The other side of ‘we’re all in it together’

Back in 2005, I was one of the few Brazilians, apart from the family, that attended a demonstration and mass in memory of Jean Charles de Menezes. That was still in the days when it was legal to gather outside the Houses of Parliament, and after a short vigil there, people walked to the Westminster Cathedral in Victoria, were the mass was held. As the smallish crowd moved, a well-dressed lady walking in the opposite direction shouted at us: ‘What are you on about? Police kill boys like him everyday in Brazil!’. The situation stunned me, not least because of how unlikely a heckler she looked; it showed what a tense place London had become, shortly in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. To some extent, I could understand how she felt – one of the most insidious aspects of the politics of fear is that, even when you are rationally aware of how fear is guiding your reactions, you still cannot rationalise it away. But, obviously, what she said was especially hurtful, both because it sounded very much like a statement about the low relative value of a Brazilian life (compared to the sensed threat against British ones), and because it was, strictly speaking, true: anybody in the UK who is minimally informed about Brazil will have heard about its huge social inequality, and how that translates in hugely unequal, brutal policing.

It is obvious why I recalled that incident as soon as I heard about the Tottenham riots last weekend, given what the spark was that lit this particular fuse: the police killing a man, roughly the same age as Menezes, under circumstances that – especially after recent cases like Ian Tomlinson’s or Smiley Culture’s – cannot but sound suspicious. Add to that an all-time low in confidence in public institutions, particularly after the phone hacking scandal that exposed the way in which a tiny clique set decades of political agenda; an area that has known its fair share of police abuse in the past and present; deteriorating standards of living and future prospects that are ever darker; and a widespread feeling of having been sold short, when the impacts of the crisis seem so disproportionately distributed, and ‘being in it together’ seems to mean very different things for the rich and the poor. With all the wisdom afforded by things that have already happened, it would be tempting to say now that an outbreak like this would not be long in coming.

In 1625, Francis Bacon published an analysis of uprisings (“seditions”), in which he distinguished between their material causes – the inflammable material – and occasional ones – the contingent events that act as sparks. Material causes are of two kinds: a certain level of deprivation that becomes unbearable, and discontent, which may exist without the first. The occasional ones could be any of a number of potential flames that, falling on the existing combustible matter, cause individuals to ‘unite in injury’. If a government wants to prevent seditions, he concludes, there is no point in focusing on occasional causes, which are relatively unpredictable. It is those feelings of deprivation, disenfranchisement and discontent that must be addressed; for it is only when the latter are present that something can act as a catalyst for what until then were relatively dissociated elements, and push those suffering them beyond a threshold where they decide to act – to collectively manifest that “enough is enough”.

Still, neither just the existence of grievances nor the presence of a “final straw” suffice to make an individual or a crowd take action. In the moment when someone takes their chances crossing a border to look for a better life, when a person throws a brick through a window, or a crowd decides to face down a police line, there is always something that cannot be reduced to whatever causes, material or occasional, were there before. While the latter can build up over a long time, this ‘something’ is no more than an instant, the tiniest of supplements, but without which nothing would happen. For centuries, people have remarked that the surprising thing was not that revolts happened, but that they did not happen more often; surely the reasons why the Ancien Régime in France, Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubark in Egypt were toppled did not come about overnight, so why did people put up for so long – and why did it then happen when it did? It is this little subjective excess over objective causes that is always impossible to pin down.

As the image of what took place over these days becomes clearer, it may be possible to use this subjective excess as a criterion to draw distinctions between what happened here and there. It is one thing to be motivated by the urge to express, by any means necessary (and often the only ones that will get you heard), years of pent-up rage, frustration, humiliation. It is another to suddenly lose your fear because you have realised that, in a large enough number, you will be able to get one back on the cops for once. It is yet another to calculate that police forces stretched thin and a broken shop window offer a good opportunity to acquire some gear free of charge. Regardless of how exactly these lines can or will be drawn, however, three lessons seem clear.

The first is that it is simply absurd to say that the riots have nothing to do with politics. Sure enough, many of those who engaged in them may not have had politics on their minds as they did; and it is especially saddening to see all the local people who had their lives threatened and their livelihoods destroyed, when they belong to the same communities and suffer from the same social ills as the rioters. But subjective motivation cannot be mistaken for material and occasional causes, which are, as Bacon knew, evidently political in nature. It is not simply a statistical anomaly that no-one has ever seen bankers loot a shop; neither is it down to their superior education, or refined taste. It is obvious that the fact that it is always the poorest who do it says something about the distribution of wealth and opportunities in a society – and in the present, post-bailout, post-NoW climate, probably also demonstrates that more and more people suspect that bankers effectively have access to much more efficient, state-sanctioned ways of looting. That this is the case means that to ascribe the material and occasional causes of what has happened to the coalition’s austerity plan alone is to tell only half the story – we have to look back at decades of disenfranchisement, including the feeling that it makes no difference what party is in power, it will always be only a tiny fraction of society that has its interests politically represented.

The second lesson is: these riots are the other side of ‘we’re all in it together’. Not just because, as places like Greece and Spain have recently demonstrated, there is only so much that people can give, and that they can be expected to take, before they decide that enough is enough. But also because a society that sees inequality grow and does nothing about it is one where events like these are bound to happen.

There is a perverse ‘social contract’ that can be found in places like Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, or Mexico City – where a small elite swap their disproportionate access to wealth, opportunities and political representation for living within gated communities, spending fortunes in security, being afraid. Its best illustration may well come from those parts of favelas in the South Side of Rio that have become militarised no-go zones for the Brazilian state; overlooking, in close proximity, the richest areas in town, they seem to say: ‘we may have no welfare, we may have no political voice, but we’re still here. Look over your shoulder – we’re in it together’.

Of course, social problems in Europe are far from that level. But the point here is that accepting inequality is a Faustian pact: ultimately, one buys into a spiraling trade-off between consumption and privilege – even if that is the dubious privilege of security services – and rights – the right to move freely without fear, the right to good public services etc. You can have a shiny new car, but if one day it is stolen, or breaks down because the city has flooded, public transport will be either too bad or too dangerous for you to use. You can have ridiculously expensive shoes, but someone, some day, may decide to take them from you at gunpoint. Looting and theft are, in fact, just another side of this trade-off; what compensates it, like a sort of ‘unofficial’ (if inefficient) wealth redistribution mechanism. Roll back shared infrastructure and services and replace them with consumption, and those who cannot consume but are constantly enjoined to do so will acquire goods by ‘other means’.

Do not address these issues, and they take root: see, for example, the territorial control exercised by drug cartels in parts of Mexico, or how São Paulo’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Commando of the Capital) has managed to shut down the city twice (not unlike what happened in London in the last few days). And no amount of heavy-handed policing can stop this dynamic. Places where social disparity is the highest tend to be those where the police is most clearly a brutal instrument to protect the rich from the poor, and still are among the most violent. Being hell for the poor does not make it paradise for the rich. Or maybe the super rich – like those who, in places like these, move about in their helicopters – will not notice the difference. Everyone else, however, will somehow chip in to pay the price of this pact.

Ultimately, then, the UK rioters need not have been ‘thinking politics’ to send a political message; for the final lesson to be drawn is no different from that coming from the ‘explicitly’ political protests in Greece, Spain or Israel: the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger, and the vast majority feel more and more cheated. If things are not to get uglier, the time to change course is now.

When Spain won the World Cup, Barcelona, an Argentinean publication sarcastically named after the favoured destination of that country’s migrants, celebrated it with a tongue-in-cheek cover: ‘Crisis, unemployment, poverty, the end of welfare, submission to the IMF and sporting success: the poor countries of the world salute the Spanish – Welcome to the Third World!’. Apart from being a brilliant joke, the headline made an excellent point: why is it that what is crystal clear for people in the global North when talking about the global South seems so difficult to process when it happens ‘at home’? Ask any relatively well-informed British citizen about violence in Brazil, and they are likely to tell you something about unequal wealth distribution, lack of opportunities, or even how the drug traffic goes to places where the state has never been, how many young men see carrying a gun as the only way to earn a sense of worth and respect, how the police make matters worse by being widely perceived as corrupt and prejudiced, and how the political system mostly reproduces this situation. And yet, right now, I can imagine that lady I saw in Victoria. ‘Why should I listen to you?’, she is saying. ‘Your country has much greater social problems than mine.’

Well, yes, madam. That is exactly why.

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7 Responses to The other side of ‘we’re all in it together’

  1. giuseppecaruso says:

    Great piece OQ, i like particularly the way in which you first acknowledge the deeply human impossibility in times of crisis to “rationalize away” deep emotions (fear in this case), then you delve into social dynamics of inequality and, finally illustrate the political nature of the UK riots.

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