You can’t blame the riots on trainer adverts

To discover the real cause of the August riots, the intrusive state could do with looking closer to home.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

A second major study into the causes of last August’s riots in England follows the same path as the LSE/Guardian report, Reading the Riots, published in December.

Once again, an independent panel, this time set up by the government, rolls out a rehearsed number of ‘social factors’ to explain away the disturbing events: unemployment and lack of opportunities for young people; ‘forgotten families’; police harassment and a widespread ‘culture of materialism’. The panel, which visited 21 communities and interviewed thousands of people affected by the riots, says its wide-ranging recommendations ‘must be enacted together’ if the risk of further riots is to be reduced. In a conclusion that bizarrely echoes Tony Blair’s time in office, panel chair Darra Singh says that everyone must have a ‘stake in society’. It makes you wonder why ‘stakeholder society’ policies didn’t actually work in the first place.

Indeed, it seems that the riots have provided a fresh impetus for further state intervention into the ‘forgotten families’ who ‘bump along the bottom of society’, according to Singh. As with the LSE/Guardian study, the government’s panel is another piece of advocacy research whereby researchers find what they had desperately hoped to find. This study looks less like a cool-headed, neutral piece of sociology, and more like a semi-conscious piece of political ventriloquism, which can be used to bolster official concerns over ‘materialism’ and ‘forgotten families’. This is not to say the government’s panel has been deliberately deceitful, inventing evidence to suit a political thesis. This type of advocacy research is more subtle and less conscious than that. It involves a pursuit of facts and evidence that serves to bolster a pre-existing conviction. The most interesting aspect of the government’s panel report, as with the LSE/Guardian report, is what it leaves out rather than what it puts forward.

None of the enquiries have examined the broad cultural changes that have taken place in British society which, more often than not, are institutionalised in English schools and other state agencies. In fact, this is the ‘social context’ that ought to preoccupy researchers, not the handwrung staples of poverty and unemployment. To approach the riots in this way is not to rehearse ‘teachers aren’t strict enough’ platitudes. It is to examine the kind of destructive values that have been passed down from the top of society: namely, the fostering of assertive victimhood whereby nobody is expected to be accountable for their own actions. It really is somebody else’s fault.

What every schoolchild learns from an early age is that both emotional hurts and tick-box disadvantages – from minor medical problems to class/ethnic background – constitute a person’s default status. It is only by placing demands on state providers that these ‘hurts’ are temporarily assuaged. This is what is meant by a culture of entitlement – victim status has to be recognised and then rewarded by state providers. The higher the perceived victim status, the greater the expectation that somebody else must make provisions or allowances (or even an educational maintenance allowance). In this sense, looting from JD Sports becomes justified, even acceptable, because of the expectations that somebody must pay for a looter’s inflated sense of grievance.

Indeed, many of August’s looters rolled out a lexicon of ‘hurts’ in order to justify their destructive, anti-social behaviour. According to this cultural script, social solidarities are entirely alien because young people have been socialised to dwell on their self-esteem above all else. Far from other people or a wider community being a source of support, they are more often seen as a target for all sorts of imaginary grievances. Local shopkeepers and random individuals attacked during the August riots were, in some way, being held responsible for young people’s poverty and lack of employment prospects. As one of the blasé looters put it, ‘we wanted to show the rich that we can do what we want’. If young people have grown up with the belief that they are automatically held back by social disadvantages, often promoted by state agencies themselves, then a local community itself can become a target for retribution.

This is not the same as the far more politicised riots in the 1980s, when black communities demanded an end to state repression and racial discrimination in order to be free and autonomous citizens. Rather today, the demand is that that somebody else must take responsibility for providing resources that would enable an individual to get by. Therapy culture has provided the language, and justification, through which petty criminality becomes an acceptable means of ‘surviving’ (always a key therapeutic word). In this sense, far from the London riots being an exceptional outburst of politicised rage, they become a focal point of anti-social behaviour that has become all too common in England’s inner cities.

Last month, for example, a pawn shop in Coventry had its stock of jewellery stolen after a bus accidentally crashed into the shop window. Onlookers described how people were racing past injured passengers in order to steal rings and bracelets. Funnily enough, no eyewitnesses said the looting was a protest against government austerity measures, welfare cuts or police harassment. Instead, it was clear that the breakdown in social solidarities, combined with a smash-and-grab sense of entitlement, fuelled the looting in Coventry last month – and also in London last August.

Commentators who fail to examine the wider cultural changes in British society often make the point that, time and again, it is the poor that riot and loot, not the comfortable middle classes. Surely this is proof that there is a connection between relative deprivation, the frustration of not having access to good-quality commodities, and the looting that took place last summer? Indeed, the government’s panel report also slammed a wider culture of ‘materialism’ as being a significant factor behind the riots. The implication here is that brand advertising has had a corrupting impact on impressionable youth and therefore some type of curb on advertising must be put in place. It also implies that the aspiration for a good standard of living has destructive consequences.

Although superficially the looting appeared to be born of material envy, the fixation with specific brands of trainers and clothes was wrapped up with a sense of identity, not just wanton acquisitiveness. In the absence of wider social identities once based upon class or community, the shared identity surrounding a particular brand of clothing steps in to fill the vacuum. Again, it is recent cultural changes in British society, not age-old problems to do with unemployment, that help explain why robbing JD Sports was significant.

For radical commentators, though, none of this explains why such destructive behaviour is exhibited by poorer, marginalised sections of society. No doubt many are frustrated by their position in life, but it is victimology that helps legitimise anti-social behaviour. Besides, other social classes and groupings in society are no less immune to the influence of assertive entitlement and victimhood. From middle-class parents screeching ‘what about my son’ to teachers at school to the assertive victimology of the SlutWalk protesters and the most visible outlet in recent months, the Occupy protesters, are all touched by a raging narcissism that can only be assuaged by some kind of state intervention.

Indeed, it is precisely because all of these recent activities demand, in some form or other, further government intervention, that officialdom has readily played the sympathetic card with its latest report. For over 15 years, state officials have worked overtime in order to justify greater intervention into communal and family life. The exhaustion of the coherent social beliefs once expressed by the major political parties has been replaced by the instrumental administration of all areas of society. And the longer this process has continued, the more officialdom instinctively reacts against spheres of autonomy in people’s lives, lest it loses any formal contact with certain sections of society. For all its vaguely radical conclusions, the government’s recommendation for dealing with 500,000 ‘troubled families’ simply provides a fresh justification for a process of snooping that has gone on for two decades.

Ironically enough, measures designed to increase state intervention into rundown communities and poorer families’ lives are only going to exacerbate the destructive forces that led to the riots in the first place. Shaping people’s identities on the basis that ‘they need help’, that ‘they can’t cope’, both infantilises and corrupts people, making them dependent. Even worse, by pointing out the supposed barriers to people’s active citizenship – illness, ethnic background, being poor – the justifications for state intervention can fuel a bitter, inchoate rage against normal working people. In some areas of England, aspiring to work for a living is deemed to be ‘selling out’ – presumably selling out dependency for personal autonomy.

Once again, another report on last August’s riots is an exercise in advocacy research, whereby the research neatly matches already rehearsed conclusions. The government panel’s recommendations, failing to recognise the profound significance of the riots, follow the line of wishful thinking and delusion pursued by radical commentators. Furthermore, the panel’s instinctive elitism simply echoes the radical left’s own distrust of ordinary people. Institutionalising the claim that most people are naturally incapable and useless is what destroyed informal communities in the first place. As the nannying, hectoring tone of the latest report into the riots shows, what could be more morally debilitating and soul-destroying?

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

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