Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The London Riots

We know how Matthew Arnold wanted to deal with London rioters, in the wake of the Hyde Park disturbances of 1866; for as he tells us in Culture and Anarchy, ‘the old Roman way ... is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders from the Tarpeian rock’. And that is pretty much what we have been hearing for the last few days in the great tide of kneejerk rightwing commentary on our present urban discontents: ‘mindless thuggery’, ‘pure criminality’, ‘full force of the law’, 'water cannon and rubber bullets'.

The major riot of Morris’s socialist period was ‘Black Monday’, 8 February 1886, when, as E.P. Thompson puts it, ‘The Socialists led the crowds up Pall Mall for a further meeting at Hyde Park. There was some jeering from the clubs. The unemployed retaliated with stones and window-smashing, and then a good deal of indiscriminate damage and looting took place, in which Morris’s own shop was lucky to escape’. Morris himself had not in fact been present at these events on the day, but, as Thompson notes, ‘the Trafalgar Square riots were a sudden test of Morris’s ability as a Socialist leader, and also of the sincerity of his revolutionary opinions’.

Our own riots of 2011 differ in significant ways from the 1886 troubles: there is no Socialist leadership of any kind, and there is a racial dimension here (in the police killing of Mark Duggan and the long-term background of racist policing in Tottenham and elsewhere) which Morris could never have imagined. But of our riots we could still say what he did of his own, in the pages of Commonweal in March 1886: ‘What was the meaning of it? At bottom misery’. A generation of young people thrown on the economic scrapheap under both New Labour and the Con-Dems; obscene financial bonuses made by bankers and City traders; hopelessness and rage, with the gloomy world economic situation making our own grotesque inequalities and savage cuts to welfare provision all the more devastating. No major English political party speaks out against all this, and thus, as Martin Luther King insisted, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’.

The violence, looting and fires on our streets over the last few days are the ugly dark truth of Cameron's and Clegg’s England, not whatever glossy Olympic facade we might be able to muster for global media consumption in twelve months time.


2 comments:

Owlfarmer said...

As soon as I saw on the "riot map" featured in today's Dallas Morning News that Walthamstow was included, I had to nip over here to see what you had to say on the topic. The response here (as you might imagine) is to condemn thuggery and hooliganism wholesale, without even thinking about causes.

The fact that, as one woman made clear in an impassioned comment I heard on public radio, the young in Britain have little hope for a future, no jobs, and nothing to do seems lost on people around here.

The additional fact that funding cuts in education, health care, and other human services mandated by the tea party in the US leave us vulnerable to the same reaction doesn't appear to concern anyone in our government. One doesn't have to agree that violence is any kind of a solution in order to see that current policies contribute to it.

Thanks for your perspective, Tony.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for your support, Owlfarmer. I think the white-heat of moralistic indignation here has now toned down just a fraction and that thoughtful people are beginning to ask about underlying causes - though the answer so far is perhaps tending to be 'gang culture' rather than unemployment and deprivation. Still,it's at least a start towards real thought about the problems.