Tariq Ali on British riots: Why here and now?

A shop burns in Tottenham. Photo from AlJazeera.net.

Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause?

Pure accident? Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life?

The coalition politicians (including new New Labour, who might well sign up to a national government if the recession continues apace) with their petrified ideologies can’t say that because all three parties are equally responsible for the crisis.

They made the mess.

See also:
British riots: A crisis of ideology and political leadership
BBC report: 'People feel like caged animals'

They privilege the wealthy. They let it be known that judges and magistrates should set an example by giving punitive sentences to protesters found with peashooters.

They never seriously question why no policeman is ever prosecuted for the 1000-plus deaths in custody since 1990.

Whatever the party, whatever the skin colour of the MP, they spout the same clichés.

Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong.

But why is it happening now? Why didn’t it happen last year?

Because grievances build up over time, because when the system wills the death of a young black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.

And it might get worse if the politicians and the business elite, with the support of the tame state television and Murdoch networks, fail to deal with the economy, and punish the poor and the less well-off for government policies they have been promoting for more than three decades.

Dehumanising the "enemy", at home or abroad, creating fear and imprisonment without trial cannot work for ever.

Were there a serious political opposition party in this country it would be arguing for dismantling the shaky scaffolding of the neoliberal system before it crumbles and hurts even more people.

Throughout Europe, the distinguishing features that once separated centre-left from centre-right, conservatives from social democrats, have disappeared.

The sameness of official politics dispossesses the less privileged segments of the electorate, the majority.

The young unemployed or semi-employed blacks in Tottenham and Hackney, Enfield and Brixton know full well that the system is stacked against them.

The politicians’ braying has no real impact on most people, let alone those lighting the fires in the streets. The fires will be put out.

There will be some pathetic inquiry or other to ascertain why Mark Duggan was shot dead, regrets will be expressed, there will be flowers from the police at the funeral.

The arrested protesters will be punished and everyone will heave a sigh of relief and move on till it happens again.

[Reprinted from the London Review of Books blog.]


No I do not agree the system is stacked against them - their wrong beliefs and inability to want to be anything other than lazy minded is their root problem. People who want to drag themselves up out of the gutter do so.

The polices are not acting as tough as they could be and this episode is dragging on - but then again the pathetic sentencing terms that will no doubt be used afterwards, somewhat kills their energy levels too.

The easiest option is to turn to crime. Life isnt meant to be easy. Yes some areas are tough to break the mold, but there are inspirations of those that do, instead of looking at gangsters as role models look elsewhere!

At the end, Ali is too cynical. This crisis is of an historical piece with the student riots and the Murdoch meltdown, it is not isolated from the current juncture. The rulers have a serious crisis of legitimacy on their hands. The post-Thatcher class playing field is tilting. If the cynic argues that history simply repeats itself over and over, a rejoinder would be that, at this historic moment, it is an ascending spiral.

the problem lies at the heart of the home (most youngsters in Haringey come from single parent families) and from that to the school, if there is hopelessness at the start, it continues. A few bad apples, and the rest are considered rotten too, the black community has to look to itself as well as to accuse governments, the West Indian community is an asset to London, parts of it are rotten, and don't believe the sentences will be light, two years will be a norm, remember those muslims given two year sentences for rioting? It may even go up. So can we move on, plenty of black role models, great people, so take a different stance in life the poor have always wanted to move up and on, follow them. I am working class, first to go to university, got out of my spiral of despair without any parents, so am not sympathetic to people who riot for apair of shoes, no way

"Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life?"
RUBBISH! Simply an excuse for bad behaviour in my opinion! For example, Jews have been subjected to 100's of years of racial and religious discrimination and have been persecuted out of many countries, yet they are known to work hard, abide the laws and the majority do well; financially, educationally, as a family and community-minded group. How many ethnic immigrants have come to the UK and worked all the hours god-sends to provide for their families and have built up businesses and community links by their boot-straps, through sheer hard work. Mostly doing work/jobs that our British "underclass" wont touch because its too hard, too long, too dirty, too "menial". These people mess about in school, come out with zero qualifications, live generations on the dole and will only even contemplate a job if its easy and starts at 50k! Yes, of course thats a generalization, but whole generations live on Estates around me thinking like that. This Country cant afford, either financially or morally, to encourage people to see that a life on benefits is better paid than working, is more profitable so why bother? We have very little genuinely "poor" people in the UK and I dont wish benefits to be at such a miniscule level to ensure that either, but I dont expect people to be labelled "poor" because they cant afford yet another take-away, another giant plasma TV or to smoke more than 20 fags a day either!
Frankly some of the Estates are pretty grim. The kids have been allowed, certainly not disallowed, to sh*te in their own back yards, destroy their surroundings, adults choosing to deal drugs and get that Mercedes car and designer gear rather than earn some money and self-respect doing a legit job. Who'd want to invest in jobs in that area, creating a business to employ others? Some are the product of their own doings. Then people get home and go through their own front door, where they have total control over their environments. They can smoke less fags and cook their kids a proper dinner instead, they could miss bingo and stay in and play games with their kids, they could help with homework instead of having their mates round playing games on the X-Box. They could teach their kids respect of others instead of selling on stolen goods from their kitchen and mouthing off about the "Pigs". These are their own choices, but with that brings a certain sad future for the next generation.
I live on benefits due to being disabled and I live a "good" life. My kids arent hungry, they have a fair home around them. But they are encouraged at school, expected to go to college, to get part-time jobs to support themselves whilst doing this and then get a good job later on- be that in McDonalds or wot, they'll have the respect of earning a wage for work they have done themselves. For their own self-respect! Do you think those living in the 30's Depression taught their kids these lessons, rioted and burned businesses employing local people? No, they taught them hard work and respect to get themselves out of that situation. And now they WERE poor! So, yes, these are just excuses, not real reasons which can be legally demonstrated against to those in Governments who could actually do something. Not a small firm working in a London suburb!

In one of these areas (I think it was Tottenham) there are over 50 unemployed for every job. What are people supposed to do, grab hold of their own bootstraps and lift?

We live in a consumer society that teaches us "you are what you buy". You are worth the sum of your posessions. Yet this same society condemns whole sections of the working class to unemployment or precarious unemployment and grinding poverty. So we should not be surprised if opportunists go out during a riot and pinch some expensive consumer goods. It is hypocritical to condemn them for supposedly attacking the moral fabric of society. The whole fabric of consumer society is immoral.

Crimes against property are always demonised, but what looks like an outrageous police execution of Mark Duggan, and the brutal treatment of his family and friends, is the greatest crime that has occurred here.

Poor and particularly black communities are frequently harassed by the police. Deaths at the hands of the police happen on average once a week in the UK, but no police ever get convicted for any of these. Plenty of the young "rioters" have pretty well explained to various journalists that their "riots" are a desperate protest against this system. If no-one protested or responded at all, that would in many ways be far more worrying than the chaotic and destructive events we've just seen.

Tariq Ali is the worst kind of salon socialist and should be avoided by the progressive working class. There is very little chance that the lumpen proletariat will attack his house in Highgate, one of the most expensive suburbs of London. These riots have nothing to do with a revolt to the conservative government system,

As Right and Left resort to the usual cliches, it's noticeable that many of the shopkeepers were themselves poor and hard working. Or that until late 2007, migrants from eastern europe, with very little language skills, were able to come to the UK and found employment, often in jobs that were dirty and unpleasant - the type of jobs local people were unwilling to do, preferring to stay on benefits. Poverty and deprivation are only part of the causes - but they should not be offered as an excuse - there are simply too many examples of the marginalised who manage to overcome both.

How many people do you know that live and work in the same suburb? Most people in the UK travel around an hour to work. This is not about poverty but about a lack of a moral compass. Why these people don't seem to think the same as 'everyone else' is a difficult question. Don't simply put this down to a lack of opportunity. Opportunity is still all around in a country like the UK.

You don't see Somalis using $500 Blackberries to co-ordinate where the food is while wearing designer gear. Maybe if that money was spent on getting professional advice on their resume (which is free in many places anyway) or buying a bus pass to find work in another area of the city this problem wouldn't exist.

This was shopping with violence and nothing more.

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