Most of the cynical left that I am friends with and/or follow through social networks are pointing out that the ‘name’ celebrity academic/activists, such as Slajov Zizek, Antonio Negri or Alain Badiou, will proclaim that the London riots signal the death of capitalism. Capitalism is an event, repeated in different ways throughout history. There is a history of development that describes the conditions by which actually existing capitalism emerged, but even in the unlikely event of a ‘communist utopia’, the event of capitalism will be repeated in different ways. Rather than the death of ‘capitalism’, the London riots, as well as many other events around the world, signal the death of myths around ‘value’. At a macro level, ‘value’ has little meaning.
I’ve been thinking about this as a peripheral issue of a paper I am writing regarding the changes to the industrial manufacturing landscape in Australia in the 1980s. Various conceptions of ‘value’ are no longer useful. The marxist conception of value is not really relevant anymore when there is a massive disjunction between the ‘value’ extracted from the labour that has gone into producing most consumer goods versus that which has been exchanged to buy such consumer goods (with ‘profit’ realised in the exchange, the normative ‘capitalist’ definition of value). Both of these ‘values’ have been utterly annihlated in relation to the ‘value’ of financial markets. That is, it doesn’t really matter how or where surplus value is extracted from workers when the entire ‘value’ of countries is exchanged through speculative markets. But even this is currently troubled, particularly in the exchange of debt. Restricted access to consumer debt means it can’t be used as a method of social control. As Terry Wassall has suggested:
If the main means of social control are fear and debt how do you control people with no fear, no credit, no future and nothing to lose?
On the more nebulus end of the spectrum, there is little ‘value’ in ‘respectability’ (working class) or ‘carrying on’ (middle class) when the situation in a given social context won’t get better. In the context of disenfranchised youth, the ‘value’ of education has been diminished by the lack of opportunities versus the cost relative to the those who have not pursued further education. More often than not, the concept of ‘dignity’ is used as a weapon, if it exists, or it has been destroyed by the existential scorched earth of consumerism. Zygmunt Bauman has descibed the riots as a social minefield made up of defective consumers:
For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled â€“ and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.
That is too easy. Besides a variation of the anomic reactionary values of belonging that in Australia we would call ‘mateship’, consumerism is the only possibility of ‘value’ allowed to most disenfranchised youth. It is not the value in itself they need, but a system of value that is available to them when all others have been ruthlessly destroyed and access denied. This has been a very long process. Decades. All possible social supports are eroded across a range of mechanisms from the architectural design of public housing that is designed for efficiency over community to more topical issues of support such as direct welfare payments. With recent ‘austerity’ packages in various national contexts, the structural conditions of possibility are even further diminished. Surely everyone can understand the rioters are not stupid, but frustrated; they not only understand this, but feel it and live it?
The soft machinery of capitalism will have to produce new ‘values’ and that will be the eventual response in the UK. A group will be isolated as the ‘problem’, become targets and not simply removed but used as a resource for political capital. It is a common pattern for neo-liberal governments who refuse to actually solve problems. The best result will involve the production of ‘value’ at a community-level or maybe even subcultural-level. (This is what needs to be taken from the majestic BCCCS studies of youth; they produced ‘value’ for themselves when they were otherwise also mostly inscribed as surplus humanity.)