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Editorial: The politics of riots and how our rulers see them

DONALD TRUMP’s revealing tweet – “when the looting starts the shooting starts” – is a window into the mind of a man who, while unrepresentative of his class in many ways, is at one with them in the sense that private property must remain inviolate, and that the full force of the state must be mobilised when property and public order is threatened.

To the US ruling class, human life is way less valuable. For them, public tranquillity is disturbed not by the racist murder of black people by state employees but only by the natural reaction to this epidemic of homicide.

George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis cops, died when the life was choked out of him. But the back story to this outbreak is a succession of deaths at the hands of police too numerous to detail here.

Lest anyone be tempted to write off these events as US exceptionalism, recall that the most serious outbreaks of rioting in Britain arose from deaths at the hands of police in the 1980s and that this was repeated in 2011 after a police shooting in Tottenham.

One way to understand rioting and the looting that often accompanies it when the exploited and oppressed are angered beyond restraint is to see it as a form of collective bargaining by those normally excluded from the rituals of class compromise.

Following the 1981 Brixton riots, Lord Scarman understood that police stop-and-search tactics and behaviour were the spark. 

He thought that the answer to this management problem lay in measures to meet “long-term need to provide useful, gainful employment and suitable educational, recreational and leisure opportunities for young people, especially in the inner city.”

As Diane Abbott shows in today’s Morning Star this approach could not endure under Thatcher’s neoliberal regime which “imposed austerity policies, mass job losses, young people on pitiful wages, real-terms pay cuts more widely and massive cuts to public services and privatisations.”

It is startling to see massive crowds laying siege to a police station before setting it alight. 

It reveals just how sharp are the class contradictions in US society and how fragile is the consensus which normally allows life to proceed undisturbed.

The media conventionally paint rioters as driven by evil impulses, as essentially criminal.

In contrast to this self-serving analysis, the great Marxist historian George Rudé gave a human dimension to the crowds in the French Revolution. 

His work revealed that “those who took to the streets were ordinary, sober citizens, not half-crazed animals, not criminals.”

And with Eric Hobsbawm, he gave us an insight into the motivations of the impoverished Captain Swing insurgents in 19th-century Britain who targeted the property of their wealthy employers in the farming and landowning class.

We should not underestimate the alarm that such events raised in the minds of our rulers then and how they see them today. 

They are acutely conscious that, while leaderless and spontaneous action is an immediate threat to both property and public order, the mass movement of an organised working class threatens the whole system of private property.

We will see such events again in our own country, perhaps sooner than we imagine.

The important thing for the working-class movement is not only to understand the root causes of such phenomena — and for this conventional and respectable thinking is inadequate — but to find ways to exercise leadership across the whole of society.

Not to riot more effectively — a crowd will do this unaided, as both the Minneapolis police and the Metropolitan Police have already learned — but to empower our working class to construct the socialist order in Britain.

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