Monday, August 8, 2011

London's Burning

In just a brief break from regular programming, I wanted to offer a few words about the London riots. While ostensibly in response to the police fatally shooting a reputed drug dealer who was certainly armed (not something that is legal), the arson, looting and generally thuggery that started in Tottenham (a mixed-to-poor area of North London) is clearly not about that kind of justice. Many looters are clearly stealing plasma screen TVs, athletic shoes, electronics and clothing out of greed; social media and Blackberries have clearly helped spread the violence and I'm sure in some cases there's organized crime and gangs involved. Some of the teenagers may just be guilty of being young, on an adrenaline kick and/or poor. Clearly policing has failed as the riots have spread in all directions, even leading to some looting in Tottenham Court Road in the West End, but some of this may be because new technologies and recent cutbacks make these riots very different from those in the 1980s.

I don't think that consciously many rioters have an agenda beyond smashing, grabbing, looting and getting high on being there. But besides the ingrained dislike of police in some communities, there are clearly broader cultural issues at stake. It's no accident that these riots have occurred as major austerity cutbacks have affected the poorest, including the loss of youth clubs that keep young, poor kids occupied, the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the tripling of University fees under this government of Old Etonians, aristocrats and other social elites, for whom my contempt is endless. Combine that with cutbacks in police manpower, public services and the collapse of the global financial systems--which have already created housing bubbles and disenfranchised the majority at the expense of the few--then rioting is to be expected. Of course, the younger generation have been most subject to these cuts, and suffered the most from the downward spiral in wages and the off-sourcing of jobs, so their anger--and their ability and willingness to act on it--should not be surprising.

But that kind of rioting--the kind with a goal that suggests a true collectivity--seems to be a more modernist phenomenon, one responding to the possibility for change coming from the people, and the desire to attain social mobility while still protecting the social good. This is more aimless, viral in the most cliched sense, but it doesn't mean that there is no social context. In a western culture saturated with greed, where identity seems to be dependent on having the latest consumer goods, this response should not be surprising. Sadly, it's likely that aimless rioting will bring no results--especially when the perpetrators hurt their communities and those of others, and are probably as unlikeable as their actions would attest. But it doesn't mean that these riots are just meaningless bad behavior. I don't condone them at all, but they are a product of a broader malaise, one entrenched in the financial system, the rapaciousness of increasingly global corporations and the international shift back to a world of a few ultra rich, a select, small middle-class and bitter competition among the rest for increasingly limited resources.

I'd hope to see these riots--in what is one of the safest, most beautiful and most prosperous global cities--as a wake up call: I just hope the British people, myself included, attach blame to those who deserve it--both at the micro level of finding and convicting ring leaders and looters, but also at the macro-level--the politicians themselves, particularly Cameron, Osbourne and Clegg, who with all their millions have cut off the resources to so many who depend on them. And, more importantly, I hope that the financial system and the neo-liberal corporate culture with which it is synonymous, is seen as one of the major forces behind these kinds of behaviors. The bigger criminals, after all, are those that would plunder communities, remove jobs and entire industries overseas while bribing us all with the allure of cheap commodities.


Amanda said...

But Moya, how else will you get a J.Crew cashmere sweater for $79.99 if it were not for the promise of capitalist outsourcing and the overreaching arm of the free markets and corporations who are firmly planted in the belief of Friedman economic theories? =)

Moya said...

Too true, Amanda. I recognize my role in this system--we are all culpable to an extent, even though I also like to believe that I'd spend the larger sum if my labour--and that of other workers--was compensated more fully. Of course it is all part of the same systematic deflationary spiral--wages and commodities decline so we can be paid less, if we are lucky enough to hold onto our jobs.

I've foreseen rioting for a while on both sides of the Atlantic. I just can't see this system continuing any longer--and the events of the last few days make me think the end may come sooner than I thought--and maybe not in a form that I would have liked, or one that is productive.

But, yes, I curse myself for falling victim to the allure of the pretty trinket at the expense of the greater good too. And I know we're all, to some extent, shaped by these desires in our society.

Amanda said...

I've often wondered why Americans don't riot more than they do (even though I don't condone it), but I've come to the realization that most Americans are deeply misinformed, have a misguided resentment of intellectuals and only want to be led away by theories that are over-simplistic, nihilistic and lazy.

I think the system WILL carry on, because interests of the rich are the only thing that matters these days. Austerity is the new normal and the first things that have to go with austerity is the welfare state. Unfair but it seems that everyone (regardless of political spectrum) seems to justify with some warped view of supply-side economics.

I guess I'm too pessimistic, but when the person you thought would at least bring some hope and change to this country starts bending over backwards to people who hold the entire country hostage... I don't know where to find faith anymore.

Moya said...

I totally agree with you again, Amanda, especially on American's misguided resentment of intellectuals, something that is, alas, spreading more widely overseas. Of course, there's also the closed-minded sense of America best and the misguided patriotism that's behind so many short-sighted decisions here, something that aids those in power and cripples those without. We don't have that in England, which often helps people to perceive real social problems.

While I fear that nothing will change in the US, except for the worst (dismantling of what little welfare state exists) I have more hope for England. I don't see people tolerating these kinds of cuts for long and there is a tendency to fight back that doesn't exist in the US, except in the worst and most disenfranchised conditions. That said, I think we're still a way off from positive change right now. I am starting to worry that social cohesion and hope will be lost in the wake of recent events.