The Impossible Class of 2011: Race, London’s Riots and Brixton ‘81

by Siraj Izhar

Reflecting on the Brixton Riots of '81 can help us understand how and why the rioting of 2011 came to be the way it was.

First published: 23 April, 2015 | Category: 

Readings on the riots on Mare Street Hackney 8 August 2011

The riots of London summer 2011 have left us an unfinished legacy. A national fascination with the novelty value of a mindless 'kids riot' swung for many days between mass moral panic and collective soul searching. The killing of Mark Duggan by the police, which triggered the riots was dislodged from the headlines as the nation became consumed by the form the rioting took; the 'mindlessness' of it. This reading is about how and why the rioting came to be the way it was. It comes out of another reading, an activist zine produced in the aftermath of the Brixton riots of 1981 to show how the seeds of new class and community formation sown a generation ago have renewed relevance in the digital age.

The Brixton riots were part of a chain of London riots including Notting Hill 58 and 76, Southall 79 and Tottenham 85. The post-war inner city riot progressively became conflated with the race riot. Whilst each has its own legacy, Brixton 81 was at the start of the social transition from welfare to free market social order. By resisting the new policing measures that came with transition, the riots changed the place of Britain's ethnic minorities. 81's legacy was that in its aftermath black communities became politically active, first on a local and then on a national level. The riots of 2011 thirty years later were on the same seismic scale but its political legacy seems to have been belittled already by the self-repeating tagline 'pure criminality' that came out of a hastily arranged Recall of Parliament.

I remember arriving at Mare Street on 8th August 2011 around 5pm at which time the epicentre of the action was the JD sports shop at Number 331. It had started to wind down as police vanloads poured in. Before then, the 'rioters' had established corridors along which boxes of all manner of looted consumer goods made their way in broad daylight. But as police reinforcements arrived it was further along these urban arteries that the riots took a turn, with 'collateral damage’ falling on community property as opposed to high street retail. Local youth rallied to set up community versus community vigilantes to halt the rampage. The spectre of inter-community inter-ethnic confrontation loomed with the police nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile on Mare Street, the atmosphere had flipped into a strangely laidback but menacing stand-off: helicopters hovering above with people just sticking around for the frisson of being on a riot zone film-set. A riot that had erupted out of pent-up anger fizzled out without resistance. Even whilst it had raged, politics had seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind. "Tottenham aint got nothing on us …“we’re gunna loot till we drop”, wrote the blogger at stylenoir on overheard conversations, expressing incredulity at “what looked like an 11 year old child running away with a plasma TV.” But the looting was secondary to the vibe and the vibe was as much on social networks as on the ground. The problem was that if you were not on a specific SMS or social network you just could not follow it. What resulted was fast moving swarms geographically scattered, made possible through hidden chatter on handsets. The forum at forteantimes leaves a useful if voyeuristic commentary.

If ever there was a pop-up riot, this was it. What was missing was any sense of a community engaged in a 'no-surrender' fight for its neighbourhood turf that characterised Brixton 81, or Broadwater Farm 85. The summer of 2011 emerged from the same groundswell of social inequality. The nature of the anger was the very same but this was a different form of riot. As one online post described, this was defeatist rage and opportunism, the collective expression of an oppressed, marginalised, consumerist, materialistic, perpetually adolescent and narcissistic society. With it came a new form of social identification tagged by 'pure criminality', beyond understanding, senseless, thus impossible to reason with.

To address this, the Guardian and the LSE's Reading the Riots was reminiscent of a wartime project, amassing information to crack a new type of Enigma code with 'data driven' journalism. For the romantic left, the seduction of the nihilistic proved irresistible. Slavoj Zizek's Shoplifters of the World unite with its portrayal of a “zero-degree protest” by a 'post-ideology' generation, left us devoid of political agency.

To see a way out of the weight of mediatised dissection and recover political agency, I go back to The Impossible Class, a zine produced in the aftermath of the Brixton riots, published as part of We want to RIOT, not to WORK: the 1981 Brixton Uprisings. Its main thrust was to present the case for the emergence of a new social class that created its own cultural and economic space to 'reverse the bourgeois relation of work and leisure'.

The threat to capital lies most fundamentally in breaking the normal connection between work and leisure - that is, leisure as individualised commodity consumption, centrally mediated through the market, and geared to reproducing one’s capacity for submitting to wage-labour. ..”

The Impossible Class pointed instead to “developing directly social forms of enjoyment which resist that submission and undermine capitalist reproduction”. 

In black neighbourhoods where half the youths are unemployed, so-called ‘deviance’ becomes the norm, symbolised for the police by sound systems and marijuana, the self-organisation of non-work, or of unofficial work, which makes the entire culture extra-legal and labelled ‘criminal’ by the state”.

Given the pervasive handicaps faced by minorities in employment, the making of extra-legal forms of livelihood necessitated a level of 'collective re-appropriation of neighbourhood' for their economic base. In Brixton as in other neighbourhoods, this produced new paradigms of social space along with effects on class and community.

Paul Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack of 1987 also noted a process whereby

“instead of identifying with working-class culture community or politics they [the blacks] formed their own organisations and became in effect a separate under-privileged class”.1

Gilroy argued that the political in a separate under-privileged class was now grounded through self-constructed notions of community. The emergence of hybrid ('alien') forms of social identity from partly devolved economies was distinct from old class institutions. This was certainly problematic for the orthodox Left view of political progress achievable only through an unified working class. For the Right, these identity formations, which defined their spatial niche through necessity, translated as 'no-go areas'. Either way, the multicultural had become intrinsically conflictual to the state's imaginary. The policing strategies that were institutionalised on the quiet, such as the discriminatory stop and search 'sus laws' or township type neighbourhood intrusion like Operation Swamp were brought to the surface by the 81 riots. That they took place against the backdrop of a coercive establishment of the coming free market social order - as we saw with the closure of the coal mines and conversion of the Docklands into Canary Wharf – emphasised how new forms of targeted policing were integral to the remaking of society in which policing was productive of a politics of race. The emergence of an embryonic class outside class through the dimension of race was intrinsically and antagonistically linked to a new market produced reality in a number of ways.

The summer of 2011 was an exposé of this double dynamic. The youth opened up its fault-lines using the means afforded to them, the handheld electronic gadgets of the global free market information age. Much was made of the role of one particular platform; BBM or Blackberry Messenger. Over a third of British teenagers use Blackberry handsets according to Ofcom. Being encrypted, the police were unable to follow BBM-based networking unlike those on other networks. Not surprisingly some sections of the press went so far as to blame Blackberry for the damage caused by riots

Summer 2011 was the first urban uprising that almost wholly involved 'digital natives' – a post-90s generation who have not known life without internet, mobile phones, or social media. Though the right-wing press decided on identification with cultural stereotypes, the riots as a social stage revealed a new type of individual not defined by old-style spaces for a sense of selfhood.

The media had not yet learnt how to politically represent this individual though it had already been much theorised.

In 1992  Gilles Deleuze wrote of the death of the individual and emergence of the dividual. 'We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become "dividuals," and masses, samples, data, markets, or "banks."2  The dividual was a way to describe how we are in the open spaces of information and communication that are increasingly more meaningful to our lives than the old bounded spaces of schools, offices, factories, neighbourhoods and hospitals. The way we move from these real world places into social networks can be transformative in multiple ways. Scott Lasch noted that “in contemporary culture the primacy of transmission has displaced the primacy of representation”.3  The aggregation of all the texting, tweeting and social networking, even by the powerless, creates new dimensions of sociality and in turn the space for new types of social organisation.

Within political theory, the Italian Autonomists from the 1980s were possibly the first to critically engage the effects of this on class formation. For Antonio Negri, information had begun to produce a 'subjectivity that could no longer be grasped in the terms of capitalist development'4. For Mario Tronti, the information revolution led to the inevitability of class recomposition with the potential autonomy of labour to dispense with wage, thus with capitalism5.

All this has clear correlations with the Impossible Class. But thinking on the effects of race on class formation and the effect of information on class formation were segregated at the time and to an extent still are. And as influential as the Autonomists were in identifying the revolutionary potential of the digital age, the scenario that unfolded is of how labour was restructured by the market through the information revolution.  Jeremy Rifkin anticipated the necessity for a "new social contract”6 for work in the information age but  neoliberal capital has forced this primarily through  a vast expansion of the service sector in which a new low-skill low-pay demographic of work became a defining feature of advanced economies. For the working class the new social contract meant a new kind of working life tied to a new kind of social control for the most part. Far from social advancement through the emancipatory potential of new technology, the digital native was cast back into existing layers of social sedimentation, with renewed significance of race and of class in the social demographics of the digital age.

The Great British Class survey of 2013 shows the old blocks of the working class, middle class and upper class dissolving into graduated shades of difference with no less than 8 classes: The Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Traditional working class, Emergent service sector, and the Precariat.

These graduated class classifications disguise much. The biggest growth sector is that of the unregulated service sector and with it has come the minimum wage society.  A large section of our society lives on the minimum wage on zero hour contracts whether working at high street chain stores, well-known eateries or as couriers or cleaners. Government statistics show that the 'under 21 year olds hold 5 % of total UK jobs, but account for 15% of minimum wage jobs'.  The BBC states that “77% of employees aged under 20, and two-thirds of restaurant and hotel workers, earned less than the living wage”.7  Over a fifth of our population live on the minimum wage or less, working  to just afford their housing and most basic living costs. For most there is no prospect of an alternative, other than joblessness. But even on that front, free market age workfare has long replaced welfare. Whilst one in seven young people are unemployed,workfare offers the same form of low-pay low-prospect work but without pay to "help the unemployed into work". It is of no small irony that this would be for the shops that line the high streets, Sainsburys, Primark, McDonalds, Poundland, ASDA, B&Q and the services behind it, G4S, Serco and so forth.

Within this market crafted circularity is the  underclass, a significant fraction of our population. As one community organiser I spoke to at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham put it, it is no longer a case of the haves and the have nots but of the never will haves. That realisation could not be more apparent to a generation brought up to understand consumption as production but now knowing that the aspirational culture they had been raised into could never be anything more than a bait. If so, far from being mindless, it is not so surprising that these zero-hour workers are the “defective consumers” and “contemporary have-nots” that Zygmunt Bauman described who turned on the minimum wage high street as the hand that gives nothing more than “the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled ...of nonentity and good-for-nothingness”.

How this market entrapment came to be can be seen through the new typologies of class that describe how our society really functions. We have the new quasi social brands: the chavs, the neets and so forth. Then we have other types of markers. The Property Class whereby property becomes the marker of an unscaleable social divide. The Political Class that draws its vote banks from the iniquities of ordinary life through the machinery of electoral politics. When the Political Class speaks of economic growth, homes and jobs, what they invariably mean is expansion of the asset-base for the Property Class and more jobs for the Minimum Wage class. Neighbourhoods are redefined by this formula and society is restructured in its vision. It is the class dynamic that is reinforced at each turn. At one end class base is progressively weakened, at the other class value is re-instrumentalised. The result is an effective disconnection between the two ends of society.

This became transparent when comparing responses between the riots of 2011 and 1981. Brixton 81 was followed by the Scarman Report commissioned by parliament to address social deprivation, discriminatory policing, bad housing and unemployment. 2011 was seen as pure criminality followed by retributive sentencing in the courts. There was a blanket refusal of political engagement or dialogue.

It is worth re-tracing the role of new class formations from Brixton 81. Gilroy had recognised the

detachment or distancing between the poor and their traditional means of political representation - the trades union and labour movements. The effect of these developments can be seen in the proliferation of political subjectivities apparently unrelated to class and often based on ascriptive criteria (age, 'race', gender).”8

If the production of what can be called “ascriptive classes” is a new feature of social politics, the means for resistance or counter refusal comes out of the capacity of such class formation and how it dovetails into a fragmented working class.

In his classic treatise The Strategy of Refusal 1966, Tronti had stated that “there is no social relationship without a class relationship”, yet “there is no class relationship without the working class”. And he went further to say that unlike capital “the working class doesn't need institutions, it only needs organisation”.9 Tronti had started on the project of positioning a working class in opposition to capital outside of labour institutions. In that sense, the Impossible Class of 81 was paradigmatic. Its strategy of refusal was not through labour in any conventional sense but through a productive inversion of labour value. Its social agency and political economy were drawn out of enforced leisure time, out of an exclusion from regular forms of  employment and its labour institutions. Just as significant was that the refusal was by subjects, a migrant class, who were just surfacing in discourse but had the space to create autonomous resources within their communities from which they could refuse and which they sought to protect.

If both 1981 and 2011 are seen as the same theatre of social struggle with the same types of actors from different generations, it becomes clear that it is the means of refusal that has changed, appropriated by the dissolution of welfare into workfare and the simultaneous gentrification of neighbourhood through the wholesale transfer of housing to developer interests. Thus whilst 81 fought for their neighbourhood space by the inch, 2011 was marked by an abandoning of neighbourhood, by both the rioters and the State. This became too easily misinterpreted. As one activist sighed at a post-mortem at Hackney's (now disappeared) Centreprise bookshop, “the youth of today just don't care”. But instead the riots showed how the scale of defragmentation of society by market interests has redrawn the relation between social space and social memory. Summer 2011 introduced us to a generation that had lost the means to refuse through any appeal to traditional Left readings of the Thatcherite dismantling of the labour unions or the selling-off of the working class community base. Instead 2011 provided us with the first insight into how far a new generation had drifted after being unmoored from those twin bearings, a digital generation without a rope to that political memory in a global informational space.

Speaking to the Tottenham community after Mark Duggan's death Paul Gilroy said. “The difference between 1981 and now is that the relationship between information and power has been changed”. What  is paradoxical  is how the powerless play a role in producing that relationship. In that respect its logic is innately different to that of the street. In virtual networks, Gilroy's own "racial structuration imposed by capital”10 diffuses across post-code boundaries. Without any virtual border controls, attributes of race become viral to the reactionary imagination.

At the same time, the concept of Class operates differently in the virtual networks than in the street, with a propensity to evolve new identities.11 It's these two things  class and  race that interact in unexpected ways   so as to provoke another seminal soundbite from the 2011 riots, 'the whites have become black'.

The whites have become black brings a dimension of having lost control to the fold through the politics of race, a fatalism by whiteness that demands and necessitates a revanchist claw back. By attributing the rioting to 'blackness', to the ‘foreign’, we see its historical amnesia. E. P. Thompson has detailed how integral riots were to social history whereby burning and looting was a means of achieving social redress through the 'the moral economy of the crowd'12. At the time of the Corn Laws, the mob ransacking the mill was by no means uncommon. Eric Hobsbawm described the prevalence of 'collective bargaining by rioting'13 when for examples weavers would pull down the houses of clothiers. Hegel in his studies of the feral English rabble referred to it as an “inward rebellion” that was produced by polarisation between wealth and poverty. 14  Alasdair Rawney related this to the summer of 2011 in his insightful Do the Rabble Have a Cause?  But all this history vanishes when the grist is race.

'There had been no such event in English memory' the Mail declared in its 25th year appraisal of the Brixton 81 riots explaining that “From the moment the first brick was hurled in Brixton, the march towards multiculturalism had begun”. This  provides us graphic means to consider how, between that first brick and the whites have become black, the configurations of race and class, society and memory, State and community have evolved; of how far that first brick has travelled and of where it is heading with the new shapes of community. We are seeing this with the global We can't Breathe connecting Mark Duggan with Michael Brown with Eric Garner.

By the interplay of these configurations using digital tools now in the hands of those without political power, the summer of 2011 showed the extent to which notions of blackness in its turn had become transformative of itself and of class; transgressive and regenerative.

The how and why of the way the riots came to be: the social demographics of who took part, where it took place and in the selective use of technology were telling. It was the Impossible Class we saw on the streets. In their eyes, the ‘kids with their toys’ had caught the system unawares, its prejudices exposed in all ugliness. These all spilled out as carelessly into our living rooms as the press, politicians and police tried to grapple what was taking place.

At the same time, it was entirely logical that even whilst the ‘kids’ rioted, the very processes that produced them were at work. Whilst the police did little other than try to protect retail stores, information circuits quietly did their work. Myths abounded about rioters being tracked with facial recognition software linked to Facebook profiles but it was more the power of old media mobilising the public. What followed was a season of CCTV images: Could you shop a looter? Within weeks, 3000 people had been arrested, the young caught in the web of data that they themselves had helped to produce.

Siraj Izhar is an artist and activist. He lives in Hackney close to the marshes and the river Lea.

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.

1 Paul Gilroy, 'There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack': The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, (University of Chicago Press, 1987). On p.21 Gilroy quotes John Rex and Sally Tomlinson's study on immigration in Birmingham:  John Rex and Sally Tomlinson, Colonial Immigrants in a British City; a Class Analysis, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979)

2  Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control, October vol 59, (MIT Press, 1992)

3 Scott Lasch, Objects that Judge: Latour’s Parliament of Things 1999

4 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form, (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p.282

5 Best summarised by Nick Dyer-Witheford, Autonomist Marxism and the Information Society  Capital & Class Issue 52 1994 Online version. p7-8

6 Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, (Putnam Publishing Group, 1995), p.236

7 The Trust for London and New Policy Institute shows the over-representation of Black and Ethnic Minority in the service sector. The Institute of Race Relations shows similar figures on unemployment

8 Paul Gilroy, 'There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack' The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation  (University of Chicago Press,  1987),  p.29

9 Mario Tronti, The Strategy of the Refusal in Operai e Capitale (Workers and Capital)  Einaudi, Turin 1965/6 Online version.

10 Paul Gilroy, 'There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack' The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, (University of Chicago Press, 1987),  p.21

11 Franco Berardi, (on the concept of social class in the information age), What is the Meaning of Autonomy Today?  2003

12 E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common, (Penguin Books, 1993)

13 Eric Hobsbawm, The Machine Breakers, Past and Present 1 1952, published on

14 G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right Part 3: Ethical Life (ii) Civil Society § 244 § 245

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