I’ve been reading a lot about the riots.
I’ve seen the calls for tanks on the streets, and for looters and arsonists to be shot on sight. Strange how people who call themselves defenders of law and order are so keen to see it abandoned. Rule of law means the rule of law, means punishment only after conviction in a fair trial. And this isn’t some European, New Labour imposition – it’s the cornerstone of English justice; it’s in the Magna Carta:
No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned […] or in any other way harmed, nor will we proceed against him, or send others to do so, except according to the lawful sentence of his peers
Magna Carta, article 39 [dated 15th June, 1215].
If your first response to sporadic, localised threats to law and order is to call for the violation of principles of law and order dating back almost 800 years, how can you call yourself a defender of law and order?
I’ve also read things I agree with. This, for example, from Fighting Monsters:
This is about age and belonging. How can you care for a society when society cares nothing for you?
This is a disaffected youth who are devoid of a moral compass because our society values goods and monetary worth over basic humanity. This is what has been learnt. The ‘establishment’ doesn’t work for you but against you. You take what you can.
Or this, from Kaos Theory:
We are witnessing the consequences of extreme wealth, privilege and rampant consumerism juxtaposed with poverty, under-privilege, and the demonisation of the working class – or, as certain segments of society would have it – the underclass. […]
Let’s look at that glittering treasure trove Westfield – Europe’s biggest shopping centre – an obscene cathedral of consumerism, shoehorned into Shepherd’s Bush, an area riddled with deprivation. The poor can pour in from the nearby council estates and grimey terraces to press their noses up against the windows of Prada and D&G, gazing at all the things they can’t have. […]
And let’s not pretend this isn’t anything to do with David Cameron’s government of millionaire public schoolboys, lecturing us on making necessary cutbacks to fix the mess their banker chums made of the economy. The massive shutdown of youth schemes as part of those cutbacks is key to this.
Cameron’s bluechip white collar pals looted the economy, giving Cameron the opportunity to implement Tory ideology (CUT,CUT,CUT). Now the kids at the bottom of the pile, faced with being left further and further behind as that rich/poor divide becomes a yawning chasm, are rampaging. They have no future, no hope, and don’t care. London is a big playground, and the kids who have been told they can’t do this and can’t do that, are now doing it, and no one is stopping them.
I agree with both of those quotations (and in both cases you should follow the links and read the whole thing; I’ve only given you a flavour of posts that are truly excellent). They both articulate the desolate anger which is the major emotion I feel right now. They both put into words pretty much how I see the causes of these things. As I see it:
This is about an economic system that has made the industrial working class unnecessary, and a culture that has treated the economically inactive as socially superfluous. This is about an economic system that has forced millions into poverty through no fault of their own, and a culture that has insisted the poor are always poor (and the rich always rich) because they deserve to be. This is about a culture that labels the poor as feral beasts, that laughs at their problems, that mocks them as sub-normal, almost as sub-human – and a society that acts surprised when some of them start living down to their reputation.
This is about a culture that has elevated the ownership of unnecessary things to be its highest social good, and an economic system that has put this ‘good’ completely beyond the reach of many, and achievable only via unsustainable debt for many others.
This is about generations of failed politicians. Politicians of the centre left who applied the sticking plaster of ineffectual welfare spending to impoverished communities, but failed to address the gaping wounds that caused the impoverishment. Politicians of the centre right who ripped off the sticking plaster with gleeful sadism, but likewise failed to address the underlying issues. This is about an electoral system that has made the opinions of swing voters in marginal constituencies the only ones that matter, so every election becomes about what’s best for a small suburban elite.
This is about our current government, and its hell-for-leather pursuit of naked class war. This is about a government of millionaires, by millionaires, for millionaires governing in the interests of the super-rich, and at the expense of all the rest of us. This is about us being there to catch the city high-fliers when they fell – and them being long gone when it’s us who start to fall. This is about a government that has concocted spending cuts and tax rises in such a way that they fall disproportionately heavily on the poor, and disproportionately lightly on the rich.
This is about people who feel they have no hope, no future, and no chance of escape. This is about people who listen to David Cameron telling them ‘you’re ruining your own lives’, and feel that their lives are ruined anyway – were ruined from before they were born – so it makes no difference.
This is about people who, contrary to the myth, are not wallowing in ill-educated ignorance. This is about people who listen well enough to know that Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians alike will hold them responsible for the failure of the banks, will make them pay for the things they didn’t do. This is about people who watch closely enough to see that the bankers took and took and took without remorse or compunction, and without suffering any retaliation. This is about people who’ve learned the lesson that taking is good, and only suckers live by the rules.
This is about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. She told us there was no such thing as society. She told us it was every family for itself. She told us that getting ahead was nine-tenths of the law, that worrying about the people left behind was weakness, and that weakness would be punished. She showed us, in the miners’ strike and the battle of Wapping, that the police were not neutral upholders of the law, but a gang taking sides in a political struggle. Margaret Thatcher politicised the police, she made them (whether they wanted to be or not) the enemy of the working class. She destroyed the principle of policing by consent in working class communities, and the officers injured in the fights over recent days are paying the price for that loss of consent.
I have read people (a few people) glorying in the riots, seeing them as a proof that the old, unjust system is buckling and about to collapse. I don’t see it that way: I can’t. I don’t see desperate people reduced to securing for themselves the necessities of life when an unjust economic system has denied them access. I see people who already have everything they need but have so caught the sickness of unnecessary things, have been so thoroughly captured by the doctrine of consumerism, that they are simply acquiring unnecessary things by other means.
Some might be tempted to say ‘property is theft’ and justify the looting by that principle – but theft is also theft. The desire to say “this is mine, and mine alone; I refuse to share it with you” is the same in both circumstances. It seems inconsistent to me to say that one is a symptom of greed and selfishness, and the other the bright herald of a new dawn. I understand the anger of the looters, they have ample cause for their sense of injustice when they see the haves getting more all the time, and the have-nots falling further and further behind. But the real victims of inequality are elsewhere. While looters who already have food, clothing, shelter and medical care are grabbing themselves a flat screen TV, the real victims of inequality are in Africa and elsewhere, dying of starvation in a world that produces a surplus of food, and of diseases we can cure or prevent. Looting is just the flipside of the consumerist disease, while we should be working for its opposite: a culture that teaches us to value, not what we keep for ourselves, but what we share; an economic system that provides for all of us, everywhere in the world.
In these riots it’s not just cars and shops and houses that are going up in flames, but communities. I don’t mean communities as a euphemism for physical things. I mean actual, living communities, the invisible ties that link people who live beside each other together – the links of trust, and friendship and mutual dependence (the shopkeeper needs the customer just as the customer needs the shopkeeper). These riots represent the breakdown of all of that, and it will be hard to rebuild – far harder than towing away the burned out cars and repairing the buildings.
Lazy commentators have been everywhere labelling the events we’ve seen in London and elsewhere as anarchy, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Anarchy is about mutualism, and much of what we’ve been seeing is (yet another) excess of individualism, with people out to see what they can get for themselves. I have seen anarchists on the TV news recently, but they weren’t the looters. They were (whether they realised it or not) the unaffected members of the public who turned up to offer help and support to the violated communities, not out of self-interest, or because there was anything in it for them, but just because it was a thing that needed to be done. This – members of a community supporting one another, selflessly and in pursuit of the common good – is what anarchists want to make the guiding principle for the whole of society. Not profit, or property, or the creation of ever more complex webs of laws and rules – just the simple goal of doing right by each other.
That’s why I can’t cheer on these riots, or be glad that they happened. It’s not the destruction of property I mind – anything that’s been made can be re-made – so much as the destruction of communities. When I look at these riots, I don’t see an economic system trembling on the brink of collapse. I don’t feel glad at the thought of a bright new dawn breaking.
Desolate anger is pretty much all I can feel right now. Anger at the looters, yes. More anger at the systemic injustice and inequality that has brought us here. Anger at politicians of all hues who have failed to show a way out of this, the leaders who have failed to lead. Anger at myself – oh, yes – for writing wise-after-the-event commentary instead of doing something in advance to stop it happening. And desolation that all the things that matter most in the world – the links of trust and friendship and mutual dependency between people, the communities that offer the only real hope for the future – are going up in flames.