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#riotwhitewash – Sofia Himmelblau responds to her critics

August 12, 2011

Postscript – A Response to Comments
Dr. Sofia Himmelblau
(This was written as a response to various comments made regarding my previous post and has also been reposted there)

My previous 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.

Sofia. x

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Jan Pinkman permalink
    August 12, 2011 8:39 am

    “Feral Elites”
    The UFSO and The Telegraph are in perfect alignment:
    Interesting times!

  2. Andy Wilbur permalink
    August 12, 2011 8:45 am

    Thanks for the clarifications. Much of what you say above makes sense, and there’s plenty to agree with. My problem with the original article stems from the fact that you seemed to want to apply some preformulated theory to a situation that you gave every indication of not knowing much about, given that virtually everybody who participated in one of the clean-ups contradicted your interpretation. A more direct discussion on the way that the issue was handled by the media would have been welcome. You, however, chose to aim your ire at the individuals involved. I know there’s a disclaimer at the beginning which says that you don’t want to denigrate anybody who genuinely went out to help, but the implication that there were more sinister workings afoot seem to be unfounded. Unless, of course, you keep the focus exclusively on the media and political treatment of the scenario. But that separation needs to be made clear.

    Any real opportunity to enter dialogue about this seems a bit wasted, though, when you close with lines referring to ‘those who don’t like their world view questioned’ and wanting existing opinions confirmed. I think a lot of people think you just got the basic facts of this piece wrong, and massively miscalculated in using ‘evidence’ that didn’t support your theory. I very much doubt that your article will have attracted much attention from people who would otherwise be reading the Daily Mail. If that’s the cheap shot you want to part on, though, then fine. But I’ll try to get one last word in and affirm that none of this made me question my worldview or had me seeking refuge in less radical ideology. If you really want to challenge people then you need to try harder, relying less on banal stereotypes and arguments that are actually comfortably familiar to anybody who’s completed a social science degree in the last 10 years.

  3. Lynne Friedli permalink
    August 12, 2011 8:59 am

    Your final point is the most important one; there is a desperate need for some alternative analysis of riots and looting, and more generally for some respite from the deafening silence around class. The existence of the University for Strategic Optimism is one of the few bright spots in a bleak morass of right wing certainties and the dehumanising discourse that passes for common sense among politicians of all persuasions.

  4. aridtrax permalink
    August 12, 2011 9:09 am

    I think one can safely say that when a UofSO post gets 13000 views, something political is happening.

  5. Roger permalink
    August 12, 2011 11:00 am

    Sofia, I haven’t read the whole post ( REALLY LONG!) but I agree with you. The hegemony of middle-class philistinism in this country is appalling, to use a very British term. And it works for the benefit of the tories.


    • Andy Wilbur permalink
      August 12, 2011 12:16 pm

      Or, ‘I couldn’t be arsed reading the whole thing but from what I gather it criticises a nebulous group of people that I happen not to like. Thumbs up!’

  6. Dean permalink
    August 12, 2011 12:07 pm

    Welcome to the Big Broom Society. Our motto: ‘Sweeping social problems under the carpet’. Middle class, well educated people with good jobs and mortgages will simply no longer stand for loutish behaviour in deprived inner city areas with good transport links. These hooligans care nothing for rising property values in their own communities
    For disturbing instance of racist vigilante action see:

    What is interesting is that the EDL camera guy identifies with ‘Cameron’s Big Society’ (‘vs the looters’)

  7. Lindsay permalink
    August 12, 2011 1:33 pm

    Dr. Sofia Himmelblau responds to her critics by writing the article she should have written in the first place but then destroys any credibility by having a juvenile pop at anyone who disagrees with her at the end.

    I’m sorry I called you an academic Sofia, you are so clearly not.

    • flashbank permalink*
      August 12, 2011 5:21 pm

      I’ll take that as a compliment, though I doubt you meant it as such.

      • Lindsay permalink
        August 14, 2011 8:23 am

        Well, that’s it in a nutshell isn’t it? You take things how you want, rather than how they are intended, and then run with them to fit an absurd theory. Sounds to me like you are the one who doesn’t like your worldview to be challenged.

  8. Donna Beprovoked permalink
    August 15, 2011 6:10 am

    Dear Doc Sofa Blueheaven,
    The saddest bit of this apologia is where you ‘justify’ appointing yourself as the Big Broom of political theory: “…somebody has to make the argument…”. Be kind to yourself dear. Remember that your shock at the hegemony’s mindgames is just another distraction and that you are NOT alone.

  9. August 15, 2011 12:26 pm

    I agree with the general gist of your aims and commentary, but clearly and blatantly and obviously cropping out an inconvenient context is not good. Just say you made a mistake, got found out, and leave it at that without further treacle-like justifying-polemic. And accept, as everyone is so keen on cliche-ing these days – “Lessons Have Been Learnt”. Yeah? OK? Mmmm?

  10. Charles White permalink
    August 18, 2011 5:34 pm

    Only a few days ago apologists for the rioters were blaming poor education for the rioters dismal prospects in life. Abysmal figures about thousands of kids leaving school barely able to read and write were bandied about. Poor education, we were told, is why the rioters are “marginalised” and have “no stake in society” – which is why they have to steal, TVs and burn down shops.

    But, today the A-level results are out, and people are dancing with joy, for today, all is well with the education system. This year, like every year has seen more pupils passing more exams, at higher grades than ever before.

    The same people who peddled the “the poor education” excuse for the rioters will now angrily dismiss anyone questioning the A-level results as a mean spirited curmudgeon. We are asked to simultaneously believe two contradicting views – a classic example of Orwellian doublethink.


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