This is an immediate reflection on fast-moving events. Please point out any mistakes or unfair generalisations I’ve made.
London, and areas of Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham among others, have exploded. There seem to be two main responses among the twitterati, the press, and the public, that divide roughly along left/right fault-lines. One bemoans the socio-economic circumstances that are argued to provide the preconditions for indiscriminate violence and disruption. The other bemoans a lack of law, order and respect, calling for tougher responses and – in the main – dismissing claims of deprivation as political cover for criminal intent. Before I go on, I may as well say that I fall, basically, into the former camp. But I want to use this post to suggest some new analytical lines to pursue.
Everyone knows British society is unequal, and growing more so. Austerity measures, justified in virtue of a deficit incurred bailing out an economic elite, are hitting people hard. Demographic disadvantages are clear to see. Yet the levels of deprivation observed in a country like Egypt – where even bread became unaffordable and youth unemployment hovered around 80% (compared to something more like 25% here) – cannot be used to explain the widespread looting of shops (both corporate and local) and homes. There may be desperation of sorts, but its not the desperation of a class genuinely struggling for survival.
Let’s look at the diffuse violence across the capital and country and imagine what benefits rioters perceive in their actions. To begin, we don’t obviously see political solidarity. We don’t see articulate (or in anyway articulated) political slogans or demands. These actions are de facto political, though the actors may not know it. Political progress, consolidation, or possibility does not appear to be a motivating factor. The randomness of targets and the indiscriminate victims of temporary power show that there is no sustained agenda on offer. Rich and poor, elite and everyday – no obvious distinction is drawn. There seem to be few attempts to express support for the family of Mark Duggan, who themselves have pleaded: not in Mark’s name. This is revolt, not yet revolution.
Desperation and a conscious politics ruled out, with what are we left? First, note the intensely materialistic mentalities on view. Looting has been a constant feature of the disorder. Yes, some of the loot will be sold to generate no doubt useful cash. Yet the flavour of the theft has been been deeply consumerist: kids in trainers stealing more of them, televisions – who doesn’t have one? – being carted off en masse. There is a form of aspiration, not desperation, at work here. In fact its an aspiration fostered and encouraged by the highly consumerised culture in which we live. Value lies in the ownership of goods, in projected images of lifestyle and status, in the constant acquisition of more and ‘better’. This urge – that exists in most of us – can be summed up by a word: greed.
Second, imagine the empowerment being felt by youths running police up high streets, down alleys, round estates. On so many occasions last night police were outnumbered and fearful, exemplified by this charge caught on camera. It’s not the police charging. Right or wrong, deluded or lucid, cultures of disrespect, even hatred, of the police persist in many poor and particularly black communities. Imagine what it feels like to see this formidable foe retreat under a downpour of bottles, scuttling backwards, cowering behind shields. Elating, no doubt. But this will to intimidate stretches beyond accumulated police-directed vitriol. Anyone, any building, any shop appears to be a target. Enormous fires have raged through carpet shops, furniture stores and homes. This is engendering fear in everyone. The ability to generate fear, palpable fear, in everyone around you is – surely – productive of a sense of power greater than these young Britons have felt at any other time in their lives.
This basic analysis leaves us here: a materialistic greed, so formed by our culture to be insatiable in the service of consumer capitalism, expressed alongside a will to dominate, intimidate – in short, to feel powerful. These motives – or capabilities – are not confined to this group of disaffected youth. Greed and power motivated an economic elite to precipitate a global financial crisis, and perhaps a second on the brink of which we may stand. The destruction on the streets is tied to that event not just by economics and policy, but by a social mentality: one that prioritises individual gain without need or regard for social consequence. This individualism provides another thread to connect members of these two, perhaps opposite, groups: neither seem to perceive any value in the social fabric we inhabit. Could there be greater evidence for this than the smashing, burning, looting of anything, or the risking of social prosperity on the chance of an annual bonus?
Undoubtedly, riots are political acts. I have defended the political importance of our current predicament against flippant dismissal. And I believe that on the whole those rioting have serious and justified grievances (politicised or no) and are undoubtedly disempowered. In this regard they differ, crucially, from our elites. But currently this is not a political movement; political movements require solidarity, and I’ve argued that these riots display an individualism routed through consumerist mentalities. In this sense, attempts to politicise these events, especially from middle-class anti-capitalist circles, will probably struggle, even if their analyses are correct. Yet the violence must cease before it corrodes too much of public belief in the goodness of people – a draconian and counter-productive response will not be far behind. Already, sinister and disingenuous attempts by the far right to racialise the disorder and link it explicitly to immigration are being made. They must be resisted.
How and when it will stop, I don’t know. I imagine it will follow the deployment of huge state-backed force, and a collapse in public sympathy, neither of which will preclude the possibility of this happening again. We must recognise the symptoms of a general social malaise in that we witness, we must recognise the vertical thread that links our elites with our rioters. And we must realise that we probably exist somewhere in between.