A few words against the grain of the comforting little narrative that liberals and conservatives are building around themselves.
It’s not idiotic to hate society after generations trapped in sink estates, targeted by racist policing and deprived of the opportunity to get the things you are told are important: money, power, respect and so on. Describing the young people involved as directionless, motiveless animals simply engaging in an orgy of destruction misses the point in such a major way it could well prove fatal. These are real human beings, with real lives and relationships, and with real reasons for the things that they do.
Such actions aren’t just born in the heat of the moment, though. Nor can they be explained away by mechanistic psychology (“that child has ADHD/something wrong in the head”). The popularity of energy drinks at break-time might be a contributing factor (I’m serious here), but ultimately what appeared ‘inexplicable’ to me was often a symptom of a socialised condition of hopelesness, springing from a sub/semi-conscious understanding that there is no future.
Perhaps this is not even self-destruction: there is no longer a sense of self to destruct. Liberal rhetoric about knuckling down and working hard and making something of life is seen as the patronising, implausible bullshit it is; traditional hierarchies that kept people ‘in their place’ have been eroded by capitalism; collective action to change the situation simply isn’t seen as possibility. There is nothing to do but howl helplessly. I often thought that if this was a struggle for recognition it was a struggle for self-recognition; an act of proving to oneself that you are still capable of doing something.
Nor is the kind of explanation that goes “this is all about getting new trainers and Blu-ray players, they don’t care about anything else” at all satisfying. If that were the case, why are the riots happening now, in this specific context? Why is the rest of the consumerist world relatively calm most of the time? For generations our culture has promised endless prosperity in return for social passivity. Now that the engine of capitalism has thoroughly crapped out, those promises are being rescinded for those at the bottom. Is it then an apolitical position to go out and take what you need or want from the hands of those who would withhold it?
Any analysis that ignores the role of society in creating a fertile breeding ground for the kind of hopelessness and anomie that can flower into a resentful desire to smash everything is an analysis that is as misguided as the other extant (although thankfully not hegemonic) explanation, that this is an example of innate racial characteristics.
What all the mainstream explanations are missing at the moment is an understanding that these rioters live in the same society as the rest of us. They are conditioned by the same rules, ideology and structures that we are, although from day to day they see a different side of those structures than the rest of us. As Stafford Scott says, if this was a surprise to you, you were wilfully ignoring the problems with the way things are for a sizeable chunk of the population:
First, looting comes from the belief that if you cannot get equality and cannot expect justice, then you better make sure that you “get paid”. “It’s all about the money!” is the motto of too many young black men, who have given up all hope of attainment in a white man’s world. This is an absolute belief for those looting at the weekend – borne not only out of their experiences but their parents’, too. They want to follow the rappers and athletes who live ghetto-fabulous lifestyles based on natural talents, as opposed to learned skills. They can’t see that coming through education: those who live on estates generally survive from one wage packet to the next. Sadly this mindset also makes it easier to legitimise the selling of drugs, as that too “brings in the money”.
On Saturday, instead of imploding and turning inward and violent among themselves, as they have been doing for the past decade, the youths exploded. The trigger may well have been the killing of Mark Duggan and the insensitive treatment of his family, but this has been brewing for some time. The government cuts – especially the withdrawal of EMA; the new barrier of tuition fees; and rising youth unemployment have all added to their sense of isolation and lack of a stake in society.
As a postscript, I’m getting pretty worked up explaining this to people, but attempting to understand the causes of serious and significant social upheaval is not the same as cheerleading it.