Dead Men Left

Monday, November 07, 2005

Burning and a-looting

It's noticeable how weak the prevailing interpretation of the ongoing banlieues riots is. From the liberal left, to the drooling far right, the deliberate effort is made to turn away from the really quite blunt features of life in ghettoised estates - the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the habitual racism of the authorities - and towards an edition of reality that sees a bastardised Clash of Civilisations re-enacted in the French suburbs.

Obviously, this isn't unexepected for the Right: given a convenient and well-rehearsed story about the threat posed to "Western values" by Muslim hordes, the degeneration of "Eurabia", and all the rest, even the most slack-jawed and knuckle-dragging of cultural conservatives can thrash out a grand conspiracy between Bin Laden, the debauched EU, and French youth.

What's more striking is the popularity of a very similar story on the centre-left: the subtle difference being, however, that the great cultural ding-dong apparently taking place before us is principally a squabble within Islam itself, over which "the West" can act in the guise of decent-minded policeman. The underlying assumptions are remarkably similar - that unfathomable cultural factors are the primary force in society, and that the best that can be hoped for is to ease to inevitable strains and tensions presumably irreconcilable differences produce. For the Right, predictably, this means exclusion and expulsion; for the centre, a slightly more complex process of differentiation within a "community" is required, in which lip-service paid to "Western values" ranks highly. In a similar vein, various conflicts around the world - Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Palestine - are reduced to irreconcilable clashes of "ethnicity" or "culture", devoid of prior imperialist context, and floating somewhere above grubby economic factors.

The general tendency has been less marked amongst the British press when referring to France; "everyone knows" France is an economic basket-case, and so some passing remarks on youth unemployment are permissable. The dominant explanation, outlined above, was dramatically brought to the fore when dealing with riots in Birmingham, however.

Nick Cohen's column of a few weeks ago illustrates the point. Comparing the riots of last month with those in the Lozells area of twenty years ago, he writes

The arguments of the Eighties about why young men took to the streets felt antique and irrelevant. Beyond repeating the platitude that workers with good jobs tend to be law-abiding, you couldn't pretend the 2005 riot was a protest against unemployment. The economic and law enforcement policies of official society - 'white society', to stretch a point - had nothing to do with the violence.

This is a direct appeal to a presumed "common sense": " can't pretend the 2005 riot was a protest against unemployment... law enforcement policies had nothing to do with the violence." It depends on the happy thoughts that, first, all is economically well in Blair's Britain; and, second, a few outreach courses and community policing events have removed institutional racism.

Both are nonsense: if the riots of decades past were in any way related to the absence of opportunities and the gross inequalities of society, how much more so must that apply today, in a society less meritocratic and more unequal than that presided over by Thatcher? You don't need to be unemployed to know you're getting an absolutely rotten deal - although 30% of adult men in Lozells are unemployed. And the most cursory glance at the figures will tell you how the distribution of opportunities and wealth in Britain is then further skewed by race.

Dry figures by themselves say little. But they record the individual experiences that, mediated by race and religion, drive the anger. It is little surprise that, in such conditions, and with the deliberate stoking of tensions by some self-proclaimed "community leaders", some will reach for an explanation that focuses the anger on quite the wrong target.

Against this essentially communalist interpretation we have to win back the politics of class. Left-liberalism of the kind Cohen - or indeed this government - provides is inadequate: entirely blind to its own failings, it cannot say anything to those it fails. It lurches directly towards blaming the victims: despite Cohen's near-apocalyptic portrayals of a world riven by racial tension, nowhere in his picture is there space for the screamingly obvious fact that the great majority of people in Lozells simply want to get on with their neighbours.

There are positive signs that a class politics can cut through the ties between what is essentially communalism and left-liberal politics; Respect's intervention has been a good model of how this can be done; the immediate, practical suggestion that the alleged rape victim's immigration status should be cleared up, for instance, is sensible, whilst the stress on unity against racism and for better local facilities is a necessary part of that.