A few weeks ago I posted a piece about The Royal Wedding and Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the ‘State of Exception’. This is something I have been researching for a while, so I’ve been wary of writing much on the topic, because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
But fuck me if there isn’t a big, fat nail-shaped situation right here.
Far too much has been written on the motivations and causes of the riots. This isn’t my main focus here: I’m not a youth worker, poverty researcher, or can really say I know for sure. Like many I have more than an inkling that poverty, decades of terrible policing, and institutional racism are probably amongst the causes. But in the age where we must comment, we end up being ‘treated’ to the spectacle on Newsnight of two white, well-paid journalists who frequently get exposure in national media berating two men of BME origin for attempting to give some kind of meaning and understanding to a difficult situation. Alternately we get articles complaining bitterly about poverty (in its abstract and idealised sense) being the cause of the riots, from liberal-left writers who wouldn’t even dare to take the briefest of shortcuts through the areas that the rioters have been coming from, but are all to prepared to jump in and condemn rioting. As I said above, I can’t claim any unique experience either, so the best I can do is shut up about the causes outside of private debates and not add another pointless and irrelevant post.
However, what needs to be addressed is the institution of mechanisms of control, the deployment of various tools both in terms of political discourse and police action, that seek to suppress and control unrest, rather than understand it. This is because these mechanisms have a profound effect on the possibilities for making the changes that might address some of the various causes of this.
As was written earlier, the theory of the state of exception, according to Agamben, is crudely this: at a crisis point, political norms (which most frequently take the form of laws) are suspended, and sets of ’emergency powers’ are put in place which then become regular, replacing those pre-existing norms. The person or mechanism that makes the decision on whether such a state of emergency exists, is what Carl Schmitt terms the Sovereign. An easy way to think about this is to look at extreme examples; the ‘state of emergency’ that existed under Mubarak before the Egyptian uprising which lasted for decades is a useful one; as is Hitler’s use of the Reichstag fire to take power. However the exception takes varied, often subtle, and less specific forms; when a ‘dispersal order’ is placed on an area of town, when city centres are closed off for major sporting events and conferences, when students are kettled on Westminister bridge in suspension of habeas corpus. These are decisions taken not at the ‘top’ of society by an all-powerful ruler, but precision-targeted exceptions put in place by much smaller sovereigns.
The example for recent events is fairly clear; the (historically blind) calls by ‘experts’ to suspend PACE, Ed Miliband’s request from the prime minister in parliament that the police stay on the street beyond the weekend until trouble has gone away, the decision to bring more armaments onto the streets in the hands of police, the barriers going up around shopping centres, the rousing of vigilante militias, the proposed closing of phone networks, the suspicion that a DA-notice was served, David Cameron in rumoured talks with the Chinese government to introduce web filtering; all these can become regular features of the ‘new normal’. But the exception is not merely the establishment of new norms, it is also a structure built around inclusion and exclusion: it is the means by which a sovereign system excludes what it cannot incorporate, by including in the form of a suspended norm. The exception that has emerged is a collaborative and networked one; through a whole set of means and media, the entire population has been drawn into calls to suspend the norm and exclude: enter the ‘condemnathon’.
This takes a dangerous turn when it comes to the bodies of the excluded; it creates a surplus mass of humanity who cannot be included and therefore must be excluded.
The calls by many to ‘shoot a looter’, Westminister city council’s decision to evict looters from council homes (shifting housing from a right to a privilege in the process), making them homeless; these fit almost the exact model of Agamben’s notion of homo sacer– the person who can be killed without being sacrificed, or rather, killed on sight without any investigation or anyone caring. Looters; people who have no respect for private property, policing, law, due process or the state simply cannot be incorporated into liberal democracies and capitalism; a framework which is founded on these principles, and so it follows that they must be excluded. (1)
In a political system such as our own, in which politics is defined as the field of activity which separates humans from animals (an artificial divide, at best), when someone is wholly excluded from politics, from sovereign power, Agamben argues that they cease to be considered human, and come to be considered as animal- we can turn to the old Saxon word for people who held a similar status; wargus– wolf, or as we know it now, the werewolf. The comparison of looters to ‘rats’, ‘animals’, and as ‘feral’ youth, and the claim that the riots cleanup groups were ‘the REAL London’ and the rise of a stunted faux-communitarianism, can be explained using this approach. When so many were comparing the riots to a zombie movie, they drew precisely on this distinction; many responses have ended up like the protagonist of the song ‘Werewolves in the City‘ (covered here by Viking Moses); a middle class cyclist demanding a distant policeman intervene and stop a seemingly savage and inhuamn enemy stalking the streets. Of course, this distinction is a fallacy from the start, and serves as a shield to discussion of the material and social causes of the unrest.
What can be done? Its difficult to say; however its noticeable that there is little in human rights legislation to actually prevent its own suspension, and what is more in many ways it merely exacerbates this division between human and animal life, and seeks reconciliation with a system that builds itself on a right to property. However it is also emerging that a vast surplus of human life is developing in our cities and prisons that is irreconcilable within the political and social system. As I said earlier, I do not have the solution to the riots, and this is only a speculative framework; but if it does fit, it is clear that a politics that challenges this exclusion must reposition itself in relation to surplus humanity to avoid replicating the same logic. Maybe its time more of those interested in social change took a step outside their comfort zones.1. Agamben argues that when this dynamic is spatialised it adopts the form of the concentration camps; the call by Sir Peter Tapsell in the house of commons to round up looters into football stadiums (as was done in the US- also Chile under General Pinochet) appeared as I wrote this as if on cue, however if the concentration camp is the extreme end of this logic, the much more common form it takes is the treatment of youth centres and services as holding tanks for young people who have no place in modern Britain.