Tuesday, 9 August 2011

I wish #londonriots were political, but they're not

Several things piss me off about the riots in London and other UK cities.
  • People being destructive, violent and stealing
  • That anyone should feel the need to be destructive and steal
  • People in my own quarter of the political spectrum seeing politics in this where there is none.

Predictably over the last few days there's been calls for watercannon on the streets, and rioters to be hanged, or the army to come in and shoot them to save the time of a trial. That's fine, that's Daily Mail Britain, I wouldn't expect anything less.

More surprising, and I guess more frustrating, is hearing people I know, both here in NZ and back in the UK, from the liberal-left - the quarter of the political spectrum I live in - bleating about it being a "howl of rage from the underprivileged" or a protest against "globalisation and mass consumerism", or some other romantic nonsense.

I wish it was, I really do.

I too have been waiting for Something Big to happen. I too have been hanging out for The Revolution(tm), the one which we were told would be televised. I too have railed against mass consumerism and rising inequality, and waited anxiously for when The People(tm) would Take Notice(tm) and Rise Up(tm). Then we could all fight for equality! And justice! And freedom! Things the British poor really want, even if they don't actually know it!

Seeing what I've seen, and knowing what I know of British youth, it's nothing of the sort. It's not even close.

I'm not going to condone some sort of fascist fantasy where police patrol the streets every day, or better yet the aliens from Independence Day watch over every High Street with massive lasers in case a Yoof in a Hoodie picks his nose.

Yes, we need to ask ourselves what our society is, how it works, what its problems are. We need to question and criticise the causes of rising inequality and tackle them inside and outside of government. We need to question a prison system where 7 out of 10 prisoners go on to re-offend. We to ask all these questions.

But academics and lefties and liberals and - you know, decent people - have been asking these questions for a long time, and we've had violent dickheads here for a long time during the good times as well as the bad times. So I don't think we need to suddenly ask them any harder now. Hopefully politicians will listen a bit harder to the people who are already asking, although it's a Conservative government, so I doubt it.

This isn't the 70s with an openly institutionally-racist police force. This isn't the 80s with Thatcher's war on the miners and the working. (Incidentally, I think she won, because the British Working Class - with principles and ideals who organise to fight for the working poor - seem to have become extinct in my lifetime.)

Equating these riots with poverty is just as mindless as the vandalism and arson itself. "Poverty made me do it" is not an excuse that stands up in court and doesn't excuse individual actions. You're not a robot and your environment doesn't make you one.

"Fine," you say, "no-one's claiming that. But these are just the predictable consequences of a sick society!"

Bullcrap. British society IS sick and inequality IS a massive problem. But the people in the communities complaining about cuts in funding, poor facilities and poverty are not the same people as the teenagers smashing up independent shops and stealing branded sports wear from chain stores and setting fire to warehouses.

Yes, they may be affected by the same issues, but interview 100 rioters/looters/arsonists and you'll get 100 different answers. A few might have delusions about being Che Guevara. Some of them might talk about poverty in their local area. But I bet that most of them are male, between 15 and 25, and are there because they want to be part of Something Exciting, and because they like breaking stuff.

Off the top of my head, that's my explanation. It's not very detailed, but our young generation is the most pampered it's ever been in history, and the most wrapped up in cotton wool it's ever been too. Young people find excitement in breaking the rules through drugs or sex or staying out late or other conventional ways of breaking the rules. But some enjoy breaking things, or casual violence, or stealing, or all of them.

It would be a very strange human society where no young males at all wanted to break things and fight. And with the sneering, tribal mentality of a large part of British youth, maybe these riots aren't as surprising as people think.

NZ readers, yes, take this as proof that your young people have way more manners and respect than British young people. It may seem hard to believe that entire gangs of young people will see throwing petrol bombs at the police as a combination of some kind of game and a battle, but that's exactly what a lot of them will be thinking.

The Tottenham riot may have started from the wrong people taking over a peaceful protest over a man's killing by police. But all the rest are from young people seeing a moment, an atmosphere, an opportunity to break stuff and steal stuff and be part of Something Big.

[I wanted to keep this short and snappy and have failed spectacularly, mostly because I'm genuinely frustrated by the riots and the misguided emotional opinions coming from both left and right. I might write more later in the week if I have time.]


  1. Great post, Jez. I agree with everything you said. The yoofs just want mayhem so they can live out a real-life video game.

  2. You're quite right that some people will always enjoy getting together and smashing stuff up. So how come this doesn't happen all the time?

    The answer has to include the words "society" and "community", and maybe "law" - all of these things are highly political. Whilst I agree that what we are seeing is just people wanting to smash and grab for kicks and loot, the only way to prevent these sorts of horrors is through policy.

    In short, the rioters may not be political, but the riots are.

  3. Hi Chris, agreed - one thrust of my argument is that there's loads of politics floating around all this, so much in fact that the only people not thinking about politics were the rioters & looters themselves.

  4. Stephen - sorry, not clear, I was referring to better economic times. The economy had recovered towards the end of John Major by 1997, and continued to improve a little or a lot until (as far as I know) the shitstorm starting in 2007-08. Under New Labour & Tony Blair, inequality still grew, but only because the rich got very much richer - the poor still did better, on average. So I guess by "good times" I mean around 1997-2007 ish in an economic sense, and my larger point was that we still had much violence and thuggery and destructive behaviour amongst young people during this time too.

  5. Cheers T, you sum it up well