“The Condition of England” 2011

Nick_Mirzoeff's picture

It was perhaps inevitable that the 2011 crisis of visuality would returned to its source. With the collapse of social order in England, the authority that visuality seeks to make palpable, necessary and right is in crisis where it was first named. As has become typical over the course of this tumultuous year, present-day events appear to be composed of an amalgam of past and present, to use Thomas Carlyle’s famous tag.

Layer one: the decayed “condition of England” (Carlyle).

On 9 August, Duke University Press tweeted Carlyle’s 1838 letter to his wife Jane, highlighting this line: “The distress of the country at present seems beyond expression. There will almost infallibly be riots and bloodshed before long.” In 1839, he published Chartism, stressing the “deep, dumb distress” of the working classes requiring not redress but leadership. So in On Heroes (1840), Carlyle called for heroic leadership, evidenced by “clear visuality,” which the mob could then follow.

Under Thatcher in the 1980s, there was much speculation as to what level of unemployment might make the country ungovernable–one, two and three million went by and, while there were uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere, there was no sense that authority was in danger. With over one million people between the ages of 16 and 24 alone now unemployed in the UK, there is a permanent underclass. The map of London disturbances (to use the carefully neutral term) makes that class briefly visible:

Google mash-up from the Guardian (8-9-11) showing recent incidents

This is neither fashionable London, where the media folk and politicians live, nor the old working-class East End. It’s a mix of inner and outer borough linked by blight, neglect, poverty and rule by police. All Middle England wants from these people is that they, somehow, go away.

Layer two: pre-and post-panopticism

Carlyle’s detestation for all “Benthamee [Benthamite] constitutions” and liberal responses to crime was extreme in 1840 and mainstream by 1865. Thatcherism’s distaste for the poor as moral failures was similarly extreme in 1975 and is now standard. In response to the disorder, Prime Minister David Cameron epitomized the attitude of Middle England in saying “there are pockets of our society that are not just broken but are frankly sick.” He continues in High Tory fashion to deny any link between social injustice and street revolts.

Carlyle wanted those he saw as unreformable deported to the colonies. Cameron blusters about young people being tried as adults. An 11-year-old was detained overnight in the cells yesterday for allegedly “looting” a wastepaper basket.

Panoptic surveillance was not going to reform the criminal in Carlyle’s view, one now shared by British police who use the world’s most extensive CCTV camera network for detection only, not prevention. The cuts in numbers of police will go ahead, despite the unrest, because of the continued faith in this technology.

Pictures from Birmingham CCTV cameras circulated by UK police

In watching this YouTube video of an electrical store being looted in Manchester, several aspects of the events are apparent.

People are not out of control here. There are more spectators than participants. What’s happening is vandalism and theft: it’s not the end of civilization. Notably, there’s no police presence here, as in so many cases. Ironically, Manchester police had been sent to London to keep the peace there, a seemingly endless stream of police vans being shown on British TV.

Although 16,000 police were deployed in London, the normal “move on, there’s nothing to see here” condition failed to refresh. It was only on the fifth night that events petered out, from a combination of mass policing, street exhaustion and perhaps a sense that there was nothing left to take.

Layer three: social media

Print culture was crucial to the emergent radicals of the nineteenth-century from the newspaper to the radical pamphlet and the Captain Swing letters.

A bill advertising a reward for the capture of “Swing”

While there has been much outrage about the possible usages of social media, especially Blackberry BBM messages, there’s no real evidence yet that these messages were in fact instrumental in directing actions on the ground. The BBC and other media have nonetheless lost no time in relaying any violent sounding message they can find.

What was equally and undeniably visible across Facebook, Twitter and comments online was a palpable hatred from Middle England for their underclass.  The word most often used was “feral,” echoed in the tabloids, where rioters were called “wild beasts.” The nineteenth-century fear and disgust for the “dangerous classes” has returned, perhaps reinforced by the sense that there is no political threat from the underclass unlike the once-organized working class.

“Looters are Scum” read a much-photographed homemade T-shirt worn by Clapham music promoter Hayley Miller woman on one of the cleaning-up brigades.

As published in The Sun, Hayler Miller in Clapham, London

Across social media there were calls for the use of plastic bullets and water cannon–they worked so well in Northern Ireland after all. As things quietened, comments turned to calls for those involved to lose their housing and benefits–again, it’s hard to see how having a new, utterly impoverished homeless population would help.

For many of us, this attitude was epitomized by BBC broadcaster Fiona Armstrong shouting down Darcus Howe, nephew of CLR James, editor of the journal Race and Class and, as he says here, a 68 year-oldgrandfather:

Like Darcus Howe, I’m not trying to condone or excuse what happened in England this week. I’m saddened by all of it, the fact that people felt this was the only way they could get noticed, the lack of a political direction to what they chose to do, and perhaps above all by the vitriolic response.

For shouldn’t the fact that the only things those who took to the streets could think to take were televisions, cigarettes and alcohol in itself give us pause? No one stole a car. Or a Paul Smith suit. There was a lot harrumphing that Waterstones bookshop chain was one of the few shops not vandalized. But that’s exactly the point: cars, suits, books and the like don’t interpellate (call to) the structural underclass. Over thirty years of neo-liberalism that has made London the most divided city in terms of financial wealth worldwide has produced a neo-colonial imaginary in which the Orientalized underclasses have, in a very British way, their place properly designated and they recognize it: watching TV, while having a drink and cig.



Publication date (from feed): 

Thu, 11 Aug 2011 19:08:25 +0000