Predictably, there have been a flurry of opinion pieces from the print and broadcast media on the riots and the causes of them. The inevitable hand wringing and searching for explanations is almost amusing, or at least it would be to a newly arrived alien being with no physical or emotional attachment to Planet Earth or its inhabitants. For anyone else, some of the commentary ranges from rage inducing to totally unfathomable, from assinine to offensive, and in some cases from mildly un-pc to heinously fucking racist.
What needs to be understood is that young underprivileged people are not “wild beasts… (driven by) animal impulses”, as Max Hastings of the Daily Mail would have you believe, but intelligent human beings who understand their circumstances. Young people haven’t been driven to these angry mass attacks on property by absentee fathers (Allison Pearson, Daily Telegraph) or because they are all in fact members of vicious street gangs (Christina Odone, Daily Telegraph). It’s a safe bet they haven’t decided to ignore the law and take part in mass lootings because of “identity obscuring head and facewear” either (David Aaronovitch, The Times). And you DEFINITELY won’t stop rioters from rioting by “shooting them…with plastic bullets” (Kelvin MacKenzie, Newsnight).
Let’s not even get into David Starkey’s appalling suggestion on Newsnight recently that these riots are occurring because “white youth have become like black youth”. No-one wants to see society breaking down around us, black or white. It is not part of “black culture” to riot and smash up shops, and if Starkey really believes that whites are rioting because of the influence of corrupting black culture, well, then he should brush up on British history and check out our proud heritage of bloody and violent civil disobedience. Clearly the ravings of an incredibly racist old crank aren’t going to help understand the situation, but it is worth stopping to consider how supposedly acceptable far-right academics will attempt to use the rioting to nurture and encourage racial divisions within society.
Riots occur when people have collectively become too angry to keep from lashing out en masse, in a nihilistic, destructive manner. They might not be constructive. They may not really address the roots of dissatisfaction and alienation in society, but they express pretty clearly their existence. The bourgeois press will wish to paint looters and rioters as sub-human, beyond reason, as animals, as people who understand only repression and force. But they’re wrong. They say there is no reason to behave in this way. In fact for many there is no reason not too.
This started after police shot dead 29-year old Mark Duggan, against the backdrop of the recent News International scandal, which has shone a powerful light on the corruption and illegality endemic amongst the top ranks of both the Metropolitan police and the political and media establishment. The fact is that confronted with the cosy relationship between the police, media moguls and politicians as compared to police treatment of ordinary people, it’s not exactly surprising that people feel the police and the law are not on their side. And if the law isn’t there to protect us, then why should we observe the law at all?
A combination of events and situations have led ordinary people to question the political and economic systems we live in, and how exactly they serve our interests, if at all. If we live in a fair society, why are the working class paying for a global financial crisis caused by the international banking class with our jobs, public services, education and welfare state? If the British government has become embroiled in a civil war in Libya purely in order to protect human life, why is it doing nothing about the increasingly murderous regime in Syria? If politicians exist to represent us, why do they seem more concerned about padding their expense accounts and pandering to media moguls? And why should young people accept the “authority” of a system which offers them crippling debts if they wish to gain an education and little hope of secure, well paid employment? In fact, if kids grow up in a system which offers them so little but bombards them with constant advertising messages about the latest mobile phones, computer games and clothes, why the hell shouldn’t they go looting, since they have precious little chance of being able to afford all these apparently neccessary things legitimately anyway?
Despite the obvious hypocrisy of capitalism in 21st century Britain, however, the answer to this last question must be an emphatic NO. This isn’t the way that we confront the problems of our society and it is not the way we change it for the better. The riots must be understood as an expression of inchoate dissatisfaction with the status quo and not as a positive or progressive answer to the problems of the current economic and political system. People are lashing out blindly and angrily, often hurting their own communities in the process. It would be far more productive to channel this anger into constructive attempts to organise ourselves together to confront the malaise of this decaying capitalism, through community groups and the trade union movement, and fight for something better. But that does not give anyone the right to patronise and slander young people in the way that is now taking place. There are many reasons for the youth of Britain to reject the society which offers them nothing – and now one more reason can be added to that list: the shoddy, poisonous and inhumane analysis of young people and our situation put forward by the mainstream political and social commentariat.