It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in the land of my birth. So it was distressing to read of the riots in parts of London and other cities in Britain, which now seem strange and foreign to me. And yet at heart there was something very familiar. The rhetoric of politicians depicts the rioters as scum, as hooligans and gangsters, outside of the social pale. But they are our youth, and their outlook and anger comes from British society just as much as the standard political rhetoric does.
18-year-old Chavez Campbell predicted the riots after budget cuts closed down youth services in his area. He told The Guardian: “I did see the riots coming and the government should have seen it coming, too. Jobs are hard to get and, when they do become available, youths don’t get the jobs. There is nothing to do, they are closing youth clubs so the streets are just crazy. They are full of people who have no ambitions, or have ambitions but can’t fulfil them.”
At first sight, the formula seems to be the same as the riots in Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s, in Paris in 2005, or even Tunisia this year: high unemployment, resentment toward a rich and indifferent ruling elite, and police harassment. Reuters reported this conversation which records the growing feeling of marginalization: “ ‘It’s us versus them, the police, the system,’ said an unemployed man of Kurdish origin in his early 20s, sitting at the entrance to a Hackney housing estate with four Afro-Caribbean friends who nodded in agreement. ‘They call it looting and criminality. It’s not that. There’s a real hatred against the system,’ he added, listing what he saw as the police prejudice, discrimination and lack of opportunity that led him and his friends to loot shops, torch bins and hurl missiles at police on Monday. ‘There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more’.”
But the rapid spread of the rioting to other cities indicates a deeper problem. Juan Cole, although perceptive about Middle Eastern society, misreads the situation by describing it as a problem of immigrant youth: these are kids well integrated into British society. More cohesive immigrant groups in fact banded together to protect their communities, as The Independent reported: “In Whitechapel, home to Britain’s largest Bangladeshi population, locals described how 70 masked rioters were chased out of the neighbourhood by Bengali youths who had gathered for evening prayers outside East London Mosque.”
The Guardian reported: “as multi-ethnic areas from London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol burned, a myth was being dispelled: that so-called ‘black youths’ are largely behind such violence. In Tottenham on Saturday many of those who gathered at the police station to protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan were, like him, black. But others were Asian and white. By the following day, as the looting spread to other north London suburbs, there appeared to have been a slight shift in the demographic, which started to look younger. In Enfield most of those who gathered in the town centre were white. The youngest looked about 10-years-old. Those taking part in the battles in Hackney’s Pembury estate on Monday included many women. Teenage girls helped carry debris to form the burning barricades or made piles of rocks.”
Seamus Milne commented in the Guardian: “… there’s no mystery as to where the upheaval came from. It was triggered by the police killing a young black man in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts. The riot that exploded in Tottenham in response at the weekend took place in an area with the highest unemployment in London, whose youth clubs have been closed to meet a 75% cut in its youth services budget. It then erupted across what is now by some measures the most unequal city in the developed world …”
Although they are not rioting for an overt political cause, the nihilism of the youth was politically aware: they regard politicians, the police, and the rich as venal and corrupt. “The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters,” one told a reporter. Two girls explained to the BBC: “We’re showing the rich people we can do what we want.” Eyewitnesses reported that “even in the early hours the rioting was not without some social symbolism. ‘Murderers,’ shouted one man clutching a stereo as a police van drove past on Lordship Lane at around 3.45am.” The looters’ attitude to their marginalization by consumer society seems to be ambivalent: in some cases they took goods from stores, denying their alienation from shopping, but then destroyed them, rejecting them entirely as symbols of their marginalization.
What was different was the absence of restraints, the breakdown of social limits that respect property and personhood. Independent commentator Michael McCarthy wrote: “What began to terrify people, especially in areas where the police were absent, was the seemingly limitless nature of what the rioters would do. It had gone far beyond a barney with the coppers and the looting, in particular, it went past all previous bounds; the rioters would loot everything, everywhere; they would attack and rob anyone they came across; they began to break into private houses. I think people were so frightened because something had been loosed and was on display, which was new to many people – and that was the sight of very large numbers of people, mainly young men, who were no longer constrained by our culture. The role of culture in making British society what it is, and in giving it its remarkable strengths, is not often remarked upon, but it is enormous. We are, or we have been, a culture-bound society: we have been governed largely by informal constraints on our behaviour.”
This seems to me to hit on something more profound. The British state has long depended on the acceptance of a certain social ideology that rationalizes its class structure. For example, in the miners’ strike of 1984-5, both strikers and government condemned two miners who dropped a concrete block from a footbridge and killed a taxi driver who was driving a scabbing miner to his pit. This went beyond the mutually accepted rules of the struggle. The Tottenham riots began when police crossed another line by shooting dead Mark Duggan in a minicab. That broke the constraints of toleration between the police and inner-city youth. But gangs didn’t get involved until the following day, after angry protests escalated into the initial rioting.
Traditional British social structures and institutions are premised on a mass of skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers whose work and taxes sustains the privileges of the middle class and pays for welfare benefits. The destruction of job opportunities following the decline of manufacturing in Britain broke down these social structures, and then, given the extent of deprivation in so-called “sink” estates—where “problem” families are sent to cope with unemployment, alcoholism, and drugs—inter-generational relations and class organizations became impossible to sustain. Let’s be clear: these are working-class communities that have been disintegrated by several generations of unemployment and hopelessness. This creates a subculture in which gangs are the only cohesive force; they don’t necessarily have many actual members, but their territorial or tribal outlook is respected. There is no mechanical relation of poverty with social breakdown, but it’s what has happened in Britain because its social structures have already disintegrated.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charity “Kids Company”, works with the youth on the streets. She argued: “An absence of morality can easily be found in the rioters and looters. How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply ‘easily’, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. …Working at street level in London, over a number of years, many of us have been concerned about large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules. The individual is responsible for their own survival because the established community is perceived to provide nothing. Acquisition of goods through violence is justified in neighbourhoods where the notion of dog eat dog pervades and the top dog survives the best.”
But this outlook of the top dog has a familiar ring to it. This is the working out of the ideology of Thatcher, who famously declared there was no such thing as “society.” What she meant was that society was to be atomized into individuals who could take care of themselves – her rationalization of an assault on communal social values in education, jobs, housing, and peoples’ lives. Together with Reagan she inaugurated the rejection of social responsibility for the poor and disabled, ending disapproval of individual selfishness, dismantling of state social support systems, rapid impoverishment of working class areas together with the accumulation of incredible wealth at the top of society.
As a close friend confided to me: the riots are the ultimate expression of Thatcherism.