The real surprise about riots from London to Birmingham and Manchester, is not that London is burning, but that Paris, New York, and Rome aren't – yet. But who knows what's next? And who knows what should be next?
1. The rioting isn't strategically brilliant, but it isn't hooliganism.
The rioting is incensed, desperate, and warranted outrage. It is spawned by escalating policy-based rip offs piled on top of persistent systemic social injustice. Does it deserve the label resistance? Should we call it rebellion? Whether or not the ashes are that exalted, they are not hooliganism. Truth be told, even real hooliganism – like what happens at some football games – is most often displaced anger at stunted life circumstances. This doesn't mean everything happening in the streets is fine. Of course not. It means (a) much worse things are happening all the time, causing these acts, and (b) some aspects of even the most reflexive acts are not only understandable, they are, in context, given limited options, at least in one respect informed. Witness the extent of coverage for this, compared to earlier peaceful demonstrations. Of course, most of the coverage is not sincere, but motivated to incite violent sentiments in the broader public, fueling repression and perhaps even fascistic policies. When mainstream media moguls excoriate riots, they ought to also excoriate themselves for enforcing conditions that produce riots. When the left criticizes riots, it ought to also criticize itself for not producing movements through which people can confidently manifest struggle more constructively than by rioting.
2. The broken windows and burning buildings aren't violence.
Flying bricks and lit matches express frustration, unleash pent-up passions, and evidence unmet desires to stand in the flow of society as actual participants, not just as victims. Are the bricks violent assaults on some property? Yes, they are. Are the bricks violence, the way media use of that word implies? No, they are not. Similarly is burning buildings violence against property? Yes, it is. More, when that property is owned by small shopkeepers, and even harms poor people's homes, is the burning disgusting? Yes, of course it is. But we wouldn't call the flailing self defense of a person who lacks tools for protecting themselves, but who is trying to ward off a mugger, violence. We would call it desperate defense. We should not call the flailing acts of young people throwing bricks against a barbaric system because they lack tools for manifesting their powers in any better way, violence. We should call it desperate defense. And for anyone who has ever bought the notion of collateral damage from governments who used it to rationalize antiseptically bombing thousands and even millions of people into exile and death, to castigate whole communities for some witless match wielding, is, honestly, obscene.
3. The theft isn't even theft.
Are things being stolen, so that technically there is something many gray flannel people carrying dictionaries can in a technical sense rightfully call theft? Yes, of course. Is that technical theft merely criminal, however, or is it a warranted, albeit meagre and confused, redistribution? The latter. When the poor, who are locked out of commerce, try to take back means of life, it is redistribution, not theft, and this remains true even when it is clumsy and largely self-defeating. Conversely, when the rich legally use job speed up, unemployment, cutbacks, tax breaks, government aid, contracts, banks, and finally police to grab and hold most of society's wealth for themselves, while the poor get nearly nothing – even when done with great panache, it is merely capitalist exploitation on a gargantuan scale. If stealing by the poor makes one cringe and cry out – but exploiting by the rich feels like background noise to be ignored – there is a problem. For that matter, the passion displayed in the streets by those who are smashing down windows and trying to abscond with TVs (or food) is itself also grabbing for a sense of efficacy, dignity, influence, and even solidarity and belonging, however minimal and however brief, as against the norm of a long battered, submissive march toward lonely death, starting at about the age of fifteen, made bearable only by private courage and creativity against society's impositions.
As soon as you're born they make you feel small,
By giving you no time instead of it all,
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all,
They hurt you at home and they hit you at school,
They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool,
Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules,
When they've tortured and scared you for twenty odd years,
Then they expect you to pick a career,
When you can't really function you're so full of fear,
A working class hero is something to be
The endless debates now gracing London media about what is motivating people who are fighting police, breaking buildings, burning cars, and taking commodities that TV says everyone needs but that they are denied, is morally and motivationally disgusting, like almost everything else that passes for discussion, debate, and thought among the educated sectors, much less that passes for analysis or wisdom in corporate newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV. Could the hypocrisy be any clearer? Does anyone who can manage to escape endless hammering by the ad driven, fad frenzied, idiot wind of mass culture, and by the conforming pressures of regimented and fearful capitalist daily life, doubt this? If you don't understand, read the John Lennon lyrics above and below. Feel them.
Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV,
And you think you're so clever and classless and free,
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see,
There's room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill,
A working class hero is something to be
The question arises: Now what? As steadily increasing anguish turns into steadily escalating anger in steadily more locales, what can come of it? For that matter, what should come of it?
The former question is easier. What can come of it? Broadly, two things.
First, pessimistically, the tally of achievement could be much noise and disturbance and some broken and bashed establishments and messed up streets that eventually peters out into exhaustion and collapse. Some commodities will have been redistributed – but actually very little. Some people will have been incarcerated, but not many relative to population or even participation. Some heads will need healing – though maybe some won't be able to heal because they are literally laid to rest. Memories will later play out in some minds as moments of dignity and hope. They will play out in other minds as moments of chaos and fear. In most minds, they will not replay at all. Maybe there will also be, in this sad but quite possible scenario, a residue of resistance that can be rekindled down the road. Maybe, however, there will be a residue of increased despair based on the interpretation that we acted massively, but the bullying burial of our hopes persists.
Second, optimistically, the tally of achievement could instead be dramatically transformed consciousnesses for thousands or even millions of people. New emotional ties could be established. New organizational ties could be implemented. Growing desires could persist, inspiring a lasting mass movement with aims, methods, agendas, continuing militance, and an eagerness to struggle tirelessly to win escalating victories and even a new world.
The first thing we might ask about these two broad possibilities is: Which approach to people massively fighting against harsh policies that amidst the indignities of an already barbarically unjust system is more likely to have the optimistic than the pessimistic outcome? The approach currently unfolding in London and the UK? Or the approach still under way in Spain?
The London approach is more aggressive, more visible and in your face, but it also involves way fewer people, and probably even steadily fewer, over time, due to its tactics and tone, with, conversely, more people riled into support of the state and police. The London approach – unless it alters – doesn't organically raise matters of organization and lasting structure. It doesn't daily debate and pursue coherent demands and program. It doesn't auger creation of a lasting movement. It doesn't plant the seeds of a better future in the present.
The Spanish approach is less aggressive and in your face, but it involves more people and, at least potentially, over time steadily more people seem to become involved and supportive due to its tone and tactics, with all those involved as part of the daily protest efforts literally creating organization and lasting structure, including moving toward coherent demands and program.
We know how Mubarak would answer. The latter approach removed me. I would have prevailed over the former approach. Indeed, is there any leader in any country who wouldn't agree with him? In any corporate board room? Maybe, in some locale, at some time, sure. But in developed industrialized societies where physical confrontation is the only playing field the state is overwhelmingly better at, I don't think so.
So however hard it might be to envision, it follows that everyone needs to think about, in London and Birmingham, and maybe soon in many cities in many countries, can a gigantic outpouring of militant anger be morphed into a gigantic occupation of town centers, squares, parks, and roads, as in the Spanish model, welcoming a much wider cross section of the population, retaining it, and applying time and energy and wisdom to creating lasting ties, lasting organizations, and persisting program?
Can that happen in the UK, now? I don't know. I am not there. I doubt even those who are there know. But from a distance, and at least for my country – the U.S. – it seems essential, so I suspect it is essential for the UK too. And also essential, I think, is building organizations that the aroused, militant, and motivated people who are ready to rebel can join, make their own, and then marshall to further struggle. And also essential, I think, is that such organizations have a coherent vision of what they are trying to accomplish, both to sustain and inspire hope and to guide choices. And have a coherent program or strategy for the longish haul that will of course alter as conditions demand, as well as a coherent set of immediate demands, suited to the current crisis, able to be won, which can dramatically benefit those who are suffering, and also feed continuing desires for more gains.
All of this has to arise from discussion among the widest possible community of rebellious activists, not just those young enough and fast enough for wild in the streets rioting. But, once that discussion starts to happen, people will have to offer some suggestions about those coherent immediate demands, and then about more encompassing vision and strategy, too.
For the demands, my own thoughts are in a recent commentary: Fight Forward … http://www.zcomm.org/fight-forward-by-michael-albert