Blackspot

Is Rioting Revolutionary?

The London Riots as a political act.
Is Rioting Revolutionary?

Looters run from a clothing store in Peckham, London August 8, 2011 (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

Watching the left's reaction to the London Riots, I am reminded of a discussion between philosopher Michel Foucault and French Maoist militants in 1971. The Maoists argued in favor of setting up a "people's court" to pass judgement on the police whereas Foucault took the contrary position and insisted instead on uncoordinated, unconstrained brutal "popular justice."

Foucault theorized that any attempt to create a judicial system, even a judicial system purportedly run by the people, would simply replicate the power structure that we intended to oppose. Nor did he shy away from taking this argument to its logical conclusion. Foucault went as far as embracing historic examples of disturbing mob behavior, explicitly recalling, and implicitly endorsing, the rash of extrajudicial executions carried out during the French Revolution's September Massacres of 1792 when over a thousand people were murdered by revolutionaries. This, for Foucault, was what "popular justice" looks like and even the "moral ideology" that finds these illegal outbursts repellant "must be submitted to the scrutiny of the most rigorous criticism." The Maoists, on the other hand, insisted that the people's fury ought to be channeled into appropriate (albeit revolutionary) party structures.

What Foucault and the Maoists were debating goes to the heart of how we imagine revolutionary change will take place. Will the revolution be an uncontrolled insurrection – whose symptoms include looting in the streets of London, for example – where the people's rage against consumerism is fully released and their judgements implicitly trusted? Or, will we fear the mob and act, more or less explicitly on the side of power and the status quo, to quell and control the released flows – grabbing a broom to keep the streets clean for the next day's ecocidal shopping?

This is, for me, the fundamental point: at what point does a riot become a revolution? Must the London youth don Black Bloc attire and shout utopian anarchist slogans while burning cop cars before their acts are recognized as a kind of political rebellion? Must they be able to articulate themselves in a way that is intelligible to readers of Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri before their riotous flashmobs are acknowledged as the highest form of networked insurrection yet achieved? I suspect that when revolution comes, the ones who have been too long waiting for it will be the very ones who miss it. For they will be too accustomed to looking in the wrong direction, waiting for the wrong words, the wrong actors, the wrong kinds of political deeds.

We are in a revolutionary moment. Prepare yourself: this global insurrection will unfold in ways we lefties may not like. There might be violence, although we desire nonviolence, and there might be pillaging, although we desire the peaceful transfer of wealth. But, let us pause to consider before passing knee-jerk judgement on the forces unleashed even if they do not act as we would prefer. Before we rush to set up approved structures of dissent, we should ask ourselves why we are so invested in denying that rioting is a legitimate political act. Rather than trying to channel, control or dissipate these forces, we must learn to play off of the chaos of the released flows.

"It is from the point of view of property that there are thieves and stealing," Foucault insisted at the end of his discussion. When we always see looting as nothing but thieving and refuse to grant to it the status of a conscious political act, an outburst of "popular justice" against a corrupt and corrupting capitalist system, we are assuming the point of view of the very forces we are trying to overthrow. The same goes for when we condemn any insurrectionary act that is not accompanied by an insurrectionary tract.

The London Riots may not be pretty but as the old-lefty adage goes: "Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly, and modestly. A revolution is an insurrection…" And the London Riots are, whether we like it or not, what an insurrection might look like if the forces of capitalism do not peacefully, voluntarily relinquish their stranglehold.

Micah White, micah (at) adbusters.org

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274 comments on the article “Is Rioting Revolutionary?”

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Anonymous

The Rioting in London is in no way political, if it were then it would have taken place outside Buckingham Palace or at Downing Street, some place of political/cultural importance. If the riots were really as rioters say, about showing the `rich and powerful` how much control they can seize then they would be in Kensington, Chelsea, e.t.c. Instead the riots are going on in the poorest areas of London, in the rioters backyard so to speak. This is why these riots cannot directly lead to revolution

I do believe rioting is acceptable if the government in power has taken no notice of previous peaceful protests; they give people no choice but to be loudly and forcefully heard. The reasons for riots need to be clearly known which the London riots are not.

Anonymous

The Rioting in London is in no way political, if it were then it would have taken place outside Buckingham Palace or at Downing Street, some place of political/cultural importance. If the riots were really as rioters say, about showing the `rich and powerful` how much control they can seize then they would be in Kensington, Chelsea, e.t.c. Instead the riots are going on in the poorest areas of London, in the rioters backyard so to speak. This is why these riots cannot directly lead to revolution

I do believe rioting is acceptable if the government in power has taken no notice of previous peaceful protests; they give people no choice but to be loudly and forcefully heard. The reasons for riots need to be clearly known which the London riots are not.

Ronin

When is popular political dissent ever divorced from the wrath of the populace?

People in hordes being abused by the operational failures of the power mongers in denial of their crumbling civilization scratching their heads on Downing st.

Visceral responses when the melting pot boils over, and the water turns to steam in the air. It gets hot in the august son.

Ronin

When is popular political dissent ever divorced from the wrath of the populace?

People in hordes being abused by the operational failures of the power mongers in denial of their crumbling civilization scratching their heads on Downing st.

Visceral responses when the melting pot boils over, and the water turns to steam in the air. It gets hot in the august son.

Sincerely

The Rioting in London is in no way political.

A boy was shot by the police. Locals say that they've endured years of abuse at the hands of the police, and finally it boiled over into the streets. And you want to say that this isn't political, because these people didn't meet and charter buses and hold signs outside of the official centres of power, it's not political?

Give your head a shake.

The civil rights movement in the states didn't erupt because Rosa Parks was denied a seat on the bus, that was simply a tipping point atop a mountain of injustice that had been built up for generations. This is a complicated, and yes, political problem. Some (maybe even many) of these youths are only interested in looting and burning, but consider that some of them see this as an act of vengeance upon a system that has given them no options and no hope.

Sincerely

The Rioting in London is in no way political.

A boy was shot by the police. Locals say that they've endured years of abuse at the hands of the police, and finally it boiled over into the streets. And you want to say that this isn't political, because these people didn't meet and charter buses and hold signs outside of the official centres of power, it's not political?

Give your head a shake.

The civil rights movement in the states didn't erupt because Rosa Parks was denied a seat on the bus, that was simply a tipping point atop a mountain of injustice that had been built up for generations. This is a complicated, and yes, political problem. Some (maybe even many) of these youths are only interested in looting and burning, but consider that some of them see this as an act of vengeance upon a system that has given them no options and no hope.

ealex

First of all this was not a 'boy', he was a grown man of 29, and a father of four, sadly. While the circumstances of his death are quite shady, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out the police fucked up and abused their power, Duggan is far from being beyond suspicion as well. Whether he was a gang leader or not, whether he fired or not, he was packing a gun, and last I checked people who carry guns around town are not usually selling girl scout cookies. Granted it may be possible that in the world he lived in it was needed. But then we don't know either way.

I think this article is wrong in considering the riots a revolt against consumerism, and on the contrary I agree that if anything, it is more a manifestation of it. On the other hand, I do agree that whether explicitly political or not, the riots do contain socio-political content and symbolism and they are reflective of the state of a certain segment of society, which is growing - they are reflective of the problem of the consumerist/decadent culture that we are promoting and following, of our collective tolerance for the amassing of power and wealth in the hands of the few and ultimately of it's consequences on society, in creating and fostering these very same segments which we call criminal now.

I don't think rioting and looting the type of what's happening in London is revolutionary on it's own. I think they are misguided and purposeless and on their own they will and would fail. However I do begin to recognize that within any global change, within any global insurrection that may come, these elements will play their role, this type of manifestation of rage and revolt will be necessary, and possibly essential in securing the de-stabilization of the currents pillars of power. I don't think we should all be rioters, just the same as I don't think we should all be writers, thinkers, artists and peaceful activists. I do think that we all will play a part, that desire change.

The problem will come with what happens after. Because the rioter element as it shows itself now in London, is largely a mass of uneducated loosely organised people filled with rage. In a post-insurrection world where this element dominates, we could very well end up with trying to replace the former structures of power with other structures of power and other power-hungry people. I'm not calling the London rioters morons and idiots beyond all civilization and certainly in most cases the blame for their lack of education lies on our shoulders. But being completely realistic, if in the insurrection that takes place, if it will ever, the irrational previously consumerist-educated and quite often violence-based element survives in great numbers, we could quickly end up with the same model of society, only with flipped demographics, with explicit violence instead of smooth-talking and legal bribes, where the violent masses dominate and wield power and control whatever form of 'money' might exist at that point.

ealex

First of all this was not a 'boy', he was a grown man of 29, and a father of four, sadly. While the circumstances of his death are quite shady, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out the police fucked up and abused their power, Duggan is far from being beyond suspicion as well. Whether he was a gang leader or not, whether he fired or not, he was packing a gun, and last I checked people who carry guns around town are not usually selling girl scout cookies. Granted it may be possible that in the world he lived in it was needed. But then we don't know either way.

I think this article is wrong in considering the riots a revolt against consumerism, and on the contrary I agree that if anything, it is more a manifestation of it. On the other hand, I do agree that whether explicitly political or not, the riots do contain socio-political content and symbolism and they are reflective of the state of a certain segment of society, which is growing - they are reflective of the problem of the consumerist/decadent culture that we are promoting and following, of our collective tolerance for the amassing of power and wealth in the hands of the few and ultimately of it's consequences on society, in creating and fostering these very same segments which we call criminal now.

I don't think rioting and looting the type of what's happening in London is revolutionary on it's own. I think they are misguided and purposeless and on their own they will and would fail. However I do begin to recognize that within any global change, within any global insurrection that may come, these elements will play their role, this type of manifestation of rage and revolt will be necessary, and possibly essential in securing the de-stabilization of the currents pillars of power. I don't think we should all be rioters, just the same as I don't think we should all be writers, thinkers, artists and peaceful activists. I do think that we all will play a part, that desire change.

The problem will come with what happens after. Because the rioter element as it shows itself now in London, is largely a mass of uneducated loosely organised people filled with rage. In a post-insurrection world where this element dominates, we could very well end up with trying to replace the former structures of power with other structures of power and other power-hungry people. I'm not calling the London rioters morons and idiots beyond all civilization and certainly in most cases the blame for their lack of education lies on our shoulders. But being completely realistic, if in the insurrection that takes place, if it will ever, the irrational previously consumerist-educated and quite often violence-based element survives in great numbers, we could quickly end up with the same model of society, only with flipped demographics, with explicit violence instead of smooth-talking and legal bribes, where the violent masses dominate and wield power and control whatever form of 'money' might exist at that point.

Anonymous

why do you need justification from government to revolt against the misery/boredom of daily life? Why do you have to qualify your statement with "if the gov't does or does not do X. Then I will act" This shift is going to be about everyone being disgusted with the logic/values of society in its totality. Or it might just be about getting stuff for free. But that is the end goal anyway rite?

Anonymous

why do you need justification from government to revolt against the misery/boredom of daily life? Why do you have to qualify your statement with "if the gov't does or does not do X. Then I will act" This shift is going to be about everyone being disgusted with the logic/values of society in its totality. Or it might just be about getting stuff for free. But that is the end goal anyway rite?

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