The angry feminist and activist; my struggle for disalienation and liberation

The body of history does not determine a single one of my actions. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate the cycle of my freedom’. Fanon (1986: 249)

I have been often asked why there is this tendency of feminists to be aggressive, why are you angry? I have to say I get frustrated when feminists (mostly women) are being (again) compared to ‘aggressive’ men when they assert themselves against gender injustice. In this blog I will attempt to explain why I am a feminist and why anger is important in my efforts to contribute in changing unequal gender power relations.

I think the desire to act against social injustice started early in my life though I became aware of it late and named it feminism. The first acts I recognized as unjust were related to gender. It was the sense of powerlessness I felt as a girl and a young woman gradually transforming in protest which urged me to study social sciences. I was born in a country with a ‘communist’ regime; no apparent class distinctions but where most of people gradually became equally poor whereas the small elite of State became the oppressing class. I saw the first inequalities in the ways boys and girls were treated in my family and community. I remember the first acts of protest when my mother served bigger portion of meat (which was rare) to my father and youngest brother than to my sister, myself and herself. Sometimes she would not have a portion at all for herself and I felt sad. Every time I protested, I was told this is because they are men. I got the same answer when arguing with my brother or other boys. My mother would remind me not to assert myself against them because they are boys. But particularly my grandmother was very annoyed when I contradicted my brother and she insisted I behave properly like a girl. When I said this is unfair, she would always say that’s the way it is and women should obey to men. I think my parents understood my rebellion and were more flexible during my adolescence years. Nevertheless gender double standards followed my life experiences and as a young woman I always found myself struggling to prove that women are equal to men.

The attitude of my grandmother legitimizing women subordination haunted me during those years. I wondered why a woman, who had a tough life, raised her children on her own because her husband was sick, would insist that men are superior to women? I still remember when I was trying desperately to change her attitude when she shared stories of her life with me. Once she told me that at times she had to get back alone during night from the local market to her village because my grandfather was unable to go. She would ride a horse, wearing trousers and a cap which men usually wore in those times and when a stranger appeared in the way, she would start coughing pretending to be a man. I still remember her cheeky smile amused by the idea of passing for a man which she deemed to be the best way to keep her safe.

I never succeeded changing my grandmother’s opinion but one time I got a different perspective which had never happened before in our discussions. It was when she told me the story of how she went to the secretary of the Party in the city to request a student scholarship for my uncle. She always thought he did not consider her request because she was a woman who did not know to make a strong case. She said it pained her that she failed her son.  I told her: nana, you are an amazing strong woman who did struggle all life and did things on her own. The secretary of the Party did not consider your request just because you were a woman. Why you still say women should be inferior to men, don’t you think this is unjust? For the first time in my life she did not give me that answer which enraged me. She kept quiet and gave me this smart and shy smile which I still cherish it though it pains me. It is a bitter reminder of the fact that she had not the option as I do in speaking up against injustice, let alone act on it. Was my nana hiding under that smile what Scott (1990) calls ‘hidden transcript’, her silent disagreement with the domination that she could not dare to make it public? She did not do that with me, though I think that day she was quite close to reveal the ‘unspoken’.

I can’t help thinking maybe I was wrong assuming that she was not aware of the injustice?  Maybe she had internalized powerlessness and the acceptance of the ‘public transcript’ was inevitable as the most viable way for a woman to survive in a harsh patriarchal society? Maybe her persistence to dismiss my active protest was urged by a concern to prevent me engaging in conflict? Was she trying to ‘protect’ me or she had indeed embodied permanently the patriarchal norms? If I had read Bourdieu’s theory (1977) I would have talked to her about social structures reproduction; how the domination ideology and structures are continuously reproduced and ‘naturalized’ in absence of alternative social structures and relations. I would have told her that she had internalized the dominant ideology thus giving a common sense to practices legitimizing women subordination. I would have told her that if the hegemonic ideology is questioned by people like me who can imagine different alternatives are possible, then one realizes that is oppressed and will oppose it. I am not sure this would be fully convincing my grandmother, particularly if I recollect her smile. It makes me think that there were (though few) stories of women in her time which opposed patriarchal norms but were publicly shunned.  I think she feared I could become potentially one of them if I continued with my ‘nonsense’ protest.

I realize that I had discussed with my grandmother about feminism epistemology and ontology focusing in the validity of her/my knowledge as women. Only when I challenged her to value this knowledge against to what she believes to be just or unjust, she was quite close to tell me another story.  Hemmings (2012) argues that is the affect such as rage, anger, frustration, etc. created as result of the dissonance between experience and one’s beliefs which mediates the move beyond identity politics thus marking the difference between a woman and a feminist engaging in actions. She notes ’ The difference is marked by affect, by what is that one can live with or cannot live with, and the extent to which one’s life is or is not bound up with a desire to transform gender relations’ (Hemmings, 2012:156).

I think my grandmother had suppressed the affect coming from her judgment of the unjust situation, understandably so given the context. She was alienated in a context where woman’s value was established in relation to the man. Man is the norm, the standard, woman is the ‘Other’ which comes into ‘existence’ because of man. My nana could not be a feminist; on the contrary she was trying to control my rage and preventing me to become one because she knew this meant conflict. And she was right.

It took painful efforts for me to overcome the alienation and liberate myself from the ‘prison’ I was creating with my bare hands.  There was no difference between my zeal in proving I was as worthy as a man and my nana wearing men’s clothes to cope with the domination. I realized that being worthy and equal are not masculine or feminine traits, but it is the society which has put the ‘man’ as the standard value in organizing its systems.  I realized that when I met men who are opposing women subjugation (and not only theirs) and patriarchal system same as I did.

I did not take my grandmother’s advice. I kept questioning and nurturing my affect and used it to speak up and solidarize with other women and men who act for gender equality, in personal and professional life. Challenging the patriarchal domination is probably one of the most difficult tasks but I know that I will oppose those people and systems sustaining such practices. It makes me angry when the term’ man’ and ‘mankind’ have been and are still used (from academics as well) as the reference value for humanity. That is why I have chosen to refuse my value being determined in reference to men. I get angry that still in most of the places I have lived this norm sustains symbolic and material inequalities.

I wish I could have read earlier Fanon’s ‘Black skins, white masks’ and talk with my grandmother about it. As he puts it ‘Those Negroes and white men will be disalienated who refuse to let themselves be sealed away in the materialized Tower of the Past. For many other Negroes, in other ways, disalienation will come into being through their refusal to accept the present as definitive’ (Fanon 1986:244)

 References

  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. 1st ed. Cambridge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fanon. F. (1986). ‘ Black skins, white mask’. London: Pluto Press.
  • Hemmings.C. (2012)’ Affective Solidarity: Feminist reflexivity and political transformation’ in Feminist Theory, Vol.13 (2), pp.147-161.
  • Scott, J. C. (1990) ‘Domination and the arts of resistance. Hidden transcripts’.New Haven and London: Yale University Press

 

 

Confessions of an unruly bureaucrat

I am a little bit obsessed with personality tests. They give me a sad thrill, a little peek into a part of myself and others that often seems unclear. My favourite personality test is called ‘True Colours’, and neatly boxes the population into four distinct categories: gold, orange, green and blue. Broadly, greens are logical, blues are driven by emotion and feeling, golds like order and structure, and oranges are spontaneous. I fall into the category of ‘blue-gold’, making me an empathetic and compassionate stickler for detail. Although personality tests need to be taken with about a tablespoon and a half of salt (of course there aren’t only four types of person in the world!), they do offer some insight into how peoples’ brains work and how we as individuals function. Unfortunately, my blue-gold tendencies also put me into the category of depressive realist, and bureaucrat.

Reading Van De Sande’s article on prefigurative politics in the context of Tahrir Square left me with a number of thoughts about elements of my ‘gold’ nature, and the prejudiced attitude I have had both towards others opting for a more ‘orange’ – or unruly – approach, and in terms of assessing my own ‘successes’ in my political activism. I like order, I like objectives, I like clear sets of goals and plans that have escalating and logical steps. I’ve always seen protest as a last resort because attempts at ‘playing the game’ have not been sufficient. The blue in me has always been overwhelmingly worried about fracturing relationships with people who I actually cannot stand, and who constantly make my life difficult. The gold in me tells me to build strategy and objectives for change. The bureaucrat in me was shocked by what felt instinctually like a severe misuse of the term ‘strategy’ by Maeckelbergh. How, I thought, could he possible conceive of strategy as something that seemed so diametrically opposed to my understanding of ‘strategy’?

I am also unruly though. My mind is unruly. My politics are unruly. I don’t believe in hierarchies, and I think the inequitable structure of of society needs to be radically transformed. I don’t eat meat and I do think that Tony Blair is a bad thing. I love demonstrations and protests, and I have always valued the space created by protest in and of itself. But, until now, I’ve never really thought to question how the means of my activism are linked to the ends. To be totally honest, I’d never even considered that the means by which you choose to oppose an action or institution can either tacitly reinforce, condone and legitimise existing power structures, or alternatively, expose and offer a challenge to these. It seems really bloody obvious now and I feel slightly grossed out by how many meetings with the University I turned up to in my officer year with an excellently-written paper proposing a radical idea which I’d diluted and translated into ‘white men in suits’ management-speak. No wonder I was never happy with the outcome of anything I did! I wasn’t communicating my unruly ideas in the unruly way they were intended to be understood.

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Photo credit: The University of Sussex
My little unruly action of wearing a ridiculous outfit to an important meeting of white men in suits. I can’t quite remember what the point was that I was trying to make.

Unruly bureaucrats, like myself, are not only showing unnecessary critique and causing yet more fractures between potential allies, we are also not giving ourselves enough credit for what we achieve. I think there’s a need to shift from a focus on bureaucracy to put the spotlight more on our unruliness; seeking change within a structure that is fundamentally at odds with what we believe in may present a short-term, tick box ‘success’, but such success undoubtedly maintains and legitimises the existing social order and power relations, more often than not, at the root cause of the problem. While the orange can learn something from the gold about precision and tactics, the gold certainly can learn a lot from the orange; this may be crucial not only in achieving radical and principled change, but in allowing fair self-reflection and to minimise the overwhelming feelings of despair and hopelessness that seems to be submerging many of us on the left. We need to teach golds to value efforts that don’t result in ‘demonstrable outcomes’ (Van De Sande, 2013: 226). I should not find working in a café more rewarding than my activism, but a part of my nature is soothed by serving a cappuccino, watching the customer drink it, washing the cup and putting it back on a shelf; sometimes it is easy for golds to feel that the completion of the task and a tangible outcome is of absolute importance. In recognising strategy as non linear (Maeckelbergh, 2011), and the constant chipping away in our struggles – through the method of the ‘crack’ (Van De Sande, 2013: 230) – we are able to value our efforts for what they are; honest and non-compromising activism which stands alongside those who fought before us and those who will come after.

So, where does this leave us? We are in what feels like a crucial moment in political time and space; a moment in which we desperately need to grasp at making change and must organise to develop ‘strategies’ for overcoming fascism globally. I can’t help but feel sceptical and confused all at once. I overheard a conversation between two Unrulistas in the pub the other day; one argued that in this moment, what we desperately need is prefigurative politics, the other claimed that what we need is the opposite – to come back to reality and build a real ‘strategy’ for change. While, of course, we need to organise and develop a strategy, there’s no reason why that strategy must look the way our masters are expecting it to look. This current moment shows just how little ‘playing the game’ has resulted in the radical change we want. I think we’ve got to think outside of the box this time and let our true colours shine.


N.B. If you fancy finding out what ‘colour’ you are you can take a similar test here: https://lonerwolf.com/true-colors-personality-test/

References

Maeckelbergh, M. (2011) ‘Doing is believing: prefiguration as strategic practice in the alterglobalization movement’, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 10(1), pp. 1-20

Van De Sande, M. (2013) ‘The prefigurative politics of Tahrir Square: an alternative perspective on the 2011 revolutions’, Res Publica, 19(3), pp. 223-239

A Letter to Jacques Rancière

Fuck you Ranciere, you have no mates.

Figuratively speaking, of course. When I say you have no mates, what I really mean is, no-one cares what you think. Well, not that no-one cares, but very few people care. And when I say they care, I mean in a completely detached, purely theoretical, rational, unengaged sort-of caring way. I suppose what I really mean by care is, they care enough to listen. The sad fact is though, these people probably already agree with what you have to say. You don’t have to exist in the virtual echo chamber of Facebook to suffer the same false sense of self-righteousness that oozes through your every word – academia is much the same in this sense.

In short, what really pisses me off is why you write the way you do, and how this conceals a clandestine and contradictory politics. Or to borrow your privileged and pompous terminology, I take issue not with the ‘Aesthetic of Politics’, but with the politics of your aesthetic.

In your book you explain how Flaubert in Madame Bouvary, despite his autocratic and conformist political leanings was said to have created ‘democracy in literature’ through his very refusal to entrust his writings with any meaning whatsoever. It was the manner with which he chose to ‘depict and portray’ instead of instruct, that revealed the egalitarian tone to his work. You then go on to discuss some shite about ‘determined forms’, ‘determined content’ and ‘aesthetic distribution’ – it’s about there that I lose you. To your credit though, you have at least given me one useful tool that will be utilised in the ridicule of your work. If Flaubert’s work was charged with being ‘democratic’ due to the nature of its aesthetic, what political affiliations do we discover in yours? Quite remarkably, we seem to have the inverse of Flaubert’s case. We have a left-wing Unrulista who condones a leaderless, populace form of politics, displaying such themes in the most unnecessarily inaccessible and pontifical manner. Oh the sweet, sweet irony! If yours was a political regime it would be the ruling monarchy of Saudi Arabia: too conservative to let people vote or women drive!

There are times in your piece when you appear to advocate a type of politics in which things are suddenly made visible, sensible and available to experience. Like in the protests or revolutions, when the public, so often the audience of politics through our TV screens, become the performers and the distinctions between the two are lost. Well I implore you, if this is what you call the aesthetic regime, then speak its language! In a spontaneous and momentary political eruption, they do not speak the language of carefully constructed convoluted sentences. They speak the language of the people.

I recall in the Unruly Manifesto, it states we will be ‘committed to finding languages in which to speak across the current divides’. Yes, of course these languages should not be restricted to words; acts, art and music are all powerful transcendental languages. But you should not forget the power of the written word. In academia you observe, coldly analyse and appropriate. We take a moment of unruliness that seeks to ‘speak across current divides’, and then through our attempts to examine its power, we appropriate its language by adopting our own exclusionary and elitist one. What the hell are we doing???

If I could give you one piece of advice it would be to get out of your ivory tower and pick up a copy of the Communist Manifesto, or Common Sense. Now, Thomas Paine – there was a true Unrulista! Someone who didn’t cower behind the security of big fancy words, or academic institutions. He went out, got involved and got heard. Deeply immersed in both the French and American revolutions he wrote two of the most widely circulated books at the time in support of each respective revolution. And after the war, when the founding fathers refused to denounce slavery, he turned his scorn towards them. All with the power of the pen. He wrote to revolt. His aesthetic was his politics.

In Europe today we have a strange case whereby our academics, much like yourself, are predominantly left-wing. Simultaneously, we have a general public shifting to the right. Hmm I wonder why this could be? Is it because people cannot understand the form of the narrative we’re telling them? NOBODY UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOU’RE SAYING! Nobody agrees with the politics of your aesthetic!

So, back to my initial point about you having no mates. I guess I mean followers. You thinking you have followers is like me thinking that I have lots of mates because my family love me unconditionally. Even though my family aren’t supposed to be the intended target of my friendship – that is usually conditional on convincing a person that you’re worth your salt. So, while you may have a few mates in your ivory tower, there is a real world out there and in it – no one cares what you think.

A true revolutionary, a true Unrulista, sets out to speak the language of the people – a language they understand. People cannot follow what they cannot understand. So go fuck yourself.

Much love,

Matt

 

Bare lives and political resistance

My visit to Palestine in 2014 was the most painful reminder of how illusionary can be the concept of human rights in a modern state entitled as the main political body to guarantee human rights. I was working in Afghanistan on that time when I was asked to help with the evaluation of few programs implemented in West Bank. Even though I was advised by my colleagues that travelling from Afghanistan to Israel was not the smartest decision, I did choose to go because I have had always this great desire to visit Palestine. My Palestinians colleagues warned me that interrogations and delay at the airport are ‘normal’ procedures and instructed me to be patient and not protest. If I did so, that will prolong my delay or worst; getting a refusal of entry.

Thus I devised an initial strategy to prepare at best to ‘forget’ being a human being so I could not feel emotions of rage while being questioned at airport. The seven hours I spent in between intervals of interrogations about my motives of working in Afghanistan, travelling to Palestine, my religious beliefs and all sort of questions to prove that I was not a terrorist, reminded me of what is to be ‘bare life’, stripped of political meaning.  I was left in a room for many hours with people coming and going, amongst them this young girl who was crying while talking on the phone. I could not help but smile at the irony of that moment as she was saying to her friend that these people were violating human rights. It made me smile because I could understand that she was grappling to maintain her ‘bios’; that qualified form of life of a citizen with rights and resisting to be just a biological form of life. But in that room we were all bodies, numbers who were screened to be classified from the security officers as worthy or not for entry. I could understand that our bare lives had power and political meaning but in a different way. Our bodies were considered suspicious so further inspection and interrogation was deemed to qualify us in people with the right of entry.

For a moment I felt this impulse to go close to the young girl and hug her but thought she might find it weird so I just stood in my chair. Now I think that the impulse to hug her was my body’ s reaction to get closer and solidarize with some body in the same state of exception. It was the urge to maintain my humanity, my ‘bios’ and saying to myself and her that we are still human and our lives matter. My strategy of forgetting to be human could not work as I found myself finally later approaching another woman in tears. She had been refused entry and was repeatedly saying she did not know where her husband was as he was taken from another officer. I tried to calm her down (and myself by doing so) saying that her husband would definitely come soon enough and she had to wait for him. I think these acts of getting closer to others kept me human. By 2:00 in the morning when the room was empty I started to feel anxious, overcome by emotions of anger and headed outside to ask the officers for my passport. Finally by 3:00 in the morning I was given my passport and the right of entry.

My existence in the margin was short-lived compared with the bare lives of my Palestinians colleagues who had to pass through checkpoints on daily basis, living under the settlements in top of the hills among other difficulties. The most painful existence is that of the ‘citizens’ of Gaza forced to live in a ‘city’ prison. I spent only ten days in Palestine and I can never forget the pain. I keep bearing witness of what I saw and experienced but it is hard to do so.  I keep asking how some body can live every day in the state of exception and oppression.  And I get frustrated when the acts of Palestinians resisting occupation and violence are interpreted as terrorist acts whereas the meticulous oppression and violence exercised by Israeli government is considered administration.

Agamben (1998) argues that the ‘bare life’ value’s rests in the fact that the power of sovereign modern state is founded in its inclusive exclusion thus politics in the modern state is biopolitics. He notes that ‘state sovereign violence is in truth founded not on a pact but on the exclusive inclusion of bare life in the state (Agamben, 1998: 107). The control state exercise over our bodies and lives is legitimized by the modern discourse of social contract implying we are equal and free citizens with rights but have also given the right to the state to enable our rights. What happens when the state is not guaranteeing human rights but indeed reduces people in bare lives? Do not these bare lives have the right to use their bodies as a political weapon to re-enter in the politics arena and reclaim their humanity? I think they do precisely because our bare lives have power, our bodies are political.

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Enver Hoxha statue falling in Tirana. The fall of totalitarian communist regime in Albania in 1991. Found at balkaninsight.com. Photo courtesy by Armando Babani

The bare lives and bodies of students and mine workers who went on hunger strike forced the communist leader to start discussions with the dissident elite for changing the political regime in my country in 1991. The international political situation and the fall of Berlin Wall was an important factor also but it were the Albanians bare lives close to starvation which rose up and got together in squares to make the most important political statement after 45 years.

BBC radio report about students hunger strike and fall of communist regime in Albania 1991

As a feminist I can say also that the feminist struggle has shown that women bodies are an arena where politics of governments are implemented. Feminists have long time understood that bodies are politicized and rely on their bodies as a powerful political tool coming together in protests to claim their humanity, their rights. The personal is always political!

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Men and women gather in Warsaw to protest for abortion rights. NurPhoto via Getty Image. Found at huffingtonpost.com

References:

1. Agamben, G. (1998) ‘ Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

2- Photo in the header image: Carnage at UN school as Israel pounds Gaza refugee camp.Found at gmanetwork.com

‘WE SPEAK FOR THE PEOPLE!’: AFRICA CLUB NIGHT EXPERIENCE

25th of February was marked out in my phone as a day I was going to dance to some African tunes! Komedia Brighton had advertised that they would host a ‘club Africa night’. I just couldn’t wait.  There are several Malawians who are studying at Sussex. Every month we meet up once for dinner and nostalgic conversations about home. I quickly sold them on the idea of the ‘Africa club night’ so we planned to have dinner on 25th and go to the club after.

african night poster

On 25t February, at 11 PM on the dot, I made sure we were at the club. After updating twitter and face book that we had arrived, we all walked in. We were among the first to arrive as the dance floor was empty. Most importantly, the music playing was African but from ancient days. I mentioned this to my crew who agreed the music was from back when we were colonised but we thought it was understandable as the club was still empty. Obviously, they were holding on to the best until more people showed up, we thought.

Fast forward to two hours later when the club was full, the music genre did not change. The DJ kept playing ancient ‘rumba’ music and my circle was getting irritated at not singing along to the songs our great grandfathers listened to. I, being the unruly one in the group walked over to the DJ and asked him if he knew ‘P Square’ (a famous ‘twins’ singing duo from Nigeria). The DJ replied that he didn’t. This is the point I knew we were in trouble. I thought quickly about mobilizing for a mini-revolution. After all, the DJ was a white middle aged British man(Luke, I see you rolling your eyes!).

Mobilize we did, and immediately hunted down the promoter for the ‘club Africa’ night. We vented our frustrations on him, telling him how the music was not worth our hard earned five pounds and that we should have been warned about bringing our great grand fathers who would be well suited to the music being played (unfortunately, they are dead!). We offered to develop a play list of the ‘right’ contemporary African songs to play! After this conversation and developing the play list, we marched close to the DJ and chanted ‘AFRO-BEATS! AFRO-BEATS!’. Soon, our efforts were rewarded and we were dancing and singing along to the ‘right’ African music. I was feeling proud of myself for this victory!

I was still feeling proud about this night and how we had been revolutionary when I walked into class for lunch with Patta. I told her I lost my voice from chanting at the ‘Africa club’ night revolution. She listened excitedly and then asked me one question; ‘was everyone unhappy with the music you disliked and did they like the music you liked?’ Thanks, Patta for bursting my bubble! *insert shaking head emoji here*

Patta’s question made me think of Allan Badiou and his concept of ‘prescriptive universality’. He talks about how revolutions are usually minoritarian, with actors convinced that what they stand for is what everyone else wants. Anyone who does not agree is immediately suspect of being on the opposite side. I thought back to the ‘Africa club’ night and imagined how I would have judged anyone who dared oppose our ‘truth’; the knowledge of the ‘right’ African music. But of course, the music we proposed was not the only African music out there but I didn’t even stop to check if everyone else was enjoying the music we preferred (my circle).

25th of March is coming up and I marked it in my phone again as Komedia will host another ‘Africa club night.’ This time around, I will be more conscious should there be a need for another mini-revolution’.

The English riots of 2011: moral economy at work?

tesco riots

I remember clearly watching the events of the summer of 2011 played out on television in my home in East London. Horrified, I sat with my head resting in the palm of my hand images of young people looting shops, smashing windows and roaming the streets with apparent disregard for property and people. The flames on the screen flickered, fanning out higher and higher as an iconic, family-owned, centuries’ old furniture shop burned to the ground in a live broadcast shot from a helicopter – symbolising, what seemed to me at the time, the senseless destruction caused by nonsensical criminals.

The riots had erupted after the police shooting of a young black man, Mark Duggan. The media reported that he’d been armed; he was a drug dealer. The media coverage [1] portrayed the riots as a kind of war, a battle for law and order: young, materialistic, mainly black and Asian thugs versus the police, valiantly trying to protect innocent, by-standing, white business owners. Subsequently, the police displayed giant CCTV images of those involved in several UK cities, encouraging the public to ‘shop a looter’ and handed out disproportionately harsh sentences on those arrested.

But there’s a hidden narrative that challenges this portrayal. Subsequent reports have shown the riots not to be spasmodic outbreaks of senseless criminality, but a semi-coordinated outcry forged by unemployment, economic crisis and racialized policing. The way that rioters were treated seemed to be some kind of political statement by politicians and police, stamping their authority on areas of the UK that seemed somehow out of their control.

We can examine the degree of political subjectivity evident in the riots using E.P. Thompson’s writing on the ‘moral economy’ of the crowd of the eighteenth century as a base. Thompson’s suggests that food riots in this period were ‘modified by custom, culture and reason,’ complex protests ‘grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations.’ Thompson tells us that the word ‘riot’ obscures a ‘spasmodic view of popular history,’ arguing that in fact, the agency, connections and perceived structures inherent in the ‘crowd’ inform the direction of social action, somewhat legitimizing it. [2]

We can see some elements of the moral economy in the UK riots of 2011. Rioters had a degree of moral restraint. As Harvie and Milburn note, most of what was taken by looters were ‘habitual luxuries,’ things people felt entitled to own – acting to defend ‘a neoliberal deal […] based on aspiration, plentiful cheap credit, and access to cheap commodities.’ [3] Riots were not highly organised, but there was some degree of organisation (largely through social media, primarily Blackberry’s BBM messenger) and community consensus.   Thompson notes that the food riots in the 19th century ‘did not require a high degree of organization’ but a ‘consensus’ of support in the community, and an inherited pattern of action with it own objectives and restraints.’ I argue that there was a degree of community consensus in the English riots of 2011 – a sense of grievance forged in a section of society marginalised by those in power. Whilst I do not condone the actions of those who took part, I argue that the riots were not entirely spasmodic and criminal, but directed in some way by the confrontation of the market with a number of moral wrongs.

Thompson argues that the moral economy of the crowd died with the transition to a political economy, as the paternalistic configuration of industry and trade declined. Speaking in 1971, he argued that today, we ‘shrug off the extortionate mechanisms of an unregulated market economy because it causes most of us only inconvenience, unostentatious hardships.’ When economic transactions are no longer sanctioned by social networks and personal interactions, it is more difficult to prevent imbalances from occurring. All that is left over is ‘charity’ – but not a sense of justice.

But have we really seen the death of the moral economy? Or are we living in a time where citizens and governments are trying, in some way, to speak more to each other – for example, in the uprisings of the Arab spring, or the growing protest marches in the Western world as citizens confront the capitalism of governments such as the US and UK that has grown ever more out of touch with the lives of their citizens?

Badiou classes the London riots as an ‘immediate riot’ which was ‘violent, immediate and ultimately without enduring truth.’ [4] He does not deny that it was a political riot, but does say that it failed to make the transition to popular uprisings that draw in a wider net of people and create real change. However, I argue that the tentative form of moral economy at work in the London riots and a degree of shared political values has (alongside various other forms of protest in this country) added to an ‘enduring truth’ – that of the inherent flaws in global capitalism.

My thoughts were quite different back in 2011, blinded by those flames in the TV screens.

[1] Hobson, D. (2012) Journalists Exposed for Their Biased Coverage of Riots [blog]. The Huffington Post, 22 October 2012.

[2] Thompson, E.P. (1971). The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century. Past & Present, No. 50: pp. 76-136
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[3] Harvie, D. and Milburn, K. (2013). The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Twenty-First Century. South Atlantic Quarterly, Volume 112, No. 3: pp. 559-567.

[4] Badiou, A. (2012). The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings. Verso: London and New York.

UPDATE (30th April 2017):

Since writing this, I’ve wondered if it is too idealistic or presumptious to talk about the moral economy and the English riots. For sure, I believe that events can be political without a political motive – but can I really make a judgement on these events when I did not take part and was not affected by them?  Recently, I re-read ‘The Changing Faces of Citizen Action: A Mapping Study through an ‘Unruly’ Lens’ (Khanna et al.) and was struck by this challenge from Ute Seela of Hivos:

Projecting noble motives onto the rioter – who may display no concern whatsoever about inequality or justice, but fierce inarticulate aggression – may be more of an ideological act than a scientific one. Calling something ´unruly politics´ requires a definition of what an engagement with social justice means – so the judgment inevitably comes in.

Something for reflection.

Roda Viva – ¿disguising sentiments in lyrics as an unruly act?

Brazilian music has been in my life for a long time. In my childhood, during the weekends by father would put loud music which fill with rhythms the rooms of my old house. So since little I have considered my self an admire of Brazilian music. I still find myself discovering new Brazilian musicians or going back to Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Marisa Monte and Tribalista.

I have learned that it is a very generalist to say Brazilian music. I have come to know that there is certain music done in Brazil that I don’t like. But okay. What I really want to talk about is about my latest interaction with music from Brazil, which is that it is not only beautiful, rhythmic, romantic, sweet, and that it makes me want to teletransport myself to Bahia or Rio de Janeiro. Some of it has political meaning, and I know that I shouldn’t be surprise about that, but I was… because I have been hearing certain songs for over 10 years and I just said “Oh I love Bossa Nova”, while the messages of certain songs were of protest and resistance. As you can imagine it made me feel a little bit ignorant.

One example is Roda Viva from Chico Buarque. Before going on reading, look at this video and reflect on what you see, how do you feel? If you understand Portuguese, what are they singing?

This is some of the things a wrote the first time I really looked at the video closely. It is 1967, and you see that it is a concert and that a lot of people (specially young people) are there. The singer with his companions are very elegant, and they start singing, To me it sounds like a bolero, a love song, a serenata, and they even say the word serenata There faces seem tranquil. They are televising the show. You can even see certain smiles on them. People applauding, other singing… You see even children singing. And you hear all of the 5 men singing with all of their strength and you hear everyone singing a big choirs and applauding!. Young people celebrating!!! Then it gets faster and faster…. And then slow… and then… fast again, applauses! Celebration. Celebration and the song ends.

A get chills when I hear this song now. But, there are mixed chills because I still find it beautiful and that makes me feel a little bit guilty because now I know it is a song with a message of protest and resistance against the dictatorship in Brazil and some musicians were able to pass certain songs and not get censored.

Can this be considered as an unruly event? I think so… as many other songs in different cultures such as the ones sang in the cotton fields in the USA. The movement of Tropicalia in Brazil was no exception. And Roda Viva is an example of it. What songs are there going to come out in this time? Music has a power to disguise it self but be a very powerful political toll.

Here are the lyrics of Roda Viva: http://lyricstranslate.com/en/roda-viva-wheel-life.html-0

 

Disrupt! Stand up! Shake our streets with a glimpse of disorder!

Being indignant has never sufficed. A negative emotion cannot replace the affirmative Idea and its organization, any more than a nihilistic riot can claim to be a politics.

When History reawakens, it is the reawakening that matters; it is what is to be saluted (…). As for the results, we shall see.

– Alain Badio

10 years ago, on March 1st 2007, the part of Copenhagen where I live, Nørrebro, entered a state of anarchy. A clash between young protesters and the police resulted in more than 700 arrests. I did not live there at the time, and if I had, I would have probably stayed inside and watched the drama unfold on TV. I don’t think I really embraced the potential for rebellion and disruption in my youth/teenage years. The young people my age at the time that did participate in the riots were almost fictional figures to me. Where I came from in the heart of Denmark’s mainland far away from the capital, such aggressive behaviour was not an option – social policing in favour of social stability and citizen obedience operated perfectly.

The riots went on for six days between young left-wing activists (as they are often labeled) and the police and were a reaction to the clearing and demolition by the police of the Youth House – a hang-out and gathering point for young anarchists – on the main arterial road, Jagtvej 69. The clearing was ordered by the new owners: a sect-like Christian church, who bought the grounds from the Municipality in 2000.

The Youth House was an institution. It had a long history before it became the Youth House and even hosted Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg prior to World War I. As the Youth House, it was a place for the rejects of society, for the anarchists, the creative, the provocative, the visionary, the angry. For some, it was the symbol of freedom and a radically alternative space in a city – and a country – that lacked imagination. For others, it was a breeding ground for radicalised, anti-democratic youth.

The clearance ordered by the Christian church was an unbearable and highly contentious action that sparked anger and frustration among the users of the house and their allies. Every year since, the clearance has been marked with demonstrations in the area led by young people in black hoodies, scarves covering their mouths and noses and with big banners reading ‘Intet glemt. Intet tilgivet.’ – ‘Nothing forgotten. Nothing forgiven.’

This year was no exception. On the 1st of March a small protest-march (approximately 1,000 people) began from the city center and quickly became violent. While the majority marched peacefully, a fraction of the demonstrators smashed bank and shop windows on the way to the now empty lot of the former Youth House (Yes, you read correctly, the lot is still empty! When the Youth House was torn down, nothing was ever built in its place and today the empty space is a bare, grey reminder of the victory of state power over the inexistent.)

Photos: The empty plot of land at Jagtvej 69. The word ‘MAGTVEJ 69’ is written in graffiti on the wall. The ‘J’ in Jagtvej has been substituted with an ‘M’. ‘Magt’ is the Danish word for power.

I was not in Denmark when the demonstration took place on March 1st. And if I had been, I would not have participated. Not because I do not sympathise, but because I am not sure what I am supposed to sympathise with. Reading about the demonstration and hearing the demonstrators and Youth House activists that did participate talk about it, there is no trace of excitement. No sense of dynamic contention. No optimism. No fidelity. Just destruction. Resignation. Nihilism. And on the other side of the Danish TV screens: indignation. In the days that followed, social media and newspaper opinion pieces echoed the same message from the voices of Welfare Denmark:

“What do you young people have to complain about? You are privileged and spoilt. Your violence is meaningless. You have no right to ruin decent people’s shop-windows. Pull yourselves together. Get an education. Get a job. Contribute to society.”

I do not argue in favour of physical destruction of shops and streets, but I do want to say: No! Don’t listen. Disrupt. Stand up. Shake our streets with a glimpse of disorder. I think, that despite its lack of vision, the demonstration on the 1st of March had significance that transgressed the isolated event. It was a reminder, that there are pockets in this pretty little society, that refuse to be controlled.

The inexistent stirred. Created ripples on the water.

But did the March 1st demonstration have any historical and political significance? I say it did not. Why? Because it lacked edge and direction. And not direction as the one you will find in a political party manifesto or a government’s five-year plan. No, it lacked the kind of direction that manifests as an idea of what needs to be changed – what is the common battle and why must it be fought?

To hell with the expected outputs, but at least shed light on the injustices – appeal to the authority of truth.

In Denmark, there is very little latitude for the ones that stand out – Danish society is hypnotically streamlined. And the solidarity that was, is diminishing. If the riot is to be historically significant, it must make clear what it is rioting over. The riot of 2007 was significant. I think, that it has dug its way into the consciousness of most Copenhageners. And it seems clear to me, that the nostalgia surrounding the 2007 riot is a key ingredient in the yearly demonstrations that have followed. But to what extent can we utilise nostalgia? Can it also be damaging? There will be Danes that will say “back in the day, the youth had something to fight for. But today…”. But I think, that that is mistaken. Of course there are still battles to be fought. What about the battle for waithood? The battle for the space for creativity, provocation, mistakes, inefficiency, the non-market-oriented. If the youth do not believe in this battle, then who will?

Where is that glimpse of truth?

 

Badiou, A. (2012) The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprising. London: Verso.

 

[generation gallop]

We survived the war, victory was dug,

no longer are we threatened by that facist thug,

don’t miss the sound of the claxon, more rations than before,

a NHS to share, wirelesses everywhere, new products to adore,

tad American for us but the children are fully enrolled,

like water off a duck’s back to those lot, brave new world, we’re told,

got a young new queen the other day, lovely bit of the old,

her coronation was on a friend’s television, first one in the street.

 

A man on the moon. All our TVs in tune, sat around we were, eyes glued,

like when they huddled around their wireless, back when they rationed food,

we’ve got pirates on our radios, women on their feet,

pop music is in our heels, our new consumption beat,

the future is looking bleak, mushroom clouds invade our dreams, we’re rolling like

a stone, lava lamps of martian green, we scheme on the telephone,

as they sit around their wireless, waiting for their past to regrow.

 

Labour saving galore, microwaves divine,

changing us and our food, how we spend our time,

my sex life is more my own, not the church’s misogynistic crime,

things are getting quicker, equal pay for equal time!

the sixties lot don’t get it, we aren’t asking for permission,

we’re marching in our flares, TV’s techni-coloured transition.

 

Space is being invaded as Atari aliens probe our rooms,

a walkman in both ears, public space is now cocooned,

a new Madonna in the charts, the world is out of tune. We becoming I.

Iron lady marching on, all not what it seems, robots encroach and outsource our

automated dreams, I becoming Cyborgs, the singularity now in view.

 

Throw away cameras: develop, dispose, consume,

Cyborgs’ hearts in LED, boundaries impossible to assume,

fax is for the luddites, binary gender doomed,

pagers on the hip, mobile phones fused to ears, the internet begins to engender

new utopian ideas, as Cyborgs we see the world(s) as information flow.

 

DVDs are a library, Ipod is on our phone, Cyborgs live many identities –

some of them not our own, there’s more power in our pockets than the rocket sent

to space. We don’t understand you and your fear of losing face.

 

Why would we write a poem, for you lot on your lily pads? We live omnipresently,

we’re not disengaging benevolently. Headphones in one ear, Whatsapp, Snapchat

on the go, not cocooned as long ago, just our communication flow.

 

Good luck with your businesses, and worrying about the art of the deal. It’s not us

but you, who must learn that we’ll no longer kneel.