Last weeks London riots were an intersting window into the modern day UK, with the initial riot in Tottenham looking much like past summer riots in Tottenham, Brixton, Toxteth and the like, but the following 3 nights appeared to be something new - random opportunistic looting rather than a venting of political outrage.
Crikey's Guy Rundle has an look at the outburst - People feel like they’ve got a stake through their heart.
We are “all children of Thatcher’”
— British Foreign Secretary William Hague in an off-guard moment
Yesterday I noted that the most important thing to observe in writing about the “British Riots” was that there was no such thing — there is no single event going on in the UK, with a single meaning. What started as a protest against the police killing of a black man in Tottenham — with an incompetent police frame-up thrown in — became the opportunity for three or four intersecting waves of action to occur.
1. Wider protests and property damage against racist policing (especially “stop-and-search” powers) in non-white areas of London,
2. Atomist-anarchist property damage (and attacks on media personnel) as part of a strategy of basic disruption
3. Property damage and looting by a “transitional” group — politically-defined anarchists and koukouloforoi (“hooded ones” in the Greek terminology) shading into opportunistic riotous youths
4. Violent, sometimes organised, criminality — systematic looting for on-sale, mugging etc.
5. Racist attacks in multiple directions — between blacks and British-Asians, and by white “vigilante” groups of blacks.
Clearly there are overlaps at the edges of each, and multiple purpose — in some cases to steal a pair of trainers or a plasma TV is an act with a political dimension, but the fact that these are separated processes can be seen by looking at earlier riots/insurrections — such as the Brixton ones of the early 1980s, or the Broadwater Farm (near Tottenham) battles of 1985, where looting and random criminality was marginal or absent.
Thus, not only is there a multiplicity of layers to what is occurring, but some of these work against each other — the organised criminals are preying on the weak while they also empty out chain stores, the looters blunt anti-racist protest by turning it into a free-for-all, and the white English Defence Leagues (and some black gangs, or groupuscules), are attempting to turn it into a racial conflict, when its roots are clearly in the relations between police and public.
When people are banding together to protect their streets against such fluid anomic destruction, you would be foolish in the extreme to construct the event as nothing other than meaningful resistance and get on its side, as some on the Left seem to be doing. But the far greater foolishness is with the Right, who have put the multiple events into one lump, and trotted out their tired old recitative of civilisational decline.
For the Right, the events are the fault of everything from soft policing, to the collapse of traditional moral authority, parents not being allowed to smack their children, the failure to teach proper history in schools, the writings of Michel Foucault, the personal conduct of Amy Winehouse, and so on and so on. Anything, apparently, but the actual events that kicked the whole thing off in the first place — a police killing of a black man who never fired a shot, in a country where poor communities are feeling the effect of deep cuts to social services and community institutions.
There is something not only wearying but wearied about the Right’s recitative — as if they barely believe it themselves, or are divided into whom to turn their hate on more — the people doing the mayhem, or the “political class” alleged to have betrayed the country through spineless failure to assert proper authority etc etc. To blame the latter — which they would dearly love to do — would be, in part, to give a social explanation for the events, and they hate that. But to sheet home individual blame, is to let the “surrender” culture off the hook, and they hate that more.
Some — such as Theodore Dalrymple and Andrew Bolt — come to a darker solution, and start muttering about an “underclass”, let off the leash by the permissive class, and threatening the class above — goodly workers and lower-middle class people — to be protected by a bit of social cleansing perhaps. The prize probably goes to Melanie Phillips who blames well, everything, absolutely everything, in a hilarious self-parodic recitative that stands as the right’s melt-down.
The short answer to the Right’s self-serving construction of these events would be to say that they are easily falsified by looking at where and when they don’t and didn’t happen. The first and obvious candidate is Scotland — these aren’t British riots, they’re English riots. Why? Because Scotland and Northern Ireland are separately governed for the purposes of domestic spending, and in both cases, the Tories’ cuts have been resisted. People still have a stake in society and riots when they occur have an older political form i.e. sectarianism.
Furthermore when you look to the places where “PC” parenting, policing blah blah has occurred — i.e. Scandinavia, Netherlands etc — you find not merely an absence of riots, but also an absence of the sort of anomie that fuels Britain. Why? Because they’re less unequal places. People still feel they’ve got a stake in their own lives.
In England, people feel like they’ve got a stake through their heart. They didn’t for a while under Labour, as Gordon Brown began to wheel out some sort of social investment state — now that’s been wound up, there is simply a renewed sense of radical isolation.
The form the riots are taking may well be dictated by the nature of postmodern society — the content is still dictated by politics. The Right’s half-arsed theorising on this wont disguise the truth — these are Thatcher’s children, and this is Thatcher’s England, still and again, and in its third decade.
I occasionally have a look at Salon and one column which is always featured prominently is Carey Tennis' counselling column - which featured an outburst of its own this week, when looking at one correspondent's job stress - Am I cut out for my dream job ?.
You are not surrounded by people whose primary thought when they wake up in the morning is how can they make sure you are happy and comfortable. Their thought is how can they get the most out of you so they have to do less themselves. It's not that they're evil. We're all under the same strain. We're organized around the idea of always getting more. So your responsibilities will expand as long as you keep saying yes, and so you need a fundamental shift in your thinking that admits the existence of an adversarial relationship at work. You are working in a supposedly enlightened place, but you have no union. Without a union and workplace rules, you are at the mercy of whatever your boss wants. It is doubly hard to combat this when you are working for a cause you believe in.
But here's the other thing. I'm going to sound angry and crazy when I say it, but whatever. OK, I'll just say it: We have a system that keeps workers in fear.
It's not you. It's the system we've allowed to come into being, and I dare say it's come into being because the people it benefits are powerful enough and clever enough to keep it going, and the people it hurts are well-meaning but frightened and lack the foresight and the practical organizational strength to stop it.
We do not live in a good society. That's another thing.
This is not a society dedicated to the care of others and the pursuit of wisdom. Wouldn't that be an amazing society? But that's not the one we have.
You live in a world that tricks you into believing that if you do what it says you will be happy. You won't. You won't be happier if you get the top spot. You won't be happier if you answer every call.
You say you work for a cause you believe in. You might be happier if you work more directly for your cause. I'm not sure what cause that is, but if it's, say, to create safer conditions for fishermen, you might be happier if you were actually fishing. Or if it's to keep the environment pristine, you might be happier if you were actually in that environment keeping it pristine. Or if it is an organization dedicated to helping people, you might be happier if you were actually helping those people yourself. That's one thing that happens with organizations, is that they alienate us from the ennobling activities they are formed to promote.
So there's that.
And this other thing is about being a person in an adversary relationship to the large economic and social forces that affect you. I grew up in a time when this was clearer. But it is still clear today.
Nothing has changed structurally; we are still a hateful, war-waging culture that denigrates women, celebrates killing, despoils the planet, plunders the resources of less powerful people, keeps a permanent underclass in virtual economic slavery and wages imperialist wars abroad. We're still the same country we were when I was growing up in the 1960s.
We just have better games.
That's it in a nutshell. The "military-industrial complex" Dwight Eisenhower warned us about had a public-relations disaster in the 1960s, when it failed to adequately sell its project to America's youth. Since then, it has learned.
The other day I was walking along wondering about the differences between people in their 20s and 30s today and during the 1960s and 1970s, marveling at the happy, well-adjusted faces I meet in the cafes and clothing stores, and wondering why my anguish and panic at our global state does not dent their cheerfulness, and also thinking about my largely unsupervised youth, unhygienic and renegade, and it occurred to me to see that today's parenting regime seems to have coalesced around the project of keeping youth constantly socialized and trained and busy so that they cannot sit around and wonder what's wrong. Because wondering what's wrong leads to troubling conclusions.
We have responded to the problem of existential anxiety not by confronting it with existential philosophy but by creating an ever-larger and more sophisticated web of 24-hour distraction and socialization training, so that young people are prevented from attaining the socially analytical skills that might lead them to see how they're being fooled. If they saw how they are being fooled they might disrupt the functioning of this system. They might go on strike. They might bring the whole thing crashing down.
Keith Olbermann the other day suggested we take to the streets. What happened? Nothing.
We don't know how to take to the streets. Besides, it looks just awful on television.
So you can go ahead and do your job, but just be aware that you are being conned. You are living in a dishonest and rapacious culture, and you are doing the best you can to make it work for you. Even those of us working for causes we believe in are working in a basically anarchic, amoral system, without the benefit of unions or workplace protections and in an economic system that has no moral foundation.
That's what we do. That's who we are. And that weird anxiety you feel from time to time, that's not a problem. That's just the truth seeping in.
You're OK. It's the world that's messed up.