Academic journal article Capital & Class

The August Riots, Shock and the Prohibition of Thought

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The August Riots, Shock and the Prohibition of Thought

Article excerpt

La hora sono, la hora sono,
No permitiremos mas, mas tu doctrina del shock.

The hour has struck, the hour has struck,
We will no longer allow your doctrine of shock.

(lyrics from Ana Tijoux's Shock, the anthem of the 2011 Chilean student movement)


The long-term impact of the riots that broke out in London and elsewhere in August 2011 has yet to be established. While testimony from some participants in the riots carries a familiar tone of excitement, intensity and festival, the events' wider impact has been determined by their context and reception. In this article, we argue that the dominant reception of the riots was marked by the profound shock that struck large sections of the UK population, not just on an intellectual or moral level, but also on an affective one. This shock was marked by a sensation of fear and even panic, as some old certainties threatened to collapse. Reinforced by the endless looping footage of shops set alight with little apparent regard for those living above, this affective reaction was articulated by political and media elites into a right-wing backlash. A hysterical campaign was launched to prevent the riots becoming linked to the context of crisis and austerity from which they emerged. Indeed, a prominent feature of this shock was the ease with which it was mobilised into a prohibition on thought, which was then ruthlessly policed. Anybody asking if the events could be understood as a response to the economic crisis, and the subsequent imposition of austerity, was vigorously condemned. The Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, tellingly responded to a question about the shooting that sparked the first riot by declaring, 'It is time that people who are engaging in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and sociological justifications for what they are doing' (Guardian, 2001a).

In the cold light of day, this response might look faintly ludicrous. Just as the riots of the 1980s went down in history as being, at least in part, responses to the austerity of the time, it was obvious that the August riots would also be recorded as one event in a varied series of responses to the great recession of the early years of the 21st century. Indeed, 'Reading the riots', a joint study conducted by the LSE and the Guardian newspaper, which drew on interviews with 270 participants in the riots, showed that austerity provided more than just a general context. Alongside other issues such as hostility to the police, it formed a central part of the self-understanding of the riots by participants. As summarised in the report,

   Rioters identified a range of political grievances, but at the
   heart of their complaints was a pervasive sense of injustice. For
   some this was economic: the lack of money, jobs or opportunity. For
   others it was more broadly social: how they felt they were treated
   compared with others. Many mentioned the increase in student
   tuition fees and the scrapping of the education maintenance

We should, of course, note the limitations of this study and the objections made by some that a variety of interpretations could be put on self-declarations of motive made after the fact (see, for example, Bracchi, 2011). Such questions, however, are peripheral to our interest in this paper. Rather than examining the causes of the riots, we want to unpack their effects. We are interested in using the experience of the riot aftermath to think through the political effect of shock upon social movements--and specifically its effect on the articulation of different struggles within the UK.

In a blog post of February 2011, later expanded into a book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, Paul Mason identifies three key social actors in the current upsurge of militancy: organised labour, 'the graduate with no future', and the urban poor (Mason, 2011). Situating these forces alongside an analysis of networked technologies, he asks, 'What if--instead of waiting for the collapse of capitalism--the emancipated human being were beginning to emerge spontaneously from within this breakdown of the old order? …

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