Wednesday, 10 August 2011

London riots represent triumph of the market over politics

Within four days rioting had spread from London to Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester. The spark was police shooting a young black man in Tottenham, where the disturbance started. But it's not about that death any more. "They just want to be heard," said a young black woman quoted in a Guardian story that assigned blame to society at large. "This is the only way some people have to communicate." Another story, by Laurie Penny and published in the Sydney Morning Herald, repeated the message, saying that people don't know why the riots happen "because they were not watching these communities".
In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything.
''Yes,'' said the young man. ''You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you? Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.''
But what are they communicating? The story by Laurie Penny appeared with an image of something burning in the street, but soon afterward the image changed to a shot showing youths in hoodies carrying boxes of electronic goods through the streets. There are few voices of these youths recorded by the media. There are no political slogans, no overt references to the death of Mark Duggan, which was the spark that lit the conflagration. But on one occasion youths breaking into an O2 mobile phone shop were heard shouting "O2, O2, O2". The kids carry no signs, but they're organised. They do not ask for better access to education, they take goods that have value to them. Their voices are rarely heard, but they communicate constantly on handheld devices.

If they do not respect either their parents or the police it is because that's what they've learned. If they zoom in on respected brand names in their looting it is because that's where their attention is normally focused. As Laurie Penny's story notes, "the politics are there" but these are the politics of the market, not of the public sphere as it is normally recognised by the media, politicians, trade unionists, and other institutional players in society. And it's no wonder that in the society of these youths the market has triumphed over politics, because the market has triumphed over politics everywhere globalisation touches. Which means everywhere on earth.

Loretta Napoleoni in her book Rogue Economics: Capitalism's new reality (2008) talks about the shift in power that has taken place since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989:
During major transitions, illegal businesses, which have at their disposal large service networks, can supplant national economies, while the policies of powerful governments can serve to empower organised crime. Against this scenario, we cannot avoid posing the question: has politics died?
In Britain today the disparity of wealth that exists between unemployed youth and the richest citizens is greater than it has ever been. And the way these riches have been earned has depended on the globalised market, which erodes the power of domestic politics because it operates outside local jurisdictions. You can shift money around, place it in convenient locales, and buy a house in Chelsea with the proceeds. You can make a fortune in Russia and buy a British football team. You can do anything that you want and still enjoy living in a peaceful place like central London. And people do. When he was expelled from politics in Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra retreated to his London house, where he could enjoy the proceeds of his questionable business practices in relative peace. There are hundreds of similar stories that never make it into the newspapers in Australia. But the kids on the streets in Tottenham know about these men and women because they see them every time they take the Tube into the city.

They read about them in the newspapers. But now they're reading about themselves. It's their time in the public gaze, the time of the children who are the product of decades of neo-liberal reform: privatisation, cuts to social welfare, the rise of a super-rich class of citizen. Under Labour and Conservative governments alike the result has been the same. The market has triumphed at the expense of all other institutions. That is what these kids are telling us: "This is what you told us to do. See? We are as good as you."

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