Rioting and urban space

So you are probably aware, depending on where you are/how much you’re interested in the UK, that last Thursday a twenty-nine-year-old man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham, North London. On Saturday, a demonstration outside Tottenham police station turned violent, and there has been rioting in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester over the last few days. The BBC has a timeline here; for news and analysis, see Indymedia’s roundup; for a collection of brilliant, snarky, and/or brilliantly snarky comments, see Uncle Steve).

I have lots of thoughts and feelings about this, obviously, but only two of them are worth making public, given how much coverage, analysis, and opinion the riots are (quite rightly) provoking in the media and online. Here they are.

(Do I need to say, first, that I would not like to have my home, business premises, or workplace trashed, any more than I would like to be shot by the police and/or to have my ability to live a meaningful life, or even survive, taken from me by benefit cuts? That the fact that I believe the riots are political messages which deserve to be listened to does not mean I am not aware that lots of people – rioters, policemen, and people who are neither – have been hurt, frightened, and/or traumatized by these events? I will say that first. But I think there are a lot of places you can go for commentary and/or discussion along those lines: what I mean when I say I only have two things that are worth saying publicly, is that these are the only two things I believe I can say more meaningfully or more articulately than they have already been said in many other places. Anyway, I’m finding the obligatory I-don’t-condone-violence formula/disclaimer at the start of almost every discussion of the riots annoying, disingenuous, and in fact contributing to the depoliticization of the actions [see below], so I don’t want to repeat it.)

1. The riots and, in particular, the looting, are almost universally being described as random violence and/or as apolitical. This is a profoundly ideological decision, whether made consciously or unconsciously: it is an active depoliticization of an action which is absolutely political. I don’t mean here that everyone involved in the rioting is motivated by abstract, disinterested political principles and is consciously crafting political tactics aimed at achieving a specific goal for the betterment of society as a whole. That wouldn’t be true. (It is also, of course, untrue of voting, but we see voting as inherently political in its function nonetheless.) So what I mean here is that that the way the riots and the looting is working demonstrates a specifically political faultline in British society, and therefore that the riots are an intervention in specifically political space.

One of the most common (almost ritual) ways in which the riots are marked as ‘apolitical’ is a reference to looting electronic goods (usually flat-screen TVs), as if this could not be a political act. Zoe Williams, always a handy transcriber of liberal ideology in its crudest and most explicit form, says in this Guardian article:

I think it’s just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can’t be done while you’re nicking trainers, let alone laptops… these are shopping riots, characterised by their consumer choices… The type of goods being looted seems peculiarly relevant: if they were going for bare necessities, I think one might incline towards sympathy. I could be wrong, but I don’t get the impression that we’re looking at people who are hungry. If they were going for more outlandish luxury, hitting Tiffany’s and Gucci, they might seem more political, and thereby more respectable. Their achilles heel was in going for things they demonstrably want.

Well, firstly, not getting what you want seems to me to be a very high price to demand in return for the right to political participation (and not a price which is demanded from people who already feel themselves enfranchised: in fact, participation in politics is to some extent precisely a way of ‘getting what you want’, whether that’s lower taxes, an end to war, a fairer distribution of wealth, potential access to higher education, etc). Furthermore… well, okay. Let’s think about Marx. Marx said that simply in order to reproduce his labour – to get back to the factory the next day and keep going – the English working man needed sufficient food, sleep, and beer. (The French working man needs wine.) (They both also need a wife, but let’s save that for another time.) I’m thinking also of Audre Lorde, who says that poetry is not a luxury, and writes in her biomythography Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name about her time as a young, poor, Black lesbian, about the parties she and her friends held, even when they couldn’t always afford the staples. Wealthy people tend to say that this makes poor people feckless: as long as you can afford shelter, basic food, and something to cover your body with, you shouldn’t demand anything more.

But storytelling, art, pleasure, a mode of self-expression, bodily ornamentation, a shared mythology and culture: these are basic needs – ‘staples’, if you like – within all human societies (and many animal ones). In this stage of late consumer capitalism, it’s through consumer goods that we meet all our needs: food and shelter, but also beer. Storytelling, art, poetry, shared mythology, pleasure: we access these online (with our laptops); draw them on our bodies (with our trainers); watch them on TV (with those famous 42-inch plasma-screen TVs). In consumer capitalism, all the good things of human society and culture are only available to us as consumers and via consumer goods. Insisting that the people who are denied those good things (by, for example, the regressive 2010 budget which redistributed wealth upwards, away from the poor and towards the rich) should be somehow above consumerism before they can be listened to, seriously, as citizens and as political agents, is hypocritical and wrong-headed.

I would rather see a focus on the way that the looting seems to be targeting chain stores and corporations more than small businesses (though not exclusively), and seems to be highly successful in targeting property rather than people (the number of casualties, for what keeps being described as ‘five nights of violence throughout the UK’, seems to be remarkably low, though I am heartsick about the three men who were killed in Birmingham on Tuesday night [it’s unclear whether this is to do with the riots, however].) In fact, I would also just like to see more analysis of the rioting along these lines, because I don’t know how true this version of events is, though it’s the one I hope is happening: but the broad-brush condemnation of ‘violence’, ‘looting’ and ‘theft’ I see everywhere is not allowing me to gain a decent understanding of who is doing what and why.

2. This is actually somewhere where my research, and particularly the work I did on political space for my book Now and Rome, makes visible something that isn’t immediately obvious about what’s happening here. I’ve been struck by the way that another constantly-reiterated criticism of the rioters is that they are destroying ‘their own communities’ (and cf Zoe Williams’s suggestion, above, that three hundred angry, grieving people should have relocated from Tottenham to the centre of London to attack Tiffany’s or Gucci’s before we could take them seriously). Now, this seems to me to be based on a very old-fashioned understanding of urban/political space – I might even say on a nostalgic fantasy about urban/political space.

There’s a long and very strong tradition in Western thought about the central importance of spatial proximity to the functioning of a community. Rousseau articulated this idea most clearly in the eighteenth century, though you can see it, and some critiques of it, very clearly in Vergil’s Georgics back in the first century BCE). Derrida summarizes Rousseau:

Rousseau shows [in the Essay on the Origin of Languages] that social distance, the dispersion of the neighbourhood, is the condition of oppression, arbitrariness, and vice. The governments of oppression all make the same gesture: to break presence, the co-presence of citizens, the unanimity of ‘assembled peoples’, to create a situation of dispersion, holding subjects so far apart as to be incapable of feeling themselves together in the space of one and the same speech. (Of Grammatology, p.137)

The fantasy of European political space is that we ‘feel ourselves together in the space of one and the same speech’, that political community is based on a spatial proximity (ideally, you shouldn’t be further away than the range of the unamplified voice: that’s how ‘face-to-face’ or ‘togetherness’ is understood, and that, incidentally, is the root of our deep suspicion about telecommunications technology – which is not always misplaced, but that’s for another post). People in the same place are organically unified into a community, and community is rooted in place: we are ‘inside’ and the enemy (Gucci, Tiffany) is ‘outside’.

But in late capitalism,* place doesn’t work like that. The outside – the enemy, beyond the wall, beyond the political community – is inside. According to Marx, capitalism requires an outside – a domain not yet penetrated by capitalism – to draw on as a resource; it’s not a system which is capable of functioning stably in a self-contained way. And according to Carl Schmitt, an influential German political theorist of space,** what enables European political space/community to be relatively stable, non-violent, and rooted in law, is the existence of a space outside, ‘beyond the line’, where violence was not bounded by the rules of war. Schmitt wrote:

In 16th and 17th century international law… great areas of freedom were designated as conflict zones in the struggle over the distribution of a new world. As a practical justification, one could argue that the designation of a conflict zone at once freed the area on this side of the line – a sphere of peace and order ruled by European public law – from the immediate threat of those events ‘beyond the line’… The designation of a conflict zones outside Europe contributed also to the bracketing of European wars, which is its meaning and its justification in international law. (The Nomos of the Earth, pp.97-98)

What Schmitt means by ‘the bracketing of European wars’ is the disappearance of civil wars, caused by internal fault-lines or political divisions within states, and therefore the (apparently organic) unity of political community with political territory.

So for Marx and Schmitt, both capitalism and political territory rely on the existence of an ‘outside’. But now there are no territorial spaces on the globe beyond the reach of ‘capitalism’, Marx’s ‘outside’, for Hardt and Negri, has been imported into capitalism itself: the only place to find areas beyond capitalism’s reach is to commodify areas of human experience which were previously uncommodified (for Hardt & Negri, particularly emotion, care, and human community). In their book Empire, they describe the space of contemporary global capitalism as fractal: the large-scale global divides between (to oversimplify) rich and poor are repeated in every local community. So a class conflict which might previously have been between two territories (rich and poor, East End and West End) is now imported and interiorized, repeated, present in every local space, however demarcated. (This is how fractals work: the overall shape is repeated in every section of the shape you take, like a tree, where each individual branch is shaped like a tree and each individual leaf is shaped like a branch.)

And according to Giorgio Agamben, Schmitt’s ‘line’ – the line beyond which there is a free zone for conflict and violence – has also been interiorized; with the end of the direct control of non-European colonial territories by European powers, the ‘line’ no longer runs between Europe and the ‘New World’, but through European territory space itself, like a faultline at the heart of the political. The people ‘beyond the line’ are no longer in the New World, but here: they are the people in our own state who are disenfranchised by the policies of our government. Agamben writes:

Modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system. (States of Exception, p.2)

Agamben is talking particularly about people who are held in extrajudicial spaces, like Campsfield Detention Centre or Guantanamo Bay. But the point I want to make is that contemporary urban/political space is not organized around proximity or locality, but around this ‘legal civil war’, which divides people into those with a stake in the system as it is, and those who have been all-but-physically eliminated from mattering. Political groupings (defined by Schmitt as friend/enemy groupings) are not mapped by postcode or street name, but by one’s position within or beyond the ‘line’ which separates the politically enfranchised from the politically disenfranchised. This, by the way, is also the reason why it won’t do to dismiss the rioting outside London as ‘copycat’ activity: there are meaningful, supra-territorial, lines of political allegiance or affiliation, whether conscious or unconscious, which bring these spaces together.

And that’s why I see the riots as profoundly political actions: they are actions being taken, collectively, by those who have been designated as ‘beyond the line’, against those who are on the right side of that line. Now, I’m comfortably on the right side of that line, but I have a vested interest in the redrawing of the line, or its abolition altogether. So I don’t think it serves us to dismiss the riots as apolitical, or to see the rioters as trashing ‘their own’ communities; I think it serves us better to reshape the way we think about politics (and, as part of that, about space). On a very basic and pragmatic level, I think if there was more coverage of the riots taking these recent theories of politics and space into account, it would be easier to understand, analyse, and respond to them as political actions/messages. All the above is, necessarily, a very tentative account of what I think is going on: until the blanket depoliticization of looting, and the misunderstanding of the relationship of political community to space, are dropped, I simply can’t get the kind of information I would need to get to a more fine-grained/accurate/checkable interpretation.

*Not just in late capitalism, in fact. Again, you can see this happening in Ancient Roman theories of political space, whenever internal political divisions break the apparent unity between political community/citizen body and political territory/space. The poet Lucan, who wrote an epic On the Civil War in the first century CE before being ordered to kill himself by the emperor Nero, writes about all the paradoxes that this implies, and this is one of the things I trace in more detail in my book.

**He was a member of the Nazi party and a thoroughly bad egg. I’ve written about him on this blog before.

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8 Responses to Rioting and urban space

  1. inez b says:

    IKA thanks so much for this, something i am going to happily send on, the most rational analysis i have seen plus what perspective. I love this
    But storytelling, art, pleasure, a mode of self-expression, bodily ornamentation, a shared mythology and culture: these are basic needs – ‘staples’, if you like
    and
    suggestion, above, that three hundred angry, grieving people should have relocated from Tottenham to the centre of London to attack Tiffany’s or Gucci’s before we could take them seriously
    and
    the only place to find areas beyond capitalism’s reach is to commodify areas of human experience which were previously uncommodified
    and the rest … Illuminating.

  2. I entirely agree with Inez – real clarity – shedding light on what has been obscured by the mainstream media. Beautifully written. Thank you – I intend to share this widely.

  3. Garboil says:

    Thank you for this. It’s an incisive analysis and one the media and political commentariat are afraid to make. I was struck in the Commons debate by how the only MPs willing to even suggest that there might be something more at work here than apolitical criminality were Plaid Cymru and Green- from Labour, deafening silence.

  4. nix says:

    I’d been thinking a lot about the use of the word ‘community’ in discussions about the riots (as I do whenever ‘community’ crops up, since it’s usually a piece of stickytape holding together several different ideas, none of which are properly communicable by most of the people using it). So, thanks for talking a bit about it in terms of urban space/society. (P.S. I’ve sent a few people here from Twitter, in case you check your stats and are wondering!)

    • nowandrome says:

      It’s a weird word, isn’t it? Brilliantly, it comes from a Latin root from which also come munus, a public service, office, or duty, and moenia, a defensive wall. So etymologically it has both sorts of political space/grouping built into it – one based on space (with a wall round it) and one based on mutual friend-friend obligations.

  5. Pingback: Patchwork Poetry | makinglearning: a space for creative, collaborative, community activities in the South West - we make learning with more feeling!

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