‘Aish, horreya, adala egtema’eya’ – the sound of protestors at Egypt’s revolutionary Tahrir Square occupation, demanding ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ (Weinberger, 2011). Citizens shared an understanding and unrest over issues of increasing inequality, poverty and crackdowns on free speech and democracy propagated by Mubarak’s corrupt regime. Although the Egyptian revolution centred on a call to bring down the regime, increasing costs of grain and therefore bread prices meant access to bread was a clear catalyst of the revolution (Zurayk, 2011).
The purpose of this blog is really just a space to reflect on some questions I’ve been thinking about in relation to Tahrir Square and the 2011 London Riots.
- What motivates rioters?
- Why is there often some bread or other carby foodstuff involved?
- Is it necessary to reinterpret Thompson’s notion of the ‘moral economy’ to create a new lens for understanding riots within the context of capitalist, consumerist and technologically driven societies?
Bread as a catalyst/conduit for unruliness
Photo credit: The Guardian
The famous ‘bread helmet’ of Tahrir Square. Bread was used as a visual instrument of protest by many people during the Arab Spring.
Bread has, in fact, been the bread and butter of riots, uprisings and acts of unruliness throughout history. In a fascinating Netflix documentary series called Cooked, one episode educates viewers about bread, its history and its importance for human civilisation. Bread is essential and important to almost every culture globally (Nature’s Legacy, 2016). In Egyptian Arabic, the word for ‘bread’ and ‘life’ are actually the same word. For the income poor, in particular, bread acts as a cheap and filling foodstuff; a staple food in a family’s diet and a major sources of calories for those who might otherwise go hungry. For many people, the affordability of bread is the difference between having enough to eat and going hungry. Perhaps even between life and death. For this reason, spikes in the cost of bread are a catalyst for revolt and civil unrest (Nature’s Legacy, 2016), and with the doughy substance hailed by some as ‘the foodstuff of revolution’ (Potts and Conisbee, 2014).
Thompson’s ‘moral economy’
Thompson developed the notion of the ‘moral economy’ as a way to challenge historians’ incomplete explanations of rioting. He uses the example of 18th century English food riots to demonstrate the concept. While direct action was triggered by bread prices and hunger, they operated within the framework of moral legitimacy in the community. The moral economy of the poor therefore was constituted of ‘consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community’ (Thompson, 1971: 78-79). As such, direct action was not purely a result of material deprivation and hunger, but also an analysis by citizens of operation outside of the community’s moral assumptions and agreed upon economic functions.
He argues that the word riot fails to encompass the complexity of citizens’ passionately held notions of the legitimate and illegitimate economics of their community and their sense of ‘rights’ as a community above and beyond the right of merchants to make profit (ibid: 76). Egypt’s rebellion fits neatly into this model, with the community rallying together around popular ethics; although in this case there was no unified vision for change, there was a clear stand against political corruption and economic growth that failed to reach the poor or to alleviate poverty, and the rights of Egyptians to a fairer system.
But how can we use this notion to help us understand the motivations of rioters and looters whose motivations seem to be less based on ‘need’?
2011 London Riots: a moral economy?
Photo credit: Daily Fail
The media coverage 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…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
While the Daily Mail, for example, captioned the picture above ‘a youth poses with a large sack of Tesco Value Basmati rice on the third night of rioting in London, proving that items need not be valuable to be targeted by looters’ (Daily Mail, 2011), understanding this act through the lens of the moral economy may offer an alternative take on the motivations of this man (and perhaps other people involved). For starters, most accounts of the riots focused on the looting of electronics and luxury items, but in fact rioters did steal inexpensive, mundane and essential items, with women in particular seen looting washing powder, nappies, baby food, pints of milk and bags of rice (Phillips, 2015; Topping et al, 2011). Where people were shown looting inexpensive or non-valuable items such as value rice, they were called stupid. Rioters were simply categorised by the media as either greedy or senseless, wanting to just smash things and cause chaos up either way. As a 17-year-old living in Tottenham at the time, I completely took in this narrative and was scared and irritated that precious days of my last summer in London before going to university were getting eaten up by purposeless looting.
Although my perspective of the riots has changed over the years, it is probably a bit of a stretch to suggest that this man was stealing the rice to feed his family, but perhaps less so to use the image to understand the more latent motivations of rioters. Recent research has linked the riots to economic inequality and distrust of the police (Phillips, 2015). The murder of Mark Duggan by the police was the event, perhaps the final straw for some, that saw peoples’ rage and frustration at the inequality they faced reach a critical point.
I think a re-imagining of the different facets of Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ is needed for us to interpret the complexities of the crowd beyond those delivered to us by the press. There are enough similarities to the Bread Riots, but they require some level of imagination. While the smaller crowds of 18th century England gathered the ‘consensus of the community’ within their local towns and villages, rioters in 2011 organised across the UK using Blackberry Messenger. While the economic functions of the community were clear within the 18th century, and protestors targeted the millers and bakers responsible for the unfairness, our nameless and faceless system of capitalism leaves people frustrated but unsure of who is responsible and where they should direct their anger. What seems to be a theme in the realisation or tipping point is an event which makes visible a material and palpable reality, be that dearth or structural violence. While hunger may have triggered a reaction to economic functions that caused hunger and starvation, for the predominantly young black men who rioted in London, Mark Duggan’s murder triggered a reaction to the complex social, political and economic systems that perpetrate structural violence against black men in the UK. From this perspective, it is clear to see that many of those involved in the riots shared a sense of rights to things which others are entitled to and a right to freedom from state violence. In the context of neoliberal capitalism, notions of fairness and entitlement seem to have shifted from carbs to more luxurious items.
I saw this somewhat unrelated tweet yesterday, and it prompted me to think of peoples’ reactions to the riots:
When middle-class people pamper themselves, we call it “self-care”, when the poor do it to ease their suffering, we call it irresponsible…If we only evaluate things through the lens of fiscal responsibility, we miss what chronic trauma, anxiety and scarcity do to people
The same sentiment of this tweet applies to the contempt attached to these riots as a completely apolitical act of greediness. The lens of contempt for those involved in the riots complete fails to account for capitalism; both as a cause of economic subjugation, and for its affect on the moral economy and notion of legitimation of those who participated. After all, if we create a society built on greed and consumerism alongside a misleading notion of meritocracy, while instead sustaining neoliberal economic systems that keep people in poverty, why would we not expect that the ‘popular ethics’ of the group will have transformed to entitlements and rights to Nike trainers, TVs and Macbooks? Why do we demand that those with nothing must only meet the breadline and not feel they have a right to those things that they are ceaselessly advertised and told they need? Really, what on earth do we expect to happen?!
In today’s world – very different from both the 18th Century, and the 1970s in which the text was written – a new understanding of the moral economy is needed to analyse rioting and looting in all its complexities of motive, behaviour and function (Thompson, 1971: 78). If we only evaluate things through the lens of instinctual behaviour, we miss what chronic trauma, anxiety and scarcity do to people.
N.B. I am sure that of course there were probably loads of people who just went for out for a laugh, and lots of peoples’ livelihoods were destroyed and people were injured. I don’t mean to revolutionise or romanticise something that was not so, but I am merely trying to offer an alternative perspective.
Daily Mail (2011) ‘They stole EVERYTHING! Shelves stripped bare and shops ransacked as looters pillage London high streets’, Daily Mail, 9 August [Online]. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024012/LONDON-RIOTS-2011-They-stole-EVERYTHING-Enfield-Clapham-shops-stripped-bare.html (Accessed: 8 May 2017)
Eldridge, L. F. (2017) ‘The English riots of 2011: moral economy at work?’, WordPress, 22 March. Available at: https://unrulypolitics.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/the-english-riots-of-2011-moral-economy-at-work/ (Accessed: 13 May 2017)
@judydominick (2017) Twitter, 9 May. Available at: https://twitter.com/judydominick/status/861940662924705793 (Accessed: 13 May 2017)
Nature’s Legacy (2016) ‘Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” | History of Bread’, Nature’s Legacy, 7 March [Online]. Available at: https://natureslegacyforlife.com/micheal-pollans-cooked-history-of-bread/ (Accessed: 8 May 2017)
Phillips, B. (2015) ‘I was one of the London rioters. In 2011 we didn’t know how to express our anger’, The Guardian, 11 March [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/11/london-rioters-2011-anger-inequality-distrust-police (Accessed: 11 May 2017)
Potts, R. and Conisbee, M., (2014) ‘The politics of bread’, Red Pepper, 2 January [Online]. Available at: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/the-politics-of-bread/ (Accessed: 8 May 2017)
Thompson, E. P. (1971) ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present, 50, pp. 76-136
Topping, A., Diski, R. and Clifton, H. (2011) ‘The women who rioted’, The Guardian, 9 December [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/dec/09/women-who-rioted-english-riots (Accessed: 11 May 2017)
Weinberger, D. (2011) ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: A Report From Egypt’, Huffington Post US [Online]. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-weinberger/bread-freedom-social-just_b_1114936.html (Accessed: 8 May 2017)
Zurayk, R. (2011) ‘Use your loaf: why food prices were crucial in the Arab spring’, The Guardian, 17 July [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/17/bread-food-arab-spring (Accessed: 8 May 2017)