The recent wave of rioting in England has raised some important questions for politicians, journalists, and even political theorists like myself who are concerned about direct action and democracy. Due to these interests I was asked to have a chat with some nice people from Sky News putting together the special programme Why Are They Rioting? They had some questions about the rioting, which are worth further reflection. Could it, they wondered, be seen as a form of ‘direct action’ politics, and if so how does it compare with examples taken from the past?
The riots are certainly examples of action of a particularly direct sort. Arson, looting, mugging and fights with the police are all activities with serve to ‘significantly alter the immediate environment’, which is a rough and ready definition of what ‘direct action’ is meant to achieve. This is obvious enough, so the interesting question for the Sky News people was: ‘where’s the politics here?’.
Before we try to answer that question we should take a step back and consider some other examples of direct action.
Environmental and animal rights campaigns have often employed direct action tactics that involve attacks on property, such as the arson attack on the Vail Ski Resort by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Superficially there is some similarity between a burning ski resort in Colorado and a furniture store aflame in Croydon: but are these are manifestations of the same political strategy? The problem with the comparison is that the activities of the ELF and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) were part of an overtly political campaign, and they were (relatively) selective in what they targeted. Vail was attacked because it was believed to encroach on one of the last remaining habitats of the Canadian Lynx; and the ALF chose its targets for their apparent association with animal cruelty. In both cases, in the view of the activists, a severe injustice was being perpetrated upon animals or nature more generally, one the public was choosing to ignore. Both groups saw selective acts of arson and ‘ecotage’ as levying costs on those committing the injustice while raising the profile of their own cause. In order to achieve these ends targeting was necessary: their violence was not meant to look like it was random.
If we go further back to the direct action strategies of the US civil rights campaign, suffragists, and the abolitionist fight against slavery, we see again that they directly challenged the attitudes, prejudices, and behaviour of the society around them, and that meant engaging in activities that were illegal by the laws of the day. Martin Luther King was clear in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that such action could cause a sense of ‘crisis’ in society and force reluctant authorities to the negotiating table. Those of us living in contemporary liberal democracies tend to look back on these campaigns with approval (in a way many at the time did not), because their purpose was clear, and we see the grave injustice against which they struggled.
Taking direct action for political ends in a democratic context is a serious commitment. It means that we are willing to coerce (at least some of) our fellow citizens, because we believe their ignorance or wilful refusal to accept our case is a moral wrong. Movements engaging in direct political action will have a discourse justifying their commitment (which may be rejected by others) and think carefully about what kinds of action will further their cause.
This brings us back to the recent riots. Whilst there are clearly important questions to be asked about the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, any political connections with the waves of arson and looting that followed are nebulous at best and non-existent at worst – if, that is, we want ‘the political’ to retain some relationship to the set of values that are enforced in a democratic society. The riots represent no obvious challenge to those values, no clear political message that they can be said to forward.
Of course there are very large questions about income and wealth distribution, lack of equality of opportunity and social mobility, and cultural isolation. The riots could be framed as a protest against the ‘structural’ inequalities of ‘neoliberalism’, or as a performative parody of our absurd consumer culture. But then the boundary between political and non-political acts just melts away. Mugging an old lady for her purse might be a direct action protest against the politics of private property – but it could just be the mugging of an old lady.
It would therefore be a travesty to compare the riots with serious direct action politics. What we are seeing now is more akin to what happens in a city when the power supply fails – some people do what they do because they think they can get away with it. Compared with a phenomenon like the Arab Spring it represents the triumph of triviality. They were not trivial for the owners of small businesses which have been destroyed or the families of those killed as a result of the riots – for them this is a tragedy. But the riots are trivial in terms of the motivations involved: nobody is risking their lives to overthrow a dictatorial regime; but a flat-screen TV and box-fresh trainers – yes please. This may however be the price that we pay for living in a liberal democracy – even our crises are banal.