Archive for August, 2011

London Rioting: The Tabloid Right and the Trendy Left Join Hands to Misrepresent Working People

August 10, 2011

“Only a blinkered left-winger fuelled by Marxist dogma could pretend that looting from a carpet store represents heroic blows against a racist establishment” declared Daily Express columnist Leo McKinstry to the ever dwindling number of readers his newspaper manages to either appeal or be given away to. Paltry as his readership may be he’s not entirely wrong. Even the most ardent supporter of the ultra-left would struggle to paint the pinching of some carpet as a classic revolutionary moment of proletarian struggle, without resorting to phrases such as ‘revolutionary moment of proletarian struggle.’  Yet both the ultra-left and the tabloid-right clamour to offer us the polar extremes with their interpretation of the rioting which has brought further misery to some of London’s most deprived boroughs.

Inevitably The Express and the Mail stand up for the largely mythical ‘hang ‘em, flog em’, deport ‘em – but not before cutting their benefits brigade’ while the ultras plumb the depths of the rhetoric they wheeled out for the student protests. Its ‘criminal irresponsibility’ and ‘opportunistic thievery’ here and ‘smash the police’, ‘London’s burning’ there. So familiar, so tired and so irrelevant.

Clearly the rioting was neither A nor B. There were no armed gangs waiting outside Carpet World in the off chance that a riot would grant them the opportunity to fit out their hallway, but neither was the violence a calculated or conscious rejection of capitalism in favour of a socialist alternative. Indeed it is the very lack of socialist consciousness and the very lack of that alternative as a viable option which leads to such scenes of urban violence.   

Through the damnation of the feckless represented by the tabloids and the lionisation of the mob by the ultra-left you can see the two frames through which the middle class view the working class when the mask slips.  On one hand you see the prejudice against working people which spawned the phrase ‘chav’ and the stomach churning impressions of teenage mums by millionaire ‘comedians’.  The disorder and poverty in these communities are a result of feckless irresponsibility we are told. At worst it leads to criminality and at best it leads to a life of sponging from the welfare state.

This is the interpretation which keeps a straight face when blaming rioting on individual criminals or even on Twitter. Brace yourselves, we are warned, the lower orders have the internet and they can now communicate instantly – it’s anarchy in 140 characters! No doubt, the skinny latte sipping blackberry owners feel as their ancestors once felt when the plebs got their hands on the printing press or the vote. Democracy and communication: brilliant tools for the well heeled and responsible, but a dangerous weapon in the hands of angry prols.

The worst offenders for peddling this overt prejudice against the working class are, as always, the professional bile spewers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, who are of course paid to flout artificial levels of conceit and malice to the least fortunate in society.  We shouldn’t be surprised when they lead the way in calling for water cannon, rubber bullets, martial law or capital punishment. It doesn’t even come as that much of a shock when these commentators start comparing rioters to animals, thereby du-humanising the disenfranchised with the sort of rhetoric reminiscent of the Victorian era.

What does come as a surprise is how quickly variations of these views are repeated by otherwise sane and rational people when events such as the riots unfold. Let’s take two examples from the world of twitter:

  • Hi, i’m British & you see those people rioting out in the streets? Yeah? Well they’re chavs, the most hated people in the UK.
  •  Good idea burning down your country to steal an Adidas tracksuit you stupid brainless chavs.

 Both have been re-tweeted multiple times, but now replace ‘chav’ with Nigger, Paki, Queer, Chink or any one of a hundred deliberately insulting words for a section of society and suddenly most of us would not only refuse to say it, we’d berate someone who would.

The demonization of the working class is truly one of the last acceptable faces of open hatred and prejudice. While such casual hatred has been elevated to the mainstream over the past few years, this lazy stereotyping has now been coupled to a very visible threat through the rioting. Suddenly it is acceptable to say you’re afraid that ‘they’ may come down from the estates and loot your house or that ‘they’ are feral or animalistic. Fall into that mindset and you fall in alongside Max Hasting and Leo McKinstry.

For the ultra and trendy left, a stereotype which also predominantly harks from the middle classes, the riots appear to be a glorious moment of theory made flesh. Smash Vodaphone! Nick from Nike! Punish the Police! To the trendy left the riots are considered some sort of conscious uprising, a raw anger of the masses kicking out against the oppression of the police.  This understanding could not be more wrong.

The rioting is not a rough and raw version of the working class self-organisation that we saw in Egypt when people spontaneously defended their neighbourhoods from the police or linked arms to protect Cairo’s antiquates museum from looters. It’s the very inverse.  Far from a glorious insurrection, rioting demonstrates the very depths that capitalism can push people to. It’s the violent, selfish and angry side of the very system we’re looking to overthrow. Rioting is the worst face of capitalism, something socialists want to abolish, not encourage.

Another justification from this section of the left is that the violence of the riots is tiny in comparison to the greater crimes of the system. “What’s the crime of looting a discount sportswear store compared to the crime of founding one?” the Facebook friends of one sect member were asked.  The other example being wheeled out is that of the bankers. The looting of Debenhams is nothing compared to the looting by the banks! Indeed that’s true, but it’s not the same. Capitalism encourages one but makes the other illegal and therein lies the point. A truly just system, which is what we are looking to build lest we forget, would deem both illegal.

This misunderstanding appears to be a world away from Leo McKinstry’s hatred, but is ignoring the reality of the violence to make it fit a delusional and glorified narrative purely for your own excitement really any better than condemning it with hateful rhetoric in order to flog a few more papers?

The underling social causes behind the violence have already been clearly presented here:

While the only way forward is spelled out here:

It is clear that just as political and social alienation can lead the politically conscious youth of Madrid and Athens to the camps of the Indignados, that same alienation, coupled with the dire social and material conditions of places like Tottenham make these communities a tinderbox. This time it’s a police shooting which started the fires, but as austerity measures kick in this will not be the last time that we see the depths people can be pushed to by capitalism.


Norway: The odd, the marginalised and why the Left will never have a Brevick

August 4, 2011

‘All the hallmarks of an Al-Queda attack.’ So claimed the talking heads across most of the major 24-hour news stations as reports began to seep in of the Oslo bombing. By the time it became clear that the bombing was a feint to distract from an unfolding massacre at a youth camp the line shifted. We were witnessing a ‘repeat of Mumbai.’

Except we were not. On that day terrorism had a Norwegian face and the cause of Anders Behring Breivik was not one of jihad. He didn’t fight for Sharia law, for a global caliphate or in solidarity with the Taliban. There wasn’t even a spurious link to Palestine. Instead Breivik carefully murdered over 70 teenagers in the name of fervent nationalism and plain old xenophobia, albeit dressed in the tired guise of a ‘clash of civilization.’ A clash which stubbornly fails to materialise despite the very best efforts of many over the past 10 years.

Breivik has clearly failed to kick-start the Europe wide war against multiculturalism which he supposedly yearns for in his rambling ‘manifesto.’ Instead his five minutes of infamy have given commentators the world over the opportunity to link his crime to whichever agenda they happen to already be pushing.

To the right-wing media Breivik was reacting to the ‘legitimate’ problems of immigration and the failure of multiculturalism. They didn’t plant the bombs themselves, we are told, but the Muslims should still shoulder the blame. Ex-Fox News fear-peddler Glen Beck even managed to refer to the youth camp as being reminiscent of the ‘Hitler Youth’, to suit his favored: ‘Europe is socialist and so were the Nazis’ canard.

Of course the liberal-left and the hard-left did the same. To us Breivik is merely a symptom of the crisis in Europe. He shows what happens in the world of recession when people are alienated from politics, and groups like the True Finns have a chance of reaching government on a ‘We shouldn’t pay for Greece’s crisis’ ticket of isolationism. To us, they didn’t plant the bombs themselves but ultimately the bankers should shoulder the blame. To some, the usual suspects, Breivik also demonstrated how the spectre of the Far-Right stalks Europe and how groups such as the EDL may be prepared to commit similar acts in London or Bradford.

Aside from both narratives London Mayor Boris Johnson plowed his own furrow by calmly declaring Breivik a madman, driven by his own rejections and pathetic existence. 

The ‘lone madman’ accusation is of course part of a traditional centre-right view of crime in general. In a magistrates court the accused didn’t shoplift because of ‘society’ but because they are a lone criminal, and people like Breivik do not commit murder because of social reasons, they do so because they possess a deviancy which places them firmly in the camp of the insane. He cannot be reasoned with. He can have no cause we could ever comprehend. He’s just a babbling madman with access to firearms.

Of course the ‘clinically damaged psychopath’ label can fairly be applied to some. You can after all suffer from a broken mind just as easily as a broken leg. However, focusing on the individual and not the context is usually a certain way of neither understanding nor preventing similar crimes in the future.

The reality of Breivik will of course not conveniently fit into anyone’s narrative. It’s quite possible he will be found mad, but the inescapable truth will be that he is a product of his society. This is an age where mainstream political parties are being widely rejected and without an attractive alternative the result can easily be further alienation or apathy just as it can lead to the indignado camps of Madrid and Athens.  

At the same time the far-right are looking to exploit people’s misery to further their own political ends. Indeed the intrinsic ability of capitalism to divide us along racial, ethnic, religious and national lines, thereby pitting working family against working family will always aid them in this task.

However, even if all of these points and possible motives contain a nub of truth, and even if Breivik is a product of his times and his society, there is one simple fact. No one else has done what he did. Even the far-right, who will certainly agree with his principles, are not in a position to emulate his actions. He may be a symptom of crisis, or even a symbol or some ideas, but he alone was prepared to turn them into action, which means we should also consider the individual.

Little is known about Breivik’s life. It is suggested he was reclusive, unpopular in school and unsuccessful with women, but all that is speculation. What we can say is that he perceived himself to be on the periphery of society and in his mind his selection of targets showed he was targeting its centre, the establishment.

On an individual level he felt that he lived on the very edges of society and in retaliation he sought to identify himself with a violent ideology which he could use to explain his alienation and battle against it. It’s a true chicken and egg question. Did he hate before he became affiliated to the far-right, or are we to suppose to believe he was a ‘normal’ and contented citizen before coming into contact with a poisonous ideology and taking its worst tenets to their logical conclusion?

This process of the alienated and marginalised identifying themselves with causes which are also on the edges of society is not new and to the hard left it should be more than familiar. Since the defeats of the 1980’s socialism, in the hard-left sense of the term, has been increasingly pushed to the social fringe. While the far-left has busied itself and has fervently fought tooth and nail to reverse the slide into obscurity and political oblivion the harsh fact remains that most far-left parties worthy of the term would struggle to fill an average football stadium with its official membership. Indeed most would fail to fill a single stand at Fratton Park.

Inevitably when an ideology, or indeed a political party, is pushed from the mainstream towards the periphery it will begin to attract people who have already been pushed there themselves.  For the Scandinavian far-right, who have been pushed back to the frayed edges of public acceptability over many decades, they find themselves standing alongside Anders Behring Breivik.  Breivik may be unique, or certainly very rare, in having the will to take his adopted ideology to such a criminal conclusion, but perhaps in that there is an uncomfortable point. His motivation may not have been far-right politics itself. That may have merely been his excuse.

This is not to say however that hidden amongst the huddled and sparsely filled ranks of even the far-lefts furthest reaches, CPGB-ML, Workers Power, Class War, the AWL, you will find the left’s Breivik, but what it does mean is that those who feel marginalised by society will make up a disproportionate amount of any left party’s membership as long as they remain on the periphery.

To say it is not a new problem implies unfairly that it is a problem at all, but as a political reality it is hardly new. In Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell famously declared that like Christianity the worst advertisement for socialism are its adherents  as he pointed to the makeup of the Independent Labour Party from viewpoint of the mainstream middle classes.  To Orwell the ‘odd’ who made up the ILP were ‘vegetarians’ and ‘pacifists’, a viewpoint which says more about 1930’s perceptions of deviance than it does of the manifesto of the ILP. 

Social norms move on and while vegetarianism is no longer considered (that) weird the left, and the far left, have remained a home to all those pushed to the far reaches of society’s spectrum, a tendency which has reached its nadir in recent decades. From the latter half of the 20th century to present day it is no coincidence that the far-left has thrown itself at the causes of rights for homosexuals, ethnic groups or the disabled as comrades from those constituencies have found a political home and an ideology for liberation.

Today of course many of those causes have been normalised, yet what remains of the far-left remains a cacophony of the marginalised and the proudly odd. You’re just as likely to find someone who declares himself to be ‘vaguely Buddhist,’ a nature worshiping pagans or, yes, a vegetarian, as you are a trade union steward or shop floor militant.  (Not that any of these characteristics are mutually exclusive of course.)

It goes beyond breaching political correctness into outright rudeness and perhaps even mild bigotry to consider this annoying. Yet, I confess that once or twice when meeting a new trade unionist or a new party contact I have hoped that they ‘won’t be odd.’ This isn’t to say I’m constantly yearning for a contact that doesn’t also worship the moon or foster an obsession with Pokemon, but occasionally I’ve been known to think: Give me a contact with a wife, two kids and a season ticket to Fratton Park. Why? Because I’d fear that if an aforementioned ‘odd’ hobby were to come up in conversation it would, by association mar our shared ideology. Socialism itself isn’t odd, I would be forced to awkwardly declare, but sometimes it just happens to attract those who are. (Here perhaps we are straying into the ‘what’s normal anyway’  ‘people are different’ strain of identity politics. Something I’d rather leave to Ollie Reader.)

In thinking any of this of course I’d be missing the point entirely. Yes, when the left rebuilds and forces itself onto the political centre stage it will inevitably attract more ‘mainstream people’, but that will never mean those who we have met on the peripheries will be cast out.  The left is inclusive by its very nature and ideology. The pursuit of socialism is inherently the pursuit of freedom of identity.  It will always remain the task of socialism to champion one and all, bringing ‘the odd’ in from the cold where they have been pushed by capitalism. A genuine socialist party could fill Old Trafford or the Albert Hall a hundred times with ‘regular folk’ but would still be all embracing. That’s what Socialism is.

This is why the left is unlikely to find itself harboring a Breivik. The worst we’re likely to find is a middle class teenager in a sect, wearing a Che t-shirt on his chest and a day-dream like aspiration for armed revolution on his sleeve. To the Marxist the injustices of this world are systematic and there is an appreciation of vast social forces at work.  You can’t change the world with one Kalashnikov. The right-wing however, even at its most tame centre, focuses on the individual, both positively and negatively. For the far-right, this encourages the scapegoating ideology which can identify a specific social or ethnic group to blame and it’s this mindset which can encourage an already damaged man to murder 70 teenagers and believe he is attacking the establishment.

The left, even at its most liberal fringes, is an ideology of inclusion and solidarity. Give us 10 angry men and women, pushed to the periphery for their gender, sexuality, disability or by a societal rejection of their lifestyle choice and we’ll channel that into a positive force of collectivism. It’s an irony he will never consider, but If Breivik is indeed sane then had the self-titled ‘Marxist Hunter’ chosen a different path to explain his alienation he could have been saved by the very ideology he so despised.