afraid of the way the cuts will impact upon their concrete situation we have found ourselves in the strange position of having mass protests against something very particular (the rise of student fees), but not really in favour of anything concrete (alternatives to cuts such as higher income tax for the rich).

Nobody dares to mention the word socialism because opposition to the norm is criminal. As such, we can say this, that, and the other is wrong, but not suggest any alternatives, which would invariably require the super rich to pay higher taxes. Moreover, this gap between the possibility of negative critique and the courage to positively oppose the ideological hegemony of the neo-liberal state is perfectly captured in the bankruptcy of the Labour Party opposition and comic figure, Ed Miliband, who is cast in the role of a kind of theatrical fool, pushed on stage with no idea how to behave or what to say.

In many ways watching Miliband on TV summarises the problem of systematic critique today. Here is the man in the position of articulating the political position of the left who continually looks as though he wants to avoid saying anything for fear of upsetting anybody.

Unfortunately for the supporters of the capitalist utopia where there is no alternative none of this alters the basic fact of class division. The fact of a lack of political and systemic articulation of social problems simply makes it appear as though class conflict no longer exist, even though it is clear to everybody that social division and social inequality are everywhere. Fortunately for the capitalist utopians it is possible to buy off the vast majority of those who stand to suffer from adjustments to the system. This is exactly what has happened with protests about the austerity measures – the vast majority of protestors will ultimately fall in line because they are invested in the aspirational system and ideological model which tells us that there is alternative. They want to make it in the capitalist system – they have no desire to burn it down.

However, the situation is very different for the lumpenproletariat who occupy the periphery of British and English cities. This class of people, which were essentially created by the Thatcherite neo-liberal revolution, is now in its third generation. On the basis of the size of this class – which is made up of the original workers who were made redundant under Thatcher, their kids of the 70s and 80s who were not able to escape the poverty trap, and their children who are now growing up in the context of entrenched poverty – it is clear that the neo-liberal lumpenproletariat has a history and a way of being that is more or less a mystery to normal middle England. This is the other England – England’s unconscious.

Unlike the middle classes – and the students and other workers – who essentially have an investment in society, the condition of the lumpenproletariat is very different. They have nothing to lose – they have no investment in society. They are already criminalised by virtue of their objective situation. What difference does it make to them if they are rendered subjectively criminal by the legal system? Or to put this another way, why would they behave according to norms and values that clearly exclude them? Once we think through these questions, we begin to see why the August riots took on a very different form to the student demonstrations and public sector strikes of 2010 and 2011.

In much the same way that the student protests and public sector strikes were the expressions of anger and despair of a post-political mass who understood that there is no alternative, the riots were explosions of the rage and violence of a un-political post-social lumpenproletariat who have no stake in middle England.

To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, when nothing matters, anything is permitted, and everything is possible.

(Manchester, 2011, september 10th)

Texte © Mark Featherstone – Photos © DR

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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