Aftermath: The New Normal

We are in the phase of the new normal. Scarcely a week after widespread rioting, it’s easy to become overfed on opinion or anecdote, on the careful attempts to position the riots as the consequence of this-or-that policy, or social ill, or as ways – perhaps the only way left – of lodging grievance. Above all, however, the news-cycles veer back towards their standard groove, having wobbled inadequately in attempting to comprehend an event unmediated by press releases and PR statements, substituting for any understanding of those on the streets a vaguely ludicrous selection of ‘community leaders’, MPs and concerned white people. (The pressure of the 24 hour news cycle being what it is, unfortunate ruptures do occur, never to be replayed.)

While you ask yourself if you’ve ever met a ‘community leader’, and precisely how one attains so vaunted a position, our cameras refocus on the overstuffed prime minister rehearsing the public order playbook with all the moral conviction of a moldering fish; her majesty’s loyal opposition, in the meantime, twitches its adenoidal clichés, offering almost indistinguishable frowns and grimaces, softened only by the light drag of an election-conscious social concern. Second time as farce, perhaps, were it not for the sobering reality that a caffeine-crazed judiciary, gavel-bashing through the small hours, is belching out sentences so bleak and repressive as to make Draco of Athens unquiet in his grave. Swear at a police officer? TEN WEEKS! Take some bottled water? SIX MONTHS! Post on Facebook? FOUR YEARS!

The less gutsy of dystopian novelists might pause at this point, wondering if so precipitous a descent might stretch even the preternaturally elastic credulity of devotees of their genre; might pause, too, to wonder, was this really imaginable two weeks ago? A month? This is the paradox-ridden condition of the new normal: a widespread form of reality management continually suggesting that things remain exactly as they were a month ago, while also presenting a new state of alarm, of emergency or of diffuse anxiety which remains alongside and persists with the ‘normal’, thus apparently justifying the slowly-choking grip of the judiciary or the revanchist moralism of the government.

Imaginable? Maybe. The people currently being conveyor-belted into the cells are being convicted by virtue not of their actions, but because of the geographical context of those actions, making them effectively responsible for everything happening around them by a twist of legal logic so arcane as to be faintly ridiculous. But predictable: an extension of the legal manoeuvres that saw students sent to jail for throwing a couple of sticks in the presence of other people. Partly predictable, perhaps, but reaching increasingly deranged, grotesque proportions. Less predictable, perhaps, was the zombie revenant of Enoch Powell, marching again across the TV screen; the legion of half-closeted half-fascists taking the opportunity to wring their hands about Starkey’s confrontational approach and then ooze that, well, some of the issues he raises…

The new normal: wherein you can have the glass and dazzle of the Olympics, but be wary that their tin smiles and hollow luxury are now so precarious that their only guarantor is an ever more frenzied and powerful state; wherein the condition of even a tense and sickly order is a collective amnesia about police murder; wherein temporary events like riots are used to underwrite ever more permanent powers, like curfew, or arbitrary detention, or the broadening of stop-and-search. Here, in the phase of its anxious establishment as the new normal its authoritarian contours are obvious, terrifying to us, each day pummeling us with new messages about natural criminality, about dangerous forms of collectivity, with police bristling out of every corner, and unconcealed, gloating revenge plastered on the front pages of every newspaper: what happens when we stop noticing?


Looked at one way, cities are huge systems of redundancies, vastly parallel systems which route around any minor annoyance or trivial blockage; this is especially true in London, where there is always an elsewhere. This is visible most obviously in moments of popular unrest, where three streets away from lines of armoured police batoning dissenters, chain stores go about their business undisturbed; it accounts for the momentary nausea of stepping from a brutal situation into a street in which commerce continues mostly unabated and undisturbed; likewise, it is the reason for the broad, straight avenues and boulevards which allow for the easy roll-out of force around political centres. It accounts, too, for the immediate responses of MPs and local officials, which is to suggest that the very worst of the trouble in an area is usually the responsibility of organised or criminal elements from elsewhere, and certainly not those without a voice or any other recourse within their own area. One thing the widespread, city-wide rioting last Monday did was to torpedo that excuse: there wasn’t really any elsewhere left for them to come from.

But there are other maps of cities, too. There is the inconvenient map that plots deprivation indices over the rioting flashpoints, for instance. That alone doesn’t account for the unrest. One might also wonder how the collective memory of police murder and unaccountability maps over the unrest, what plotting instances of deaths in police custody might look like, for instance. But that too is not quite an explanation. Owen Hatherley has pointed out very clearly that there is an urban geography at work in London that, looked at with clear eyes, is an untethered, insane way to organise a city. Such geographies don’t exist simply on the page, but structure the way that people live in cities, the areas that they don’t look at, or avoid, or which simply unhappen for them. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Sky News on the evening of rioting in Clapham, where a prosperous, middle-class white man, baffled, simply mouthed at the camera that it was a nice area to live in, unaware of where deprivation or poverty could be found locally, presumably blind to the estates and high-rises at the end of his road.

Clapham is a case in point: an area much-gentrified, and indeed now quite swish, without having wiped away the less prosperous families who once lived there; the same process of gentrification is in place, though variously less advanced, in many of the areas that erupted in the secondary waves of riots. From Clapham, too, the morning after, came the endless photos of the smug, homogeneous army of well-meaning morons with brooms, providing endless fodder for a panoply of reactionary articles about the stiff upper lip, mucking-in, and, worst of all, the ‘Blitz spirit’. (Presumably a tacit admission that this is a war situation; a war in which, if you find yourself suddenly with Boris, Dave and their host of ex-Bullingdon mates, you might wonder if you’re on the right side.) The other side to this is not to argue that burnt-out buildings and broken shop-fronts are a pleasant sight, but instead to ask questions about what compelled people to travel to Clapham, in particular? What is it about an almost-exclusively white class of conscientious liberal activists that impels them to de dismayed by the sight of broken and looted businesses, and act on that above all else; what is it about the way their urban life is structured that they may live briefly and transiently in one-or-another area of a city for perhaps a year or two at a time, thus having to construct a deliberate, symbolic cleanup operation online?

That aside, there are other flows at work in a city, some more telling here. As some of us pointed out on a radio show shortly after the riots, much of the looting took place in retail parks, some of the most unpleasant extrusions on inner-city environments, because they are very rarely intended for anyone who lives there. They are large sheds containing luxury goods (often unaffordable to many in the local area), laid out around a vast car park: that is, they are destinations to which people drive, rather than walk, they are conduits of capital that simply escapes from the area in which it is exchanged. Sometimes they may provide a few jobs to people in the area, but even then, there’s little guarantee of local employment, and people often travel to them to work. Money flows through, but does not stay in, the area it’s expended.

One of the most telling ways to map a city, then, is in terms of capital flow. The great pioneer of radical cartographic analyses like this was Bill Bunge, whose maps of Detroit demonstrate how clearly maps are not simply neutral descriptors, but, depending on what they map, and how they chart, can become clear exposés and indictments of the secret and hidden movements of a city:

What might mapping London like this reveal? In a sense, it’s salutary that Bunge’s great cartographic project was Detroit: a city collapsing in on itself after the decline of its great industrial heritage. London is not Detroit: its historical and economic conditions are different. But it is a city whose urban geography is rapidly changing, having been loosed from the physical and geographical prerequisites of its past: the decline of the docks, and the vanishing of light industry, mean that the Rotherhithe where my grandfather found his first job looks very different today compared with the 1930s, overlaid with regeneration and new conversions, but without wiping away the different social and economic strata that preceded it. It is often the proud delusion of writers who live in London that it will decay from the top down, that it will burn in some kind of conflagration, but more unsettling, perhaps unnoticed, it might just be that we are drowning.


This may seem far from the riots we saw erupting in London, but the truth is that to speak about ‘causes’ of riots is only ever to speak about proximate causes. The shooting of Mark Duggan was a cause, but a proximate one: hundreds of the young people on those streets have dozens of stories each about police intimidation, power-tripping and injustice; unemployment, the cuts, the ever more abundant hypocrisy from the wealthy and privileged, causes, yes, but proximate ones. There were thousands of different, small causes, many from the same sources, but many from others. It is facile and crass in the extreme to draw comparisons between the ‘real’ looters, who get away with a slap on the wrist, even if it is true – because it is at best a slow-moving mimic of an explanation. Throwing a banker into jail alleviates no problem at all.

There is a deep conflict that has been visible in the riots over who the city belongs to, what people are entitled to do with it. It’s hard for me not to be reminded, by the raft of powers, harsh sentences and lust for punishment, of the punitive legislation of the 18th century. Many commentators have dilated upon the 1714 Riot Act and its establishment of offences against the King’s Peace, passed a few years after the religiously-motivated Sacehverell riots. Perhaps more interesting in these times is the ‘Black Act’ that followed it in 1723 (9 George I c.22), which created fifty new capital offences – becoming two hundred, when stretched. The law imposed a sentence of death for innumerable ‘offences’, such as poaching deer and fish, cutting down young trees, appearing hooded or with face blackened in any forest or chase, especially the king’s forests and many more. It was named after the Waltham Blacks, poachers with blackened and covered face. Central to the conflict was, in large part, an attempt by the Whiggish ascendancy to take more money out of the forests, and a conflict between the habitual users of the common, or wild spaces of the forest, and those who sought to render, by force of law, wild animals private game. The capital powers afforded by the Black Act were, through expansive legal interpretation, equally aggressively used to repress dissenting opinion, or exact retribution for damage to private property. Are we in an analogous situation today? After all, there’s very little in the way of ‘the common’ left in spatial, economic or geographical terms, but we are certainly seeing the eruptions of a conflict over who has the right to be in and use the city, and the political disjunctions that arise from that question, the legal crackdowns that follow such ‘emergencies’, suggest looking sharply at the brutality of the past to see where we’re heading now.

E.P. Thompson’s study of the Black Act (Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, New York, Pantheon Books, 1975) demonstrates how rapidly the law’s emergency provisions generalised out of a set of specific conditions to become a wide penal armament, used to generate new capital offences, executing turnpike rioters because they had disguised their faces. Such disguises were often deliberate, but so broad was the repressive power of the law that even having a dirty face, or, ludicrously, wearing your hair close-cropped, unpowdered and without a wig were held to be acts of disguise. It should also be telling that in prosecution, cases were moved from local Assizes to the King’s Bench, where the wavering sympathies of local juries could easily be disposed with. Most telling of all, however, is how the usefulness of the law transcended the ‘emergency’ conditions under which it was passed; how very rapidly its temporary powers became permanent tools, restructuring the very notions of crime and property that had existed beforehand (pp.207-12)

With the murmuring of curfew powers, water-cannon and baton rounds, the shedding of tears over ‘sheer criminality’, the imputation of moral injury to iPods and flatscreen televisions, the conjuring of hooded monsters, feral and subhuman, are we heading for a similar legal juncture? Maybe. The parallels are certainly disturbing, even as far as the insistence that the contestation over property, possession and public space is not a ‘political’ question, because the arguments don’t come with static crowds chanting slogans, or the voices and values aren’t immediately recognisable to us. Such powers are never temporary. We would do well to listen more clearly to those voices, hear the roots of those conflicts, resist the urge to trudge along, unresisting and docile under the grim, unblinking eye of the ‘new normal’.

10 thoughts on “Aftermath: The New Normal

  1. “It is facile and crass in the extreme to draw comparisons between the ‘real’ looters, who get away with a slap on the wrist, even if it is true – because it is at best a slow-moving mimic of an explanation. Throwing a banker into jail alleviates no problem at all.”

    There’s much to admire in this article, but I strongly disagree with the above. Forcing “the real looters” to return their ill-gotten gains, fining, indicting, trying & jailing them might well usher in a new normal that I, for one, would be more than happy to live under.

    • Sure. It’s a difficult point to argue, because it seems immediately, instinctively right — I certainly wouldn’t argue that the financial services industry is globally corrupt and disgusting, and even concede that to understand what that industry does, particularly in London, but globally too, as looting lays bare the relationship between that industry and the general population and national economies. But there are two things that give me pause:

      1./ Any kind of political action that sees as its end the putting of certain bankers — say, Fred Goodwin — into jail, is to my mind an extension of the attitude that says merely *parts* of the banking system went wrong, or that what it needs is reform. Its systemic involvement, and the conciliatory attitude of the states in which it establishes its activity is so deep that simply jailing a few bankers goes nowhere near far enough (see here: ) I can see a space for the value of the statement insofar as it underlines quite starkly how we are nowhere near a political system that could contemplate that action.

      2./ More, though, what struck this thought for me was seeing the prevalence of that particular phrase on placards and banners on the march through North London last Saturday, distributed en masse by certain — I’m sure well-meaning — socialist groups. First thing that made me uncomfortable with it is that the problems in those areas aren’t simply down to the financial crash, though they’re exacerbated by them, and to reach for that easy answer is to put more pressing problems on the back burner. The second is the simplicity of the analogy, which I think is wrong-headed. I just don’t buy that both bankers and rioters were engaged in forms of looting, one more real and more extensive than the other: they weren’t the same thing, don’t come from the same motives, nor do they work in the same way. That’s what I mean when I say it’s not an explanation, and that advocating it as the catchiest part of a response is worryingly simple.

      Could also say that I think ascribing the rioters’ looting to some systemic socialised problem of materialism or conspicuous consumption is also a bit of a problem, though I don’t think it’s without merit, actually.

  2. (“…I certainly wouldn’t argue that the financial services industry is globally corrupt and disgusting…”. A typo?)

    I apologize, I did not see your reply until now.

    I agree that the problem is global, but one has to start somewhere. Bringing members of the global elite who are at hand to justice would result in some satisfaction and might snowball. Citizens of individual countries have few tools to address the global problem, unless the UN takes up the cause, an unfortunately laughably remote possibility, even though the the misery, death and environmental degradation caused by the elites’ activities is the greatest ongoing disaster and threat to the planet and its population, the umbrella issue under which all other causes fall. In the absence of global leadership to push back what is happening, we can still be examples to each other, a better approach, I think, in any case. Individual protesters in Egypt combined to inspire millions of others, even though now, at least in the short term, we are seeing the vicious reaction to a credible threat to the status quo.

    I also agree that the two types of looting are not the same. The elites’ is the more straight forward, pure and simple plundering for personal financial gain without the remotest sympathy for the catastrophic effect on others not of their class, even contempt for those others. The unbearably smug attitude of, ‘if they are so easy to rob, they must deserve it’.

    On the other hand we saw, what to my mind was an insurrection, a revolt or uprising – an uncontrolled and spontaneous explosion of rage (fueled by the combustible combination of misery and vitality) by some members of the underclass and working class, who felt their backs against the wall, all avenues of hope or improvement seemingly cut off, against their oppressors and the oppressive system designed to contain them. Opportunists and criminals certainly joined in, but that’s always the case. There were two memorable quotes published from rioters, “We don’t want no trouble, I just want a job.” and “I don’t want to be on fucking benefits”.

    I was thrilled and horrified at the rebellion. Thrilled that at least someone was doing something and horrified (and angered) that it hadn’t been started earlier by a broader group of people and with more planning and a better chance at peaceful success.

    However, the rioting wasn’t mindless. Police stations and the major chain shops were deliberately targeted. The former because of the enormous street-level problem of police fuckry (as Scorcher so aptly put it) largely ignored by those not subjected to it. The latter is a complicated issue. On some basic level it is understood by anyone that consumerism is a trap to make one support and fund one’s oppressors. Relentless advertising by national and global brands and shops entices the poor, in particular, into desperately desiring, not what they need, but exactly what they don’t need, further depleting their already woefully scarce funds and causing the dissatisfaction of never being able to buy enough to gain the (actually unattainable) self-esteem promised.

    Much as I would have preferred seeing those shops burnt to the ground with their contemptible stocks intact as a cheerful “fuck you” to consumerism, I fully understand the hope that sacking one’s share of expensive consumer items from entities that had it coming, might finally bring satisfaction to one’s (artificially created) longings. I found it sad to note that, rather than quickly disposing of the loot once the crack-down began, many were caught at home still hoarding their piles of worthless dreck, still convinced that possessing a collection of expensive, but useless, tennis racquets, or the like, must mean SOMETHING.

    The other factor was, of course, the manifest example of the corruption, lying, fraud and straight-forward looting at the top, if only at the national level, regularly splashed across the media, that resulted in an attitude of “everybody’s doing it” and no one’s being brought to book, plus the concurrent and accurate realization that no one’s actually in charge any more. The thought that, as we slide to certain disaster, why shouldn’t EVERYONE get their’s while the getting’s good?

    I find those in the middle self-destructively misguided. I’m sympathetic only in the fact that, although the world has become truly frightening, the fear of loss is still much stronger than the hope of gain. It must take a lot of willful ignorance to not realize that the revolt was actually their job. When they failed to do it and the underclass took it up, they soundly rounded on them with, what seemed to me, deeply-suppressed embarrassment expressed through anger at the insurrectionists’ tactics, actions, their very existence, declaring “society’s” contempt for them (as if the rioters exist somewhere outside society), baying for their blood, displaying the very attitudes that helped fuel the revolt. (What they didn’t realize, couldn’t know, was that – as has only now been widely reported – 2,000 people marched peacefully from Tottenham to Scotland Yard two months ago. At the time no media reported it and the marchers’ concerns were brushed off by the Met.) The same people, who the week before were rightly disgusted with their corrupt government and its dependence on, and fealty to, equally corrupt corporations, now turned to that same government to demand that they make the rioters disappear, whilst busily sweeping up the broken glass, as if that had anything to do with sorting out the actual mess we’re in.

    If those in the middle want a nice, orderly, legal return to a decent, fair, regulated democracy (if such a thing ever existed) under the rule of law with equal protection for everyone and respect for intrinsic values, they should get cracking and soon, rather than (as the old saw goes) madly and, so far, blindly rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, whilst shouting down anyone who might wake them to their obviously untenable position. They’ll find, as we careen closer to a two class nation and world (the top .01% and the rest) that they’ll need to embrace the “rioting class” as allies in the (I hope peaceful) fight to throw off those who oppress us all or risk getting caught in some serious crossfire. I hope they’ll join us in the streets.

    Thank you for the link to David Runciman’s review. It’s always valuable to have a clear understanding of the mechanics of something one wishes to dismantle.

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