‘Unruly Politics’ and the language of power

“How’s the ‘Unruly Politics’ module going, Louise?”

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I think Unruly Politics is like one of those optical illusion images with squiggly lines, supposed to reveal another image when you stare at it. You stare and stare and stare… momentarily, you glimpse the hidden image and it’s so brilliant – but then you blink once, it disappears, and no amount of staring hard can bring it back. In the end, it’s still just a load of squiggly lines, you end up feeling frustrated and wondering if you have you just wasted your time staring at it. Or was that momentary glimpse worth it?

During this module there were moments when I absolutely understood why I was there. Sometimes one of my classmates said something was so brilliant, so on-point, that I wanted to over-enthusiastically point at them and scream ‘yes! that’s it!’ (but being British, I probably just nodded in mild agreement). But quite frankly, some of the time I sat there wanting to punch a wall. Why?

Here seems a good time to quote Matt’s recent blog on Ranciere: ‘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!’

Matt criticised Ranciere for not speaking the language of the people. I agree, and I want to take his point further. I believe that as a class, we weren’t speaking the language of everyone in that classroom. We weren’t truly inclusive or participatory – for much of the module, many in the class were silent, or (like me) spent much of the time feeling too intellectually intimidated to speak.

Khanna talks about the ‘competition between civil society and the state to be the proxy for the ‘voice of the people.’’ He claims that ‘there is a fundamental difference between the opacities of the state, and the insistence of the Unruly on a different language.’ But in Unruly Politics, I felt we somehow replicated the hegemonic powers and in political fog that we were criticising. Our attempts to understand citizen action and the ‘voice of the people’ were lost in clouds of our own intellectual elite-ness.

A bunch of students in a progressive institute discussing social movements and ‘unruly’ ideas, sat in a circle on the floor. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a circle at a progressive event, NGO conference or just with my left-wing friends, doing the same thing; feeling like a caricature. It just felt very privileged to be discussing Ranciere and the ‘aesthetic regime’ while for many people in the UK right now, the concern is whether they have enough money to pay their bills or to eat that day; or consider the humiliation of visiting a food-bank.

My frustrations could be symbolic of my frustrations of the left itself in the UK (though I identify myself as strongly left leaning). We make ethical decisions, we march, we boycott. We claim to be inclusive of minorities, of the marginalised and the downtrodden. But do we just surround ourselves with people like us? Are we just talking to ourselves? In the UK, Brexit was a stark reminder to my activist friends and myself that as a progressive movement (and here I do talk very generally), there is a general lack of understanding or inclusivity. We’re not speaking the right kind of language.

This course has given me the opportunity to engage on a deeper level with texts that enhanced my understanding of what it means to be a political subject and my understanding of political events, and to delve deeply into these discussions. But I simply want to ask the question of whether the language we have been speaking to each other is useful or productive.

As well, times have changed: perhaps ‘unrulyness’ is creeping slowly into formal politics, albeit in sinister ways (Brexit, Trump). To now truly be able to shed weaknesses and limitations of elites, civil society organisations and formal political action, we might have to become a little more ‘ruly’ – and start engaging more with mainstream politics and power in our discussions.

Reference: Khanna, A. with Mani, P., Patterson, Z., Pantazidou M. and Shqerat, M. (2013) The Changing Faces of Citizen Action: A Mapping Study through an ‘Unruly’ Lens. IDS Working Paper 2013: No. 423.

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To March or Not To March?

I grew up marching.

My parents would take my brothers and I on protests in buggies or sat on their shoulders, before we could walk the whole route.

One of my earliest marching memories was Birmingham, 1999, for the Drop the Debt movement. We had a huge banner made out of a white sheet that read ‘Arsenal 1, Jubilee 2000’ (Arsenal had won the premier league that year). We linked hands around the city, making a huge human chain to symbolise the chains of debt choking the developing world.

I was 11 when I joined over a million people on the streets of London for the Stop the War coalition march. My little brother made a placard: ‘War We Hate Says Forest Gate!’ I wasn’t quite old enough to understand just what was at stake, but I remember feeling amazed at the sheer number of bodies on the streets.

In the years since I graduated in 2012, I have been on a multitude of UK marches: climate marches, trade union marches, NGO marches. In the last couple of months I’ve been on yet more marches… Syria solidarity; Women’s march against Trump; Anti-Racism march… you name it. All have been peaceful, most have been policed. Some have felt electric. Some have felt stale.

And now I feel ‘marched out’ – like my energy has been sapped.

A couple of years ago I sat in a tent at a festival and watched ‘We are Many,’ a documentary about the Iraq War protests around the world. I rarely cry in films, but sat on the grass surrounded by strangers, I silently wept. The film does show the positive outcomes of those marches, which became almost a precursor to the Arab spring. But that didn’t take away from the hopeless frustration I felt: that the leaders of my country had not listened, despite the biggest march in the history of the UK. This frustration has returned to me recently.

It’s easy to feel disheartened. I’ve recently been dating a guy who works in the financial sector (not my usual type…on our first date, he arrived in a swish suit, while I rocked up in a five-pound charity shop jumper, with uncombed hair). I was quick to judge him on his job, yet we actually don’t disagree hugely in terms of world views – but mathematician, he sees things very pragmatically. In one discussion, he argued that marching and ‘occupying’ have not really changed anything. To be honest, in that moment, I couldn’t articulate a good response.

Sometimes I wonder if I go on marches selfishly, just to mix with others who share my beliefs, get fired up (for example, the way I felt on a recent protest against Trump’s Muslim ban outside Brighton’s town hall, which turned into a totally spontaneous march around the town) and have an enjoyable day outside. Sometimes I wonder if the competing priorities on some marches, where a multitude of different groups are handing out fliers and promoting their own campaigns, drowns out the prospect of any coherent ‘ask,’ and therefore any real change.

So here’s a note to myself – the reasons why I should keep marching:

Firstly, let’s remember the marches that have changed a hell of a lot. Here are just some.

Secondly, even if nothing changes in the immediate term, we cannot discount the value of being together with many others who share that anger – this can powerful and rousing and imbue a kind of energy or motivation to do more.

Thirdly, the conversations, interactions and feelings at these marches, with different groups pushing different agendas, must be seen in a larger context. Maybe they are part of a dialogue about the kind of world we wish to see in the future – a kind of a learning-by-doing – a ‘prefigurative’ politics. Marianne Maeckelbergh, in her paper on alterglobalization movements, advocates that ‘prefiguration is the most effective strategy (perhaps the only strategy) because it allows for goals to be open and multiple.’

So let’s not discount marching. But let’s also remember that marching won’t do much on its own. And let me continue to study the theory of social movements so that when my date asks if marches really change anything, I have an intelligent, persuasive – and perhaps witty – response.

The English riots of 2011: moral economy at work?

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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.