An initial word about my first blog post. G has invited me to post here at Grandgood and I have humbly accepted. I’m not sure how regularly I can comment, but I’m grateful for the invitation and I welcome discussion and debate of anything I contribute. I also read a piece by Rob Horning, that G sent me, published in PopMatters concerning the London riots. I’m not sure how much of the post’s ideas I should attribute to Horning or to the author whose text he excerpts (a cat named Zygmunt Bauman) though my sense is that Horning sympathizes a lot with Bauman. The following notes are my own.

In Rioting Nonconsumers Horning cites Bauman that we are all consumers first and only:

We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty… It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops. From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life….

But what folks consume are all products of alienated labor, meaning, labor that is not controlled by nor an expression of the humanity of those who work (for a great philosophical elaboration of this process, see Karl Marx’s “Estranged Labor“). Where are those invisible people who make all those things, from the production of the machines which produce them, to the shelves which they are placed upon in order to sell?

Furthermore, situating looting as an expression of crass materialism is directly related to an absence of an analysis of labor. This perspective is somewhat shared by (left-liberal?) blogger Nick Young who sees the activity of the rioters as consistent with the “greed is good” ideology of “neoliberalism” (neoliberalism, in short, characterizes our period of capital accumulation where public institutions are transformed into private investment opportunities). While it is important to the see the riots in the context of neoliberalism, if the violence of London youth are merely an expression of “greed is good,” it is they who get beat down by cops–Wall Street investors get bonuses.

Labor is a social product, a product which amounts, when sold, to more than the wages paid to labor. The things we consume are products of our own labor, turned against us, and looting, though not articulated this way, is an instinctual resistance to this social process. We should not limit an analysis of the riots to looting alone. What about the direct confrontation with police? How about the fact that police trained in riot tactics were being outmanuevered by rioters? What is the race and class composition of the rebellion? What does Horning, Bauman, and Young have to say about any of this?

I have some thoughts on American class and race composition that may be useful.

In America the hip-hop generation has been turned into a surplus labor reserve. They are seen as unemployable which is directly related historically to in-plant and community class struggles in the 1968-1973 resistance wave which cut into the rate of profit (that portion of profit had after you subtract rent and wages). I found Antoine Fuqua’s “Bastards of the Party” a very compelling film which captures the result of this dynamic in Los Angeles. In response, black neighborhoods are being militarized and black people are being incarcerated where their labor becomes nearly “free input,” that is, where very little is invested into its reproduction which amounts to immense profits. Those sites of capital accumulation have been moved to the US and global South and are now exploiting new layers of the working class that they hope will be more docile (largely women and undocumented). To what extent has this dynamic existed in England as well? How does such a narrative help us to place the riots historically and racially?

Capital’s rate of profit is steadily decreasing and the only way it can recover is through cutting into labor’s reproduction cost (how labor is fed, clothed, housed, transported, etc.) and forcing workers to pay for more of it. This has been the dynamic specifically in education, healthcare, and transit. This austerity is being enforced through larger and more serious police crackdowns addressing things like transit fare dodging. Students in California through the anti-budget cuts struggle of 2009-2010 have learned that “behind every fee increase is a line of police.”

While Bauman says that the rioters are hedonistic consumers and while Young tells us that the rioters believe “greed is good,” the class struggles of the hip-hop generation in Oakland in 2009-2010 around Oscar Grant, which involved not only looting but police confrontation and ILWU workers shutting down the Oakland port for a day, raised the slogan, “We are all Oscar Grant,” placing Grant’s murder in a bigger picture, as part of the black experience in America. In Britain, many of the youth participating in the riots are not seeing their activity as consumerism but as resistance. Perhaps its time we start listening to their narratives and not those of academics.


KCMilitant digs for political texts and New Orleans bounce.”