While We Watch Their Streets Burn – The UK Riots

The response to the 2011 UK riots fits into an unfortunate paradigm of ignoring structural and underlying causes. These are easy explanations that characterise the outbreaks as race riots or as pure criminality. Issues such as entrenched poverty, ghettoisation and marginalisation from economic and political spheres are left by the wayside. But to understand the 2011 riots we need to have “more complex and differentiated pictures…if we wish accurately to capture their social predicament and elucidate their collective fate” [1]. So in understanding the outbreaks, we have to initially understand that they weren’t race riots, but rather unrest created by large societal and consumer inequalities. Racialised issues such as stop and search and the killing of Mark Duggan were certainly catalysts, but the multiplicity of reactions and events, such as attacking police stations and large corporate retailers, suggests class-based elements and wider socio-political malaise.

The totalising narrative used by the Coalition government removed structural agency from the picture. For them it’s simply an act of criminality with nothing underlying it. Similarly, explaining away these outbreaks as simple race riots allows wider society and political elites to cast it as that of “the other.” An alien act foreign to supposed moral foundations, but at the same time not actually explaining either what that morality is and why it became broken.

We can thus view this through the lens of Antonio Gramsci, as a justification of cultural hegemony. Gramsci, an Italian Marxist social theorist and philosopher, identified the cultural structures that underpinned modern capitalism and maintained its justifications. The political class of this country is wrapped up in a capitalist superstructure. Criminality through entrenched poverty is simply a reaction. The riots of England were a stage for a quick, but profound play. That play was the acting out of frustration and anger grounded into people through years of economic and political marginalisation and the consistent, irreverent images of mass consumerism found on TV and in shop windows. What plays out is a view of society dominated by consumer goods. Status and wealth come from the accumulation of products, rather than the ability to engage in and with society and its political institutions.

A mixture of statism and capitalism, funnelled through specific policies and in the wider overarching context of how the logics of both shape society, have helped create the conditions for which outbreaks such as these can thrive. Wacquant, a social theorist on the ghettoisation of poverty, notes there is a penalisation of poverty through “a punitive revamping of public policy that weds the “invisible hand” of the market to the “iron fist” of the penal state” [2]. This simply engenders political and economic marginalisation.

What develops is a society wide conception of anomie and a destruction of community. These subjective feelings played themselves out in the multitude of responses in the 2011 riots. Racial elements, such as policing abuses and stop and search, played their role, but their use as a cover for wider, more complex issues cannot be ignored. The policies of successive governments which have cut benefits, limited social housing and created large democratic deficits in these communities, effectively mandating an underclass from above, have also informed and created these outbreaks. Further, modern capitalism, and the logics it entails, played a fundamental role within the development of class relations. Issues of consumer inequality, and the maintenance of a peoples oppressed by an economy of capital accumulation and maintained entry barriers. All of these were parts of the 2011 riots, all informing the anomie and poverty of these areas. This is the superstructure that the ideologies of statism and capitalism want to defend. These subjectivities have existed for years, and the sparks were just waiting to be ignited.

In understanding the outbreaks in 2011, it must be recognised that there were racialised issues at play. Things like stop and search and the shooting of Mark Duggan were catalysts for the initial protests and mood of the surrounding area in Tottenham [3]. On stop and search, “in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched” [4], yet having little impact on safety or reducing criminality. “As a whole, stop and search has been estimated to reduce the number of “disruptable” crimes by just 0.2%” [5]. This shows a significant issue of racialised policing, and a disconnect of the police from ethnic minorities. Even after the Stephen Lawrence murder and the MacPherson Report, which suggested wider community engagement and family liaison services by the police [6], there were still major issues of a lack of engagement. This, overall, would suggest the 2011 riots were characteristic of ‘race riots’. Indeed it would be true to say that there were racial elements to these outbreaks. But they weren’t necessarily the key issue at hand.

The riots were multiplicitous, with spatial and temporary locational elements playing a large part in how people reacted. Thus you cannot characterise the riots that occurred in London the same way as those that occurred in Birmingham or Manchester. As recognised by the Reading the Riots report, “although mainly young and male, those involved in the riots came from a cross-section of local communities. Just under half of those interviewed in the study were students. Of those who were not in education, 59% were unemployed” [7]. Characterising the riots as simply ‘race riots’ misses the point, and doesn’t follow the realities, where young white people were rioting alongside young black people.

However, the Coalition government took a different approach. A discourse of pure criminality, opportunism and gang membership [8] was developed to explain the outbreaks. “The 2011 riots have been racialised because the events in North London most visibly involved young African-Caribbean men and the wider African-Caribbean community” [9]. This racialisation has allowed for the construction of a narrative of otherness. Rather than the issues creating the riots being systemic or structural, they are placed in simplistic temporalities that suggest some unexplained moral breakdown. This is the superstructure at play. Recognising issues of statism and capitalism doesn’t allow the powers that be to justify the conditions of existence that the rioters exist within, thus the need for limiting discourses of otherness.

Other discourses are more informative of the structural agency at play, with “themes of social exclusion, hopelessness and the anomic consequences of a consumerist and materialist society” [10] coming to the fore as a way of understanding the agencies of those involved. High unemployment and policies of deindustrialisation have created conditions of societal anomie. What develops is a form of “advanced marginality” [11], with high levels of poverty and economic and political marginality. The state’s reaction has been that of a penalisation of poverty, with workfare programs and the presence of sink estates in areas of the UK [12] being used to make poverty that of an immoral act. Discourses presented by the government of benefit scroungers play into this. We can see the development of significant political and economic marginalisation.

Through understanding this penalisation and marginalisation of poverty, and seeing governance forces that want to maintain centralised politico-economic power, we observe large democratic deficits and continued reductions of power over resources such as housing, education and general governance. A “criminology of intolerance” [13] has been developed where neighbourhoods of poverty are entrenched and stigmatised, and voices within these communities are never heard. Even within British representative democracy, where individuals largest connection with politics is through the ballot box, an Electoral Commission report showed that the poorest, most socially excluded people are most likely to be least politically engaged [14]. John Solomos has also shown that there are “strong links between collective violence and historical and contemporary patterns of exclusion from politics and positions of power” [15]. Limited political inclusion effectively leads to general feelings of stigma. Over years these feelings have built up. Even with some changes made in the provision of resources in Tottenham after outbreaks in the 1980s, it has been unclear what really has changed for people on the ground [16].

This can be seen on the wider scale throughout areas where the outbreaks occurred. Large aspects of education and housing, things that are extremely important to nearly anyone, has been centralised and taken out of their control. One reason given for rioting by those involved ranged from “the increase in tuition fees, to the closure of youth services and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance” [17]. You can see from this that education played a large part. Previous protests on tuition fees and the fact they were practically ignored by the Coalition government helped enforce an idea that political elites were not going to listen, let alone change anything, and when those who can change things don’t listen, political marginalisation has taken place. As Cornel Sandvoss, a sociologist whose analysed the riots, has noted “when anger can no longer find a constructive trajectory, it translates into the indiscriminate, random and futile postmodern violence that becomes an aim in and for itself” [18]. Outlets for political decision-making can turn to violence when they are closed off or simply ignored.

The same can be seen with issues of housing and gentrification. Processes of gentrification have been occurring in areas of Hackney and Brixton for years prior to the 2011 outbreaks. “Increasingly obvious economic and social inequality, and the securitisation of public space (manifested in policing practices like ‘stop and search’) provide important context for understanding the riots” [19]. These inequalities serve to produce a conception of otherness. In fact, discourses of gentrification that followed the riots continued this idea of otherness. It talks of cultures of poverty, low aspiration and broken families [20] which simply serve to maintain forms of stigmatisation. Again issues of importance are removed from those whose agency it will affect.

The general tow of neoliberalism has created this very effect in relation to democracy. As Cooper states, “under neoliberalism, non-commodified societal values and public spaces ‘that keep alive issues of justice, ethics, public opportunities, civic courage, and critical citizenship’” [21] are closed off. Democratic power over resources and decisions are increasingly put into the hands of elites and bureaucrats. Students get little say on tuition fees, and residents get minimal say on housing and where they will live. These things, which many agree underpin a society characterised by equality and freedom, are increasingly removed and destroyed by those who don’t feel the effects of such choices. As a result we move to the realm of rioting as a way of acting out political marginalities and frustrations. We have “the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence” [22]. Any opposition cannot be articulated against such a superstructure, characterised by stigma, otherness and political marginalisation. It “can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst” [23]. Political marginalisation can only be met by quasi-political means. Similarly, the logics of capitalism which further entrench the issues of poverty and destitution present in the affected communities create a similar alternative, that of violence and anger against a system that cannot really be perceived.

Modern neoliberalism has been described as a force without a face and a system without a center [24]. It is both around us yet intangible. Things like unemployment and economic destitution become mythical concepts removed from reality and placed within a logic. Marx described that “with the birth of large-scale industry this true proportion had to come to an end, and production is inevitably compelled to pass in continuous succession through vicissitudes of prosperity, depression, crisis, stagnation, renewed prosperity, and so on” [25]. Cycles of depression and stagnation, continuing over long periods of time, have entrenched forms of poverty and conditions that are maintained. It creates economic marginalisation.

Within this we see the seeds from which the riots grew. Continued images of economic prosperity through the medium of consumer goods strain against the realities of a marginal existence with high levels of inequality and segregation present through gentrification. Outside of the idea of the rabble, we see another hypothesis, those of rioters as nihilistic capitalists, destroying goods and inverting the violence that modern capitalism has provoked. What mattered to those involved was accumulation, making a microcosm of the macro activities of corporations and heads of industry and state [26]. There was an attempt to join the “ranks of consumers from which they have been excluded” [27]rather than make a concrete statement. A mini recreation of the crises endemic to capitalism.

The Reading the Riots project showed such beliefs coming from the rioters themselves. An expression of “the lack of a job, money or opportunity” [28] as well as a general desire for major consumer brands [29] played a large role in the way riots played out. However, unlike the general desire of ownership, there was more of a desire for widespread destruction. A similar distinction can be seen with the outbreaks in Ferguson and Baltimore. Rapper Killer Mike has made the point that protestors and rioters in these situations burn down major banks or convenience stores not simply out of untargeted violence but due to a belief that they represent something alien to their community. They provide little in the way of job prospects, hiring from outside the area and don’t provide loans or services to the local populace [30]. They represent the literal other, removing wealth and opportunities from that community. They are one of the few faces that can be put on the faceless system of neoliberalism.

It might be easy to say they’re taking stuff for free, acting criminally and what not. But this ignores the levels of psychological violence and structural agency which foster dislocation and dearth. Public space is occupied by the state and corporate economy, with the police and consumer-based employers acting as the most obvious exemplification of these abstractions. “Increasingly under neoliberalism, notions of citizenship, welfare rights, social justice and democracy have been undermined, closing off opportunities for the many, particularly the many young people disadvantaged by virtue of ‘race’ and class, to hold any responsible political influence in the public sphere. It is a socio-cultural context that increasingly serves the interests and imperatives of an elite social class whilst maintaining the marginalisation and disempowerment of the many” [31]. This underpins the riots. By taking away what little they had in the way of social existence, there reliance on economic means of subsistence becomes all the more pressing. A quote from one of the rioters is also enlightening: “I was angry. The looting, I was excited. Because, just money. I don’t know, just money-motivated” [32]. It was money-motivated, like much of the modern economy. By closing the realms of the social and the democratic, relying on the logics of capital buttressed by the state, anger is a natural response, playing itself out in those same logics of capitalism and consumerism.

While it may thought of as correct that these outbreaks were simple race riots, my analysis would suggest the complete opposite. Simply taking a look at the ethnic composition of these riots, we don’t see young Black men or Black community leaders calling out against the injustice of Mark Duggan’s killing. What we see is a class of young, disaffected, ignored people, the rabble created out of years of destitution and stigma. A penalisation of the general conception of poverty, with the current estates and neighbourhoods in areas as diverse as Tottenham, Birmingham and Manchester being turned into effective prisons, where to escape one must rely more on luck than opportunity.

Political and economic marginalisation are lodged into the realities of life. The destruction and securitisation of public and democratic space, the centralisation of political power and the removal of control of basic areas of life, including education and housing, mean an inability for large collections of individuals to have any voice. The logics of consumerism and capitalism, and the inequalities that are produced lead to the engendering of unorganised violence. Destroying tantalising images and those things placed artificially above oneself. It is these sparks which created the riots. Continued marginalisation over years, and instead of change a prescription of more of the same. The anger and hatred that comes out of such conditions means any voice that one has can only be expressed collectively. And when the means of collectivity are closed off, the collective takes to the street. Only then can any voice be heard.

However, the government since this time has not changed direction. It has not examined the roots of inequality and marginalisation. Instead, welfare cuts continue while economic opportunities are limited. Education is removed from the community, and neighbourhoods are gentrified and commodified. Instead of an internal examination, we see a justification for the superstructures of state-capitalism. What little interest was developed for these communities by the riots has been ignored, replaced by a narrative of criminality and a conception of otherness. The idea of these being race riots has simply led to the blaming of supposed Black culture, gang membership and rap music. Ignorance has taken the high ground over a recognition of structural agency. The government continues to watch these streets fall further into disrepair, simply for the maintenance of the current system.


[1] Cooper, C. 2012, 11
[2] Wacquant, L. 2011
[3] Murji, K. & Neal, S. 2011, 2.5
[4] BBC News, 2013
[5] Shiner, M. & Delsol, R. 2013
[6] Murji, K. & Neal, S. 2011, 2.5
[7] Guardian & LSE, 2011, 4
[8] Murji, K. & Neal, S. 2011, 2.6
[9] Murji, K. & Neal, S. 2011, 2.7
[10] Murji, K. & Neal, S. 2011, 2.6
[11] Wacquant, L. 2013, 5
[12] Wacquant, L. 2013, 6
[13] Cooper, C. 2012, 13
[14] The Electoral Commission, 2005, 20
[15] Solomos, J. 2011, 3.8
[16] Solomos, J. 2011, 3.8
[17] Guardian & LSE, 2011, 5
[18] Cooper, C. 2012, 12
[19] Peacock, C. 2014
[20] Peacock, C. 2014
[21] Cooper, C. 2012, 15
[22] Zizek, S. 2011
[23] Cooper, C. 2012, 12
[24] Younge, G. 2016
[25] Marx, K. 1847, 28
[26] Humphreys, S. & Otomo Y. 2011
[27] Bauman, Z. 2011
[28] Guardian & LSE, 2011, 24
[29] Guardian & LSE, 2011, 27
[30] Killer Mike, 2015
[31] Cooper, C. 2012, 17
[32] Guardian & LSE, 2011, 27


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