Stopping the UK’s looters By Alex Free

Pambazuka News

With all the current talk in the media about the riots on the streets of the UK, Alex Free argues that the focus should be on the real looters in the country and global economy at large.

The outbreak of rioting witnessed over the past few days in an increasing number of UK cities has produced astounding scenes of arson and theft, with groups of predominantly young people destroying local shops, cars and houses while grabbing whatever products they can find. Protests originally centred around Tottenham residents’ peaceful demands for answers in response to the dubious death of Mark Duggan following a fatal exchange with the police, but the resulting frustration served to catalyse an extreme response, ultimately providing the ignition for sustained riots. As the authorities attempt to get the situation under control, the mainstream media, alternative blogs and social networking sites are abuzz with debate, exchanges and reactionary – and, at times, frankly alarming – suggestions in response to the unprecedented scenes.

The mainstream media in the UK has come in for criticism owing to its inability or unwillingness to engage with and discuss the broader context behind the riots – a limitation which you might say is largely consistent with so much of the bit-part, lop-sided coverage around every topic from chronic food insecurity in East Africa to the presumption of an Islamic element in Norway’s recent terrorist atrocity. There is in essence a ‘crisis of perspectives’, with minimal progressive discussion of root causes and practically zero space for local voices (save in caricatured form). One clip doing the rounds features long-time broadcaster and columnist Darcus Howe in an interview with a BBC presenter, with Howe attempting to explain local people’s experiences only to be himself disrespectfully accused of previous rioting (though managing to allude to the social dislocation seen elsewhere in the world in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Trinidad & Tobago, Bahrain, Spain, the US, Yemen and Syria). Indeed, this media reticence has been mirrored by the reluctance of Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson to attach any socio-economic context to the scenes, but naturally you might expect them to shy away from such questions.


In any case, the terms gaining immediate currency within the media at large are instructive – ‘looting’, ‘feral’, ‘mindless’, ‘violence’, ‘destruction’, ‘theft’ – and might lead us to wonder why they are not employed in relation to the actions of those of far greater political clout and economic power. Just as we might juxtapose the biased emphasis on ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘rebels’ with that of ‘terrorists’ and ‘dissidents’, can we not also point to the difference in vernacular around other types of ‘looters’?

What of the politicians content to help themselves to the public purse, bailed-out bankers with enormous, seemingly unrestrained bonuses and corporate tax evaders (who are also frequently complicit in entrenched resource- and land-grabbing within Africa and the global South)? Why employ a different vocabulary to describe these figures to that used for out-of-control youths raiding a local shop? Where one group of looters is seen to be a deplorable, mindless, violent underclass (apparently only paid attention to when rioting rather than peacefully protesting),[1] others prove able to behave with virtual impunity on an infinitely greater scale, albeit without the tangible mess (with the violence involved administered more subtly). This is not to deny or underplay the major significance of what the UK’s cities are currently experiencing, but rather to ask why we see such a sharp distinction between the response to these scenes and what we might term as ‘legalised looting’.


What could these examples of ‘legalised looting’ be? If we try to re-appropriate the definition of looting, we could for example point to multinational tax avoidance (by companies such as Vodafone and Barclays), governments’ willingness to deregulate and subsequently bail out the global banking system (yielding enormous profits for those originally responsible and precipitating widespread austerity measures and public-spending cuts) and British MPs’ enthusiasm for claiming wildly excessive expenses. Harnessing the opportunities presented by the rise of tax havens and the offshore economy, Vodafone for example escaped paying an estimated UK£6 billion in tax, while Barclays is allegedly able to dodge around UK£1 billion a year.

Tax evasion is a practice that occurs on a far grander scale within African countries as part of the broader problem of licit and illicit capital flight through tax dodging, under-reported profits and corruption – in essence, an element of the global South’s subsidising of the North. For example, Léonce Ndikumana and James Boyce have estimated the capital flight from 40 sub-Saharan African countries over the period 1970–2004 to be some US$420 billion (in 2004 dollars).[2] As a broader backdrop to the story of looting writ large, we could also underline the hegemony of neoliberal policy worldwide over the past 30 years or so, a policy that has underpinned increasingly more acute social and economic disparities and further facilitated the concentration of wealth and power within an ever smaller number of hands.

Further historical and contemporary examples of under-acknowledged looting are provided by the practice of resource-grabbing and the story of much of the Western world’s activities in Africa and the global South at large (whether it be oil, arable land or even people) – activities that go back at least as far as the advent of the transatlantic slave trade. If those rioting in the UK are to be condemned, the same standards should be applied to those happy to ‘outsource’ their violence and environmental degradation – from Shell’s murderous collusion with Nigeria’s authorities in the Niger Delta and the controversy around labour conditions within the Firestone company in Liberia to the activities of the US AFRICOM (Africa Command) programme and the intervention in Libya.

Indeed, if we look at the UK’s current contribution to NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) invasion of a sovereign African country (whose leader has fallen out of their favour), how is it that there is money for self-interested war-mongering and an illegal occupation aimed at resource extrapolation[2] yet none to develop the kind of community-regeneration initiatives that would have gone a long way towards preventing the events seen in the UK’s cities over the past week? Is this violence an unfortunate spin-off of dominant free market economic policy? Why is there not far greater emphasis on NATO’s killing of innocent civilians in Libya (and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan)? And might Gaddafi look to recognise the UK’s own brand of rebels as the country’s new legitimate and official government?

Which looting is greater, more systematised, more problematic, senseless, violent and destructive? Could we say that one looting is ultimately a symptom of another? And what are we to make of the hypocrisy behind David Cameron’s own past form as a thug and gang member who would smash up private property with the infamous Oxford Bullingdon Club?


As a means of addressing socio-economic deprivation (and even cultural marginalisation), a holistic anti-looting policy would entail going after the practice in its most ‘high-brow’ form. Taking inspiration from certain existing ideas – albeit suggested in relation to street looters – and in a bid to move away from big business greed and towards social need, maybe we could turn things on their head and employ some of the proposed measures to contain those doing the most damage:

– a curfew: countries’ leaders, multinational CEOs, bankers, corporate tax lawyers and dubious MPs alike would be restricted in their movements
– phone data and personal details taken: with ordinary citizens fearing being monitored prior to actually committing a crime, figures of power should be the first to be under surveillance to ensure they do nothing underhand or larcenous
– the army: increased defence spending and militarisation are part of the problem, so in fact it’s probably best to leave the army out of it
– water cannon: to be used when all else fails.

Less flippantly, when it comes to those looting on the streets of the UK, the country needs to focus on the actual social conditions behind why we are seeing rioting. Likewise, we need to dare to imagine alternatives and work towards clamping down on more high-brow forms of looting and the system which fosters it. In a context in which the riots are themselves a product of increased unemployment, dispossession, imprisonment and police harassment, calls for more of the same policy and reaction will simply produce more of the same conditions.


* Alex Free is assistant editor of Pambazuka News.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] A man in Tottenham commented: ‘Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night, a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.’:
[2] Tax Justice Network-Africa, ‘Tax Us If You Can: Why Africa Should Stand Up for Tax Justice’, Pambazuka Press, 2011
[3] The UK’s contribution to the Libya intervention reportedly amounts to some UK£3 million a day:

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