During his scientific socialist phase Karl Marx predicted the inevitability of capitalism’s demise. He predicted that logic of capital was such that capitalist’s drive for ever-increasing returns would result in a spiralling reduction in wages. The increasing squeeze of capital from workers, who would eventually be unable to purchase the products of their own labour, would result in revolt and the seizure of the means of production. This self-defeating nature of capitalism would lead workers to reorganise the social relations of production such that wealth would be distributed more or less equally. Marx was of course writing about 19th century international capitalism not 21st century global capitalism characterised by the increasingly free flow of goods and services across national borders. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire argued that with the growth of the power of transnational corporations and global financial institutions, power has been taken out of the hands of the state and dispersed. As globalisation decentres power, resistance too is decentred. Today, capitalism’s discontents don’t simply seize government buildings or factories. They destroy McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other powerful symbols of transnational capital. Thanks to globalisation, it no longer makes sense to talk of the ‘1st world’ and ‘3rd world’ as fixed, national, geographical categories. Within the same cities we have pockets of economically prosperous, socially mobile, and aesthetically pleasing districts surrounded by residential areas with stagnating growth, high rates of crime, unemployment, and poor standards of health (Ealing Green/Ealing, Kelvinside/Parkhead, Beverly Hills/South Central). The World Health Organisation’s 2008 report found that in Glasgow, the postcode lottery is such that life expectancy for men living in Calton is as low as 54 years old but for those living in Lenzie, a 15 minute car ride away, life expectancy is 82. There are worlds still far away from what Michael Camdessus, the former director of the IMF, described as the civilising forces of Globalisation.
Recent events across England have led many people ask what is the rioters’ ‘cause’ and indeed many politicians to insist that we do not even ask such questions; it is criminality, end of story. Yet ask we must. It may be that these are rebels without causes for there were no attempts to seize the means of production. But where and what are the means of production today in a globalised economy? Ford makes more money from insuring cars than building and selling them. Pieces of paper which symbolise wealth lead to a greater accumulation of other pieces of paper which symbolise wealth; much more so than actually producing anything in today’s global economy. Wealth is primarily generated through services so seizing factories would be senseless. In the age of globalisation we have seen major protests at every G8 gathering with highly symbolic sites of transnational capital, such as Starbucks and McDonalds, bearing the brunt of the anger. As power becomes globalised and decentred so too has resistance. Today resistance focuses on attacking these global nodes of power, these symbols of transnational capital. What we have seen across England in August 2011 may have started as a response to police brutality but it spiralled rapidly and morphed into something we can’t yet understand. What we saw was different to the transnationally organised protests at G8 meetings. This was not an attempt to seize the means of production or resist the transnationalisation of capital. Through the looting of clothes stores and electrical appliances brands, goods deemed to be of high status or symbolic value, we see attempts to seize the products of capitalism and bathe in the status they bestow. We don’t see a revolution to radically restructure social order. We see attempts of individuals to reposition themselves in more favourable positions within it. The seemingly chaotic mode of resistance reflects the seemingly chaotic mode of power and of social organisation we enjoy today.
One response to this is of course to reject the very possibility of meaning behind these acts, file them under irrational, focus solely on punishment, and get back to business as usual. Another counter-argument is that not all participants are poor or even particularly socially marginalised as the prosecution of primary school teachers and the “millionaire’s daughter” attest. However, the chaotic events and the participation of individuals from various sectors of society cannot conceal that every city affected saw young, angry men who see themselves as disenfranchised take to the streets to steal and destroy high status symbols of consumerism. Are we really surprised that generations who have been encouraged to be selfish and have been told by Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society” feel little moral responsibility towards people outside of their personal, social network? If there is no such thing as society, then outside of the family and the personal network, there can be no bonds and no restrictions regulating the relationships between human beings other than legal ones. Time and time again we hear interviews with participants saying things like “we’re taking from the rich” or “we’re doing it because the government can’t stop us” (Radio 5 Live, 10/8/11, 13:07). If you tell children you have no responsibility to other people unless you can be legally stopped, then when those restrictions disappear as happened when the police lost control, people will indeed steal, rob, and hurt other people. This selfishness is not a disease of any “underclass” or a “sick” section of society as David Cameron lamented. It is everywhere. Next time you are waiting on a train, notice how half the people around you are waiting to jump in front of you. Or in the supermarket, when people park their trolleys in front of what you want to buy and don’t seem to care that you are standing waiting. These are minor, anecdotal examples but I would argue they reflect a self-centredness that is allowed and encouraged. As long as you can get away with it, anything goes- business is business after all. We normalise and we encourage selfishness into norms of behaviour such that those with power are allowed to be selfish but we call it business or profit maximisation. Most people in the UK will tell you, when bankers steal they are given bonuses and when members of parliament steal they only have to pay half of it back.
David Cameron thankfully acknowledged that this is not simply about all young people in Britain simply being bad. In his terms, many young people live in fear from these supposed ‘bad’ people. But why this sudden admission? What political party has seriously addressed violence and its causes on our streets in the UK? Most young people I know have witnessed assaults on young men by other young men in our city centres whereby police stand on the other side of the road and wave away people’s calls for something to be done. I have visited casualty wards after being the victim of assault and all the medical staff wanted to know was how much I had to drink and then placed me at the back of the queue. This is not because I am marginalised, I am not. Nevertheless, it belies an assumption that as a young male in Britain you will be subject to violence and you are likely to cause it. It’s what young men do. However, as David Cameron admits, this is not just what young men do and often violence is impossible to avoid if one wishes to socialise in Britain’s city centres. One has to ask, why is violence against young men tolerated? It is very telling that when Miss Selfridge’s on Market Street in Manchester is in flames moral outrage is not simply expressed but demanded. However, when young men are assaulted usually by other young men every night in our cities, we hear little outcry. Is it simply that those who are morally outraged don’t see this violence with their own eyes so they leave it be? Are we morally outraged now because it interrupted our selfish desire to go shopping in our city centres and acquire more high status goods from the global economy?
What we become outraged about and choose to label as violence reflects our values. When a young man sets fire to a chain-store we call it violence. These same chain-stores, which most of us buy from, operate in “Export Processing Zones” across the developing world. This strategy is in place to bypass national laws which regulate labour conditions, wages, and indeed safety standards to prevent violence in the workplace. So why do we call it “profit maximisation”? What is ‘violent’ about stealing an ipad but not so when apple uses microchips produced under slave-like conditions in the South of China and which irreparably damage the environment? The important difference is not material, it’s ideological. It’s called socially constructed values. A young man taking a mobile phone from a looted Carphone Warehouse is theft because it is called theft. When Vodafone forego £4.8 Billion in tax payments it’s called the “maximisation of shareholder value” because it was permitted by HMRC. Stealing from apple is theft because it is called theft. However, when Apple bypass the rule of law in order to pay South East Asian workers a low wage it is called “outsourcing”. This is because we encourage people to make lots of money more than we encourage them to consider human rights. Angry young men stealing stereos is theft because it is called theft but when bankers steal, it’s called business because we value banks more than we value young men. This is normalised, permissible, and ‘civilised’ theft but it is still theft. This hypocrisy has produced a widespread, popular perception that there is one law for them and another for us. It de-legitimises the very idea of equality before the law, a central principle of democracy, such that people start to believe there is indeed no such thing as society- you take what you can unless you can be stopped. The chaotic and unpredictable power relations of our so-called global age have no written rules and have produced resistance that is equally chaotic, unpredictable, and without rules. If people wish to see ‘civilised’ resistance they had best work towards ‘civilising’ power.