A few weeks ago I sat with a couple of friends, flippantly contemplating the future of society as we know it, how it could be End of Days after all. Not by some biblical, supernatural cataclysm, but that it could be the end of the current political and economic order. We debated how this might come about – internal governmental collapse, economic ruin, the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse… I favoured an uprising by the people at the bottom, not in some Marxist class-war glory but base and brutish, violence and destruction en masse until total lawlessness ruled.
I didn’t expect it quite so soon…
London and now numerous other English cities are being plagued by night-time riots after the shooting dead of a young black man, Mark Duggan, in a North London district last week. What began as a peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday has descended into a chaos where all initial meaning has been lost and it has become an excuse for gangs of ‘youths’ (I’m loathe to use such a loaded term) to rampage, loot, and destroy.
Of course the Tory government rhetoric is full of lingo like ‘criminality’ and ‘disrespect to property’. What about disrespect to community, morality, humanity? And what are the causes underlying this uncondonable behaviour?
This should not have been unforeseen. The factors that caused me to make my prediction only weeks earlier are there for the seeing: a failing economy, high unemployment, public services feeling the axe of austerity, disillusionment with ineffective and aloof government – these are the immediate factors which always contribute to social unrest. However what was also apparent was the deeper, long-term issues that affect this society – and what differentiates these riots to those of previous generations: the disintegration of community, the hegemony of greed and consumerism, the increasingly egotistical and un-empathetic youth, and the alarming arrival of violent crime for pleasure rather than gain.
Of course these ‘youths’ are responsible for their own actions – many are amoral, violent, self-interested, or at the very least susceptible to the herding of those that are. The acts being seen at the moment are displays of blatant thievery, thuggery, thrill of destruction, and ignorance with absolutely no political message in mind. But these young people have turned out like this for a reason. Why weren’t the rioters of previous generations making such displays of greed? Because only now are we seeing the culmination of successive decades of capitalism-over-community governance, beginning, of course, with (that lady who I tend to lazily pin all of society’s woes on) Thatcher, perpetuated by Blair and his desecration of Labour party values, the baton now picked up by rubbery-faced (it seems to be some sort of Eton affliction) Cameron.
Three decades of materialistic, consumerist culture shoved at us from all angles has created a generation fundamentally defined by ‘stuff’ and the ownership of it. This is pervasive in pop culture – music videos full of stuff, songs about having stuff or wanting stuff, whole TV series – reality and otherwise – about people who have tons of stuff. The want-and-have mentality fostered by the banks throwing credit at people in the late 90s and early 2000s; the transition from Generation X to Generation Y – Why can’t I have it now? All, of course, beginning with the greed-is-good ethos promoted in the 80s. As one of the (fierce and admirable) young men appearing on the Newsnight debate last night (see 15min>) said, where are the role models? When people look up and see corporate bankers still raking in millions, having ruined homes and whole countries, and going unpunished, how can we expect those at the bottom to uphold the morals those at the top do not? It is a serious symptom of the spectacular failings of neoliberalism. When ownership and greed are the tenets of society, we cannot expect people to grow up with values pertaining to anything other than self-interest.
Cameron, you and your kin have created this monster, this ‘feral youth’ as you like to call them – now YOU have to live with the consequences.
No race necessary
It does concern me that some of the foreign (and probably domestic) Leftist/alternative media are marking this as some sort of uprising of the oppressed and a revolutionary landmark in the class/race/equality struggle. They need to take off their idealist’s spectacles because that is not what’s happening. I am staunchly of the Left but there is need for realism here. The best we can hope for out of this mobbery is that there will be a realisation of the issues facing British youth (and I say British. The riots may only have been in England but being Scottish and smug about this is kidding ourselves – we suffer the same issues here).
I fully await, however, an out-spewing of vehemence and dogmatic rage, calls for punishment, etc, etc, in the mainstream media which the majority of the public will dogmatically fall in with, jiggling in their armchairs, brandishing their fists over breakfast, not having learned anything about the questionable morality of their news sources from the only-the-other-week phone-hacking scandal. And unfortunately the Tories look set to highjack the moral/community aspect as a means to nag on about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ hypocrisy and their backward, traditionalist ‘family’ values.
Another worrying possibility is that right wing factions within the Conservative party, the (quite ridiculous) UKIP, and, more potently, the BNP and EDL, will use this is a platform to pedal their anti-immigration/racist bilge. Though long-running police harassment of Black and Asian youth, and the death of Mr Duggan, have been factors in fuelling the rage on the streets, these cannot possibly be defined as ‘race riots’. Those of all colours have been caught out joining with the mob: it is the mob against the establishment, no race necessary.
Hope or death?
There may be hope. Like I say, we might begin to take more notice of the issues that have broken our communities and brutalised our young, and accept that money has to be spent on social programs to even begin to heal this. Read this excellent article by youth worker Camila Batmanghelidjh, who tells the story from the ground and outlines the issues so much more expertly than I can. Reading about a 22 year-old rapper with a strong grasp of the issues taking his message to both the street and to Downing Street, and watching those young men stand their ground against a fat old bigot and a ragey mother on Newsnight, fills me with pride.
End of Days? Let us dare to place hope in the young…