#riotcleanup or #riotwhitewash?
Some thoughts from Dr. Sofia Himmelblau:
It’s going to take more than posturing, ‘blitz-spirit’, keep-calm-and-carry-on clap-trap and colonial Kipling-esque “keeping your head” to fix this mess. The strikingly middle-class, broadly white efforts to sweep issues of inequality under the carpet of a simulated big-society photo-op has been a telling, if little discussed, aspect of the recent rioting, making little headway in the scramble of blogposts and tweets attempting hasty analyses of the unfolding turmoil. This doughty bunch of volunteer cleaners, the substitution for a non-existent community, appeared right on cue to fill the media narrative all day following a night of London’s most extensive social unrest in decades. Even Mayor Boris had leisurely returned from holiday to be snapped with the broom-wielding bourgeoisie of Clapham as they amassed for a bit of symbolic social cleansing.
For all the passive-aggressive conscience salving however, the outraged ensemble with their newly purchased brooms still need to face up to the rampant inequalities and social exclusion that a gentrification of urban neighbourhoods (usually by them) exacerbates. This is particularly true of the apparent organiser of the original twitter campaign that lay behind ‘the great clean-up’, who in his day job runs the overly-simplistic, tirelessly self-promotional Art in Empty Shops gentrification consultancy. This individual, the ‘artistic director’ of Revolutionary Arts (haha) and originator of the Empty Shops network has spent the last few years renting out the simulacrum of social cohesion with a jauntily angled hat. Advising councils and artists on how to use art to keep vacant properties warm whilst the market is depressed and make sure that the capital locked up in them doesn’t depreciate, he has given rise to all manner of ‘pop-up’ events organised to paper over the cracks in the broken big-society fantasy of a jolly ‘local community’ which appears stuck in the 1940s. These decorative efforts have largely only succeeded in covering over the disintegration of localised economies with twee décor, whilst huge-scale retail barns appear on the outskirts of said communities, sucking up the life from within them, causing more and more neighbourhood shops to be abandoned. It is no coincidence that the primary target of rioters, despite a media-narrative keen to play up the social impact of these events on small retailers, was large retail warehouse stores that cling parasitically to neighbourhoods at the periphery of inner cities. These are stores that far from being the ‘heart of the community’, largely suck wealth out of it into overseas tax havens. This time the chap behind the empty shops network applied his big-society sticking plaster to the social destruction (which his gentrification agenda directly feeds into) and the devastation wrought by widespread internecine urban conflict.
Art and brooms isn’t going to fix this particular problem however, only the radical redistribution of wealth and a society not defined around the individual accumulation of property is going to do that. It’s not 1940, the destruction of the urban fabric is not wrought by foreign bombs, but by kids from the broom-brigade’s own neighbourhoods. They can pretend to pick up a few bits of litter for the cameras, but that is a fact that can not be wiped away so easily.
Behind the thinly veiled symbolism of social cleansing/cleaning up the area – for which read gentrification and further exclusion/segregation – emerged the rhetorical division between ‘real’ Londoners and therefore their opposite, ‘inauthentic’ Londoners. Effectively, the idea that ‘these people’, the rioters, were somehow non-citizens was therefore entrenched. All of the twitter commentary that supposedly organised the clean-up events (or was it the Young Conservatives Clapham branch?) parroted the same ideological soundbites – this is the ‘real London’, this is the ‘true London’ blah, blah, yawn, blah. In doing so it established a discourse that serves primarily to divide those, who in the words of Henri Lefebvre (and later David Harvey), have ‘the right to the city’ from those who do not, but also from those who can expect to be treated as citizens under the rule of law, and those who are excluded by virtue of their status as non-citizens.
When the rioting spread so far and so wide that the narrative claiming that it was all caused by ‘outsiders’ and ‘trouble-makers’ from elsewhere coming into the area became untenable, another, still more sinister discourse unfolded. The destruction was instead the work of ‘feral rats’, ‘apes’ and ‘animals’, sub-humans who were therefore strategically positioned by the language of carefully edited media loops, depicting the same self-righteous soundbites, to take the place of rhetorically excluded non-citizens. As non-citizens, these were people who could expect no protection therefore, from the coming ‘all necessary measures’ that the media agenda was simultaneously lining-up to be unleashed – in other words they would be subjected to a renewed and increased state violence. Like the taxonomies of colonialism and the language that surrounded Haussmann’s attacks on the Parisian working class in the 19th century, this language exists to determine not only who has the right to the city, but whose life counts for something, is valuable, and to mark out those whose life is not.
Either the ‘community’ presented in the continually replayed displays of good-citizenship genuinely exists, in which case the rioters are as much a part of it as the sweepers, or alternatively it doesn’t actually exist and its appearance serves merely as a convenient ideological fiction (the tv spectacles of people in Clapham with brushes who more than likely never had a conversation with each other before tend to point more towards the latter…).
In areas such as Clapham which, beneath the surface, are so strongly divided and segregated along class lines by years of gentrification, perhaps it is wishful thinking to even claim there exists such a thing as community in any meaningful sense. If it does exist, as this episode illustrates, this community certainly appears to be one that cannot operate other than by the exclusion of certain individuals, by the rhetorical and indeed physical expulsion of non-citizens and ‘feral rats’, from within its midst. Such a community, predicated upon exclusion, was how Carl Schmitt defined society (and he was a Nazi). This community therefore, that comes together over their dustpan and brushes only does so in the specific exclusion of their Other. This Other, the poor, often BME youths that have felt compelled to acts of nihilistic aggression against a society that marginalises them and offers no future, but amongst which and as part of which they live, are rhetorically excluded rather than be considered as equals. They are to be cast out rather than be kept within society. Surely for a community to exist in any desirable sense however, all of it’s constituents need to be treated as part of that community rather than expelled and excluded, even if this means they exist in antagonistic relation, as internal, acknowledged and equally valid members of that community, and not cast outside as excluded Others, as non-citizens.
By the symbolic cleaning, cleansing and casting out of the rioters from the community, the sweepers appear to enact the closest thing to popular fascism that we have seen on the streets of certain ‘leafy’ bits of London for years. I do not wish to denigrate people who want to help each other out as best they can or to express their social solidarity in some way, but this cannot be at the expense of further exclusion and segregation. Similarly I do not wish to applaud those causing suffering to people with whom they share their neighbourhoods, indeed their communities, often hurting those in an equally disadvantaged state as themselves. However, the rhetoric of ‘real’ citizen and non-citizen can not be allowed to stand unchallenged, opening as it does a certain state of exception – much like the discourse around the war on terror that has been so convenient for, and so enthusiastically embraced by, governments across the world – a discourse that legitimises a level of oppression against excluded groups. In the case of the war on terror, in Western countries at least, this was Muslims, although in Syria the state likewise seeks to label those that wish to overthrow it, or to question its authority, as terrorists, and hence legitimate targets for its violence.
In the case of London today it is a certain underclass that the state seeks to rhetorically denigrate and cast out, the very people who are already under attack from all sides in terms of a hostile media, benefit cuts, unemployment, lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of educational opportunities and police racism and aggression. In a scaling up of the afore mentioned community politics evidenced in Clapham, the British state attempts to cast a whole class of people as enemies within, responsible for all manner of society’s ills through their ‘feckless’, ‘immoral’ and ‘animalistic’ behaviour. In doing so they seek to create a group that all of those who are ‘all in it together’ can hate equally, and around which the illusion of the big society can coalesce. This reveals the big society as the bourgeois project that it always was all along – defined in opposition to an excluded underclass for whom the public services and welfare that it seeks to dismantle were essential. The underclass now serves little purpose for the ruling elite or the bourgeoisie other than as a conveniently excluded Other, usefully legitimising the Right’s authoritarian entrenchment of state power whilst ex-progressives look on cheering and waving brooms in the air.
What we need instead of this exclusionary illusion of community is rather a social solidarity that is non-exclusionary, that never panders to fascist rhetoric and that works together in striving for a truly democratic and egalitarian society. What unites us should not be a common hated or fear but a common humanity. When we acknowledge this we can surely then unite in common struggle against forces that would seek to divide us against ourselves, attempting as they do to divert our anger, even whilst they partition our access to the vital means by which to live full and fulfilling lives, simply according to our perceived usefulness to capital.
Postscript – A Response to Comments
This post has appears to have sparked a huge amount of controversy compared to anything else previously published on this blog. The average amount of views for a piece posted on this blog is usually somewhere around the low hundreds, so far this post has had around 13,000 views and counting- as well as many passionately argued comments both in favour and against. Due to this response I therefore felt that I should briefly respond to some of the issues raised.
This post appears to have sparked a huge amount of controversy compared to anything else previously published on this blog. The average amount of views for a piece posted on this blog is usually somewhere around the low hundreds, so far this post has had around 13,000 views and counting- as well as many passionately argued comments both in favour and against. Due to this response I therefore felt that I should briefly respond to some of the issues raised.
- The post does not make the accusation that those cleaning up their streets are in some way all fascists, the point that it does make, and that I stand by, is that significant sections of the public discourse surrounding both the clean-up, and the response to the riots more broadly, has come from an implicitly, and occasionally explicitly, far right direction. As stated in the post, the language of ‘rats’, ‘scum’ and various other dehumanising rhetoric, applied only not to rioters but often implicitly, and occasionally explicitly, to whole sections of society bears this out. The Left is often accused of crying ‘fascist’ too lightly (often particularly by those who feel stung by the accusation), and whilst I agree that this may on occasions be true, in this case however I feel that the strength of terminology is borne out by much of the political response that has sought to solely blame the moral, cultural and physiological (ie.’sickness’) deviancy of sections of society rather than examine any structural socio-economic issues within society as a whole that may lay behind the unrest. To paraphrase a somewhat over-quoted line – with their photo-op response to the unrest, the media are seeking to aestheticise politics; in my blog post on the other hand, I was seeking to politicise their aesthetics, to draw out what it is within it that has clearly political overtones. Contrary to what the Right claim, to examine socio-economic issues such as inequality and gentrification is not a moral deviancy either, it is also patently not somehow an excusing of the genuine human misery or suffering caused by rioting, in fact I would argue conversely that to take the very position which the politicians and media are falling over each other to adopt, dismissing debate about economic and social exclusion, is in fact an incredibly immoral- if you want to follow a consistent logic of morality -excusing of the genuine human misery and suffering wrought through their economic policies over the past 30 years. The far right nature of their discourse, the state of exception which I have argued they seek to create (and which via the media has been widely adopted by the public at large) is evidenced in the fact that their response to the unrest is to call for militarised policing, politicised sentencing, and further social exclusion. The far right dimension is likewise more superficially evident in the fact that just such a rhetoric has already brought gangs of far right EDL supporters onto the streets of SE London, who have clashed with police whilst looking to hunt down and attack those they deem responsible for the unrest (and we can guess, and as is evidenced by several accounts of the disturbances, the specific demographic they will be seeking to target). It is likewise indicative that the individual who Cameron was so keen to trumpet for starting a facebook Met police fan club has been proven to be an out and out racist. That is not to say that everyone that joined the group was a racist, that is clearly untrue, but it is simply to point out what motivates much of the public discourse is often very far from being ideologically neutral.
- We now hear that many people are clamouring for those convicted for their part in the unrest to be stripped of their entitlement to claim state support in terms of benefits and access to housing, several councils have stated that they intend to take this position (although I am not sure of the legal ramifications). This is a further extension of the state of exception that I mentioned, a further exclusion from citizenship such as I have described, and it represents the thin end of the wedge. In calling for such a policy not only is the implication made that those who rioted can be directly correlated in the public perception with benefits claimants (and in terms of housing this also clearly feeds into a certain far right discourse that has been bubbling under the surface in recent years regarding access to housing and immigration), but it also represents the further dismantling of the principle of universalism in the welfare state. What next? all those with a criminal conviction stripped of benefits? Further down the line perhaps access to healthcare on the NHS? What are the implications of this when you consider that the government’s social policies have often resulted in the criminalisation en masse of a large section of certain socio-economic or racial groups? It potentially implies the declaration of whole swathes of people as non-citizens, even further excluded from society. Whilst this might be popular on the Right, I fail to see how this can not lead to further poverty, resentment and logically further crime and social unrest.
- Contrary to most of the commentary on my post, some perhaps from people that didn’t read further than the title, this post was not primarily about race but class. To whitewash something, although it connotes a certain racial dimension in this case, more broadly, as we all know, means to cover over, to conceal or to mask. This is what I argue the mainstream discourse, in this instance through its co-option of the clean-up activities, has been keen to do in the wake of the riots. And whilst that mainstream discourse has been so keen to close down any discussion on the events through anything other than a moral framework, it fails by its own logic. I would wager that the average haul of a looter caught up in the recent unrest would weigh in significantly below the average fraudulent expenses claim made by MPs in the recent controversy. Let’s take Michael Gove, clearly appearing outraged in various media appearances at all of the theft that has gone on. This is the man who got his houses mixed up in order to steal £7000 (or £13000 depending on which house was the real one) from the taxpayer. Perhaps he should be stripped of his entitlement to housing? – but then it might not bother him too much, he’s a millionaire. Or there is Hazel Blears, also moralising in the extreme, who also couldn’t remember where she lived and managed to loot £18,000 from the public purse. All those flatscreen TVs looted must look familiar to Gerald Kaufman, who fiddled the rules to the tune of an £8,000 flatscreen TV himself. Or Jeremy Hunt, who having obtained £22,000 by dubious means generously agreed to pay back half the money before going on to negotiate a fatally flawed stitch-up with Murdoch over BskyB which to many looked somewhat corrupt. Perhaps the looters should also be allowed to pay back half of what they took? Hmmm, clearly I am being facetious but you get the idea, perhaps the politicians should leave the moralising to the moral and concentrate on what after all is their (well remunerated) job, ie. social and economic policy – an area that unlike morality, they can directly influence, and that ultimately is a significant factor in the recent unrest. Cameron claims that this was ‘pure criminality’ but even if we take him at his word we must therefore assume that he has never read any criminology, the overwhelming majority of which would point to a significant and proven link between poverty, inequality and crime. The main difference it seems to me between theft of pair of trainers or Ed Vaizey’s £2,000 in antique furniture mistakenly ‘delivered to the wrong address’ appears to be a matter of class. You might state that these riots were not an act of class warfare, and I would be inclined to agree with you, but the response to them from the media and mainstream public discourse most definitely has been. Just because the rioters themselves may not have had a conscious or unconscious class motivation, although that is debatable, does not mean that the response to them has not. We have seen an uncompromising and ‘robust’ reassertion of control and order in a physical sense but also of social order in an ideological sense, by a bourgeoisie that felt threatened. If you cannot see the class dynamic at play here you either are not looking hard enough, you don’t want to see it, or you buy into the glib Blairite assertion that Britain is somehow now a classless society. You might believe that to be the case, but I would have to disagree.
- As for the Empty Shops Network, perhaps it was unfair to single that guy out alone, I have been aware of the ESN for about two years and have taken some interest in their activities, of which I have been somewhat critical for the reasons stated in the post. I do not claim to be an expert on their activities however, and if anyone behind the group would care to explain more fully what their activities entail I would be happy to enter a discussion with them and to put their side of the story across on the blog as well as simply my critique.
- In terms of the vitriol expressed below by those who don’t like their world view questioned, perhaps they would care to tune in instead to the overwhelming majority of media and public discourse presented on this issue which will no doubt reassuringly confirm their ideological positions. With Labour and the (il)Liberal Democrats seeking to outflank the Tories on the right, somebody has to make the argument for seeing these traumatic events as a catalyst for more and not less equality, social justice, and indeed just plain justice (note this is not the same thing as shooting looters on sight or locking them up and throwing away the key), an argument that mainstream politics is so demonstratively unwilling to make. Like I say, if you don’t like it, there is plenty of other commentary out there you can read that will confirm your existing opinions.