What the left needs to do next

Last night Massive Attack posted on their Facebook wall a brief statement about the recent riots. There followed the biggest shitstorm I’ve seen on a band’s Facebook since Coldplay had the temerity to show support for the Palestinian people. The statement read like so:

In context with the complicit support of the government, the banks looted the nation’s wealth while destroying countless small businesses and brought the whole economy to its knees in a covert, clean manner, rather like organised crime.

Our reaction was to march and wave banners and then bail them out. These kids would have to riot and steal every night for a year to run up a bill equivalent to the value of non-paid tax big business has ‘avoided’ out of the economy this year alone.

They may not articulate their grievances like the politicians that condemn them but this is absolutely political. As for the ‘mindless violence’… is there anything more mindless than the British taxpayer quietly paying back the debts of others while contributing bullets to conflicts that we have absolutely no understanding of?

It’s mad, sad and scary when we have to take to the streets to defend our homes and businesses from angry thieving kids, but where are the police and what justice is ever done when the mob is dressed in pin stripe.

The previous evening Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, made these remarks to Rock Sound:

I have been following matters in the UK rather closely and I think it’s no accident that over the course of the last year we’ve seen this kind of social unrest around the globe from the Arab Spring, to the riots in Spain and Greece caused by the austerity measures and the 100,000 people seen on the streets of Wisconsin as working class people stood up for their union rights…….. Something’s got to give and I would not exempt what’s happening in the UK from the rest of the world. The circumstances are different in each place but the overarching desire of humanity to stand against tyranny and want a decent life for themselves and their family in universal.

Now I like Morello and Massive Attack’s 3D very much. They’re clever, principled people who were good enough to spare some time to be interviewed for my book, and I think they make many valid points. But I think the balance of their comments typifies how the left could botch this, and here’s why.

Right now many people are rightly angry with the looters. Friends of mine tut at people they known on Facebook or Twitter suddenly having reactionary spasms: going “a bit Daily Mail.” I don’t want bullets, curfews, the death penalty or tanks on the street either but when you see the centre of gravity moving right you don’t shake your head condescendingly — you try to mount a persuasive counter-argument. Most people in deprived areas didn’t commit any crimes and many were victims of crime. They are furious – not just hang-‘em’-flog-‘em Tories in the shires — and they want to see justice done. As Owen Jones points out in a sobering piece on Labour List, the backlash in the US during the Nixon years could happen here.

To not even give people a few days to feel like this betrays a certain deafness to human emotions. I keep seeing spurious moral equivalencies being drawn by people I like and respect. Of course it’s amusing and ironic that in David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s time at Oxford the elite Bullingdon Club had a habit of trashing restaurants but it has no real bearing on the riots. And of course the reckless, greedy bankers are the prime culprits behind the financial crisis that drags on and on but calling them “looters” is too glib. You often find the obligatory handwave followed by a change of subject: Of course x is terrible but what about y? An extreme and idiotic example is Morrissey’s recent comment that the Norway massacre wasn’t as bad as an average day at KFC. Massive Attack’s whataboutery is much less offensive but still wrong. I think most people in Britain would tell you that they were angry with bankers and rioters. There’s no pressure to choose one or the other.

Furthermore, there is a thin but crucial line between understanding the many and varied causes, some going back decades, for such a violent outbreak, and comparing the participants to those opposing “tyranny” in Tahrir Square. As the Guardian’s Zoe Williams argues: “A violent act by the authorities, triggering a howl of protest – that bit is as old as time. But crowds moving from shopping centre to shopping centre? Actively trying to avoid a confrontation with police, trying to get in and out of JD Sports before the ‘feds’ arrive? That bit is new.”

Morello and 3D both know what genuinely politicised unrest looks like. Morello was living in LA when the outrageous Rodney King verdict provoked six days of violence in 1992, and was part of the anti-globalisation movement when protesters targeted specific brands during the so-called Battle of Seattle in 1999. Massive Attack were teenagers when the first major disturbance of the Thatcher era took place in St Paul’s, Bristol in 1980, in response to racist policing and the sus laws. These were overtly political actions; the recent unrest was not. That’s not to say politics is irrelevant but we have to draw distinctions. If the mainstream left can’t provide a better reading of the situation than that, then the upper hand will go to the authoritarian right, the frothing pundits, the sinister, self-appointed voices of the people.

What gives me hope is the fact that the real argument is not as divided as it seems. Firstly, looters will be prosecuted whenever possible and justice will be seen to be done. But then the underlying problems will be considered because they have to be. Despite what you’d think from listening to some pundits, understanding causes is not an optional lefty indulgence — it’s essential for any government that doesn’t want to have a portion of its population volatile and alienated for generations to come. We need to keep saying again and again that to understand is not to justify, and that social justice should run alongside criminal justice. If we don’t want Britain to become a harsher, more divided country we need to insist on both.


  1. Excellent piece

  2. nice post D – and something I’ve been thinking myself. i read a similar spurious comparison on facebook where they were contrasting the looting on the streets with mankind’s looting of the planet. their point being, of course, that we get outraged by one and condone the other. this incensed me. it’s like saying that we condemn rape of a woman but condone rape of the planet. as you say, it’s sixth form debating bullshit. serious points and lessons to be learned from this all, but i’ve seen too many bogus arguments that hinge on inappropriate analogies and sorely stretched justifications.

  3. Great post, well said.

  4. Nice piece, and I think there is fine line here. The destruction wrought by the invisible is highly visible – it looks like carnage. The destruction wrought by the highly visible is invisible – it insidiously eats away at society.

    There are some things worths noting here:

    1)looting has always been prevalent at urban insurrections, whatever their cause. Part of this problem is that our social spaces in urban areas are dominated by commerce. There’s no where-else to have protest that is shop-free. How much of a big P protest this was is debatable. Where it happened, who joined in etc is boldly political with a small p. For the intelligent music-olgist a revisit to Dick Hebdige’s ‘Meaning of Style’ might be pertinent. The perps were mostly dressed in a way that has developed over a decade – extreme sportswear for extreme urban living, a style that has so much meaning it must not become the elephant in the room.

    2)the total cost to the public purse will eventually be half a billion pounds sterling. The nominal cost to the exchequer from bailing out the economy was about 250 billion. We will see from the rioting\looting many shops, offices, warehouse, schools, doctors, etc closed. From the banking disaster we will see many more: they’ll be closed for different reasons, but . One is legally criminal the other is socially criminal.

    3) The mainstream voice in the communities effected is fuelled with anger. Of course it is, something terrible and catastrophic is happening to them. But something terrible and catastrophic has been happening to them.for a long while in which this anger in subsumed in apathy. Why do the areas in which these incidents happened also have the lowest voter turn out? Siding with these communities now when they are angry but judging them when they were apathetic is problematic.

    Finally, the perpetrators do need to face justice. They need to be made accountable for their actions. But if, in the aftermath, we are in a rush to return to normality then we have failed to acknowledge the problem. This is part of great drift right-wards, and leftists being wary of being political at the wrong times is a very dangerous nudge in that direction. We do need to be careful and we have to place our own moral outrage to one-side and view this as objectively as possible, but stay in the debate – respectful silence is Pilot’s option: don’t wash your hands of this just yet.

  5. It is not merely a ‘six-form debating point’ to draw a parallel between looting by the rioters (who are being rounded up and prosecuted) and looting by the Too-Big-to-Fail banks (who do so with impunity, and have been encouraged by New Labour and the Tories through bail-outs, privatisation and PFI). It is fundamental to what is going on – cuts to public services and benefits, lack of jobs and the general insecurity all of us on less than (say) £50k a year feel have their roots in the at-best incompetant and at-worst criminal decisions by bankers and the politicians they control. Criticising the shining example set by the bankers and other elite is not to deny people’s understandable indignation over the damage rioters caused.

    These feral elites bang on endlessly about poorer people not having a sense of responsibility when they themselves are quite happy to evade taxes, tear up working-class communities through unemployment, out-sourcing and property speculation, boost their profits by financialising what were once manufacturing businesses, send young people to die in pointless wars and on top of it all accept billions in government bail-outs from their own failures. Result: a broken, debt-ridden monetary system which through compound interest and taxes, shovels money pinched from ordinary people into the pockets of the already rich.

    Ironic or not but the rioters and the bankers have trashed the same places. It’s not about choosing one or the other, but recognising that those at the top lead by example, whatever rhetoric they spew.


    • Thanks for the response. I agree with basically all you say about the bankers and corporations but one form of rapaciousness doesn’t excuse or even fully explain the other. Squishing them together under the word “looting” has a certain neatness but I don’t think it’s accurate.

      • I’m not excusing anyone’s criminality, just completely fed up with people going on about the rioters’ lack of ‘responsibility’ or ‘respect’. I see the feral elites showing exactly the same lack of these virtues all around me, especially towards people who have less than they do. Covered though it may be with the right etiquette.

        I blame the parents, who didn’t teach them that with power comes responsibility – not to lie, not to steal, to make sure that those who give you that power, by consent, contract or tradition, are as safe, healthy and content as possible. Feral elites have lost sight of their debt to the rest of society, lost the ability to recognise the consequences of their actions on others and are obsessed with the next deal, bonus or acquisition. They by and large pay others to look after their children, sometimes even abandoning them in boarding schools rife with bullies – although the freedom is there to riot every now and then without being arrested. Whether at school or at work, they learn to deflect blame from themselves and that anything is up for grabs if they want or work for it hard enough. Throughout life they are cushioned by their use of contracts rather than bricks, and the money which buys a good accountant/lawyer/spindoctor, the ‘right’ friends and protected houses. Their sense of entitlement thus perpetuates down the generations, while those who had to work up to this position have delusions that they ‘did it all themselves’. Some even imagine that they are ‘doing God’s work’.

        They rely on material things to express themselves, and live in constant fear of losing anything they have, no matter how much they have. They are shielded from the effects of any personal bad habits by access to good food, plenty of leisure and instant healthcare. Morally bankrupt, they are obsessed with celebrity and social position and form their own societies separate from the rest of us with their own codes of behaviour. They are blind to the abundant opportunities they have to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, resolution of the world’s conflicts or shepherding of the earth we all live on.

        But the collateralised debt obligations, derivatives, naked short sells, tax-avoiding shell companies etc all have the serious effect of funnelling money out of the pensions and taxes most people work for. They stifle activity in the real economy by loading both individuals and governments with debt and insisting on cutbacks to both public services and lending to SMEs – while funding purely speculative movements of money around the globe. Mostly all legal – though often what is, legally, fraud goes undetected, and punishment is rare even when a crime is found. None of this instils in them a proper sense of noblesse oblige though they might sop their consciences with donations to fashionable charities. Of course I’m not saying this excuses their behaviour, and of course not all wealthy and powerful people are like this…

        ‘Looting’ is, I’d say, an entirely accurate way to describe what the feral elites are engaging in. What else is it that we’re the most technologically advanced, comfortable and knowledgeable generation in history and anyone in the world has to fight for food, a job, a clean peaceful environment, decent working conditions, schools, healthcare – or even a pair of trainers? Those resources are being stolen. Does ‘looting’ have to involve broken shop windows for it to be real ‘looting’?

        Normally any physical devastation left in the wake of their paper trails happens somewhere else, this time it was too close for comfort. And too fast – my guess is that a lot of the places that got hit in the last few days would have looked like this anyway in another 5-10 years without any photogenic violence. Public-spirited people on both the left and right (yes they do exist) need to call this current gangster rigged casino gulag market fundamentalist mentality (and yes I am indeed spitting by now) for what it is – destructive and fraudulent at every level. It creates feral street kids and feral elites alike.

        But I would say that the elite have far more access to resources and education, and thus far more responsibility to, again, lead by example and not keep the potential benefits of the world economy to themselves.

        Don’t know why this rant ended up here rather than anywhere else I’ve read over the past few days, but thanks for the opportunity to set it off!

        PS: Just as I go to post this I find someone caught this riff before me, far more entertaining: http://sherrytalksback.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/rioters-on-wall-street/

        ‘They tap away ceaselessly at handheld digital devices, even as they walk the streets. I’m told each tap can lead to hundreds, even thousands of jobs destroyed. With a phone call or text, this marauding band of rioters can foreclose on a person’s house, pillage the 401-K of any nurse or teacher and even transfer whole industries from one country to another leaving entire communities devastated.’

  6. Perfectly sums up my last few days of inadequate, free-ranging anger at EVERYONE, but manages to make one major point I’ve been failing to.

    I suspect we are not entirely politically in line with each other, and it may just be that you’re tapping into my confirmation bias, but this is the most smart thing I’ve read about the aftermath I’ve heard.

    Something else I’ve been thinking about: There has been a lot of well-meaning talk over the last few days, by people who feel they understand the rioters, some of whom have never lived anywhere near these areas, and others who have emerged from them in previous years, but are articulate enough to talk instead of riot. But what most of it has amounted to is the hijacking of another group’s actions to support one’s own cause. That’s not examination or analysis, it’s being a slave to your own confirmation bias, and at the expense of someone else being allowed to speak for themselves.

    I’m in no way bothered about the hurt feelings of those who would stoop to violence, but this particular model of discussion is at best as patronising as saying that everyone living in their economic band are just scum, and at worst dangerous, because it just creates more of the same. It takes a particular sort of arrogance to talk for people in that way, and it’s really not that insightful.

    It’s also largely irrelevant to the people rioting – the most convincing piece I’ve read so far was Camila Batmanghelidjh, who suggests that people active in inner cities have noticed groups of young people, detached from society by various factors, have been forming their own societies, based on a completely different set of rules. Neither the left OR the right comes across as really understanding that this is happening, and both seem quite content continuing along the same tracks with their assumptions, rather than trying to work out ways of allowing these quasi-societies to speak for themselves. I mean, without smashing stuff up.

    (There’s something that always seems a little craven about speaking so definitively for (rather than about) the disaffected from the comfort of a recording studio or office, but it’s possible that the song “Common People” just had a far greater impact on my twenties than it should’ve.)

    The left and the right and the middle-class activists have been having this argument for my entire adult life, and so far NONE of them have really helped these overlooked segments of society to become less overlooked.

    But rhetoric is far easier than working toward comprehension, and leaping to attack the government or police or rioters or whoever we aren’t allows us to ignore the fact that if society = all of us, & society is fucked, it’s on all of us, even if the only power we’ve got is to try and keep the discussion responsive and useful.

    This was only supposed to be a quick comment. Like I said, I’m not really designed to make the points I’m trying to make as well as you have here. Thanks for the post!

  7. There’s some pretty galling hypocrisy here. LA etc. were “genuinely politicised unrest” but this somehow isn’t? As if they were all somehow ‘pure’, as if ordinary people’s cars homes didn’t get torched then, as they have been. The London riots might not have been pretty, but they’re undeniably ‘political’ in the small-p sense. Humiliating a corrupt and racist police force, ignoring the codes of private property… since when was all this apolitical? Sure, it’s unproductive and lacks any kind of positive alternative, but denying the riots are political denies all those involved basic human agency, which is exactly the kind of borderline (at best!) classist/racist thinking that went part of the way to bringing the events of the past few days about.

    • “Denying the riots are political denies all those involved basic human agency.” No it doesn’t. Not in any way whatsoever. Anyway, I didn’t say there weren’t underlying political causes, just that this does not qualify as overt “protest” or “uprising”.

      But I did enjoy the phrase “ignoring the codes of private poverty” (do you mean nicking stuff?) and the allegation of borderline (“at best!”) racism.

      • Never mind my awkward phrasing, stop evading – why is it that riots are only political when they’re safely at arms length?

        Of course denying the riots are political denies people agency. These people are the most marginalised section of society, what are they supposed to do? Write their MPs?

        -btw, I know it’s unpleasant for someone who considers themselves to be left wing to be accused of possibly being a bit racist, but all I meant was it’s an unfortunate consequence of the line of argument you were making, rather than being intentional. The line you’re pushing is barely any different than the one the right’s going with.

      • I’m not evading anything. I don’t think looting is an acceptable “political” act and that’s what was happening after Saturday. If it had ended with Saturday’s response to the killing of Mark Duggan I would see it as a protest that got out of hand but by Monday it was obvious that a lot of the looters, far from Tottenham were just criminals seizing their chance. I can’t for the life of me see why the far left are unable to consider that aspect and say a single word against the looters.

        The fact that you can’t see any difference between my argument and that of the right is maybe more indicative of your own views than mine. There is nothing racist about anything I’ve said here and you’ve got a nerve claiming there is while posting as Anon.

  8. […] set in yet) or saying that the bankers behind the financial crisis are the real “looters”. Dorian Lynskey accurately describes that last as “a sixth-form debating-society […]

  9. […] What the left needs to do next Right now many people are rightly angry with the looters. Friends of mine tut at people they known on Facebook or Twitter suddenly having reactionary spasms: going “a bit Daily Mail.” I don’t want bullets, curfews, the death penalty or tanks on the street either but when you see the centre of gravity moving right you don’t shake your head condescendingly — you try to mount a persuasive counter-argument. Most people in deprived areas didn’t commit any crimes and many were victims of crime. They are furious – not just hang-‘em’-flog-‘em Tories in the shires — and they want to see justice done. As Owen Jones points out in a sobering piece on Labour List, the backlash in the US during the Nixon years could happen here. (tags: 2011.riots) […]

  10. Dorian, I’m halfway through your book at the moment, and I’m very much enjoying it and I found this piece really interesting. I think, on balance, you are right to say that 3D and Morello may be scoring own goals here. I’ve been taken to task myself by my more right-wing friends for failing to condemn the looters. The problem is, I do condemn the looters for their criminal acts but my condemnation isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference, so I find it useful to go on and discuss the social and political context of the riots, as do many others on the left. Whenever anyone in the mainstream media has attempted such a discussion, however, commentators on the right immediately accuse them of excusing violence when they are doing nothing of the sort. Kelvin Mackenzie on Newsnight last week was a prime example. I think 3D and Morello are absolutely right to be attempting a wider discussion, but I’m sad to say agree with you that they’ve left themselves open to accusations of being unsympathetic with the victims of looting, particularly Morello who comes across as unsurprisingly distant. I would guess that, if questioned directly about their statements, they would condemn violence, as I think 3D is hinting at with his ‘mad, sad and scary..’ comments, but I think that when discussion of the causes of violence is so easily cut off at the source by corporate media implicit in social injustice, the left has to be more careful getting their points across. That said, when I see the city I love burning, I get very angry and I don’t see any sense in restricting my anger to the kids looting JD sports.

    • Thanks Giles. I agree. It all depends on who you’re reading/arguing with. My politics are more in line with 3D’s than with anyone on the right, or indeed much of the news coverage, but I felt his post was an example of a common tone-deafness on the left. It’s not that he or Tom Morello are wrong – it’s that they’re preaching to the choir.

  11. Day 3, only 400 signatures.

    E-petition: Homelessness – Not in my name http://t.co/uQyh2PC Please help, sign and pass it on.

    The petition to evict people has hundreds of thousands of signatures.. That cannot be representative of the reality. I hope.

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