From Self-Mutilation to Self-Organisation

A few years ago I worked as a ‘cover supervisor’ in a secondary school in Nottingham (an unqualified and cheap supply teacher, essentially). For the most part, I loved my time in the classroom. But on a small handful of occasions things went wrong. Completely, hideously wrong. Students with whom I enjoyed good rapport would suddenly flip- embarking on a spell of hugely destructive behaviour: bins were thrown, equipment was smashed and- on rare occasions- I and other students were threatened with violence. Despite my reputation as an understanding member of staff and the fact that I never lost my temper (nor threatened sanctions), there was invariably little I could do but ensure the safety of other students and wait for the student in question to calm down.

These students were not subhuman. They were not scum. They were not chavs. They were not pikeys. They were people, like everyone else. Some of them were could be unpleasant, many of them were often very pleasant: just like any sample of secondary school students, in other words.

From my position of power the cause of these outbursts would be nigh on inexpicable. If any immediate trigger was obvious it would invariably be something as minor as a pen running out, a question proving too hard, me asking them to do something/not to do something.

Frustrated, all I knew was that these were horrible situations: scary for all concerned, and sad too. Witnessing such self-destructive behaviour is not easy.

Such actions aren’t just born in the heat of the moment, though. Nor can they be explained away by mechanistic psychology (“that child has ADHD/something wrong in the head”). The popularity of energy drinks at break-time might be a contributing factor (I’m serious here), but ultimately what appeared ‘inexplicable’ to me was often a symptom of a socialised condition of hopelesness, springing from a sub/semi-conscious understanding that there is no future.

Perhaps this is not even self-destruction: there is no longer a sense of self to destruct. Liberal rhetoric about knuckling down and working hard and making something of life is seen as the patronising, implausible bullshit it is; traditional hierarchies that kept people ‘in their place’ have been eroded by capitalism; collective action to change the situation simply isn’t seen as possibility. There is nothing to do but howl helplessly. I often thought that if this was a struggle for recognition it was a struggle for self-recognition; an act of proving to oneself that you are still capable of doing something.

So when I first read Henry Giroux I felt he was clearly right to say that whilst much classroom ‘rebellion’ has no obvious political content, it does have a political origin.

*       *       *       *

It’s pretty obvious why I’m thinking about this tonight. What we are seeing across London is the hopeless howl of a generation with no future. No, these people aren’t ‘protesters’. No, their actions aren’t self-consciously political (on the whole, at least). But these people are not scum. They are not chavs. They are not pikeys. They are humans, like everybody else.

Triggered by yet more police violence (which I’m not discussing here, but is certainly relevant), I would suggest that we are seeing the simultaneous performance of two roles (which intertwine, and are not exhaustive):

1. That of the consumer who is told they can have it all. 

Hence the looting and pillaging of luxury items. People feel a sense of entitlement. They have been promised so much; so much is dangled in front of them and yet remains (through the debt they have to get into to afford it) a form of social control. WELL FUCK THAT, they are saying. WE WILL JUST HAVE IT. “BECAUSE WE ARE WORTH IT”.

(There are almost certainly people looting things they need and can’t afford too).

2. That of the no-future generation.

Like the student smashing a classroom, the rioters and looters have abandoned a future which has abandoned them. When there’s nothing to fight for, there’s nothing to lose. Those whose sense of self has been taken from them are revelling in the freedom that loss brings.

*       *       *       *

On this second point I think Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s essay ‘Civil War’ merits consideration. First published in 1994, its central message is that the term ‘civil war’ is a misnomer which disguises the fact we exist in a continuum of violence. That is to say, violence always exists beneath the radar and it’s only when it erupts through rioting or military/militial conflict that we pay attention. This much should be self-evident to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of neoliberalism’s march to ‘a  free market and a strong state’; or to anyone who’s been paying attention to gun and knife crime in some of Britain’s most alienated, abandoned communities. And, of course, to anyone who’s seen what the Metropolitan police has been getting away with for decades.

Now I do not endorse many of Enzensberger’s arguments- not least his all-too-ready dismissal of structural/economic causes (it’s not clear how much weight he attaches to the second last point quoted below- he certainly doesn’t see it as a foundational cause of violence), but the following extracts will, I think, strike a chord with those who can’t understand why inequality seems to be fostering violence directed inwards at people’s own communities and not outwards at political elites who create/perpetuate inequality.

“Civil war has long since moved into the metropolis. Its mutations are part of everyday life in our cities, not just in Lima and in Johannesburg, in Bombay and in Rio, but in Paris and Berlin, in Detroit and Birmingham, in Milan and Hamburg. The combatants are no longer just terrorists and secret police, Mafiosi and skinheads, drug dealers and death squads, neo-Nazis and cowboy security guards. Even ordinary members of the public are transformed overnight into hooligans, arsonists, rioters and serial killers. And as in the African wars, the combatants are becoming younger by the day.”

“The perpetrators [display an] inability to distinguish between destruction and self-destruction. In today’s civil wars there is no longer any need to legitimize your actions. Violence has freed itself from ideology.”

“The molecular civil wars in our cities are similarly lacking in reason. Gang warfare in the North American ghettos has nothing to do with the historical class struggle. Not even the theory of black versus white provides a satisffactory rationale, for victims of muggings, robberies and murders are blacks more often than not. It wasn’t the homes of the rich that were the target of the riots in Los Angeles; the perpetrators set fire to buildings in their own community, including the oldest surviving bookshop in America, owned by blacks, and the office of the most militant local politician in the neighbourhood. In gang wars everywhere, it is a case of the have-nots shooting at each other.”

“Howls of protest at the loss of jobs are accompanied by pogroms which make it obvious to any thinking capitalist that it would be senseless to invest in a place where people go in fear of their lives. The most idiotic Serbian president knows as well as the most idiotirc Rambo that his vicil war will turn his contry into an economic wasteland. The only conclusion one can draw is that this collective self-mutilation is not simply a side-effect of the conflict, a risk the protagonists are prepared to run, it is what they are actually fighting to achieve.”

“If you imagine a map of the world that shows the geographical distribution of the ‘superflous’ masses- on the one side regions of underdevelopment in their varying degrees and, on the other, zones of underemployment in the metropolitan centres- and compare these with the sites of the many civil wars, you will notice a correlation.”

“In the collective running amok, the concept of ‘future’ disappears. Only the present matters. Consequences do not exist. The instinct for self-preservation, with the restraining influence it brings to bear, is knocked out of action.”

*       *       *       *

The task, then, must be to take the energies released in the riots and offer to them a future.

This does not mean the lie of ‘social mobility’.

This does not mean the false promises of representative democracy.

This does not mean the vanguardist solutions of intellectual elites.

This means a future  coming from within the communities.

It must be the future as possibility, not the future as readymade solution. A future created by communities talking to one another; by people learning together. A future created by communities sharing their knowledges and their experiences. A future shaped by the knowledge that communities are’t just local but exist across networks of solidarity, identity and experience globally- and that we are each in a number of such communities.

What is happening is ugly. But a beauty can be born from this. A beauty which shows communities that they are powerful. More powerful, in fact, than they had ever dreamed.  The repressive arm of the state cannot cope with them. Assigned roles do not have to be reproduced.

This must be the catharsis which enables us to begin again. The fight must no longer be for self-mutilation but for self-organisation.

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17 thoughts on “From Self-Mutilation to Self-Organisation

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  12. Yes! Absolutely. My point is that these are labels used by some people to explain away behaviours like those I’d witnessed in the classroom, as if that ends the discussion such that no further discussion is needed. They’re completely and utterly wrong. ‘Chav’ is full of class hatred, ‘pikey’ is full of class hatred and racism, whilst ‘scum’ and ‘sub human’ are labels that are as unhelpful as they are offensive. I wouldn’t apply them to anyone in such a positon of powerlessness. I’d hope the rest of the article would make clear my views, though I perhaps should have used scare quotes.

  13. The rhetoric is all quite nice, and it’s excellent how well the idea of self-destructive behaviour encapsulates the phenomena of recent riots, that sort of classroom behaviour, so on and so forth, but what solutions do you actually propose?

    “Togetherness” isn’t exactly the most concrete of answers.

    • Broadly, my solution is FULL COMMUNISM. My point here, however, was that people feel they have no future; that’s why such self-destructive behaviour is so common. Returning the sense of possibility of a future (by giving communities some power in the present) is what’s important rather than determining the content of the future. What I’d stress now (and perhaps wasn’t so keen on pushing in 2011) is that that power will only come with radical changes to the economic structure.

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