I left the UK for a family holiday in Greece in the middle of what were termed “the riots,”a four-day explosion of violence, looting and arson that didn’t really come as a surprise to me, as it was both a bitter response to an increasingly divided society, and a dreadful demonstration of how we define ourselves through our possessions.
However, I was glad to be away as far too many of my fellow citizens responded to the outbursts of violence around the country (which were generally directed at property and the police, but in some places involved assaults on other civilians and even murders) with their own unedifying calls for vengeance.
In analyzing what happened and why, I am bound to reflect on how we became so materialistic, and on how, through New Labour’s cleverly manufactured boom years (based largely on allowing house prices to rise in the most disproportionate manner, and to encourage those with mortgages to obsess about the spiralling value of their houses to the exclusion of almost everything else), those excluded from the miracle were nevertheless bombarded with messages about how material goods are the only barometer of success in life, so that, across society as a whole, it was difficult to find people who were not obsessed by material goods, their supposed value as status symbols, and their supposed worth.
The New Labour years were a depressing time to be alive for those of us interested in political awareness about the world and values of a less material sort, and it all came crashing down between 2007 and 2008, with a global financial crisis that showed what happens when society’s barometer is greed, and when those involved in creating fiendishly clever ways of making money (however immoral their behaviour is to ordinary people with consciences) are allowed to do whatever they want, and regulations are shredded to encourage further greed on a previously unthinkable scale.
Perhaps some people, bamboozled by the financial markets, have forgotten about what the crisis revealed — that the financial sector had been involved in wrongdoing, including profiting from selling mortgages to poor Americans who couldn’t afford them, but had hidden their toxic losses in carefully packaged deals that no one examined because everyone was too giddy at the amounts of money manufactured through their criminal activity and their irresponsibility. In addition, the crisis revealed that everyone, including politicians, seemed to believe that this was some sort of miracle without end.
Since the crash, the financial sector has been bailed out by governments, reforms have been virtually non-existent, and now the ordinary people are being called upon to pay for the bubble that burst. While the super-rich escape any kind of accountability, workers and the unemployed are being called upon to embrace a new age of austerity, in which the blame is pinned on profligate government spending, and not on the economic costs of the crisis, the bailout and its aftermath, and the other great scandal of modern life in the West — vast, systematic tax evasion by corporations and the wealthiest individuals.
The response to this should have been serious discussions about the failures of politicians and of the banking sector to run the world, a drastic rethink about how we do business, and a new model of politics and finance that, in the West, ought to have involved, for example, working out how to rein in financial pirates, and how to protect the people in our own countries, many of whom have been marginalized or made redundant by outsourcing to China, India and elsewhere over the last 20 to 30 years.
However, instead of these conversations, involving questions about why our economy is sustained by a housing market that is now unaffordable for first-time buyers, and questions about the need to produce our own food once more, and to engage in our own manufacturing, we got, instead, the return of the Conservative Party.
Despite failing to secure a majority of the votes cast in the general election, the Tories, led by the horribly arrogant but totally inexperienced Etonian double-act of David Cameron and George Osborne, formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and embarked on an austerity programme designed primarily to give fat men in suits an opportunity to continue milking the economy by privatizing everything that Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown hadn’t managed to privatize, while claiming that an unprecedented programme of cuts to the British state was imperative, and blaming the people of Britain and the previous government for the need to do so.
This was both a huge and dangerous lie (as we can almost certainly guarantee that the economy will grind to a halt if we cut too savagely), and a shamelessly exploited opportunity to shut down and/or sell off the British state for nakedly ideological reasons, but far too few people have so far noticed. Although there have been major protests against the privatization of university education and the planned sell-off of forests, rather less attention has been paid to the planned privatization of the NHS, and the government’s ruthless assault on the unemployed and on the welfare state has largely gone unchallenged.
However, while the government is largely getting away with savaging the British state for the benefit of almost nobody except its cronies, ministers — and especially George Osborne, the charmless Chancellor — have failed to realize that one of the responsibilities of government is to look after the people, whether or not they are genuinely regarded as peasants and serfs. To my mind, this is the most relentlessly negative government that I have ever had to endure, and the knock-on effect is apparent in the fear that stalks the land when it comes to the economy — a reluctance to spend, a lack of trust in the future, and, I believe, a belief not that “things can only get better,” as Tony Blair so cynically announced as he ushered in an age of bling in 1997, but that things can only get worse.
With the assault on the marginalized in society, through the government’s decision to lay waste to the welfare state, to create a situation in which the budgets for countless frontline services to the unemployed, the low-paid and the disadvantaged have been cut, to portray everyone unfortunate enough to be unemployed during a recession as a workshy scrounger, and to continue the previous government’s assault on the mentally and physically disabled, it was no surprise that the streets of Britain erupted in violence three weeks ago.
I don’t overlook the trigger — the death of a resident of Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate in circumstances that the police dealt with as badly as possible, lying about Mark Duggan’s non-existent engagement with the police, and refusing to talk to his family — and I note, as every other commentator should have done (but mostly didn’t), that this kind of violence and disdain for the people has been a trigger for riots for many decades in the UK, including Broadwater Farm in 1985.
This is a sad indictment of society as a whole, and of the government and the police, who have failed to maintain the reforming zeal that followed the riots 30 years ago in Toxteth and Brixton, but what particularly shocked and appalled me about the riots three weeks ago was the hysterical response to the events from across the political spectrum.
Personally, what I found particularly sad about most of the rioting was the focus on looting of those involved — and, specifically, on stealing trainers and electrical goods — as it partly showed the extent to which material possessions are a gauge of status or identity (from the richest to the poorest in society), and also showed a lack of political vision, confirming my long-standing fear that, without political engagement, society becomes essentially cannibalistic, consuming itself.
However, although I expected the usual chest-beating from commentators and politicians, and calls for a tough response to those responsible, I didn’t expect the Prime Minister to call for the right to shut down social networks in a time of emergency, and I particularly didn’t expect all manner of commentators to enthusiastically endorse the proposal to strip rioters of financial support, if they were unemployed, and to take away their council tenancies, if they lived in social housing, and for over 220,000 members of the public to sign an e-petition calling for any person “convicted of criminal acts during the current London riots” to “have all financial benefits removed.”
Common sense should have indicated that the former proposal — shutting down social networks — was draconian overreach of a kind that would have suited Internet-fearing authoritarians around the world, and also that it was mistaken (as the Guardian demonstrated), and that the latter — removing benefits from rioters, and kicking them out of tier homes — was not only disgracefully savage (as permanent homelessness is the only way in which society wouldn’t end up paying for them), but also a disgracefully harsh response to a problem that has existed since social housing was first introduced, and yet, until now, only the most right-wing commentators would genuinely have suggested that any convicted criminal — perhaps including armed robbers and murderers — should be denied benefits and access to housing after serving their sentence.
My other disappointment has been with the courts, which have handed down draconian sentences to people who, for example, did nothing except set up a Facebook page encouraging rioting that never even took place. This, however, was less surprising to me, as judges have been unforgiving about perceived public order offences throughout the recent past — as was demonstrated in the cases of the young Asian men imprisoned for throwing shoes at a Gaza protest in January 2009, despite being provoked and attacked by the police, and also because of the harsh sentences handed down recently to those involved in the student protests against the government’s plans to triple tuition fees for university students.
In conclusion, while I mourn this latest demonstration of the lack of empathy in my country — an absence that, across the political spectrum, unites people of engrossed self-interest with their barely suppressed violent thoughts towards others — I’d also like to cross-post one of the most perceptive analyses of the riots that I read, by the playwright and journalist Akkas al-Ali, which was published on The Platform on August 22.
Bitter Memories of Ongoing Inequality
Akkas al-Ali, The Platform, August 22, 2011
There are memories in London that won’t go away. They span thirty years and each has a name: Cherry Groce, a Black woman whose shooting by police officers sparked the Brixton riots of 1985; Cynthia Jarrett, another Black woman whose death during a police raid on her home a few days later caused the Broadwater Farm riots; Joy Gardner, yet another Black woman who was killed by police officers in 1993; Wayne Douglas, a Black man whose murder by police officers resulted in the Brixton riots of 1995; and Roger Sylvester, a mentally ill Black man who died in police custody in 1999. Now we have another name for these memories: Mark Duggan, shot to death by police a fortnight ago in Tottenham. Just two days after his murder, the streets of north London erupted once again and spread like wildfire across the city, an anger whose tremors were picked up, remoulded and let loose as far away as the north of England.
And pretty quickly the most frightening aspects of ‘broken Britain’ were laid bare. It turned out that the IPCC lied to the public about the circumstances surrounding Duggan’s death. Our out-of-touch leaders continued to holiday even as towns and cities burned. And when they returned, calls were already being made to bring in the army or at least to equip the police with ‘better weapons’ such as tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Some took the opportunity to give racist tropes an air of respectability, whilst others took to the streets looking to beat up Black people or called on their followers to burn down mosques. A Facebook page supporting the Met against the rioters, set up by a man who revels in racist jokes, gained a million followers overnight. There were even demands for rioters to lose their benefits and their homes as well as a review of human rights legislation. But for the odd voice, it seemed that a consensus had been reached, that everyone had turned into the model citizen standing shoulder-to-shoulder against a vast section of society that had failed to ‘act white’ and turned into mindless thugs, the embodiment of ‘criminality pure and simple’.
If these voices are to be believed, then this ‘wolfpack of feral inner-city waifs and strays’ simply awoke one morning and decided to destroy their neighbourhoods. They were greedy teenagers looking for freebies, we were told. Melanie Phillips asked whether the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ (liberalism being a synonym for multiculturalism, itself a synonym for immigration) were to blame. Paul Routledge pointed his finger at rap music. What they were really asking was: ‘Is it because they’re Black?’
When you are this determined to ignore a much broader landscape of cause and effect, you will inevitably lead yourself into such myopic narratives. Looking to race, to social media, to bad parenting, to poor education, to music, to consumerism and so forth is too easy: it begins by ignoring the structural causes of the riots and ends by offering palliatives such as stricter policing, greater controls on technology and increased surveillance.
No. People do not wake up one morning hell-bent on trashing their neighbourhoods. These riots were sculpted from the spare rib of a country laid waste by years of neoliberal social and public policies. The events of the past two weeks took place in a country that has one of the highest levels of socio-economic inequality in Europe. Unlike the rest of the population, the poorest 10% are the only group to see a decrease in their average incomes over the last decade. (The richest tenth, on the other hand, saw an increase of nearly 40%.) In early 2011, the youth unemployment rate rose to 20.3% – that’s almost a million adults under 25 out of work – the highest level since records began in 1992. A tube journey from Westminster to Canning Town will take seven years off a man’s life expectancy and five off a woman’s. This is not God creating Eve from the rib of Adam, life generating life, but death generating death, structural violence on a scale unmatched in human history.
Last week, Oliver O’Brien combined a map of the London riots with another showing London-only deciles of the 2004 Index of Multiple Deprivation (published by the Department for Communities and Local Government), which is a method of identifying deprived areas across the UK. Superimposing the locations of the riots onto the IMD layer reveals that most of the trouble occurred in areas of high deprivation, leaving the more affluent parts of the city alone. Last December, The Guardian’s Datablog created a map of all the spending cuts made to local councils in the UK. The cities that were most affected by the riots – London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool – also experienced the severest reductions in local authority budgets. This is not mere coincidence. It is cause and effect.
As if these facts were not enough, the Centre for Economic Policy Research recently published a discussion paper looking at the relationship between budget cuts and civil unrest across Europe since the end of World War I. It concludes thus: ‘Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented.’ This important study disproves the government’s claim that there are no links between the cuts and the riots.
Mayhem and violence ruled our streets last week. But a greater violence has ruled our lives since the days of Margaret Thatcher (the rioters were, after all, her grandchildren). This violence is the fragmentation of people’s lives, their ‘communities’ and families. It is the poverty in which they live and from which they can find no escape. It is the wealth they see but cannot acquire. (Hackney, for example, is an Olympic borough but has this improved the lives of its residents?) This greater violence is a ‘big society’ that alienates, disenfranchises and criminalises whole sections of our society. Can we really be so surprised when the poor take to the streets?