So it has come to this. Outside, sirens doppler back and forth every few minutes. My street is one of the quiet ones. The looting is restricted to areas with high street brands.
The irony here is so thick it could cure anaemia. London is overrun by looters, smashing in windows, tearing open shutters and making off into the night with armfuls of tracksuit bottoms, DVD players and flatscreen televisions. The streets are strewn with hangers.
The purported flashpoint of this widespread disorder? The shooting of a young man in Tottenham, north London named Mark Duggan. He was shot by the police in what can generously be described as an opaque incident involving an exchange of fire that may or may not have involved the police accidentally shooting each other and blaming it on him. The people smashing into sports shops and electronics stores probably don’t even know his name. They’re too busy, in the words of this girl, “getting [their] taxes back”. With Duggan’s death fresh enough to be bandied about as a cause, the rioting could be somehow explained as a form of protest, an eruption of vitriol from the disaffected youth inhabiting the poorer districts of this city, struggling to find a role in society that won’t involve performing oral sex on disused railway platforms or stacking shelves at Tesco.
How is this anti-establishment sentiment made manifest? By what can only be described as violent shopping. Rampaging through the communities they grew up in, they take out their frustration at a lack of occupation or engagement on the shops and businesses that provide employment in their area, they smash-and-grab the luxury items which are supposedly the fruit of all the social climbing, work and effort our society enshrines. Their generation’s grand gesture of disobedience is straight-up Western-style consumer-capitalism, pure and uncut, direct from the amygdala. Take whatever you can get your hands on for yourself and trash the commons with impunity. They are not inhuman, they are not confused, they are not wrong – they’re us, except they’re doing it here and with no sense of irony. Protest 2.0, London-style.
In Cairo, during the uprising, it was the Egyptian youth who linked arms to protect the Museum of Antiquities, the cultural heritage of their long and respected history. Here in London, if any of these kids have been to a museum, it was after being dragged there by force during a field trip (if their school still had the budget or in fact a subject which included things you’d find in a museum). While there, they glumly trudged the halls, occasionally looking over the dusty artefacts of the past with dull eyes. After all, with a smartphone that has wi-fi and full colour interactive gaming, with Twitter, with Facebook, with Bebo, Myspace, Blackberry Messenger and YouTube, how the hell is a museum supposed to hold a young person’s attention unless they’ve been taught to respect and cherish a slow offering up of knowledge and beauty directly proportionate to the attention one pays? These people have been marketed at since birth. They have been groomed in a manner more insidious than the tactics of the most hungry-eyed paedophile. Their sense of self, their very existence, has been mediated by the economy into which they have been prepped for entry.
From personalised ringtones to Celebrity Big Brother, every possible act of engagement or empowerment has been a commercial transaction for them. Every sub-culture becomes an economic sector. Anything they were taught was only on the syllabus because of its utility in the “knowledge economy”. Who needs to know history or facts when there’s Wikipedia? Who needs maths when there’s a calculator? Who needs handwriting and spelling when there’s Microsoft Office and spell check? Who needs music or art classes when there’s no demand in the marketplace for those skills? Or should I say skillz?
They have been raised as consumers, not as citizens. Consumers have gadgets. Consumers have the respect of business and government because their jealously guarded (and coveted) money is the closest thing they will ever possess to the keys to the kingdom. Even the university education which their parents received for free or for £1000 a year will now cost them £9000 a year if they can get into a university with what little useful knowledge the state allows them to have for their parents’ taxes. After all, don’t we need competition to deliver the best results to the consumer?
Given the opportunity to take to the streets, they come out in force as consumers, not citizens. Their protest is against their lack of spending power, their lack of a flatscreen television, the meddlesome need of government to extract taxation from them for services from which (if they reach their dotage) they will never benefit. They are the purest incarnation of our free market, consumer ideology. They are competing against the law for the best results a consumer can ever hope for, which is something for nothing. And they are winning.
While pundits are onscreen in the coming weeks for the mandatory hand-wringing, while Parliament is debating the inevitable emergency police powers which will bring water cannons and maybe even rubber bullets onto the streets of London, these consumers will be at home watching it all on their new televisions, comfortably toasty in their new tracksuits. They will be re-absorbing the narrative of their activity through the mediated world we created for them, a world which still does not contain a sense of genuine community, of productive work, of social justice, fairness or equality.
Our government decries the violence on the streets of Brixton, Tottenham, Lewisham, Camden, Woolwich, Croydon and Birmingham while levying taxes for wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Our deputy mayor is disgusted by the looting of electronics from Curry’s, electronics that have been made for slave wages in a Chinese factory rife with worker suicide and abuse, because that kind of throughput is more “efficient” (read “cheap”) than producing things ourselves using well-compensated labour. How dare they smash their way into a Tesco supermarket and steal food, while Tesco itself runs an approximate £2 billion profit margin annually while purposefully opening up “express” shops next to successful neighbourhood grocery stores, driving them out of business with tactics designed to bypass local objections? How can they set pubs on fire? How malicious is that? Those pubs sell beer from upstanding brands who buy barley from countries wracked by famine while our government bleats about food aid. Whence cometh such cannibalism? Where indeed could these misguided looting fools have gotten these kinds of ideas?
Did these evil thoughts filter into their minds by osmosis? Are they possessed by the Devil? Or did they grow up in single-parent homes on sink estates, surrounded by the remains that “wealth creation” leaves behind, dreaming of a way out? Did the debt-ridden financial system of this country drive both their parents into working long shifts with irregular hours to suit our 24-hour culture, leaving their children in the hands of everyone’s favourite babysitter and pacifier, the television? When Mummy’s hours were cut by Tesco after they put in self-checkout machines, did Mummy have to take a second job to make up the wages she lost?
However did these young people acquire such a bizarre combination of hatred and brand loyalty? How indeed.
As for where this unexpected outpouring of violence came from, the establishment need only cast an eye over the recent past. The dissenters in this country has tried every possible way of reclaiming power. We marched against the invasion of Iraq in our millions. We marched, petitioned and protested against war, against spending cuts, against privatisation, against crony capitalism, against bank bailouts, against globalisation, against corporate tax cuts, against job losses, against pretty much everything we wanted stopped. Did it change a damn thing? Did it stop our government from doing whatever the hell they wanted? Hell no. We even voted against all the major parties in the last election and ended up getting two of them in power instead of none.
In response to the latest raft of austerity measures, students came out and protested for a cause, en masse. It got messy, but hey, nothing like this. Response? Jowly outrage and zero engagement with the demands of the vox populi.
So now, after every avenue has been explored by the public consciousness of this country in an effort to make itself heard, it has come to this. Every one of these thieving magpies on the streets of London tonight is carrying with them a piece of our collective humanity. The frustration at not being listened to, which is even worse than not being heard. The anger at a system that functions in isolation, unaccountable, unresponsive and fundamentally undemocratic. The loneliness of having no community, of families working ceaselessly to meet their obligations as the rising tide drowns everyone without a yacht. The cognitive dissonance of having a millionaire Prime Minister tell us we’re all in it together before flying off to an arms fair in the Arab Emirates as a sales rep for UK Plc, only to now come home early from his family holiday to decry violence.
This is simply the newest manifestation of a festering sore as old as the hills, as untended as a gangrenous limb. There will be other manifestations, make no mistake. If the response of the power structure is to entrench itself, to bring in draconian public order measures and to ignore the underlying root of the problem, this will happen again, only worse and worse as time goes on.
If the individuals in a given society can be considered as parts of an over-arching holistic consciousness expressing itself above the level of personal human awareness, then the collective id of Great Britain just had a serious outburst.
It has been said that violence is the sign language of the inarticulate. If that is true, as I believe it to be, then how much more pronounced are the violent linguistics of the forcibly muted? That this violence turned inward towards the ranks from which it swelled is akin to the self-hatred of the alcoholic, beating himself up about being a drunk instead of laying off the sauce.
By what metric can we judge the behaviour of these people once the nature of our society is taken into account? What transgression can we hang on them which does not originate with our own behaviour, negligence or neglect? Having no sense of community? Having no moral compass? Wanting what they haven’t earned? Taking what does not belong to them? Exploiting the weakness of others through violence? Opportunism? Gluttony? Ignorance? Hypocrisy? Madness? Where can we draw a line that distinguishes their actions here from our collective behaviour as a society both here and in countless, far-flung places?
Whatever the conscious motives or underlying machinations, the metaphor of these riots is the real message, a message which we ignore or underplay at our peril.
Postscript: The word “shopocalypse” was coined by my friend George Arton and, in keeping with recent events, I looted it mercilessly. Shout-out to The West Londoner for keeping the news feed going all night.
UPDATE: August 14th, 2011 – It has been brought to my attention by my diligent commenters that George may have overstepped the mark when he claimed ownership of the word “shopocalypse”. It appears to have been in circulation since at least 2007. Any confusion is between him and the true coiner of the word. I am staying well out of this one.