Just a few quick scribblings on the riots.
What do these riots signify about Britain today? Are they some kind of incipient revolutionary development, or are they something, conversely, that working class people have reason to fear, to the point that the only alternative has to be to support the police restoring ‘order’?
Both sets of responses have been seen from some groups of socialists, and they have led to bitter controversies on some left wing blogs.
Both responses in their own way, are absurd. The confrontation with the cops in Tottenham was directly political in its implications, that is clear. It was provoked by yet another act of murder by a police force that is both cowardly and brutal. Only cowardly brutes would use hollow-point bullets to shoot a suspect knowing full well that those weapons make it impossible to take them alive; there is a reason why such weapons were made illegal in the 19th Century for use in warfare; they invariably produce such terrible injuries as to make death inevitable from a direct hit.
Their use against Mark Duggan indicates a premeditated shoot-to-kill policy, nothing less. Perhaps that could be justified if Duggan was reasonably suspected of being a suicide bomber, aiming to die and kill others and needing to be thwarted in the latter objective, but in any other circumstances it is simply murder to use such weapons. So the anti-police element of the riot in Tottenham was completely justified for socialists.
The opportunistic outburst of looting and arson that spread around London, and then to other English cities, however, had nothing to do with Mark Duggan. It was simply an outburst of anger by a despairing, largely lumpenised layer of youth who have lost hope. It was largely indiscriminate, not particularly targetted at the police or any other part of the establishment. Nor did it have any particular anti-racist thrust – indeed lumpen white youth complaining about immigrants taking their jobs were as likely to be looting and burning as black youth alienated by police racism and the Duggan shooting. A great many of the looters were white; many of the victims of the looting and arson were black and Asian, and indeed ‘vigilante’ elements out to protect life and property were as likely to be of Turkish (Haringey) or Pakistani (Birmingham) origin as the more classic episodes of white vigilantism we saw in Enfield or Eltham.
Anyone who got in the way of this outburst was likely to be hurt or brutally killed, as events showed. The riots produced a wave of fear among ordinary working class people who craved understandably for the restoration of some kind of order. But the kind of order offered by the cops and the state is not order at all; and now the dust has settled this is becoming clear. When the cops are under fire from determined opposition, they tend to hold back from defending ordinary people, yet when they are not under such a severe threat, they are capable of murdering people in cold blood. The reason being that the cops are not, as the classic ideology of ‘democratic’ capitalism would have it, some neutral force ‘keeping the peace’. They are themselves part of the problem, they are an elite force whose fundamental purpose is to suppress coherent social protest in the interest of the very wealthy minority who really rule this society.
Hence they are very good at cracking heads when faced with coherent, but basically non-violent protests whose aims are inimical to the interests of their paymasters in the ruling class. But faced with something incoherent, ephemerally destructive but utterly prepared to use violence, suddenly they were rather squeamish.
It is absurd to call for the police to restore social order in any strategic sense in this society. If British capitalist society is ‘broken’ as David Cameron asserts today, it is because it is the ruling class that broke it with decades of looting and asset stripping for the purpose of massively enriching themselves while rubbing our face in the dirt. The cops played a major role in this, in the miners strike of 1984-5, in the Wapping dispute of 1986-7, and subsequently.
Today, the police are becoming hated by a new generation of protest activists, against the cuts, against such atrocities as the murder of Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan, or even Jean Charles de Menezes, who the police claimed to have mistaken for a suicide bomber yet allowed him to travel for 2 miles on a bus without attempting an arrest! The police routinely smear those they kill, as was shown in all these three cases stories were planted in the press about them that were subsequently shown to be blatant lies.
In the 1980s, the cops were reviled by trade unionists as ‘Maggie Thatcher’s boot boys’. But given their corrupt relationships with News International that are now coming to light, they could today be taunted as “Rupert Murdoch’s rent boys”.
So what should be done about these issues. And who can do something about it?
We need above all to strenghten and revive the trade unions. And we need to unite and revive the genuinely socialist left, and abandon the stereotypical sectarianism and sect warfare that cripples it. This is hardly the subject matter of this article, though it will be addressed in due course.
Bus assuming a start can be made on uniting and reviving the fragmented left, it is the responsibility of trade unions, influenced by such a revived left, to try to offer solutions to this problem. There is a question of the need to protect those in struggle against police violence and brutality.
There is also the need to protect our class from threats that come from below it, from lumpen criminal elements who played an important role in the looting and riots. Apart from the most hardened and depraved elements, these are not our deadly enemies, but nevertheless they need sometimes to be coerced a bit to behave themselves and not injure their fellow workers. There is also the point is that such a revived, self-confident labour movement could win over many such people and undermine the despair that feeds lumpen violence.
Trade unions, organised and concious of themselves, can provide the industrial muscle, and in many cases also the physical muscle to do some of these things. They need to explore strategies, ways and means, of attempting to do this. If the police are worse than useless to the working class, and in fact a threat to us, then just who is going to protect ordinary people from the consequences of social decay? Answer, only the working class itself, organised as a class for itself, can even begin to think of doing so.
That is what the left should be arguing as a key lesson of Britain’s August riots.