In the aftermath of the UK riots, the political elite has reacted just as we’ve come to expect: with moral outrage, demands for more police aggression and censorship, and threats of evictions and harsh punishments for even the most minor misdemeanors. Prime Minister David Cameron took the opportunity to climb on his high horse to play the part of the stern but just moral majority leader. The rioters have been unanimously labeled by the elite as immoral lowlifes which are a threat to all the “decent, law-abiding citizens” and should be chased out of the communities, preferably in tar and feathers. This is nothing new, of course. We all remember how Nicolas Sarkozy designated rioting youths as “scum” during the 2005 unrest in France.
Regardless of what the elite and their dogsbodies in the media would like us to believe, these riots do not represent isolated outbursts of mindless violence, but are very much a part of the larger crisis of the representative political system in Europe. An increasing number of Europeans no longer believe that the political elite, regardless of party orientation, is speaking on behalf of the people (if they ever did). The sentiment is that the problems we face in the society today cannot be solved by the representative system since the system itself is a part of the problem. The rampant corruption of the political elite, the winding down of public services and the looting of taxpayers’ money to profit the private sector make such a sentiment well founded. The scheme concocted by the European banks in cooperation with the EU, ECB and IMF to atrophy the European civil society with ever-growing mountains of debt exposes the true loyalties of the elite. In this light their moralism in condemning the rioters starts to look tragicomic. To paraphrase Brecht, “what is the burgling of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?”
The political elite has grown so alienated from the grassroots level of the society that the only thing they can think of when faced with unrest on the streets is to crush it with anti-riot weapons and mass arrests. We’ve seen the same thing happen recently in Greece and Spain where the police has resorted to excess violence against predominantly pacific protests. A lot of people in Europe have been following the government brutality against the uprising in Syria with horror, but they don’t realise that the same thing is happening in our own streets at this very moment, the only difference being that here in the “civilised West” we don’t send tanks to the streets (not yet, anyway…).
As I see it, the problem here is not that the political elite would be consciously trying to annihilate any dissident political action. The problem is rather the ingrained culture of elitism they’ve been brought up in. When faced with real opposition from the people, instead of the pseudo-opposition in the parliament, their natural reaction is that of self-defense, that is to say political oppression. The elite is frightened by any political movement that doesn’t follow the unwritten rules of the representative system and which can’t be dealt with by the usual political wheelin ‘n’ dealin. This can be characterised as a kind of “political xenophobia” where those coming from outside of the political elite are seen as “alien” and potentially dangerous.
There’s a very real sense in which the elite is quite right in its fears. There is a new political consciousness brewing in the streets and in this consciousness there is no place for elitism. This consciousness has a lot to do with the Internet generation and the corrosion of the traditional centralized media. Now I’m no techno-utopist, and I don’t believe that social networks will automatically lead to emancipation, but what has emerged on the Internet is a new culture where people turn more and more to their peers, instead of traditional authorities, for support, information and political legitimisation. This new culture is democratic in the full sense of the word, not just for-the-people but also by-the-people. It’s no surprise, then, that the British government is now looking into the possibility to shut down social network services during unrest, following the example of the Iranese government during the 2009 election protests. In their desperation, the European governments are starting to resemble the archaic regimes that have been recently overthrown in the Arab countries.
We live in interesting times.
(Nathaniel Tapley has written an excellent satirical piece on the riots which is well worth a read)