You don’t need me to go ond on describing the events of the last few nights, because we all know what has happened. We’ve all been glued to our TVs, giving ourselves square eyes while being spoonfed reactionary bile from news reporters intent on crushing reasonable (read: Leftist) opinion in favour of their own gleeful coverage of the rioting. These events are being treated as if they were a form of entertainment rather than the presentation of serious facts with a really existing social context.
Public opinion has seen a massive shift to the right. This has been demonstrated by the thousands of tweets and Facebook messages calling for violent retribution to be enforced on those caught rioting instead of a sensible call for us all to understand the social conditons that have led people to riot (be that consumer ideology, thuggery or general disaffection). This deeply conservative shift has been surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.
What this really shows is the inherant contradiction in postmodern liberal ideology. Indeed, there seems to be a nasty undercurrent of middle class resentment towards disenfranchised, perhaps working class, youths expressed in the aftermath of the riots. The ideological manipulation at the heart of the clean up operation doesn’t help. As my compadre and Birkbeck classmate Jacob Bard-Rosenberg of The Third Estate puts it:
Sifting through the tweets tagged with #riotcleanup there is swift equivocation: at once the physical act of clearing rubble from the streets merges with the act of cleansing the street of black youths. The cleaning of streets amounts to the wiping away of traces of social unrest. Cracks in society are smoothed over and at once an oppressed underclass is rendered invisible again.
While I agree with Jacob’s sentiment about #riotcleanup being about “cleansing”, “cleaning”, and “wiping away the traces of social unrest”, I think this is more obviously about people expunging their own class resentment by using traditionally racist tropes to conceal a really-existing underlying classism and racism, rather than blatant racism in itself. The news channels have called on ordinary people (often white, almost always middle-class) to stand in as social commentators. This isn’t unusual in an age where everybody has access to global communication networks, where everybody has a voice, where everybody seems intent on using that voice to shout as loudly as possible.
What is unusual, however, is language used by those interviewed. Here, rioters have been described variously as “animals” and “feral rats”. The point concealed here is that the people doing the rioting are unclean, diseased, or subhuman not simply because they are black, not simply because they are working class, but because they refuse to do what white middle class people, who own the clean, shiny, shops being looted, expect people to do. Our repressed desires for stability in the face of rapid social change seem to be embodied by the great unwashed left behind by middle class expectations to come out of the recession and the spending cuts unscathed. This is nothing more than an illusory idea of “progress” made by taking tough economic decisions that will direct the fortunes of those who need public services, and yes, jobs, the most. In the wake of the riots, however, this “progress” proves itself to be even more of an illusion than we already thought it was: it is middle-class self-hatred seeking to erase its own working-class past. The connection between folksy wartime cheeriness expressed in the Keep Calm and Carry On sentiment, which conceals a brutality, fear and hardship experienced predominantly by white working-class people, and #riotcleanup is no coincidence.
Ultimately, these riots, and the public opinion garnered by their constant coverage, have allowed people who normally self-identify as “liberals” to show their true colours. Calls for use of water cannon, rubber bullets, or, worse still, bringing in the army and instating martial law, come largely from people who usually claim to be society’s most permissive and the most tolerant. Instead, these people are proving themselves to be postmodern crypto-fascists, churning out folksy, yet bilious, petty bourgeois bigotry. Just check out your own twitter feed and Facebook page if you don’t believe me. The problem here is the massive contraction between this supposed liberal permissiveness and the need for security which is expressed in the emerging authoritarian streak without being synthesised by a formal liberal doctrine.
It’s a culture of excessive tolerance that sees “liberals” being the first to overtly celebrate other peoples’ cultures and the supposed plight of minority groups. But, in reality, conceals their unnerving fetishisation of their own liberal indulgence, of their own act of tolerance. Here, people use a form of relativising liberal historicism to cleanse themselves of their own guilt for seeing themselves as belonging to a culture whose past is rooted in racist, imperialist exploitation. As such, they renounce their own culture in any way that can, and they are the first to scream about how disgusted they are by the obvious racism of the BNP and the EDL. These people reject the “imperialist” universalisation of cultural norms (homosexuality, women’s rights, their own free-speaking liberal agenda) but wilfully ignore that agenda when confronted by bigotry espoused by people who belong to the supposedly downtrodden minorities they so fetishise: homophobic currents in, for example, Pentecostal Christianity, of which many followers are black West Indian people or misogyny in, for example, certain prominent strains of Islamism.
But when it comes to the riots, it seems that the liberals are the first to denounce the rioters as being dirty, ugly, demonic, feral, disgusting. All this despite the fact that the people using this language know that many of the rioters are often young black males. All this despite the fact that they know about the history of prejudice in British society, and in the police, directed towards young black males. All this despite the fact that they know about the ways in which racists describe young black males. As such, these people don’t seem to understand the political position they claim to hold, and they are the first to sell out to reactionary authoritarianism when things get rough. It is ideology at its most obvious: people see through these commands and yet choose to follow the script anyway.
Perhaps the worst element of this concealed prejudice is that thse liberal-fascists are blind to the class divides in which they themselves participate. This finds particular expression in the gentrification of areas like Hackney, which saw rioting on Monday night, where ordinary working-class and lower-middle class people are being driven out by ever-rising rents and property prices. Why? Because namby-pamby permissive liberals want to live in artfully dishevelled low-rent ex-council pads because they like the “brutalist bohemian aesthetic”. What they forget is that these places, like the Pembury Housing Estate which was overrun on Monday night, are social housing projects designed for poor people by rich people who didn’t have to live in them.
Jacob continues, writing that
The reward offered for such action [helping out with the clean up operation] is “true community”, or “community spirit”. In the face of such rampant dehumanization, these new communities, the battalions of #riotcleanup, reassert their supposed true humanity. And such a new humanity is a badge to be worn with pride. It is forgotten by many that it is premised on exclusion, on the sweeping away of neighbours. Raise your broom to the sky and create the world anew, a world without unrest in the face of poverty and oppression. A world in which black youths, and the real antagonisms of society, are consigned to oblivion.
It’s not just about young black males. It’s about class. But those things still kinda go hand in hand, huh?