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Riots, aggravated shopping and 30 years of opportunism

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This post is by Colin Sumner and was first published on his Crime Talk website which is highly recommended particularly for those with an interest in criminology.

The recent UK riots were public disorders waiting to happen. Many of the struts and supports of post-war civic idealism had over the past three decades been kicked away, disregarded or even dismantled. However culpable and predatory the looters were, and two wrongs certainly do not make a right, they were no more so than the MPs, bankers, hedge funds, police and media who over the last few years had set an appalling example of amorality and greed, destroying far more property, reducing asset values far more, and disrespecting more cherished moral values than the rioters. This is a timeline that looks distinctly causal. Since 1979 there has been so much cultural and political emphasis on entrepreneurialism, property, acquisition, business over service, looking after yourself rather than others, it is truly amazing, when the wealth gap is polarizing, that Thatcher’s babies have not rioted and looted more often.

Maybe much of the anger and angst has turned inwards, exploited by both legal and illegal drugs industries. My view is that we need so much protection from business in so many fields of endeavour that ‘Protect us from business’ should become a standard political battle-cry. Yes, I want protection from rioters too but on an average week I need more protection from my bank, my energy supplier, internet companies I buy from, plumbers everywhere, the government, the Revenue and of course traffic police.

Looking back at that crazy week of looting and rioting, I am sure this brave and perceptive black lady spoke for many in pouring cold water on any idea that this was some sort of political awakening. Her immortal words were: “Get it real, black people, get real. Do it for a cause. If we’re fighting for a cause let’s fight for a fucking cause. You lot piss me off. We’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker and stealing shoes.” You can read more about her in the Guardian here. But I am equally sure some people, including the lady in Hackney above, liked what this guy said. He pointed out that some kids in our culture can’t do anything right whereas it seems bankers, MPs, police and journalists can’t do anything wrong. Nor would many argue that the experience of this economist/magistrate was untypical.

As a society, we need to stand back and look carefully at what the riots mean [1]. Before we do that, we have to bear in mind, as a matter of good social science, that

[A] the events had a temporal dimension, different phases on different nights, meaning that the original reasons for protesting were not necessarily the reasons for the second phase of riotous looting and general mayhem, and that riots, as collective behaviour, do have a life of their own;

[B] there were real victims out there, not just abstract ones such as distant chain stores or the security of the state – several people were killed protecting their property, and many have lost jobs or had their futures severely blighted [2];

[C] riot is a loose term of moral judgment, a censure, not a scientific concept and therefore we cannot assume that ‘rioters’ are a correctly classified, homogeneous, group of people – there is a huge difference between leading a gang of hoodies on a looting rampage and being unable to say ‘no’ when a rioter offers some stolen goods [3];

[D] as Hegel taught us, there is a worthwhile distinction between the thing in itself, e.g. the actual behaviour, and the thing for itself, e.g. its social meaning, and so we should not assume to know the state of mind of the ‘rioter’ from what his or her activity means to us – their mind-sets or intentions were neither idiotic nor revolutionary just because we attributed idiocy or radicalism to their actions;

[E] Western economies are indisputably experiencing what economists call an ‘under-consumption’ crisis, meaning that reduced state expenditure, a credit squeeze, high unemployment, low savings rates and low growth have combined to hold back consumer spending. In a word, we all have cash flow problems right now; there is a system problem and it is a normal stage of the economic cycle.

Different explanations are required for different phenomena, and different explanations generally produce different moral judgments and policy responses. Whichever way you explain and judge the riots, the issue is at the heart of why the public so often see the UK as a country that ‘has gone to the dogs’. Like the denizens of Shameless, the riots are ultimately an embarrassment to right, left and middle. They testify to generations of failure – I would say three to be precise – and it is a failure of the basic business model.

A failed business model

The classic business model of capitalism, namely that if we run everything as a business everything will be fine, has been put to the test during 30 years of Thatcherism and neo-Thatcherism and has been found palpably wanting, and even hugely damaging sociologically. As many economists of various schools have pointed out, there is a moral and political element in all business and we ignore it at our peril.

Put another way, an association based solely on work, ambition and growth in competition with others is likely to produce no society at all – merely a war of all against all, as Hobbes called it, with the death or destruction of all bar the strongest. I’ve been watching The Borgias – Machiavelli’s in that too but that Borgia Pope is a role model for a life of crime.

You simply cannot do business in an amoral way and expect there not to be a black market, sustained criminality, explosions of popular revolt and mass mimicking. Setting a bad example in business is to lay down bad fundamentals in society: see ‘Crime riots stoked by mistrust of politicians’and ‘Miliband must switch focus from Tripoli to London’.

Compounding the inherent weaknesses and downright failures of business, since the last riots in Toxteth and Tottenham we have had 30 years of lenience towards the negligence, greed, opportunism and corruption of the wealthy and powerful; bankers, MPs, top civil servants, ‘fat cat’ executives in all sectors, newspaper proprietors and all manner of private companies in PPI scams, intertwined in an obscene group grope whilst nonchalantly milking and destroying the public sector. This self-same de-regulated capitalist world, simultaneously and hypocritically, promotes a culture of punitiveness towards everyone else and has had to build many new prisons to house the biggest population of criminalized people in Europe.

It has been a period when the wealth gap between rich and poor has widened. The major industries for the historic working-class have either been killed off politically or ruined by foreign competition. There has been a major transfer of wealth from the majority to the minority – as in the USA [4]. Real unemployment has risen; consumerism has become a new religion; and conservatives have celebrated the Thatcherite business culture with its eye for the main chance and a devaluation of ideas of public service. Labour has offered little in alternative except being business-like, with all the ambiguity and double meanings that involves.

The forms of class have been re-written, blue-collar workers in declining manufacturing sectors giving way to a massive rise in state employment and a shift towards service industries generally. These changes entailed a real and felt feminization of labour and the devaluation of working-class masculinity. An individualistic cult of the self grew, like a monster in the ‘dragon’s den’, and it required clothes [5], a lifestyle, a street rap, and ‘homies’ to cover up its naked ugliness. That fire-breathing cultural dragon was fed by New Labour, as ‘Cool Britannia’, ostensibly embracing and protecting vulnerable elements of the working-class family whilst, in fact and in law, undermining the power of parents and householders against consumer culture, middle-class values, and nanny-statism.

These three generations were unable to protect their offspring from being decoupled from their old class and community base and in many cases simply lost them to the feral consumerism and unregulated enterprise culture that supplanted a weak and declining family identity with a belonging to the brand and a home in the ‘hood: see ‘How gangs have taken the place of parents in urban ghettoes’.

All of the above was ugly and sad, but it was made worse by: [a] certain timeless but recurrent issues for immigrant youth, especially that sadly conflicted second-generation that sociologists have so often documented since the 1930’s as caught between the dysfunctional effects of parental traditionalism and the functional demands of a potentially hugely rewarding consumerist individualism; [b] our rulers’ view of riots abroad as a sign of inequality and dictatorship, demanding financial and military support for ‘the rebels’, especially if there are any oilfields around; a joy in liberation starkly contrasting to their attitude towards domestic dissent, often derided as the ‘enemy within’ or a deviant minority; and [c] by the rise and rise of marketing, that iconic ‘science’ of bullshit that inflates everyone’s expectations, positions everyone as a player in the game, and spins the lie that consumption involves no moral issues – thus steadily fuelling the ‘black economy’ now burning brightly in the UK sky at night.

Given that the sociological dice were so loaded, there were and are a lot of young people ready to engage in aggressive shopping, or at least to join in the street play or at a minimum not to refuse any stolen goods on offer. This is a fact that is and was obvious to anyone aware of the dissolution of the old working-class culture. It has been documented well and at length on Winston Smith’s blog, a social worker dealing with the ‘underclass’, and of course, for the USA, in The Wire.

Volcanoes waiting to erupt

The UK riots were volcanic magma waiting to burst the surface. Indeed, once the cooling down processes stop, there is every reason to expect further eruptions. After all, there are no signs that our ruling old Etonians are learning anything about sociological volcanoes [6].

It is equally mistaken to see the censured collective behaviour [the so-called ‘riots’] as criminal or as frustration born of oppression. It is neither. Insofaras you can sensibly lump all the varying behaviours together under one umbrella, the ‘riots’ are a direct function or expression of a free market economy working as you would expect it to. They are not a sign of sickness in society or that it is broken; they are a sign it is working normally and well, with opportunistic materialism as the norm. The shops most targetted seem to show that the adverts have worked.

Moral of the story: don’t all go on holiday at the same time and especially at the same time as the kids are all on holiday! Clearly, the authorities had no idea how much the wheels had come off in this society. Their cluelessness is a major problem: they are out of touch and probably could not hear even when they listen, because their world is so remote from ours. Their capacity to steer the ship or to win battles for political legitimacy appears to have gone. Existing models of political domination through hegemony and the power of ideology will need re-writing. No one in casino capitalism is really in charge.

The riots are undoubtedly testimony to the distance now existing between politicians, police and authorities generally, on the one hand, and just about everyone else in the country on the other. It would appear that the politicians definitely don’t get it. They cannot imagine how much they have pissed all of us off. They cannot even seem to get close. It’s like: ‘well, we’ll spend £20 billion on the Olympics and that’ll keep ‘em quiet’. As if that will do anything other than fan the flames!

In an aggressively entrepreneurial free-market economy that despises state regulation, how can any rational person be surprised when young people behave like aggressive entrepreneurs with scant respect for law or justice? No one at the top recently has displayed any sense that there were any rules about when and how you did your acquisitive opportunism; indeed, the message from the top for years has been ‘help yourself’. I speak as an ex-Head of a Law School which got charged a fortune every time a room needed re-painting – of course the university painters had been laid off years ago in a series of false economies. Whether it be Russian businessmen buying up under-priced state assets, or companies ripping off the state through PFI contracts, or politicians giving themselves the best pension system or simply milking their office, the bad example has been set repeatedly: ‘help yourself is OK and it works’.

The so-called ‘rioters’ have copied their betters and elders well: they saw a niche in the market and drove a coach and horses through it, creating what you might call a broken window of opportunity. They ‘actioned a business plan’ that made the most of a moment involving summer holidays, absent policing, smart phones and new media. It was ‘aggravated shopping’ at a time of under-consumption with authorities elsewhere, doing other things, or in plain disarray with police, politicians and media in particular at each others’ throats.

Moral irresponsibility and declining respect in an amoral society

Of course, some of the rioters’ behaviour was so disrespectful, violent and dangerous that it was morally disgusting and showed about as much sign of radical consciousness as your local Tory MP does. Many of the rioters actually did seem conservative or at least depoliticized in outlook: opportunist consumers rather than street-fighting alternative culture, Thatcher’s babies not Trotsky’s cadres.

Like Sir Alex Ferguson, the UK’s top football manager, I found ‘the riots’ depressing [7]. There is reason to protest against the politicians of all parties, the stitch-up that are the PPIs fleecing the taxpayer, the banks for failing to protect our savings. But this was not a consciously political protest nor did it exhibit clues towards any great subliminal or inchoate political message. This was not even an incoherent attempt to stick two fingers up to the establishment; more likely, it was to stick two fingers recklessly into the pie of general affluence. The only immersion into alternative culture it showed was a basic grasp of the core teachings of Black Markets 101 [8].

Ferguson talked about the lack of respect for what the rioters’ parents had done for them. I agree, but, ignoring the possibility that their parents had indeed ‘done for them’ through their absent parenting, what struck me was the similarity in mood and tone to the threats of violence and the actual malicious damage my family had experienced directly in cities over the last decade. If you have been threatened by 14-year-olds when you stop them putting fireworks behind your dog’s rear end, or had estate agents’ boards speared powerfully through your double glazing, showering glass shards everywhere, or had your house repeatedly egged by 8-year-olds, only to find the police absent and powerless against the parents’ aggressive defence of their asocial offspring, you will know what I mean.

The riots were part of the general tawdry, ugly, nasty side of the UK today. As such, they are in no way a sign of a ‘broken’ society. They are a sign of a greedy, consumerist, selfish, anti-intellectual, entrepreneurial society working normally, functioning as it does everywhere: nastily, as a business, exemplified by the now-famous disgusting mugging of the young Malaysian guy.

The UK also has its idealistic, culturally diverse, musically brilliant, sportingly exciting, nature-loving, politically aware, morally sensitive and lovably eccentric side too, and it is in many ways a good country to live in. But, as with young children, when you turn your back, an ugly devilish mischief sometimes wins out over respect and play, especially when they’re in a mood. I am being kind. Winston Smith was less so [9].

The riots stand in contrast to the hard work and principles of all those people who try to resolve their problems without damaging others. In an absence of strong community and family bonds, attacking community members, damaging community institutions and destroying neighbours’ property is not the answer; no more than machine-breaking by Luddites rid us of industrial alienation [10].

The ‘big society’ ideology is now in tatters, having been revealed for what it always was: traditional Tory paternalism encouraging the rich to be charitable towards the poor and to organize their own private version of the state. Having seen that ‘chavs’ will riot to cross the chasms of this big society, the charity will now be rapidly ditched leaving only the iron fist of self-interest. Unregulated aggressive acquisitiveness is far too integral to the system to be licensed out to the lower orders!

Historically, what usually happens now is that the ruling classes respond with hastily formulated special measures and emergency powers, lashing out wildly and punishing disproportionately, after which it takes several generations to return the laws of the land to their normal state [11]. The unlucky, the naïve and the weak got caught and are now receiving heavy sentences; most of the organized criminals will not.

Punishing the captured ‘rioters’ severely will make the law-abiding public feel better, but it will create as many problems as it resolves. It certainly will not address the underlying sociological causes, which if left unattended will simply produce the same results again a few years down the road.

Protect us from business

Aggravated shopping is an integral part of the business cycle, as much as those other pranksters, boom and bust. Boom and excess produce a flabby self-indulgence; and the poor and young mimic the adult and rich.

This is a moment in the economic cycle when we should address issues around polarization of wealth, advertising standards, the need for protection of our core values and services from the remorseless logic of business, the concentration of jobs in already privileged regions, the declining health and integrity of families, and the public provision for young unemployed in a post-manufacturing world of vastly different life chances.

It is good to be business-like but not everything should be run as a business. Let us now be business-like about protecting public services, our moral values and the cherished civic idealism that still makes the UK an attractive location but is truly hanging by a thread. We are at a crossroads. We neither want an authoritarian nanny-statism substituting state power for individual freedom nor a law of the jungle that says ‘just look after number one’. Both Conservative and Labour political philosophies are finished. They offer little motivation to anyone, least of all those who feel disconnected from the old adult moral, cultural and political worlds. The riots do however have something to tell us: it’s all very well dismissing socialism but a raw business culture of ‘help yourself’ is toxic and will produce the same ‘civil wars’ that Mexico and Central America are now experiencing over drugs. Societal stability requires a re-constitution of society via a re-insertion of social values at all points.

There is little difference between ‘self-help’ and ‘help yourself’, but there is a world of difference between both of those and working together towards common goals that exclude no one and seek to create a future for all.

Colin Sumner

Editor, CrimeTalk, and former professor of sociology, criminology and law.

1 In my view, these riots do not fit easily into any model of types we have seen before. They are not like the Swing riots, fighting for jobs, or any political riots for a specific cause, or riots against increased food prices. At first, I thought they bore some resemblance to the LA riots of 1992, but they are nowhere near as clearly politically defined. See also Alibhai-Brown’s comments on Starkey’s comments on whites mimicking blacks and Wasted: the Betrayal of White Working-Class and Black Caribbean Boys by Harriet Sergeant, 2009, Centre for Policy Studies; also her These rioters are Blair’s children in The Spectator. Her interviewees saw jobs and discipline as the only solution.

2 One mother had her 5-months sentence for ‘handling stolen goods’ reduced to community work.

3 See also:

4 “…profitability has .. been for about a decade propped up [by] the regressive redistribution of income away from the working class while the ruling class, aided by the housing bubble and financialisation, pursued a successful campaign of enrichment”. (Deepankar Basu and Ramaa Vasudevan)This paper is quoted in Michael Roberts’s article on the falling rate of profit in his blog.

7 See

Winston Smith arrived at a similar conclusion, albeit with slightly different reasoning: “One thing is clear to me about these riots that set them apart from the race riots of the eighties, or those of the late sixties/early seventies in the aftermath of state suppression of civil rights marches in Northern Ireland and it is that these disturbances are not political in nature, or as a result of one ethnic group feeling disenfranchised. This is a rainbow coalition of the underclass, all shades and colours are present on the streets. If it was political in nature the main targets of the rioters would be the state and whilst the police are being attacked the perpetrators are more concerned with acquiring the contents of high street shops. These riots are purely criminal and materialistic in nature and it is the state and its failed social policies that have bred the savage and feral mentality of the perpetrators as well as tieing the hands of the police from taking the kind of swift and robust action to deal with the situation.”

9 “The poverty that exists in the UK is of a relative kind. The welfare state in Britain provides the underclass with housing, generous benefits, education and a health service, all free of charge and the envy of sub-Saharan Africa. I am not saying they have an ideal life, but their basic needs and those of their children are met. Whilst working in Supported Housing with today’s poor I observed how many of them were so well fed they were obese and that they had money to spend on cheap alcohol and recreational drugs. The majority of them also possessed luxury electronic goods such as laptops, playstations and the newest in mobile phones. They may be poor compared to the folks that live in the mansion on the hill, but they are wealthier than the monarchs of medieval Europe. The grinding abject poverty that existed in Britain during the nineteen-thirties (see Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier) and that of the post war rationing period never led to marauding gangs of unsocialised teenagers ransacking their communities. The reason being that in those decades there was no uncivilised underclass and although society was too rigid and authoritarian we have now gone to the other extreme. The working classes of this earlier epoch had a sense of backbone and a collective set of norms to which they adhered. Cultural relativism and the doctrine of non-judgmentalism that pervade the public sector have eroded the responsibility of young people to act in a civilised manner.”

10 Winston Smith again reaches a similar conclusion from a slightly different angle: “..these young rioters have been imbued with the notion that their behaviour is not their fault and that it is the responsibility of the state to cater to their every whim. They will have been indulged in this fallacy by every agency of the state they will have come in to contact with be it their schools, social services, supported housing sector, youth offending service, youth workers, Connexions and so on. The UK’s youth unemployment rate runs at around twenty percent and Spain’s is at forty percent. The reason the Spanish youth are not rioting is that they have strong communities, possess family values and have a less generous welfare state. Above all though their police force wouldn’t spend days debating with politicians whether using water cannon was an infringed the human rights of criminals.”

11 See the great historian E.P.Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters [1975] for an important British example, but also the less well-known Cynthis Mahabir’s Crime and Nation-Building in the Caribbean [1985]. Talking of the 1970 Trinidad-Tobago crisis, where a ‘black power’ movement swept many up in massive political demonstrations, West Indian economist Lloyd Best said a “whole generation” got “caught up in it” because they could not see how they could legitimately “translate their vision of the nation” into reality. The situation in the UK today is arguably even more desperate because so few have any vision of any real nation, or any vision of a worthwhile future to get frustrated about; any riot for identity would have to be aimed at revered brand names because there is so little else. Both books are available in the CrimeTalk bookshop.

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