On the Monday just passed which saw the heaviest rioting, I was getting something to eat from my local Chinese takeaway in Ealing Broadway when 40 masked and armed youths ran passed me towards the shopping centre. It was 8pm and I was relatively surprised to see the riots spread to the now baptised “leafy and affluent” Ealing. I shouldn’t have been, though. The concentration here is on the various reactions to the riots as I think they proved to be a valuable mirror for all of us to peer in to, as well offering my own rudimentary take in due process.
Speaking for myself: I have lived in the Ealing borough all my life and know the area very well, including the council estates which are often ignored and are on the fringes of the community. I can’t describe my experience here as entirely pleasant, as I have been involved in attempted muggings, fights, and all sorts of violence growing up. My feelings can be best described as sadness for seeing it the way I did the day after the riot, especially upon hearing of the tragic death of 68 year old Richard Mannington Bowes, and a rather tentative understanding for why the violence and vandalism occurred. This previously invisible segment of our society, here in Ealing and elsewhere, should not be treated as a storm that flew overhead and has now thankfully dissipated. The riots were only a natural phenomenon in the sense that the socially exclusive society we live in ushered in their inevitability.
David Cameron returned from holiday recently and issued a “fight back”, almost declaring an intrastate war on those he branded the “sick” and undesirable. “We have seen the worst of Britain, now I believe we have seen some of the best of Britain”, he beamed afterwards when commending those who came out cheerfully with their brooms to clean up the mess. These are the “true” citizens, he said. Ultimately, the sick attitude of the rioters, according to Cameron, can be explained thus: “Their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and act as if there are no consequences.” This is from a man who leads the House of Commons – a place largely populated by those who have lied, been bribed by selling their influence to corporate interests, and pilfered from the public purse, relenting only when caught.
The police are said to have no political leanings, and their actions are completely restricted to upholding an supposedly impartial law. The rioters are said to be mindless thugs looking for loot and a laugh. Such narrow concepts are satisfying for a deluded observer, but human beings are infinitely more complex than whatever singular roles you ascribe to them. The political elite have depicted these two entities as such to have a monopoly on any potentially damaging socio-political commentary. The partitioning of society into units deprived of political content, as these two have been, is a manoeuver to clear the arena of destabilising ideas. These ideas will undoubtedly rock the boat and interfere with the transition to a more authoritarian neoliberalism.
The fact that we as human beings create order means it cannot contain us completely in our efforts to continuously improve it.
So, expecting retorts and plenty of furrowed brows about how I managed to get from stealing a TV to the decadent nature of our social (mal)structuring (as many bloggers I’ve noticed have fallen victim to), I will say that these rioters are but a symptom of the disease, and in no way do I endorse the chaos and destruction committed as the answer to our problems. Similarly, mindlessness on such scale is all but impossible in our golden age of information. Considering how many people were involved in the riots (with over 1,500 arrests made so far), it would be foolish to pin any one reason, good or bad, to the 5 day saga.
Some commentators prefer to slander sympathetic commentary as misguided and detached, and obviously confuse sympathy with curiosity. Agency is key here, they claim, and the rioters must have known what they were doing, right and wrong, etc. I am not disputing that – but in the haze of their self-gratifying spiels, they do not identify the fact that consequences don’t seem to matter anymore, especially if you hear day in and day out of the massive robberies occurring in our society, the aforementioned corrupt and unpunished politicians, the banks, and the deep and targeted cuts. You have EMA scrapped while banks are bailed out for unaccountable millions. You don’t have to be a professor of economics to have an opinion about this – this is the nature of the state right now: it is calculated, socially, legally and economically biased, and primarily looks after the wealth “creators” (or rather, accumulators).
The argument for deprivation stands up if you broaden the terms of deprivation and look at the legal and political capital these alienated youths will never benefit from.
An anthropologist named John Hartung calls religion a “blueprint for in-group morality”. Modern day consumerism is much the same, and its tenets are selfishness, greed, and affirmation through material and ideological power over others. The in-groups are determined by your wealth and connections, and of course, your options. In a society where our social status is primarily assessed by what we have and wear and where we therapeutically shop, these largely “disqualified consumers” have rebelled against the laws of consumerism itself, of property, of the ironically called “free market”. It is free insofar as the ones who have the means to indulge in soporific consumption can feel momentarily liberated from the oppressive norm. It is said to really know a system, you have to experience it from the bottom up without the hallucinogenics associated with climbing a socio-economic tier or two. Many of us can’t fully appreciate this regardless of our imaginations, including myself, but we’re quick to think we do. I concede there is a lot of symbolism here, but I make no apology for it: I did help clean Ealing Broadway up, but that’s just the start of the aftermath – all experience, personal or otherwise, would be nothing without reflection afterwards.
As human beings, we gravitate towards communal bonding to survive, share and prosper together. Yet, we are bombarded with almost mocking, ludicrously arrogant and divisive adverts such as Apple’s recent offering: “If you don’t have an iPhone, well, you don’t have an iPhone”. When someone religiously buys into the ideology of the big brands, they are hailed as heroes by corporations, infinitely more valuable than their average consumer and rewarded as such. They have gone beyond being merely persuaded to consume into a sainthood defined by unflinching devotion to the consumption. The ugly consequences of this is that you will have those who have become so detached with the concept of labour, they’re prone to potentially treating all property with alienated disgust – a relationship of love and hate develops with the product or brand.
With shops putting the wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” in their repaired windows, it can be said the atmosphere in our society is one becoming defined by oppositional themes. Bullingdon Boys Dave and George relish this. The locus of our experience here is revealed by the vitriol and almost genocidal anger many felt towards the rioters. For a lot of people (and I mean a lot), the compulsion was to indulge in retributive impulses and thereby unite in adversity. However, this time, it isn’t a foreign aggressor as is popular during more modern scheduled wartime, it is your much maligned and forgotten about neighbour. If order can only be maintained through the identification of a common enemy, foreign or otherwise, there are deep structural problems in society.
I believe there is a reason why the rioters didn’t burn Westminster, go to Canary Wharf and assault the suits who ghost in and out of their money-making citadels: in times of famine (in this case, ideological famine or, rather more coyly, an alienation from one’s food source), cannibalism often increases and you lash out at those closest to you rather than attempt to articulate the distress in a globally appreciated way. This is not relegating the agency of rioters at all, in fact, it is quite the opposite. They did not abstract themselves away from their own immediate living conditions. Sometimes by acting as if there were no consequences, much to the detriment of those around you, an honest communication of how one really feels is revealed.
The riots have illuminated very uncomfortable facts in our society which have resulted in tragic deaths, whether you are a “true” citizen, “false” citizen, the thing in itself – how abstract should I go here? Moral appraisals aside, we need to think carefully not only about what is really going on “out there”, but what is going on regarding our own dispositions and aspirations. Aspiration without means usually results in vandalism and violence, and a community without cohesion is a crumbling and doomed community.