The sheer volume of commentary from across the political spectrum has made it hard to keep up with, and even harder to know where to stand on, the widespread riots that have set fire to London.
To dismiss them as the result of mere loutishness, however, or as the opportunistic violence of an undisciplined and lazy handout generation, is to entirely mistake the symptoms for the cause.
Instead, as conservatives continue to call for a heavy-handed police response, and privilege-blinded middle-classers leap into the fray to denounce the yobs for not using the ‘legitimate’ channels of democracy to air their grievances, it’s worth stepping back a little and considering some of the underlying factors that have led to a mass insurrection triggered by frustration and anomie brought about by ever-widening structural inequalities.
In order fathom the depths of this inequality we need to remind ourselves that while the chaotic nature and sheer scale of current events is unprecedented in recent British history, this is by no means an isolated moment of dissent: there have been countless student protests and university occupations over the last couple of years, as well as several large-scale strikes and marches; at the same time, draconian policing tactics and hyper-securitization have led to a growth in state-sanctioned violence against protestors and also, often ‘pre-emptively’, against the perennial scapegoats of the poor, immigrants and people of colour.
This rising tension is primarily a reaction to the impact of the global economic crisis on the UK, the effects of which have been described in quite visceral terms by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) as ‘a decade of pain’ for the average British citizen. As David McNally notes in his recent book, ‘Global Slump’, the austerity measures fomented as a response the crisis, measures that include increased taxes, decreased social spending and drastically increased university fees – and that resemble nothing so much as the neo-colonialist structural adjustment programs imposed on developing countries by global financial institutions over the last fifteen or so years – have served to exacerbate the class divide and the concomitant experiences of despair, frustration and resentment, even as the Tories revel in dismantling of the last remnants of the welfare state.
To deny this class character, as some conservative tabloids have, in a country with worse social mobility than any other developed nation, where the gap between rich and poor is so extreme that Professor Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield, in his book ‘Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists’, has likened it to the Indian caste system (not too far-fetched an analogy when you consider, for instance, that the richest 10% of Londoners now have an average wealth 273 times greater than that of the lowest 10%), is completely disingenuous. As Dorling says, “we are getting wealth inequalities in London now that have not been seen since the days of a slave-owning elite.”
How does it feel to be a member of this spat upon and derided lower economic caste, a caste primarily represented, unsurprisingly, in riot hotspots like Hackney and Tottenham? What is it like to grow up in the brutal conditions of council estate life, surrounded by deprivation, hopelessness, violence and crime; to see all around you, in the faces of family, neighbours and peers, a reminder of the cold, hard truth that you will, in all likelihood, never get any further than this. That realistically, regardless of how hard you work at your soul-destroying, mindless, dead-end factory job (if you’re lucky enough to find a job when there’s only one vacancy for every 54 people seeking work in your borough and when Cameron and his predecessors have been trying their best to export the remaining working class jobs), you are resigned to spend your life in a kind of empty neo-serfdom, albeit one with the dulling distractions of smartphones and Playstations and narcotics and the senseless violence of area code gangs.
And what is it like to be simultaneously bombarded with constant advertising that feeds on your alienation and lack of real community by encouraging you to seek identity in consumer items that you cannot access, but are shamed for not having. Does this create mere frustration, this double bind of can’t afford to have, can’t be seen not to have, or does it drive people, entire communities, insane? Perhaps there’s something almost poetic in the fact that most of the looters have note been taking essentials or expensive luxury items, but the very same consumer items they’ve have been instructed to desire.
More plainly, as one youth worker explained to a reporter, “youths are frustrated, they want all the nice clothes. They ain’t got no money, they don’t have jobs”.
Couple this with the growing police harassment, the shutting down of social services (including, in areas like Hackney, the sacking of support workers meant to help rehabilitate angry youth), rising rent and gentrification and an ideologically bankrupt – in many cases just plain bankrupt – economic system that rewards only the most avaricious, competitive individualism and nobody should still be surprised that a generation borne of futility and resentment, wholly unheard and bereft of any sense of consequence or accountability, has seized upon an opportunity to reclaim some small and fleeting handful of power.
“A political establishment, a media, and a state system that gives people…the impression that they won’t be listened to, unless they force themselves onto your attention, is going to lead to riots.” – Richard Seymour
In all this, and although it’s probably too soon for anything more than hyperbole, we should not be too quick to characterise the unfolding events as senseless collective rage; although there is no clear direction to the riots, and although the looting and destruction is by no means limited to symbols of corporate hegemony (although the number of small, independent shops and individuals negatively affected appears to have been overinflated by the press), there are some striking examples of class solidarity that should give us pause for reflection. Young gang members, for instance, have been crossing into the territories of other gangs without the usual ensuant turf-conflict; the category of ‘rioter’ has, for a brief moment, rendered these artificial borders more permeable.
Soon, whether via water cannon and rubber bullets and police batons or just through resignation and boredom and satiation, these borders will return, the media will lose interest and the public will avert its gaze, but nothing will be the way it was. The caste of the economically marginalised, the desperate and the systematically ignored has found its most powerful and even eloquent voice in baseball bats and shattered glass and burning police cars and, with no other options open to it, it is only a matter of time before Hackney erupts again, or before we realise that Hackney is everywhere.
If we accept that this will happen again, that it is going to happen more regularly and in complete defiance of the severity of the State’s response, then perhaps we can begin to reflect on the fact that these fundamental divides, these growing inequalities, cannot be mediated out of existence through governmental reforms or through the amelioration of capitalism’s very worst ills: at their very core, these systems inexorably cultivate these conditions. They reward those individuals and corporate entities who are the worst among us, those who already hold the most power and authority, who are, a thousand times over, the most anti-social, the most destructive, the most violent.
How we resist all this, how we channel all the bitter rage into meaningful and lasting social change, is an open question. In providing only the most tentative of answers, perhaps a musical analogy is in order: while the soundtrack to the current riots is, undoubtedly, The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’, we can find a more useful suggestion in ‘Rise’, one of John Lydon’s later songs: anger is an energy.
How this energy manifests is, in no small part, up to each one of us.