The English Riots: Just Meaningless Sound and Fury?

Aug 23, 2011Tom Ferguson

Zizek misses the point: Austerity politics is a social and economic disaster.

In a recent essay, Slovenian theorist and literary provocateur Slavoj Zizek attempts to unpack the political meaning of the riots in England. These broke out in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan Police and then spread rapidly from London to other cities. Zizek argues that the riots amounted to an exercise in sound and fury signifying nothing -- symptoms of an "ideological-political predicament" in which opposition can only be expressed through meaningless bursts of violence. This is the essence, he suggests, of global capitalism. He takes issue with both conservative and liberal responses, calling out the former for promoting an authoritarian crack down and the latter for trying to find "deeper meaning" in the social and economic conditions faced by the rioters.

The essay strikes me as similar to a lot of Zizek's other work: too clever by a half, with strained echoes of fashionable appeals across ideological divides reminiscent of, for example, Barack Obama. The difference is that Zizek is a theorist. Thus the discussion is framed in terms of High Theory: an abstract nod first to the left, then another equally ethereal gesture to the right, followed by the claim that both are plainly inadequate.

Alas, the thinner the ice, the faster Zizek skates. He is impatient to get a theory of resistance going, but the fact is that we are only three years into the Great Recession, so his efforts are a bit premature. If you look back at the Great Depression, you will see that distinctively new patterns of resistance usually took three to four years to form. Until then, there was discontent aplenty, but electorates in advanced countries mostly sullenly voted out the conventional politicians in office and replaced them with one or another of the existing moderate "out" parties. Occasionally, there were riots, and in peripheral countries, much worse. But only after the 1931 European financial crisis (sense a pattern?) dragged the whole world down another notch did real swamp creatures swarm out, as unbearable budget cuts and falling national incomes forced progressive social groups to organize more seriously. So I suspect it will be this time.

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In contrast to what Zizek proposes, I doubt that what we see now reveals the inner essence of global capitalism or anything else. It's probably not accidental that he finds political movements in Greece and Spain more constructive -- they are further into the crisis than the Brits, whose turn to the right is brand new. The British riots probably reflect the despair and anger of marginalized populations staggering under early shocks of austerity while local authorities themselves reel from cuts in their own budgets. The world has a lot more experience with macroeconomic austerity than most of the media or social science cares to talk about. The social disasters that sweeping budget cutbacks bring in their wake are plain to anyone who wants to see.

Zizek is right about one important fact: Repetition is a basic feature of social history. Unfortunately, it's not, as St. Augustine thought, the mother of learning. Its deadly spiral now mostly reflects the indifference of elites, the realities of political power, and wretched theories of free market fundamentalism. Zizek probably knows as well as anyone what Hegel's students reported he said in his famous lectures on Reason in History: "What experience and history teach is this: peoples and governments have never learned anything from history and acted according to what one might have learned from it." The euro crisis and the disastrous G20 Toronto Consensus in favor of austerity will churn world politics for a long time.

Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. The International Journal of Political Economy has just published a revised version of his paper with Robert Johnson on "A World Upside Down: Deficit Fantasies in the Great Recession."

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