Sunday, August 14, 2011
Telepathy for rioters
Guy Debord’s question about the Watts riots--“Who has defended the Los Angeles rioters in the terms they deserve?”--is still a challenge upon the 45th anniversary of the riots, in which 34 people died. Written four months afterward, in December 1965, Debord’s essay, “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy,” struggles with its relation to the rioters while rejecting the positions of the U.S. civil rights movement leadership and an unspecified “vacuous international left.” Like these other positions, and like all commentary on the U.K. this week, Debord’s text performs the class division between participants and commentators in the same gestures in which it defends the rioters against other commentators.
“Decline and Fall” moves unsteadily between vicarious gratification and identification, between the subordination of race to class and inquiry into the origins of “race.” There may not finally be a line there that can be walked without erring: the space for it seems to have disappeared, along with many other possibilities that ought to exist and don’t. Debord’s (interesting) thumbnail theory of “racisms” is that they are created by hierarchies within commodities. He therefore concludes that African-American revolt is “the negation at work” at the leading edge of class war. About looting, Debord hypothesizes that it’s a way of “taking the capitalist spectacle at its face value” that thereby reveals its “hoax”—for example, looters take things they cannot easily use, as in “the theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity.” The intentional or unintentional status of the point doesn’t matter as much as the resulting object lesson for everyone, speaking through the events. Debord pushes it, and risks re-racializing the question, when he remarks that looting is a “natural” response to unnatural conditions, that African-Americans can expose the emptiness of commodities because they “have nothing of their own to insure,” and that they “really are” the enemies of modern alienation. In a way, Debord’s comments mirror those of historian David Starkey, who has just now interpreted the phenomenon of multiethnic working- and lower middle-class rioting as meaning that “The whites have become black” (Telegraph, 13 August 2011; while Starkey’s intention seems to have been to shame young whites, his remark sounds eyebrow-raisingly heartening from outside his perspective). In Debord’s view the “blacks” are black in the first place as a result of commodity dynamics, and in that spirit he predicts the blackening of young whites in the wake of Watts: “The issue is no longer the condition of American blacks, but the condition of America, which merely happens to find its first expression among the blacks” (Debord, “Decline and Fall”). In order to write this way Debord risks appropriation; he nominates himself “to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search,” and in trying to, he doesn’t mention colonialism (for starters).
Debord’s megalomania was such that he may not have needed an excuse to step forward as the theoretician of the uprising. He saw one, however, in the inadequacy of the surrounding discourse:
Police Chief William Parker . . . rejected all the major black organizations’ offers of mediation, correctly asserting: “These rioters don’t have any leaders.” Since the blacks no longer had any leaders, it was the moment of truth for both sides. What did one of those unemployed leaders, NAACP general secretary Roy Wilkins, have to say? He declared that the riot “should be put down with all necessary force” . . . . Until the Watts explosion, black civil rights demonstrations had been kept by their leaders within the limits of a legal system that tolerates the most appalling violence on the part of the police and the racists — as in last March’s march on Montgomery, Alabama.
Debord’s criticism of the civil rights leadership is part of his repudiation of “legal means” in general given the already “blatant illegality” of segregationist practices and “socioeconomic contradiction that is not within the scope of existing laws.” For the corresponding vacuity of the “international left,” he gives no citation. This week in the U.K., though, the anarchist North London Solidarity Federation issued a statement: “as revolutionaries, we cannot condone attacks on working people . . . . Tonight and for as long as it takes, people should band together to defend themselves when such violence threatens homes and communities. We believe that the legitimate anger of the rioters can be far more powerful if it is directed in a collective, democratic way.” This led to a discussion on an anarchist forum in which a single writer repeatedly complained that SolFed ought not only to have specified what was bad about the conditions that led to the riots and bad about the riots, but what was good about them, granted that that wasn’t “gangsterism against other working class people”: “what's bad in it . . . shouldn't restraint us to point to and show what is good in it. if revolutionnaries don't do that, who will?”
Over the last several days, supporting statements have evolved. Evan Calder Williams has composed just such an index of good, among other points. George Ciccariello-Maher has organized his response around participants’ speech, quoted in fragments in reports, to stress how “much we can learn from those rushing through the London streets”--i.e., not to make them mean something, but to begin the reading and listening. Williams makes a similar gesture when he demands that participants not remain a “they”: “We cannot allow our critique to remain critique at a distance. We cannot remain afar and venture claims as to what ‘they’ should or should not do . . . . we recognize real material separations between populations and their class background (one should be very clear in recognizing when a struggle is not one where one is welcome). Yet we strive to entirely abolish those separations. That is, to stop speaking of the looting they as if a different species.” At the same time, Williams’s text in its entirety is an open letter to a “you” whom he pivots in the next moment to address: “for all these critiques of ourselves, all our slipping into distanced forms of condemnation and wishful thinking, still, yours is far, far worse.” “You” are far, far worse, but “‘they’” are farther away than you. Debord is in a similar bind (as am I), in danger of being distracted by the sheer possibility of attacking the available, familiar, language-sharing, and nearly always male class peer from even imagining addressing the others—the ones he’d like to call “we,” but can’t, the ones he feels have expressed his own outrage. Debord does a better job than Williams of tearing himself away from his enemies long enough to let the stress fall on achievements. But he also presents a wish as a fact, stating that his project and the Watts rioters “already coexist; still separated but both advancing toward the same realities, both talking about the same thing.” Yet to the end Debord addresses "us," not "them," even in fantasy. Williams doesn’t imagine agreement or even “welcome.” “Yet we strive to entirely abolish those separations.”
The intractability of the separations is the sad, unwilled infrastructure of the commentary. It was only December when Debord distributed “Decline and Fall,” and the Watts participants would probably have been concerned to avoid arrest or awaiting trial at that point, which would have made it difficult for them to speak and for Debord to have anything to cite. For similar reasons, Ciccariello-Maher makes do with shards. There have been some recent community meetings where participants and non-participants must be mingling—and there’s got to be value in that—but the former will be pressured by law to choose between saying much and identifying themselves. Likewise, if rioters had been more organized and more explicitly “political,” forming groups and writing up rationales, they would face longer sentences for conspiracy and terrorism. SolFed, by virtue of being an organization at all, becomes liable to say and do less. The cliché of “division between practice and theory,” thought of as undesirable all around, is watered by law.
Courtroom support for people arrested has been promised, and over time there should be more ways to read and hear from participants. (The Museum of London, however, fails completely to include participants in its currently running Brixton Riots Community Project “delv[ing] into the lives of people who experienced the Brixton Riots”: seven people are interviewed, all of them white, six of them men, none of them participants. For a better job see History is Made at Night, a blog about the politics of music and dancing.) In the meantime the space that Debord and Williams want to enter seems to exist only in imagination, as the latter knows. The poster who wanted SolFed to include a statement of active good was met by another who thought he knew that “real” “working-class residents wouldn’t want to be lectured about why the riots are ‘good’”-—in advance, with fantasy equal to Debord’s (and making up the part about the lecture form of the utterance). As it is so endemic, maybe we--intellectuals--should make space for our desires and do some florid imagining. My fantasy is not to argue with residents but to communicate telepathically with a few participants. To the eighteen-year-old women interviewed on the BBC, who said they were enjoying the riots and that it was “the government’s fault, conservatives,” and then were called “despicable” by the press, and not part of “the real Britain”—“It's the ‘joy on display’ that is so disturbing" (Scott Stinson, National Post, 10 August 2011, cited in “British teens' 'unsettling' riot interview,” The Week, 10 August 2011): thanks for knowing your own enjoyment, which it would have been easy for you to downplay, even to yourself; it’s that people are disturbed by your joy, specifically--not at what happened, but that it could thrill you because you don't like the government--that is so unsettling. To the thirteen-year-old boy arrested in Manchester, who said “It's the worst, stupidest thing I have ever done”: (in Californian) Dude, if that’s true, you’ve lived a blameless life. To the twelve-year-old whose family the Manchester City Council is trying to evict from their home after he stole a bottle of wine from a Saintsbury’s, who said, “I am gutted my picture's in the paper and now I have a record" (Telegraph, 14 August 2011): you have (always had) a record, beyond the papers, as something better than a thief, which is more than I can say for David Cameron.
And they’d say ____________? As he claims synchronicity at least Debord claims the relation to be mutual, specifying that Situationist writing can only “be understood” and “illuminated” by events like Watts. I hope he meant illuminated for himself, as well as readers.
Image: Roberto Matta, L'Escalade