Some responses to, and problems we have with, The Impossible Class.
‘The Impossible Class ‘was published by some anarchists in 1981 as an analysis and thereoretical response to the urban riots if 1981, notably Brixton. I’d suggest reading that before reading this text…
This reply was largely written in 2013, left in a drawer then update slightly in 2021. (Yes, 40 years is a long time to wait to write a reply)… this is a first draft, so any comments, snorts of derision are of course welcome.
When I first read ‘The Impossible Class’ many years back, I had some gripes with its analyses of the causes of the riots of ’81 in Brixton (and elsewhere), and their implications for us living under modern capitalism. Re-reading it thirty-odd years later (and having lived in Brixton, and been involved in its underground life and rebellious politics, for most of the intervening period), I have more reservations; but further to that, social change, economic upheavals, and the movements of classes in inner-city London, have called into question some of the writers’ conclusions (as I’m sure they themselves would not have found totally unexpected..). However, there are some interesting ideas here too. For anyone interested in Brixton, its contested past, its strange current existence, and where it might evolve, this text is worth examining – of course there are wider implications too.
Much of ‘The Impossible Class’ is rooted in the anarchist theory of the era… an ideology I also found my home in, for a while, and which (for me) still provides some useful elements to an ongoing struggle to understand the world around us, and change it; though I have come to question many ‘anarchist’ orthodoxies. Below, I have briefly set out some of the points that came up for me when reading the Impossible Class. It is worth saying, I am not being critical for the sake of it, or to belittle the ideas or vision of those who wrote it; in many ways I would have put forward similar analyses in my past. We all share a vision of another way of life entirely to the gradgrind of modern wage labour… Changes in class relations just didn’t work out the way the writers thought they might. It’s too easy to dismiss observations and social predictions after the fact; that’s not what we want to do here, because what is most interesting is how they thought class relations and antagonisms might develop, and the factors that influenced how it has – so far – turned out differently to that vision. As well as what we can do about it. But also – the battle is still undecided, as it were. Discussion, debate, working ideas and social relations out in practice are still all vital. I am not especially theoretically coherent or rigid, so forgive me if what follows seems obvious or confused.
The writers projected their conclusions about life in Brixton out onto the world, and with the exception of particular areas with strong similarities to Brixton, like say St Pauls, in Bristol, or parts of Hackney, (just as examples), this projection didn’t always click. I have lived all my adult life in London, and while you can read about places, visit them, talk to those that live there, my response is very much conditioned by that… Wildly varying conditions exist, even in the UK, so some of what I say won’t apply, or even have any meaning, elsewhere. Hopefully though what follows is useful. Naturally any responses, critiques, loud laughter and argument are always welcome.
My first feeling about the Impossible Class text is that it romanticises, or at least waxes optimistic, about the ‘black’ or underground economy, suggesting that many, if not most working class people were consciously rejecting the mainstream economy, choosing to survive through a mix of signing on the dole, and cash-in-hand/dealing/self-organised underground projects, etc. More than this, it suggests that the police attacks on Brixton were partly motivated by a desire from the powers-that-be to crush this embryonic challenge to the orthodox structures of wage labour (and in particular, that part them that manifested openly in the street, posing a direct challenge to the forces of law ‘n’ order).
As with much of ‘The Impossible Class’, there is an element of truth to this. In Brixton, many local kids deliberately rejected a system they saw as rejecting them/attacking them… For young west indian men, the Rastafarian ideology/theology gave this a shape; they were the oppressed, living in Babylon, which had transported them from their home, Africa, (all true), to which they would one day return. An interesting additional feed-in to the UK rasta consciousness could also be the widespread idea that many of the first generation of west Indian migrants to move here shared, that they would work here for a while then return to the Caribbean. Though this didn’t work out for many, most ended up bringing families here, making a more permanent home; maybe, though, it coloured many people’s view that oppression here was temporary, that they could physically escape it, either actually, or spiritually, or in the vision of a return to Africa. Otherwise, for young whites and blacks, its also true that pretty much the entire wider drop-out culture of the 70s/80s was subsidised by the dole! Which was great – it gave us space to do stuff we wanted to do. Part-time, cash in hand or casual jobs were mingled with giro cheques, shoplifting, often squatting, signing on in more than name, covering for mates when they went on holiday or were working etc.; mixed in later on with finding loopholes and ways of exploiting training schemes, pseudo-self-employment, for our own benefit, or with alternating claiming with temporary and more official jobs as things got harder on the dole. All useful pieces of the jigsaw of survival.
But the writers were to a great extent theorising from above, really, despite their anarchist credentials… Most people involved in the underground economy were doing it from practical need, not thinking clearly that they were rejecting the whole of society etc… When economic times changed they were mainly reabsorbed into work culture, or found themselves in ‘proper’ jobs. Tis true that some of us – anarchos, musos, artists, dealers, etc – did stay on the dole deliberately, or ideologically; benefits plus work on side – gives you space for activism, creating etc… plus why not get dole and wages, if you can. ‘Twas easy then. 1980s anarchist ideology often identified methods of survival (especially if they were illegal, or unlawful) as methods of struggle, or even as weapons for the destruction of capital – eg shoplifting, looting, squatting, skipping food, etc. All good stuff, I did it all, to survive, and would again if need be. All gave people a measure of autonomy in their own lives, and helped people get by. But often it was not really as much in rejection of society, as just what was needed to break even, or get a bit more than a pittance.
The authors of The Impossible Class rightly identify that whole subcultures had grown up which thrived at the fringe of the GDP-economy. Now the modern state of any colour hates that kind of unregulated, untaxed, unofficial economic goings-on – when practiced by the working class, of course; contrariwise, for the neo-liberal wing of capital a certain kind of cowboy entrepreneurism is pedestalised when carried out by business/corporations. So as much of that fringe economy has since been reined in as possible – a complete revolution in forms and structures of work, technological change, especially computerisation, regulation, bureaucratic rationalisation, and more, have made working on the side while signing on much more difficult, although large loopholes will always remain (Witness the pathetic attempt a few years back to demonise paying builders etc cash in hand). But also survival on the dole long term, which used to be a matter of turning up once a fortnight, is now a full time job in itself. Autonomy, and counter-cultural forms, are not the same as a conscious revolutionary opposition to capital. Unless you buy the idea that there can be an Unconscious revolutionary opposition (which is debatable). Squatting, for instance, gave people cheap places to live in times of housing crisis; if for a substantial minority it was a conscious political rebellion against property, against housing as a commodity, against the landlords who profit from it, or the social landlords (so-called) and policy theorists who sought to control working people through cheap and accessible council housing… (This last point – that social housing has always been partly intended to keep us from rebelling – doesn’t mean we wouldn’t mind the relatively easy access to it available in the 1960s! As a minimum step back from the market-driven housing chaos we now face.) But for many more, squatting gave people space to create alternatives, either personal ones or collective ones. Some of these were intended to form part of a diverse radical challenge to the existing order. Many were taking advantage of the possibilities but had no intention of challenging this society – many were able to further their own careers and niches within class society through those alternative nooks and crannies, rising to form new strata and levels of (often creative) entrepreneurship, and even managerial or bureaucratic power, or positions of parasitical ‘consultant’ status. Many more made lot of money ripping others off using squats, squat-raves, dealing or whatever, (with some dosing out threats and violence against anyone who mildly dissented along the way). That’s not to diss people who don’t share the anarchist ideal of ‘smashing the state’, but to question and qualify the idea that the twilight economy was IN ITSELF revolutionary. Many people in the squatting/DIY/drop-out/anarchist/hippy left scene did fetishise not buying ‘sweatshop goods’, making your own, self-publishing, adding these up to rejecting ‘capitalism’, we’re not breadheads maan… etc… many also rapidly compromised those principles and ended up in the orthodox market. Others of course did stick by them, but its questionable how much they built an ‘oppositional community’… A fair few of them spent far too much time sneering at the ‘normal working class people’ for being ‘slaves’ (ie going to work), or making distinctions between each other’s brands of drop-outery as not being radical enough. Little enough of this scene had any class-consciousness, as to impossible-class-consciousness, it’s hard to say.
Partly in reaction to the frustrations of this scene, probably the most dominant strand of UK anarchist ideas of the 1980s and into the 1990s evolved; based on the idea, broadly speaking, that the working class, or at least the section of the working class, typically depicted as living in inner-cities, on council estates, was in the process of rejecting capitalist forms and exchanges, and was up for it and ripe for an uprising… Class War, and many local anarchist papers and groups, operated, or at least talked, as if this uprising was imminent. Outbreaks like Brixton, Broadwater Farm, the miners strike, Wapping, and then the anti-poll tax movement seemed to us to support these views. Immersed in this movement it was easy to miss the fact that these outbreaks were more exceptions than tips of the iceberg. Although the ’80s were a decade of constant overt class antagonism, we lost most of those battles (the poll tax being an exception, and qualified now by the gradual ratcheting up of council taxes) and ended the era with a fragmented sense of class opposition, traditional notions of class even being questioned. Ironically the vast majority of the ‘class struggle anarchists’ adopting this view didn’t originate in this social ‘strata’, (of course some did), although they may have wanted to, or come from areas like Brixton. Whether or not this invalidated their ideas, or their ‘right’ to be involved in that politics, could be debated… Class identity, and class composition, are much more fluid than ’80s anarchists at the time would have liked to admit; Class War’s attempt, for instance to build around the idea of class pride, class identity, was stoutly ignoring the rapid changes in class composition taking place in that time. Ironically this divergence was eventually to partly lead to the disintegration of CW as a group in 1997-8 (though a small minority continued to operate under the name); the majority of its members by this point had both acquired more permananent jobs, usually in skilled sector/local authorities, mortgages, and had come to question some of the CW’s core ideology. [The wildly varying wanderings of some of the ex-Class War crew could not be told here, though some interesting speculations could be made from the current organisational incarnations of the former factions/leading individuals – from attempting to raise the dead a third time as farce as the Class War Party, standing in elections and waving arms about like the last 35 years never happened; or as Plan C, falling headlong into academic autonomism and from thence for many to the dead end of acid Corbynism and the Labour party… Not to mention those who now teach t’ai chi to cabinet ministers or have large property portfolios… But that’s another article. Coming, maybe, soon…]
A real challenge to the whole capitalist caboodle has to involve more than both dropping out of the economy, or a narrow definition of who the ‘real working class’ is. Some of the response to UK 2011 riots shows that divisions have increased, between people with little to lose, or for who all out combat against the police and destruction of property is a valid tactic, and many who might otherwise believe in a broadly more egalitarian society. Now this was true in 1981 too, though perhaps a larger proportion of people felt rioting to be justified then than now. It’s fair enough to argue with the idea that riots in the past were community uprisings while today’s rioters are just hooligan elements – which tendency includes some former rioters of the ’80s themselves (see the report on the 2006 Brixton riot commemoration), and bizarrely some old anarchist comrades.
But we should also be looking to the differences between then and now, the changes that really have taken place, and where that leaves the possibilities for us. This is a wider discussion than just about rioting. These days we are thinking less about expanding an underground economy as part of a radical challenge to orthodox economic relations, as we are desperately fighting to preserve such ‘social-democratic’ protections as we have left, on working conditions, the welfare state, etc, in the face of a new onslaught on them by a re-energised neo-liberal elite.
It’s all very well idealising it, but the black economy is also very dodgy. As the writers themselves admit “…aspects of that mass illegality are no less exploitative than that of the capitalist economy as a whole…” The most destructive and exploitative aspects of this economy were the ones that have survived and thrived, growing into hugely profitable gangster alt-capitalism on the one hand and territorial civil war against each other on the other. Happily for the state this has taken the most root in the communities that it saw as offering the most potential threat in terms of collective resistance to police control and work discipline: crime, gang warfare and penal response are a much more comfortable outcome for them, shite as it pans out for people on the ground.
On the other hand The Impossible Class failed to take into account how the culture they talk about suited disenfranchised youth, in an economy that had passed them by, but as the economy was radically restructured, and at the same time the ‘frontline’ shrank, horizons for ducking and diving shortened, and people also grew up, had kids, greater and different needs and so on arose. The most successful response to the ’81 riots was from the state, who managed to force much of the ‘impossibles’ back into its clutches; but age, maturing, raising families and so on would likely have done much of that job in time for many anyway. It’s not just about giving in to the spectacle etc (though I have anarchist friends who still despise me for getting a proper job. Hey ho) Lack of rights, working with no long term security etc is ok, when you’re single and fancy free, but crap when you have a bit more to lose – you crave holiday pay… Having worked on the side while signing on, claimed multiple benefits dubiously, worked on the buildings under various forms of self-employment, through agencies, dodging tax when I could, but being now on the cards, to be honest each suited me at the time. When I was younger, I wanted to avoid work as much as possible, but when I needed cash I’d find a way to steal/work delete as you wish… Now I have a young child, in a proper family situation… All the benefits and flexibility modern capitalism can give an (allegedly) skilled worker come in handy. Obviously I am also lucky I’m white, not a recent migrant, that I decided to learn a trade, and was reasonably competent/able to stick at it. But the fight now is on more basic levels.
I would also question the implication that all rioters were immersed in the black economy… (though the writers may not have meant that). That it’s contradicted by reality is suggested by their own text, eg the report from the Wood Green riot (“We’ve all got jobs… We want a riot!”). But historically it is also true that from the respectable left, (often echoing the authorities), there’s always the chorus that rioters are lumpens, rowdies, not proper workers. Where analysis has been carried out, from Chartist riots, to the anti-poll tax shindig in Trafalgar Square 1990, this is not born out by evidence: as many artisans, workers in respectable trades, etc, are reported in Chartist arrest lists and so on. NB: Also see reports from the local Trades Councils in the General Strike, which saw fighting between police and strikers/supporters every day, all over the country… The union line was almost invariably that any trouble was started by non-unionists or the unemployed – but it’s just not born out by arrests or by grassroots accounts.) ‘Hardworking workers’ are just as alienated and likely to crack and kick things over; because work itself is often shit and mind-numbing, abasing ourselves to someone with unreasonable power over us day after day.
When ‘The impossible Class’ was published, the changes in capitalist economy that we are even now suffering were then well underway – broadly labelled Thatcherism in this country (though some of those changes began in the early 1970s), also widely lumped together as neo-liberalism; developments in financial markets, globalisation and internal expansion in service industries and so on. Of course it’s daft to expect the authors of one text to nostradamically prognosticate how the system would regenerate itself. To them and many other left commentators, it seemed clear that the crisis of the late 70s and early 80s, and the decline in the industrial economies of the developed west would continue, and sharpen, shit would get worse, breakdown, and that space was opening up for this kind of diffuse challenge to the established order. Which would have left room for dual power, counter-structures or working class power. For an interesting take on how people thought it might happen, from the 1980s, it’s worth reading The Free, an excellent fictional account of a revolution in Ireland, written by a well-known Brixton anarchist, in which squatting, co-ops, industrial decline lead to a mass rebellion through dual power, creating a libertarian classless society… (though possible difficulties with rightwing and leftwing authoritarian groups are pretty much brushed over). Many anarchos (and not just in Britain – friends in Germany, Holland too that I know of also) did think that things were developing that way around ’81 .
It didn’t happen.
But it may happen still (now we’re in another phase of crisis, belt-tightening and embryonic resistance); though does a wider section of population think that way any more, as they did in that era? Or even think in those terms. Many of us who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s learned from a widespread belief in some sort of socialism, some sort of more egalitarian collectivism, or the idea that such things were possible, if much of the examples were either outdated, or based on rosy glows of soviet or Cuban models, or on municipal Labourism & trade union bureaucracies. It’s worth debating whether this gave us much of the impetus for long-term involvement in activist scenes, movements and campaigns. How much does the radically different experience of young people now, (who to a much greater extent didn’t grow up with that diffuse belief in ‘a better world’) influence the chances of resistance to capital’s current attacks on us, or of a powerful movement for an alternative way to live? Maybe Occupy etc are the kids of our generation, to some extent… Some people think that the relative collapse of the left, trade union influence and membership, the lack of the false alternative of Soviet ‘communism’, clears the way for the real movements to arise. Others bemoan the destruction of the old-style labour movement and would rebuild it as it was, whether or not the model fits now. It’s also true that a wider, general feeling of rebelliousness, rejecting orthodoxies and hierarchies, of youth kicking up the dust, avoiding work, etc, has for many years seemed like a distant dream; this gave many of us a positive experience in the 70s and 80s (earlier and later for others maybe); today I talk to 22 year-olds and you think, you have a mortgage, you should be out taking DRUGS, for fuck’s sake! Maybe this is now beginning to change, under the combined influence of the 2008 crash, Covid-19 and whatever fallout Brexit might have on the British economy.
OK, you can’t impose one generation’s outlook on another, and while me and my mates were dossing, squatting and getting off our heads (as well as rioting and ‘organising’), probably the majority of people my age were ‘knuckling down to hard work’. It’s just the minority seemed bigger and more based in every town, you know? In the light of that, maybe the most positive aspect of involvement in Brixton riots etc was the empowerment that those participants underwent – the changes in their own consciousness, their feelings of collectivity etc – rather than any mass effect on future ‘oppositional communities’… In the long run it’s always difficult to know what lasting effect you have when you take part in any kind of rebellion, activism, etc – I’m no hippy, but sometimes the only changes you can be sure of are the ones that you and the people around you undergo, that you can see and feel. What inspiration or effects on social policy, policing, ‘the coming revolution’ your activities have is often either questionable, reversible by those in authority, double-edged in its real implications. Brixton ’81 seems clearer than most events as a positive inspiring outpouring of righteous anger, it’s true. However, this kind of head-scratching is as much also a product of my advancing age, thinking too much, seeing the shades of grey in events, rather than as black and white as I did when I was 19. It’s possible that people should pay no attention to these dusty ramblings. There’s a strong argument that you SHOULD be like that when you’re young, fuck listening to the people who tell you its difficult and there’s a point on both sides, or it’s all negative, nothing works, “we tried it and look what happened…” the empowerment of taking part in riots, not compromising, all-out radical projects, etc, is a positive thing – often it’s the long term boredom of work and orthodox career path, or even of long-term political activism, that fucks the hope out of people.
In terms of policing, in the long term the police have not exactly taken the route to that predicted in ‘The Impossible Class’. Although paramilitary policing did dominate the 1980s, in the last twenty years, a more graduate culture has been built, with a bent to strategic thinking, technology, and a powerful interest in public relations, co-opting minorities and spreading tentacles into ‘communities’. The Met has in fact, in direct contradiction to the writers’ predictions, made a real effort to present itself as opening up to be more representative, more accountable; and, especially after the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the MacPherson Inquiry, have admitted that they are saturated with racism but are dealing with the problem, huge changes have taken place etc… PR is a major part of 21st century policing, and the Met has become very adept. The kind of tactics that the Special Patrol Group favoured, including mass invasions and occupations of a whole area, have more been replaced by cleverer targetting, with more subtle accompanying propaganda. Its true that whole areas are not identified with dissent, crime, ‘criminal minorities’, or not as blanketedly as Brixton used to be, at least in London; so targetting is necessary, but there’s also some smarter minds treading carefully.
But the cosmetics, and sleight of hand, isn’t the whole story. There genuinely are factions in the police, and to some extent a battle has taken place within the Met, especially in London, and particularly in Brixton, liberal experimenting has become de rigeur for the force. It’s interesting to read in the ‘Impossible Class’ the tale of David Webb, liberal cop turned would be Liberal politician – prefiguring the career of Brixton favourite, veteran PC of 1981, later Commander in Lambeth, Brian Paddick, who followed a similar trajectory 25 odd years later… Though in much changed times for the Met, his battles with a hierarchy that both promoted him and undermined him reflect the old liberal vs authoritarian debate in the police… It’s not always easy to tell which is which – PR or genuine liberalism. When Lambeth’s top cop virtually tows the line that the 81 riot was a necessary community uprising, (see report of the 2006 ‘commemoration 25 years on’, later on), is it good PR or a deeper change? It’s funny how policing seemed to parallel the political changes – Paddick and Macpherson and all fitted perfectly with Blairite New labour era-spin, and concerned classless vague-centre-leftism. Now aggressive upper class war is back on the agenda, changes in policing may be starting to reflect this, if the reaction to the Sarah Everard vigil in London and the Bristol anti-policing bill demos is anything to go by.
‘Cause liberal gloss or not, the true nature of policing hasn’t changed. For many young black people, the idea that the police have substantially changed since 1981 is a joke. 30 years after April 81, police stop and search of young people on spurious grounds is still endemic, and ratcheting up tensions. Police shootings… killing people on demos… the list goes on A crucial sentence in the 1981 text is “everyone is potentially guilty” in Brixton – this turned out to be just not true. Or at least, the council and the police were more adept at splitting rioters, squatters, etc from more respectable, especially white respectable residents, and more adept even than that in ‘Secondary Control’ – defusing further rebellion with money, schemes and jobs for the right people; as the text does point out. The Economist’s analysis and projected solution to the riots, and the inner city crisis it suggested they represented, is interesting, because to some extent it very accurately forecast developments: aspects of it were adopted, in Brixton, and elsewhere, in the 80s and 90s. It’s interesting for those of us who from 1993 noted what happened to the money that flooded into Brixton in the 1990s as part of Brixton Challenge (for example) on the grounds that it was designed as ‘secondary control’, in part at least, to read that, as we suspected, it wasn’t unconsciously divisive, or altruistic, but had a theoretical basis from (at least one faction) of our rulers: to divide, to keep us down, to keep us from rebelling. But long before Brixton Challenge, the Urban programme, other inner-city aid schemes, were finely tuned to achieve this (Black radical magazine Race Today criticised what they called the ‘black bourgeoisie’ in Brixton, the buying off of ambitious activists and ‘leaders’ by integrating them into the local state or ‘voluntary’ sectors. This needs a wide discussion though, as there’s a real debate to be had about the value that state funding, rented premises, paid workers were gave to many projects, community groups, women’s, black, gay organisations, (just as a few examples). It wasn’t just black community leaders they needed to buy off, to some extent it was an underground culture that needed co-opting, wooing, integrating, in order to both defuse and contain rebellious possibilities, and also to create more avenues for profit and exploitation (how much money is there in hip hop, graffiti and their spin-offs these days? In ’81 they were almost entirely outside of mainstream capitalism).
Another important change ‘The Impossible Class’ did not reflect is the massive restructuring of work. “Only a small, declining section of the working class has been able to sustain its job security and living standards (and even those workers only through increased overtime), while the rest get relegated to menial, insecure and part-time jobs. The restructuring in industry is fast removing the material basis for an identity in paid work, especially the link between effort and reward – reward both in terms of job enjoyment and wages. Unlike the 1930s, not only are few unemployed people willing to blame themselves, but their passive exclusion from wage-labour is gradually turning into an active rejection of such work, or at least of officially paid work.” Well yes, the restructuring of work that had already begun did result in some of these effects – and a half. The problem is their projection of a growing mass resistance to work itself as a result of this… 30 years later the precarious nature of everyone’s work, compared to say the 60s or 70s, is the defining feature of many of our lives. In a wider sense much of what defined ‘work’, say in the 1960s, has been almost turned on its head, or turned inside out. Traditionally middle class careers have been relatively ‘proletarianised’; job security has become a sick joke for millions; industries where unionisation was almost compulsory, in some cases where workers (at least through union structures) had sizable power over their conditions of labour have been decimated, and “savage management practices” have become almost universal. (To name but a few of the changes)
Agency, contract, ‘gig’ economy workers now make up a massive proportion of the workforce, making the line in The Impossible Class about reversing “the bourgeois relation of future/present by replacing deferred gratification (of National Insurance or pension payments) with immediate gratification in wages” a dark irony – many now exist on instant ‘gratification’ only, being unable to access the benefits of being on the cards. The gratification of being a paycheck from destitution.
And in a savage reversal of the lionisation of the cash in hand or black economy in the Impossible Class, million now subsist on terribly paid part time work on precarious or no contracts, only surviving by receiving state top-ups of ‘in-work’ benefits to scrape by.
Other sectors of the workforce bought wholesale into right to buy and mortgaging themselves to the hilt, encouraged by the state one the one hand as social housing was dismantled on the other. The profits now tied up in mortgages and private sector renting would make reversing this trend so catastrophic for UK capitalism that only a full-scale and sustained uprising would be powerful enough to rebuild cheap and universal social housing in the face of it… And people are hostages to fortune, too scared or tired to ‘rebel against work’.
But resistance to work, as a conscious political decision, has all but vanished in the UK. If only… People’s identification with their work, the sense that it is part of who they are fundamentally may have declined, cynicism and disaffection with the daily grind is rife… (But that was there before!) People have to diversify more and more, acquiring wide-ranging skills to enable them to balance on the edge of the precipice, one re-organisation or takeover away from redundancy, disaster… New migrant workforces, new rightwing grassroots anti-immigrant campaigns, have given the recent financial crisis a dark and (to those who lived through the 70s) familiar edge. That in many places (at least in London) what little remains of council housing is fast becoming a ghetto for migrants is another factor in this mix.
Structural changes in capitalism have gone hand in hand, with both gentrification and the reduction of social hsouing in inner city areas like Brixton, and a ruthless imposition of dole schemes that have militarized signing on, forced the unwaged into crap jobs or educational nowhere schemes. In the end the idea that a massive oppositional community based on conscious avoidance of the mainstream economy just didn’t pan out, though millions flitted between the dole, occasional work, some acquiring enough skills to gain a foothold, but footholds on a shaly slipface. There is of course an underground parallel world of dealing, cash in hand work… but our desires aside, it’s not resistance to wage labour – though we can take some small satisfaction in the flexibility it can allow, when we have better things to do, and the small joy of paying no tax at all when we can get away with it. On top of this, first the lack of work in the ’80s led some people into education as the only choice, then the boom times in the economy, and the injections of cash into education (especially under New Labour) did expand opportunity and possibility for many working class people. Trouble now is, that the current crisis has re-ordered the needs and priorities of global capital – hence we now have a surplus of graduates all learned up with nowhere to go. Much of the recent restlessness and increased political activism among graduates, actually an increasing phenomenon, allegedly a factor in such diverse events as the Arab Spring, Occupy and UKuncut and the ‘pay your tax’ campaigns, and most recently unrest in Brazil and Turkey… Although some of this has probably been over-emphasised.
Lots more could be written about the vast inflation of the sectors that administrate education, benefits, IT and consultancies etc – a huge subject that we can’t really cover here…
No go areas, dual power, spaces where community power might edge out the state and begin to run an area themselves, were discussed in the Impossible Class, as a realistic possibility. “Peaceful co-existence is impossible because one side or the other must win”. – well yes, the state can’t abandon an area and say openly it ain’t gonna police it. But the main reason why Brixton’s old frontline is now transformed into a largely peaceful, squat-free, nicey middle class street, somewhat empty of people (by 1981, or even 1991, standards), is that the state didn’t stop pushing – on many fronts – and we, to be frank, didn’t push hard enough back. Whether or not the majority of rioters, rebel youth, squatters etc consciously saw themselves as creating a new class, a new culture – which is debateable – its certain that such a project (or even just as contested space between state and urban disaffected) could survive only by keeping expanding , both in physical space (beyond the limited streets around Railton Road), and in social and economic terms, by the breaking down of boundaries, prejudices, class differences, more radical experimenting in communal living, shared survival techniques, racial and gender politics, and so on… A minority may have envisioned this and wanted/attempted to carry it out, but across the board it didn’t happen, or only for a fraction of time. But the mainstream of capitalist existence did keep expanding; in fact it continued to permeate the alternative ways of life and reign them in, bringing all sorts of cultural, political ideals back to the commodity economy. The middle class background of many of the 70s idealists who created many of these alternative lifestyles, the networks and social links they had, had a powerful influence here too; but this can be over-emphasised. In fact, whether for middle class activists, outside agitators, or leaders thrown up by the community, the gravitational pull of co-operation with state forces, in their myriad and sometimes disguised forms, proves very strong. When the movement for autonomy and insurgency falls back, fails to keep expanding and exceeding its own ambition, the ideas, interests, influence of this level of leadership and spokespeople enters into the vacuum.
You can’t create socialism in one country, the left used to repeat when the Soviet Union’s ultimate failure to give birth to communism was discussed. True. Nor in one London postcode neither. Brixton, Notting Hill, Stoke Newington, Peckham, St Pauls, parts of Nottingham or Manchester, many more, may have seemed to some at one time like they were embryos of a new society, but around them new social relations were in fact being created – from above, against us, by a clearer thinking, class-conscious cadre who knew how to transform the world in their interest, and take millions of working class people with them. The consequences of which we are still dealing with.
“Perhaps the impossible class can’t be found – until the next uprising.” To some extent, this is the most interesting point in the whole text – that such a class grouping might not be permanent, or always identical, a shifting community, flowing, mixing, evolving… and disappearing and re-appearing according to people’s needs. Needs being operative – the 81 riot came out of people’s immediate need – to fuck the police off and make them wary about tactics like Swamp ’81. The process of coming together may, yes, have created – temporarily – such an oppositional community, though it fell back into its constituent parts as the immediate uprising faltered.
It faltered because the only possibility for an uprising to survive is to push outward; but this could only have happened if there was (a) real potential for corresponding upheaval in other areas, and (b) a transformation of the social relations between people to go beyond fighting unity against the police.
There wasn’t (in April 81, though to some extent there may have been in July), a general spread of rebellion; and people may well just not have known how – or wanted – to take things forward. Uprisings are hard to sustain, but especially when they are taking place in relative isolation. The most glaring sentences in “We Want to Riot Not to Work’ are those reflecting how people immersed in the riot ventured out into the wider area and were shocked to find things hadn’t changed out there.
Brilliant as the riot may have been to those taking part, and as inspiration to many in other areas, and as effective it may have (debatably) been in reining in the cops in some, the jump from one upsurge to a more generalised social revolution, or even an attempt at one, needs a wholly different set of economic factors, relationships… This kind of ‘revolutionary upsurge’ may never happen in the way that anarchists, communists etc have traditionally pictured it – in the old nineteenth/twentieth century ‘first lets seize the telephone exchange’ pattern.
But to return to the idea of a disappearing and re-appearing class, which only exists, or at least only shows its existence, in moments of crisis for ‘capital’ and rebellion or rejection of the normal bounds for us, from below. To go beyond this impossible class only coming together in riots, we have to go beyond riots. To some extent, without being defeatist, the only ‘communism’, or liberated society, however you want to think of it, we may see, could be the moments, days, we grab and hold, snatching in defiance of the daily desperation. As much as we long for it, a Paris Commune or 1917-style mass uprising that actually ushers in a lovely new age for humanity is probably a long way off; if it ever comes about. Stretching things a bit, rather than there being an impossible class, could it be more like we sometimes create an impossible classlessness, an existence that can’t exist under the current conditions, yet it sometimes DOES spring to life when we make it. For a short while we break from relations defined by work, alienation, etc, to be able to connect with each other on a truly human level. Then we are forced by circ-yuk-stances back into the ‘reality’ and normality.
Just a theory…? but I have experienced it, in riots, dancing, sex, working with others on co-operative projects for ourselves, brill games played with kids and adults, most especially when I should have been working but threw it over for a bit.
I haven’t had time yet to think much about the issues raised in ‘The Impossible Class’ about street space as a battleground and issue, or long-term effects on social policy. Also I would be interesting to relate all of the above to the potential for collapse of a modern economy – see Argentina, for example, or to Occupy, etc. We’d be interested know what you think.
past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.
Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015