Britain: Preparing for a summer of rage

High-ranking British police officers have expressed concern that Britain may be facing an outburst of street protests. The head of the Metropolitan police's public order branch has spoken of the possibility of riots like those that rocked the country in the 1980s, erupting later this year as people who lose their jobs, homes or savings join a wave of violent mass protests. The perspectives of the police come close to those of the Marxists.

High-ranking British police officers have expressed concern that the country may be facing an outburst of street protests. Superintendent David Hartshorn, head of the Metropolitan police's public order branch, and one of the highest ranking police officers in the country, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper, spoke of the possibility of riots like those that rocked the country in the 1980s, erupting later this year as people who lose their jobs, homes or savings become "footsoldiers" in a wave of violent mass protests.

The number of people who lost their homes in 2008 grew by more than 50%, hitting a 12-year high. Unemployment in the UK grew by 131,000 to 1.92 million between the months of September and November of last year. In December according to ILO figures the number had reached 1.971 million and is now clearly over the two million mark.

Every day newspaper headlines and the evening TV news list the latest jobs to go. While this is happening the government continues to throw billions at the banks, with no real effect on the economy in terms of defending jobs, boosting credit, easing up on mortgages and so on.

The workers affected by this crisis can see the glaring contradiction between how easily and quickly the government moves when a bank is facing crisis, and the stubborn refusal to intervene when companies are facing bankruptcy, the latest example being the van producer LDV.

British police are preparing for violent protests this summer as working class people take to the streets. Photo by Rich Lewis on Flickr.
British police are preparing for violent protests this summer as working class people take to the streets. Photo by Rich Lewis on Flickr.

Superintendent David Hartshorn refers to “middle-class individuals who would never have considered joining demonstrations may now seek to vent their anger through protests this year”. We have to consider this term “middle class” carefully. What does it mean? Does it mean small business people, small “owners of the means of production”, or the petit bourgeois, to use a Marxist term?

Partially yes, as many small business people are facing bankruptcy. Also, over the past period many people who would normally have worked for a boss were forced to become “self-employed”, when in reality their work still depended on the same boss, except that the boss doesn’t have to sack them, as he doesn’t formally employ them.

However, the term “middle class” here actually means a section of “wage labour” (another Marxist term), i.e. people who to earn a living have to work for someone else, the owner of the means of production who pays them a wage. In this sense, the overwhelming majority of the workforce is “wage labour”, and therefore “working class”.

When capitalism is booming and a significant section of this “wage labour” can earn a relatively high income they can feel that they are “middle class”, especially if their job involves working in an office, wearing a suit, and so on. But we as Marxists understand that this layer is, and always was, “working class”. Now that the crisis of capitalism is hitting hard those people who had illusions that they were “middle class” and so they are suddenly discovering that they are in fact “working class”.

So what our Superintendent is actually saying is that what we are facing later this year is a revolt of the working class, which will be joined by sections of the “petit bourgeois” as these become “proletarianised” as Marx would have put it, i.e. as they fall downwards into the working class.

The British police have carried out detailed studies of the behaviour of demonstrators in recent protests. What they have noticed is that the mood has changed into an angrier one than previously noticed. Protestors are increasingly "intent on coming on to the streets to create public disorder".

Mass protests, such as in Iceland, have made an impression on the British police who will be attempting to prevent similar events in Britain. Photo by Finnur Malmquist on Flickr.
Mass protests, such as in Iceland, have made an impression on the British police who will be attempting to prevent similar events from occuring in Britain. Photo by Finnur Malmquist on Flickr.

The police are concerned that “viable targets” are the banks and the headquarters of multinational companies and finance houses, all seen by the public at large as mainly responsible for the present crisis.

The tops of the police also learn from what happens in other countries. The eruption of massive youth protests in Greece in December has not been lost on these people. They realise that what was behind the movement in Greece were the social conditions that have been created over decades, of extreme flexibilisation, casualisation of labour, low wages for the youth, and a general feeling of being in a dead end – the same conditions that afflict the youth in this country.

They have noted the sharp turn in events in a country like Iceland, which only one year ago was being described by the same Guardian newspaper as the best place to live in the world. Here the financial crisis has led to mass mobilisations and violent clashes on the streets. They have noted the big protests in France, the strikes in Italy, the recent huge demonstration in Ireland and the growing wave of worker militancy there. And most recently of course we have had the Lindsey dispute and a spate of similar strikes, strikes which have revealed a very high level of militancy of the British workers.

What happened at Lindsey has sent a clear signal to workers in other industries: militancy pays! In some cases what we are seeing is not a passive, defeatist attitude of workers faced with redundancy. On the contrary we are seeing workers balloting for strike action, as is the case on the railways, in the post office, in car plants such as BMW at Cowley. Even the Prison Officers are preparing for strike action!

It is obvious to anyone that this resurgence of union militancy in the context of a deep economic crisis affecting all layers of the working class is creating a potentially very explosive situation. According to the same Guardian article, intelligence reports indicate that “known activists” are preparing to “foment unrest”. As Hartshorn explained, "Those people would be good at motivating people, but they haven't had the 'footsoldiers' to actually carry out [protests]." Now that the economy is in deep crisis he fears that the “footsoldiers” will increase!

In the immediate future, the police are concerned about what may happen around the G20 summit in March, and they are preparing to mobilise big forces to meet any protests there. But it isn’t just about the G20 summit. What they are concerned about is a much more widespread wave of protest involving ordinary working people over a whole period of time.

In line with this goes a much more aggressive stance of the police in the latest protests. As one trade union activist has put it, “it’s getting very nasty out there”. The police are preparing to use the same methods they used against the British miners twenty years ago. And there is a logic in this. The bosses, the capitalists, the ruling class, the bourgeoisie cannot provide ordinary working people with jobs, decent income, a home, because their system is in deep crisis. Therefore they are preparing for violent confrontation with the people of this country.

The behaviour of the police during the recent Greek solidarity marches in London, the protests over the invasion of Gaza, or even the protest against the Kingsnorth power station in Kent last August is an indication of all this. In the case of the Kingsnorth power station they drafted in 1000 police officers, aided by helicopters and riot horses, with an overall cost of the operation of £5.9 million pounds and with 100 activists being arrested.

Notice the priorities they have. Close to six million pounds is spent on policing one protest, but when workers in industry demand the government spends money on saving their jobs they get not a penny! All this is having a profound effect on ordinary people’s understanding of the nature of the system we live in. A recent YouGov opinion poll has revealed that 73% of people fear a return of mass unemployment. The same poll revealed that 37% thought “serious social unrest” was likely in British cities in the coming period. A similar figure believes that the Army would be used to face rioting, as the recession gets deeper.

The police chiefs, the intelligence services, ministerial study groups and so on, study carefully what is happening deep down in society, particularly among the workers and youth. They can see what the Marxists can see: society is polarising along class lines. The two major classes, on the one hand the bourgeoisie, a tiny minority numerically, but which has at its service the state, with all its trappings, and on the other hand the working class, the huge majority of society, are lining up for battle. It will be a battle such that we have never seen in the whole history of capitalist society. The outcome of this battle will depend on the leadership of the working class. The one we have at the moment wishes for peace and tranquillity. It wants compromise with the bourgeoisie. It is living in the past. What is required is a leadership up to task of seriously leading the workers. That is what the Marxists are patiently and systematically working towards.


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