'Times of the Riots' Alain Bertho

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Jun 11 2012 06:14
'Times of the Riots' Alain Bertho

Has anyone read Alain Bertho on the recent global history of riots in the last decade or so, up to the present? He is a French anthropologist who wrote a book called Le temps des émeutes (Times of the Riots?) in 2009. The book has not been translated into English. He seems interesting, and he has commented on the English riots, but as I don't speak or read French, I know almost nothing little about him.

So i'm wondering if someone who has read or listened to Bertho could share their thoughts on his analyis of riots.

He has a blog which details riots around the world. Wikipedia says this about him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Bertho

And here is an excerpt from an interview with him about the similarities between the English and French riots:

Journalist: Alain Bertho, you've been interviewed countless times after the 2005 riots in France. There are numerous differences between the French and British riots, e.g. in France state institutions had been targeted, such as libraries, schools, while in the UK shops were the main target, leading Owen Jones to label the events 'consumerist riots'. Do you think this vision reflects reality?

Alain Bertho: I think one of the things we must bear in mind is the fact that most of the recent riots (including in Greece in 2008 and in another 40 countries or so across the globe last year) all started with the death of a young person (sometimes several) where the responsibility of the police was under suspicion. This usually leads to an explosion of anger that comes as a surprise for those who have not been following events closely. I think this is a common point that we need to reflect on.
In general (although France is not England) years have gone by and I feel the conflict between young people and the authorities across the globe has worsened. The level of rioting was more violent in the UK than it had been in France in 2005.
Looting is an age-old form of rioting, rebellions have taken the shape of looting riots for centuries.
In 19th and 20th centuries' social conflicts, looting had been marginalised. The fact that we're seeing this form of rebellion start again is, I feel, a clear sign that the effects of social inequalities across the world are becoming greater, and especially in Europe and North America. Indeed, we are witnessing levels of social inequalities similar to those we witnessed 100 years ago or more, so seeing similar forms of rebellion is not that surprising to me...

J: But then what is the message in those riots? Is there a message and if there is, what is it?

AB: That's always the issue: when you start a riot, this is a very intense moment, people who riot take serious risks, not only physically during the riots but also later facing the criminal justice system. For them to make the collective decision to ignore this danger and riot, there must be a frustration and/or an anger that have become unbearable, and that can't be expressed through words anymore because there isn't a political space for these words to be expressed any longer. Of course people will say that there is no message, but it is because this message can not be articulated through words that riots happen in the first place. One must read the language of these acts to understand events. When words can be found again, as in Tunisia in December and January, then riots stop. In this case (UK) the riots started with silence and are ending in silence, so we can expect riots to happen again.

J: One could have thought that the social mix that we find in London, and the fact that rich and poor live side by side could have prevented this explosion. But Wayne Hartley says in the Guardian that actually the riots took place in areas with starkest inequalities living side by side. Can we say these inequalities inevitably led to the riots?

AB: the maps published by the Guardian are extremely interesting, the very precise mapping of rioting areas shows that riots took place virtually on the boarders between richest and poorest areas.
In 2005 reporters had asked young people in France why they had rioted and burnt cars in their own areas rather than in city centres or in areas where the rich lived, as they were blaming social inequalities, the authorities, etc. Here this is what they did, they burnt the luxury shops. This is a phenomenon we saw in France in October 2010 with students and young people from the suburbs marching together in city centres, as in Lyon, Dijon, even in St Denis, riots taking place in city centres, unlike in 2005. This shows we are witnessing not only the effects of inequalities becoming unbearable, but also the effect of their display in city centres and shopping areas becoming intolerable, and there are no words/political discourse to articulate this feeling.

(And by the way, I'm not an insurrectionist who fetishises riots, I'm interested in analysing the long-term trend in rioting, whether it will led to further class-struggle or not etc.)