From strikes to riots, there’s going to be a lot more social unrest as the cost-of-living crisis spirals out of control – here’s what you can expect
The idea that we’re facing a ‘summer of discontent’ emerged in June, but unlike most media buzzwords, the term has only become more relevant as time goes on. Across the UK, there is a feeling of escalation and volatility, perhaps even incipient collapse: the NHS is under such strain that people are having to wait hours for ambulances, even in the most life-threatening scenarios, and being left on trolleys for days on end. Energy bills are expected to rise to £500 in January (around a quarter of the median take-home pay) while at the same time British Gas are enjoying soaring profits. Wages have continued to stagnate, which, at a time of rising inflation, means that many people have effectively undergone a significant pay cut. In response, the Tory leadership candidates have laid out plans to quash the unions, who are at this stage the only force in society willing or able to address the problem. Labour – who yesterday fired Shadow Transport Secretary Sam Tarry after he appeared at a picket line – are hardly any better. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that a Starmer-led government won’t provide anything near to the kind of transformative solutions that we so desperately need.
The real fight lies elsewhere: alongside the anger and the suffering, there’s also the sense in the UK that new possibilities are emerging. This is partly due to the resurgence of the labour movement, which started with the RMT strike in June. Since then, the Communication Workers Union has announced that thousands of Royal Mail and BT staff have balloted to strike, and further industrial action is on the cards from a number of key sectors, including teachers and nurses. RMT leader Mick Lynch has warned that, should Liz Truss get elected and carry out the anti-union measures she has pledged, “there will be the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement, rivalling the general strike of 1926, the suffragettes and Chartism.” While it might not happen this summer precisely, there is plenty of reason to think that things are going to kick off in a big way – strikes could soon be the least of the establishment’s worries. To find out how this might play out, Dazed spoke to Sarah Jaffe, a labour reporter and the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exhausted, Exploited and Alone, and Joshua Clover, the author of Strike. Riot. Strike: The New Era of Uprisings.
IS IT TIME TO STRIKE?
While industrial action has taken place in recent memory – often without entering the national consciousness – this latest round feels different. If you’re below a certain age, this is likely to be the largest and most impactful set of strikes you will have experienced within your lifetime. “It’s definitely significant because the last 30 years has mostly been unions getting their asses kicked,” says Jaffe. “To see them taking this kind of action tells us that something has shifted in the post-COVID moment and that workers have had enough. It’s exciting. And it does make you think differently about how you can do politics.”
The possibility of a general strike (where a substantial proportion of workers across different industries down tools and walk out) is getting a lot of attention, inspiring both outrage and giddy anticipation. But for the left, this might be an instance of wishful thinking. “It’s probably not going to happen,” says Jaffe. “I never want to say never, because things are really bad right now and a lot of things could pop off. But a general strike is just not going to happen by people tweeting about it. It would take actually organising your coworkers, collaborating with other people across industries and being willing to take risks when you see other people go out.” While Lynch has signalled his support for a general strike, he too has suggested that we might not see one in the traditional sense and that a “wave of solidarity action” could be more likely.
Even if a general strike doesn’t happen, a similar effect could be achieved by a relatively small number of strategic industries taking action simultaneously. Some sectors have the potential to be far more disruptive than others. “Something like a rail strike has an immediate impact on lots of people, so it’s an important strategic industry,” explains Jaffe. The same goes for public school teachers, NHS workers and the unions involved in transport, while logistics workers in the private sector – such as people who work in warehouses and ports – have a unique capacity to prevent the flow of commerce. In lieu of a general strike in the traditional sense, we could see labour action in multiple industries coordinating with other forms of organising, such as the movement against the Policing and Crime Bill. “These are the dots that people could be connecting now,” says Jaffe. This kind of convergence could be extremely painful for an already weakened Conservative government.
OR IS IT TIME TO RIOT?
Alongside industrial action, it’s likely that we will soon see less organised forms of social unrest – even the mild-mannered, money-saving expert Martin Lewis has been sounding the alarm. Riots are complex, and rarely arise from a single factor, but a lot of the typical conditions are already in place. “Over the last ten or 20 years, if I had to name a single bullet predictor, it has been the price of fuel, either for heating or transportation costs,” Joshua Clover, the author of Strike.Riot.Strike, tells Dazed. This summer, we have seen fuel price protesters blocking motorways across the UK, a tactic which is emerging as a dominant form of social contestation. Food prices are no longer a reliable predictive factor, according to Clover, but they are the historic heart of the riot: something the government might want to consider as security tags start appearing on baby milk and cheese. It’s tempting, for me anyway, to welcome the prospect of rioting in the UK, but there is good reason to curtail that impulse. In the modern era, riots are almost always sparked by an instance of racist police violence: consider the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis two summers ago, or the murder of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, which set London ablaze in 2011. So while it’s not inconceivable that riots could erupt in the UK this year, there would almost certainly need to be some kind of horrifying precipitating event. Looking at it this way, it’s hard to feel too excited by the idea.
On the other hand, as Clover argues, riots can perform a necessary social function. To understand why, it’s helpful to consider the concept of “surplus population”, which refers to people excluded from the conventional economy. This could take the form of unemployment, precarious gig work, or relying on informal labour which isn’t always legal (such as selling drugs.) In the UK, the constitution of the surplus population is highly racialised, often comprises immigrants from the global south – but due to technological advances, increasing numbers of white middle-class professionals are being plunged into precarity too, albeit rarely to the same extent. Because people within this demographic are typically excluded from conventional work, they are unable to participate in formal labour action (such as going on strike) to change their conditions. “They’re going to engage in the kind of struggles that get called ‘riots’, and these won’t involve working conditions or how much a formal wage is going to be,” explains Clover. In this sense, what we call ‘rioting’ is for some people the only effective means of social contestation. These demographics are already subject to harsher policing, which increases the likelihood of a precipitating event. “That’s how you manage surplus populations,” says Clover. “We’re talking about communities that are subjected to constant police violence, harassment and threat. That’s the condition for these struggles, and it seems implausible that intensifying those conditions wouldn’t end up intensifying the struggles in turn.”
Riots aren’t just a way of making a statement: according to Clover, they have historically been successful in winning reforms, changing housing and policing policy, and generally bettering people’s conditions. “Social unrest can be a good thing, absolutely,” he says. “The big picture is we’re in the middle of an irreversible decline in the west. The US is leading the way downwards into darkness but the UK will certainly follow. That decline manifests itself in different ways. It makes things feel quite chaotic and volatile. It makes the state more invested in imposing order through violence. It makes the right – everyone from white supremacists to TERFs – more invested in reimposing various social hierarchies about the correct race to be and the correct way to do gender.” In this context, there is power – and perhaps a sense of jubilance – in refusing to accept the violent order that these forces are attempting to impose. “I’m not that invested in the feeling of agency,” Clover says. “I am deeply invested in what people do with the agency which they really do have. But the sense that you don’t have to accept the violent imposition of hierarchy and social order, and can instead try to make your own – that is really important.”
It’s clear that the government is happy for some groups of people to remain immiserated, but the course we are on now is surely unsustainable. Something has to give. Whether it’s a strong labour movement, direct action, or other forms of civil disobedience, there are causes for optimism – even if the problems we’re facing seem vast and insurmountable. “The real challenge now is that we have a diminishing amount of time to fight climate catastrophe and it is increasingly clear that capitalism will just keep setting the world on fire,” says Jaffe. “But there’s always hope. It’s always a question of struggle and we just have to win. At this moment, the government is collapsing; the Tories are weak; Labour is useless. The good fight is in the streets.”