London is a city of enormous disparities in wealth, opportunity and class. It's a city where the gap between its financial elite and the communities facing difficult social and economic circumstances is accelerating at speed. Yet due to London's strangely unplanned nature, these divergent communities often occupy the very same areas. London's double lives exist in parallel universes co-existing spatially yet decoupled socially and economically. If one version imagines London as shiny, exciting, wealthy, progressive international global capital, its twin is an inverted image, a place whose citizens rarely escape their own post code.
Traditionally, it would be along the geographic fault lines between inequality, class, and race that we would seek the origins of riots. Yet take a look at the map of London showing the sites of rioting and their spread nationally to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Wolverhampton and so on. The dispersed sites of rioting that splatter the map chart a vast range of urban conditions: inner city, suburban, wealthy areas, poor areas. The scattered dots on the map seems to suggest these were a different kind of riot, not necessarily linked to socio-economic geography.
Equally, in the apparent difficulty that politicians and media have in trying to frame a narrative that frames the riots suggests that they fall outside of our traditional understanding. These are inarticulate riots. Though triggered initially by the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham by police, they quickly cut loose from this particular issue and specific location. These riots don't state a position. They have no explicit political discourse, no issue, no slogan, no leader and no goal. They were populated by a broad demographic, across age, race and class. It was a riot that didn't target particular institutions, figures, or sites either real or symbolic. It targeted the most ordinary, most everyday of urban circumstances: high streets, chain stores, convenience stores, off licences.
If the riots are not explicitly about race, not about class, not about something that could be articulated as a political argument, then what on earth are they? That its actions were concerned with looting and destruction rather than political change seems to confound our ability to understand. Could it be simply an outbreak of nihilistic criminality as has been suggested by the Right?
Guy Debord wrote of the 1965 Watts riots that the Los Angeles's black community "take modern capitalist propaganda literally. They want to possess now all the objects shown and abstractly accessible". If his language might also describe the frenzied, perverted consumerism that characterised the UK riots, perhaps Debord's analysis of the looting in Watts might also help us understand the latent politics of London's riots. He argues that looting operated as a challenge to the "oppressive rationality of the commodity". He states, "Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration". Could this then begin to explain the idea of so called 'culture of entitlement' that has fueled the looting? Is it simultaneously an extreme fulfillment of the consumerist dream and an attack on the way consumerism binds us completely into our social cultural and economic situation?
Since the culture of privatisation began in 1980s, not only whole limbs of the state but the fabric of the city itself has become commodified. After the Thatcher era (that had included the selling off of Council homes), New Labour attempted to address the social and economic blight left in the wake of Conservative policy. Yet, in order repair the infrastructure of the state such as schools and hospitals and to regenerate urban fabric, it relied upon privatisation to varying degrees. That's to say, in order to pursue a leftist social agenda, it relied upon forms of privatisation and commodification associated with the right. Following the end of the New Labour project we now have the Coalition Government with its barely concealed ideological programme of austerity cuts whose aim is to shrink the state further and accelerate privatisation. The market has thus co-opted not only the state, its institutions and its functions but also the fabric of our cities.
The privatisation of the city turns the urban environment—which we once might have thought to be a common—into financial instruments. This abstract transformation has real effects. As Damon Rich so eloquently argues in his lecture with the pithy title 'Cities Destroyed For Cash' the mechanisms of finance are already thoroughly engaged in the destruction of the fabric of cities and the destruction of community. In order to extract value from the urban realm the neo-liberal city must destroy itself. Self-destruction then is already hard wired into the operations of the neo-liberal city.
Viewing the events through Debord's analysis of the Watts riots, we could understand the rioting where communities smash themselves up and set themselves on fire as both a logical conclusion of the neo liberal idea of the city and simultaneously an attack on its fundamental principles.
If, as John Lydon tells us from another era characterised by riots 'anger is an energy', then perhaps we can interpret the rioters' actions, rather than their (lack of) rhetoric, as its energy, as it discourse and its politics. That's to say, its agenda developed not as a premeditated narrative, but through what it actually did and how it did it. The meaning, reason or effect of the rioting was then as confusing for those performing it as those responding to it: It happened faster than it could be thought. So not only did the riots seem to fuse both ends of the traditional political spectrum into a single impulsive action, the action contained the riots ideology before it was ever stated.
If the subject of the riots was the inescapable environment of consumerism, there is something about the speed and spread of the riots and its crowd-logics that recalls the frenzy that characterises financial markets today. Indeed it's a strange though not necessarily ironic coincidence that the Blackberry through its private messaging network, BBM, was it is claimed, the method of organising London's riots allowing people to group and regroup with mystifying speed. Not so long ago, the Blackberry was the singular device that symbolised the world of modern business.
The riots saw communication technology designed for corporate users reappropriated as a space within which the rioters could communicate outside of surveillance by the authorities (remember that London has the most sophisticated of CCTV surveillance networks, so BBM represents an invisible, electromagnetic space of communication and congregation).
Perhaps then, there is something about the relationship of communication technology to the city that is significant. The wild roaming of the city was enabled in part by communication technology. And maybe it was the partial virtualisation of the riots contributed to this sense of liberation. In the riots, we saw people in a state of agitated excitement, an atmosphere not characterised by the anger that might be traditionally associated with riots, but a kind of delirious happiness, something verging on the carnivalesque, even.
We could speculate that this is the same hedonistic destruction we have witnessed in the financial markets. Communication technologies have accelerated and exaggerated traders occupation of the markets. In both riot and crash, perhaps we see the same phenomenon, a kind of networked frenzy, a liberation from the normal conditions, as though we were free from the gravities of law or convention, liberated from up and down, right and wrong, set into a freefall of possibility. The physical city, in conditions of riot, or as financial product, is then at least partially absorbed into virtual networks.
The spatiality of London's riots was quite incredible. Unlike demonstrations, unlike protests, unlike London's riots of the 1980s, these were dispersed and fluid. The technology and the politics of these riots combined to develop a new form of riot characterised by rapid movement in time and space. Rioters didn't take up traditional positions. They didn't stand in one place but moved from spot to spot, from group to group, disappearing then returning elsewhere. In response, the police, familiar with say the kettling of demonstrations, employed tactics and equipment suited to traditional confrontations. Employed against a combination of on-the-fly digitally organisation and a geographic dispersal, these tactics are rendered redundant relics of older forms of conflict.
In part facilitated by BBM messages, the riots atomised geography also reflects the fact that they had no singular target or focus. In part because of their unarticulated politics, there was no grand symbolism at play. With no point being made by the breaching a particular institution or monument, the dynamics of rioting were fundamentally altered into what appeared to be a chaotic condition. While the traditional form of riot has a target, here it was centreless, with no middle and no edge.
If, after Debord, we understand the riot as an attack on "oppressive rationality of the commodity"—a condition that has now engulfed not only objects but the entire city itself—then it becomes clear that everywhere is a target, everywhere is symbolic. The riots were an assault on something entirely unexceptional, something all around us, something inescapable, something as fundamental to the city as oxygen or gravity. As everything in the neo-liberal city is a commodity, then it is logical that everything is attacked. As the city has become a machine for surveillance, a mechanism for extracting capital, a place where our liberty is framed by the spectral neo-liberalist arguments of terrorist paranoia and economic pragmatism, the riots perhaps recognise the city itself as a device of control and so lash out at its most symptomatic space: the high street and the shopping centre—what is described in developer-speak as the 'retail offer'.
Yet it was also an attack whose ideology seems to spring from the very same logics that shape the contemporary urban condition. Densified by digital networks, the riots intensified unexceptional activities and spaces of the city such as leisure, high streets, desire, and pleasure. They transformed these everyday urban activities into an exceptional state of unlawfulness.
We might understand these riots as simultaneously an attempt to claim and reject the modern commodified city. While their apparent chaotic nature represents a logical form of escape from the totalising effect of neo-liberal urbanism, at the same time the riots reinforce the very things they attack, binding their actors tighter to the frameworks of commodity culture.
In this inside-out, back-to-front mode of operation, the riots reflect exactly the same kind of pretzel logic that characterises contemporary politics: where social progressiveness can only be delivered through privatisation, where the rhetoric of community and society is used as an argument to advance the corporatisation of the state.
Just as previous forms of riot represented an extreme version of the ideological ground of their era, so apparently do these. Rather than representing its collapse, the riots represent an accelerated version of the contemporary city: an exaggeration of its spatial and programmatic tendencies. We get the riots that we deserve.
Sam Jacob is a principal of FAT, and blogs at Strange Harvest.