August 19, 2011

Smash something!

With all the moral panic about riots that is washing over the UK, the sadistic response of the state, the tsk-tsk-ing of the professional intellectuals, and even the attempts of revolutionaries to correct the mistakes of the masses, such as the failure of the hoi polloi to attack the right targets, missing is an actual apology for rioting (the word 'apology' is used in here in the classical sense, not an expression of regret, but a defense in the court of letters, an archaism which is appropriate because riots have been with us at least since a beret wearing animal wrote a note on Eve's facebook wall, inciting her to help herself to someone else's private property, God forbid!

Good historians (or as they are known affectionately in the nuttier parts of the spectrum, "cultural Marxists") have long noted that riots are guided by theories about right and wrong, and in particular, theories about what the economy should look like. E.P. Thompson cleared the way in his groundbreaking article about the 18th century English food riots, "The moral economy of the English crowd in the 18th century." As happens to all good ideas, it spawned an industry of "riot studies," ranging from the awful to the brilliant. Among the latter, a special word of recommendation is requisite for Le Roy Ladurie's Carnival in Romans, as well as for EP Thompson's own "Whigs and hunters: the origin of the Black Act," in which Thompson examines the social origins of another sadistic response of the British state to rioters. Who says the English don't value tradition?

The following is not a "riot study," and will therefore stay clear from any half-baked sociological observation, but a defense, on the level of principle, of riots in general, not of this particular riot with its particular grievances and trajectories. This is not to say that riots are good strategy, or that this riots was good strategy, or that I disagree with all the critique of the riot offered by people who do know better (a category excluding everyone in the mainstream press or political establishment). But a fair balance sheet has two columns. This is strictly about the less mentionable one, the positive.

Riots redistribute

In the wake of recent weeks in London, the Gini Coefficient of the UK inched down 0.00002 (a wild guestimate). Surely, burning cars is not the most efficient way of lowering the Gini. But nobody else is doing even that much.

Riots are Keynesian

During the Great Depression, Andrew Melon recommended roughly the same policies that are enacted now by governments today under the name of "austerity": "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers..." In contrast, Keynes suggested that the government should hire people to dig useless holes and then fill them in order to boost the economy. While the UK government is on the side of Melon, the rioters are objectively on the side of Keynes. Every smashed window has to be mended. Someone will have to be paid to do it (maybe even the brother-in-law of the person who smashed it). As a model of economic growth, smashing London is not as painless as Keynes imagined the New Deal should be, and yet it is a lot less painful than what the current UK government has in mind. It is also somewhat less immoral than the military Keynesianism of Bush and Blair, which consisted in hiring the people who might otherwise riot and sending them to smash Baghdad and Kandahar.

Riots are an expression of our collective super-ego

If one brings up Freud at all, most people (including Freud) think riots are an expression of our id. They are wrong.

Remember Hamlet?
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! and yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust?
400 years later, have we improved on Hamelt's gap between the actions of angels and the quintessence of dust? Look at the world we've made. Slavery, genocides, billions of people degraded, not enough caviar in Harod's to feed millions about to die of hunger in Somalia. Is this the image of a creature "noble in reason," "infinite in faculties," "in action like an Angel"? And as we grow in power, as technology multiplies our capacity to act exponentially, as science and modern communication increases our apprehension exponentially, how much more crushing the magnitude of the gap between what is and what can be should be for us than it was for Hamlet's generation? Don't you feel like driving a sword through a curtain, or at least smashing something, just for thinking about it? You should. I mean, you should smash something.

Riots are participatory

You can't elect people to riot for you. That alone makes rioting infinitely better than democracy as a way of making collective decisions. True, it is not really a mechanism for decisions. Yet. But it prefigures, "as through a glass darkly," the potential of popular power. To be fair, this is quite ambiguous. It is a service to the ruling class that popular power should be prefigured only through such violent and destructive forms that would scare most people away from ever wanting to participate. We have nothing today remotely like the factory committees that sprung up in Allende's Chile for example. That is why it is so important to keep in mind the overwhelming presence of the dark glass, which is our current economic and political system, and to imagine, as difficult as it is, what it would be like to see popular power one day without it, "face to face."

Riots separate the women from the girls

I saw on one of the videos from the riots that made the rounds, a women walking calmly through the rioters, like an apparition, getting to a motorcycle, setting it ablaze, than walking calmly away. That was sub-zero cool. If you know a teenager looking for a role model, send him or her this video. It beats Christina Aguilera 20 to 1.

Riots reconstitute culture

George Bataille observed that the essence of human culture is waste, represented in all religions through the centrality of the sacrifice. Closed circuit efficiency and mindless accumulation, which are the central values of our economic system, are the opposites of human culture. There are not just wrong values. They are anti-values. Riots enact, (again, "through a glass darkly,") the potluck, a moment of shared, sacrificial, collective destruction that affirm humanity as surplus value, as that which remain after we satisfy our needs, as waste, as value that serves no purpose except for being consumed and destroyed, rather than accumulated. Think of Marx's metaphor of capital as vampiric, undead labor. Undead labor is labor that is prevented from dying. The riot is the ceremony of driving a stake through the heart of undead labor, in order to release the surplus value that was appropriated in it, and return it to its living, that is, to its dying, form, which, through sacrifice and "inefficient," but socially shared, waste, is the form of culture itself. A burning motorcycle is an offering.

Riots can be, paraphrasing Herman Melville, "my Harvard and my Yale"

When the cost of university skyrockets, the number of people who can afford to study the history of the Paris Commune within hushed libraries diminishes. Riots offer a democratic alternative, with low entrance fees and no artificial exams, for learning "political science", namely, what is the power of the state and what is the power of the people, how are each manifested and exercised, how the latter can overcome the former, and also, crucially, what doesn't work.

Riots exercise the cardiovascular system

This one goes without saying. Participating in riots also causes the brain to release endorphins, which feels good.



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