Based on a presentation given at the “Return to the Streets” conference at Goldsmiths, University of London, on 28th May 2012.
“People aren’t scared …You locked us up, we get stopped and searched every day, there’s nothing to lose”.- Jaja Soze, Grime Report.
The feelings of having nothing to lose, and taking to the streets to express one’s anger are ancient to London, from the revolts of Jack Cade and the Gordon riots of 18th century, but especially within the 20th and 21st centuries from the 1970s on: Notting Hill 1958, Battle of Lewisham 1977, Chapeltown race riots 1975 – 1981 – 1987, Toxteth 1981, Brixton 1981 – 1985 – 1995, Handsworth 1981 – 1985 – 1991, Broadwater Farm 1985, Reclaim the Streets, the Poll Tax riots, Mayday 2001, race riots in Oldham, Bradford and Harehills 2001, up to the Student Anti-cuts protests 2010-11 and August 2011 England riots – all this not to mention the regular eruptions and battles on streets surrounding football grounds across the UK over this period, or played out in more sectarian contexts in Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland. In all instances, disobedience, a simple collective no, takes place in the streets, which are transformed from their daily function of places of residence, shopping, transit, and becoming politicised, militarised battlegrounds. Protest is compelled to take to the streets to exercise and enjoy the strength of its malcontent.
Images from Belfast street disturbances, 2010-11.
As with the contemporary riots, the space of the streets, and the looting of the rioters, were charged with accusations of nihilism and criminality, which in hindsight can be more clearly recognised as angry reactions to perceived police discrimination and harassment – hence beyond the obvious attacks on businesses came the more regular and consistent attack on policemen. But such battles, and their celebration as authentic, atavistic, ‘real life violence’, acted out on the streets, are an intriguing faultline to examine the Left’s ambivalent excitement and unease at the dfference of riots, their violence, and possible class explanations for this. Here I’m going to explore the streets as the operating location of revolt in modernity. Taking to the streets implies an atavistic energy, ambivalently lawless and ambiguously political – in such energies, heterogeneous energies, I’m going to look at one interesting instance of the role of style, subculture and youth, in relation to the streets. Skinheads, a violent and defiantly working-class youth subculture of the streets, its British heyday operative from the late 1960s up until the mid-1980s. The most recent riots across England in August 2011 brought news cameras into deprived communities not to film a middle-class sneering renovation of diets or DIY disasters, but burning streets (and wasn’t there a sense at the time that, despite all the political organisation happening, here was ‘real’ authentic revolt to the government?). The riots introduce the streets as the space of protest, of not just having a voice, but exercising that voice in deeds. Taking to the streets is something ventured in a political lecture given by Georges Bataille in 1935, who I think curiously illustrates the left’s ambivalent ideas about violence and resistance. Bataille asked these same questions: what gives these riots on the streets such a sense of ‘real life’, as he would call it, and what are the implications of an authentic, untamed violence for political resistance, when seemingly faced with a choice of boring bureaucratic organisation and spontaneous mob revolt? Yes, these were Bataille’s frames of reference. Crucial to Bataille’s preference for an embodied and animated revolt – against the negativity of bourgeois capitalism and fascism – is style and aggression, traits problematically offered by skinheads. The significance of skinheads and violence as a site of threat and resistance offers a number of potential challenges to a contemporary resistance at the crossroads of either better political organisation, or deeper or more impassioned violence. The unresolved though unforgotten story of the skinheads is one entrance into discussing the allure and dangers of the streets in relation to organised mob disruption.
Let’s now zoom in on Georges Bataille, and his argument entitled “Popular Front in the Street”, originally published in Cahiers de Contre-Attaque 1, May 1936, from a speech given on November 25 1935. For Bataille, the frenzy of Revolutions begin in the streets, composed of a ‘derided humanity’, one fundamentally alienated and negated. Such a derided mass historically has, on occasion, discovered its power and potential on the streets, a power which sweeps away all before it. To quote,
‘Derided humanity has already known surges of power. These chaotic but implacable power surges dominate history and are known as Revolutions. On many occasions entire populations have gone into the street and nothing has been able to resist their force. It is an incontestable fact that if men have found themselves in the streets, armed, in a mass uprising, carrying with them the tumult of the total power of the people, it has never been the consequence of a narrow and speciously defined political alliance.’
The immediate historical context of Bataille’s observation is 1934: France, its radical socialist government facing counter-revolution after its attempts to quell the rot of the Stavisky Affair, which dredged up profound corruption among its politicians and police, leading to the ‘Croix de Feu’ (Cross of Fire) attempted coup, a right-wing paramilitary /ex-veterans group taking to the streets of Paris Feb 6th-7th. Fifteen are killed on the night of the 6th by police in the street fighting. This leads to a coalition of left-wing and Communist groups organising a counter-attack on Feb 12th, with eventually the Popular Front coalition coming to power in June 1936. What would happen next? Bataille’s writings from 1935-40 tended to assume that western democracy was doomed, with only a choice left between fascism and communism. Bataille affirms a communist Revolution, but one that, via his earlier readings of psychoanalysis, Hegel and Nietzsche, a potent cocktail, requires unleashing through the passions – which for Bataille largely involve creating and satisfying desires for sexuality and myth, a realisation of man’s more ‘total power’, whereby such powerful forces can resist both fascism and at the same evade the bureaucratic and desiccated nature of communism, the expression of communism. Popular revolt therefore appears on the streets as the violent semi-fulfilment of a collective libido, couched for Bataille in terms as much religious and solemn as sexual and plain simply socialist. Such ‘instinctive certainty’ of the masses is dramatically played out by the Popular Front, on Cours de Vincennes Feb 12 1934, where among arm-to-arm singing of the Internationale, Bataille detects ‘no longer a procession, nor anything poorly political; it was the curse of the working people, and not only in its rage, IN ITS IMPOVERISHED MAJESTY, which advanced, made greater by a kind of rending solemnity – by the menace of slaughter still suspended at that moment over all of the crowd.’
It is the occupation of streets which has been of such great import for communist and fascist forces, dependent on militarising and militarily-organising members into large numbers, and trooping on marches, to pose a threat to the state, which as in the case here, places police and soldiers on the streets with lethal consequences. For the impatient and desperate, this kind of ‘cursed’, accursed physical conflict has validated struggles. For Bataille, ‘the street’ occupies the place of life opposed to the isolated individual, central to resisting alienation then, a place of real life in action, no longer potential, and occupying its own subversive reality. To quote Bataille: ‘if human reality, or to be more precise, human reality in the street – personally, it is in tying to it all the hope that stirs me that I use this term “street,” which opposes life, real life, to the schemes as well as to the isolation of the absurdly involuted individual’ and the ‘mediocre conceptions and betrayals of conniving politicians’.
The point reminds me of Karl Marx in his account of the 1871 Paris Commune in his ‘Civil War in France’, who was also keen in a contemporary context to extract genuine signs of revolt on the street from other conniving politicians. In the midst of war between France and Prussia, Paris had become armed, its workers declaring autonomy, removing their leaders and disbanding the army, and introducing a elected equal democracy. For Marx, the significance was not so much the workers revolting but how they took power – not just by reclaiming the means of production, but becoming themselves armed, an army – ‘Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a national guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. ‘ And elsewhere, Marx remarks that ‘Paris armed was the revolution armed’. The power of the workers taking power on the streets came in acting like an army – ‘The moderation of the Commune during two months of undisputed sway is equalled only by the heroism of its defence. What does that prove? Why, that for months the Commune carefully hid, under a mask of moderation and humanity, the blood-thirstiness of its fiendish instincts, to be let loose in the hour of its agony! The working men’s Paris, in the act of its heroic self-holocaust, involved in its flames buildings and monuments’.
‘Cursed’, ‘impoverished majesty’ – the repression of Paris armed, 1871.
‘Cursed’, ‘impoverished majesty’ again – Paris unrest, February 1934.
Bataille, writing about revolts on the streets of the same city 63 years later, argues that this ‘brutal convulsion of the masses’ needs to again be harnessed by ‘professional revolutionary activists’ who don’t waste time and energies discussing, but in inspiring its rages and passions: ‘It is evident that if, in general, insurrections had had to wait for learned disputes between committees and the political offices of parties, then there never would have been an insurrection.’ For Bataille, the debate needs to happen in the street, where to quote Bataille again, ‘it means having it where emotion can seize men and push them to the limit, without meeting the eternal obstacles that result from the defense of old political positions.’ But aside from idly dismissing the hard work of political organisation, as the leaders of the Popular Front would’ve seen it, or idly abandoning judgement and understanding to the spontaneous and ‘base’ life of the streets as we might question, what value does Bataille’s position hold?
Well, he argues that we should apply intelligence to the ‘immediate comprehension of real life’, and relieve the intrinsic boredom which lies at the root of the Croix de Feu’s might, which must therefore be relieved by passions. He offers an example we might sympathise with, that the real lessons also come from the boredom of city streets, ‘that there is more to learn in the streets of great cities, for example, than in political newspapers or books. For us a significant reality is the state of prostration and boredom expressed inside a bus by a dozen human faces, all of them complete strangers. For anyone not already hardened by the emptiness of life, there is in this world, which seems to have at its disposal limitless resources, a confusion remedied only by a kind of lazily accepted general imbecility. … The opium of the people in the present world is perhaps not so much religion as it is accepted boredom. Such a world is at the mercy, it must be known, of those who provide at least the semblance of an escape from boredom.. So the question that Bataille challenges us, then, is are we actually bored enough for riots? And the challenge for Communist opposition is to overcome their ‘revolutionary seriousness’, which Bataille equates with ‘stunning boredom’, and bring on a collective exaltation that excites and provokes the operating engine of history, the working masses themselves, inspired by empty, desperate streets. Bataille ends with arguing for the masses to be put to work and made ready for combat from a left-wing revolutionary perspective: ‘We must contribute to the masses’ awareness of their own power; we are sure that strength results less from strategy than from collective exaltation, and exaltation can come only from words that touch not the reason but the passions of the masses.’
Photographs from Nick Knight, ‘Skinhead’.
It is violence, boredom and armed conformity that connect us much later to a collective posturing that marks the alienated reclamation of streets as politicised territory of authentic life. Their anti-intellectualism poses some problems for how a political reclamation works for the streets however. Nick Knight photographed the skinhead revival in London’s East End over 1980-81, a style that had come into being out of a mix of hardened mod fashions mixed in with West Indian rudeboy influences from 1968 on (common love of reggae and ska, hard-wearing clothes for fighting and identity). The skinhead style could identify young men from disparate working-class backgrounds, style giving a unity to otherwise bored and alienated young men. This quote from Ian Walker on seeing 4000 skinheads at a football match in 1968, a new style: ‘They all wore bleached Levis, Dr. Martens, a short scarf tied cravat style, cropped hair. They looked like an army and, after the game, went into action like one.’
Notion of army and violence is most significant: skinheads were to be feared, and wanted to be feared. At a time of relative prosperity, this was one style based on a strict conformity and celebration of a very specific style style (Ben Sherman, Levis sta-press, Dms, cropped hair – anti-hippy), and recognition through violence, through firms allied to football clubs whose real motivation was violence and pleasure (comparable to later and earlier gang formations). The increasingly homogenised streets of 1960s and 1970s Britain, subject to technocratic social planning now deceptively eulogised in Brutalist beatitudes, such homogeneous, increasingly privatised spaces were erupted by skinheads, be they outside a London tube station or outside a football ground. Football violence begins from early 1960s, made possible in part by relative affluence of working-class youth who could afford not just to go to home games, but to travel to away fixtures too. As Nick Knight puts it in his classic collection Skinhead: ‘Football was the major event of the week. It offered all the excitement of an adventure with “yer mates”, the chance to display fanatical loyalty to your club, to prove your hardness and win the admiration of your friends. Clashes with the police and opposing supporters, and taking part in the ritual songs and chants of the football ground, together with the opportunity to get drunk and run amok, provided the sort of power and excitement which is normally denied to working class youth.’ Football became not just a tribal hierarchy and social bond among young men, but a kind of battle, not just between the players, but between fans.
Dick Hebdige, who later defines subcultural studies as it were, also writes on skinhead culture. After interviewing one young skinhead, Harry the Duck, he outlines the skinhead style, one characterised by a convict-like menace and a social displacement and disenfranchisement: “This is England! And they don’t live here”: ‘The dance of Skin is, then, even for the girls, a mime of awkward masculinity – the geometry of menace. For skinheads are playing with the only power at their disposal – the power of having nothing (much) to lose. The style, in other words, fits. Contrary to the media stereotype of the mindless skinhead thug, it has its own logic, its own rules and reasons. It makes its own kinds of sense. For Hebdige, two obsessions dominate the style: being authentic and being British.’ The title of Hebdige’s essay comes from another skinhead he interviewed in the East End, the ‘they’ not referring to black or Pakistani communities, but the middle classes who condemned their patriotism as racism. A rejection of humanism that could be co-opted into popular political movements – “no one likes us, and we don’t care” of Millwall; “we hate humans”, a Manchester United fans chant of the 1970s, after being labelled in the press as ‘animals’.
The danger with the alienation and anger of skinhead culture was its tendency to self-victimise too. As Hebdige argued: ‘Spurned by the Press, subject to unprovoked and vicious assaults by immigrants and policemen alike, denied gainful or meaningful employment by a heartless State, barred from the domestic hearth by severe, unyielding parents, the skinheads often see themselves as victims of almost Biblical proportions – as a stricken race of Jobs, as modern wanderers cast out into a cheerless world … And, as with all myths, there’s a kernel of truth in the skinheads’ perception of themselves as outcasts. They aren’t welcome anywhere. They are denied any useful role in the present. … They have no place in the future either (except at the bottom in the dirty, dead end jobs or at the back of the lengthening dole queues). So instead they turn to the past, to an idea of what the unspoiled working class community might have looked like in its classic phase before the War, before the bombs, bulldozers and planners together swept away the old slum environment with its maze of narrow streets, its self-contained economy of tenements and factories, corner shops and pubs, and its equally complex, ingrown network of grannies, uncles and lifelong “mates”.’ A symbolic recovery of authenticity for a working-class perhaps denied that, a nostalgia too. Exercised in a style, but above all in a violence that reclaims the streets, albeit to express a thwarted and vicious rage. One that, as in Bataille’s analysis, or in the contrary attempts at reading the recent riots, isn’t political. As Hebdige puts it, ‘Though they may be, at times, loosely allied to a particular kind of politics, that alliance is uneven and transitory. … [but] Most skinheads (like the majority of young people in Britain) couldn’t care less about organised politics of any kind.’
Images by George Plemper of Thamesmead residents – see end.
Hence the significance of skinhead culture coming to the fore from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Britain’s working-class urban communities were intensively demolished and relocated in suburban estates like the showpiece estate-towns of the Evelyn Estate, Pepys Estate, Heygate and Aylesbury Estates, Thamesmead, Downham, Mottingham, Eltham, and to a lesser extent Forest Hill, Brockley, to give just local examples. The photographer George Plemper’s 1970s images of Thamesmead characters are particularly interesting in this regard – Thamesmead was very much an alienated town, lacking transport connections and public amenities – and Plemper’s work is a haunting and brilliant record of working-class life on a Brutalist Estate (Plemper was a teacher at the nearby Riverside School). Some are punks and skinheads – most are not – but in all is a boredom and discontent of a generation told, in the midst of power shortages, political strikes, and later riots, that they’d ‘never had it so good’, to use Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase from 1957. These were alienated identities – hence their parodied style of an authentic British identity in oversized boots, aggressive and defiant personas and racist language directed at Asian immigrants. It’s a response to alienation and not having a sense of future, and having a displaced past also. As Dick Hebdige underlines, the response is a celebration of being authentic and being British.
But this kind of youthful violence isn’t like the ebb and flow of the tide, awaiting some magic reawakening or pied piper of Hamelin to lead the youth back out onto the streets. Specific strategies over the last thirty years have made skinhead violence more difficult and impractical, have privatised it, divided it, removed it from the streets and outside the capital. Special mention must be made of football violence, a significant phenomena too nuanced to comment on here, but of which new activities for taming and managing ‘hooligans’ were developed in a war setting – banning fans from certain areas, stop-and-searches, significant to police conduct since. The curiosity of football violence too was how it escalated and subsided with The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and how different forms of state management were brought in to repress these movements and regain the streets – further research is needed. But also events like Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989, whereby 96 football fans were crushed to death, and a further 766 injured. This crush specifically occurred because of the high security fences placed to separate fans from the pitch to avoid invasions and missiles being thrown. Although caused by overcrowding grounds and, argued the 1989 Taylor report, a fundamental lack of ‘police control’ led to the introduction of all-seater ticketed stadia, and a marketised family focus into football which in effect pushes fandom into pubs and into the home, increasingly the most meaningful setting of social interaction and engagement. It was only a year after the 1989 Disaster that Sky Television was set up, with The Sports Channel offering live England football to the nation – at a price. All this fits within a privatisation of public space to manage this potentially dangerous alienated youth.
The new leisure industries siphoned off alienated workers into domestic docility and discontent, meted out less and less in actions on the streets. How could they, when for suburban populations the streets themselves are further removed, and public action increasingly abstracted into online exchanges? A question then is why streets are necessary as a media for expressing political unrest? And boredom increased, but is allayed again in the ever-cheapening and isolating leisure-entertainment industries, so far removed from the streets except when they too become part of the spectacle that one races sports cars down or machine guns bad guys down. Are we bored enough? Or is boredom not simply enough? We enter the melancholia of critical theory, of Benjamin’s Work of Art, for how much longer will the spectacle of their own impotence excite the masses? Or to quote Primo Levi, quoting Hillel the Elder, ‘If not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?’ And so the streets, that place of carnivalesque anger, festivity, desire and frisson, as continental philosophers and Marxist geographers might eulogise, should also be understood in a counter-history of style, violence, sex and alienation. A public space, perhaps in being the site of what is deemed unsavoury, alien, tasteless or criminal to public discussion. As Jaja Soze said at the start of this paper, there’s nothing to lose – the skinheads felt this, and clutched vainly onto a parody of authentic British identity – but where there’s nothing to lose, beyond smashing police and raiding American chain stores, what styles and desires are on offer to gain?
In the final part, what can we gather from the decline of skinhead subculture and the end of the lingering threat of violence which typified the 1970s and 80s? Well, that as Bataille posed at the start, revolution might only be contagious and effective so long as it inspires passions and is not boring. This might separate hippie from skinhead. If critical theory’s task is to analyse and criticise the conditions of capitalism and its hegemonic management of the working class, then theorists should ask: are our politics so boring? What styles, animations, games and passions could be unleashed to tap into and politicise this ever-existent, mostly passive but teeming, waiting population?
J.D Taylor’s forthcoming Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era will be published later in 2012 with Zero Books. He co-edits Nyx, a Noctournal, and is a recent Masters graduate of Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies. http://independent.academia.edu/JDTaylor
- Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939. ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
- Collins, Michael. “Photographic Memory: How a teacher became the photographer of working-class kids”, Guardian 14 May 2008 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/may/14/communities.society?INTCMP=SRCH [URL last accessed 03/8/12].
- Home, Stewart. Red London. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1994.
- Knight, Nick. Skinhead. London; New York; Sydney: Omnibus Press, 1982.
- Marx, Karl. “Civil War in France”, in Marx. Later Political Writings. ed. and trans. Terrell Carver. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Oldfield Ford, Laura. Savage Messiah. London: Verso, 2011.
- Plemper, George. “(Just) a moment in time” – see the vast inventory of Plemper’s photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/7718785@N06 – [URL last accessed 03/8/12].