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Attacking the Block

At the conclusion of my last blog on the British riots/uprisings, I warned that determined organizing would be necessary in order to avoid the imposition of yet another round of popular authoritarianism. Unfortunately, this comment turned out to be even more prescient than I expected.

In the wake of the disturbances, PM David Cameron has gone on the offensive against what he represents as a “slow-motion moral collapse” across Britain in recent generations. Rather than speaking about the moral collapse represented by the greedy bankers of the financial crisis of 2008 or the sleazy corrupt politicians of the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, of course, Cameron is talking about what the Daily Mail called the “nihilistic and feral teenagers” who shocked Britain last week.

In a brilliant response to this hypocritical moralism, David Harvey points out that such language has deep roots, having been applied by property owners to the members of the Paris Commune in the nineteenth century. Living, as we do, in a “political economy of mass dispossession,” what is there, Harvey asks, to distinguish the rioters from the robbers and pirates who occupy the seats of power except the relatively humble scale of their looting?

What we’re seeing in shockingly sweeping pronouncements such as those of David Cameron’s about “some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged, sometimes even incentivized, by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralized” is a struggle over signification. Cameron and his allies must frame the looters as hooligans in order to impose a fresh round of popular authoritarianism in Britain.

Such authoritarianism is already being implemented on the ground. Crowd control measures proposed by Cameron’s government include the use of water cannons, the deployment of the military, and the hiring of American supercops to crack down on unrest. Even more troubling is the use of round-the-clock courts to impose harsh jail terms on rioters and plans to evict rioters from public housing and to end their state benefits. Steps to implement the latter policy have already been taken by local housing authorities, with the families of young men who have not yet been convicted of rioting being served with eviction notices.

This new round of popular authoritarianism hasn’t come out of nowhere. Last weekend I saw Attack the Block, Joe Cornish’s film about a group of teenage boys in a housing estate in South London that is under attack by space aliens. The timing of the film’s release in the U.S. was uncanny. As the film stills attacked to this blog suggest, Attack the Block conjures up precisely the fears of urban mayhem and gang violence that are central elements in the current popular authoritarian backlash unfolding in Britain today, but then dismantles and inverts them in a brilliantly anti-racist manner.

The film begins with a gang of multi-racial kids led by an apparently thuggish lad named Moses mugging a young white woman named Sam. While the mugging is taking place, a nearby car explodes into flames. Turns out an alien has just crash landed. Moses investigates and ends up getting into a fight with the alien. True to (stereotypical) form, he smashes its head in. Of course, this alien is a female, and her carcass ends up attracting a horde of far more lethal male aliens. Moses and his mates spend the rest of the film battling these feral monsters, struggling to defend themselves and the other residents of the apartment block from the marauding aliens.

Much of Attack the Block is standard thriller fare of roller coaster style scares and fight scenes. But the film does take the predicament of Moses and his mates seriously. It shows them as genuinely lost, abandoned or, worse still, manipulated by the few adults they encounter and starved for meaningful role models. They are shown to genuinely think of themselves as local defenders, picking only on those they recognize as outsiders and trying to defend their turf and the people they care about against all odds. In one particularly poignant moment, Moses speculates that the government has sent the aliens. First they sent drugs, he says, then they sent guns, now they’re sending aliens to kill us. We’re not killing one another fast enough, so they want to speed up the process, Moses comments.

Despite its many flaws – it almost totally ignores the perspective of young women living in council estates in Britain, for example – Attack the Block does a far better job of imaging what life must feel like to young men growing up at the end of thirty years of neo-liberal austerity in Britain than any of the pronouncements of political leaders today. Whether or not one agrees with its anti-racist celebration of Moses and his friends, the film gives the lie to ideas that the summer riots of 2011 came out of nowhere. Attack the Block shows that these disturbances emerged out of and in response to festering conditions of deprivation that were an open secret in Britain long before the riots/uprisings.

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