Thursday, September 22, 2011

Riots: From Looting to Expropriation

Police officers in riot gear block a road near a burning car on a street in Hackney, northeast London August 8, 2011, as youths hurled missiles at police as violence broke out in the British capital for a third night

 The youth uprisings open the road to revolution.

The recent uprising by youth in several cities in Britain is a clear symptom of deepening capitalist crisis. The bourgeois right wing predictably condemns the young rioters as ‘criminals’ for destroying life and private property. They are frightened of the working class rising up and expropriating them. The left cannot agree on the riots because after years acting as spectators of events the youth rebellion has taken them by surprise. Years of arguing for the unionisation of youth in the unions, of fighting for shorter hours to create more jobs, has been overtaken by capitalisms crisis. The left is torn between welcoming these riots as rebellions promising future revolutions, or lumpen expressions of depoliticised behaviour. It was left to the lone voice of veteran Jamaican activist  Darcus Howe on a BBC interview to call the riots an "insurrection" like those of "Syria, Clapham, Liverpool and Port O Spain, Jaimaica", as part of the "nature of the historical moment".

In our view, the decline of the labour movement under the chauvinist union bureaucracy, has thrust the youth as the most marginalised and oppressed sections of the working class forward as the most militant elements of that class. They are predictably the spontaneous reflex of the deepening contradictions of British imperialism in crisis in a period of decline. Their response is not that of class conscious workers but of alienated workers facing a deepening crisis. Its not enough for the revolutionary left to launch a slogan 'from Riots to Revolution'. Revolutionaries have to chart an escape route from the depths of capitalist alienation to the heights of socialist revolution.

Ruling class response

The reaction of the ConDem regime reveals the panic of the ruling class. The ConDems condemn the riots as mere 'criminality' so as to obscure their political and economic roots. By criminalising the riots they justify a massive police and legal clampdown out of all proportion to mere 'crime'. Four years in jail for putting up a facebook page 'inciting riot', or two years for 'receiving' a looted bottle of water, are the sort of sentences designed to deter Generation Zero from staging a Tahrir Square in London. 

The ruling class faces a crisis of legitimacy following the mounting public outrage at the Murdoch hackers, the banks and rich getting richer, as they impose massive austerity measures aimed at destroying the social wage. The young unemployed and migrant workers have little respect for a corrupt and blatantly hypocritical ruling class. That is why the ruling class responds with racist, chauvinist and proto-fascist attacks to defend its dying system by dividing, demonising and smashing those who are capable of overthrowing it.That is why the fascist gangs of the English Defence League strut back onto the streets to assert the chauvinist rights of British workers against those unruly mobs that threaten law and order. And that is why Professor Starkey was allowed on BBC to promote the race hatred of Enoch Powell blaming migrants for destroying British society. The riots were  "Shopping with Violence” by “Whites [who] have become Black” and talk with a “Jamaican Patois”. Of course language or culture is not really the problem for the proto-fascists in Britain, they are afraid of the rioters staging a rising up taking control of the streets and 'looting' the means of production.

Liberals and Social Democrats 

The social democrats want to distribute the blame for the riots fairly. This is in keeping with their distributional analysis of capitalism. At least the moral blame is fairly shared. They see British capitalism in a state of moral decline caused by corporate larceny and so on. Ed Milliband the Labour Party leader says that corruption at the top leads to crime at the bottom. The rioters are overwhelmingly young, poor and unemployed and that is hardly their fault. 

For the liberal left this leads to anti-social behaviour caused by the disorganisation if not disappearance of the working class, and the individualisation or fragmentation of workers. The riots have no political content and no progressive element at all. Bourgeois liberalism requires citizens to act rationally and responsibly to enable democracy to function. Unless workers act with a definite political purpose in mind (such as voting Labour) they cannot be political actors. 

Putting a post-modern slant on this liberal 'rationality', Bauman says that capitalism no longer shapes working class identity as wage workers but rather as consumers. He says consumption is identity. What motivates individuals is not consumption of the means of subsistence to enable them to work, but rather consumption as a means of realising their social identity. Post-modernism offers no way out of this 'irrationality' because there is no identifiable social structure to change.  Consumption is not seen as the product of capitalist alienation whose 'rationality' can be contested and overthrown by proletarian revolution. 

Alienation is reproduced on a daily basis as part of the expropriation of surplus value. Workers become separated from their work, their product, from others and from themselves. The result is the production of the 'alienated bourgeois subject' who can only operate in a 'rational' capitalist market and bourgeois democracy. Riotous behaviour that challenges this market/state framework of property ownership and equal exchange thus appears as 'irrational' and 'meaningless'. Zizek is not far behind Bauman invoking Marx and Hegel in support of post-modern meaninglessness.

Marx is already back in favour so Zizek tries for Hegel as well. He writes off the rioters as a 'rabble'. “This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.”

Zizek also cites the self-proclaimed Marxist philosopher Badiou who “argued that we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space, the only form protest can take is meaningless violence”. It is not surprising that the European postmodern philosophers can declare that the bourgeois subject is not materially reproduced by global capitalism beset by contradictions, crises, unemployment and austerity, but is instead the  lost in an irrational 'worldless' social space. They are, after all as intellectuals, lost in the same 'worldless social space' shared by all alienated bourgeois subjects.

Radical anti-capitalists 

Radical anti-capitalists do believe that a 'social space' called capitalism still exists and shapes the behaviour of individuals as workers and consumers. The British SWP response to the riots saw both the disorganised nature of the riots and also their 'deeper political' causes. The riots are a sort of spontaneous anti-capitalist rebellion against unequal exchange or market relations where bosses' profits rise at the expense of workers wages and jobs. They quote Martin Luther King :“riots are the voice of the unheard”.

Anarchists also typically take this view. Rioting is inherently revolutionary because it is a response to perceived capitalist inequality, unemployment, police violence, racism and so on. It is the reverse side of the 'shopping with violence' right wing explanation of the riots. Unfortunately this prevailing fetishised exchange view on the left cannot go deeper than working class spontaneity as an explanation of the riots.  What these radical anti-capitalist views have in common is the belief that the working class can become spontaneously class conscious due to its perception of class relations as unequal exchange relations. 

Spontaneous anti-capitalism arises from the conception of capitalism at the level of exchange relations. If that is how capitalism works then you can see it and spontaneously fightback. But this is not a Marxist anti-capitalism because for Marx exchange relations are inverted production relations resulting from 'commodity fetishism'. Therefore the spontaneous critique of capitalism at the level of exchange leaves capitalist production relations hidden and unchallenged. 

Instead of critiquing this market fetishist view of the riots, David Harvey gives it a Marxist gloss. He says that capitalism today can only survive by looting. If the rioters are ‘feral’ it is because capitalism has become ‘feral’. Harvey argues that modern capitalism still extracts surplus-value during production, but that its main method of extracting value today is to steal it in the process of exchange. Naomi Klein takes a similar line. For Harvey and Klein capitalism based on theft is morally bankrupt. It cannot survive without looting. In the excitement of the aftermath of the 'riots' the Harvey provides a non-Marxist argument to justify the actions of the 'rioters' as no more than reflections of a capitalist system defined as based on looting. 

By confining his argument to exchange relations Harvey cannot provide a material framework for a working class morality other than 'looting back'. He sells Marxism short. As we shall see capitalism was born by looting. It was born feral, or as Marx says ‘covered with blood and dirt’. But what makes capitalism especially degenerate today is a longer story. Capitalism is facing a existential crisis expelling masses of living labour it cannot exploit. If you don't have a job or social wage you don't have an income you can live on, then you have to buy and sell on the black economy for your subsistence. So the riots were not a mindless consumerist 'outburst' but an historically necessary form of behaviour on the part of the most exploited and oppressed workers thrown out of capitalist production; a fight for survival, a fight to overcome alienation, and at the same time the birth pangs of socialist revolution as the dialectical expression of a future human universality.

Marxist critique of 'riots'

The bourgeois response to riots left, right and centre all come from the ruling class standpoint. The proto-fascist right speaks for finance capital in defence of 'civilisation' against the barbarian hordes. The liberal democratic bourgeois or petty bourgeois labour bureaucrats are angst ridden by a system in moral decline. The radicals represent the declining petty bourgeois or layers of the working class who see the riots as the explosive effects of a deeper crisis in neo-liberal capitalism. But what is that crisis? Are we now living in the epoch of ‘feral’ capitalism? Of rampant looting by the ruling class? An absence of morality at the top that is now reflected at the bottom? But is this crisis new in the history of British imperialism? Such scenarios from extreme right to extreme left take in only the appearances of capitalism, i.e. how it presents itself at various surface levels of society. We need to go much deeper.

Marxists are able to see right through the 'riots' to the fundamental contradiction of capitalism in decline that drives young workers out of employment being forced to seize capitalist property to survive. For workers to live, capitalism must die! Unlike bosses' looting which is  not an act of desperation, rioters looting is spontaneous expression of what is necessary to end capitalism, the wholesale expropriation of capitalist property as the basis for building a socialist society. It is the instinctive response to capitalist alienation that separates young workers from production, from their products, from others and from themselves and then throws them onto the scrap heap as a outside of capitalism. In one act of spontaneous rebellion, the young rebels break the spell of their alienated existence. The task then is how to turn riots into sustained rebellions and then into revolutions. First we have to distinguish between ruling class looting to amass wealth, and working class looting to subsist.

Looting for Britain

Despite the moral high ground workers can take when facing the organised looting of workers taxes and social wage by the corporates, bankers, and their state, it is still the morality of the slave trader. Looting for Britain has a long history but the British bourgeoisie took it to new heights. When was the British bourgeoisie not ‘feral’? It came into existence by looting Ireland, India and Africa. Slavery was looting. Marx called the original looting ‘primitive accumulation’,  the conquest and sacking of communal or lineage societies of the ‘new world’ of its gold, silver, sugar, cotton etc as currency and raw materials to give capitalism to get it's start.

This looting was regarded by the looters as a natural right since the ‘primitive’ societies looted did not have bourgeois property rights and their land and wealth was seen as free for the taking. Not only that, looting was justified in exchange for the benefits of ‘civilisation’. What an supreme irony that the British ruling class looted the ancestors of today’s Afro-Caribbean youth out of Africa 300 or more years ago. And that the ‘morality’ that the ruling class finds missing in the ‘rioters’ today was that which justified the original looting by their own merchant capitalist forebears in the name of ‘civilisation’. 

Looting back no answer

The moral high ground of 'looting back' is really a moral swamp because what is wrong with capitalism goes much deeper than 'looting' or any 'feral' behaviour. Capitalism got its start by looting and continues to extract value by 'unequal exchange' - buying cheap and selling dear - but this is not the rotten heart of capitalism. Capitalism is based on the systematic exploitation of labour power and extraction of profits from surplus labour in the process of production and equal exchange. Capitalists buy labour power at its value on the market and extract surplus value (more than the value of the wage) from it during production. Looting of labour power means paying less than its full value in the market. Class struggle determines the value of labour power as the value necessary to reproduce it. If it was about looting on an everyday basis then capitalism would not have survived 300 years. It would have been overthrown by massive workers riots and uprisings a long time ago. Capitalism survives because it masks its exploitation as natural and necessary and the fundamentally unequal relations between workers and capitalists appear in the marketplace as equal  - ‘an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’.

That’s why when capitalism does openly loot this is seen as an aberration and not a normal condition of capitalism itself but the actions of rogue capitalists (neo-liberals, bankers, bad bosses, imperialists, corrupt politicians etc) and on the other side, rogue workers (gangs, lumpens, criminals, communists etc) - today rioting unemployed youth who take something for nothing. The question of who gets away with looting (or doesn't get caught) becomes a matter of bourgeois morality and bourgeois statistics and in the last analysis bourgeois class power. Bosses point the finger at some workers and call them criminals. Workers point the finger at some bosses and call them criminals. When workers do more than point the finger but burn down bosses’ property, this is a declaration of potential working class power so the bosses understandably unleash the maximum power of their state.

Alienation and bourgeois ideology

Most workers are still caught up in the bourgeois ideology of capitalist exploitation as unequal exchange. Their anti-capitalism is still trapped within bourgeois morality and statistics. Their solution to capitalist 'exploitation' is to 'equalise exchange', fair shares, fair pay, fair profits, fair taxes via economic 'democracy' and so on. Even the so-called revolutionary left is typically committed to its view of capitalism as potentially one of fair exchange relations and feels the need to condemn both greedy bosses and ‘lumpen’ workers. Hence their politics is trapped within the alienated and fetishised appearance of capitalism as exchange rather than productive relations and a morality of equal exchange.

However, for Marx, exchange relations are inverted production relations which makes it appear that exploitation occurs in the market and not in production. Marx's great discoverty was that the commodity labour power was capable of producing more value than its own value. Hence it was sold at its value but created surplus value. The failure to recognise this masks the reality that workers produce value which is then expropriated and then appears as a property of the commodity owned by the capitalist. Marx called this 'commodity fetishism' because the misidentifying of value as a property of labour to its product the commodity is a 'fetish'. It is the basis of bourgeois ideology that is reproduced in the production process.

But more importantly it is also a process by which the alienation of value from the worker also alienates that workers from [capitalist] production, and the [commodity] product, and as a result from his or her [class] co-workers, and ultimately from his or her 'self' [productive power]. The result is that the 'alienated bourgeois subject' becomes the 'sovereign individual'  whose 'identity' (to use the pomo jargon) is the sum of the value of the commodities he or she owns. Hence a system of law and order is derived from these private property rights which then justifies locking up those who loot.  

Therefore, whoever steals the value of commodities breaks bourgeois property law because the commodity is the property of the owner, capitalist or worker. Since exploitation is not based on looting, looting back cannot end exploitation. Moreover as we have argued looting back criminalises and atomises the working class and makes it easier for the ruling class to repress. To justify reclaiming the full value of the commodities that the workers actually produce with their commodity labour power they need to first become conscious of their alienation from that value in the first place. Marx said that this cannot happen spontaneously because of 'commodity fetishism' can only be revealed by the scientific critique of capital that exposes and explains the true historically specific nature of capitalism. 

Thus workers need to become class conscious and understand that the only form of looting that can take back the labour value expropriated by the capitalists is organised workers' expropriation of capitalist property. Workers need to assert a new social relation that breaks out of capitalist alienation and transforms looting into expropriation of the value that the capitalist class extracts from our surplus labour. Fetishised looting is no more than a spontaneous expression of alienation yet the roots of alienation cannot be removed unless capitalism itself is expropriated. 

Capital crisis and class struggle

As Marx wrote long ago capitalism creates the new socialist society in its womb. It throws the unemployed into the reserve army of labour to act as a pool of surplus workers competing to drive down wages and living standards. Thus capitalism cannot operate without a pool of unemployed who are living below the poverty line. And as capitalism develops the forces of production it also begins to destroy them. Each crisis of overproduction destroys jobs to restore profits. An increasingly growing layer of society is excluded from the 'social space' of production into the 'social space' of the surplus population. 

Migrant workers, youth in particular, are hardest hit. In most countries youth unemployment is approaching 50% or more. Austerity and welfare cuts mean that young workers of generation zero are forced to live below the poverty line. To survive the economically superfluous most beg, borrow or steal. This forces them to appropriate the value of commodities as small traders or indulging in crime. Just as poverty is endemic to capitalism, crime, looting, and trading in the black market, is the necessary response so that impoverished unemployed workers can survive in capitalist society. This is anathema to capitalism not a 'crime' as such,  but because it is a foreshadowing of the socialist principle of redistribution on the basis of need.

Unfortunately capitalist society still exists, the unemployed cannot perform work to meet their needs, and random looting has unintended side effects. But where other workers are harmed this is a matter for workers' tribunals not the bosses' courts. In stealing to survive they may harm small traders and other workers. Small traders who are robbed risk losing their jobs and their businesses and ending up in the reserve army. Similarly, looting capitalist corporates may put jobs of the workers they employ at risk. For that reason, where looting is justified for the survival of the working class it should be organised and directed at only those multinational corporates where items can be resold to provide the means of subsistence (food, clothing, rent etc), and where the employees of these big corporates are strong enough to defend their jobs, despite losses due to looting.

Thus the working class needs to unconditionally support the young rebels where they are looting to survive because this is spontaneous class action which challenges capitalism and the authority of the state. Youth have come to the rescue of a labour movement that has been bought-off by more than a century of imperialist privilege, by co-option into parliamentary politics, and by swallowing whole the exchange level ideology of economism (strike for jobs and wages) and social democracy (vote for a party that will pass laws to create jobs and pay a living wage). The youth have sounded the opening shots of the working class fight back against the global crisis of capitalism. The ruling class understands this clearly which is why it has brought down the state forces onto the rioters. The fascists know that their time has come. The working class is on the move and must be stopped. The BBC makes the Powellites respectable again, and the fascist gangs are taking to the streets. 

Revolutionary Party


The upsurge of youth around the world shows that the young workers of Generation Zero have nothing to lose. While capitalism creates the embryo of socialism in its womb, Marx also said socialism will not be born until capitalism has exhausted its productive powers. When capitalism destroys the productive potential of the youth it has reached that point. Marx saw the productive capacity of workers as a force of production. So not only is capitalism destroying nature in the usual sense of the ecosystem, human production is a key part of that ecosystem. The old labour movement hidebound by a century of labourism and social democracy is now pushed aside by these new militant layers fighting for the survival of nature against the destruction of capital. But as we have argued in relation to the Arab uprisings and the European risings, the objective necessity of resistance to the destruction of the global capitalist crisis faces a crisis of leadership able to chart the course from riot to revolution.

What is missing is the leadership of a revolutionary Marxist party that takes the critique of capitalism to its rotten heart - the alienation of labour from productive workers into the hands of the capitalist class. What is missing is the Marxist party that acts as the collective proletarian 'scientist' applying the knowledge of capitalism in practice and constantly testing and revising that knowledge through struggle. Marxism makes it clear that there can be only one response to the capitalist crisis and the barbaric attacks on workers by the ruling class and that is socialism. Capitalism has run its historic course and its long run tendency to destroy nature and society to survive demands that it be overthrown. 

  • The British riots along with all the other uprisings taking place today are a catalyst for class consciousness.  
  • The riots have shown us how the working class to survive must reproduce itself both materially and ideologically independently of the ruling class and prepare to dig the grave of capitalism. 
  • Workers must unconditionally defend the spontaneous rebellion of young workers fighting for their subsistence. We must form united fronts and defence committees against the forces of the state and their fascist paramilitaries. 
  • Workers must build councils or soviets everywhere through occupations and strike committees so that all workers of all genders, races, nationalities, ages, experience, and so on, participate fully. 
  • Wherever these organs exist Marxist revolutionaries must raise their collective voice in the building of a revolutionary international movement, raising demands, organising tactics, mobilising support, forming international links, propagandising, agitating, and revolutionising the roots of capitalist alienation. 

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