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Violence, race and the State in Britain

Adam Elliott-Cooper

2012-12-06, Issue 609

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Following the August 2011 unrest in cities and towns across England, the British government’s response was emphatic criminalisation and pathologising of those involved, as well as a punitive state response

Violence in neoliberal Britain is consistently portrayed in the mainstream press as a phenomenon which takes place between individuals and groups in poor, often racialised spaces []. Theresa May, the Home Secretary,described [] those involved in the 2011 August Unrest as ‘career criminals’ quite distinct from the ‘law-abiding majority’. But neoliberalism and state security are also understood by scholars as manifestations of violence. The harm brought about by relative poverty, racism and state security means that rather than simply responding to violence, neoliberal policies foster its creation.


Influential academics frame the existence of violence in society as being inherent to certain ethnic groups and their cultures. The chief proponents of this view include Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations (1993) and Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy (1994). These theories empirically analyse specific racial and class groups, and make assumptions about their inherent propensity for violence based on socio-cultural and demographic indicators. Huntington and Kaplan both employ anecdotal evidence, which they use to infer forecasts for the spread of violence: ‘In Abidjan, effectively the capital of the Côte d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, restaurants have stick- and gun-wielding guards who walk you the fifteen feet or so between your car and the entrance, giving you an eerie taste of what American cities might be like in the future’.

Both scholars also utilise statistical data, including high crime and birth rates in certain countries, which are then extrapolated to explain why these countries are often in conflict with their neighbours. They draw morbid conclusions, particularly with regard to Muslims and people of African descent ‘where Western enlightenment has not yet penetrated’, warning that their perpetuation of crime, conflict and population growth will lead to increasing levels of international and inter-communal violence unless stopped. These texts have been hugely influential in Western state security and policy-making circles, particularly following 9/11, which is reflected both in their close relationship with Western governments, and the rhetorical and policy proposals which follow.


Following the August 2011 unrest in cities and towns across England, the government response was emphatic. Echoing the theories of Kaplan and Huntington, Prime Minister David Cameron asserted [] that the violence stemmed from ‘[a] culture that glorifies violence’ singling out street gangs ‘composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes’ as the root of the problem. Accordingly, the British government pursued punitive measures for those involved. Magistrates’ courts were instructed to hand down the harshest possible sentence [], the use of plastic bullets and water cannons to disperse rioters was proposed and ministers began considering[] the withdrawal of benefits and tax credits from those convicted.

These patterns continue when we look at the British government’s response to wider forms of criminalized violence, which again, has adopted increasingly punitive measures[], in which they proposed that prisons would become ‘places of hard work and industry’, producing free or low-wage labour for convicts to ‘ensure that they provide something of value rather than simply being a burden on the state’. In addition, the government proposed the introduction of ‘payment by results’, which involves local authorities, third sector organisations and philanthropists receiving specific funding to prevent the reoffending of an individual or group of individuals. The investors are then rewarded with further funding (or, profit) from the government if they are successful – this form of investment is called a ‘social impact bond’. Constructing this monetary response to violence is intended to [] ‘encourage innovation and bring out the diverse skills from all sectors’, combining increased prison labour and anti-crime investments. This policy landscape also turns social inequalities and psychological ills into a ‘don’t care how you do it, just do it’ production line. This form of securitisation is typical of policies influenced by scholars such as Huntington which essentialise cultures of violence; attributing them to poor or racialised individuals and communities.

The previous Labour government began proposals to withdraw housing benefits from families with members engaged in anti-social behaviour, piloting the scheme in eight local authorities as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, in order to discipline entire families who rejected state intervention into their domestic affairs. Following the 2011 August unrest, the British state under the Conservative government repeated these sentiments, planning to remove housing benefits from families whose members were found guilty of riot-related crimes. The rationale behind this echoes the government rhetoric about those involved in the unrest being part of a ‘criminal underclass’. This reflects the approach of Kaplan’s analysis of criminal populations in West Africa which he describes as a ‘symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges’, and which he views as a blueprint for what is creeping into the industrialised. Such behaviour, as the policies of both major British political parties demonstrate, must be met with punitive action.


However, far less attention is paid to the way in which criminalized violence is affected in state violence. Kaplan and Huntington go into great detail about the violence of Africans and Arabs, but rarely mention the violence of western states.
Through its control of the police, army and prison systems, the state is able to hold an almost complete monopoly on violence. When this monopoly is challenged, it becomes fierce in its reaction. A well-documented example of this is the harsh sentencing which followed the August 2011 English civil unrest. This saw 3,927 people arrested and draconian sentences handed out, including [] six months in prison for stealing a bottle of water and four years for creating a Facebook event. What is in fact occurring is not the government protecting the public from violent unrest, but the recapturing of its monopoly of violence, which was challenged by those engaged in the revolts of August 2011.

This kind of reactionary policy-making, is coupled with shallow political sound bites: ‘British jobs for British workers’ or appealing to the ‘law-abiding majority’, making use of identity politics which praises ‘British values’ such ‘tolerance’. But this identity politics often exploits class and racialised elements of fear, marginalising working class and post-colonial communities from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. This is echoed by Huntington and Kaplan through their essentialisation of race; and the state’s employment of disproportionate levels of force. It can also be recognized in the levels of police Stop and Searches[], lengths of sentences[] and number of deaths in police custody [] of Black individuals. Consequently, revolts become more likely in spaces where these sections of the population experience the most intense forms of state violence, such as Tottenham in 2011 or Brixton in 1981. Significantly, when revolts spread to other parts of England, even if the majority of violence is then carried out by white individuals [], government and media portrayals are skewed toward Black violence, and, by extension, so is the collective memory.

This form of identity politics limits the functioning of democracy as the genuine grievances of the electorate become rarely articulated and seldom addressed. The corporate press further cements this process, and the financing of political parties by private interests, mean that policy reflects their interests, far more than it reflects the interests of the electorate.


State violence is also channeled through the prison systems, coercing prisoners into providing cheap or free labour in an increasingly repressive manner. The consistent increase in the prison population in the UK, particularly for young African and African Caribbean males [], reflects the racialised analysis of West African criminality offered by Kaplan. Kaplan’s analysis views West Africa as a hub for disease, overpopulation and unprovoked crime, with the Côte d’Ivoire considered the only “African success story… [due only to] the high price of cocoa… and the talents of a French expatriate community”. This confirms his perception that evidence exists of West Africans perpetuating only poverty, not prosperity. Similarly, it is only European governments who are able to force the ‘under-class’ and the disproportionately Black prison population into becoming productive members of society.

The most contested and misunderstood form of state violence however, is the creation and perpetuation of poverty and inequality. Problems such as unemployment perpetuated through policies such as privatisation put large numbers of jobs at risk. 28,500 jobs in the NHS have been lost since the coalition government took power in May 2010 which, according to the Royal College of Nursing, is likely to lead to a crisis in the sector. The cuts to employment, as part of the government’s neoliberal reforms, are particularly pronounced in poor and majority Black regions, such as Tottenham, North London, which had 121 job vacancies and 6,000 people unemployed [] in July 2011, one month before the civil unrest. This fall in employment is likely to lead to increases in relative poverty and increased reliance on state welfare by members of the public. This increased dependency is then exploited to intensify structural state-led neoliberal violence as the Department for Work and Pensions affirms [] ‘right to benefit[s] can only come with a responsibility to behave with respect for others’. This form of populism means that over 100,000 signatures were collected for a government-run petition supporting the proposal following the August 2011 unrest.


This culture of punitive action against cultures of immorality is reflected by academics like Huntington and Kaplan, who interpret poverty and criminalization not as a result of poverty and racism, but as inherent in the nature of African cultures, a place ‘where the Western Enlightenment has not penetrated and where there has always been mass poverty, [and] people find liberation in violence’. This is achieved through blaming poverty and violence on essentialised cultures relating to class and race, rather than on the structural inequalities created by government policies fueled by classism and racism.

Although contested, the harm caused to huge sections of the population must be understood as a form of violence which is a central component of state policy in the UK. Particularly during times of social unrest, the state argues that violent crime forces them toward punitive justice. Furthermore, the analysis of influential scholars such as Kaplan and Huntington mean Western governments must prepare for the worst, as migrations from Africa and Asia, and the accompanying cultures impinge further onto ‘tolerant’ Anglo-European civilisations. But it is clear, that rather than acting as a benevolent entity forced to repress those who threaten the law-abiding majority, the state monopolises violence in order to maintain political control. Incarceration, prison labour, Stop and Searches, arrests and the withdrawal of essential resources such as housing, are the principle methods employed by the state to intensify the increasing inequality perpetuated by their own policies. These forms of structural violence cause mass harm to poor and racialised communities in the UK, who periodically respond to state violence with revolt. These revolts must be framed as a response to the harm caused by the neoliberal violence of the state. There can therefore be no doubt that violence performs a central role as a functioning tool of the state, used to legitimise, maintain and extend its existence and monopoly of power.


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* Adam Elliott-Cooper is Associate Editor of Ceasefire Magazine [] and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.

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