New Internationalist

Not the last time London will burn

The usual round of celebration, condemnation and name calling has begun. The riots in London and elsewhere over the last few nights are being portrayed as something between the collapse of civilization and the final insurrectionary act of the glorious working classes. You pays yer money, you takes yer choice. 

image of looters and onlookers
Photo by Hozinja used under a Creative Commons licence.


The lefties are pointing out that the riots are happening in the context of massive cuts to welfare, in communities that have at best problematic relationships with the police and involving young people alienated by the systematic inequality and racism they suffer routinely. 

Right-wingers are just looking for someone to blame, from the borderline classist/racist ‘it’s these criminal chavs/blacks/muslims/insert Daily Mail hate group’ to the ‘give the police tanks/machine guns/rocket launchers’ to the ‘they all use Twitter and Blackberries you know’. 

But I’m surprised we haven’t seen things kick off sooner.  

Item: A generation of kids are constantly told that having more stuff is the route to fulfilment in life. Item: The same kids have no access to said stuff. Item: Dear old Lady T did away with society in order to free us up for total market domination of every aspect of our lives. Item: Her successors continued the policy and persisted with consumerism as the axiomatic basis of all human fulfilment. Conclusion: Kids with a burning desire for more stuff and no belief in society may very well start smashing up their communities to get a taste of the good life. 

While Jody McIntyre is correct to say that many of the rioters are angry with the police, and with our society’s inequality, I think the rabbit hole goes deeper. If these were the only issues, we could expect to see more police stations blazing, more sharing of the looted consumer durables among the community and fewer homes on fire. 

We need to examine the dual forces of consumerist dogma and the ideologically driven collapse of community cohesion. These two forces when applied to a poor and alienated underclass of young people who have learned to hate the police are nothing short of incendiary.

Over the next few weeks we can expect to see the media on both sides of the political divide calling for ever more authoritarian measures to deal with ‘these people’. Politicians and politicos will rush to condemn. They will leverage the crisis to push their particular agendas. But, with a looming financial disaster and continuing commitment by the powerful in society to never-ending consumption, uninhibited greed, and systematic inequality as the only way to manage the world, this is probably not the last time London will burn.

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  1. #1 vivslack 09 Aug 11

    Exactly. In fact i was thinking along very similar lines this morning : http://141characters.posterous.com/

  2. #2 ciderpunx 09 Aug 11

    Thanks Viv, you say:

    ’I've not got the stats but i'm pretty sure it's a hell of a lot easier for some than others’

    There is a fantastic quote from Michael Albert about that (which probably makes more sense in the US than here in the UK):

    ’Why are the propertied born already rounding third base headed for home with no catcher trying to tag them out? Why are so many others born standing at home plate, holding a matchstick bat, facing the world’s best pitcher, two strikes against them, resigned to failure?’

  3. #3 onedaywonder 10 Aug 11

    Fair comment. The ideological attack on the idea of community coupled with the promotion of an each-one-for-themselves materialism is toxic. Alienation and increased selfishness are predictable outcomes.

  4. #4 Joel Durston 10 Aug 11

    Generally good piece.

    Item 1: Yes, they are sold this, but as much (if not more) from the general population in the free market system as the politicians who allow said market. Item 2: It may well be harder for them to access this than someone born with the 'silver spoon', but it is very short sighted to say they can't. The case of Alan Sugar is a cliched one, but similar case where people do well for themselves (though not millionaires necessarily) are not uncommon. Conclusion: Yes, but this offers the rioting no justification.

  5. #5 Roger West 10 Aug 11

    One of the more insightful pieces that I have read.

    Joel Durston, the question here isn't about justification or otherwise of the riots, its about trying to understand what can trigger these events and how they can be avoided, isn't it?

  6. #6 doesntmatter 10 Aug 11

    But we're all a part of the consumer society. I don't go out and loot things. Alright I have a reasonable income so maybe I don't need to, but I haven't always had so much. When I was growing up my family was not that well off. We did without, we would never have thought of stealing. I think it is sad that these kids today want to.

  7. #7 onedaywonder 10 Aug 11

    @doesntmatter
    Your point is one made by many - and not without good cause: such upheavals defy easy explanations. What I would add is that perhaps when you were growing up you didn't experience quite the same degree of social alienation and atomization as is so common now.

  8. #8 property has made fiends of men 10 Aug 11

    It is all about stuff, people have mental lists of what they should have. If they are short of stuff they feel diminished, so fetching free stuff is affirming. Makes you feel better, its achievement. Our 'masters' have created the desire to consume with their insistant messages setting out what folk should have.
    So within the world of those without, grabing when you can is a commonplace. They know the blandishments of consumption are wrong and serve only to diminish and shame them, so they don't respect property. They have no property and little stuff.
    How would you cope in such a situation? Be respectful and accept your exclusion from the good things or refuse to be diminished and take whats been dangled under your nose?

  9. #9 ciderpunx 10 Aug 11

    > It may well be harder for them to access this than someone born with the 'silver spoon', but it is very short sighted to say they can't.

    You're right to point that out. However there is a point at which the difference between really hard and completely impossible becomes imperceptibly small.

    > similar case where people do well for themselves ... are not uncommon

    I'm not so sure. I think that most of the stats are pointing towards social mobility decreasing. I wouldn't claim that a small number people don't manage to escape quite hard circumstances, but I think its equally wrong to treat anomalies as the usual outcome. Most people on poor estates stay poor. I'd be interested to see some stats anyhow

  10. #10 Anna 10 Aug 11

    Someone had to say it - rabid consumerism and stuff=status cannot be sustained. But who is going to tackle the issue that capitalism can't go on? Certainly not successive governments, certainly not big business and multi-nationals. Sadly this may also result in the police being given more powers to prevent us protesting about anything in the future. These are dark times.

  11. #11 emma 10 Aug 11

    Hah. yes, exactly. Wonderful!

  12. #12 Peace Activist 10 Aug 11

    I think this problem is more complex than most believe. Whilst I don't come from the London area; I've noticed the steady number of complaints, scandals and so fourth regarding some of the policing in the London area. However since they are part of the establishment there is less that the ordinary public can do to question these issues. The seemingly all powerful establishment needs to be seen as above reproach, those who tells us what to do and we do it; the ruling class and those who do the right things for the right reasons. Once again we see the establishment coming into question, more and more. The government fiddling the expenses and doing dodgy deals, lots of nepotism and questions about torture. The bankers have ripped us all off and I personally believe there's more to come. Some of the media has become a propaganda tool for various groups with surreptitious agendas, mostly right wing. Most of the cheap and nasty newspapers are there to make sure the masses never learn anything. OK so much for establishment but what about those rioters, do they have any moral worth, no just an iPod. We can try to find some sort of excuse, maybe they don't have much money in a consumer society. Things a very bad in the UK, the nation is done for and all that kind of stuff. We are coming into the ’time of austerity’ so since we have financial problems; we must swill down the cheap lager and smash up everything, this will help. Can this country smash and burn it's way out of this crisis? Or should we join the 'Big Society' does it really matter who's idea this slogan was or should we just get on and do it? Things are not so bad in this country as many would have us believe; just look at some of the others. There are far too many yobbos that bring disgrace to this country abroad as well as on our own streets. We must have a full comprehensive inquiry into the shooting of Mark Duggan, but also into yob culture. We are slowing becomming a nation of yobbos, morons and binge drinkers.There are many global problems, climate change, our use of capital energy and so on; we need to be more than a bunch of spitting morons to overcome all the problems coming our way.

  13. #13 ringo 11 Aug 11

    ’fewer homes on fire’

    Exactly. There was a good piece on London SolFed site about how we can show a bit of solidarity with both the rioters and the people in the community that have siuffered:
    http://www.freedompress.org.uk/news/2011/08/09/north-london-solfeds-response-to-the-london-riots/

  14. #14 Louise 13 Aug 11

    Good piece. I don't think politicians are necessarily to blame (although I for one like to blame them for most of societies ills)..however as politicians are vote followers they are not leaders, the leadership thang is just a costume.
    We all need to take responsibility for the good and the bad in our society and do whatever we can to try and make others feel engaged, sometimes something as seemingly insignificant as saying hello to someone or offering assistance where possible, I know what I am saying sounds quite trite but it's the small actions that we can all take that will solve this, it wont be actions of politicians, they are watching and waiting to see where the votes will fall and they largely watch the regular right wing press for this.

  15. #15 ciderpunx 16 Aug 11

    Thanks for thoughtful posts everyone. Just to say that its well worth getting former editor [a href=’http://www.newint.org/blog/2011/08/10/riots-recession-recovery/index.html’]David Ransom's take as well as Mari's [a href=’http://www.newint.org/blog/2011/08/12/london-riots-india/’]perspective on the riots from India if you've not had a chance to read them yet.

    @Louise I totally agree that ’We all need to take responsibility for the good and the bad’ in our society. I think that part of that has to involve some rather big changes in our culture and our politics too.

    @Peace Activist ’There are far too many yobbos that bring disgrace to this country abroad as well as on our own streets’. Most of the really disgraceful behaviour is perpetrated by the ruling classes, though. That's not to condone folk burning down their own communities, rather to acknowledge the relative seriousness of the problem. Your average inner city kid is hardly likely to impose inhuman conditions on foreign aid, or austerity measures and privitisationh on other countries economies. Unlike our leaders and corporations.

  16. #16 Torn Halves 17 Aug 11

    Your focus on the undermining of communities is spot on. And of course any pseudo-communitarian (’Big Society’) discourse will be utterly hypocritical if it does nothing about the amoral flows of capital out of the country. The big issue is the obscene idea that the economy is fundamentally beyond ethics.

  17. #24 Anon 25 Aug 11

    The rioters werent going for ’stuff’.. (Oxfam in ealing, newsagents, foot locker? - come on!). They did it because they could and because it's what they know - a life where pride and going with the crowd in order not to stand out, coupled with lack of opportunity etc etc is the norm. This was just taking their usual lives out onto a bigger scale...BUT.. There are so many reports that it was orchestrated. In Ealing, pnly THREE- yes THREE of the looters were from LONDON let alone Ealing. s... Someone pressed the buttomn on disenchanted people and they obeyed. But why?

  18. #25 Anon 25 Aug 11

    The rioters werent going for ’stuff’.. (Oxfam, newsagents, foot locker? - come on!). They did it because they could. It's what they know - a life where pride and going with the crowd in order not to stand out, coupled with lack of opportunity etc etc is the norm. This was just taking their usual lives out onto a bigger scale. What I want to know is how orchestrated was it and by whom? In Ealing, only three - yes three of the looters were from LONDON let alone Ealing. Someone pressed the button on disenchanted people and they obeyed.

  19. #26 g 26 Aug 11

    very insightful and important point, this one:

    ’We need to examine the dual forces of consumerist dogma and the ideologically driven collapse of community cohesion. These two forces when applied to a poor and alienated underclass of young people who have learned to hate the police are nothing short of incendiary.’

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Charlie Harvey a New Internationalist contributor

Charlie Harvey is the IT Manager here at New Internationalist. He's active in both the activist and tech communities and is a vocal advocate of Free Software. You can read more on his main Charlie Harvey site.

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