I’ve frankly been overwhelmed by the response to the post I wrote yesterday, ‘The London Riots and the Crypto-Fascist Aftermath’. Far more people read it, and far more people commented on it, than I had ever expected, so I’d like to start off by thanking everyone who did read and who did comment, even if you disagreed with me. Perhaps even especially so.
However, I don’t think my post got the situation quite right: there are some theoretical problems with it, where I haven’t clarified the crux of my argument (which is more philosophical than about politics in any direct way), and where I indulge in the postmodern identity politics that I’m meant to be criticising. Thus, I think that everybody who commented on the post made a valid point and that they deserve a response. I’m not necessarily going to respond to individual commenters. Instead, I’m going to first clarify my theoretical position (explaining why “liberals” think in the way that they do). Then I’m going to reply to particular lines of argument levelled against me (about “the rioters themselves” and “the response of the public”) and I’ll occasionally directly quote bits of individual comments that made sense.
The argument I was making was not specifically about race, class, the race or class of the rioters, or the people filmed criticising the rioters, themselves. Instead, the crux of my argument rested on how the people criticising the rioters have been using particular linguistic tropes, with particular implications and connotations that are often used to degrade people of certain race and class-backgrounds, which they would not otherwise use and which would usually not be allowed in polite society. The causes of the riots, and the response of the public, are quite complex and I wouldn’t want to be reductive in my argument by claiming that “this caused this” or “they said this because of this”. Instead, I’d like to suggest that there is a double antagonism at work here:
- Since the collapse of Communism, party politics no longer includes a strong antagonistic ideological divide between left and right, progressives and conservatives, Labour and Tory. One of the consequences of this for liberal ideology was the victory of a postmodern liberal democracy that celebrates diverse, ‘post-conventional’ ethnic, national, race and gender-based identities. Perhaps this celebration takes place at the expense of “uncultured” often white-working class people whose behaviour is (wrongly) blamed for the continuation of the stagnant, traditional racism directed towards the influx of immigrants from the West Indies in the late-1940s and 1950s and from the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s and 1970s. The liberal universalisation of the command to celebrate the value of these identities directly contradicts the inherent pluralism of those identities, and the resulting antagonism between them, and it replicates the original universalisation of that binary divide between ‘left’ and ‘right’, between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’.
- The collapse of Communism as the external ‘enemy’ to western Liberal values, and the founding of a new ‘enemy’ in the confusing and diffuse (and very postmodern) nature of the specific brand of Islamist terrorism we have seen since 9/11 has led to the blurring of the distinction between whom we deem to be ‘friend’ and whom we deem to be ‘enemy’. Now that the ‘enemy’ by-and-large belongs to one of the minority groups that permissive social liberals so love to defend, it means that there is now an ideological battle between those permissive, tolerant social liberals who declare their celebration of diversity, and social conservatives who maintain many of the values of classical Liberalism but who are generally less permissive. The ‘enemy’ is no longer externalised. Instead, the ‘enemy’ is to be found within liberal society. It is found between different liberal groups who blame each other for that society’s internal problems, and between liberal middle classes (of both a permissive and a conservative bent) and the excess of the disenfranchised “underclasses” who have been left behind who are assumed to not share the same ideological battleground as either group.
Broken Britain, and the ‘Big Society’ David Cameron has established to tackle it, seeks to fix the “brokenness within us”, the agonistic fragmentation that leads to social divides. A good example of this is in mass immigration, which the right normally see as a force that undermines the traditional British values they seek to universalise, and which the liberals see as giving them more and more cultures to fuel their own unfocussed relativism (and more cutesy culture to consume). These traditional British values are best expressed in Britain’s Finest Hour (the Blitz, Keep[ing] Calm and Carry[ing] On), which is what #riotcleanup seeks to replicate. But, these values go hand in hand with the historical reality of that situation: not just the context of the war, but of Britain’s dying Empire, and of the subsequent wave of immigration.
With the ’90s, we saw the rise of Political Correctness, which limited what could be said in public about the plural identities with which we are confronted on a daily basis. This was gobbled up by liberals who are caught in a paradox, an ideological prism, in which they are simultaneously threatened by this new plurality because it challenges a traditionalism that they repress because it belongs to a conservativsm they reject, and found to be self-consciously celebrating those cultures and identities as ‘exotic’, belonging to the otherness that conservatism usually rejects. Ultimately, the fact that many people who self-identify as middle-class liberals come from a working class background a few generations back, scares them so much that they have to hide this fact behind a sophisticated social neurosis (rendered brilliantly by Patricia Routledge’s portrayal of Hyacinth Bucket in sitcom Keeping Up Apperances).
However, the moment things go wrong, such as the riots, the cracks in the liberal wallpapered soul begin to appear and they seek to cleanse themselves of this inner fragmentation, turning to use linguistic devices once the preserve of the racists, bigots, and snobs that they’re so desperate to deplore as being imperialist and old-fashioned. More often than not, the metaphors used by bigots to castigate their ‘enemy’ involve metaphors of and references to “cleanliness”, “sweeping”, and of that enemy’s “ignorance”. Compare this to the sort of things you hear being said about the rioters: that they are “scum”, “feral rats”, “disgusting” etc .
My emphasis is, thus, not on the class or race of the rioters, or the reasons for their rioting, but on the assumptions about the character of the rioters made by the people demonising them and the connotations of the way they express that demonisation.
I realise how tedious the above must seem, but I had to make it clear, y’know?
Also, I’d like to point out that, contrary to the suggestions of one person who commented, I’m not really into deconstruction. My philosophical position (if you really must know) is found on my About page.
- Public VS the rioters themselves:
“These people were rioters acting according to a mob mentality. They are scum.”
I probably need to make it clear that I don’t “condone” (and we’ll save an analysis of the very specific use of that word for a later date) the looting and violence seen on Britain’s streets in the last week. There is a big difference between “condoning” peoples’ actions, which they make of their own free will, and understanding the context in which these events take place. I’m certainly unimpressed by the fact that these events have lead to the deaths of several people and the injury and that many other people have lost their livelhoods. However, it also needs to be made clear that, yes, while these people were carried along by a mob mentality, they were ultimately looking out for their own interests, indulging in the consumer society so feverishly promoted by conservative capitalist ideology. These people acted very selfishly, but that doesn’t make them any different from the rest of us, though sacrificing other peoples’ lives for the sake of a new pair of trainers is disturbing.
The real problem is that public opinion seems to have inverted this “mob mentality” and acting according to one of its own. By calling for violent retribution to be enacted on the perpetrators, the public seem to have regressed several centuries. The policy of naming and shaming people charged with offences related to the rioting in the news means that the news channels have begun to act less like an information service and more like the stocks.
It has to be noted that these people are not “scum”. They are exactly the same as those who accuse them of being “scum”. Might I cite the example of Alexis Bailey, who works as a teaching assistant in a primary school. People wouldn’t have thought he was “scum” prior to his being arrested. On the contrary, he would have been seen as a pillar of his “community” (and we’ll save the analysis of the very specific use of that word for a later date). In one evening, he has fallen from public grace and is now seen as exactly the opposite of how he was seen just a few days ago without any middleground. Lest we forget, however, that during the economic turbulence a few years ago, the banks struggled to keep cash machines working. Would this have not led to rioting and looting by “ordinary people”, of exactly the sort when the same thing happened in Argentina in 2001?
‘The public is rightfully horrified at the rioting and it is utterly shameful for you to attack a collective for being afraid. You layering on this a cynical undertow is pretty shitty’.
Yes, the public is rightfully horrifed, and it is rightly scared for its safety and the continuation of that safety as obvious problems like the deepening of the spending cuts progress. I’m no less horrified and no less scared than anybody else at what I’ve seen coming from the TV, and from my own bedroom window. But I’m more inclined to find peoples frankly avaricious, turncoat, attitudes to people caught looting horrifying than I am the sight of teenage kids trashing shops and stealing trainers.