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.