We all own the violence

This is a simple truth and it has been misdiagnosed all week.

The real violence we are seeing this week is the violence of a "feral" capitalism.

For all the stoved-in windows, the torched cars, the looted shops and the bloodied hands, the rioters this week are not simple "criminals". For all the apoplexy of the Daily Mail they are not "feral teenagers", or even animals for that matter. They have delivered but they do not own the violence on our streets. We all own their violence because we are all buy in to the system that provokes it.

This is a simple truth and it has been misdiagnosed all week. The Prime Minister revealed how out of date his school of Tory physick is when he described the violence as the property of "sick pockets" of society, as if in some Victorian morality play still, starring the pauper and the prostitute. Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman also overlooked the underlying pathology in their rush to be seen inspecting the symptoms welting up across our streets.

Even the liberal media have erred in their prescriptions, acknowledging that the violence has its causes but insisting it is mindless in the act. Insisting, that is to say, that it is the precise opposite of their own metropolitan sophistication.

It may well be true that those terrorising the streets have been acting on impulse, and their actions may well be abhorrent. But we are not advised to push the looters away like this. Certainly not before we understand who they really are and what they thought they were doing (assuming that many of them weren't simply in the wrong place at the wrong time), as Paul Bagguley has pointed out:

Young men in this age range [18-24] are more likely to be on the streets in the places and times at which riots take place as they are more likely to be unemployed, and not to have family commitments or other urgent demands on their time.

The point is, if we have seen a thousand acts of crime these last few days, then we have seen also the reflection of a thousand forms of injustice and a thousand forms of neglect, cutting across lines of age, race and gender albeit with certain trends. Tory vilifications and liberal "told you so" retrospectives do little to help us understand this.

Of course, as Martin Kettle and Aditya Chakraborrty both pointed out in the Guardian yesterday it is easier to seek explanation through the blinkers of what we want or expect to see (a racist police force, a negligent political class, a broken and unhappy Britain). And as Mehdi Hasan points out, this will continue to be the norm, even as evidence to confound such stereotypes emerges from the courts.

But what if instead of looking for what we wanted to see we looked for what we didn't? What if we looked for ourselves among the nameless faces of the street? We may then notice that the fact we are so spoiled for choice as to possible reasons for the riots is easily the most damning thing of all and easily indicts us all.

The geographer David Harvey has to date been one of the few to actually stick his neck out and say this. The looters, he says, "are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way - more blatantly and visibly in the streets." Harvey points to a moral equivalence between the looters at work on the streets and those whose looting simply takes more acceptable forms, the better to eat you my dear. We are all looters at heart, Harvey says and we are all pushed to be feral in our way. The system encourages us to be so:

Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth, telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone's bills, shopkeepers price gouge, and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

This will of course be too clear-cut for some and smack of a single cause itself. But the structural violence of capitalism (be it widening forms of inequality or deteriorating conditions for work) and the physical violence of the street needs to be taken seriously if there is to be another Scarman-type report. And any such report needs to not simply remind us again of the end-stage factors of social privations, personal resentments and collective distrust that we know blights communities in our cities. It needs to ask how the wider forces of social order and political economy create this mixture in the first place.

It must look beyond the usual suspects to ascertain, for example, whether the relationship between the premeditated breaking of the law by the rich and the opportunistic breaking of the law by the poor is of a casual or a causal nature. It should go so far as to consider too the government's handling of the response, since we have been here several times before now. In short it should shine a light on the system itself rather than merely the symptoms.

Which means, in essence, that it could do worse than to bear in mind the wider point Harvey is making: that when capitalism is allowed to run fast and loose and 'feral', and when only the rich get to decide the rules of the game, then such eruptions on our streets become no less predictable an outcome than the fact that the FTSE 100 opens each morning at eight. It should dare to bear in mind that the more predatory forms of capitalism do not a community make.

Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.