David Harvey on the English riots: Feral capitalism hits the streets

A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery, particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected, has become the order of the day

by David Harvey

“Nihilistic and feral teenagers” the Daily Mail called them: the crazy youths from all walks of life who raced around the streets mindlessly and desperately hurling bricks, stones and bottles at the cops while looting here and setting bonfires there, leading the authorities on a merry chase of catch-as-catch-can as they tweeted their way from one strategic target to another.

The word “feral” pulled me up short. It reminded me of how the communards in Paris in 1871 were depicted as wild animals, as hyenas, that deserved to be (and often were) summarily executed in the name of the sanctity of private property, morality, religion, and the family.

But then the word conjured up another association: Tony Blair attacking the “feral media,” having for so long been comfortably lodged in the left pocket of Rupert Murdoch only later to be substituted as Murdoch reached into his right pocket to pluck out David Cameron.

There will of course be the usual hysterical debate between those prone to view the riots as a matter of pure, unbridled and inexcusable criminality, and those anxious to contextualize events against a background of bad policing; continuing racism and unjustified persecution of youths and minorities; mass unemployment of the young; burgeoning social deprivation; and a mindless politics of austerity that has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with the perpetuation and consolidation of personal wealth and power.

Some may even get around to condemning the meaningless and alienating qualities of so many jobs and so much of daily life in the midst of immense but unevenly distributed potentiality for human flourishing.

Rampantly Feral?

If we are lucky, we will have commissions and reports to say all over again what was said of Brixton and Toxteth in the Margaret Thatcher years. I say ‘lucky’ because the feral instincts of the current Prime Minister seem more attuned to turn on the water cannons, to call in the tear gas brigade and use the rubber bullets while pontificating unctuously about the loss of moral compass, the decline of civility and the sad deterioration of family values and discipline among errant youths.

But the problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth, telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills, shopkeepers price gouge, and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery, particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected, has become the order of the day.

Does anyone believe it is possible to find an honest capitalist, an honest banker, an honest politician, an honest shopkeeper or an honest police commissioner any more? Yes, they do exist. But only as a minority that everyone else regards as stupid. Get smart. Get easy profits. Defraud and steal! The odds of getting caught are low. And in any case there are plenty of ways to shield personal wealth from the costs of corporate malfeasance.

Thatcherism Unchained

What I say may sound shocking. Most of us don’t see it because we don’t want to. Certainly no politician dare say it and the press would only print it to heap scorn upon the sayer.

But my guess is that every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way — more blatantly and visibly in the streets.

Thatcherism unchained the feral instincts of capitalism (the “animal spirits” of the entrepreneur they coyly named it) and nothing has transpired to curb them since. Slash and burn is now openly the motto of the ruling classes pretty much everywhere.

This is the new normal in which we live. This is what the next grand commission of enquiry should address. Everyone, not just the rioters, should be held to account. Feral capitalism should be put on trial for crimes against humanity as well as for crimes against nature.

Sadly, this is what these mindless rioters cannot see or demand. Everything conspires to prevent us from seeing and demanding it also. This is why political power so hastily dons the robes of superior morality and unctuous reason so that no one might see it as so nakedly corrupt and stupidly irrational.

But there are various glimmers of hope and light around the world. The indignados movements in Spain and Greece, the revolutionary impulses in Latin America, the peasant movements in Asia, are all beginning to see through the vast scam that a predatory and feral global capitalism has unleashed upon the world.

What will it take for the rest of us to see and act upon it? How can we begin all over again? What direction should we take?

The answers are not easy. But one thing we do know for certain: we can only get to the right answers by asking the right questions.

David Harvey is Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. This article first appeared in his blog, Reading Marx’s Capital.

Posted in Featured, Protests & Revolts

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William Falberg
4 years 9 months ago
@Jeff White Wow! Someone finally raised the bar for an intelligent discussion of economy! Thank you. I’ll do my best to follow your reasoning but I’m not an economist, so have some mercy. You point out an aspect of capitalism I haven’t considered in isolation: the barefoot-in-the-jungle, survival-of-the-fittest, predatory nature of trade and trading. I don’t know which came first, the market or the government, but they must have evolved together through the ages as co-dependent entities in a world of mercantile chaos. I can’t recall any period in that span of time when the merchants were both proprietors and regulators until the Companies Act of 1862 in Britain and the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 in the US made it possible for corporate attorneys to usurp governing authority by the clever application of Law in a democratic republic ruled by Law under Constitutional authority. When the Law became sovereign, corporate lawyers became the well-paid mercenaries of a financial oligarchy responsible to themselves alone, outside the law. Capitalism, as I understand the term, is an economic system deriving its credibility by consent of all concerned. Corporatism, as I understand it it, is a political system deriving its authority through fiscal… Read more »
William Falberg
4 years 9 months ago

Hi Chris, I think you’re confusing capitalism with usury. Capitalism can shrink according to demand. Usury must grow and assimilate like a demented VAMPIRE PONZI BORG to live. But fear not; when humans become extinct they, too, will die.

Corporate usurers with the super-natural power to create money from nothing and cloud men’s minds are worse than anything sci-fi could imagine, aren’t they.

Jeff White
4 years 9 months ago
William Falberg said: Capitalism in the hands of humans is a good and fair system of conducting trade, but “Corporate Capitalism” introduces fictitious persons as immoral, immortal, and highly leveraged competitors with no regard for human values. This is a common misconception – that corporations, not capitalists, are responsible for the ills of the system. A moment’s reflection, however, will dispel this misconception. 1. Capitalism was not all that “good and fair” a system prior to the mid-nineteenth century when corporations were just beginning to become dominant, and most businesses were still sole proprietorships or partnerships. 2. Corporations are separate legal entities from people, but in actual practice they cannot exist without people. In fact, everything corporations do is done through human agents. The only reason corporations are legally separate is to shield their owners from personal legal liability for the harm they cause. 3. Corporations are just a convenient way for (human) capitalists to carry on business. They are subject to all the same economic laws and contradictions inherent in the capitalist system that apply to any unincorporated business. “Corporatism” is just another form of capitalism. 4. As a corollary to point 2: Corporations are amoral – that is,… Read more »
Chris Rodgers
4 years 9 months ago
If Capitalism ever did work it certainly doesn’t now and would eventually always run into the limits of our planetary ecosystem. In Capitalism as we know it, the economy must continue to grow. I understood as a child that my ant farm was a limited environment, at least limited in space. As a young adult I viewed the photos of the earth from outer space and was never again comfortable when economists or the government talked about how much the economy had grown each year and who’s goal seemed to be increasing incomes for all and therefore more consuming/buying each year. My point is that I have always known in my gut that there is only so much in the way of material, space, air and water on the planet and it doesn’t matter how great our technology is. Even technology is made out of material, therefore takes up space and often uses huge amounts of fresh water while at the same time needing air, land and water in which to dump its waste. Capitalism requires growth and that simply isn’t possible any longer. Capitalism wasn’t inclined to restrain itself in order to keep functioning longer, before things got this… Read more »
William Falberg
4 years 9 months ago

Well said and entirely correct; with the exception that David’s use of “capitalism” would have been more meaningful if he had qualified it with “corporate”.

Capitalism in the hands of humans is a good and fair system of conducting trade, but “Corporate Capitalism” introduces fictitious persons as immoral, immortal, and highly leveraged competitors with no regard for human values. It is the global nature of unrestrained corporatism that drives out civic and cultural integrity in sovereign societies. I say we “charter” them to death. Starting with the USA.

4 years 9 months ago

“these mindless rioters” This is plain classism.

sheila lockwood
4 years 9 months ago

I still believe in ‘the raising of consciousness’ as a vital element and as stated- other countries are ahead of us in this respect–the fereral gangs here are consumed by consumerism as are most of society—maybe this is the stage for change–the increased opportunity to get the wheels in motion—unfortunately Cameron is set on a different route–more repression, more stamping on the vulnerable.

Will Morgan
4 years 9 months ago

But there is nothing new in all of this. Moreover, the collaspe of society we are witnessing could and was predicted by those who have always known that private greed unchecked by any better impulses would bring us to ruin. Every period of history where the arts and the economy flourished is a counter-example to the gross stupidity of running a society on greed alone. Start by asking the Bankers themselves if they are happy. Even the poor whom they have victimized are happier.

4 years 9 months ago

Thatcher was following Milton Friedman who believed that socialism eventually leads to mass enslavement. He thought Chiles dictator Pinochet was doing the right thing by torturing people in order to liberalize markets. He was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s ideas that altruism is evil and selfishness is good.
The rot we see in capitalism/government is mainly because of Milton Friedman. A clever man no doubt but probably a functioning psychopath whose ideas only purpose was for the benefit of Milton Friedman.
His ideology at least made him incapable of performing his function – you cannot be an economist if your only concern is yourself.

4 years 9 months ago

Society existed to protect the poor from the excesses of the rich when Thatcher declared there was “no such thing as society” the bedrock was laid for todays ‘feralism’.

Margaret Voit
4 years 9 months ago

Thank you for the term “feral capitalism”. I have been searching for a term to define this time in the world, you hit the nail. Your writing is clear and tells us what is going on.