The riots in London and other UK cities have given rise to at least two contradictory narratives. According to one narrative this is purely a law and order problem, where a bunch of thugs are terrorizing their own communities. The fact that their only motivation was to loot upmarket consumer goods is presented as proof that the young rioters are simply trying to steal what they cannot buy. According to another narrative the riots are a symptom of a social injustice and poverty aggravated by Tory cuts and follows the traditional account of riots as an expression of class warfare in deeply unequal societies triggered by police brutality.
I find both accounts simplistic which ignore another aspect; some rioters could be simply taking what they perceive as their fair share of the consumer bounty. Some could be doing it for the thrill of feeling in control and they do this without any ideological discipline or solidarity with others like them. In this sense the revolt is post racial and post socialist as it does not seek a redistribution of goods but simply provides an occasion for mayhem and appropriation. The rioters simply used the indignation against a police blunder to grab an opportunity to loot.
Relative poverty is surely one of the factors leading people to loot but the link with tuition fees is tenuous considering that university was always out of reach for most of these people. But still snobbing the rioters for looting handbags instead of food stores ignores the fact that yearning for these goods is an integral part of the fabric of capitalist societies. And lets admit it; the bounty of goods (despite its ecological problems) is one of the most appealing aspects of life in capitalist societies. And surely one of the most appealing aspects of late capitalism is the widespread availability of tools of communications. Media commentators damning twitter and blackberry for fanning the flames of revolt exposes an inherent classism. Is it such a scandal that the poor also share in what was loaded as a revolution in communication?
Ultimately the thugs will not gain any sympathy even within their communities. They may well strengthen calls for draconian law and order thus reversing the few liberal gains in the past year. But probably the rioters do not care about this. For a few die hards more repression will give more opportunities to riot. Most will simply return to their dreary normal lives after the carnival ends. What we are seeing is a celebration of gangsterism in place of community solidarity.
The silver lining of all this could be a realisation that a degree of social cohesion and inclusion is necessary not just for the well being of those living at the fringes but also for the majority which for the past decade felt insulated from what happened in the ghettos. When people wake up to this realisation they might be more willing to understand the value of public services and community services which cost money but are necessary to offer a prospect to people to have legitimate aspirations. Surely the rioters themselves do not seem to care a fig about all this and some will still aspire to live a Snoop Dog life irrespective of all the money invested in their education. Still more social inequality and cuts (some of which necessary) unaccompanied by social investment in mobility funded by taxation will make things worse.
A deeper reflection on the riots deals with the way both rioters and the looted seem to have lost a sense of power over their own lives. Ultimately in an increasingly globalised word where even nation states have very limited power, the arbitrary lawless exercise of power gains a new appeal. Obviously this does not make the riots legitimate. Since there is no turning the clock back, the only long term way forward is a new definition of global and more educated citizenship which is more willing to comprehend the complexities of the world but also more empowered to feel a part of a change it can understand and influence … surely a lot of gibberish for the handbag grabbing mob but a wake up call for political engagement.
This article first appeared on http://jamesdebono.blogspot.com/2011/08/london-calling.html