Fear of the ‘mob’ has terrified the powerful for millennia. No matter how much control a city or country’s rulers have over the mechanisms of the state, the power to arrest, imprison, torture and murder those who threaten the status quo, every so often the ordinary citizens would rise up and seize power for themselves if only for a few days or even a few hours. This was the case in ancient Athens and Rome, democratic and republican cities where demagogues appealed to the masses as a way of usurping power for themselves or checking the wealth and influence of the aristocracy. Yet, the left have also feared the mob, the French and Russian revolutions were fuelled by agitators who used the ordinary citizens anger and muscle yet once they’d seized control sought to oppress the very people they claimed to have liberated.
British riots have a long and noble history dating back to Elizabethan street gangs who, rather than being named after fast food hangouts or their immediate locality, had rather loftier nomenclatures based for example on lines from Virgil’s fifth eclogue. Nevertheless their stock in trade was outright brutality, violence against the person and they were perceived to be a threat to the city and the nation’s cohesion. Luckily the Spanish armada arrived bang on cue to distract these Shakespearean ruffians from accosting men in tights outside the Globe theatre and the taverns of Ye Olde Londone.
Cromwell may well have killed the king and briefly transformed England into a ‘commonwealth’ but he was also a landowner and a religious fanatic who didn’t want the wealth sharing out to too many commoners. Olly slaughtered the catholic Irish in huge numbers in defence of Puritan ideals as well as executing the leaders of the Levellers who demanded an equal share of the wealth and power in return for their part in ridding the country of one tyrant, only to be landed with another.
All through British history, the power of the mob has been suppressed especially when revolutions in other countries, France and Russia in particular, have threatened the old aristocratic and mercantile power structures to such a degree that wars have been used to distract the poor from foolish notions of revolt. How easily the British working class are bought off by flag waving and appeals to patriotism. Storming the Bastille and republican values? No thanks let’s give Old Boney a bloody nose and let the toffs off the hook for another three centuries. Bolshevik revolution? No thanks, we’d rather die in rat infested trenches to preserve the empire and the wealth of our officer class.
When the natives get restless in times of relative peace, then the media can relied upon to offer predictable causes and cures for outbreaks of violence and rioting; the causes are always to do with moral collapse and a lack of respect amongst the youth and the cure will include bringing back the birch, national service, stocks, welfare cuts, penal servitude, sharia law and castration.
Geoffrey Pearson’s classic book, ‘Hooligan; a history of respectable fears’ published in 1983 describes how the demonisation of the young and poor have been used by the political elite to distract attention away from their own greed and criminality. To do this they use their pals in the media to create moral panics and just as the newspapers sensationalised the ‘hooligan’ riots of the ‘Victorian’ era (when the word ‘Hooligan’ itself was coined, allegedly after a notorious Irish family of brawlers) so today’s press and TV become tools of state propaganda.
The recent inner city riots have been a Godsend for Cameron and the government as they seek to wriggle free from the Murdoch/News International hacking scandal. The police also have seen their damaged reputation rehabilitated even though the initial cause of the Tottenham riot that sparked the nationwide mayhem, was their shooting of a local man and then falsely claiming (via their pals in the media again) that he had shot at them first. Whether or not their target was a known gangster or a ‘community leader’ (these two words are often placed in inverted commas as shorthand for gangster in any case) there cannot be any doubt that such incidents fuel resentment within the ‘black community.’
Aah, the ‘black’ community. Funny how racist attitudes change depending on the incident. Since 911 the ‘muslim’ community has been the Daily Mail brigade’s number one hate target. After the death of the three young asian lads protecting their shops from looters in Birmingham, however, far from being safe havens for Islamic fundamentalists, jihadists and suicide bombers, the muslim community are now being heralded as noble defenders of British values against the forces of ‘black’ feral youth. The age old cliches about the lack of black, male role models and the gang mentality of black youth ignore the obvious fact that black communities across Britain also happen to be the poorest areas with the most ingrained social problems.
The simple economic fact is that as most of these communities were created during the 50s and 60s as a result of colonial rule. The descendants of slaves shipped to the West Indies to harvest sugar cane and other products were needed to aid ‘the mother country’ at a time of an employment shortage. Unlike the Asian immigrants from India and Pakistan, these afro-caribbean men and women didn’t have the financial, social or cultural networks where their own economies could thrive and they were entirely dependent on the often menial jobs offered to them that ‘white’ people refused to do and housed in run-down parts of cities that white people had vacated.
Fifty years on, opportunities for social or economic advancement in these areas are as pitiful as they ever were and yes, this also applies to ‘white’ areas too and in many cases the vast white ghettoes in the north have suffered more, being abandoned by the trendy Oxbridge liberals and lefties who have no exotic desire to colonise rough-arse ‘sink estates’ but are happy to gentrify Brixton, Hackney and Toxteth and then claim that these are ‘their communities.’ No wonder then that the white ghettoes are the first to submit to the BNP/EDL and other right wing organisations who, rather than blaming the political/financial elite for plundering the public purse and consigning them to the so-called ‘benefit trap’ and low-skill, zero-prospect drudgery would rather believe everything is the fault of ‘immigrants.’ Maybe once the BBC drones move up to Salford now that Media City is located in the city, Ordsall will become another area colonised by brush wielding attention seekers, cleaning up after those ghastly poor people.
Enoch Powell’s brand of monoculturalism is the same creed adopted by Cameron and shamefully many supposed ‘socialists,’ rather than seeing the world through the prism of ‘class’ – and by class what we really mean is economic opportunity – would rather pander to the nationalist agenda set by the self-interested political/financial elite. Whether that’s good old One Nation Conservatism or New Labour’s ‘Classless Society’, the myth that ‘we’re all in it together’ is a powerful slogan to use against anyone who refuses to join the patriotic circus that sends boys to die in the desert and uses selective warfare to protect the narrow economic interests of the super-rich under a pretext of liberation. You’re either with us or against us but what about those of ‘us’ who refuse to use ‘us’ to describe invented national and cultural identities. Funny how the ‘me me me’ brigade are quick to collectivise when things go wrong with their cosy machinations.
The looters and arsonists of the past few weeks may not have had a clear objective other than to cause destruction and to thieve commodities but that’s what happens when those who are physically the strongest members of society but economically the weakest for a few hours, a few days become a law unto themselves. Of course when these rare opportunities arise, as they did in LA after the Rodney King verdict or in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or in countless other riots, the poorest members of society will seek to take goods that will improve their standard of living even for the short time it takes for the ‘forces of law and order’ to regain control and punish them for their ‘moral bankruptcy’.
This isn’t wooly liberalism or a defence of wanton criminality but to pretend that the causes of the recent English riots or indeed any other acts of dissent are somehow a new phenomena is to ignore the predictable pattern of economic abandonment and hypocritical moral posturing that has been with us ever since the city state was first formed and a separation between the haves and have nots caused mutual mistrust, resentment and violence. Take away the control mechanisms of ‘state security’ and who’s gonna win out, the tough poor or the flabby middle/upper classes. It is this fear of the power balance being shifted that terrifies the toffocracy.
The hysterical reaction to the recent riots has offered a lifeline to Cameron to bang his Broken Britain drum again and the appalling sight of Charles and Camilla patronising the ‘victims’ of the Tottenham riots as those OBE craving black politicians and ‘social commentators’ supporting all manner of outrageous ideas to punish their ‘brethren’ is puke inducing. Just like the token black bobbie conveniently placed behind Cameron outside No10 and those token black faces they place at Tory (and Labour) conferences, the idea that the aristocratic elite have anything but uutter contempt for the poor, black or white, is laughable. As is to attempt once again to coral his classes natural enemies into some prescribed and fictitious notion of a shared identity. The ultra-right upholders of ‘self-discipline’ only apply these supposed virtues to the lower orders whilst excusing the excesses of the rich and Cameron and his Etonian chums enjoyed snorting their way through public school and Oxbridge to land lucrative jobs in the city and politics without ever having to face the everyday grind of real life as it is lived in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and other citys.
The Roman mob was fobbed off with ‘bread and circuses’ that is to say enough food to keep them from starving and enough entertainment to distract them from the inequality of the fruits of empire pouring into the coffers of the political elite. It doesn’t take much to dampen the flames of prole anger and a few tokenistic prison sentences and executions will usually send a message out to potential insurrectionists. So, to paraphrase Bill Hicks ‘Go back to sleep Britain, X-Factor and Celebrity Big Brother are back on, the Queen’s latest jubilee is coming up, the new football season is with us and the Olympics will provide an antidote to the destructive forces of negation and will bring together the nation as one, happy, union jack waving family. UKPLC. TeamGB. The ‘decent’ face of black Britain as ‘our’ athletes take on the world. Can’t fucking wait.