Tag Archives: riots

Redundancy, Precariety and Surplus Populations

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt of Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

The second round-table at Birkbeck’s Surplus symposium looked at issues within the UK. The panel consisted of human geographer, Danny Dorling (Sheffield), economist James Meadway (New Economics Foundation), philosopher Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths) and ethnographer Lisa McKenzie (Nottingham), chaired by arts activist and academic, Sophie Hope of Birkbeck’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

Danny Dorling began by saying that the UN estimate of a world population of 10 billion by 2050 is a good news story. Since 1492 Europe has seen a massive population increase, which has gone hand in hand with the spread of capitalism as more people offer bigger markets. However, having a large surplus population will become unsustainable as the population begins to decline. Danny argues that when the market ceases to grow, the current mode of economics will be unable to continue, noting that capitalism has not proven to be very resilient to slowing down.

Alberto Toscano stated that an absolute increase in population leads to an increased relative surplus population. By surplus population he referred to the unemployed or unoccupied. This surplus population should not be treated as a natural phenomenon, he argues, but as a politicized issue, as it is political and state practices which lead people to be expelled from the workplace. Adding to the paradoxes outlined in the first round-table, Alberto highlighted how we are creating an increasingly vast (potential) working population while simultaneously expelling this same population from the workforce. He later described how sometimes the surplus population is deliberately made invisible for profit, for example in the case of undocumented migrants who often work for lower wages and worse conditions.

Lisa McKenzie shared her research from the St Ann’s estate in Nottingham City Centre. She has spent the last three years working with young men from the estate and explains how the majority of them are unemployed, underemployed or ‘grafting’ (working in the underground economy) as a result of the decline of industry in the area and lack of employment opportunities. She wryly noted that while Marx wrote that “In communist society…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”, one of the men in her study drove an Asda delivery van in the mornings and dealt drugs in the afternoon.

Following Lisa’s description of the sense of redundancy, and suspicions of a conspiracy by government and bankers among the men on St Ann’s estate, Danny said that unemployment levels are not a good barometer by which to measure success of a society. Our unemployment levels are lower than Spain’s only because our benefits are less generous.  Low unemployment may simply be a measure of how willing that society is to force its citizen into unvalued, low-status work. Alberto took up this argument, saying that often the discourse of the Left is too close to the discourse of government, with job creation being seen as the holy grail.

James Meadway also continued on from Danny’s point, saying that although the UK’s unemployment may be lower than other EU countries’, underemployment has “gone through the roof” since the financial crash and will continue to get worse. Since the breakup of the post-war productive state, the UK has become a transfer state, he argued. And since 2008 the transfer has been working in the wrong direction, from the welfare state, towards the City of London.

Danny noted that in the 1960s the average (male) worker’s wage had never been higher and that the average banker’s wage was only six times that of the average wage, and only four times higher after tax. The current money surplus around the world “reeks of desperation”, he said and asked the panel and the audience what the best way to user in something better than what we’ve got might be, leading us into a lively discussion with audience members.

Listen to the podcast of the round-table.


‘Riot From Wrong’ Film Screening

This post was contributed by Fraser Alcorn, an LLB Law student and member of the Birkbeck Law Society.

The media coverage of the riots that swept through London last August may have decreased in the past few months, but the realities of many of the social injustices that brought them about are still being felt. ‘Riot from Wrong’ is a documentary film created by a group of 19 young people that intends to get to the underlying issues that led to the widespread social unrest and to challenge the perception and media representation of those involved. Birkbeck Law School and student Law Society hosted a screening of the film and a Q&A with the filmmakers at the Birkbeck Cinema on Saturday 24 November.

Primarily focusing on the local community in Tottenham where Mark Duggan’s shooting at the hands of police began four days of mass civil disobedience, but bringing in stories from across London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, the documentary is unique in gathering perspectives from those involved in rioting and looting alongside interviews with politicians and journalists. The filmmakers have succeeded in producing a slick and insightful examination of the complex realities behind the riots, moving the focus away from the rhetoric of a ‘feral youth’ and onto the unfair and prejudiced treatment of whole communities. Citing the 75% cuts to Youth Services budget, police mistreatment and stereotyping of young people through ‘stop and search’ procedures, as well as tracing the Thatcherite obsession with the individual to the detriment of society, the film provides a strong condemnation of the short-minded policies that produced and continue to produce a young population with few opportunities. That BBC News had commissioned the young filmmakers to produce a piece for broadcast – the first time this has ever been done – should stand testament to the quality of their work.

L-R: Teddy Nygh, Alex Simpson, Kye Taliana, Philli Glenn, Eddis Ozcelik.

Four of the team involved in making the film kindly joined us for a Q&A after the screening; Alex Simpson, Kye Taliana, Eddis Ozcelik, and Philli Glenn, along with director Teddy Nygh. Feedback from the audience was resoundingly positive and the team proved to be an engaging and thoughtful bunch to talk with. Considering that they experienced the beginning of the riots first-hand while filming, and put the film together as blame was being piled upon an unfairly demonised youth, their level-headed and considered opinions were heartening. That’s not to say they shied away from demanding that the powers that be need to take responsibility for their actions, and with around 30 screenings under their collective belts, including one at the Houses of Parliament, their direct approach is making waves in the right places. Far from resting on their laurels though, they talked about their desire to get more young people motivated in their cause with their ‘Million Youth Movement’, together with plans to shoot a new film explaining how to get involved in local politics with the intention of giving more voice to young people in Britain.

The ‘Big Society’ is a horrible term that suggests that people need to be reminded to care about our own communities. It too easily takes ownership of the positive work of a few and claims it as proof of the value of a valueless government initiative, where in fact that work has happened despite the absence of state support. This film is the product of a group of young people coming together in the most positive way possible to create something truly informative and perceptive, and it would be quite wrong for it to be held up by government as an example of how the young ‘should’ behave; Britain’s youth should hold it up to government to demand to know why they are having to address and resolve issues they had no hand in creating.

The next public screening is at The Salisbury in Tottenham on Sun Dec 9th. For more information follow the team on Twitter @UKFullyFocused & @RiotFromWrong . Watch the trailer here.

Follow Birkbeck Law Society @BirkbeckLawSoc or contact us at birkbecklawsociety@gmail.com


Weird Council: the writing of China Miéville

This post was written by Mark Blacklock, a postgraduate student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. He also blogs at kulchermulcher.wordpress.com.

The Weird Council conference will take place at Birkbeck on 15 September 2012.

China Miéville is many things: a master teratologist, creator of arguably the finest monsters since H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu slithered through the pages of fiction; a Trotskyite and left-political theorist; a professor; a self-confessed geek and drum’n’bass-head. Most significantly, though, he’s one of the few novelists changing the future of the novel.

Since an issue of the SF journal Extrapolation was devoted to his work in 2009, Miéville has won the Hugo Award twice for novels that have had enormous fun with the elastic category of genre – so much so that mainstream critics have more than once mentioned his name in conjunction with the starriest of literary prizes, the Man Booker. From the scholarly sidelines, what is most exciting about this is that the novels in question – The City and The City (2010) and Embassytown (2012) – were complex narrative explorations of interstitial space and the intricacies of linguistic signification respectively. These aren’t the kinds of ideas that often win literary prizes in love with realism, lyricism and character. Miéville isn’t one of those writers.

His recent address to the Edinburgh book festival gives a good indication of the sort of writer he is. Steeped in canon-warping and lightly worn erudition, it considered not only ‘What is literature, and what do we want from it?’ but possible futures for the novel. He declared his ‘anguished optimis[m]’ for the survival of the form, aiming a well-judged swipe at the impressively advanced practitioners of what Zadie Smith terms ‘lyrical realism’ who so fear change in the market that has so well fed them that they also fear innovation, particularly as represented by ‘the dead hand of Modernism’. Miéville’s appreciation of the possibilities of the crowd-remixed and re-edited novel will surely not have provided much succour to such types, but from this perspective it makes for tremendously exciting reading. We are still waiting for the Plunderphonic of fiction, but when a piece of literature to match John Oswald’s brilliantly ground-breaking album of sample-based serialism emerges, it sure will be fun.

At the risk of simply compiling a bibliography of his recent work, of similar interest is Miéville’s web-essay dealing with last summer’s riots, ‘London’s Overthrow’, published in abridged form in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. Here, Miéville’s political ideology informed a hybrid essay – not quite journalism, not quite psychogeography, not quite fiction, but something combining all three – to offer a more sympathetic consideration of the socio-political climate than could be found in most sources.

What was originally planned as a one-day symposium last year grew rapidly to two days, the opportunity to misread the author’s work in his presence too great for scholarly enthusiasts to pass up. The ideas in which Miéville works – weird fiction, monsters, left politics, hybridity,  space – will be considered by twenty six speakers, before the author himself takes the stage for a Q&A and reading. Those of us trying to conceal our fandom beneath the formalities of academic presentation, like meddlesome transdimensional tentacular outcroppings beneath long macs, probably won’t admit to looking forward to that session most of all.