The rioters weren’t poor automatons

Those who have concluded that the August rioters were simply reacting to deprivation are deluding themselves.

Neil Davenport

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Behind the Riots, a survey commissioned by The Children’s Society, has found that most 13- to 17-year-olds and adults believe that people got involved in the August riots in the UK in order to get hold of goods they could not afford to buy. Analysis of more than 1,000 court records also suggests that 59 per cent of the rioters in England come from the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in the UK. The rioters’ background has led many to draw a link between material deprivation and the riots.

A great deal more research and analysis is required in order to make sense of the disturbing events of last August. Discussions on the significance of the riots and the looting are certainly welcome. In the immediate aftermath, by contrast, there was a kind of national amnesia, where the events were treated as akin to a freak weather storm. Four months on, though, the conclusion that it was all about material deprivation is as delusional as shrugging off the riots as nothing to write home about.

Firstly, there is an attempt now to downplay the destructiveness and criminality that was at the heart of the disturbances. This is why recent reports focus on the rioting with little mention of the far more widespread acts of looting and violence. There have been acres of column inches on the rioters ‘anti-police sentiment’, and this has given the disturbances a cloak of old-fashioned radicalism. But little attention is being given to the fact that five ordinary people were killed. Some, it seems, are imagining that last August’s violent riots was a protest against welfare cuts that just got a bit out of hand.

Secondly, in relation to the riots much of the liberal intelligentsia has dropped any moral judgements on the ‘feral underclass’ or ‘trashy chavs’, as they’re known in polite society. For over 20 years, both aristocratic Tory types and liberal radicals have devoted enormous energy to bemoaning the behaviour and cultural mores of the great unwashed. Whether it is buying cheap clothes from Primark, scoffing burgers at McDonald’s or singing impolite chants at football matches, the ‘lower classes’ have been on the receiving end of relentless bile. Indeed, between 1997 and 2010, the New Labour government became a political expression of the prejudices aired at well-to-do leftish dinner parties in north London. Chav-bashing became the only acceptable form of minority-hating allowed in New Britain. So, after the riots, has there suddenly been a change of heart among lefty-liberal types?

As with so many other events in recent years, it is precisely because the looting lacked any political content that liberals can strike radical poses over it. The ‘me, me, me’ character of the riots was simply a rougher, more violent display of temper tantrums exhibited at countless anti-capitalist demonstrations, or the recent Occupy London stinkathon outside St Paul’s Cathedral in central London. Politically, none of these narcissistic gestures force the liberal middle classes to take sides, nor do they threaten their social status. All of this is very different to how liberals still view the 1984-85 miners’ strike. In March 2009, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the strike, a Guardian editorial declared that it was ‘more necessary for the government to prevail over the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] than the reverse’. In other words, it is far better to have a Tory government calling the shots than ordinary working-class people. So much for being the people’s champions, then.

In many ways, though, both the chav-hating and the fawning over the looters are flipsides of the same degraded coin. They are both mechanisms through which autonomy, and the capacity to make moral choices, can effectively be sidelined in favour of state power. In the attacks on the consumption and child-rearing choices made by working-class people, the so-called solution to the problem of autonomy has always been a call for greater regulation of individual choice, with the state playing an ever larger therapeutic role. The reluctance to condemn the anti-social actions of young rioters is also effectively to deny their capacity to make moral choices.

By linking their behaviour directly to welfare cuts, the message is that left to their own devices, without state guidance, the lower orders will turn into monsters. In other words, the riots provide some kind of proof that a certain section of society should not be allowed to be free from the nanny state. For all its avowed radicalism, such thinking is a deeply conservative and reactionary proposition. Indeed, when ordinary people do act like morally autonomous citizens – such as the miners who were on strike for a year or the working-class men and women who went out to defend their communities against repetitions of the rioting in August – they will be condemned in far stronger terms than rioters and looters.

When UK home secretary Theresa May this week attacked those involved in the trouble as an ‘unruly mob’ who were ‘thieving, pure and simple’, her comments were seen as outrageous because she has the temerity to be judgemental about others’ anti-social behaviour. But May’s comment is only the inverse of the liberal-left’s poverty-determinism and it lacks any specificity regarding what actually happened last August. It was clear that the riots were an expression of behaviour, albeit cranked up, that has existed in Britain’s inner-cities for over a decade. One blogger likened the looting as ‘mugging en masse’ to make the link between everyday unchecked behaviour and its bigger, more frightening explosion.

Nevertheless, people are not born criminals ‘pure and simple’. There are undoubtedly retrograde trends in communities whereby young people make the decision to engage in criminal behaviour. Over 20 years ago, New Right sociologist Charles Murray identified an emerging ‘underclass’ fuelled by an enlarged welfare state and an attendant ‘dependency culture’. There was an attempt to racialise poorer sections in society as having values and norms that were apart from mainstream society. Murray’s welfare dependency thesis, however, failed to explain why such a problem emerged in the late 1980s rather than in the 1960s or 1970s.

Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s, unemployment benefit and other financial support were cut in real terms (though incapacity benefit was extended in the 2000s). As figures published in September 2011 revealed, 18.8 per cent of UK households have no adults of working age in any form of employment – a substantial minority by anybody’s calculations. But it is not the case that benefits are financially attractive per se. Rather, the incentive to take up paid work has noticeably declined.

In previous generations, the vast majority of the working classes would be utterly ashamed to ‘rely on handouts’ and preferred to work instead. Taking up low-paid and unskilled jobs was merely seen as a stop gap until a better paid job could be obtained. Attending night school – once a big feature of working-class life – or using community or family contacts to get work was always the way of avoiding a fatalistic attitude towards one’s life chances.

In recent decades, however, official encouragement of fatalism has had an entirely destructive impact on working-class communities. The therapeutic notion that work is stressful, damaging and difficult has had an infantilising impact on younger generations. The general acceptance of the notion of being too ill or depressed to take responsibility for your actions was driven from the top of society, not the bottom. And this is where Murray’s underclass/dependency thesis is utterly wrong. Far from being a ‘criminal underclass’ exhibiting menacing subcultural values, they are instead shaped by mainstream therapeutic norms. Many of the rioters’ justifications simply echoed the script trotted out in English schools that their behaviour was all about protecting their self-esteem. When a number of rioters trashed an electrical store because they weren’t successful in a job interview, such actions were justified on the grounds that their self-worth was ‘damaged’. It was an act of revenge because those individuals were forced to experience the pain of disappointment. As such, they had been socialised to expect automatic entitlement based on a therapeutic conception of self-worth.

In this sense, the rioters are not an alien race apart, beyond comprehension. They are still morally autonomous individuals capable of making good or bad choices. Poverty hasn’t corrupted the rioters as the Children’s Society survey implied. Otherwise, why hasn’t a similar lumpenised process been underway in Spain or Italy where youth unemployment is even higher? Rather, it is the wider social script that encourages the suspension of autonomy, both in terms of self-reliance and acting morally, which was destructively played out in August. The current vogue for poverty determinism not only fails to explain the driving forces behind the riots, but makes the retrograde trend of fatalism seem even more socially acceptable.

Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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