BY JAYNA BROWN AND JACK HALBERSTAM
If there was an Arab Spring, it has been followed by a US Fall, not simply an autumn of increased political protest and widespread dissatisfactions but also literally, the fall of the US. When some demonstrators decided to sit down on Sept. 17 in Zucotti Park to protest corporate greed and the continued looting of US working people by investors and bankers, a certain North American propensity for indifference, ignorance, obedience was punctuated at last by a multi-racial alliance against a ruling class that sometime around the mid-90’s began its latest assault on global peace and domestic shared prosperity. In this spliced parallel conversation, Jayna Brown and Jack Halberstam exchange ideas about the London Riots, Occupy Wall Street/Occupy LA, Anarchy, uprisings, looting and the folly of Zizek.
JAYNA BROWN (JB):
August of this year there were a few days of looting, burning and general chaos in London. These events, as with previous upheavals, were called ‘riots’ in Britain, but here in the US, Left wing commentators tried to use other terms like rebellion or insurrection. But thinking about these riots, Brixton and Handsworth in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985, and the banlieus of France in 2005, I’ve taken to actually preferring the term “riot” after all. It is bleak, it understands what it means to live in conditions of permanent and violent oppression. After all, ask any black person, “No Future” was not a sentiment first articulated by Sid Vicious!
(Handsworth Songs, part 1): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3jPGI3uIWQ
The term ‘riot’ provokes something different than the more euphemistic and hopeful ‘uprising’ or ‘insurrection’, both of which capture the spirit of irrepressible resistance, but seem to me infer the eventual need for centralized political and tactical organization and carry with them a nascent militarism. What I embrace about the term riot in our current moment is that it points away from a politics of resistance to a politics of refusal. The boys in the streets refused to behave, or even to complain properly. They were not demanding the state fulfill its promises or mend its ways, for riots are not about state recognition or redress, in fact they refuse a dialogue of any kind with authority.
The boys (and girls?) also refused to shop properly, gleefully looting everything from H&M to consumer electronics stores, sorting out goods in the back gardens of neighboring houses. And, as the Situationist Guy Debord observed following the Watts Riots in 1965, “Looting is a natural response to an unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It…exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence.” www.mara-stream.org/think-tank/guy-debord-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-spectacle-commodity-economy/
These were not, as Zygmunt Bauman described them, “defective and disqualified consumers,” gratifying a “longing” to be part of the system, but snatchers, defying the terms of appropriate accumulation. (Zygmunt Bauman, On Consumerism Coming Home to Roost) http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/
New theorizations of political protest emerged after the riots in the French banlieu in 2005, and took the form of a pamphlet called The Coming Insurrection authored by an anonymous group called The Invisible Committee. In The Coming Insurrection, the group dissected the revolts that had just happened and mused about revolts still to come. They blamed the collapse of the global economy for the revolts and suggested that “the economy is not the CAUSE of the crisis, it IS the crisis.” They critiqued conventional forms of political protest and called for wide recognition that everything must change – that everything has changed and that work, social life, the economy, aspiration, hopes, dreams, melancholia are all ready to be reinvented through new relations between people and between people and institutions. They also named political domination as less a logic or a set of actions and as more of a “rhythm that imposes itself, a way of dispensing reality.” To offset the rhythm of domination then we need, they said, an insurrection that gathers form after it flares up and resonates: “it takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations…”
It is this model of political (in)action that manifests in the riots of London and the occupations in US cities – a set of vibrations rumble through urban zones and gathering force they emerge in a blast of sound.
The exhaustion of conventional forms of protest has left people with a few different options out of which to craft a viable, dynamic and show-stopping movement: people can riot and literally block up the city; and, they can loot in the aftermath of the riot as a way of taking back the wealth that has been stolen from them; people can exchange information on facebook, twitter and other social networking sites and find new ways of flooding the media with our discontent; finally, people can simply “be there,” show up, show off, refuse to leave.
And while commentators like Slavoj Zizek in his piece titled – “Shoplifters of the World Unite” – http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite – have criticized the London riots and the looting that followed for “expressing Zero-degree protest,” it is more likely that the message is clear and loud, but Zizek, saddled as he is with his nostalgia for a more binary mode of leftist politics, cannot hear it. “The UK rioters had no message to deliver” he said. And it is true, the rioters, like the OWS movements around the country, have no succinct and unitary message to deliver: instead they speak in a babble of voices all rising in volume and intensity to say “no.”
The riots in London have been referred to repeatedly as “pure anarchy” in the conservative British press (Michael Nakan). Anarchy is a perfect term in fact because itis always in process: anarchy depends on improvisation, and creates fluid decentralized forms of organization. It is against not just economic exploitation, as with Marxism, but of all forms of domination. “Anarchy is not society without rules — it’s society without rulers,” writes Thomas L. Knapp at the Center for a Stateless Society, “If true anarchy is present in the riots, and I believe it is, it’s to be found in ad hoc mutual aid societies springing up in affected neighborhoods.” This is an exciting idea, as it gestures to the ways disenfranchised communities, especially black people, already live in alternative relationship to the state, embrace anti-state practices, and engage in creative forms of cooperation.
A frail, pale ballerina, en pointe atop a raging bull, my god, Adbusters, you couldn’t get much whiter).
Apart from Cornel West’s performance, perhaps we should remember that there is a lot more at stake for black people in getting surveilled and/or arrested, considering the history of blood and terror that has accompanied black protest. Julianne Malvaux says that black people are generally more concerned with concrete causes, such as the execution of Troy Davis and other cases of police brutality than an abstract, general protest of the financial system. But this sounds condescending to me. No doubt black people are more than aware of the larger picture, yet not that interested in joining in the somewhat smug, and grubby, Woodstock of it all.
Perhaps the disproportionate absence of people of color also speaks to their very different relationship to money and the financial system, one that is much less intimate, less expectant and less entitled than most white people’s. For African Americans, as Greg Tate writes in his “Ten Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street,” it’s “no newsflash here” that elites will sell you (out). Yet I often lament the deep grain of economic and social conservatism in my communities as well. The last era of black conservatism substituted the financial success of a few for actual social change.
JH: While pundits and mainstream media puzzle over the Occupy Wall Street/LA movements and wonder about what they want and about whether the whole thing is just a side-show to some “real political movement” still to come, the occupiers, many of whom are now without occupations, are standing witness to the crime of the millennium: while we were all sleeping in homes we could not afford, the investors and brokers were draining the bank accounts of the professional class and sending the service classes into ruin and onto the street; they then recruited the government to the role of lookout and getaway driver while the Goldman Sachs Harvard graduate coolly wandered through the digital vaults of the nation’s banks and investment firms, pocketing the cash as he goes and called his activity “work.” When poor people rob banks they get life imprisonment, when Harvard grads do it, they get bonuses.
There is no doubt that the riots in London and the new Occupation movements are filled with opportunists as well as sincere activists, drunks as well as revolutionaries, people who want new goods as well as people who want to break down the structures of capitalist greed. But there is also no doubt that after the occupations have dispersed and the parks have been cleaned, the rhythm will continue, the vibrations will spread, the song will rise and the message will be, will always have been, the noise of many voices not speaking as one but speaking all at once the language of refusal.