The (inevitable) riot posts #4
In case you haven’t seen Spiked! it really is worth popping over there to read Brendan O’Neill’s take on the riots. He suggests that it’s not so much a race thing, and since although there are loads of black faces in the images of rioting and looting coming out of Britain there’s not exactly a shortage of white faces either he’s probably got a point. Nor, he says, is it about working class anger at the cuts or high youth unemployment or a general protest against capitalism.
These observers are right that there is a political context to the riots. They are right to argue that while the police shooting of young black man Mark Duggan may ostensibly have been the trigger for the street violence, there is a broader context to the disturbances. But they are wrong about what the political context is. Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the Suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is now occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and peculiar and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.
What we have on the streets of London and elsewhere are welfare-state mobs. The youth who are ‘rising up’ – actually they are simply shattering their own communities – represent a generation that has been more suckled by the state than any generation before it. They live in those urban territories where the sharp-elbowed intrusion of the welfare state over the past 30 years has pushed aside older ideals of self-reliance and community spirit. The march of the welfare state into every aspect of less well-off urban people’s existences, from their financial wellbeing to their childrearing habits and even into their emotional lives, with the rise of therapeutic welfarism designed to ensure that the poor remain ‘mentally fit’, has helped to undermine such things as individual resourcefulness and social bonding. The anti-social youthful rioters look to me like the end product of such an anti-social system of state intervention.
It is entertaining to watch the political contortionism of those commentators who claim that the riots are an uprising against the evils of capitalism, as they struggle to explain why the targets thus far have been Foot Locker sports shops, electrical goods shops, takeaway joints and bus-stops, and why the only ‘gains’ made by the rioters have been to get a new pair of trainers or an Apple laptop. In past episodes of rioting, for example during the Brixton race riots of 1981, looting and the destruction of local infrastructure were largely incidental to the broader expression of political anger, byproducts of the main show, which was a clash between a community and the forces of the state. But in these new riots, smashing stuff up is all there is. It is childish nihilism.
But it’s more than childish destructiveness motivating the rioters. At a more fundamental level, these are youngsters who are uniquely alienated from the communities they grew up in. Nurtured in large part by the welfare state, financially, physically and educationally, socialised more by the agents of welfarism than by their own neighbours or community representatives, these youth have little moral or emotional attachment to the areas they grew up in. Their rioting reveals, not that Britain is in a time warp back to 1981 or 1985 when there were politically motivated, anti-racist riots against the police, but rather that the tentacle-like spread of the welfare state into every area of people’s lives has utterly zapped old social bonds, the relationship of sharing and solidarity that once existed in working-class communities. In communities that are made dependent upon the state, people are less inclined to depend on each other or on their own social wherewithal. We have a saying in Britain for people who undermine their own living quarters – we call it ‘shitting on your own doorstep’. And this rioting suggests that the welfare state has given rise to a generation perfectly happy to do that.
This is not a political rebellion; it is a mollycoddled mob, a riotous expression of carelessness for one’s own community. And as a left-winger, I refuse to celebrate nihilistic behaviour that has a profoundly negative impact on working people’s lives.
Do go and read the rest. I don’t think I’ve linked to Spiked! before but I do have a lot of time for O’Neill’s writing, even if he is a self-confessed left winger. Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly right-wing myself so much as anti-state and so have more in common with an anti-state left winger than a statist right-winger. Hell, I used to think I was left-wing until a left wing government took over and I realised I hated them too. Or maybe O’Neill is just a clearer thinker than the usual CiF/LabourLost mob.
Whatever it is I think he’s got a damn good point. Let’s not hide from the fact that there have been a lot of black people involved in the looting, but let’s not ignore the fact that an even bigger common denominator seems to be age. A couple of generations of people for whom life is about getting something for nothing and increasingly about getting everything for nothing. Black, white, Asian, blue skinned many-armed Thengulb’idians from the planet Urgh if there were any, whoever has been deemed by the Righteous to be even remotely disadvantaged has been spoiled by state largesse. That there are so many black faces (and so few blue ones with tentacles over the eyes) I’d guess just means that the money hoses have been soaking them more than other groups, probably because of this culture of guilt over past injustices that the Righteous tell us we should feel these days.
That we’ve spoiled if not wholly ruined so many people, and many of them black, by dumbing down education and fostering a culture of welfarism and dependence is not exactly just either probably escapes them.