On 6th August 2011, England erupted. First Tottenham, then Hackney, then all across London and beyond to Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester and even Gloucester erupted in the most widespread wave of insurrectionary activity in a century. Sparked by the death of a man at police hands, further escalated by a beating dished out to a young girl who turned up at the police station to demand answers, these have been labelled riots – which is of course correct. But riots on this scale and of this widespread can only be considered an insurrection.
The politicians and the papers are quick to downplay any suggestions of political motives in the violence which gripped the country, describing them as “criminality” pure and simple”. They state then followed by demonstrating that they entirely understand the politics behind them by the heavy handed manner in which they are pursuing and prosecuting anyone involved. The left too must understand the politics behind the riots. It is true to state that although the initial peaceful protest had a political programme, as did the riot in its immediate aftermath, the longer the violence went on, and the further from its Tottenham epicentre it got the less it was connected to Mark Duggan or directly to oppressive policing.
What then grew was a full scale insurrection. That insurrection not only encompassed the violence directed towards the police, the firestarting, the vandalism, the looting and the chaos, but also the defensive community actions in its wake – the #riotcleanup, community defence in Haringey and the defence of religious buildings in Southall. To properly analyse this we need to look to Stirner. I doubt very much if many of those taking part in the riots have so much as heard of Stirner, far less been motivated by his political programme, but unconscious philosophy is philosophy none the less.
A contemporary of Marx, Stirner is considered the father of individualist anarchism. He rejected the concept of revolution with a political programme, in favour of an insurrection. Stirner, in The Ego and his Own considered that revolutionary activity was counterproductive as it would lead to a replacement of a hated state with another which would in time become just as hated. The goal was to establish a stateless society based on the free association of individuals each acting in their individual interest. He believed that people should not seek to directly overthrow the state but come together in free associations – “unions of egotists” which banded together to attain mutual goals. Stirner rejected political organisation in the traditional sense, believing that only temporary affinities based on the individual will of the time could ensure freedom from domination.
We saw these unions of egoists come together a number of ways during the insurrection. From groups coming together to destroy the symbols of their oppression; people banding together to loot, shopkeepers gathering to protect their shops and the riotwombles collectively cleaning up their streets. All acting in their individual self-interest, all with temporary affinities where disagreements were put aside in the pursuit of a common but time limited goal. The union demands nothing of its members except that each act in their own self interest and the relation between parties is continually renegotiated by the egos of the participants, with freedom to leave or join as is the will. Above all though it demonstrates a lack of belief in institutions – most obviously in the police as protectors of private property.
Stirner’s concept of property rights is deeply troubling – based on a “might is right” agenda; something that we see coming through in the looting and theft from individuals which occurred. While he believed that once a person attained self-realization of true egoism they would not want to rule over others or hold more possessions than they need because this would bind them to the mass, and that they would withdraw into their own uniqueness as they had no need to prove themselves to others, this was certainly not the case. Egos were on display during the riots and they were not always a pretty sight.
Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property….What I have in my power, that is my own. So long as I assert myself as holder, I am the proprietor of the thing…I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I respect nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!
The looting which went on during the insurrection bears careful analysis. And in this looting we see the collective ego of the insurrectionists shining back upon us, and it is not always a pretty sight. There were those who looted for objects of need – those who took baby milk, nappies and (somewhat inexplicably) immodium. The class make up of the rioters was overwhelming poorer and given the chance to obtain consumables which would otherwise have consumed their megre resources, they took the opportunity. There were those who looted for objects of desire – heavily advertised branded goods dangled in front of their noses but out of the reach of their pockets. A reflection of the consumer culture which marks out social territory and leads to goods made in sweatshops by enslaved Third World kids for pennies sold to working class Western kids at immense profit levels. And there were those who looted for objects of value, commodities which could be sold on the black market to enrich their own pockets – the ugliest side of the looting where the “might is right” philosophy of those who have bought in to the capitalist ethos of getting ahead and snatching at whatever they can to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
The nihilism of the mass was evident in the rioting, particularly as it developed from its base in Tottenham. Stiner considered that an
…insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on ‘institutions’. It is not a fight against the established […] it is only a working forth of me out of the established. […] Now, as my object is not an overthrow of the established order but my elevation above it, my purpose and deed are not political or social but (as directed toward myself and my ownness alone) an egoistic purpose indeed.
Morality was suspended, while people were burned out of their homes, individuals were attacked in the streets and vunerable individuals terrorised by the violence being played out on their doorsteps, the nihilism of the rioters became apparent. This was a carnival of the oppressed, a joyous celebration of destruction and power, with conventional morality – respect for the police, for the state, for private property all suspended – but all too often the new morality of the insurrectionists proved vacuous. This is not universally true – there were many instances of community solidarity and selfhelp on display, but the destruction of homes, local businesses and public space demonstrate a lack of regard of many of the rioters for their fellow beings.
The English Insurrection of 2011 is a turning point in English history and it has important lessons for the Left. The radical and revolutionary left is weak in England, it has little programme, few ideas and it appears incapable of mounting a significant challenge to the increasingly despotic and corrupt establishment. What the insurrection has demonstrated however is that there is appetite for radical change and, given the right conditions, a fearlessness of obtaining it. We have a significant underclass in the UK separated from traditional class relations, where their relationship to the means of production is mediated through state institutions fostering a dependency and discipline which has become equally hated and feared, resulting a destructive nihilism mixed with a capitalist value system. The left must reach out to the dispossessed, those who have been bought off by giving them benefits for housing to enrich their landlords; who are required to beg for loans to deal with financial crises; who are required to play the game of looking for work when none exists – or at least none for them.
The next uprising must not be merely an insurrection, it must be a revolution.