Underlying the Riots: The Invisible Politics of Class

by Graham Scambler and Annette Scambler
UCL; Kings College London

Sociological Research Online, 16 (4) 25

Received: 26 Sep 2011     Accepted: 2 Dec 2011    Published: 30 Nov 2011


Rioters from what has been contemptuously dismissed as a 'feral underclass' have become instant 'folk devils', a judgement evoking wider 'moral panic'. In this brief contribution to an already lively project to make sociological and explanatory sense of four days of unpredicted mahem, together with its political/media packaging, we provide some pointers from sociology's classic tradition. It is argued that the post-1970s era of financial capitalism has witnessed a shift in the dynamic between class and state. The class politics of the advantaged, engineered by core members of Britain's capital executive and their allies in the state's power elite, has effectively restricted the potential for a class politics of the disadvantaged. The riots cannot be reduced to class action, far from it: they seem to have been more opportunistic and consumerist than political. Nevertheless, they cannot be explained without reference to the class politics of the advantaged. Issues of oppositional mobilization are addressed and three proposals for a research programme commended.

Keywords: August Riots, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Financial Capitalism, Class/command Dynamic, Class Politics, Movements for Change, Recommendations for a Purposive Research Programme


1.1 Even a cursory inspection of the political and popular framing of the four-day August riots in Britain brings to mind Cohen’s (2002) terminology of ‘folk devils and ‘moral panics’. The devils are that spatially clustered ‘feral underclass’ of youths, characteristically black, migrant or what in southern rural American would still be called ‘white trash’, not in employment, education or training (NEETs), without aspiration, armed with sticks and knives if not guns, nihilistic and amoral, primed to resort to opportunistic thefts or muggings, above all else to upgrade their consumer accessories. The fact that they often trashed their own habitats in the violence of their appetites for trainers, mobiles, anything wearable, electronic and portable, puts them and their parents beyond the pale. These progeny of dysfunctional families inhabit precarious twilight spaces, the interstices between communities. The panic arises with the subtext that these same gangs and packs are the major sociopathic agents of a ‘broken Britain’. If something is not publicly done - namely, exemplary retribution via what Garfinkel (1967) called ‘status degradation ceremonies’ - then ‘normals’ will increasingly feel safe only in spaces and communities that are sealed, guarded or ‘gated’. To the sociologist, mere recollection of Cohen’s analysis, constructed to emphasize the strategic role of the media in inflating, caricaturing and ‘dramatizing’ the seaside rumbles of ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ in the ‘50s for their own ends, reinforces the need for theories and analyses beyond a journalistic preoccupation with ‘events’. This short piece comprises a series of reflections on the sociological imperative to go beyond events.

Financial capitalism

2.1 A number of sociologists acknowledge the quadrupling of oil prices in the mid-1970s as a convenient ‘marker’, if not cause, of the displacement of one phase of capitalism by another. The subsequent post-industrial, post-Fordist and post-welfare statist phase has attracted heterogeneous labels among which financial capitalism is as ‘evidence-based’ as any. Thatcher’s vigorous promotion of neo-liberal ideology through the 1980s sanctioned an assault, both direct (e.g. via tax and labour law reforms and the painstakingly planned neutering of the National Union of Mineworkers), and indirect (e.g. via the further diminution of manufacturing and de-regulation of the city), on the livelihoods and means of solidarity and resistance of lower-paid workers. It was undeniably a decade of rapidly increasing material inequality and inequity and of social and cultural dislocation and fragmentation. Much of what Thatcher pioneered was assimilated into and developed in the agendas of the successive governments of the nineties and ‘noughties’. What matters here is the sociological focus on social structures or relations as opposed to the journalistic fixation on governments and events.

2.2 If Thatcher embraced, championed and ultimately energized this re-assembling of capitalism’s properties, she can no more be held causally responsible for it than can the oil crisis of the mid-1970s. Rather she, like Reagan in the USA, piggy-backed on structural change with a longer history. Many of the ‘trends’ associated with her regimes were well established before Callaghan’s ‘Old’ Labour government imploded. The decline in Britain’s staple industries and manufacturing base, the growth of the service sector, and the diminution and fragmentation of the ‘manual classes’, as well as phenomena like increasing life expectancy, all preceded Thatcher and Thatcherism. What can reasonably be attributed to the latter, however, is the conspicuous exacerbation of pre-existing trends; and a re-legitimation of inequality and inequity.

2.3 We maintain that the era of financial capitalism has witnessed a revised class/command dynamic (Scambler, 2007). This dynamic denotes the growing influence of class relations over the command relations of the state. In particular, it draws attention to the strengthening grip exercised by that strongly globalized or ‘nomadic’ cabal of leading CEOs, FTSE directors, financiers and rentiers that comprises the hard core of the capitalist executive (CE) over the more nation-based power elite (PE) at the apex of the apparatus of the state. Paradoxically, as the sway of the former has grown, so the latter has become more controlling of its citizens-turned-consumers. The state is now both more marketized and more regulatory (Moran, 2003). Neo-liberal ideology is ubiquitous. This represents a triumph for the class politics of the advantaged.

2.4 The class/command dynamic is an important macro-component of a comprehensive explanation of the London riots. The deepening inequalities and inequities politically sanctioned in the 1980s, which stalled only briefly in the later years of ‘New Labour’, have been given renewed and unequivocal backing by the neo-Thatcherite Cameron-led ‘Con-Dem’ coalition government. In a decade – likely to be called the ‘teens’ – already defined in terms of the global financial crisis of 2008/9, the bankers and those who tolerated, nourished or profited with them are to be forgiven, while the adolescents – latest folk devils and purveyors of a moral panic - making up a putative, feral underclass of rioters and their families are to be scapegoated and punished outside and beyond legal convention: magistrate’s courts will not deliver, so it’s the crown courts and jail sentences for spur-of-the-moment Facebook entries. In Durkheimian terms, this punishment of ‘deviants’ embodies an additional, ‘functional’ and populist appeal: it recognizes and celebrates the civilized and law-abiding behaviour of ‘normal’, if temporarily panicked, citizens.

2.5 Meanwhile the ‘symbolic violence’ conducted by the rich and powerful over many decades, cause of much long-term hardship, misery and distress, most obviously in the bottom decile of the population, and most obviuously in the city precincts in which many of the riots occurred, passes unpunished. Four days of spontaneous arson, muggings, window-smashing and looting principally on the part of the poor and powerless, cause of very real but essentially short-term hardship, misery and distress, primarily to the same decile and their own precincts, calls for the harshest repression while political cover is afforded to the tax evaders and their allies. There has been no talk of a ‘feral overclass’.

2.6 The psychopathology of the feral underclass has become a focus of scientific interest, not that of members of the CE and PE. A case can be made that it is within the CE and PE that charges of stigma (shame) and deviance (blame) are most appropriately laid. Such charges only stick, however, when they are levelled by those with the resources (think tanks, mass media access and so on) and power to drive them home (Link & Phelan, 2001; Scambler, 2009). The thrust of Jones’ (2011) recent argument is that the idea of the ‘chav’ represents a politically motivated class ‘demonization of the working class’. August’s folk devils, it seems, are the ugliest and worst of the apprentice chavs.

2.7 Macro-level social structures or relations like class do not translate simply or directly into riots. If the police shooting of Mark Duggan served as a trigger, numerous other meso- and micro-factors, some to do with the material, psychosocial and cultural properties of the neighbourhoods involved, others with the personal alienation, anomie, hopelessness and defiance of significant minorities of their inhabitants, were inevitably interposed between class position and riotous behaviour. It is instructive, however, to recall Therborn’s (1980: 94-98) classic explication of the concept of ideology. Now a neglected, diluted and imprecise notion in British sociology, Therborn’s analysis of ideological ‘mechanisms of subjection’ warrants a special mention. Three of his six mechanisms allow for hope for alternative and better futures: accommodation occurs when ‘subjects’ acquiesce to domination because their interests and commitments lie elsewhere, for example in sex, music, leisure or sport; sense of representation reflects a conviction that the ‘rulers’ rule in the interests of the ‘ruled’; and fear carries the implication that whatever alternatives there are call for personal sacrifice and may end in arrest, imprisonment, injury or even death. Therborn’s other three mechanisms admit of no options for change for the good: sense of inevitability denotes obedience through ignorance of any alternative; deference accepts that the rulers possess special qualities not found in the common herd; and resignation connotes a deep pessimism about the possibility of any change. In relation to the riots it is interesting to ask just how neo-liberal ideology found its way into the behaviours of the individuals who took to the streets. A mix no doubt, but one suggesting more than a hint of desperation.

2.8 What seems beyond equivocation is that the riots were more apolitical than political: whatever else they were, they were not a manifestation of a class politics of the disadvantaged. This is because the class politics of the advantaged, aided and abetted by long-term demographic and socio-economic trends alluded to earlier, has for the time being acted to see off any potential for a class politics of the disadvantaged. In relation to the events of August 2011, the CE/PE have been no less opportunistic than the rioters. Class, objectively considered, has been reinvigorated in financial capitalism; class, subjectively considered, has not. Identity-formation in financial capitalism takes place in a postmodern or relativised culture in which class location is no longer prepotent. That this is so is not reducible to the class location or politics of the advantaged, but it is consonant and convenient for its constituents. To reiterate: the ideologically opportunistic but expeditious denunciation of young rioters as a feral underclass represents a finely honed extenuation of the myths of ‘chavdom’.

2.9 If the 2011 city riots in London and elsewhere were largely apolitical they nevertheless signalled a potential for oppositional collective action. Chronologically they succeed a targeted series of protests and campaigns against class-motivated, Cameron-led coalition initiatives widely reviled as inappropriate and unjust (e.g. the hiking of student fees, the cancelling of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a Health and Social Care Bill designed to offer the NHS up to for-profit companies, the attack on public sector pensions). Sociologically these sporadic if feisty denunciations of and demonstrations against policies seen at the very least as an affront to Parliamentary democracy (Miliband, 1961) suggest some future potential for a class politics of the disadvantaged. In the interim there are opportunities for coalitions of interests. On the horizon of this coalition is the anti-capitalist ‘movement of movements’.

2.10 It is our contention that: (1) a mobilization of opposition to the class politics of the advantaged remains possible, even if it is unlikely for the time being to be embedded in a class politics of the disadvantaged either recognizeable or canvassed as such; and (2) the effectiveness of any mobilization of opposition will depend on a rapid resurrection of the alliances and momentum generated around opposition to the hike in student fees, the cutting of the EMA, the proposed privatization of the NHS and reduction of public sector pensions and so on, all of which occurred against the inspiring background of people’s insurrections in the Middle East.

Future research

3.1 We conclude with one qualification and three suggestions for constituents of an ongoing research programme. The qualification is that neither the riots nor the conditions that allowed for them are purely functions of social class. This is too obvious a point to labour. Individual and group behaviours are never structurally determined, let alone by a single structure or mechanism; but they are always structured. We would contend that class, understood in a classic Marxian sense rather than via proxies in the form of socio-economic classification like NS-SEC, remains a prepotent objective force here. Specialists in youth, urban, police, ethnic and media studies, as well as criminologists, are best placed to pronounce on the differential causal efficacy of social structures and forces versus more local, proximate or precipitating factors for the looting and riots in Tottenham, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Croydon and elsewhere. Why these locations and not others? But our agenda and contribution have a different and specific focus, namely, the salience, ‘invisibility’ and political potential of class.

3.2 The first element of a programme of research is the study not only of the rioters or their backgrounds or neighbourhood infrastructures or cultures, but of the often indirect and circuitous causal role of the class politics of the CE and PE in shaping and framing these. We see the riots above all else as side-effects of the voracious class appetites of the CE and their ‘new middle class’ allies and the ambition for continuing office and influence of a ‘CE-tamed’ PE yet to be faced with a ‘legitimation crisis’ severe enough fear rather than merely address (Habermas, 1975).

3.3 Second, there is perhaps no more awkward or urgent task for sociology than to explicate the structural preconditions required for a renewal of substantive as opposed to formal or parliamentary democracy; and this in the face of a decline in the subjective salience of class. How might an effective, if possibly temporary, ‘substitute’ for a class politics of the disadvantaged emerge given the general slippage of class as a contributor to identity-formation (Scambler & Kelleher, 2006)? The innovative theoretical literature on social movements is currently outpacing empirical investigation.

3.4 The third element recalls Therborn on ideology and draws on Merton’s (1938) classic paper on deviance. If many of the rioters lacked political intent, how might their taking to the streets be understood sociologically? It seems likely that many among them, pace Therborn, had no rival vision for a different let alone better future. Were they Mertonian ‘retreatists’ or ‘rebels’? The retreatist rejects both cultural (ideological) goals and the (legitimate) means available for reaching them: they want ‘out’. Rebels on the other hand reject both ends and means but look to alternatives. Our hypothesis is that a significant proportion of rioters comprise a sub-type of rebel. We will call them defiants for want of a more felicitous term. The alternative for them is neither more nor less than the antithesis of what is normatively required of them (an option made less implausible by financial capitalism’s relativization of culture). It is less that they have grown hopeless or anomic than that they no longer ‘give a shit’. If the accusations of deviance against the bankers cannot be made to stick … It is a hypothesis of relevance also to the study of postcode gangs and teen truants, drop-outs and renegades. Unsurprisingly, Hallsworth (see Arnot, 2011), the sociological ‘lead’ on urban gangs, is a voice in the political wilderness when he recommends investment in youths and their communities rather than in law-enforcement agencies and a new gang-suppression industry.


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