Compass Special Statement: Anatomy of a riot
When society feels like it is falling apart it is our job to find ways of binding people back together, to express solidarity over selfishness and hope over fear.
Therefore our first reaction to the frightening extent of looting and disorder that has swept our cities must be to reaffirm our common humanity. Those on the streets, in their houses, the police, the politicians, all of us should recognise that we share the same essential hopes of security, freedom, love and creativity. But we are separated by largely one thing, the accident of birth. As social mobility dwindles and the inequality gap widens, the brute luck of who our parents are dominates our lives. Some come to the debate from Eton via Tuscany, others have never left the streets that now burn. We go our separate ways but this common humanity inevitably keeps breaking through.
So, second we should recognise how much these events show we have in common. What some have unhelpfully labeled a ‘feral underclass’ is simply the mirror image of a now feral elite – the further a few rise beyond society the further many have to fall below it. But both feel compelled to cheat to get what they want. The bankers bend the rules, take reckless risks with other people’s money and asset strip companies and therefore communities; politicians lie and fiddle their expenses for moats; the media eaves-drop on the lives of the stricken and the police are on the take. And the ones in hoods who have no opportunity take it when they see it and have nothing to lose and so little to fear. No not all who are poor are looting but when every police cell in London is full something deep and more profound is happening. So who has the moral high ground? The rich and powerful who cheat for the trappings of super success; or the poor, powerless and humiliated who want so little but see the behaviour of those ‘at the top’. We don’t have to condone the lawlessness (and we shouldn’t) to understand it – so that it’s less likely to happen again.
The similarities don’t end there. The zombie rioters mirror us too, the zombie shoppers who spend every weekend walking through the front doors of the shops rather than through a smashed window after dark. We all want ‘what’s in store for us’. How could it be otherwise when today ‘being normal’ is defined by our ability to keep up as consumers? We all see the same 3000 selling images everyday, relentlessly imposing a single vision of success and we want it. We just differ on how.
Catherine Holmes, a resident in Hackney emailed the BBC in the early hours of Tuesday morning to say “we spoke to looters trying to get home, the only explanation they gave for their behaviour was that they had no money today. It is sad to think that these people are thinking of only the next moment”.
What seemed achingly sad, along with the sight of small shopkeepers losing their livelihoods, were the trophies of lawlessness. It was not transformative power or a different world the rioters sought but almost pathetically just a new pair of trainers. Their ambition, like the wider culture, is only to own.
Ironically perhaps, even the police and the rioters have something in common. The failed consumers, the looters, who take what they can’t buy are used to police us. Systematically they are deployed to create the dark sense of the ‘other’ who we desperately try not to be like. It is in part the fear of their wretched lives that keep the rest of us on the exhausting treadmill of earning and owning. No other option for life is presented or allowed. This is our prison.
Thirty years ago, the last time our cities burned, the shopping revolution, and the rampant individualism it spawned, was just under way – this time it has a stranglehold on all of us.
Finally, we might not know exactly how or why but we all know that the current world order is breaking down. We stand on the precipice of another global meltdown with no resources this time to clear up the mess. And we all know too that the planet is burning beyond our ability to control it. Events are on fast-forward as we stumble from crisis to crisis with no chance to catch our breath. The neo-liberal hegemony of the last three decades is over. Even Charles Moore of the Daily Telegraph recognizes the game is up for the right. But in this interregnum morbid symptoms appear. While we still think we are a fair, prosperous and contented nation, events tell us otherwise. The poor get poorer and the planet burns, creating a third crisis of democracy itself. To which there will always be a reaction.
The sky is darkening not just with the dense smoke of burnt out buildings, but the sight of chickens coming home to roost; a social recession that long predated the economic recession, the rise of a feral elite with no responsibility to anyone but themselves, the loss of the public realm and any sense of public interest, the cuts which hit the poorest hardest and the monotonous creation of a consumer monoculture culture – that has now been taken away.
If we tell young people that their worth is to be measured in terms of how much they own or how close they get to Oxbridge, while pursuing an economic programme predicated on ever-widening inequality, and a political agenda that increasingly alienates the majority from all centres of real decision-making, when our democracy fails to hear their voices, then how in all honesty do we think the ones left at the bottom are going to react? You don’t have to be a police chief let alone a Kaiser Chief to predict a riot.
The finger can be pointed across the spectrum, from right to left. No political party has done the right thing. Cameron once talked about recapitalizing not just the banks but the poor. New Labour said it would be tough on the causes of crime. But it goes wider through every major civil society organisation – the churches, the unions, the big NGOs right down to all of us and all our lives. We take too much and give too little. We deal with symptoms of the rot and never the causes.
Hope can only come from what we have in common. This is the building block of a good society in which no one gets so far ahead that some get left so far behind. People need hope and the belief that we are all in this together. It cannot be austerity for many and riotous prosperity for so few. It is a society in which democracy decides to build parks, playgrounds and youth centres not more, prisons, penthouses and shopping centres. We must commit to rebuilding lives and hopes with apprenticeships and good jobs, with support for meaningful education for all and for communities with services and public spaces in which society itself can be nourished. Right now we need strong local government and localised police forces accountable to the community they serve and through which all are made equal before the law. We need to renew a social contract and revive the notion of the public interest by examining the way in which unaccountable elites now dominate our world.
And we need a good society in which earning and owning comes second to the time to love, care and be truly free not just as individuals but crucially by working together to shape and mould the big things in our lives.
Our common humanity came shining through again as people volunteered to help clear up the mess, as the broom suddenly became a powerful metaphor for collective action, it was evident in the community leaders trying to bind back together their broken neighbourhoods, it can be seen in the good cops and the brave firefighters who understand the idea of a public service ethos. Our common humanity is all we have.
Let this week be a wake up call. There is more to clean up than broken shop windows. We have much to clean out and then an economy and society to rebuild. Only together can we make that happen.
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