Some thoughts from Dr. Sofia Himmelblau:
It’s going to take more than posturing, ‘blitz-spirit’, keep-calm-and-carry-on clap-trap and colonial Kipling-esque “keeping your head” to fix this mess. The strikingly middle-class, broadly white efforts to sweep issues of inequality under the carpet of a simulated big-society photo-op has been a telling, if little discussed, aspect of the recent rioting, making little headway in the scramble of blogposts and tweets attempting hasty analyses of the unfolding turmoil. This doughty bunch of volunteer cleaners, the substitution for a non-existent community, appeared right on cue to fill the media narrative all day following a night of London’s most extensive social unrest in decades. Even Mayor Boris had leisurely returned from holiday to be snapped with the broom-wielding bourgeoisie of Clapham as they amassed for a bit of symbolic social cleansing.
For all the passive-aggressive conscience salving however, the outraged ensemble with their newly purchased brooms still need to face up to the rampant inequalities and social exclusion that a gentrification of urban neighbourhoods (usually by them) exacerbates. This is particularly true of the apparent organiser of the original twitter campaign that lay behind ‘the great clean-up’, who in his day job runs the overly-simplistic, tirelessly self-promotional Art in Empty Shops gentrification consultancy. This individual, the ‘artistic director’ of Revolutionary Arts (haha) and originator of the Empty Shops network has spent the last few years renting out the simulacrum of social cohesion with a jauntily angled hat. Advising councils and artists on how to use art to keep vacant properties warm whilst the market is depressed and make sure that the capital locked up in them doesn’t depreciate, he has given rise to all manner of ‘pop-up’ events organised to paper over the cracks in the broken big-society fantasy of a jolly ‘local community’ which appears stuck in the 1940s. These decorative efforts have largely only succeeded in covering over the disintegration of localised economies with twee décor, whilst huge-scale retail barns appear on the outskirts of said communities, sucking up the life from within them, causing more and more neighbourhood shops to be abandoned. It is no coincidence that the primary target of rioters, despite a media-narrative keen to play up the social impact of these events on small retailers, was large retail warehouse stores that cling parasitically to neighbourhoods at the periphery of inner cities. These are stores that far from being the ‘heart of the community’, largely suck wealth out of it into overseas tax havens. This time the chap behind the empty shops network applied his big-society sticking plaster to the social destruction (which his gentrification agenda directly feeds into) and the devastation wrought by widespread internecine urban conflict.
Art and brooms isn’t going to fix this particular problem however, only the radical redistribution of wealth and a society not defined around the individual accumulation of property is going to do that. It’s not 1940, the destruction of the urban fabric is not wrought by foreign bombs, but by kids from the broom-brigade’s own neighbourhoods. They can pretend to pick up a few bits of litter for the cameras, but that is a fact that can not be wiped away so easily.
Behind the thinly veiled symbolism of social cleansing/cleaning up the area – for which read gentrification and further exclusion/segregation – emerged the rhetorical division between ‘real’ Londoners and therefore their opposite, ‘inauthentic’ Londoners. Effectively, the idea that ‘these people’, the rioters, were somehow non-citizens was therefore entrenched. All of the twitter commentary that supposedly organised the clean-up events (or was it the Young Conservatives Clapham branch?) parroted the same ideological soundbites – this is the ‘real London’, this is the ‘true London’ blah, blah, yawn, blah. In doing so it established a discourse that serves primarily to divide those, who in the words of Henri Lefebvre (and later David Harvey), have ‘the right to the city’ from those who do not, but also from those who can expect to be treated as citizens under the rule of law, and those who are excluded by virtue of their status as non-citizens.
When the rioting spread so far and so wide that the narrative claiming that it was all caused by ‘outsiders’ and ‘trouble-makers’ from elsewhere coming into the area became untenable, another, still more sinister discourse unfolded. The destruction was instead the work of ‘feral rats’, ‘apes’ and ‘animals’, sub-humans who were therefore strategically positioned by the language of carefully edited media loops, depicting the same self-righteous soundbites, to take the place of rhetorically excluded non-citizens. As non-citizens, these were people who could expect no protection therefore, from the coming ‘all necessary measures’ that the media agenda was simultaneously lining-up to be unleashed – in other words they would be subjected to a renewed and increased state violence. Like the taxonomies of colonialism and the language that surrounded Haussmann’s attacks on the Parisian working class in the 19th century, this language exists to determine not only who has the right to the city, but whose life counts for something, is valuable, and to mark out those whose life is not.
Either the ‘community’ presented in the continually replayed displays of good-citizenship genuinely exists, in which case the rioters are as much a part of it as the sweepers, or alternatively it doesn’t actually exist and its appearance serves merely as a convenient ideological fiction (the tv spectacles of people in Clapham with brushes who more than likely never had a conversation with each other before tend to point more towards the latter…).
In areas such as Clapham which, beneath the surface, are so strongly divided and segregated along class lines by years of gentrification, perhaps it is wishful thinking to even claim there exists such a thing as community in any meaningful sense. If it does exist, as this episode illustrates, this community certainly appears to be one that cannot operate other than by the exclusion of certain individuals, by the rhetorical and indeed physical expulsion of non-citizens and ‘feral rats’, from within its midst. Such a community, predicated upon exclusion, was how Carl Schmitt defined society (and he was a Nazi). This community therefore, that comes together over their dustpan and brushes only does so in the specific exclusion of their Other. This Other, the poor, often BME youths that have felt compelled to acts of nihilistic aggression against a society that marginalises them and offers no future, but amongst which and as part of which they live, are rhetorically excluded rather than be considered as equals. They are to be cast out rather than be kept within society. Surely for a community to exist in any desirable sense however, all of it’s constituents need to be treated as part of that community rather than expelled and excluded, even if this means they exist in antagonistic relation, as internal, acknowledged and equally valid members of that community, and not cast outside as excluded Others, as non-citizens.
By the symbolic cleaning, cleansing and casting out of the rioters from the community, the sweepers appear to enact the closest thing to popular fascism that we have seen on the streets of certain ‘leafy’ bits of London for years. I do not wish to denigrate people who want to help each other out as best they can or to express their social solidarity in some way, but this cannot be at the expense of further exclusion and segregation. Similarly I do not wish to applaud those causing suffering to people with whom they share their neighbourhoods, indeed their communities, often hurting those in an equally disadvantaged state as themselves. However, the rhetoric of ‘real’ citizen and non-citizen can not be allowed to stand unchallenged, opening as it does a certain state of exception – much like the discourse around the war on terror that has been so convenient for, and so enthusiastically embraced by, governments across the world – a discourse that legitimises a level of oppression against excluded groups. In the case of the war on terror, in Western countries at least, this was Muslims, although in Syria the state likewise seeks to label those that wish to overthrow it, or to question its authority, as terrorists, and hence legitimate targets for its violence.
In the case of London today it is a certain underclass that the state seeks to rhetorically denigrate and cast out, the very people who are already under attack from all sides in terms of a hostile media, benefit cuts, unemployment, lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of educational opportunities and police racism and aggression. In a scaling up of the afore mentioned community politics evidenced in Clapham, the British state attempts to cast a whole class of people as enemies within, responsible for all manner of society’s ills through their ‘feckless’, ‘immoral’ and ‘animalistic’ behaviour. In doing so they seek to create a group that all of those who are ‘all in it together’ can hate equally, and around which the illusion of the big society can coalesce. This reveals the big society as the bourgeois project that it always was all along – defined in opposition to an excluded underclass for whom the public services and welfare that it seeks to dismantle were essential. The underclass now serves little purpose for the ruling elite or the bourgeoisie other than as a conveniently excluded Other, usefully legitimising the Right’s authoritarian entrenchment of state power whilst ex-progressives look on cheering and waving brooms in the air.
What we need instead of this exclusionary illusion of community is rather a social solidarity that is non-exclusionary, that never panders to fascist rhetoric and that works together in striving for a truly democratic and egalitarian society. What unites us should not be a common hated or fear but a common humanity. When we acknowledge this we can surely then unite in common struggle against forces that would seek to divide us against ourselves, attempting as they do to divert our anger, even whilst they partition our access to the vital means by which to live full and fulfilling lives, simply according to our perceived usefulness to capital.