Thursday, 11 August 2011

The riots in Britain are a genuine uprising

The riots that started in London, but which have also spread to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere are a genuine uprising. The same economic and political forces that caused young people to rise up in Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya, Syria and across the Middle East and North Africa have also caused people to rise up in Greece, Spain and Britain.

The student revolts at the end of last year in Britain were the start. The biggest ever trade union-organised demonstration on 26 March and the mass strikes on 30 June and those to come in November are the way people in Britain have begun to fight back against austerity and cuts. This new wave of riots that began in Tottenham and have now spread to many urban areas of Britain are the continuation of this. We are not in a revolutionary situation in Britain at the moment. Nevertheless, we need to build a revolutionary movement against the ruling class. We need to unite the fights against racism, the police, the bankers, the rich, the Tories and the capitalist system itself.

The ruling class is in crisis. First people reacted angrily to the bank bailouts, seeing bankers as the enemy. Then we had the MPs expenses scandal which exposed the corruption at the heart of Westminster. Next came the Hackgate scandal that revealed the corrupt connections between media barons, top politicians and the police. Now these riots demonstrate how young people will not put up with any more racism and violence from the police or cuts from the government. Education Secretary Michael Gove was close to hysteria on Newsnight on Tuesday because Harriet Harman, whilst forced to condemn the rioting, nevertheless made some points about the cuts (see above). The Tories, especially neoconservatives like Gove, have to shutdown any attempt to link the rioting with the cuts because they know that if this view becomes widespread their days really will be numbered.

The riots are an expression of anger. They are a response to the violence that people are forced to live with every day, violence that flows from oppression, poverty and alienation. The state tries to discredit riots as the violence of a minority. That is because it is terrified of mass resistance to issues like rising poverty and ongoing police violence. Riots represent the rage people feel at the injustice of the system. As Martin Luther King put it, “Riots are the voice of the unheard”. Ordinary people, who feel invisible most of their lives, take to the streets and take centre stage. It is not about people smashing up their local area for no reason. It is about them expressing their anger, wherever they happen to be.

The violence of riots is minor compared to the violence the system inflicts on a daily basis, like the famine in Africa that is killing thousands of people and wars that slaughter millions. Riots often happen in the context of wider resistance, like during a general strike in Spain last year when police sparked riots because they tried to stop strikers picketing. Where there is a low level of collective organisation, and individuals are not connected to a wider movement, riots can rise and fall quickly. The initial burst of power is difficult to sustain, and can be trapped in confrontation with the state. That is why riots alone do not end oppression and exploitation. Riots worry the ruling class, but more is needed to truly scare them.

As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken.” Collective power in the workplace enables the progress of a movement to be decided democratically and collectively. That is not the case in the midst of a riot, however liberating. But it would be a mistake to artificially counterpose strikes to riots and other forms of protest. The critical issue is how to fuse their anger, energy and defiance with the political consciousness and strategy of collective action.

The media has focused on young people looting from shops. But the real looters are the banks who have stolen £850 billion of our money and the politicians who are robbing us of our public services and taking away from many young people their Education Maintenance Allowance as well as their hope, dignity and life chances.

Those of us in the anti-cuts movement and the labour movement, need to re-double our efforts to stop this government's cuts, privatisation and job losses, to stop making the ordinary people of this country pay for a crisis that was caused by the banks. We need to organise the biggest possible turnout at the Tory Party Conference in October and we need to support the trade unions in organising the biggest co-ordinated mass strike possible in November to bring down the government, stop the cuts and challenge the whole rotten system.

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