When the worst rioting in a generation hit the streets of English cities last summer, politicians and pundits rushed to apportion blame. Many of the rioters, we were told, were previously convicted criminals and most were gang members. None had any respect for the law; all were pretty much beyond redemption.
The rioting and looting was a spontaneous explosion of social violence with no cause beyond the moral failings of its perpetrators. Politicians – many of whose reputations survived the MPs’ expenses scandal on legal but not moral grounds – were wheeled out to drench the airwaves with moral indignation. No further explanation was necessary: these looters were just bad people. Politicians demanded tough sentences and the judiciary delivered. Anyone who dared suggest that the worst civil unrest in thirty years might have some connection to the most severe economic conditions since the 1930s was accused of trying to make political capital out of a situation that had no political or economic content.
The initial rioting in North London was sparked by the police shooting dead a suspect, Mark Duggan, in Tottenham. Such events are not infrequent in London, but they do not usually lead to widespread rioting which quickly spreads to other cities. There was something else at play. The riots were a result of deepening economic exclusion in a society in which the gap between rich and poor is now wider than ever. As journalist Suzanne Moore wrote in The Guardian, “We cannot permanently exclude the already excluded and expect no reaction.”It’s a recipe for trouble when a society arranges itself so that, even in economic boom times, an underclass of long-term unemployed and poorly paid people becomes a necessary and permanent feature. When thousands more then lose their jobs, and other low paid workers are warned that this is only the tip of the iceberg, there is bound to be civil unrest.
The effect of exclusion is exacerbated after three decades during which our collective psyche has been manipulated by the bogus message that endless consumption is the only way to happiness. If you dangle consumerist baubles in front of people who can’t get them through legitimate means, then eventually you will have trouble on the streets. It’s not surprising that the shops targeted by looters were those selling consumer goods without which (according to the advertising industry) life is incomplete. It is a perverse society that devotes so much effort to encouraging people to consume and then denies so many the means to do so. The only really surprising thing is that it took the deepest recession in decades to finally tip people over the edge. Suzanne Moore sums it up well: “If our only purchase into society is what we purchase, then looting is simply a shortcut in the grotesque spectacle.”
Excerpt from Four Horsemen: The Survival Manual.