Recent events have seemingly reinforced the dichotomy between those on the left and the right of the political divide, with huge numbers of people adamant rioters should ‘loose [sic] all benefits’ and the government – having previously praised the role of social media as “a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression. It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption” now seriously considering ‘turning it off’ – despite many people, including several local police forces, describing how it has actually played a beneficial role.
This swing to the right seen both across government and amongst the people is often accompanied by the denouncing of anyone with the temerity to question why it has happened as apologists for the miscreants robbing and looting. For some, any attempt to explain or understand why it has happened is tantamount to condoning the violence and criminality, any contradiction of the official party line (mindless thuggery) is to be heralded as exactly the kind of permissive behaviour leading to these troubles in the first place.
For these commentators, the answer is very simple – in the case of Melanie Phillips it can be said ‘with certainty’ that the blame lies with “the liberal intelligentsia”, obviously “the Labour government” and being the Daily Mail, it wouldn’t be complete – nor indeed right – if we didn’t also blame “single mothers”. Evidently Muslims and immigrants had the night off, or rather perhaps they were doing some moonlighting for Kevin Myers.
But it isn’t just the usual right wing tub-thumpers occupying the realm of “string ’em up and throw away the key” – the Prime Minister himself has rolled out similar rhetoric – calling the riots “criminality pure and simple” and going on to say “The young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops that was not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Furthermore – lest we suspect that the root cause is social deprivation “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture” – making sure (once again) to blame it on the collapse of the traditional family – “In too many cases, the parents of these children – if they are still around – don’t care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing”. Finally he concludes “we need a criminal justice system that scores a clear and heavy line between right and wrong”.
All strong stuff, sending out the ‘tough on crime’ message loud and clear – and whilst you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that actually believes the rioters and looters had any kind of political agenda or that their door-to-door escapades were some form of guerilla campaigning on a platform of extreme-free-market consumerism – the underlying subtext in the Prime Minister’s speech, that this is completely unconnected with politics, might raise a few eyebrows. Not least when compared with his infamous ‘hug a hoodie‘ speech which had a very different message. Indeed the more cynical may even be tempted to label his change in stance a ‘U-turn’ given the rampant contradictions.
Here is just a sample:
“One of the worst aspects of social injustice that people face is the fear and suffering caused by crime and disorder. In many communities, it’s doing more to wreck the sense of general well-being than just about anything else.”
“Crime, drugs, underage sex – this behaviour is wrong, but simply blaming the kids who get involved in it doesn’t really get us much further.”
“Of course, not everyone who grows up in a deprived neighbourhood turns to crime – just as not everyone who grows up in a rich neighbourhood stays on the straight and narrow. Individuals are responsible for their actions – and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong. But there are connections between circumstances and behaviour.”
“The first thing is to recognise that we’ll never get the answers right unless we understand what’s gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn’t mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it.”
“If the first thing we have to do is understand what’s gone wrong, the second thing is to realise that putting things right is not just about law enforcement.”
“Of course we should never excuse teenage crime, or tolerate the police ignoring it. We need tough sanctions, protection and punishment. And if the phrase ‘social justice’ is to be meaningful, it has to be about justice, as well as compassion and kindness.”
“One of the most important things we can teach our children is a sense of justice. Too many young people have no understanding of consequences – of the idea that actions have effects.”
“If the consequence of stepping over the line should be painful, then staying within the bounds of good behaviour should be pleasant.”
“We sometimes see young people described as “feral”, as if they have turned wild. But no child is ever really feral. No child is beyond recovery, beyond civilisation.”
“Of course we need to be tough on crime and tough on youth offending. But we must also follow the three principles I’ve set out today. Understanding what’s gone wrong in order to put things right. Giving priority to the emotional quality of the work we do with young people. And giving real power to the real experts who can make the biggest difference…”
Perhaps it is easier to make these kind of observations from the sidelines, when accountability lies with the opposition, than it is when the buck rests with you? Regardless, the adopted narrative that the rioting and looting has nothing to do with the state of the nation and everything to do with the pernicious criminality of the underclass is more than just another government U-turn, it is a wilful myopia employed to suit a self-serving agenda of denial. For the government, accepting responsibility for your actions – whilst imperative for the common criminals on the street – is not something that should be applied to the political elite. Obviously there is no excuse, no justification for the wanton acts of destruction that were waged against these communities – but to ignore the root causes is to condemn society to suffer the same acts again in the future. Hardline policing, tough sentencing and trite outrage serve only to treat the symptoms of this cultural malaise – to address the underlying cause we are in need of an analysis and diagnosis that goes beyond the superficial and a political class willing to accept culpability for the state of the nation.
Of course, many commentators have already provided this level of analysis – across the political spectrum, from the left to the right – arguing a number of points ranging from the continuing marginalisation of black youths by an institutionally racist police force, to a trickle-down effect of criminality stemming from the example set by politicians and captains of industry. Other commentators have argued the riots were as a result of income inequality or were the logical conclusion of rabid consumerism and, naturally, a large part of the debate has focused upon the austerity measures and how against a backdrop of a rising cost of living and a decrease in real income the latent anger felt by the disenfranchised and disaffected was waiting for an incident to ignite the flames of wrath.
That the death of Mark Duggan is virtually irrelevant goes without saying – whilst it may have acted as a catalyst for the initial troubles, to associate it now with the national outbreak of violence and robbery is verging on disrespectful – his death should be considered separate, worthy in its own right of its own story, and relevant to those truly affected by it, rather than another commodity to be looted.
However, each of these elements should not be considered in isolation – they form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Like a photomosaic a step back reveals the big picture, and it portrays social injustice – this is the unifying theme, the common thread linking them all, and whilst many of the looters and rioters may not have had a political vision and ideological position, the motivation to take to the streets and smash up their neighbourhoods must have come from somewhere.
The father of Capitalism, Adam Smith has said “Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions”. It is easy to assume (as many have done) that these troubles can be blamed solely on unemployed benefit scroungers, yet a cursory glance at the data tells a different story – among the convicted are accounts clerks, lifeguards, estate agents, law students, chefs, electricians, journalists . . . the list goes on.
Yes, undoubtedly the overwhelming majority are unemployed young men, but to attribute everything to this group and rationalise it by saying they are feckless good-for-nothings that we should expect nothing less from is to take an absurdly reductionist view that is of no benefit to anyone. Were it true – as some would have us believe – that this outbreak of violence and thievery could be explained simply by mindless criminality, it begs the rather obvious question of why now? Why has this not been happening on a regular basis? Why are our police forces not overwhelmed by the constant assault of the criminal underclass? If this assessment were accurate – if the reasons for this happening were purely down to the inherent lack of morality and ethics in a criminal minority, then it doesn’t explain the spontaneous eruption we have seen, but should instead manifest itself in a steady stream.
So let us consider Adam Smith’s position – that the great divide in equality and the attendant want and envy is the catalyst. Now, it may be argued that this too has existed since time immemorial, but given the current context this can perhaps provide a more rational explanation.
Recent studies have shown that social mobility is worse in the UK than in other OECD countries. Recent UNICEF reports have shown that for children the UK ranks near the bottom of the table for overall equality and the worst of all the developed countries for child well-being. London has been described as “the most unequal city in the West” and as can be seen here and here the UK as a whole has seen a marked rise in inequality over the past 35 years. At a time of incredible hardship for the majority of people, who have footed the bill for the bankers gambling addiction and are now suffering as a consequence, it is surely galling to see that the very people responsible for this mess are still being rewarded, with bank chiefs pay rising 36% and bankers still getting their bonuses.
If Mr Cameron expects to send the message that actions have consequences and social justice needs to be meaningful, then the time to make that point has been and gone and the opportunity has now been missed. Rather than address the cause of the problems and see them as an opportunity to enact change, the Conservatives have instead embraced the opportunity to employ what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism‘ – a kind of economic shock-and-awe – to promote their usual agenda of cuts to public spending and tax breaks for the wealthy. In its fragile state, the nation has stood by dumbly as – having suffered the injury of the global financial crisis, it now suffers the insult of having the politicians rifling through its possessions under the pretence of offering help. Sadly, unlike Mohd Asyraf Haziq it seems that the people – having recovered from the initial shock, are not so forgiving.
At a time when we are constantly being told “we’re all in this together” plans to abolish the 50p tax rate whilst continuing cuts to government spending and pushing privatisation of public services sends out the wrong message and espouses the wrong philosophy. Growth will not come from tax breaks for the rich but rather jobs for the poor, and although the rioters and looters may be unable to articulate their frustrations at their lack of self-determination and opportunity, their message of anger and resentment has been broadcast loud and clear. Do they have a political message, political persuasions even? Unlikely – for who could blame them for being disillusioned in politicians when even under the Labour party income inequality continued to grow? Do they have any hope of representation when all political parties prioritise business over the people? At a time when even those on the right of the political spectrum start to question the validity of the system there is a certain fin de siècle feel emanating from our collective consciousness.
If – as the Prime Minister suggests – the consequences of stepping over the line should be painful and staying within the bounds of good behaviour should be pleasant, then there is surely a huge social injustice being inflicted upon us all if we are to pay the price for the folly of others whilst gaining no reward for being a contributing citizen. Job insecurity, rising household debt and a reduction in real incomes have been our reward, and the culprits’ punishments are yet to materialise – in the face of such flagrant iniquity, is it any wonder the masses decided to revolt?
As despicable as it is, when the rioters boast they’re showing “the rich people we can do what we want” – what is it but a crude aspiration to achieve the same status as those they despise? Rich people have been demonstrating they can do what they want for years, perhaps no more than the present (or certainly never in such a gauche fashion) – so in the culture of today, with its celebration of wealth and fame (without the associated skill or talent) – can we really claim we are without blame in the creation of these amoral, egocentric creatures?
Their incoherent anger, directed at ‘the government’ and ‘rich people’ may not have coalesced into a recognisable argument, but there is an intuitive recognition of hypocrisy and inequality that – whilst it cannot justify their actions, does at least carry enough validity that it should raise questions. This is the society we have created, these are the minds we have cultivated – and if the medium with which they choose to express themselves is setting fire to property and ‘aggressive late night shopping’ – then we should pause to question why rather than simply condemning their actions. Taking responsibility is never easy, but it is vital – and to simply label this “criminality pure and simple” is the coward’s way out.
There have been some that have leapt to accuse any linking the violence with the cuts as guilty of a cynical attempt to make political capital out of the riots – but in a recent study that now looks staggeringly prescient, two economists from Barcelona found that there was a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability and that”Once you cut expenditure by more than 2% of GDP, instability increases rapidly in all dimensions, and especially in terms of riots and demonstrations.” That this was published just a week before the troubles began only serves to highlight the fact that whilst the government was singularly out of touch, there were those that saw it coming. Despite evidence such as this, the unwavering commitment to the austerity agenda still remains, with David Cameron and George Osborne still determined to repeat Theresa May’s mistake, despite warnings from those that should know better.
This is not to say that the cuts are the sole cause of the riots, but without doubt they are a factor – to refute this smacks of political desperation and outright denial. Much of the hand-wringing on the right talks of ‘Broken Britain’ and the collapse of moral fortitude amongst the youth of today, but these platitudes serve only to reinforce their own dull stereotypes about the break up of the family unit and the absence of a father figure. On the BBC’s Any Questions, Harriet Harman made the point that without a future there was little to stop the disenfranchised youth turning to crime. Her fellow guest Peter Hitchens ridiculed this, claiming that nobody kicked in the window of a shop and stole a television because they were worried about their future.
He’s absolutely right.
It was precisely because they were not worried about their future that they felt no apprehension. As an economist, Adam Smith may have assessed this situation in terms of a cost/benefit analysis and come to the conclusion that for many of them – with little material wealth, no prospects of employment and an increased likelihood of having a criminal record – the short-term gains to be had far outweighed the long-term risks. Nevertheless, according to Hitchens these were not riots because “They had no political purpose and no origin in discontent and deprivation”. Political purpose may have been lacking, but discontent and deprivation was in abundance.
The opinion on the right would have us believe that there can be no deeper explanation than the lack of morality (caused by single mothers naturally), and anyone saying any different is obviously condoning the violence. Obviously the solution is for the police to dish out a few beatings, magistrates to hand down harsh sentences – including making entire families homeless for the actions of one person – and for social media to be shut down whenever politicians deem fit. I don’t know about you, but if these things come to pass then I’ve a feeling I’ll be one of the ones rioting in the street – not as a consumer looking for a new telly, but as a citizen fighting for the last tatters of our freedom.
As Benjamin Franklin has said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”