When Freedom Is Slavery: The London Riots and Consumerism

Jessica Jensen


The London riots that occurred in the summer of 2011 resulted in a week of massive violence, destruction and the arrest of thousands. What began as protests over controversial circumstances of police violence devolved into terror and loss for fellow Londoners whose personal possessions, homes and shops were destroyed by the increasingly chaotic violence of the rioting. This essay draws upon Paolo Freire¡¯s conceptualization of oppression to illuminate the perplexing circumstances of the London riots by exposing the conditioned and subordinate relationship the oppressed have to dominant ideologies. Freire¡¯s theory demonstrates that while the rioting ostensibly mirrored the conspicuous consumption of mainstream culture, certain elements of the rioting, such as socio-geographical location, were a reproduction of a more obscured cultural trend: the devaluing of minorities and the poor.


In the summer of 2011, an unarmed young man named Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police during an investigative traffic stop in the London suburb of Tottenham (Laville & Lewis, Dodd & Davies, 2011). In response, a small, peaceful protest was organized by Duggan¡¯s friends and family in order to attract broader community attention to issues of institutional racism, discriminate police force and social justice. This protest quickly escalated into what later became known as the 2011 London riots: bursts of violence against police and townspeople, and the destruction of private and public property. These acts were loosely organized and vengefully perpetrated by crowds across London with decreasing relation to Mark Duggan, his family, or the events surrounding his death. The vandalism, arson, looting, and interpersonal violence that came to characterize the chaotic week of the riots resulted in the arrest of approximately 3,100 people with 1,100 of those people facing formal charges (The British Broadcasting Corporation, 2011).

The vandalizing and thieving of property irrespective of ownership or geographical proximity to the looters¡¯ own homes raises perplexing questions regarding the meaning and intent of the looters¡¯ actions following assertions that the riots were a form of ¡°protest¡± (Glenton & Gough, 2011). Curiously, the locations where the rioting occurred were not areas that represented high degrees of power or privilege, such as financial districts, affluent businesses, shopping or residential areas; rather, the affected areas represented high unemployment and minority group presence, particularly of African and Afro-Caribbean decent (Glenton & Gough, 2011; UK Polling Report, n.d.).

During the week of the riots, a Londoner named Pauline Pearce, a resident of one of the neighborhoods still erupting in violence, was captured in a video in which she was chastising looters for senselessly destroying their own struggling neighborhood. Pearce fearlessly shouted at them in the streets:

She¡¯s working hard to make her business work and then you lot want to go and burn it up? For what? Just to say you¡¯re warring and you¡¯re a bad man? This is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham. This ain¡¯t about having fun on the road and busting up the place. Get real, black people! Get real! Do it for a cause! If we¡¯re fighting for a cause, let¡¯s fight for a fucking cause! ¡­I¡¯m ashamed to be a Hackney person, because we¡¯re not gathering together and fighting for a cause, we¡¯re running down Foot Locker and thieving shoes! (Kingsley, 2011).

Pearce¡¯s statements suggest that if the underlying motivation for the riots lay in social oppression, then the actual locations and targets of the riots suggest that the violence was misdirected.

In a tone of similar bewilderment, philosopher Slavoj Zizek reflects on the meaning of the 2011 London riots in an article entitled, ¡°Shoplifters of the World Unite.¡± He notes, as Pauline Pearce and many journalists did, that the riots had a curious disconnect from a central message or social cause. Zizek (2011) writes:

From a revolutionary point of view, the problem with the riots is not the violence as such, but the fact that the violence is not truly self-assertive. It is impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival¡­The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit.

Zizek applies an explicitly ¡°revolutionary¡± perspective, but his point nevertheless aligns with Pearce¡¯s: this was violence without a ¡°programme¡± and thus without the self-awareness that is a prerequisite for effective social action.

Several aspects of the violent engagement with London police and citizenry speak to a disconnect between the underlying motivations for the riots and the actions of the rioters: the aggressive and intentional disregard for laws protecting private property, the destructive drive for unlawfully acquiring consumer goods in preference to more traditional forms of protest, and the paradoxical concentration of destruction and violence within the rioters¡¯ own neighborhoods and against their own neighbors¡ªLondoners struggling within similar socio-economic constraints.

The concept of oppression, as delineated by Paolo Freire, can help us unravel these perplexities. According to Freire (1993), oppression occurs through a systematic exposure to dehumanization, such as by injustice, exploitation and violence. Freire explains that dehumanization permeates the entirety of society and implicates all members as oppressors, as oppressed, or as both. Similarly, oppression is not always overt; very often it functions insidiously by infecting social norms, interpersonal interactions and institutional policy without either party recognizing it as oppression.

Freire¡¯s understanding of ¡°oppression¡± has similar characteristics to sociologist Johan Galtung¡¯s (1969) understanding of ¡°structural violence,¡± which Galtung describes in an article published one year after the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Galtung¡¯s definition of structural violence teases out the permeability and insidiousness that Freire suggests is characteristic of oppression. By introducing an extended concept of violence, Galtung goes beyond understanding violence simply as physical force in order to capture its institutional components. Galtung (1969) writes, ¡°Violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations¡­ at the hands of an actor who intends this to be the consequence¡± (p. 168). The Freirian tweak is that the oppressors are not necessarily aware of their role as such. Indeed, understanding one¡¯s relationship to oppression is complex. Freire (1993) writes, ¡°Almost always, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ¡®sub-oppressors.¡¯ [Because], their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity¡± (p. 45). The logic of oppression presumes that only through the oppression of another (by denying the other their humanity) is one able to erroneously experience agency or humanity for oneself.

During the London riots, the looters remained captive to the oppressive logic of consumerist ideology. Globalized consumer capitalism elevates consumerism to a primary function of identity creation, a consequence of which is the internalization of an oppressive model of ¡°self-realization¡± that demands one¡¯s ability to shop and consume. For some of those who are obstructed from meeting this cultural demand, a heightened sense of exclusion may validate their perception that amassing material possessions is one¡¯s ¡°right¡± as an expression of selfhood and mobility within a class-conscious democracy. As Bauman (2001) observes, ¡°The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life.¡± Paradoxically, those most excluded from the mandate of consumerist expression may feel the most invested in its supposed authority.

As observed by Zizek (2011) and Pearce (as cited by Kingsley, 2011), the rioters could not see the full ideological context of their behavior. They were without articulation, self-awareness, and the ability to possess ¡°the intentionality of consciousness¡± (Freire, 1993, p. 83). They sensed only that they were oppressed, but had an obfuscated sense of how or in relation to what. Thus, there was no ¡°critical intervention in reality because that reality [which they conceived of] is fictitious¡± (Freire, 1993, p. 52). This understanding is the key to unraveling the dialectical relationship between oppressed and oppressor. In order to stage a genuine and self-assertive intervention on behalf of social justice, the rioters would have had to accurately acknowledge the specific dynamics of their oppression by confronting their enslavement to consumerist culture. They would have had to confront their oppressors¡ªnot to demand their fair share of consumer goods¡ªbut to deny their necessity. Freire (1993) writes, ¡°A fact which is not denied but whose truths are rationalized loses its objective base¡± (p. 52). In order to authentically confront one¡¯s oppression, one must understand the dimensions of its objective reality: one must know its nature. The rioters would have had to recognize and refute the double bind that demands both their cheap labor and their insatiable consumerist desire. Without this consciousness, there is no revolution.

As previously mentioned, one of the most curious characteristics of the London riots was that the riots ignited in the rioters¡¯ own neighborhoods. It would seem a great deal more practical to express anger at sites representing privilege and power. Yet, this was not what happened. The rioters¡¯ choice of location supports Freire¡¯s assertion that ¡°the oppressed, who have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed¡­ are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires¡± (1993, p. 47). To confront one¡¯s oppressors on the oppressor¡¯s own turf is a qualitatively distinct form of confrontation, one that is much more revolutionary in nature and necessitates a more resilient commitment. It is likely that the rioters¡¯ conscious or unconscious choice of location largely reflects a fear of running the risk of such a confrontation. To instead disrupt the neighborhoods of oppressed populations is to comparatively mitigate the character and degree of community backlash. Rather than challenge dominant and oppressive ideologies, the violence preserves it.

Freire¡¯s concept of oppression leads to the conclusion that the rioters¡¯ choice of location is reflective of a more fundamental and unconscious fear¡ªa fear of freedom itself. To overthrow a system of domination and oppression is also to embrace the autonomy and responsibility that must come to exist in its place (Freire, 1993). As George Orwell poetically captured in his novel, 1984, the logic of oppression convinces us that our slavery is a kind of freedom. ¡°The oppressed¡­ discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized¡± (Freire, 1993, p. 48). This dialectic process of contradiction brings us to a sad conclusion about the London riots. We are not at the end of the struggle, but somewhere in the historical process of it¡ªwhere the rioters¡¯ choices to inflict pain and suffering back onto their own neighborhoods is a reflection of the self-contempt that they have come to internalize through their experiences of oppression. In order to become effective leaders and communicators of future protest, this inner struggle must first be resolved.


Bauman, Z. (2011, August 9). The London riots: On consumerism coming home to roost. Social Europe Journal (online). Retrieved from: http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/

The BBC online, (2011, August 15). England¡¯s week of riots. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14532532.

Geltung, J. (1969). Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(30), 167-191.

Glenton, J., and Gough, J. (2011, August 9). Darcus Howe¡¯s timely insurrection. Counterfire. Retrieved from: http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/163-resisting-austerity/14478-darcus-howes-timely-insurrection

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Kingsley, P. (2011, August 22). The Hackney heroine tells why she confronted the rioters. The Guardian UK. Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/22/why-hackney-heroine-confronted-rioters.

Laville, S., Lewis, P., Dodd, V., and Davies C. (2011, August 7). Doubts emerge over Duggan shooting as London burns. The Guardian online. Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/07/police-attack-london-burns

UK Polling Report for Tottenham, Hackney and Peckham. Retrieved from: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/guide/seat-profiles/tottenham/. See also: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/guide/seat-profiles/hackneynorthandstokenewington/. And: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/guide/seat-profiles/camberwellandpeckham/

Zizek, S. (2011, August 19). Shoplifters of the world unite. The London Review of Books (online). Retrieved from: http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite.


About the Author

Jessica Jensen earned a BA in Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a first year Community Organizing student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. Jessica is interested in learning about the ways in which group work and community organizing models empower individuals toward macro-level social change. She can be reached at jessross45@gmail.com.

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1 Comment

  1. The article above is articulate and well written. I am not biased. . .this is MY granddaughter!


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