from tottenham to santiago (via athens, madrid and caracas)

Panic on the streets of London

Panic on the streets of Birmingham

I wonder to myself

Could life ever be sane again?

The Smiths

The smoke (literally) is clearing after the riots in England, and solutions from the mainstream media and politicos range from stick them in jail (the Sun, the judges and Cameron), to organise a few more Sure Start schemes for wayward parents (Blair). The current Labour leadership have tried to make political capital by blaming the riots on the cuts, without explaining clearly how the two are linked.

The Left is still searching for the meaning of the riots. Most agree that they were political, if not Political in the sense that the riots of 1981 were. The Guardian‘s Gary Younge made the links between the looting and deprivation (see here) , but insisted these were not the same as the Greek Syntagma and Spanish indignados protests earlier this year. The great fear of commentators like Younge is that without a ’cause’, the riots will be forgotten, like the riots of 81, which were followed by the entrenchment of Thatcher, and the fatuousness of Kinnock, which lead directly to Blair. In her blog Penny Red, Laurie Penny, with a front seat to the rioting, focused on the accusation of ‘mindless violence’. “Violence is hardly ever mindless” she said, and drew attention to some of those at the scene who had also taken part in earlier ‘protests’, which had largely been ignored by the politicians and press who were now screaming at the looters.

Perhaps more optimistic, or at least more insightful, is the piece by Brian Dominick (see here). Central to Dominick’s analysis is not why the riots happened, but why they don’t happen more often. It’s hard not to agree with his point. The back drop to the riots has been the economic crisis followed by savage cuts. The poorest have been told to tighten their belts, whilst watching their politicians fiddling their expenses, the police taking kickbacks from newspapers, the newspapers hacking the bereaved, and the banks looting all of us. Throw in growing inequality, inflation racing ahead of frozen wages and benefits, and the constant barrage of advertising telling people they are what they consume.

With income (or lack of it) playing the same role as queues in the last days of the Soviet Union in rationing goods, it’s no wonder some people took the opportunity to jump the queue, and help themselves to a small share of the consumer goods they are told they deserve – “because you’re worth it”.

Will the riots lead to a more political “action” and if so, what will be the timescale? One thing for certain, despite the clampdown called for against organising by Facebook and Twitter, this was not the beginning of a UK ‘Arab Spring’. Perhaps there are parallels elsewhere. There are some clues from Latin America. One of the biggest riots on the continent took place in 1989 in Venezuela. Protests against rising food prices and IMF imposed austerity led to widespread looting, and a ferocious reaction by the armed forces and police. Somewhere between 900 and 3,000 were slaughtered as the Venezuelan government tried to teach the people a lesson about accepting economic bitter medicine. The Caracazo (see here for a description of the events) sowed the seeds of change which eventually led to the election of Hugo Chavez, and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

Another, more recent example from Latin America is the student protests in Chile. These have been raging in the country since the end of the Spring, and go back at least five years. They stem from the demand by students for decent education at all levels – from primary school through to university. The government has made concessions, which have been rejected by many students as they strengthen their demands. Their protests have also been met with force by the State – the police have used real and plastic bullets – a sixteen year old was shot dead – and 900 demonstrators were arrested after one protest.

Three recent analyses looked at different aspects of the protests. The first, which appeared on ZNet (amongst other places), focused on the leadership of Camila Vallejo. A Communist student leader, Camila has been head of the student movement this year, and has succeeded in widening the protests to encompass wider demands by society. “”There are huge levels of discontent,” said Vallejo in a recent interview. “It is always the youth that make the first move … we don’t have family commitments, this allows us to be freer. We took the first step, but we are no longer alone, the older generations are now joining this fight.”

The second, from COHA, examined the progress of the protests this year. The latest demonstration, on August 21, drew 500,000. The numbers and duration of the protests stand in contrast to the student protests in the UK last year, which were themselves historically large.

The third, from Roberto Navarette and entitled Chile’s Winter Awakening looks at the origins of the protests as well as the next steps for the protestors as the Chilean spring approaches. Navarette suggests that the logical way forward is the designing of  a new constitution :

Today’s demands in education, health, social and political rights, have no solution under the current constitution so the path to success lies in moving towards a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution via a referendum, a route successfully followed by progressive governments backed by social movements in Latin America.

Perhaps all the protests and riots – in North Africa and the Middle East, in South America (and in the United States), in the UK, France, Spain and Greece – all have one thing in common. They are a rejection of neo-liberalism, or what in Nicaragua is commonly called ‘savage capitalism’. They are still a long way from wanting to show the door to capitalism but are certainly starting to look seriously at the alternatives.

A message of support was sent from the El Sueno Existe festival to the Chilean students. View it here:


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