Sunday, August 19, 2012

The "revolution" that never happened: the London Riots of 2011, and the Russian Revolution of 1905

Last month I wrote here about the root causes of the riots that swept through London and England in general over five days in August, 2011.
I also recently read an excellent article in "Newsweek" here, assessing the effect (or lack of) that the riots have had on British psyche.

What were "the riots"? We can't assess their effect if we still haven't figured out why they happened. Prime Minister David Cameron said it was an outbreak of "criminality, pure and simple". In other words, there's no explanation necessary, because it was just criminal opportunism.
To an extent, he is is right that there was an element of opportunism: it was the protests and riots in Tottenham that gave the "opportunity" for anarchy to spontaneously break out across London and England in general. Some people seemed to have suddenly realised that if too many break the law at the same time (through looting and violence), then the justice system is incapable of stopping them.

To the extent that the riots represented an "insurrection", as Darcus Howe called it, this was a "revolution" of anarchy. There was no plan, no agenda - looting was the main activity, along with violence against the police. Everyone involved in the riots was getting involved either for their own personal gain, or to "settle scores" with the police. Order was restored only after a mass mobilisation of the police; justice was only restored after draconian and excessive punishments for meted out on those caught. So "the riots" were a classic case of spontaneous anarchy, taking advantage of a specific situation.

One historical comparison that bears considering is the 1905 Russian revolution; not in the sense that there were very many similarities (there are few), but it's worth considering for the underlying causes; the form of the "revolution"; and the aftermath, or legacy it left.
The 1905 Russian revolution is considered a side-show compared to that in 1917, but in 1905, the Tsarist government faced virtual anarchy in many parts of the empire for a prolonged period of time. The prime spark was the defeat to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, that caused a massive shell-shock to the establishment and the reputation of the conservative and authoritarian government. With respect for the government dissolved, various "revolutionary-terrorist" groups took advantage of the vacuum of perceived authority to wreak havoc and chaos across the empire: mass strikes were the most common method, though there were many political assassinations, some soldiers also mutinied, and this encouraged other disgruntled parts of society (such as peasants) to try and seize land, or just settle old scores. This was also where the Bolsheviks had their first stab at power, with Stalin playing his own role as mischief-maker in the Caucasus, and Russia's source of oil, Baku.
The government eventually responded, as an authoritarian regime does, with a massive show of power to crush the "revolution" - though much of the "revolution" was anarchy and criminal opportunism disguised behind ideology. The Tsar made some democratic concessions by granting a parliament, but the longer legacy, as we know, was the 1917 Bolshevik revolution - because the Tsar learned too little from the experience of 1905.

Zooming forward to 2011, we see a similar pattern of anarchy stemming from opportunism, but there are still underlying issues like there were in Russia in 1905. As in Russia, the UK has a corrupt establishment (of bankers and a corporate oligarchy) that disguises its self-preservation behind a smokescreen of decency and traditional values, but using the full force of the law to protect its interests if it feels threatened. It preaches these same traditional values (that it itself ignores) to the wider population, while privately being indifferent to their fate, and creating a situation that allows them to prosper but slowly bleeds the "lower orders" white.

Yes, Britain is a "multi-party democracy", but we also are the only Western power that still has a fully-unelected upper house, an electoral system that perpetuates a static political establishment of the same two parties (as has existed for the last hundred years); a value system that discourages a challenging of the status quo; and an economic system that has created the most unequal society in the West, except for the USA (which also has a very similar system).
So, put into that context, what's not for a self-respecting, ordinary British person to dislike? Yes, on the surface, the UK is a "civilised" country; our reputation abroad has come from the British culture that we have fed to the world. But this is a rose-tinted illusion that masks the underlying reality, as I described above.

From the 2011 riots, the British government learned nothing; because it was not listening, and didn't want to listen - just like the Russian Tsar in 1905. All the British government (and the media) wanted to say, just like in Russia in 1905, was that this "anarchy" was about people losing respect for authority and other people. The only way to deal with this was through the iron fist of justice. A year on from the 2011 riots, the London Olympics has dissolved the pessimism that had existed in society, at least temporarily. This has had the effect of distracting people from the underlying issues, but changes nothing.
The fact that the "anarchy" by some of the opportunistic "lower orders" was simply a mirror for the much larger "corrupt anarchy" that existed in the establishment was either forgotten or intentionally ignored: the disproportionate response of the establishment and judiciary to the riots was a response out of existential fear, to make sure that the "lower orders" would not dare to challenge the "moral code" that perpetuates their existence. But as I suggested in my article about the riots last month, if there is no morality at the top, then why should anyone lower down have any?
The riots of 2011 were a damning indictment of the moral collapse and corruption of British society; but more precisely, like the "Arab Spring" of last year, this was opportunism. Neither the "Arab Spring", nor the 2011 riots were predicted by the experts; and yet, the signs were all there under the surface - they just needed a spark. While the "Arab Spring" was about introducing Western-style democracy, the 2011 riots were about a more primeval and selfish instinct that had been unwittingly encouraged in the British psyche - if those at the top are living it large and ignoring the rules, then why not me? What makes those at the top "better" than the rest of us? If the London riots displayed an uglier side of British society, it was because British society had allowed itself to become ugly; because the establishment is ugly.

It took the Russians twelve years to make the Tsarist government pay the price for their ignorance and arrogance in 1905. How long will it take the British people to do the same thing after the "revolution" of 2011?

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