Tariq Ali on riots in England: Why here and now?; Neoliberalism’s chickens coming home to roost

By Tariq Ali, London

August 9, 2011 -- Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause? Pure accident? Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life?

The ruling Conservative Party-Liberal Democrats (Con-Dem) coalition politicians (including new New Labour, who might well sign up to a national government if the recession continues apace) with their petrified ideologies can’t say that because all three parties are equally responsible for the crisis.

They made the mess.

They privilege the wealthy. They let it be known that judges and magistrates should set an example by giving punitive sentences to protesters found with peashooters.

They never seriously question why no policeman is ever prosecuted for the 1000-plus deaths in custody since 1990.

Whatever the party, whatever the skin colour of the MP, they spout the same clichés.

Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong.

But why is it happening now? Why didn’t it happen last year?

Because grievances build up over time, because when the system wills the death of a young black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.

And it might get worse if the politicians and the business elite, with the support of the tame state television and Murdoch networks, fail to deal with the economy, and punish the poor and the less well-off for government policies they have been promoting for more than three decades.

Dehumanising the "enemy", at home or abroad, creating fear and imprisonment without trial cannot work for ever.

Were there a serious political opposition party in this country it would be arguing for dismantling the shaky scaffolding of the neoliberal system before it crumbles and hurts even more people.

Throughout Europe, the distinguishing features that once separated centre-left from centre-right, conservatives from social democrats, have disappeared.

The sameness of official politics dispossesses the less privileged segments of the electorate, the majority.

The young unemployed or semi-employed blacks in Tottenham and Hackney, Enfield and Brixton know full well that the system is stacked against them.

The politicians’ braying has no real impact on most people, let alone those lighting the fires in the streets. The fires will be put out.

There will be some pathetic inquiry or other to ascertain why Mark Duggan was shot dead, regrets will be expressed, there will be flowers from the police at the funeral.

The arrested protesters will be punished and everyone will heave a sigh of relief and move on till it happens again.

[Reprinted from the London Review of Books blog, via Green Left Weekly.]

Tariq Ali blames youth unemployment, alienation for riots

August 10, 2011 -- The World Today (ABC) -- British social commentator Tariq Ali tells Matt Peacock that although the current wave of rioting is new because of the speed with which it has spread and the use of social media, the causes remain similar to earlier disturbances in Britain. It's an expression of anger by unemployed and disenfranchised youth, harrasssed by a police force which itself might be sending a message to government over planned cuts.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: It's not the first time that the UK has experienced this sort of rioting, and according to the leading British commentator, Tariq Ali, nor will it be the last.

Similar disturbances broke out decades ago across the country in protest against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax and there have been other riots in the country's mostly black ghettos.

But what is new is the speed with which the clashes have spread and the slow police response.
Tariq Ali says it could be a none-too-subtle warning to the government about its police cutbacks.
And while he agrees that the current violence is opportunistic and lacks any coherent political motive he told our reporter Matt Peacock it's nonetheless an expression of anger by a generation of unemployed and disenfranchised young people.

TARIQ ALI: What it reflects in my opinion is a growing demoralisation, bitterness on the part of kids who are without work -- it's mainly unemployed kids -- and they see absolutely no hope in the future and do not believe anything that politicians say to them.

It's that layer of society which is using this event to show their discontent.

MATT PEACOCK: One of your colleagues described it as sheer urban machismo -- like it's not coordinated with any sort of political intent?

TARIQ ALI: It is not directly political. No political groups are involved.

But when you hear young people airing their grievances what they say is they've been without work for 10 years, some of them have said that police harassment has become excessive over the last two years in particular, especially as far as young black kids are concerned and Muslim kids, and that this is an expression of anger.

It is inchoate, it's not organised, and it's interesting what they go for in all these areas.
They go for shops with trainers and shoes and they go for mobile phone shops.

These are the shops that are targeted, raided and all the stuff pinched which bears out the general view that these are essentially kids from very poor families.

MATT PEACOCK: Most of the flashpoints have been as you've said areas with high unemployment, yet that's not likely to be fixed any time soon, in fact the trend is the other way, I mean I saw a figure last year - the richest 1000 in Britain grew richer by 30 per cent.

TARIQ ALI: Exactly right and the same process is taking place in the United States and the politicians don't care.

We don't have an opposition party in this country, we have two parties already in a coalition and the third pretty desperate to become part of that coalition officially, the way they talk and the way they behave.
You see the politicians, they say virtually the same thing. They're criminals, there's nothing more to be said and we're going to find them.

And then they're saying perhaps we should have a curfew. The Labour leader said parents should keep their children indoors.

I almost rang his mother who'd an old friend of mine and said,"Could you get your boy in?"

MATT PEACOCK: Sporting fixtures have now been cancelled, a lot of them. Is that going to make things worse or better?

TARIQ ALI: Well, it's a reaction to the fact that London is out of control.

I think they will get the city back into control very quickly now but they have to cancel these sporting fixtures and underlying that of course is the real fear of the government which is that will this put off people coming to the Olympics next year?

Because there's absolutely no doubt that people are planning huge demonstrations and actions during the Olympics because as usual a lot of money has been spent which hasn't been available for other projects, places have been knocked down, allotments have been got rid of to prepare London for the Olympics and there's talk of making the roads exclusive roads for Olympic participants at key points.

So there's a great deal of disquiet about that.

But even more than that disquiet there's now a fear that what if these riots start again next year? What is going to happen?

And today there was talk that maybe during the Olympics the army should be placed in charge of key points. Well that's interesting.

MATT PEACOCK: And what of the police? They seem to have been caught a little unawares and under-strength, apart from triggering the original rioting I guess with the incident with Mark Duggan. What of their role since?

TARIQ ALI: Well more of them are out on the streets. All police leave has been cancelled.

But friends of mine who are in Hackney, which is an important mixed area in the east end of London, and people who were walking the streets last night and observing things said the police did not intervene at all.
And the general view was that this was the police getting its back on a government which has said that it's because of austerity measures the police force has to be cut down to size, recruitment has been limited, et cetera, et cetera.

So there is that view too that the police deliberately went on a go slow in some areas to show the government this is what happens when you don't give us enough resources.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The British commentator Tariq Ali speaking to Matt Peacock.

Con-Dem chickens come home to roost

By Socialist Resistance

August 8, 2011 -- The first year of David Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition was marked by austerity; massive inequality; rapid impoverishment of millions of people; corruption in the media, police and politicians; destruction of public services. Its second year looks set to be marked by massive industrial action and open conflict with the state in the poorest parts of British cities by the people with least to lose. That is the significance of the riots that have been taking place in London.

The immediate causes were two actions by the police. The first of these was the killing by armed officers of Mark Duggan and the subsequent treatment of his family. A justifiably angry demonstration gathered outside the local police station on August 6. It was the police behaviour then that detonated the riot, a fact that has been omitted from virtually all the subsequent reporting.

As this eye witness account makes plain the police attacked a 16-year-old girl with batons. This video clip captures something of the violence of the police behaviour. It was virtually inevitable that aggression of that sort would provoke a paroxysm of rage among the local community.

Neoliberalism’s chickens are coming home to roost. Haringey council’s £41 million cuts devastated the borough’s youth provision. Only last month the local MP David Lammy demanded government action to deal with a 10% rise in unemployment in Tottenham was now has 10,514 people seeking work. Local residents have been saying in interviews that thousands of people in their late 20s have never been able to find a job. It’s no surprise then that the shops selling designer sportswear, mobile phones and state of the art TVs and MP3 players are being looted by people who know that they’ll never earn enough to buy these things.

The capitalists can’t have it both ways. On one hand they say you need these things for status and to feel fulfilled and on the other most of the jobs on offer pay poverty wages on short-term contacts.

By contrast the very rich have never had it so good in living memory. The High Pay Commission reported on August 8 that executives in FTSE 100 companies received average annual pensions worth around £175,000. The average British pension is a paltry £5860 and the Con-Dems want to make working people poorer still. At the same time they are hell bent on transferring vast sums of money to the 300 000 people who pay the top rate of 50% tax on earnings over £150 000. London Mayor Boris Johnson has called for it to be scrapped and his millionaire chum George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer has said he wants to get rid of it.

These things may not have been on the minds of the teenagers who were grabbing £100 trainers from JD sports. What they did know was that there are people out there who have wealth and privilege and are using their power to keep millions of people poor. A riot is a spasm of destructive anger and inarticulate protest but it is one of the ways the voiceless make themselves heard. In the autumn the unions and the radical left have to make their voices heard and start rolling back the Con-Dem offensive against our class.


Tariq Ali has his finger firmly on the pulse as always and his diagnosis is much nearer to the mark than that of the witch doctors of the Murdoch tainted mainstream media

August 10, 2011
by flashbank


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.


The looting and rioting had nothing at all to do with the killing of Mark Duggan. That was the spark. The bonfire had been prepared by years of neglect, fueled by the anger of young men with no stake in the system, angry at everybody and quick to exploit fury at the killing of a local man, even if he did allegedly fire at the police officer first.