Riots are the Sphinx of the left. Every soi disant radical intellectual feels compelled, it seems, to answer the riddle they hear posed by the riots of the present, in Bahrain or Asturias, Chile or Britain: Why now? Why here? Why riot? These answers generally come in a few simple varieties. First, if the riot seems to lack focus or present clears demands – that is, if it is illegible as “protest,” as in the case of the London riots of summer 2011 – the intellectual will paint them as a “meaningless outburst” (Slavoj Žižek), undertaken by “mindless rioters” (David Harvey). Invariably, attributions of unmeaning must find support in patronizing sociology, rendering the rioters mere side-effects of an unequal society, symptoms of neoliberalism, capitalist crisis and the ensuing austerity. Frequently, such commentary adheres to the flinching rhetorical structure of “yes, but…” In the words of Tariq Ali from the London Review of Books:
Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong.
But why is it happening now? Why didn’t it happen last year?
Because grievances build up over time, because when the system wills the death of a young black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.
Far worse than such half-hearted apologias is the claim, repeated with alarming frequency by people who should know better, that the rioters in London were acting out the self-contradictory imperatives of neoliberal society. Such commentary is likewise a symptomatic account. For Harvey, the rioters are mere reflections of the rapacity and greed of post-Thatcher capitalism. For the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, looting is simply a violent and risky variant on shopping, an expression of a materialistic consumer society.
Then there are the commentators who see the riots as simply misguided, rather than as reflections of capitalist ideology. Such writers understand the riots as an engine lacking the proper tracks. The failure then belongs to the decrepit left in general, who have failed to provide an “alternative” or “political programme” which might harness, shape and direct the rage of the rioters. Asks Žižek: “Who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor?” Forget the possibility that the poor might be able to direct their own rage.
One can see the fundamentally patronizing lines common to all these responses. In each, the intellectual imputes a kind of false consciousness to the rioters, in order to make himself (and it is usually a him) all the more necessary as the voice of missing authority. These intellectuals hear in the riots a question to which they must provide the answer. They do not realize that the riots are, rather, an answer to the question they refuse to ask.
Alain Badiou is not one to hide from the Sphinx. Nonetheless, he is a paradoxi...read more