Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The English riots 2011

Watching the riots breaking out across England over the last few days has made for a curious, almost voyeuristic experience; this feels like a once-in-a-generation event, and that's exactly what it is. I can't recall anything quite like it happening on such a widespread scale anywhere in the UK - Northern Ireland aside, perhaps - and once the disturbances have died down there will be a lot of questions asked about how and why this has happened and why this has been allowed to happen.

Now I want to be clear about one thing. The actions of the rioters and the looters is utterly disgraceful. This is not some English Spring modelled on the efforts of our Arab brethren earlier this year; there is no political agenda at work, nor battle for social and democratic rights. This is not a valid form of protest; it is simply a collective act of mass criminality that has long since overshadowed the tragic circumstances surrounding its genesis.

And yet, and yet...

Many have been quick to condemn the rioters - and rightly so - but have dismissed the entire saga as a completely spontaneous event, as if its unprecedented magnitude has been created from nothing. Others have focused purely on the punishment aspect, making that age old rightist mistake of prioritising cure over prevention and ignoring the root causes. Clearly something more than throwing people in jail or enacting repressive legislation is going to be needed to stop this from ever happening again.

But similarly it cannot do to simply blame adverse social conditions, budget cuts and unemployment, even if it is tempting to suggest that the most serious urban disturbances almost always seem to take place under a Conservative administration. True, these have a very real part to play - would these riots have occurred before the current recession? - but lack of social mobility cannot excuse opportunistic looting and arson even if it is a prime causal factor.

Something obviously isn't right here. Some have identified a lack of respect for the authorities as the primary motivational factor, but I see that as a symptom of our current malaise, rather than a cause. No, there is more to the story then that. It is capitalism.

Bear with me for a moment with this. Capitalism is the economic system that priorities competition and the profit motive, where the concept of private business trumps that of net social benefit. It is a system based on greed, that dictates that the means of production are to controlled by the few and that the greatest priority in existence is the unrelenting pursuit of wealth. It prioritises excessive consumption over all else and forces us into a state of eternal competition and mutual suspicion.

Such a system is inherently corrupt, morally or otherwise. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the greatest crime of capitalism is that it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It's the paradigm that brought us the current financial crisis and the excessive actions of irresponsible banks that has caused far more economic damage - in monetary and social terms - than teenage thugs ever will.

But it is the emphasis on the primacy of the individual that is the most insidious aspect of capitalism. Ever since Thatcher destroyed the unions the utter dominance of the market has become institutionalised, dominating British politics and policy no matter who has been holding the keys to Number 10. It has created a society where this conspicuous consumption is to be coveted and where selfishness undermines any real social cohesion. It's the sort that worships celebrity, causes eating disorders, creates massive personal debt, and - yes - nurtures a disrespect for authority and anything else that stands in the way of that consumption or ideal image. It puts us all in competition with each other, rather than encourage us to work together. We have created a 'me first' culture that holds notions of shared values in contempt and renders David Cameron's idea of a Big Society a futile waste of time. We're stuck in a deep social rot that will never be cured whilst profit remains king.

The ultimate cause of the riots? It's the economy, stupid. But it'll need more than simply creating jobs to stop it happening again...

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