Uses of a Riot

The 1990’s was a militant time for the non-institutional left, and while the mainstream environmental movement was fucking around with annual appeals, the grassroots was engaging in a protracted campaign of economic sabotage against financial interests responsible for the despoilation of the environment and brutality towards animals. 

There was a great deal of cultural exchange between anarchists in Europe and the US, with anti-road campaigns, new age travellers, the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts, vigorous anti-fascist street-fighting and a prediliction for black hoodies moving back and forth.

At least in the US, the most visible expression of this current was the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, when the police force of a major US city was utterly defeated and the global administrators of misery had to cower in fear.

Predictably, a campaign of repression followed. The FBI’s use of informants was a mainstay strategy to disrupt these movements, and they no doubt continue to attempt to infiltrate anti-pipeline campaigns and other initiatives, as the world burns. 

Where I’m going with all of this is that Oi Polloi is a pretty fucking good band. 

Or, that’s not the point, but a segue to the point. 

They’re a Scottish street punk band and they perfectly reflect the milieu of the time. If you want to hear a pretty sick song about violently beating fascist street thugs, they are a one-stop-shop. Most bands would be content with a single song about killing right-wingers by stomping on their heads, but Oi Polloi wrote at least five songs on the subject, with an amazing lyrical flair. Rhyming ‘manage’ and ‘damage’ and pulling it off is a testament to damn fine songwriting.

They were my favorite band in late adolescence and I was psyched to see them perform at a crust festival in Wisconsin in 2000, where they looked out upon the crowd of human wreckage with profound dismay. Team America wasn’t in top form at the Old Barn Fest. I bought a ‘No Compromise’ t-shirt from them and, luckily (?) got rid of it before being arrested for being an eco-terrorist. 

They have a song about sabotaging fox hunts (aptly titled ‘Hunt the Rich’), and as I was recently attempting to write something about the hunting of foxes I gave it a listen and hung in for quite a bit of their discography. Again, the lyrical genius is apparent: “Sick perverts dressed in red/ We won’t rest until your “sport” is dead/ Sick bastards dressed in red/ We won’t rest until your “sort” is dead.” If you wanted to send correspondence to the band in 1999 you were sending it care of Antifascist Action. Fuckin’ A. 

The class position expressed in the song was interesting to me. The opposition to foxhunting was based on both its cruelty and its existence as a past-time of the rich. 

Throughout their releases there are quotes by people associated with Class War Journal, which is exactly what it portends to be: A magazine dedicated to fomenting hatred against the wealthy and encouraging practices that are immediately hostile to them. And not hostile at a distance… like, if you see a rich person, assault them right then and there on principle. There are plenty of critiques of the journal, but as with so many anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist projects, it’s easy to pick it apart based upon what it failed to be. But for this ugly American, I thought it performed a very useful function. Class hatred isn’t enough, but it’s important, for reasons I’ll go on to address. 

On this journey through my shitty adolescence, adjacent to Oi Polloi and Class War Journal, I stumbled upon a pamphlet by Revolutions Per Minute Media regarding the practice of fox hunting, which poses this question: “Perhaps the aristocracy use foxhunting as a political barometer for testing whether its ideological dominance is slipping? If they can defend foxhunting they can defend other examples of their excess as well.”

I read this passage on the day that Elon Musk stated that he would happily provide the United Nations with $6 billion if it was proven that it would make a difference in alleviating famine and hunger. 

Leaving aside that on the day he issued this statement $6 billion was approximately 1.5% of his net worth (it is no doubt a smaller percentage today) this is a human being who, without question, has a very clear idea of what money accomplishes. It puts activity in motion. It is the de facto representation of one’s ability to direct human energy. 

$6 billion dollars wouldn’t help? Give me a hundred dollars, transportation and a way to cook, and I will be fed. That’s how money works, you sick fuck. I’ll even give a person $1.50 as I leave the store so they can get on the bus. There you go. 1.5%.   

Elon Musk knows exactly what money does, and the arrogance and sense of superiority that he flaunts as he taunts a global decision-making apparatus just goes to show the degree to which he knows just how much he can get away with. 

Same for Bezos, who smugly thanks his wage-slave workers for allowing him to go to the moon on some pathetic scouting for boys adventure. I’ve heard it asserted that he’s clueless. He’s not. He knows exactly what he’s doing- laughing at us, secure in the fact that while most of humanity will have to eat shit, he’ll eat caviar, aboard a spaceship no less. 

That we all make jokes about these men and their monstrous ability to dictate the terms of human life is fine. Humor is part of dealing with inequity. But the idea that these people should not be subject to enthusiastic punitive justice is dangerous. The way the balance of class power is negotiated is by who exactly can hurt who, and the working class is doing all the worrying. 

Mass action in these early decades of the 21st century generally takes the form of amorphous and militant street action. I hear frequent whinging on the left about what amounts to their failure to direct it, or even more common, the lack of vision of protesters. This reveals the preferences of a professional class of leftists who very much want to lead people in the direction that they think is best, and it also completely misses the utility of a riot in class politics. 

Digging into the history of food price riots in 18th century Britain, EP Thompson stated, “Riot is unlikely to have had so universal an emergence if there had not been some ” payoff’, some space in which direct action was a protection from the newly-liberated appetites of agrarian interests, a warning to speculators and profiteers and an alarm signal to the authorities to set emergency measures and charities into motion.

Thompson continues, tentatively, suggesting an inverse of this phenomenon: “It might be that the comparative absence of riot in nineteenth-century Ireland and India was one factor (among others) which allowed dearth to pass into famine. And if this is the case, then the best thing that we, in our affluence, can do to help the hungry nations is to send them experts in the promotion of riot.” 

I think the previous passage is exactly the correct rejoinder to Musk.

To state it plainly, the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of mass action had a large number of effects that, in total, forestalled disaster for the British working class at this point in history. It made the authorities regulate the prices of the bare essentials of survival, and let the ruling class know exactly how much it could get away with. 

Wrapping it up: It’s a damn good thing when capital and the state fear and mistrust us. They’re not benevolent. They have nothing but disdain for us. They don’t care about our sadness, or disappointment, or suffering. The disasters that affect us are only a point of concern inasmuch as they are inconvenienced. They are not our friends. They are our enemies. We need to be willing to remind them of that.  

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