Leave your wife, leave your mistress.
Leave your hopes and fears.
Drop your kids in the middle of nowhere.
Leave the substance for the shadow.
Leave behind, if need be, your comfortable life and promising future.
Take to the highways.
– André Breton, 1922
As far as I’m aware, so far only three responses to the UK riots have been published by Surrealists, either in the UK itself or elsewhere. (If there have been others that I’m unaware of, please let me know by posting links as comments below.) One of these was issued by the Surrealist London Action Group (SLAG), and makes essentially the same argument as the makers of this video, which appeared a couple of days later: that the riots were not about looting or consumerism, but were direct confrontations with the police. That being the case, it is hard to see the riots as anything other than absolutely political.
But the more common Surrealist response to rioting nowadays – insofar as there is any response at all – is to treat it with a mixture of condescension and scorn. In the case of the UK riots, the focus of all this lofty affect has been the “looting” that accompanied the disturbances, and which the police, government and mainstream media all worked so hard and apparently so successfully to present as the motor of the events rather than merely its bandwagon. In anticipation of later Tory claims that the cause of the riots was “materialist consumerism” and “celebrity culture”, one British Surrealist, for example, wrote:
That [the rioters] were intent only on looting consumer goods and causing as much damage as possible speaks volumes. Were they all, to a man, (or boy) utterly devoid of concern for their fellow citizens? […] Were they aware of the likely backlash, especially from the far right? […] It seems highly unlikely that any such though occurred to any of the rioters, but it might well be something they bring on themselves and on the rest of us. […] The rioting and looting was, in part, due to a lack of imagination and this, at least, is not the fault of the rioters. They live in a society that denigrates imagination and every value except for the most vacuous and greedy consumerism and celebrity culture.
The (exclusively male) rioters here are little more than consumerist zombies, with “no particular political intention and little political consciousness” of their own, whose actions need interpreting by wiser and more imaginative heads, and what’s more they’ve gone and provoked a backlash not just against themselves but also against “us”, their “fellow citizens”. The only other Surrealist response to date, while more politically thoughtful, still insisted on using the word “looter” as a synonym for “rioter”. This attitude carries unfortunate echoes of the Paris Surrealist Group’s description in November 2005 of riots there as:
A movement without strategy, a movement more prone to gaze at itself on television screens, drawing its ephemeral strength from the media coverage it produces […] A movement without spirit or class consciousness […] In everyday life many of this mob are detestable; some are numbed by religion, many alienated by consumerism, or enthusiasts of masculine values […] Most of this mob would certainly not be friendly to us. […] It will be necessary for them to draw on the lessons of their recent experience in order to gain lucidity. […] They must have done with […] stupid gang rivalry […] And finally, they must learn to choose more directly political targets.
“What I can only describe as feral youths, feral rats, just these teems of young 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds that were just in gangs on the streets …” (video, 02:46). The Paris statement was furiously and rightly denounced at the time by other Surrealists; all the more disappointing, therefore, that these pusillanimous and patronising attitudes among Surrealists should rear their head again now, when the political situation on the streets is more acute than ever. The burning exception to this general defensiveness in the face of youth revolts is the Athens Surrealist Group, who in December 2008 needed no reminding that the phantom of liberty always comes with a knife between the teeth and promptly took to the streets themselves.
As interview footage in this video and elsewhere should have amply demonstrated, many of the rioters were perfectly able to articulate their political intentions and political consciousness, not least their consciousness that “we” are not their fellow citizens. “The perpetrators of the system, and those that desperately cling to it, are refusing to acknowledge this wider context” (video, 24:31). “We” Surrealists may not be the perpetrators of the system, but most of us still cling – often precariously, sometimes fearfully – to at least some aspects of it. Our poorly paid jobs, our shabby homes, our clapped-out cars and laptops, our unmurdered friends and relations may be all we have, but it’s more than many of those who took to the streets in August. “We” still have something to lose; we still have not left everything and taken to the highways.