An open letter to those who condemn looting (Part one)

[given length, this is in two parts]

Dear you all,

 I fear we have nothing to say to each other.

What follows may therefore represent one half of a dialogue in the way that yelling at a iceberg does.  Perhaps the sheer exertion of speaking - a certain quantity of hot air - will soften the surface a bit, but it's a pretty one-sided discussion.

After all, we've heard what you have to say.  We too know the words by heart.  We find it, at best, deeply unconvincing, and, at worst, bilious, evasive, racist, average, murderous pap not fit for mouths or ears.  And there is very little that is best these days.

 I expect you would say the same about our position, albeit with a different set of adjectives. Juvenile, destructive, unreasonable, and naive come to mind, if your previous history of accusations gives any indication.  Unfortunately, given the structure of the media and the flow of information, we cannot but hear what you say while you can very easily continue to ignore what we do.  Until lots of angry people are burning your city, at which point you might, in a fit of weakness, concede to listen to those who have some opinions on the matter.  Unlikely, though.  We live in noisy times.

It is too bad, though, because we actually agree on a few things.  For you say of these riots, and this looting, that they are opportunistic.  That they are unreasonable and stupid.  That "this isn't a protest, this is a riot."  That they are "not political."  That "this is about individuals using the excuse of what happened the first two nights to make sure what happens the third night is worse".  That this is "havoc."  That this is "criminality pure and simple."  That they do not "have the right" to do this.  That "no benefit will come in the long term," from "looting a local shop," "setting a bus on fire," or "nicking a mobile phone."  Above all, as you, Home Secretary put it, "There is no excuse for violence.  There is no excuse for looting."  (For a further litany and bestiary of speech, see here.)

And we agree.

There are some points of difference, it's true.  We don't think "these people" are "apes," rats," "dogs".  But we believe that you truly see them that way, and that what happens now is not the reason for your belief: it is merely a confirmation of how you've always thought of those who are definitely more poor and often more brown than you.  As for the claim that your error lay in that "we should have helped the IPCC come closer to the Mark Duggan's family more quickly," it seems that you have already helped the police come plenty close to his family, in the worst way possible.  One can't really say that it was the delay of the IPCC's approach to the family that is the problem here, can we?  Doesn't it have more  to do with the fact that he did not shoot at the police who murdered him?

Lastly, we disagree that  "what we're witnessing now has absolutely nothing to do with" that shooting.  And that is the real difference, the tiny crack between us that widens into a yawning gulf, a division that  cannot be squared.

For we want to understand the world in its historical particularity, how and why it has gotten to be the way that it is, and why that is insupportable.  You, however, simply want to make sure that it goes on as long as possible.  Regardless of the quality, regardless of the consequences, regardless of anything other than your collected capacity to declare that it's a nasty world out there, but at least we have our decency.  At least we sit high enough to look out over the killing fields.  At least we got here by legal measures.  And how dare they.  How dare they.

But despite this, you've said much that is entirely correct.  Let us, then, begin with where we agree.

1. This isn't political

"Political" here would seem to mean "that which has the character of politics" or "that which pertains to the set of concerns and questions addressed by the activity and category called politics."  That seems clear enough.

What is meant by politics, not in general and always, but when we speak of it now?

Politics is the management of the social (i.e. the messy realm that acknowledges that there is not one person but many of them) and its contradictions.  It does so through institutional representation of varying scales of involvement, ranging from the fantasy of one-to-one direct democracy to the election of presidents by millions of people.  It runs alongside economics, which also bears on, determines, and relies upon the sphere of social existence.  The economic order we have - the reproduction of capital - dictates a set of social relations between people and their world, and it understands those people, their time, and their exertion as a resource to be managed, extracted, tended, and circulated.  Economics manages resources, through a set of relations dependent upon the material abstraction that is value.  Politics manages subjects and their needs, through a set of representations dependent upon the material abstraction that is citizenship.  One can't think politics without economics and vice versa, although there are periods of time in which one seems more determinant, in the first and last instance, than the other.

Given the polices you enact or support, it's hard to imagine you would disagree with this, although you probably don't like the language.

To take any account of this era, then, is to understand the rapidly increasing difficulty for either politics or economics to govern, handle, or structure the fact of masses, the fact of the social.  This story shows itself most clearly in two ways.

First, the utter incapacity to provide adequate employment to an adequate number of people, such that the ranks of those who cannot be employed swells.  This is a structural fact of the way capital develops. This is no accident of bad governance, though there is loads of ineptitude across the ruling board.  This is not the fault of a "soft" immigration policy, in which growth rates would somehow have weathered the general collapse of manufacturing profitability for nearly forty years if only Britain could have been kept white, if post-colonial meant that those in the ex-colonies stayed put when the Empire found them too unruly to manage.

Second, the slow bleeding, coupled with a recent gutting unprecedented in its severity and rapidity, of the carcass of the welfare state, through attacks on social programs, housing, and pensions.  Such that the ranks of those who are employed, but not rich, and those who cannot be employed are further distanced from the means to adequately reproduce their own lives and those of their friends and families.  This inability to do so is coupled with the present and vicious face of an old fact: when the poor get poorer, their needs - and desires, that thing always mocked by the upper and middle classes as if wanting something you can't afford means you are a moron - do not have the good grace to disappear.  They get more desperate, the zones of the city get more rigorously divided, and the police get rougher.

These are the basic axes on which we turn and which hang, deadly, over the heads of the mass.  In short, the conditions which ground politics and economics - namely, citizenship and value - and produce the grounding assumption that both are natural and ongoing are in a shuddering, terrified disarray. 

To say, then, that these riots and this looting are "not political" is to understand something very key indeed.  Namely, that politics as it heretofore stands has shown itself, for many years and more clearly than ever, to be utterly inadequate in addressing the concerns and needs of those who barely fall beneath its shadow to start.

To mourn this fact is merely to insist, as you do, that "these people" should go back to their parts of the city and to the official channels of complaint, the ones that can be recognized as political, that you can know as such when you see it (even extending as far as a peaceful rally that knows when to go home!).  Back to taking impossible shelter beneath a relation that has serves only as a dividing line that keeps them out.  Back to not being considered as viable political subjects.  As such, only when they act "not politically" (skipping the mediation of citizenship and representation to appear) does that term even appear, as a negative definition.  But you've never understood them "politically."  You look the other way and hope that they do the same.

But we are in Janus times, albeit ones where the two faces are wrenching their shred head apart in an attempt to spit in the face of the other.

Riots are the other side of democracy, when democracy means the capacity and legitimacy to vote into place measures that directly wound the very population they purport to represent.

Looting is the other side of credit, when credit entails the desperate scrambling of states and institutions to preserve a good line, cost to those who might borrow that credit be damned.

(It is, to be sure, a coincidence that these specific few days have seen at once the riots, the lowering of the US credit rating, and severe turbulence on stock markets.  But it is not incidental.  Rioting and looting are as old as the economic extraction and political management of populations.  In a time in which such extraction and management stop working so well, in which work itself is seized up,  how can stopping and seizing not come more to the fore?)

And "havoc," that which is being wrought?  One of the earlier meanings of the word was not destruction as such (the thing wreaked) but the cry uttered that was the sign and injunction to start plundering.  You cry havoc.

Havoc, then, is the other side of class, which itself meant - and means - both a division of people into classes for the purpose of extracting wealth (taxation) and a calling to arms.  Havoc is held off by class and threatens to overwhelm it, the anarchic turn of stealing and laying waste that illuminates, negatively, this other relation, of legal theft and sanctioned destruction of lives and resources.

Havoc is the basic criminality of class.  Are you surprised to see that it is hard to contain?

2. This isn't fair

This is a common rejoinder, and again, it is entirely true.  Folded into it is a fully legitimate recognition of the damage and trauma being done, primarily through loss of property, to many who clearly are nowhere near rich, who also scrape to get by, who build up a small life over many years.

And for those who would ask us, in hopes of mocking us, yeah, but what if it was your house?  Your car?  Your shop? we say:

We would be furious.  We would be devastated.  How could we not?

Because the point here has nothing to do with "legitimating" violence or with disavowing the shock and horror of those caught in the crossfire.  It is that insofar as the very standard of the political collapses, insofar as its basic capacity to adequately capture and express the contradictions of an enormous mass of lives, so too its basic conceptual standards.

Above all, the very notion of compromise which is fundamental to the blockage of real attempts to intervene in disastrous situations.  The very idea of a cost-benefit analysis.  And joined at the hip to economic concepts, the notion of equivalence and equality, such that you could adequate between the suffering and rage of desperately poor teen shat on by the country that mocks, loathes, and criminalizes him and the suffering and trauma of a poor shop-owner whose store was looted, whose capacity to get by is already stretched thin by gentrification-fueled rents, economic downturn.

For us to genuinely think beyond the deadly impasse of politics is to reject these forms of evaluation and weighing.  To abjure fairness.  And instead to say:

It is brutal that people are so cut off from access to bare necessities that they have to sell drugs and are consequently jailed for life for doing so.

It is brutal that a family watches their home burn because of a riot.

It is brutal that police shot first.

It is brutal that people need to defend their stores with baseball bats, in fear of losing them.

It is brutal that people have to spend their lives working in those stores, in fear of losing them.

None of these are mutually exclusive.  They are all true.  But it is precisely that notion of restricting dissent and struggle to "politics" that performs the operation of grouping them into sides, such that you could balance and weigh them.

They are incommensurable.  They are also consequences of the same set of relations that make it extraordinarily difficult for much of the world to live.

And we are in a time in which such a double condition, of that which cannot be measured and that which cannot be accidental, rules.  It rules in the breakdown of sides,  of the metric of fairness, in the upsurge in the midst of all that we thought could be clearly divided.  It is a scrambling of poles of identity. One doesn't defend a riot.  It is not "good" or "bad."  A riot is a scrambling of positions of belonging and of judgment.
Often, it is an internal dissolution of what might have appeared common lines of class.

It involves situations the likes of which we are sure to see more, the turning of the hopelessly poor against the poor-but-just-getting-by, between shop-owners and looters, between workers and rioters,  between those  breaking the windows and those who clean them,  and, internally, between individuals themselves, who cannot always be split into one or the other.

This seems the way things are going now and are likely to go more in the coming decade, as the state recedes and regroups,  intervenes brutally in explosive moments, but largely leaves both sides of the same poor to fend for themselves and to fight one another.  They, and you, will come in only at the end to clean up the mess, take photos with brooms in hand, wring those hands, hope that everyone learned their lesson, and get back to the business of ignoring the legitimate concerns of those who are still there.

And of course what happens is terrifying, thrilling, idiotic, sad, staggering, and inevitable.  Of course.  We never expected anything otherwise.  And neither did you.

[part two here]


Anonymous said...

"Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white
community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say
tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."

from M.L.K. jr.'s "The Other America"

ECW said...

That speech is still a razor.

christopher said...

What may be a more astute understanding of what unnerves many Brits (and ironically has begun to plague the world financial markets and most Western societies) has been the relentless cutting of social services by resident conservative parties. It might be all about reigning in a runaway deficit and heeding the warnings of various central banks, but one has to ask a few questions, did those individuals collecting their unemployment checks and welfare stubs single handily cause the ballooning of the deficit there? Or could we perhaps ask aloud whether it's been a situation of increased military spending and welfare breaks for the corporate elite (never mind the tax cuts for the well to do) that has caused a gutting of public finances, the demise of the manufacturing industry and relocation to the third world and the resultant occurrence of unemployment?

How ironic and telling that the two ends of the class divide have begun to invert and feed on themselves. Both may in the end may be reacting to the same thing, the durability of a paradigm that's failing them both.

Dan G. said...


Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic analysis!

But listen, we are very good at criticism, at critique. We are poor at the positive counterpart to the negative moment of critique: whether you call that policy, governance, or whatever. If it existed, it could become the meaning of the insurrection (rather than critique, which were are excellent at even in "peaceful" times, becoming its meaning). We don't even know what to call that positive moment, and we don't even know who "we" are.

The closest we come is arguing about the abstract merits of various alternative forms of life.

We don't flesh them out. We are poor at it, or if we're not poor at it, the good examples of it aren't very pervasive & well-known. Can you do something about it?

xx Helen Bridwell

Anonymous said...

Actually, Helen, some of us are quite good at it because we practice it every day and it is not abstract to us.
We squat, steal, riot, strike, occupy, fight, fuck, and live in conflict with this system.

You should try it, it really helps elucidate exactly what should be done and who is on our side.

Live like more of a barbarian than you can imagine, than be even worse!

Sista Resista said...

Sheer brilliance.

The setup you construct in your argument (riots/democracy; looting/credit, havoc/class) really sheds light and helps greatly to deepen my understanding the events of the past week in a political and economic context. Your specific detail and illustrations of intersections (esp political and economic) and the above parallels definitively underscores the argument and, I hope, will speak to a great many people.

Thank you for the one of the best pieces I have read in a very long time.

Sista Resista

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant analysis that doesn't shy away from de-romanticizing violence and riots. Spot on. Thank you.

ECW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ECW said...


concern understood, but that is in part why I'm not interested in talking about the abstract merits of alternative forms of life, indeed.

And I think that these days, the constant recourse to the problem of "the positive moment" primarily indicates that we aren't as good as negation as we sometimes tell ourselves. Most of our critiques have the efficacy - in part because of not being material critiques, that is, ones that happen in the flesh and brick - of throwing spitballs at an elephant.

In part two of the letter, I take this up more at length.

Also, as anon was suggesting, these things aren't abstract to a lot of us. As to the degree to which they disrupt the relations we want to see wrecked, sure, that's a different question. But people get by. And in so doing, they come closer to "constructing" something - at least in the infrastructure developed amongst comrades, in the history they build up, in the building clarity of who's on your side, in the barbarian general line (a necessary Eisenstein sequel if I've ever imagined one) - than most attempts to develop a revolutionary program ex nihilo.

Anonymous said...

"Second, the slow bleeding, coupled with a recent gutting unprecedented in its severity and rapidity, of the carcass of the welfare state, through attacks on social programs, housing, and pensions."

You seem to be under the miasapprehensions that all of these things are natural rights. They are not. In fact in their current form they are themselves supported by brutality - the threats of the state against taxpayers. Given that this situation is only likely to worsen due to various demographic factors, it is clear that an alternative must be found, else the resentment of taxpayers against net benefit recipients can only grow.

I don't know what the solution to this is, except that a good start might be a voluntary land tax (voluntary as in - if you don't pay it you lose monopoly rights to that land), coupled with a tax free citizens income for all (reducing resentment).

00000 said...

Thank you for saying what I wish I had the patience to parse out and the eloquence to disseminate thoroughly.

Dunk said...

I think even my friends who, have until now felt that this system is the only one that they can accept in their life, were actually scared by the rioting. I am not saying that there were or are looking for alternatives, but they got scared. And maybe that is needed as we know that we are the sum total of our material experiences, and that fear ranks up there.

They were scared enough to come out and have a personal attack at me. Think of it as attacking the messenger. Not an issue for me, and it does indicate that we're on the right track.

I hope you find the following URL useful:

and the associated links at the bottom of the piece.


Anonymous said...

All this I could understand if only the looters took blankets and food.

Anonymous said...

Estoy de acuerdo con que lo de los saqueos y lo de la violencia extrema es lamentable y deleznable. Ahora bien, habría que preguntarse por qué, aquí y ahora se dan estos acontecimientos, ¿realmente fue por la muerte de un muchacho negro a manos de la policía? Mas bien yo diría que no, eso sólo fue la chispa que encendió la hoguera, la realidad está en la clase de vida y el futuro al que se ve abocada la juventud no sólo de Londres y UK sino del mundo entero, como estamos viendo estos días por TV (España, Israel, Chile, Oriente Medio, Grecia, etc), la violencia inglesa viene dada por un nivel cultural, marginal y deprimido de esa sociedad.
Estaremos todos de acuerdo que el canibalismo en sí es malo (cuestión de tabúes en nuestra sociedad), pero todos sabemos que se han dado casos extremos en los que se ha recurrido a él para poder sobrevivir. Quizá nuestra sociedad apretada por el capitalismo salvaje defendido a ultranza por el neoliberalismo se esté fagocitando a sí misma.
De acuerdo, lo del robo de electrodomésticos y otros tipos de saqueo, incendios y destrozos es delincuencia pura y dura, sin embargo todo viene dado como producto de una rabia contenida desde largo tiempo atrás. Incitamos a los jóvenes a un mundo de consumo y competición: no son nada si no poseen el último modelo de lo que sea, no son nadie si no trabajan en una actividad muy bien vista y altamente remunerada, pero, al mismo tiempo, el sistema les cierra las puertas de acceso a todo ello. Entonces, ¿qué hacer?, según ellos no les queda más remedio que tomarlo si no se les da la oportunidad de ganarlo.
Y mientras tanto, lentamente, como un goteo, la vida se va poniendo más cara, se van disminuyendo o cerrando los presupuestos para estudiar, para los servicios sociales, la ayuda humanitaria, la sanidad, y un largo etc. Además, cada día, la distancia entre ricos y pobres es más larga, empujando así a la tan traída y cacareada clase media a la desaparición.
Por tanto, especuladores, capitalistas, banqueros, multinacionales, holdings..., no expriman tanto, no ahoguen, déjense de joder y no serán jodidos, si no, lo de estos días en Tottenhamm será sólo un paseo

Anonymous said...

"It is brutal that people are so cut off from access to bare necessities that they have to sell drugs and are consequently jailed for life for doing so."

Don't know about you but I've never met a drug dealer who is doing so to afford "bare necessities".

Anonymous said...

"There are some points of difference, it's true. We don't think "these people" are "apes," rats," "dogs". But we believe that you truly see them that way, and that what happens now is not the reason for your belief: it is merely a confirmation of how you've always thought of those who are definitely more poor and often more brown than you."

So people who disagree with you are racist? Is that your usual leftie line?

ECW said...

"Don't know about you but I've never met a drug dealer who is doing so to afford "bare necessities". "

a. I said "sells drugs," not "drug dealer." There are a lot of people who are part of the drug trade who are not dealers or kingpins. And yes, they often do so because they, and families they might support, cannot afford to live otherwise.
b. And if someone deals to get more than "bare necessities," then you are exactly back to the general condition of labor, which very rarely describes the barest necessities. In which case, you would need to explain how and why you understand this as "wrong" in a way that other work is not. And as of yet, I have yet anyone explain this in a way I find convincing.
c. A general situation of being cut off from the prospect of making a living in a generally "legal" way, and being routinely harassed and arrested for not following that barred legal way, is different from what individuals do or don't do, of the drug dealers you have or have not met. It's account of an undeniable historical situation. And yes, it is brutal.

ECW said...

"So people who disagree with you are racist? Is that your usual leftie line?"

Are people who disagree with me racist? Not necessarily.

Are people who accuse rioters of being "rats" or "dogs", and those who apologize for them, racist and part of a long tradition of demonizing the poor by trying to render them subhuman? Yes, they are.

Is that a usual "leftie" response? That would be giving "the left" a lot of credit, some of whom have fallen into the same shit.

But is one's relation to those kind of accusations a dividing line, including the kind of line that, in certain moments, was understood as separating something like right and left?
Yeah, it is. And we have nothing to talk about with those who don't get that.

ECW said...

"All this I could understand if only the looters took blankets and food. "

I want to ask, though, as a real question (I am genuinely curious): what would that change for you? What would be different if, to take two version, only looters took blankets or food, or if they only took blankets and food?

ECW said...


thanks for the link. However, I'm willing to bet that a serious investment in either of these things you state

1. Learn about the current system
2. Create a pro-human society with the rest of us

, if taken on seriously, are going to clash pretty heavily with "peace as a method and as a goal, at all times." There are, so to speak, certain objective blockages (for example, policing as such, particularly the kind that was the catalyst for Tottenham) to doing so.

cemenTIMental said...

This is all pretty great except for opening with one of the worst metaphors ever written :)

ha and my word verification is "copper"!!