Being a parochial half-wit who until very recently thought an Oyster card was something you’d send a fisherman on his birthday, I’m uniquely unqualified to offer insightful commentary into the urban unrest currently wracking several boroughs of London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham, and now Manchester and parts of the West Midlands.
Like everyone else, though, I’ve been glued to the grim spectacle. Hooking yourself up to the News 24 drip-feed is never a good way to shore up your faith in human nature, but the bleakness is on an entirely different plane at the moment.
After every long-ish period of relative social tranquillity, people to seem to lull themselves into thinking that the mindlessly destructive kink in the human character has finally been ironed out, that we’ve become totally civilised.
The stunning, spontaneous destruction wrought by apparently sane human beings on the areas in which they live shows this is bollocks. The supermarkets razed, shops looted, and homes incinerated, people injured, made homeless, and now killed, for no reason at all, horrifyingly remind of the kind of blank, meaningless violence we’re still capable of reverting to. Most frightening of all is the zombie-like character of the riots, the complete absence of thought on the part of the rioters. It demonstrates a kind of mindless hyper-individualism, a willingness to smash apart someone else’s property to get an LCD TV if you can get away with it. It gives rise to the terrifying thought that there’s nothing else preventing some people from pillaging Debenhams than the fact they’re likely to get caught.
These people feel no responsibility to anyone else, and in that sense, they can be seen as just very extreme examples of the navel-gazing materialism that characterises modern society. Their behaviour is inexcusably obscene, but what kind of barren culture can produce people who value a pair of trainers enough to burn down someone’s livelihood to get their hands on them?
Take this ingrained selfishness, nurtured in a society that’s been gradually stripped of the idea that anyone has a responsibility to anyone else, throw in extreme boredom, aimlessness, unemployment, relative poverty in a culture in which worth means wealth, that innate human capacity to suddenly turn violent, and a generous helping of mob psychology, and you’ve got the worst urban unrest since the race riots of the 1980s.
Unavoidably, the rioters mostly come from the poorest places in the country, disadvantaged beyond the comprehension of most of the pious newsreaders sent out to question them. One BBC journalist cringe-worthily tried to engage with two clearly pissed young women across the vast cultural gulf that separated them – the pair’s rambling justification for being involved was that they were showing ‘the rich’ and ‘the government’ that ‘we do what we want’, effectively handing the right-wing press a story on a plate.
Ram-raiding Foot Locker is one of the more unconventional ways of venting libertarian fervour I’ve encountered, but presumably, then, we can read assaulting JD Sports and nearly cremating minimum-wage workers living in flats above torched shops as anguished howls against the injustices of modern capitalism.
With ‘the debate’ skidding rightwards, the danger is of an indignant nation dismissing the poorest swathe of its population as irredeemable scum. The people rioting are not representative of the majority of those living in the affected areas. There are thousands who manage to eke out often-miserable impoverished existences, completely ignored by the rest of the country, without taking it out on the glass frontage of their local HMV.
The number of people I’ve heard discovering their inner Pincohet and saying all the rioters should be shot is terrifying. Repeated calls to send in the army – as if they don’t have enough on their plate as it is – or for the police to use rubber bullets or water cannons rank among the more moderate, level-headed things that have been said (the worst was a young bloke I know who hysterically peaked by demanding that any terrorists who wanted to bomb London should do it immediately to wipe out the rioters).
It’s unclear whether these people actually do have the slightest idea of the operational parameters within which water cannons can be used, or whether they just think it’d be satisfying to see a 14 year-old boy throwing bottles at Currys blown off his feet by the force of 15 litres-per-second.
The best you can hope for in these kinds of situations is, unoriginally, that people will learn something from it. This happening hinges on everyone calming down long enough to try and look at why it happened objectively, and the media giving time to intelligent, nuanced discussion of the subject. Unfortunately, the TV news doesn’t like nuance.
The vapid ITV West Tonight was covering the riots in Bristol earlier in the week, and a blank newsreader was interviewing two guests. One was a ranter, essentially there to repeatedly state how angry they were. The other was a man from a local community group – I’m still annoyed I didn’t catch his name – who calmly and articulately explored the possible social roots of the riots without excusing those responsible, used terms like ‘political economy’, and didn’t condemn anyone. The newsreader looked variously embarrassed, baffled and annoyed. You could see it in his face – he wished they’d booked someone to blather generically about sticking it to The Man instead.