In the space of less than 48 hours Britain was rocked by a wave of riots that spread from North London to the rest of country. Everybody, from government to opposition, believes that the riots are a symptom of a deeper crisis, but defining that crisis depends on where one stands. For Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor of London and chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, what happened in Tottenham, Brixton and Hackney was "disgusting and shocking." He said that the riots showed that "Obviously there are people in this city, sadly, who are intent on violence, who are looking for the opportunity to steal and set fire to buildings and create a sense of mayhem, whether they're anarchists or part of organised gangs or just feral youth frankly, who fancy a new pair of trainers."
But for others this is not the case. Ahram Online interviews the socialist thinker Alex Callinicos, professor of European Studies in King's College, London and author of books including Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World. Callinicos, who is also the editor of International Socialism Journal and a leading member in Britain's Socialist Worker's Party, sees in the London riots proof that the neo-liberal policies adopted by the British government have further alienated the disadvantaged.
Ahram Online: What kind of message do the London riots send?
Alex Callinicos: The riots – like those in the Paris suburbs in 2005 – show that the rich liberal democracies harbour within them the most profound social antagonisms. London shares with New York the title of being the world’s biggest financial centre. A study last year showed that it is the most unequal city in the developed world. Some of the richest people in the world live in London, but there are also terrible concentrations of poverty and deprivation. The rioting was worst in some of these areas – Tottenham, Hackney, Peckham – but it also affected neighbourhoods like Ealing and Clapham where rich and poor live side by side and so the inequalities are very visible.
AO: The violence in these riots shocked everyone. Do you think that there is a reason for their fear?
AC: We need to place the violence in perspective. Five people died in the riots – five too many, but not very many compared to the 850 killed during Egypt’s 25 January Revolution. Western liberal societies have a self-image of affluence and prosperity, so they don’t like to be reminded of the antagonisms at their heart. What the rioting showed is that there are large numbers of young people who are completely alienated from society.
The sources of this alienation are not simply poverty and inequality. Access to education is a very big issue. The Conservative-Liberal coalition government has scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance, which helped students from poor backgrounds to stay on at school after 16 and tripled university tuition fees to £9,000 ($14,600) a year. Many working-class school students were involved in the student protests last winter. Youth in poor areas also have long-standing grievances with the police. Those particularly from black and Asian backgrounds are liable to be constantly stopped and searched by the police on spurious ‘anti-terrorist’ grounds. We shouldn’t forget that the riots started with the shooting in Tottenham of a young man who, investigation has now established, did not fire at the police. There have been many, many cases of police shootings and deaths in police custody where the culprits escape scot free. Hatred of the police was a unifying factor running through the riots, the lightning rod for all these young people’s discontents.
AO: But still the media says that violence cannot be justified: what do you say to that?
AC: The media and establishment politicians are thoroughly hypocritical. They don’t unconditionally condemn violence – they continue to wage war in Afghanistan and Libya. It’s true that riots, even though they have social and political causes, tend to be unfocused in their targets. Often it’s innocent people who are harmed. But their suffering is being used as an excuse for refusing to address the real causes of this explosion. This refusal – and a positive frenzy of denunciation – comes from an establishment that has been thoroughly discredited by a succession of scandals, over the banking collapse, parliamentarians’ expenses, phone-hacking by journalists. It’s as if it is now trying to regain some moral authority by demonising the rioters.
I understand there has been some comment in Egypt on the widespread looting. We live in a society pervaded by images of desirable commodities where we are constantly incited to emulate celebrities distinguished mainly by their wealth. Is it surprising that deprived young people, even when they rebel, respond to the prevailing values by stealing some of the prestigious goods they’ve been encouraged to desire?
AO: How much can you relate what happened in London to a crisis that western capitalism has been facing since 2008?
AC: It’s appropriate that these riots should have coincided with the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the global economic and financial crisis in August 2007. The huge falls in stock markets in recent weeks reflect the fact that this crisis is far from over. In the two historic centres of advanced capitalism – the United States and the European Union – we see economic stagnation and political paralysis. The only solution that governments offer is austerity – cutting public expenditure. This increases social suffering and class polarisation. The British coalition government’s cuts have led to widespread closures of youth centres and the like, which have no doubt contributed to the discontent we see exploding.
AO: Where are the leftist parties in the UK? Why can't they provide an alternative?
AC: I’m a member of the Socialist Workers Party, which has been active in Tottenham, where the riots started, for several decades. We are campaigning to redirect the anger towards collective action against the government’s policies. But the radical and revolutionary left in Britain is relatively weak. The Labour Party has tended to be the main vehicle for trying to reform British society, and in recent years it has diverted too many people towards the dead end of Tony Blair’s attempt to marry social democracy and neoliberalism. But we are seeing the development of serious resistance to the coalition government. This started with the student movement in November and December last year, but is now increasingly taking the form of strike action. There was a huge trade union demonstration in March, followed by 750,000 public sector workers striking on 30 June. We are expecting larger-scale strikes in the autumn. The SWP is very actively involved in building this resistance.
AO: Certain groups within Egypt and Tunisia think that they have as yet not accomplished much, because the old regimes are still intact. However, many think that the mobilisation that is talking place all around the world is linked to the so-called Arab spring. Is this really the case? Or would this be neglecting the struggle over the past years of the working class in Europe?
AC: The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia certainly have a long way to go before they accomplish real social and political change. But they have had an enormous impact internationally. ‘Strike like an Egyptian’ is a slogan that has gone round the world – to the protests in Madison in the United States, our trade union march in Britain, the movements in the squares in the Spanish state and Greece. The Arab revolutions have given people around the world a concrete image of collective self-emancipation. Of course, this isn’t to negate our own histories of struggle, but we are all in your debt for offering us such inspiring examples to emulate.
AO: There is an anarchic attitude in movements like Egypt and Spain where people do not have much faith in parties or political figures. How do you see this and where can it take the movement?
AC: The distrust of political parties is quite understandable. In the North, we have seen political elites unite behind neoliberalism, so that, though we have contested elections, they offer little real choice. Moreover, the historic parties of the left – social democracy and the Communist parties – have failed to offer an alternative. In the Arab world we’ve seen the failure of the secularist traditions of Communism and nationalism. For all that, however, I think the rejection of the party as a political form is a mistake. This is partly because it surrenders the electoral arena to the mainstream. More fundamentally, the political is where all the contradictions of social life come together in a concentrated form. Changing society requires the radical and revolutionary left to intervene here, to offer the exploited and oppressed a programme and strategy to take their struggles forward. Decentralised campaigns around specific issues, or even coalitions of these campaigns can’t perform this role. Only a party that seeks to bring together all the different issues and struggles can do this.
AO: What about what is happening in Tel Aviv? Do you think that the city of tents can be the beginning of the end of Zionism? And how should the free Palestine movements look at it?
AC: I’m not an expert on Israel, but my impression is that we’re seeing the consequences of the way in which in recent years, while the Zionist state has become increasingly brutal and aggressive towards the Palestinians, Israeli society has been restructured along neoliberal lines. It’s interesting that the reaction to this should be shaped by the example set by the Arab revolutions. But I’m sceptical that this marks the beginning of the end of Zionism. Zionism has always been a multi-class project that has had to manage internal social antagonisms. Often those Israelis who have been very militant on social issues are also very hostile to the Palestinians. Nevertheless, any weakening of the cohesion of Israeli society can only be welcomed. If I were a Palestinian I would be supportive of the social demands of the movement but insist that real social justice includes ending the oppression of the Palestinians.
AO: Can Israel try to overcome its problems by embarking on another war? And if this is a possibility what would another war do to the revolutionary spirit in the region?
AC: Reawakening fear of the common enemy would certainly be a way of reunifying Israeli society. It’s possible that if the Assad regime starts to disintegrate, Netanyahu might be tempted to intervene in Syria. Fear of such action may be one reason for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s denunciation of Assad, which the Western media have reported without commenting on the hypocrisy involved: why is a ‘killing machine’ to crush protestors bad in Syria but good in Bahrain? But fundamentally, the problem facing Israel is that it is confronting a region transformed by revolution. The parameters have changed so much that the old basis for calculating the consequences of actions has disappeared. For this reason alone, I imagine the Americans would be absolutely terrified of any military action by Israel.
AO: Social justice has become the main demand from New Delhi to Madrid to the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, do you think that this demand can be met? And why?
AC: Social justice – or rather its absence – is also the fundamental issue in the riots here in Britain. The main obstacle to achieving it lies in the capitalist system that dominates the world. Neoliberalism has brought out the logic of capitalist exploitation in a particularly stark and pure form. What the establishment and the West want to achieve in Egypt and Tunisia is a democratic façade that will legitimise further neoliberal restructuring. This is bizarre, since it was the socio-economic polarisation produced by neoliberalism that helped to cause the revolutions in the first place. More doses of the poison are being offered as a cure. What’s happened in London shows that democracy neoliberal style doesn’t work. To achieve social justice requires getting rid of capitalism. This will require enormous collective efforts by working people and the poor around the world. But I’m confident that it can be done. The reason why the occupation of Tahrir Square back in January and February was so inspiring is that it showed what ordinary people are capable of achieving. It’s their abilities, collectively exercised, that can really change the world.