How should we describe what has been happening in the UK over the last few days? The government and much of the media are calling the riots ‘sheer criminality’ and ‘criminality pure and simple’. Such terms seem to be referring to something beyond that which is merely criminal in terms of the law. Here ‘criminality’ refers to a relationship between intentions and actions in such a way that it is meant to rule out the consideration of any other causes for the riots than the intention to act in a criminal way. This notion of criminality also works in terms of an essencing of those involved in riotous behaviour. Such people are being defined as criminal through and through. What all this amounts to is a delimitation of thought and speech about these events to a discourse of law and order versus crime and disorder, with a clear demarcation between the representatives of the law and the law abiding on the one hand and those breaking it on the other. There is nothing new about this, indeed, any critical understanding of current developments requires the consideration of the historical formation of discourses around such events and the pathologisation of certain people and actions as essentially criminal. As commentators like Paul Gilroy have argued, such pathologising discourses have been strongest where the figure of the criminal and the purveyors of disorder have been constructed in terms of a conception of racial otherness (Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Routledge, 1987). Though in the current context these discourses are doing their work not only through the linkage of criminality to racial difference. Here they have a wider role, which is a kind of banning of alternative modes of discussion and alternative understandings of society and its current crisis.
The community ‘clean-ups’ that have been happening in different cities also add to this delimitation of how the ‘riots’ can be understood. Some astute commentators have observed that these clean-ups function as a kind of symbolic cleansing that has a racialised element to it and also that they involve an ideological suturing of the rift in the social fabric revealed by the riots (for example, The Third Estate, ‘Riotcleanup: a physiognomy of an old fascism restored’, August 2011). The clean-ups are acts of denial masquerading as community spirit. They reinforce a representational construction that opposes the rioters to the rest of society in terms of a contrast between the lawless and the lawful, the mindless and the rational, the good and the bad. By doing this the clean-ups effectively say there is nothing wrong with society and that the fault lies entirely with the rioters. From this perspective there can be no other explanation of what has happened than that these people are ‘sick’, to use the Prime Minister’s term. The rioters are othered as utterly abject and the system – with its impoverished structures of community and solidarity, its repressive policing of the poor and recalcitrant, its massive inequalities, and its uncontrollable economic failures and upheavals – gets let off the hook.
Obviously there are other ways of describing these events; ways of breaking out of these discursive attempts to inoculate the dominant order against criticism. One can explain the riots in terms of the police shooting that was the spark that ignited these events in the first place. One could go further back and explain the riots in relation to longer-standing policies of stop and search by the police in relation to poor minority communities. One could discuss the growing social inequalities created by Neo-Liberal economic and political policies since the 1980s and more specifically the cuts to public services enacted by the current government in the context of the financial crisis since 2008. All of these discussions would function as counters to the delimitations upon explanation created by the dominant discourse of criminality. Yet they would on their own only be partial explanations and even together would not quite be able to explain what has been happening in recent days.
One of my friends has described the riots as the ‘vomit of the dying system.’ This phrase somehow gets closer to something crucial about the current situation more than anything else I have read. Through this phrase the system itself is somehow made abject. The system is vomiting and the vomit is somehow indicative of what the system is. It is the system that is sick and not the rioters. What is the nature of this system? How would I name it? Well obviously it is a capitalist system that is exploitative, unequal, and unfair; a system in which the sheer greed of a few is rewarded even when that greed creates chaos; a system where how much money you have defines how much freedom you have and in which too many are effectively rendered surplus to requirement. It is a system in which it should not be surprising that people who feel excluded and that the system is set against them sometimes act in violent ways. It is a system in which we should not be surprised that those who do not have access to the commodities that they are constantly encouraged to desire go on a rampage of looting when the opportunity presents itself. It is a system in which the smash-and-grab opportunism of financial speculators provides an example for such behavior. In this context why is it immoral or sick for people to act selfishly and destructively? The system is fundamentally selfish and destructive. And with this in mind we might say that the rioting is one of its natural products.
Writing in 1965 in response to the riotous uprising in the Watts area of Los Angeles the Situationist International described looting as ‘the natural response to the society of abundance – the society not of natural and human abundance, but of the abundance of commodities.’ (Situationist International, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’, 1965) They saw the looting in Watts as a rejection of the commodity culture. Here African-Americans were defined as a kind of avant-garde who were refusing the economic tyranny of a capitalist society that was declining and falling. The system did not die back then, nor is it necessarily dying now. For all its crises, capitalism seems massively resilient. However the riots in Watts in the 1960s and the current riots in the UK are evidence of a sickness, not of the rioters and looters, but of the context within which they act. This sickness will continue not only through the perpetuation of the inequalities that structure capitalist society, but also through the reactionary backlash to the riots that already seems to be in evidence. The Prime Minister has suggested that some parts of society are suffering from a disease but he is unable to understand that this is just a symptom of a greater and more fundamental malady. Our society is sick, but most of us cannot seem to see it. Through the language of othering people think that we have put the disease at a distance, separating it off from themselves, but in reality it is much closer to hand and all around us.
As this blog is meant to be about the visual, let me finish this post with reference to an image. On Tuesday 9 August many of the British newspapers presented a front-page image of a young man in a grey tracksuit. His hood is up and his face is masked. Behind him a car burns. One presumes, at least when it comes to the use of this image by the Daily Star and the Daily Mail that this person is meant to be symbolic of anarchy and criminality, and to epitomise a sickness threatening British society. It is a well-chosen image, for it is spectacular, striking and disturbing. But for those of us who want to find alternative ways of thinking and speaking about recent events there is a necessity to resist the shocking nature of this image, or perhaps better still a necessity to turn its shock potential to some other purpose. To the purpose, that is, of thinking recent events differently in such a way that the viewing of this image does not involve the shock of encountering an other but instead the shock of seeing something of ourselves, or at least of the society that we continue to accept. Rather than the image providing a window to some other reality, perhaps it somehow holds up a mirror to the reality within which we all exist.