Tuesday, August 09, 2011

London's burning

Watching London burn while rioters break windows in shops and loot sports clothes, blingy watches and widescreen tvs, you can't help feeling that you're watching some sort of dystopic film about civil breakdown. Unfortunately, this is one bad movie we can't switch off.

What the riots seem to be teaching me, is who, among my Facebook friends, is right-wing and who is left-wing. Some of my friends are calling for the rioters to be neutered so they can't have any more children. Some are wanting the army to be brought back from Afghanistan to deal with the rioters in the most violent way possible. Some are writing about "lazy benefit grabbing sloth". Others are blaming poverty, inequality, institutional racism, the police, the cuts. Some people are blaming the Lib-Dems, or Mrs Thatcher, saying it all started in the 1980s. Others are blaming the Labour Party, either for being too free and easy with giving out benefits to "scroungers", or for furthering the inequality program which Mrs Thatcher started. Some people are blaming all the political parties (that's about as left-wing as you can get).

Attempts to explain the riots and looting largely fall into two camps - there's the view that the looters are mindless scum - a kind of essentalist argument. It's their own fault, they are bad, evil even. There is no point in reasoning with them, they must simply be locked up or met with even greater violence. The opposite argument, often heavily prefaced with the view that violence is never justified or a successful strategy, then goes on to look at the wider social context, pointing out the widening inequality gap between rich and poor, especially in large cities. For example, the website poverty.org.uk gives the following facts about UK inequality from 2009.

•The gini coefficient measure of overall income inequality in the United Kingdom is now higher than at any previous time in the last thirty years. 1
•Inner London has by far the highest proportion of people on a low income (29% in the poorest fifth) but also a high proportion of people on a high income (28% in the richest fifth).

This argument points out that if you see rich people all around you, yet you know you will never be able to get a job and better yourself, then what do you have to lose.

I guess I'm more inclined to fall into the latter camp. I'm from a working-class background - one of the poorest areas in the UK. All through the 1980s, I felt I was missing out somehow, especially when I watched tv and saw southerners in nice big houses, but because everyone around me was also poor, it was a very intangible abstract sense of inequality. I also had it drummed into me that education was the answer to success - my aspirational mother paid for piano lessons, a set of encyclopaedias and lots of books. Duly enough, I was shown a track to a better life, pass lots of exams, don't get involved in crime, and you'll be OK. And it worked.

But I was one of the very few kids on my council estate who took that path. Two doors away, from the house where I spent the first 18 years of my life, a young girl died of a drug overdose recently. In my street, disputes were "resolved" by a brick through a neighbour's window in the early hours of the morning. There were plenty of problem families, break-ins and drugs. It is one of the few areas where it is easy to afford a house, because nobody rich wants to live there. Had I not been the sort of kid who likes reading, and had a mother who encouraged it, I wonder whether I would ever have left that world.

And when I see people looting on the tv, I wonder if, I had had their upbringing and life experiences - that sense of failure, that nothing you do will ever change anything, whether I would join in. And I think I probably would. Because I don't think most people are born especially good or bad, but they can be made good or bad by the things that happen to them.

What's ironic is that the rioters and looters are attacking their own patch. They are helping to make their own areas worse than they already are. Shop-keepers and the upwardly mobile will move out, house prices will go down, the price of insurance will go up. If the rioters were educated, if they had a proper understanding of the wider picture, of some of the reasons behind their own social inequality, they wouldn't be attacking Tottenham, they'd be going over to Belgravia, Chelsea and Hampstead and setting fire to a Waitrose. But if they were educated they wouldn't be rioting in the first place, because they'd have been able to take the traditional route to success.

And as for the view that violence is never justified or never solves anything - I suspect that politicians are so eager to tell us this precisely because it is untrue. Violence was clearly justified and was the only effective solution during World War II. Riots have been occurring all over the Middle East, and have been effective in changing Egypt's political structure. And it is also ironic that government ministers tell us that violence isn't the answer while they conduct a war in Afghanistan. The votes for women's movement began with acts of violence - and perhaps it was not the violence itself which acheived women's suffrage, it certainly got them noticed. The violence of the Stonewall riots was a trigger which coalesced into the American gay rights movement. The horrible truth is that violence sometimes is the answer.

Is the violence justified or effective this time? I don't know. The rioters' goal seems to be simply to get stuff. Which seems to be exactly the message which everyone in Britain has been told for the past 30 years.

And rather than this being an opportunity to make Britain a better place, I suspect we will all just lurch even further to the right. Bring out the hoses!


Justin said...

"Had I not been the sort of kid who likes reading, and had a mother who encouraged it, I wonder whether I would ever have left that world." Ditto.
I too wondered why the looters weren't destroying Kensington, but I suppose, education aside, a large group of bescarved youth mobilising and patiently trundling along the District line would have a) been difficult to arrange and lack spontaneity and b) attracted a lot of attention from the well-to-do, who would race to the local constabulary.

Anonymous said...

Easily the most insightful piece I've read on the recent riots. You should be writing for one of the more respectable broadsheets, young man.

Lubin said...

Thanks both for the comments, and for calling me young man. At 39, I don't get that much these days!