London Riots: The Limits of Left & Right

Published on Wednesday August 10th, 2011

From London Riots: The Limits of Left and Right

Marxists need to remember the Hegelian distinction between ‘in itself’ and ‘for itself’. In themselves, these riots may indeed be about inequality: the concentration of wealth and power may simply have become too unwieldy, regardless of what the rioters think is going on. But for themselves, they are about power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not crediting the participants with being able to make sense of what they’re doing.

As David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, combine neo-classical economics with the 1960s rhetoric of emancipation, and you have a heady ideological cocktail, that draws people into conceiving of themselves as autonomous sovereign selves. Ask today’s rioter what he is doing, and he will reply using the language of self, pleasure, economic freedom and individual recognition. This borders on the concerns of the Left, when it enters into identity politics, but for the most part it is entirely neoliberal. He didn’t write this script, but he did choose to read from it.

As any student of the philosophy of social science knows, there is some interplay between the concepts used to explain another’s action, and how that actor understands what they are doing. Often explanatory frameworks become adopted by the actors being analysed. This has a political dimension too. The Brixton and Toxteth riots of the 1980s were quite manifestly political. They had political spokespersons, grievances and shared demands, lending themselves to sociological analysis. In themselves and for themselves, they were about police brutality, racism and the devastation of urban economies. And for all these reasons, it became all the more important for Conservative politicians to describe them using the language of individual morality, self-control, blame and criminality. The more collectivist the phenomenon (both in itself and for itself), the more urgently the Right will mobilise its individualist explanatory frameworks.

Strangely, other than the repeated mantra that there is “no excuse” for looting, I’ve been surprised by how guarded the political classes have been on this occasion. I assumed that moralistic rhetoric would be raining down by now, focused on absent fathers, bringing back the birch, national service and banning computer games. But no. Could it be that the absence of politics, of sociological rationale, and of socialist ambition in these events means that they are, from a Rightwing perspective, comparatively safe? While they are, at least ‘for themselves’, acts of egoistic, hedonistic, moral transgressions, there is no need for Tory MPs to take to the airwaves and describe them as such. By acting as if there is ‘no such thing as society’, the rioters are already doing this for them.


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