For Marxists, events in history are not isolated moments to be discarded when the newspaper is read or the online blog is saturated with comments. A fractured understanding of society is promoted by and for the bourgeoisie as its hired hacks and historians surrender a rounded analysis to the narrow interests of profit-making. In contrast, we connect history, recognising events as they relate and contribute to incremental stages of struggle, where lessons are reviewed, victories defended and opportunities taken. It is in this context that we reflect on the youth uprisings that recently engulfed several British cities.
For a number of days, angry members of the working class – with a broad range of ethnically diverse, young and overwhelmingly marginalised participants – took to the streets to protest against the murder, cover-up and subsequent slander of a young black man by the Metropolitan police. Ignored by officers and then brutalised as anger fermented and spread, young people across the country erupted, challenging the climate of police brutality, economic inequality and the deepening crisis of capitalism.
Despite the obvious causes of these young people’s anger, the nation was subjected to, and largely gripped by, hysterical media coverage that showed endless reels of burning buildings, looting of commercial properties and apparently mindless acts of violence. No meaningful analysis was offered as rumour spread to each town that they would be next; ‘criminals’, they were told, probably of African Caribbean origin, would be indiscriminately ransacking their property or perhaps worse.
Without exception, the news channels displayed tactically-selected images, whilst manipulatively injecting a sense of fear, often racial and anti-working class in nature, as correspondents and guests expressed unequivocal condemnation. It seemed that even so-called ‘progressives’ could muster only a subdued nod of understanding towards the people’s frustrations before retreating and joining in the chorus of disapproval.
With such a relentless argument, the average citizen could be forgiven for accepting that the events of August were nothing short of criminal. It therefore falls to Marxists to wade through this deceitful diatribe.
Riots are, by their very nature, chaotic, sporadic, and politically unsophisticated. They may seem to have no productive targets or strategy because, quite clearly, they do not initially posses them. Even some of the participants themselves may have zero political consciousness.
Yet all spontaneous uprisings by the masses against bourgeois rule and exploitation, no matter how unsophisticated they may be, are an expression of seething and justifiable anger. There is a critical difference, which must be acknowledged, between the violence of the oppressors and the reaction of the oppressed.
As the economic crisis deepens, and the contradictions of capitalism become more acute, the British state has intensified its mechanisms of oppression. Instigated by the Liberal-Conservative coalition, but sickeningly, and predictably, championed as ‘necessary’ by Labour, the ruling class is busy decimating as much of the social wage as it can, implementing sweeping reforms that have eroded workers’ rights, narrowed welfare entitlement, decimated pensions, and privatised our public services and possessions for the benefit of a privileged few.
For those already marginalised, there is now even less chance of getting a job, a house or a decent education, while there has been an increase in harassment, arbitrary arrests, racially-motivated stop-and-searches and untold examples of police brutality, which are now becoming more brazen and frequent.
All this is not merely a ‘regrettable’ consequence of ‘temporary’ economic slump: for the elderly reliant on state care, for children requiring complex support and, seemingly, for young black men walking the street or riding in a minicab, the state’s assault on the working class is a matter of life and death. This is only a part of the violence and horror that the working class is subjected to in contemporary Britain.
Taking this into consideration, the failings of the British left have been exposed once more, this time in front of an international audience, as the masses’ naked, spontaneous anger has been offered no political direction, while the ruling class’s draconian response has seen no genuine opposition.
Unionised workers, long largely neutered by their social-democratic masters, have once again been instructed to dress colourfully and march peacefully in worthless one-off demonstrations, whilst temporary workers and the long-term unemployed have been almost entirely overlooked by organised labour. For all of us, the dominance of our movement by a cowardly social-democratic clique, Labour party opportunists and well-paid union careerists, whose luxury and comfort rests on the maintenance of capitalism, has left us susceptible to the full onslaught of the British state apparatus.
Faced with the sight of so many independent young people awakening from their comatose state, and unwilling and unable to answer their grievances, the British state has responded with a ferocious barrage of undemocratic attacks. After mobilising thousands of police officers from across the country to indiscriminately strike, brutalise and disperse the young participants, a campaign of mass arrests was conducted before the broken bones and bruises from the truncheons could heal.
As early as 15 August, the BBC reported that approximately 3,100 people had been arrested, so that police stations, prisons and court rooms across the country had already reached capacity. Public witch-hunts followed too. The tabloid gutter-press, owned and utilised by the ruling class to hoodwink the working population, focused on ‘outing’ people arrested or convicted of crimes relating to the unrest, demanding mass housing evictions and loss of benefits.
This gathering hysteria paralleled the parliamentary debates, which emphatically demanded that people arrested should be evicted from their public housing and lose their benefit entitlement. In times of deep public spending cuts and an increasing housing crisis, it cannot be clearer that this is a vicious attack on society’s poorest.
This should not, however, be too astonishing for those informed from a Marxist perspective. As capitalism decays, and it cannot help but do so, so too does its democratic façade. The ruling class becomes more vicious in defence of its rule as its ability to provide jobs and affordable services to the masses declines.
An appalling example of this viciousness was demonstrated when minors arrested during the uprisings – many of whom were first-time offenders, brutalised by the police, and now appearing in adult magistrates’ courts – were denied access to Young Offending Teams while not being offered adequate sentencing assessments and reports. This is a clear violation of rights that are officially guaranteed in British and international law, and an irremovable stain on the alleged ‘independence’ of the state and judiciary, clearly united in their determination to punish the poor.
Further examples of the British bourgeois state’s erosion of democratic rights were seen as police, instructed by government, seized video footage of the uprising from private media outlets. This is a new low for the ruling class, which until now has tended to be more subtle in its media control tactics.
However, important lessons must be learnt: that the media is not an independent body which holds governments to account, as liberals usually assert, but a tool of the ruling class for manipulating the masses. Whether through direct recordings of social unrest or covert phone-tapping on activists, the media are one more source of oppression and are an integral part of bourgeois hegemony.
In the modern age, this extends to social-networking websites too, which have been pivotal in monitoring, snaring and convicting people for expressing their opinion.
Two young men were sentenced to a staggering four years in jail for calling on the uprising to spread to other parts of the country, whilst police also scoured the mobile phones of hundreds of arrested citizens, intercepting their private messages. When questioned by MPs, then acting Metropolitan police commissioner, Tim Godwin, admitted that “The legality is questionable, very questionable.”
We must then, as a class, strive to expose the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie – the inseparable link between the rich man’s government, the criminal justice system and the media – to the masses and form our own analysis.
There has been excessive attention given to the apparent looting of businesses in urban areas. The media were falling over themselves to show youths leaping out of department stores with televisions and the latest fashion items. Yet absolutely no effort has been made to scrutinise the make-up of our society; a hyper-consumerist, individualist, materialistic racket, fashioned by the bourgeoisie to serve its commercial interests, in which a person’s self-esteem and respect is derived from what they possess.
For generations, our youth have been a strategic marketing target, bombarded with advertisements and incessantly instructed in what is cool, but at the same time, we live in a capitalist society in which broad sections of the population cannot attain these seemingly essential items. When this lack of access to things is mixed with unequal educational attainment and employment prospects, feelings of worthlessness, failure and exclusion are bound to be compounded.
Furthermore, the overwhelming example that our young people are exposed to from the leaders of society is that of the looting, corruption and theft – not, as Cameron and Miliband would suggest, from members of their own community but from our ruling class. Whether it is using public funds to bail out private banks to the tune of £900bn, public spending cuts which currently stand in the hundreds of billions, or illegal wars which murder millions of civilians and reduce entire nations to rubble in order to secure resources, the true source of immorality lies with rotten British imperialism, not its victims.
It is now imperative that Marxists guard against the demonisation of sections of the working class, who are being hounded by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband (who in late September announced that he stood for the “silent, law-abiding majority”).
Terms such as ‘underclass’, ‘feral’ etc, which have been so popularised in the reactionary media’s coverage, and been given a spurious legitimisation by opportunists’ bastardisation of Marx’s concept of the lumpenproletariat, have no place in our discourse. We must guard against the further division of our class and, instead, inject spontaneity with consciousness.
The youth uprising was not an exercise in criminality but a bloody nose to the British ruling class and its loyal servants leading the limp workers’ movement – a wake-up call that the poor and marginalised will not accept decaying conditions indefinitely. As J V Stalin once declared “Either place yourself at the mercy of capital, eke out a wretched existence as of old and sink lower and lower, or adopt a new weapon – this is the alternative imperialism puts before the vast masses of the proletariat.”
For those who refuse to side with the exploiting ruling class, it is now high time to join a principled Marxist-Leninist party, capable of becoming a vanguard that can direct spontaneous anger with political maturity and embark on a sustained fight to overthrow British imperialism. Failing to do so would be a further abandonment of the working class, who would be left as unprotected prey to British capital and the impotence and treachery of social democracy, wandering in the dark for further generations.
Defend and support the youth against state oppression!
Inject spontaneity with consciousness!
Join and build the vanguard workers’ party!
YOUTH UPRISING SUPPLEMENT August 2011:
> Rage against capitalism
> Revolt is an example to emulate
> Bourgeois ideologues battle for control of the working-class movement