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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

History and Rioting (The Inevitable 'Riots' Blog Post): Part 3

Riots, violence, etc: An historical perspective



Keepin' it surreal
Some years ago, now, I edited a book on violence (£16.99 paperback: although, especially since I don't get any royalties, better, in the immortal words of Planet Gong, to rip it off  if you can [or perhaps loot it?  I hope that doesn't land me in jail for 4 years...]). To this volume I contributed a long (40-odd page) introduction, which has subsequently proved way too difficult for some people, in which I set out some ways in which one might analyse violence. Now, it is often supposed that only people studying modern history can have things to say that might be 'relevant' to modern politics. In a feeble attempt to show that this might be misguided or even, for want of a better word, tosh, I have the following thoughts to offer on the recent riots and related issues. But before I go further, let me make clear that I am no sociologist and I have no experience of the sorts of community in which these events have occurred; I have been lucky enough to come from a fairly comfortable background. I'm just offering these as thoughts based on fairly wide reading about the social analysis of violence in a historical perspective.

Such thoughts as I have come together, at base, around the issue of alienation.  As I understand it, at least, there can be no doubt that a profound sense of alienation and frustration lies at the heart of the problem.  In developed capitalist society, as many analyses have already said, it cannot be in any way surprising that poor, comparatively deprived people feel alienated.  The whole developed western capitalist culture has, since the 1980s, been focused on acquisition and greed, without responsibility.  This is just one thing that makes the government and others' tirades about the poor working class needing a sense of responsibility so utterly hypocritical.  I will not say more, as all this has, I think, been said many times and much better - even if such viewpoints are unlikely to be heeded.   What I will say is that the problem lies in, as I call it, the current economy or economic culture of 'as much as' - where status and happiness are felt to depend on people having 'as much as' the next person.  This economic culture needs rooting out at the top, with the absurdly super-wealthy, who have (who award themselves) more money than anyone could ever possibly spend, not at the bottom of society.  It is, by way of an aside, this same broader culture of 'as much as' that has created so many problems in the management of universities, to which I might return if I ever get round to the third part of 'The State We're In'.  What we need is an economy/economic culture of 'enough'.  Sure - how much is enough?  I don't know, but I suspect it is way, way less than £3.3 million a day ('Sir' Philip Green in 2005)...  Even the £1074-a-day salary awarded to himself by the VC of Birmingham university looks a little bit excessive by any rational standards - well, to me at least (I consider myself very well off and I earn less than a sixth of that, which is not to say that I deny that David Eastwood ought to earn significantly more than I do; also I suspect that, unlike 'Sir' Philip, David Eastwood at least pays his taxes).  Anyway ... in a culture like this, the frustration of the (in the modern British context) super-poor is understandable.

On the back of that point about frustration, I want to make a point about the rationality or otherwise of the violence.  It has, I think, been a huge mistake to analyse the violence - to challenge whether or not, for instance, it had political causes - in terms of whether it 'makes sense'.  When I was studying violence, one of the important axes of analysis (and its one to which I will return) was whether violence was 'tactical' or 'strategic'.  I used the first of these terms to describe situations where the perpetrator attacked the perceived root of the problem or grievance, in the intention of resolving his dispute through the use of violence.  Thus, a vengeance killing is an instance of tactical violence.  Throwing a bomb at the Tsar, where the Tsar is seen as the root of all oppression, is tactical violence.  So, ultimately, if you feel you ought to own Silesia, is taking your army into the field to conquer Silesia, or mobilising your forces to invade Iraq (whether to find WMDs, derpose Saddam or simply control the oil resources as the case may be).  In tactical violence, the primary relationship involved is that between attacker and defender, assailant and victim, perpetrator and recipient: phrase it as you will.

Obviously, a large part of criminal violence is tactical (although far from all of it is:drive-bys are an obvious exception).  In much of the rioting and looting, the principal aim was to acquire things you didn't have from people who did.  Some of it might indeed have been no more than that - although understanding such actions cannot stop there, as I have already intimated.  The problem with analysing the rioting and attendant looting according to the principles of tactical (or as it has sometimes been called) 'rational' violence, is that tactical violence is not an option open to everyone, whether for reasons of political power, or organisation, or even planning.  Feuds, famously, only take place between groups of approximately equal socio-economic power.  Joe Peasant could not 'feud' with the Duke of Anjou.  The Duke would either kill him straight off, with more or less impunity, or have his men beat the living daylights out of him and forget about him within an hour or so.  The frustrated people of Tottenham could not - let's face it - have marched on Westminster to overthrow the government, even if they had articulated 'the cuts' as being the problem. Even as a response to a police shooting, a concerted attack on the Police Stations of the area would probably have produced a far more heavy-handed and violent reaction. The odds would be decisively stacked against them.  Even that, though, would have required organisation and in socieites like these, where competing gangs are an important dimension of social organisation, such organisation might not be possible.  Besides which, when even the privileged middle classes organised and took to the streets to prtoest against education cuts the response would not provide much hope from people without that level of political clout and organisation.

And thus we come to 'strategic' violence.  Strategic violence is where the primary relationship involved in the violence is not that between attacker and defender (or whatever).  Strategic violence aims not to resolve the issue in itself, but to draw attention to the issue.  In true feud, for example, killings or other attacks are strategic, not tactical (a point pretty much universally misunderstood).  Some analysts have therefore called what I termed 'strategic' violence 'non-rational' violence.  I rejected that terminology because it seemed to me to imply a value judgement.  I may, on reflection, have been mistaken in this.  Many forms of 'strategic' violence are aimed at objects (human or other) which are anything but directly linked to the cause of the dispute.  But the one thing they have in common is that (unlike many acts of tactical violence) they are by their nature highly public.  The aim is generally to bring in outside parties to try and resolve the dispute. [In the case of the riots, dear reader, I think that that means us.]  Many too are simple outbursts of pent-up frustration and violence against whatever person or thing is at hand, with no pre-planning or articulated agenda.  In this sense, maybe, 'non-rational' is not too bad a term.  The response to a police shooting is a case in point.

The receiving end of 'strategic' violence, however, is very frequently (where it is not an inanimate object) a family member or some other seemingly 'irrational' (or at least non-rational) target.  Thus at least some of the riots, in the initial outburst, attacked the heart of their own communities.  None of this is to 'excuse' violence - it is pretty cold comfort for a businessman from a family that has spent three generations serving a particular community, a shopkeeoper not working for a multi-national (who has generally more to fear from Tesco and the likes of 'Sir' Philip Green than from rioters), to know that violence like this very rarely 'makes any sense' in terms of the choice of target.  But if you expect violence like the riots to 'make sense' in terms of its choice of targets, and in its very format, you will never understand it.  And if you cannot understand the nature of the violence you will never find an effective way of dealing with the problem it manifests. 

In some ways, the strategic nature of the violence was made manifest in a reported exchange between a rioter and a journalist.  'What can you achieve by rioting?' asked the reporter, in suitably hackneyed fashion.  'Well, you wouldn't be talking to me if we weren't rioting', responded the rioter.  The way of responding to this violence, I would suggest on the basis of my readings of historical violence, is not to deal with it on the basis of it all being tactical (criminal) violence, but by seeing it as strategic and thinking about the grievances and disputes to which it aimed (in however unarticulated fashion) to draw attention.

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