These rioters are not ‘Thatcher’s offspring’

To blame neoliberalism (whatever that is) for the riots is to provide an Idiot’s Guide to Social Decay.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

Is there anything bad in the world that ‘neoliberalism’ is not responsible for? The rap sheet grows longer by the day. This nebulous yet apparently nefarious ideology is said to have brought about two wars in the Middle East, an economic recession, and the general disintegration of human morality. And now it stands accused of causing the destruction of parts of Tottenham, Hackney and other English city suburbs, as commentators rush to claim that the recent riots are the bastard offspring of the zealous promotion of market values. The rioters are ‘Thatcher’s grandchildren’, says one observer, their lives shattered and brains washed by the ‘neoliberal amoral creed’ which has ‘reigned unquestioned since Thatcher’.

This claim, the outrage-heavy but evidence-lite argument that the rioting is a product of the unleashing of market forces into every area of life, captures what the term ‘neoliberalism’ represents in modern public debate: not a serious attempt to analyse or describe events, but an expression of political exasperation, a borderline childish belief that a bogeyman, in a Thatcher mask, is responsible for every terrible thing that happens. The screech of ‘neoliberalism!’ is meant to sound assertive, radical even, but really it speaks to an extraordinary intellectual passivity and unwillingness to face up to the true forces laying waste to British communities.

Even before the smoke had stopped rising from Miss Selfridges in Manchester and Foot Locker in Hackney, political observers were pointing their collective finger at those amorphous forces that they struggle to define yet which they know are Bad – globalisation, privatisation, consumerism, individualism and the ‘culture of greed’, which get parcelled up as ‘neoliberalism’. The argument is twofold: first, that neoliberalism ravaged the infrastructure of working-class communities, leading to people losing their jobs and becoming steadily poorer as bosses shut down certain industries and moved their attentions elsewhere; and second, that neoliberalism ravaged the brains of working-class individuals, too, convincing them that they had to have more and more stuff, to live like celebrities or bankers, so that the riots come to be seen as poor people’s ‘crude attempt to mimic the conspicuous consumption exercised by the affluent’.

In short, the riots are a product of neoliberalism’s warping of both infrastructure and culture, both living standards and brain cells. So some observers have drawn up ‘poverty maps’ of London to demonstrate that ‘there is a very high correlation between poverty and rioting’. It is clear, says one columnist, that ‘three decades of neoliberal capitalism have shattered so many social bonds of work and community’. And at the same time, this ‘amoral creed’ has invaded working-class people’s heads, replacing their old caring, muck-in-together outlook (patronising, much?) with the instinct to grab, grab, grab. The rioters are a product of ‘decades of individualism, competition and state-encouraged selfishness’, says one observer. Another says these ‘grandchildren of Thatcher’ are a ‘microcosm of the ethics that resulted from [neoliberalism]: self-indulgence, competition and violence’.

We can fairly straightforwardly discount that second part of the neoliberalism explanation for the riots, since it treats the upheaval as little more than a violent version of those Ikea sales rushes, a riotous expression of the capitalist ethos of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’. To claim that the rioters are simply aping celebs and other sections of society that surround themselves with bling and things is to provide an Idiot’s Guide to Social Decay. It demonises material aspiration, too, depicting it as something that can easily explode into a jealous rage. We’ve had academics boring us rigid for years with the claim that people’s desire for stuff makes them mentally ill (with a disease known as ‘affluenza’); now we’re told that it turns them into animals, where they get so desperate to live like Wayne Rooney that they’ll happily smash into a Currys or a clothes shop. But what about the first part of the neoliberalism explanation for the riots – the claim that the decisive thing in this upheaval is the market’s impact on these people’s lives and its imposition of high unemployment and poverty? There is a grain of truth in this – but only a grain.

There is of course something in the claim that these communities have suffered from the dead hand of globalisation, privatisation and other economic forces. A long process of deindustrialisation, with the loss of manual jobs, impacted heavily on certain geographical parts of Britain. This is summed up in the person of Pauline Pearce, now known as the Hackney Heroine for her impromptu lecturing of the rioters in which she denounced them as ‘dirty teefs’: both her parents worked in a car-manufacturing plant, yet Ms Pearce now finds herself sort-of working in far more precarious cultural sectors, while her children run the risk of falling into even more disreputable forms of money-making. Yet the violence we saw in recent days, the very public display of nihilistic destructiveness, is not a result of the fact that these communities were hit hard by market forces, but rather that they were subsequently artificially propped up by extraordinary levels of public intervention and welfare-state spending.

It is important to note that, throughout modern history, communities around Britain have been rocked by the vagaries of the market, by the wholesale closure of industries and massive job losses. Yet they did not respond by burning cars and looting Boots. The difference today is the almost total welfarisation of these communities, the intervention of the state into every single aspect of people’s lives and social relations, with a relentlessness that would have alarmed William Beveridge, the social reformer who founded Britain’s modern welfare state. In the past, communities that found themselves kicked hard by capitalism would have reorganised themselves and perhaps fought for jobs, or simply dissipated. People, entire families, would have upped sticks and moved to other areas with better job prospects, leaving behind a town that would have turned ghostly, waiting to be taken over by some prospector 20 years down the line. Today, by contrast, such communities are artificially maintained, massively subsidised by an interfering state pouring in economic and social resources in a way that was never experienced by interwar or postwar working-class communities that also underwent economic devastation. It is this invasion of the welfare machine, the erection of permanent scaffolding around communities with little remaining purpose, which has nurtured the kind of nihilism we witnessed in recent days.

Because when the state invades a community and puts it on the welfare equivalent of an artificial life-support machine, when the state seeks to provide for people’s every basic need and even to shape their morality and parenting practices, it has a seriously detrimental impact on community spirit and social bonds. The very idea of ‘community’ becomes corroded. People become so reliant on the state that they no longer turn to their neighbours for moral and social sustenance. What’s more, the external propping up of economically whacked communities massively undermines the social wherewithal and pioneering spirit that working-class communities would have utilised during times of economic hardship in the past, either by moving on or organising themselves into a job-demanding collective of some sort. Today, when people are sustained by the agents of welfare right from childhood to adulthood into old age, from Sure Start to jobseekers’ allowance or incapacity benefit to pension payments, both their individual and collective resourcefulness become seriously weakened. The risky business of reorganising your life and your community in response to economic upheaval is discouraged, in favour of simply living a safe if depressingly uneventful life in the welfare safety net.

Last week’s rioting was a consequence of this massive and insidious expansion of welfarism. Both the rioters’ lack of care for their own communities and their seeming sense of entitlement to stuff are a product of their having been raised in areas where community bonds and the working-class spirit have been ravaged, not by ‘neoliberalism’, but by unprecedented levels of state intervention. The rioting may represent the impact of neoliberalism in form, but it is the institutionalisation of welfarism in content. This is not to argue that all forms of welfare should be withdrawn from hardship-hit communities. But we should definitely, and ruthlessly, criticise the pumping in of welfare resources that artificially sustain paper communities and allow people to survive without achievement or through the exercise of their own and their community’s initiative. Not because it makes them into ‘scroungers’, but because it devastates their sense of human subjectivity and social solidarity.

Let’s put to bed the myth of ‘neoliberalism’. First because that term is historically ignorant (state expenditure is actually at an unprecedentedly high level), and second because its constant utterance is really a way of avoiding holding the state to account in favour of pointing the finger of blame at apparently all-powerful economic forces. If anything, it is not Thatcher’s alleged cultivation of individualism and competition that nurtured the riots, but rather the welfare state’s decommissioning of those things, its silent war on working people’s social networks and self-respect.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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