News from the UK

Its been a few years since I last posted on Minds. I was thinking of a kind of catch up commentary. How the world has changed. Is changing. Including the privileged bubble in which we as academics could find ourselves. If we were lucky. This is certainly changing. Public funding is being cut, academia is, if not in turmoil, heading for upheavals globally. This has implications for disciplines like anthropology where demonstrating impact and relevance is difficult. Perhaps this week’s turmoil in the UK offers some scope for anthropology’s core strengths of empathy and interpretation. Several days of rioting in London have given way to riots in urban centres, including yesterday evening in Manchester city centre and in the adjoining city of Salford a few miles away. Full background to the riots is available on newssites such as the BBC and the Guardian. Youtube provides graphic images of young people breaking into city centre stores and walking out with goods.

Commentators agree that what is different about this disorder is the rapid transition from a localised political protest at the shooting by police of a young man in Tottenham, an area made famous for politically motivated riots in the 1980s, to what seems to be a new phenomenon, at least in the UK, of spontaneous urban looting which is at present largely confined to retail areas. I am not in a position to comment on who is involved in the rioting or how this differs from previous incidences of organized disorder, political or otherwise, here or elsewhere. As the journalist Zoe Williams remarks in today’s Guardian newspaper, this is the kind of situation you don’t go out and look at. Levels of violence were quite high. Moreover, events can be followed on twitter, blogs, newsfeeds and other social media, a means of participating from a distance and for some an invitation to action.

Not all of this action was negative. Social media groups have apparently organised clean ups in London and Manchester. Electronic traces of these events will doubtless sustain an entire generation of social analysts for years to come as they strive to recreate the reasons for this apparently mass outbreak of smash and grab. Another change, another way of doing ethnography. Some things however remain the same and one of them is the potential of insightful ethnographic analysis to inform and shed light on social practice.

I have just read Orvar Lofgren and Robert Willim’s Magic, Culture and the New Economy. The book is a series of snapshots of new economy practices taken during the 1990s at the height of the uber boom built on brand, affect and image. Although the examples in the book deal with typical new economy enterprises such as hip hotels and lifestyle spas and the marketisation of self realisation through career coaching, all point to the importance of emotion in constructing value, the significance of affect as driver and product of the new economic order and the gap or perhaps uncertainty in terms of what value is actually based on.

The young people involved in the smashing and grabbing in Manchester last night are widely condemned as lacking core values of respect and decency. Newspapers and members of the public – on the Greater Manchester Police Facebook pages for example- remark that this is not a political protest but a descent into criminality. It is evidently something of both. Indeed, attempts to categorize these phenomena within certain fields will constitute a site of contestation for a long time to come. Lofgren’s and Willim’s book highlights the dramatic inequalities on which the new economy is founded and the circulation of branding as value where value can be socially sustained- the magic of making something out of nothing to which the book’s title alludes. Manchester’s looters focused on high value electronics where these were available and branded goods, particularly clothing. In taking without paying they were demonstrating disrespect certainly, but were they also refusing to accept the magic of the brand?

Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester. manchester.academia.edu/MaiaGreen

39 thoughts on “News from the UK

  1. Riots might be neutral in themselves and have negative impacts, but the spark for these riots was certainly political. They started because the London police shot a black man, Mark Duggan a father of 4, and then the police ignored a protest outside the police station, which demanded that a family liason officer be sent out. Apparently the family had heard about the death through the media and not from any official source. BBC interviews of young female looters drinking stolen wine is quite explicit about the class content of their actions. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT4UxcNRmh4 “It’s the goverments fault…” they said “these are rich people the people that own businesses. we’re just showing the rich people we can do what we want.” So there is certainly a social content to these actions, to some extent. But of course, its the working class that is going to have deal with the long term consequences of police repression, of neighborhoods being wrecked, ect. But this is happening in a context of greater and greater cuts to all public services and greater and greater police repression, and as social scientists, we can’t forget that.

  2. Manchester’s looters focused on high value electronics where these were available and branded goods, particularly clothing. In taking without paying they were demonstrating disrespect certainly, but were they also refusing to accept the magic of the brand?

    Belief attribution can be a tricky affair sometimes, but in this instance, any motivation beyond ‘take normally expensive thing for free’ is superfluous. These looters are not noble savages; they’re looters. They want things. That’s why they loot. They’re not writing social commentary.

    And if anything, taking the most expensive, branded items shows the opposite of your conclusion. Those are the things they took. Why? Possibly because they want the clothes and electronics themselves but couldn’t otherwise afford them (in which case the magic of the brand is surely strong), and possibly because the high retail value of such items means that they could be sold on (in which case the looters are dependent on the magic of the brand).

    Indeed, attempts to categorize these phenomena within certain fields will constitute a site of contestation for a long time to come.

    Why bother categorising at all? Clearly, the actions of looters and rioters are connected, and clearly there are dozens of plausible motivations that can be ascribed to the various actors in these events. No single motivation can be ascribed to everyone, and many of the actions undertaken are not the same, even if the connections between the events are obvious. Simplistic categorisation would only obscure this.

    It’s quite strange. I keep on getting calls to see whether I’m alright from people in other countries, but outside of city centres and certain London boroughs, life continues as normal.

  3. @ Megan K

    BBC interviews of young female looters drinking stolen wine is quite explicit about the class content of their actions.

    In context, it is extremely clear that this ‘class content’ is a post hoc rationalisation. These two young female looters were quite evidently after what they called ‘fun’, which included the opportunity to obtain items for free as well as the chance to freely disobey the law. Their comments were printed in Metro, which I read yesterday on a train journey, so I don’t have them to hand, but they stuck in my head due to the absurdity of what they had said. They also hoped for more opportunities for ‘fun’. It would be wrong to read too much into their actions.

    Even the rioters’ motivations were quite various. I find it hard to believe that the eight year old bottle thrower had any strongly political motivation, or any motivation beyond having an adventure and doing what everyone else was doing.

  4. Isn’t this just a form of conspicuous consumption? A kind of competitive emulation by groups mostly shut out from participation, but suddenly finding an opportunity to ‘get ahead’. They buy into the magic allright. It’s sort of like Bakhtin’s carnival: subverting the hierarchy, but at the same affirming the underlying core values.

    Having fun and lacking a conscious ideology is certainly not contrary to that.

  5. @ Marcus

    People who aren’t so rich, don’t care much about upholding the law for its own sake, and who want things, whether for their own sake or for their saleability, are now looting and stealing because they know that they are unlikely to be arrested given that the police in several cities are tied up with riots and with preventing other instances of looting. Some may be concerned with the semiotic value of their actions – sticking it to the man and so on – and clearly, in the context of the riots, anger at the government must be behind some of it. But to look at it in terms of cultural values is just bizarre, really. It’s so unnecessary to explain anything, and is quite clearly not what is going on in the heads of the looters themselves. It has no explanatory value. Obviously, the idea that a t-shirt with “Lacoste” on it is more valuable than one without is something enculturated, and not something innately known. But that belief – that a Lacoste t-shirt is valuable – is sufficient on its own to explain attempting to acquire a Lacoste t-shirt, and, given no reasons not to, to explain taking it by theft or by looting.

    Why is it that anthropologists always reach for the most unnatural explanations? Does anyone really believe that the dominant belief in the heads of the looters is concerned with re-affirming values, and not the much more likely belief that by looting they will acquire the things they desire with much less effort and much likelihood than otherwise?

  6. @ Al West

    That’s not a correct interpretation of what I said. They do not set out consciously to re-affirm values or engage in semiotic interpretation, but they buy into the magic of brands by focusing their efforts on stealing these products. They violate public order and hierarchy, but affirm the value attached to the consumer goods by looting them in a carnivalesque way. Very much an ‘improvised’ version of Bakhtin’s carnival.

    There is absolutely no need for them to have a conscious and reasoned-out ideology for this, the unconscious, group dynamics and consumer values will do nicely.

    I would argue common explanations based on individual motivations do not explain very much, as they ignore the wider cultural context within which these actions take place. No doubt individuals have different aims and accounts, but they are all caught up in a group dynamic that needs to be taken into account.

  7. Anne Applebaum had an op-ed yesterday suggesting there is some historical precedent in England for the events (specifically mentioning Wat Tyler and football hooliganism). I have noticed that the BBC seems to be referring to the events as the English and not the British riots. Anyone care to comment on the notion that this is patterned behavior at the national level (in this particular context perhaps “country level” is a better term)? To be clear, I am not implying that the people of England are a bunch of thugs. I’m just asking if this might not be an instance of an aperiodic ritual of rebellion.

    I haven’t really seen any commentators use the term lumpenproletariat. That strikes me as a bit odd.

  8. It should also not be forgotten that things began to be really tense when, at the end of a march following the death of Mark Duggan, the police beat the shit out of a 16 year old protester (a girl) .

    There is almost nothing new here. Uprisings of this kind already happened many times in the UK. It seems it is only when the poor and racially profiled fuck shit up that they begin to be taken into account (however poorly).

    And while the media focused on looting, and looting, and looting, and sometimes also on looting, this is not exactly the whole story. Police stations were attacked, as were job centers, and at least one private school (in Nottingham).

    Tangentially, about carnival, Darcus Howe (broadcaster living in Brixton) mentionned here and here that operation Razorback also has something to do with all this. Of course he also mentions racist harassment, and worse, by the police.

    Meanwhile, Zygmunt Bauman focuses on consumerism coming home to roost.

    I find it hard to believe that the eight year old bottle thrower had any strongly political motivation

    Maybe, but I think eight year old is enough to know what living in poverty and deprivation is.
    And how do you identify the “strongly political motivation” of an act ? When a poor tunisian ambulant merchant light himself on fire after yet another episode of police harassment, is it “strongly” or “weakly” political ? And when oppressed young people torch a police station in Algeria ? When a palestinian young boy throw rocks at israeli soldiers ?

  9. The fact that their conscious motivation is ‘fun’ does not erase the class content. WHY is it fun to drink looted wine that you normally can’t buy? WHY is it fun to turn everything around and now the poor can have things they are usually denied? This has a class basis for sure. I do accept your arguments to some extent about the carnivalesque nature of these riots- its a role reversal, like the fool being crowned king on april fools day, or the youngest soldier being the commanding officer for a day- but these things also express danger, and can, under some circumstances, overthrown the entire system such as in revolutionary france or russia.

    But of course everything has political meaning, even things that aren’t officially political- maybe if we substituted the word ‘cultural’ for ‘political’ here that my be clearer. But even if the people who are looting the stores don’t have a conscious political purpose (although the girls looting the wine did- the whole reason it was fun was to defy rich people and the normal rules that serve rich people) there is still a political meaning to their actions.

    Riots are a tragedy. Just as the young man in Tunisia who killed himself because he saw no hope. the young rioters don’t care about the possible consequences because they have already decided their lives are intolerable. Its a tragedy that social conditions make people become so angry that they would burn down their own areas themselves. This doesn’t excuse the rioters, I’m not looking to excuse anything- but the thing to do is to understand, not to condemn or condone. Isn’t that supposed to be the main contribution of anthropology? Understand first, then maybe you can think about judging.

  10. 10-4 Megan! If one’s idea of “having fun” is smashing windows and stealing shit, that’s a political fact. For example, as Al West says above, I find it hard to believe that the eight year old bottle thrower had any strongly political motivation, or any motivation beyond having an adventure and doing what everyone else was doing. It might not be a vote for Labour, but if that’s not a political motivation right there I don’t know what is.

    Regarding explanation, especially as so frequently confused with condoning a given behavior, I encourage y’all to visit the Global Sociology blog, in which moral entrepreneurs should STFU.

  11. Anne Applebaum had an op-ed yesterday suggesting there is some historical precedent in England for the events (specifically mentioning Wat Tyler and football hooliganism).

    I’m certain that there is precedent in every single society in the world for rioting and looting. Football hooligans may be on the minds of the looters and rioters; Wat Tyler is almost certainly not. Indeed, some might have once been football hooligans.

    Let’s not go too wild; these rioters and looters are not well-educated, their grievances, such as they are, are hardly well-articulated, and many are clearly out for fun. I expect this is the case with many riots. And seeing any ritual in it is to see too much. British rioters are not noble savages. They are certainly not justified in what they are doing by the dominant cultural standards.

    but they buy into the magic of brands by focusing their efforts on stealing these products

    Well, sure, they focus their efforts on stealing things that they have been enculturated to believe have value in and of themselves or that they believe will fetch higher prices on the market. There’s no need to posit something other than simply that. Given belief in time and space constraints (time before the police arrive or someone else steals the item, space in which to carry the item), it is clearly the best option to steal branded items – items that the actor is more likely to value in and of itself anyway, or which the actor is justified in believing will earn them more money. These aren’t the only motivations for action that could be ascribed, but they are the simplest and most plausible, and other action, by looters at least, seems to build on this basis. Everything else is extraneous without good evidence.

    As for the idea that ‘the unconscious’ takes care of things, I’m always curious as to how this works. It seems to be a catch-all by which anthropologists, social psychologists, and others, can assert unfalsifiable motivations for action. Frankly, though, there is no real need to differentiate, from the outside, between ‘unconscious’ and ‘conscious’ motivations; all beliefs that we can ascribe are propositions that have some explanatory value. I contend that affirming the value of branded items, in whatever way you mean it, is superfluous and is without explanatory power.

    I’m not doubting the ingenuity of your proposition. But in order for interpretations of beliefs or motivations to be explanatory, they have to have some kind of predictive or retrodictive capability. We can’t simply look into others’ heads and find out what they actually believe, so we have to find evidence for plausible beliefs to ascribe in their actions (including their speech acts, but certainly not as a final arbiter). Why assert beliefs that aren’t necessary and of which you can have no evidence?

  12. Glad to see that this is prompting discussion and questioning- of me, of the protesters, of ways of analyzing. Events in the different cities show that there is no unitary analysis applicable to all these incidents, but there are obvious structural factors. And yes these certainly prompt a political take on actions and interpretation. Thinking through who is a political subject is important, as someone raises in relation to children. The media space will be full of this debate over the coming months. Its already evident on Manchester’s billboards. I posted on the topic because I was going to do a few posts over the summer and that is what was happening. Thats whats great about the blog format. It enables a response. I am not however going to keep on that topic. There are others better situated than I am to provide insight about that. I’ll be posting on anthropology, the new economy and related topics- as and when. In the meantime check out the Society and Space blog site over the next few days for some upcoming free access pieces previously published in that journal with which to think events in the UK and others like them. The address is societyandspace.com

  13. WHY is it fun to drink looted wine that you normally can’t buy? WHY is it fun to turn everything around and now the poor can have things they are usually denied? This has a class basis for sure.

    I’ll take an unsubstantiated claim for $1000, Alex.

    Interestingly, before, you claimed that the explicit statements of the looters substantiated the notion that class was at the root of it. Now it is induction on the basis of their actions. Hmph. An economist could look at this and, asking the same questions (“WHY is it fun…?”), come to the conclusion that it is fun because it is efficient: that their desires (to have access to material wealth and prestige goods, like wine) are more easily and readily satisfied. Why is the class explanation any more reasonable than that? It is certainly plausible that class is a motivation for British rioters, but it is not the magic bullet, and sometimes, the desire to steal and drink wine is explained simply by the belief that wine is nice.

    One of the great lessons of anthropology, to counter yours, is that human motivation is quite flexible. Geertz showed that the Balinese seeker after power was not motivated by precisely the same thing as, say, an American Presidential hopeful. Pomp can be a motivation for action. Desire for wine and free clothes can be a motivation for action. So can class, I don’t doubt. All motivations are multifarious, in any case, and the position that class is behind it all is unjustifiable, just as the claim that rage over the death of Mark Duggan is the entirety of the motivation for all looters and rioters is unjustifiable even if it had some clear role in the beginning.

    It might not be a vote for Labour, but if that’s not a political motivation right there I don’t know what is.

    Then we have two completely different senses of the word ‘political’, which we can separate. Yes, of course, politics is a behaviour, but the idea that an eight year old boy throwing a bottle is motivated in the same way as an anarchist activist with a grievance against the government is simply wrong. Their motivations are different. My intent was to draw attention to the fact that no magic bullet explanations will cover all cases, and that simplistic class-based positions are wrong. The eight year old may be acting ‘politically’ in one sense, but he isn’t acting because of a conscious appreciation of class, or, likely, even an unconscious one. He’s throwing that bottle because the people he knows and respects – parents, siblings, friends – are doing it too.

    Clearly, the looting shines a light on the rioting: many of the buildings being looted and then burned were not those of the rioters’ homes or districts, but just buildings that they found it convenient to loot and destroy, like Carpetright, that had no connection to anything.

  14. BTW, what is the source for the 8 year old bottle thrower ? And why, Al West, to you take this particular example in this context ?

  15. @ Jérémy

    The bottle-thrower I read of in Metro, too, and I can give no further evidence of his existence at the moment (although I’ll look). The reason I use the example is because I don’t believe that an eight year old boy is likely to have strong, independent political opinions that are motivations for his actions, and that he is motivated instead by other things, like parental authority (to anticipate the reaction, of course this is political, but it is also obviously different to class struggle) or the desire to have a bit of an adrenalin-pumping adventure. These things drove me as a child. Hey, I could be wrong; maybe this (hypothetical?) child is a genius, and has read Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser, and has figured out that throwing a bottle at police would demonstrate his alienation and disgust at government policy. But my broader point is that no single principle or belief is behind the rioting and looting.

    Riots are spreading all over, even into areas that have no real problems. Jericho in Oxford has seen some violence, for no reason; the people who live there are students and lecturers. Headington’s McDonalds was burned down, and Headington is much the same as Jericho. Sometimes, wanting to burn things down is a motivation all of its own.

    Maybe Batman has more to tell anthropologists than we’d like to think.

  16. I understand that you doubt that an 8 year get that he is oppressed, just like his family and neighbors. I get that. The irony is quite superfluous.

    What I don’t really get is why you pick that example when discussing actions that were NOT done by 8 year old kids. Why you elaborate upon something that is pretty marginal and anecdotical in this context.

    Or maybe I do get it. Maybe you pick this example as he is the incarnation of your preconception of a “rioter” : someone without political or social consciouness, without any “real” reason to rise up. Maybe that’s even why “Metro” wrote about it.

    But yes, “no single principle or belief is behind” any social action. That much I agree with.

  17. Maybe you pick this example as he is the incarnation of your preconception of a “rioter” : someone without political or social consciouness, without any “real” reason to rise up.

    Oh, god no. I’m angry myself at Conservative policies. I can imagine rioting – indeed, like many people, I did, albeit non-violently (still a riot? you decide), last year in the tuition fees debacle. And I don’t doubt that some rioters were initially rioting because of anger at an abuse of power by Scotland Yard.

    Once you start planning strategic riots on facebook and once you start copy-cat looting throughout the country, I think we’ve got beyond the point where a class-based analysis is all that useful, that’s all.

  18. I’m certain that there is precedent in every single society in the world for rioting and looting. […] Football hooligans may be on the minds of the looters and rioters; Wat Tyler is almost certainly not.

    Yeah, if there’s not a precedent for what you are doing you are always free to try and invent one. What I am reaching for here is the question, “Is this patterned behavior?” (something for which historical memory is not a requirement).

  19. Al West says but the idea that an eight year old boy throwing a bottle is motivated in the same way as an anarchist activist with a grievance against the government is simply wrong.

    I can’t decide whether to respond, “Don’t know many anarchist activists, do you?” or “…many eight-year-old boys, do you?” More seriously, though, identifying his bottle-throwing as a political act doesn’t mean that his motivation has to be the same as the anarchist’s. The anarchist’s motivations also aren’t the same as the Labour voter’s, the Christian schoolboard member’s, the CEO’s, or the suicide bomber’s, but all are acting politically.

    If we imagine that in order to act politically and even on a class basis requires that one has read Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser, and has figured out that throwing a bottle at police would demonstrate his alienation and disgust at government policy, we’ve ruled out most of the adults too, and most every other revolutionary scenario through history. We don’t need to resort to some metaphysical idea of the “unconscious” to link this bottle-thrower with British class politics. “Class” is economic theory, but it’s also lived experience, which structures and informs behaviors in ways that can be perfectly conscious without having to be articulated in Althusserian language. As Al West says, this 8-year-old is throwing that bottle because the people he knows and respects – parents, siblings, friends – are doing it too. That’s where class awareness comes from: me, my family, my mates. They’re the people I identify with, and expressing that identification through an act of violence against an Other (especially a class-marked Other like law enforcement or symbols of wealth) — that’s a class-based political action. No conscious or unconscious understanding of who controls the means of production is necessary.

    Most significantly for this discussion, this is how it is possible for everybody’s motivations for “rioting” to be different, while also still fitting into a pattern of class oppression and resistance. Motivations differ, as do the actual actions in question. Some rioters were outspoken ideological anarchists, some were ethnic minority immigrants who’ve taken enough abuse, some were “regular folks” talking advantage of a situation, some were kids having fun, some were drunken jackasses — and I’d be surprised if it were easy to tell which was which. Moreover, “rioting” consists of stealing high-value items for later sale, stealing things to consume spontaneously, smashing store windows without stealing anything, smashing advertisements and works of public art, attacking cops, attacking each other, partying in public, going where you’re not allowed, or being present while all of the above happens. Of course individual motivations vary, and anyone (anthropologist or otherwise) who claims to know what’s going on inside the mind of an individual rioter is misleading you.

    But what do all these motivations and activities have in common? I think that the point Megan (and others) are making about the politics of these riots is that the patterns and the context link disparate motivations and actions, like those of the anarchist and the hooligan, or the 8-yr-old bottle-thrower. Contributing to a state of massive public disorder in the company of your peers against the forceful objections of the state is in a pretty clear sense a class-based political activity.

  20. A little further to the idea of denying political agency to rioters who don’t have a Marxist analysis, or who might even be having fun. The post I linked earlier, from the Global Sociology Blog, puts discussion of rioters as apolitical actors into context. According to “moral entrepreneurs” like the BBC News commentators, if rioters are looting it proves the riots have no political motivation, and rioters are simply greedy and bad. If rioting is apolitical, than rioters’ behavior, like their poverty and other life circumstances, is explicable as moral failure. Again, reminiscent of the culture of poverty argument, the reiteration of these memes solidly places the blame with the unruly rioters, dismissing their grievances out of hand. It demands from individual commentators that they repudiate their actions before any discussion can take place, thereby framing the discussion in such one-sided terms. And the focus on rioters and looters is to be discussed without any context, as irrational eruption of under-socialized hordes.

    If we don’t dismiss the riots’ politics, or assume that politics and other motivations like fun or drunkenness are somehow mutually exclusive, then the acts of violence and theft can’t be considered in isolation from other acts of violence and theft. The follow-up post at Global Sociology offers one example, an open letter to David Cameron’s parents.

  21. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days, and I just came across this quotation from Ed Milliband:

    ‎”Those lashing out – randomly, cruelly and violently – feel they have nothing to lose. They do not feel bound by the moral code of the rest of society because they do not feel part of the rest of society. We cannot live in a society where the banks are ‘too big to fail’ but whole neighbourhoods are allowed to sink without a trace. The polarisation is not between black and white. It is between those who have a stake in society and those who do not.” – Ed Milliband

    I think he’s on to something here, but doesn’t go far enough (he’s in politics so obviously he can’t). We can think it through, through, along with some of this thread’s earlier comments on Carnival. It strikes me that the looting is not about whether people have any amount of cash in their pocket at the time of looting (as many commenters say should be reason many of the rioters should be classified as “mere criminals”), as much as it is about how structural equality nurtures social solidarity and integrates people into a broader sense of community, and how structural inequality undermines that solidarity over the long-term.

    It’s not a straightforward “they are poor and angry” class consciousness argument…its a much subtler, more complex issue of the way society is integrated and the fact that neither the “bad morals” nor the strict materialist analysis is adequate to explain what’s been happening.

    When (capitalist) society is massively unequal, we internalize certain messages about our sense of obligation to each other. That a white middle class teacher’s aid could go on a looting rampage suggests something about longer-term processes of subjectification; it says somethi​ng about her sense of self in relation to the rest of society, and nothing about how her immediate economic standing shapes her motivations. Economic inequality, and the precarious position of the middle class under capitalism, bolsters and is bolstered by the absence of any cultural, psychological, and ideological sense of interdependence and reciprocal care. This absence is evident in the privileged upper classes who wreck the economy, the anxious middle classes in perpetual fear of losing everything, and the dispossessed working/non-working classes who’ve increasingly got nothing left to lose. Capitalism alienates everybody. The short-sighted economic illogic of looting shops in your own neighborhood doesn’t suggest class revolt. It suggests business as usual.

  22. Another good link on long-distance moral policing of rioters — Rebecca Solnit’s piece on “looting” in Haiti. Of course British austerity measures and police brutality are by no means a disaster on the scale of the Haitian earthquake, but the same discursive patterns apply. In Solnit’s story, whether a journalist describes a man with a sack of powdered milk as a “looter” or a “man bringing supplies to his family” is actually a life-or-death question, given how the state and the international community respond. Likewise, the very fact that we’re describing events in the UK as “riots” has already created a path for our way of thinking about them and how they should be dealt with. “Moral entrepreneurs” at the BBC and elsewhere insist on depoliticizing the riots and rioters alike; without trying to read the minds of any individuals, we need to keep the events in their political context. If we accept terms of discussion in which rioters are mere criminals, we essentially sign on for harsher policing, tighter immigration laws, more surveillance, and basically more of what’s caused all this violence to build up in the first place.

  23. What I am reaching for here is the question, “Is this patterned behavior?” (something for which historical memory is not a requirement).

    Hmm…. A good question. I guess only a thorough historical study once the riots are over will provide any kind of answer, though.

    Here is a very clear example of why class struggle is ultimately inapplicable to looting, even if it is to the rioting on which the looting has piggy-backed. Perhaps Sarah B. here has a point.

    Anyway, like I said, I don’t doubt that there is, or was, a large degree of deliberately ‘political’, possibly class-based, motivation in the riots, and that the looting developed in tandem with these. Police tactics – and long-term strategies, especially with regard to drugs and firearms offences – have been appalling and stupid, and clearly, this affects the poorest members of society the most. But to believe that the ‘oppressed’ BlackBerry-owning young men of London, of various ethnic backgrounds, are somehow engaging in class warfare by organising riots in Notting Hill – that is ridiculous, and very little of the evidence points to that in any way.

    That doesn’t preclude some influence from class politics, but race was also clearly an important factor in the beginning, too – Mark Duggan was not a white man, of course, and neither was his immediate community. Just as there is no need to see racism as the motivation for rioting and looting in Britain’s cities, so there is no need to see class struggle in the same way.

    ‘Reductionist’ is often considered to be the worst slur in the social scientist’s book. I have no problem with being a reductionist usually, as all it entails is the attempt to simplify problems to make them manageable. But the left here is taking an extremely complex – and incredibly interesting – phenomenon and turning it into a simple, mono-causal bout of class struggle and political sparring. This is greedy reductionism, and even worse: the reason is politics, and a normative prescriptivist approach, the conflation of social and sociological problems. That benefits no one.

  24. Likewise, the very fact that we’re describing events in the UK as “riots” has already created a path for our way of thinking about them and how they should be dealt with.

    Maybe. But would you be saying that if the riots were undertaken by the EDL? It is also quite clear that by any reasonable definition of the term, the events in London and other British cities over the past week qualify as ‘rioting’. To deny this would be to engage in some Orwellian linguistic programme for the purposes of advancing a left-wing agenda. Why not just describe?

    You know, this has all become rather divorced from the facts. I read – in the Telegraph, of all places, which I bought because it came with a free bottle of water for my train ride – that the Carpetright burned in London was inhabited. The people living there were, obviously, quite poor – mature students, immigrants, etc. The store was looted and then burned down, while the people inside had to make their way out through smoke and fire. Another woman had her baby taken from her – only for an hour, reportedly, after which it was returned unharmed – but there seems to have been no purpose to it other than a show of power on the part of the rioters.

    I expect that in any riot there are a couple of communists and a couple of neo-Nazis telling themselves that everyone else is there because of their cause. Let’s not make the same mistake. People do things for many reasons.

  25. Owning a BlackBerry means that you can’t be harassed by the police ? It means you don’t belong to the working class ? What exactly do you want to allude to when you talk about owning a BlackBerry ?

    BTW, I don’t think anyone here wrote that this is all and exclusively about class.

    But, then, in your opinion, what do the evidences point to exactly ?

  26. Why don’t you trust the young looter women themselves. They specifically say that they hate the conservatives, that its all about showing rich people they can do what they want. You won’t trust explicit political statements from actual looters? What do you want, an essay explaining why the political theory of what they did? Because i’m sure you can find those on the internet as well, from some other rioters if thats what you want. The idea that you ‘can’t read ritual’ into what western ‘non-savages’ do is wrong, and basically contradicts everything in urban anthropology. You can study people that don’t live in a forest somwhere, and you can do an analysis of both how they see their own actions (emic) and how an outsider views what those actions means (etic). In this case both emic and etic perspectives point to these actions being political.

  27. Why don’t you trust the young looter women themselves. They specifically say that they hate the conservatives, that its all about showing rich people they can do what they want.

    Being a scribe for the natives doesn’t make you an anthropologist. As linguists all know, you can elicit a speaker’s intuition but you have to make the analysis yourself.

  28. Why don’t you trust the young looter women themselves.

    Speech acts require two levels of interpretation as a basic necessity; other actions demand only one. First you have to interpret what the words mean, and then you have to interpret what the speaker means in saying them. Add to that the problem that a speaker can be wrong about what the words they are using mean (see Putnam, “The Meaning of Meaning”, or Davidson, “The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, “First Person Authority”, and “Radical Interpretation”, or Dennett, “The Intentional Stance”), and we have a real problem on our hands. The girls were talking to reporters, representatives of the mainstream, ‘moral entrepreneurs’, if you like. They were aware of this. They were aware that their actions needed some more justification than just having ‘fun’.

    Is it necessary to go beyond this in explaining the words spoken? They were hardly clear about their grievances, in any case.

    What exactly do you want to allude to when you talk about owning a BlackBerry ?

    I allude to the simple fact that in owning a BlackBerry in modern Britain, a person is clearly not living below the poverty line, is clearly able to make their voice heard through several channels, and can clearly organise group, community efforts to improve the situation for all – as the ability to organise riots overnight in all parts of London through BlackBerry messaging demonstrates. If you own a device like a BlackBerry, or a camera, or a computer, you can make your voice heard without resorting to violence. You’re not a member of a voiceless, oppressed, harassed class, ekeing out a living on the fringe of society. That does not preclude legitimate grievances, of course.

    I appreciate that Mark Duggan’s community was experiencing troubles with the police, and I can imagine, certainly, being angry at that. Angry enough to demonstrate. But it seems reasonably clear that this had more to do with race than class, and even assuming that there was such a cocktail of race and class at the outset, the BlackBerry-based organising of deliberate, alcohol-fueled riots in Notting Hill, Croydon, Camden, Manchester, Birmingham, and other areas, demonstrates that it was soon out of the hands of either race or class and into the hands of deliberate, wanton destruction.

  29. But, then, in your opinion, what do the evidences point to exactly ?

    If you’re looking for what I think the magic bullet might be, then here goes:

    Alienation may be at the root of why the rioting spread out as it did. Young men – who made up the vast majority of the rioters arrested (95% male, 82% between the ages of 15 and 29) – without the hope of amassing prestige, power, or authority, it seems reasonable to believe, are quite likely to be angry at the society and the system that they cannot take advantage of or rise within. It’s not that they’re oppressed or starving; it’s that they don’t have the ability, especially in this economy, to satisfy their ambitions and become big men, and get the respect that they feel they deserve. This is a ‘class’ issue, of a kind, but it’s not the noble suffering and rebellion of the poo working class, crushed beneath the heel of rich white men. In material terms, they’re better off than the Indian middle class. In terms of satisfying their ambitions, however, they’re sudras, or even dhalits.

    By rioting, these young men can become lords of the town, getting respect either by dint of their capacity for violence or the amassing of wealth through theft. I expect that this impulse is also behind movements like the EDL. Rioting and looting satisfy basic urges to be important. I have no doubt that this feels fun. I can imagine being in a similar position.

    This is a much harder problem to resolve than police harassment or classism. It is the fundamental question of enabling children growing up in modern Europe to have the skills to prosper in the modern world, and enjoy their lives. Even expanding the benefits system, improving the economic situation of the nation, and curbing abuses of power by police won’t end the problem if there are still young men around angry at the fact that their desires to be considered highly and respected will never be satisfied.

    But that’s just my view. There are clearly other forces at work, and other motivations.

    It wasn’t my intention to monopolise this thread, by the way, but I suffer from SIWOTI syndrome.

  30. I allude to the simple fact that in owning a BlackBerry in modern Britain, a person is clearly not living below the poverty line

    You are clearly mistaking here.

    Besides, belonging to the working class, and being oppressed in the UK does not mean starving (it has been so for some time already). Using your reasoning here, one could find that chinese factory workers doing their 60 hours week in impossible conditions are not oppressed, because they’re better off than people living in a refugee camp in East Africa. And even those east africans are quite lucky in fact, they don’t have to be beaten by some sadist kapo in an extermination camp after all.
    (And what the heck is “noble suffering”? What could”plebeian suffering” or “untitled suffering” even mean ?)

  31. I’m pretty i refereed to emic and etic perspectives for a reason, noting that both self-explanation and outside analysis is required, but thanks for the lecture anyway.

  32. Al West says, It is also quite clear that by any reasonable definition of the term, the events in London and other British cities over the past week qualify as ‘rioting’. To deny this would be to engage in some Orwellian linguistic programme for the purposes of advancing a left-wing agenda. Why not just describe?

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the events are not riots, but that language has an effect. As Al West notes, if we chose to call them “protests” we’d be making a political decision with a lot of built-in ideology. The same is true of “riots,” regardless of the accuracy of the term. It is indeed probably the term best fit to describe the events, but we can’t “just describe” because nothing is ever just description.

  33. Hm…
    By rioting, these young men can become lords of the town, getting respect either by dint of their capacity for violence or the amassing of wealth through theft. I expect that this impulse is also behind movements like the EDL. Rioting and looting satisfy basic urges to be important. I have no doubt that this feels fun. I can imagine being in a similar position.

    I’m not sure what a “basic” urge is, but otherwise, how is this not a spot-on description of political action undertaken by a class of society? Just like with the bottle-throwing boy earlier, this seems to support the opposite of the intended argument.

  34. @Adam,

    Sure, it’s kind of class-based, but not in the sense that the riots resulted from real oppression by anyone else. The desire for prestige, power, and authority didn’t come from anywhere else but the vain attitudes of the rioters themselves. They’re not working class heroes, fighting on behalf of a class, trying to rid evil oppressors from their community. They’re just young men who want more respect than they are getting, despite not having worked to earn that respect by mainstream British standards. It is irrelevant whether they are ‘working class’ or disaffected Oxbridge graduates who expected more from their degrees. What is relevant is the fact that their actions are widely considered a moral failing, and are not the noble actions of people whose lives have been blighted by oppression. In fact, the wider society, in the form of the business-owning tax-payers who fund state education, healthcare, and benefits and in the form of the government and populace itself, has only enabled these young men. They may have been let down in other ways, however, none of them to do with oppression by tax-payers.

    I spoke to a Cebuano friend recently. He would jump for joy and never stop to be given the advantages in life ‘suffered’ by young British men – a good, free education in a world language, a system of benefits, safe streets (certainly by Philippine standards!), police whose abuses are really rather slight if even present at all (seven police shootings, most entirely justified, in the last three years in the whole of England, for instance), a government whose corruptions are widely reported rather than hushed up, a wide range of educational support opportunities for making the leap to sixth form and university, free access to the internet and the entire world of learning, in libraries, throughout the city on WiFi (through BlackBerrys, which most owned, mobiles, laptops), etc… These young men were not oppressed in any meaningful sense. They had their reasons for acting; it is up to you as to whether you think they are any good or not, or whether they were morally justified. I care less about the morality of it than finding true causal explanations.

    Calling the desire for unwarranted prestige a ‘class’ action is superfluous, in any case.

  35. Of course, and 333 deaths in police custody in 11 (1998-2010) years without any police officer being convicted is certainly not something anyone could possibly consider abusive in any meaningful sense of the term.

    http://www.ipcc.gov.uk/news/Pages/pr_031210_deathsincustodystudy.aspx

    And it’s not like half the children in parts of Tottenham grow up below the poverty line . And is Mark Duggan really dead after all ?

    Oh, and look at these chinese people who rioted for prestige yesterday :

    http://latestchina.com/article/?rid=43555

    “the clash in Qianxi broke out after officials tried to confiscate an electric-powered bicycle, injuring the female owner.”

    And about a month ago, in the same chinese city, a riot again : http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/world/9926939/hundreds-riot-in-china-over-vendors-death/

    All these prestige-hungry people, that’s scary. Luckily the police is here to keep this desire for unwarranted prestige in check.

  36. According to Alain Bertho, professor of anthropology at the University of Paris 8, there have been over 1000 riots in the world since January 2011. He has been tracking the worldwide trend in what he sees as a breakdown of state legitimacy. Police abuse is the spark for the majority of these riots and the police instantiates the legitimate exercise of state power. What the rioters are saying by their actions is that the state lacks legitimate authority. Its a crisis of the state’s legitimacy on a worldwide scale. See Bertho’s recent media appearances where he discusses the UK riots in the broader context of the states global crisis of legitimacy, in French http://berthoalain.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/interventions-dalain-bertho-sur-les-emeutes-anglaises-d%E2%80%99aout-2011/

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