The recent rioting in England's urban centres has predictably provoked many commentaries, most notably on Facebook and Twitter. The immediacy of social networking sites is understandably attractive to those who watched representations of the events unfold and felt compelled to comment (although such commentary never extended to a critique of the ideological underpinnings of said representations).
This urge to make public one's views is hardly objectionable - and a charitable reading might argue that it at least shows people are politically engaged - but so many of the comments I've read have been steadfastly devoid of any desire to question why people acted in the way they did. In this respect the affective allure of conducting violent acts for those involved in the disturbances - the fleeting thrill of destruction and spectacular consumption in the here and now - has been matched by the sense of smug self-satisfaction commentators appear to have acquired in hitting the share and tweet keys as speedily as possible; a race to see who can post their snap judgement first. The need for wider recognition in this sense was not confined to those youth who saw in the rioting an opportunity to act out mediated fantasies of omnipotence.
Rather than one of reflection, then, the tone has been generally one of moral righteousness, whereby those involved in the violence are denounced unequivically as mindless, amoral thugs. Further, they are represented as 'scum' who, by not behaving in the dignified manner exemplified by previous generations, serve only to tarnish the good name of the deserving working class. Thus, sentimentalised accounts of an earlier epoch - in which anxieties about multiculturalism magically disappear - are set against a contemporary moment in which feckless, celebrity-obsessed youth demonstrate that they are incapable of keeping their heads down and, in a dignified manner, refusing to whinge about their place in the social hierarchy. These rioters are to be loathed too because their actions indicate that they clearly do not value the educational opportunities, health care and housing they've been given access to. At this point, the (absolutely) impoverished Other is usually cited as the real wretched of the earth, by whom these ungrateful, spoilt juveniles should measure themselves against.
What seems so depressing about this line of thinking is the desire to dismiss any notion of poverty being made sense of relationally. Thus, if you're on benefits, get free prescriptions and have a roof over your head, you have no right to behave anti-socially in order to express your anger at the inequalities you're confronted with on a daily basis. The idea that the self-image of England's underclass - normally invisible in public discourse - might be in some way connected to the self-image of those with a stake in society is given short shrift. But actually we are always defining ourselves in relation to others and to suggest otherwise is blague. What seems to irk most commentators, then, is that last week's events suggest that the underclass won't do its job properly and exist quietly in order to make the rest of us feel better about our own relentless pursuit of wealth and status.
Neither will these 'vermin' articulate their desire for material advancement in the appropriate manner - how vulgar that all they can worry about is stealing sportswear and plasma televisions rather than marching in an orderly line to Westminster, carrying banners proclaiming their right to participate fully in society. And to the chagrin of the hypocritical Labour MP, Diane Abbott - Hackney resident and mother of a child educated in the private school system - they couldn't even be bothered to loot Waterstones in order to read a book or two. If only they had done. In the social sciences section (buried in a corner behind the priority sections on celebrity-endorsed tat and formulaic novels) they could have picked up any number of texts pointing out that neo-liberal, free-market capitalists couldn't give a shit about full employment, increased disparity in income or the importance of secure, skilled work for people's sense of self-worth.
As Will Hutton pointed out years ago, in what now seems like a conservative calculation, 40% of our population is in secure employment, 30% is reliant on short-term contracts and temporary work, while the final 30% is eligible for unpaid 'voluntary' work or a life on welfare. In this sense the savage budgetary cuts equals random violence equation is simplistic; the Coalition is extending the inequality that Labour perpetuated. As others have pointed out, Peter Mandelson was echoing the views of Labour senior management when he stated that, 'we [Labour] are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.'
The interesting challenge, then, is how the nihilistic, barely articulable anger of some of our fellow citizens - and, yes, their destructive, violent urges - might be redirected at those in power, at those who should be held accountable. These are the people who consistently argue for cuts over progressive taxation; reduced regulation over accountability, the divisiveness of private education and selection over a well-funded comprehensive system (which, by definition, we've never had) and the 'rights' of the individual over the needs of communities. Their lack of moral fibre in relation to their own conduct speaks volumes. It is also many of these people who cynically capitulated long ago to a vision of the nation state as nothing more than a consumer society in which the pursuit of instant gratification and sensory overload is embraced rather than challenged. If we are to begin a debate about the importance of relocating our collective moral compass, we should do so in the knowledge that the greatest impediment to a just society is inequality.
Two films which I kept being reminded of whilst watching these events unfold are Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine. Both contain key scenes in which marginalised groups confront the other seeking to define them. Perhaps one way in which we can all start to begin to understand the significance of last week's events is to continually remind ourselves that constructing arbitary differences between us in order to shore up our own sense of self worth is, ultimately, a destructive act. This doesn't mean advocating the erosion of individuality, nor does it mean ignoring the material inequalities which divide us. It means simply that true understanding can only be achieved when 'they' become 'us'.
Do the Right Thing (from 5 minutes in)...