The riots in London over the past few days pose a dramatic opportunity for reflection about the state of criminal justice today. On a purely numerical or pragmatic basis, it makes sense that the media focus has shifted from what sparked the riots — the murder of Mark Duggan, a black north Londoner, by police — to the ongoing and explicitly unrelated riots and lootings that began in the wake of the Duggan family’s peaceful protest. One (more) victim of police brutality is one thing; but these riots are disturbing the peace! I don’t want to simply argue the inverse — that the “real crime” is Duggan’s murder, not the riots and looting. If the riots were related to the murder, and explicitly political, that might be an option. But I do want to suggest both that it’s wrong to insist there’s no connection at all between the murder and the riots, and that the real culprit — what actually undergirds the “nihilism” and immorality of the riots and looting — is represented by the Duggan murder: namely, a political culture that (over-)criminalizes the poor, and in so doing serves the economic interests of those whose policies and business practices depend on an alienated and underprivileged working class. The real culprit here — the man behind the curtains, pulling the levers of social chaos — is manifest not first and foremost in the base immorality and social carelessness of the rioters, but in the the self-serving idiocy of the response of London mayor Boris Johnson and home secretary Theresa May, who dismiss these events as “pure criminality” and place blame on the culture of false “entitlement” and victimization among today’s youth. (As Zoe Williams rightly points out, this is an authoritarian reading of our social context.)
First, it’s important to recognize that the thugs looting JD Sports and family-owned corner stores do not claim to be representatives of law and order. Indeed, they are keenly aware that the given system of law and order is not working for them, but against them. The conditions and opportunities of their life, when compared with those who happen to have been born on the other side of town, is a hand dealt from a deck already stacked against their well-being, a system that in many respects, as Barbara Ehrenreich so convincingly argues, is not simply indifferent to their life but positively feeds off and delights in their misery. The moral “nihilism” on display in the riots is, therefore, not senseless violence, but the re-expression of the social violence — the alienation and degradation — that is constantly executed upon and in the lives of the British underclass.
Once that point is recognized, it appears quite normal how a spark becomes a forest fire. As Williams’ article on the psychology of looting suggests, anyone observant of prison violence knows that conditions of hopelessness breed internal hatred. Where there is no hope for one’s own material well-being, it is normal to lash out at oneself or those who are not the direct causes of the injustices done to you, with little thought even for your own life. But it is ethically naive to simply place “blame” on victims of systemic injustice. The sources of nihilistic violence, the sources of the moral indifference and social thoughtlessness perpetrated by the looters and rioters, lie in systems of morality and regimes of power that claim to be moral and just, on the one hand, while actively consigning a vast majority to the bottom of the socio-economic barrel. Our neo-liberal economic arrangements necessitate that those at the top — irrespective of how they got there — stay at the top by maintaining a bottom. One political facet of such an economy is what Eherenreich names as the criminalization of poverty, or what Claudia Webbe has identified operative now in Tottenham — namely, a history of certain communities being “overpoliced as criminals and underpoliced as victims.” As Common says in “The Food,” “a system that tries victims, we livin’ in.”
So we can’t act as if these thugs have nothing to be pissed off about; they have more than enough reason to take to the streets. It may be regrettable that they’re not educated or organized enough to take out their well-fed anger in more socially productive ways — i..e, by engaging in non- (or at least less-)violent political protest, as this sister recommends. The inspiring pro-democracy protests in the mid-East over the past year have given the rest of the world much to learn from in that respect. But in the meantime, we have to be on guard against moralistic and individualistic narratives of social violence quick to blame victims and unwilling to question systems. Such narratives only serve to further distract us from clear-cut cases of injustice and criminality– e.g., police corruption and brutality; the hording of ungodly amounts of wealth by the few — and to further blind us to the forces that determine the economic and political make-up of our world. The Right’s tendency, as represented most explicitly by the Tea Party, is to respond to the faltering of the neoliberal global economy by engaging in just such distraction and blindness: by proposing, in the form of inhumane budget reform and draconian slashes to social services, that it is the ordinary citizen, the majority who are the poor, who are asking and expecting too much from “government” and the rest of us, and whose very lives should thus be offered up as scapegoats for the system. But as Seamus Milne writes, the greed and looting seen here is a reflection of the very constitution of our society. That’s why “[i]t is essential for those in power in Britiain” — for the narrative they and most media tell about themselves and our world — “that the riots now sweeping the country can have no cause beyond feral wickedness.”
My point is that these rioters are obviously acting immorally, not only by breaking “the law” (taking what they do not “own”) but more significantly by doing further damage to their own communities and the livelihoods of their neighbors. But that doesn’t mean there is “no point” — no rhyme or reason — to their action. The system of morality that so easily condemns them as criminals — the given oligarchic system of property and the rule of law which protects owners of unjust capital — is not their system. It does not work for them, but against them. The poor are told, just like everyone else, that they are what they (are able to) buy, which necessarily implies that, when they can’t afford what they should want, the fault lies with them, they are not who they should be. The default story told about the regnant economy by those invested in it is that poverty is a moral failing, which requires another narrative in which the poor are ever the cause of their own poverty. In reality, however, the poor perpetuate this system only by having no choice but to live in it, or rebel against it. It is a system that itself exists without (any good) rhyme or reason, as it routinely de-criminalizes owners of unjust capital and lauds patently nihilistic policy-makers, who shape our common world according to their own self-interest. It is a system that must be resisted and overturned for society to have any real stability or peace. The form that resistance and overturning should take can be debated, and I certainly agree it only makes things worse when it takes the form of the (self-)destruction of our own and neighbors’ communities and businesses, as it has here. But it is a shallow moralism and sign of contextual unawareness when we place blame for this willing expression of the youth’s inner rage on the youth themselves — as if they’ve got nothing to riot about.