Ignoring the real lessons of the riots

It wasn’t poverty that kicked off the 2011 riots; it was the years of intervention from a therapeutic state.

Neil Davenport

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The Lib-Con coalition government has been accused of failing to implement many of the recommendations proposed by the cross-party panel which reported on the August 2011 riots. But it is the broader environment of intervention by the state into everyday life that was the real root cause of the riots – and that intervention is increasing.

David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham in north London, found that the majority of the panel’s 63 recommendations have not been acted upon. These include providing greater support for families, tackling youth unemployment and fining schools at which pupils have poor levels of reading and writing. Eleven recommendations that have been accepted or implemented, however, including better identification of potential problem families and measures ‘to help youngsters to cope with the pressures of advertising and materialism’.

There is no doubt that the 2011 riots exposed serious faultlines in England’s inner cities, which is why the government’s re-examination of measures designed to prevent further disturbances is important. But it is perhaps more important to probe whether such recommendations are the right ones or whether they could in fact exacerbate existing problems.

The major problem with the official analysis of the riots is the assumption that the causes in 2011 were identical to the causes of the 1981 riots: youth unemployment, poverty and police harassment. Even those, such as Lammy himself, who started to question New Labour’s drive to ‘nationalise society’ – the tendency to find state solutions to informal, social problems – still fall back on poverty as a powerful determining factor in people’s behaviour.

But there are other causes for the riots in 2011. Far too often, for example, there has been a steadfast failure to understand the damage being done to young people by therapeutic norms in the UK education system. And there has been a refusal to see how extensive state ‘support’ in poorer communities has sapped the next generation of autonomy, solidarity and a pioneering spirit. Together, such recent policies have left a significant number of young people bereft of the confidence and self-reliance traditionally associated with the shift from adolescence into adulthood.

The problem today, then, is that the therapeutic state operates in ways to ‘protect’ young people from the pressures of growing up. The result has been a corrosive sense of infantile entitlement among the young, which was a key trigger for the riots.

This is why Lammy’s call for addressing structural problems, such as youth unemployment, should not be a priority. Evidence from employers suggests that a significant number of British youngsters lack the competence or self-discipline to cope with the demands of full-time work. UK prime minister David Cameron was on to something last week when he said that around 500,000 16- to 24-year-old UK citizens were unemployed during the early-Noughties ‘boom years’, while the same number of EU immigrants filled the same number of vacancies. Looking at the situation of young people in this way, it is clear that a sense of therapeutic entitlement, of demanding undue rewards, is a major problem. Many on the left argue that the well-to-do have always had a sense of entitlement. What’s wrong, therefore, with the less well-off demanding similar? Why should people have to do low-paid menial work in the first place?

Yet this argument reveals how far radicals are now removed from the material world or comprehending why the working class was once considered the motor of social change. The day-to-day struggles of obtaining work or fighting for higher pay were what made the working classes a dynamic and forceful section in society. Indeed, it was the experience of women working in factories during the Second World War that sparked the demands for women’s liberation. Recognising the importance of work is not the same as asking ordinary people to accept their lot. Work, rather, is an important way of becoming a social being, a citizen, a proper ‘member of the public’ rather than a private, home-ridden individual. Today’s anti-work posturing by radicals not only encourages a parasitical relationship of some on the labour of others, but it also does much to encourage lumpenised passivity and defeatism, factors that can spark destructive anti-social (rather than political) behaviour.

From this perspective, education secretary Michael Gove’s decision to abolish the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – a post-16 student grant – was a positive corrective to the childish entitlement that helped inflame the 2011 riots. Indeed, the introduction of EMA in 2002 stunted many young people’s development into adulthood and encouraged their belief that the state should automatically offer provisions. Abolishing such a ludicrous bribe to stay at school after 16, and re-introducing the possibility of becoming self-reliant, was an important step in socialising young people into adulthood.

However, the coalition government has not gone far enough in this direction. In the face of local education authorities, sixth form institutions are still powerless to encourage young people to act responsibly. Child-protection laws are still in place whereby teenagers are not expected to meet the self-discipline standards set by a school. And so long as therapeutic norms are not seen as a major factor behind the 2011 riots, such disastrous policies will continue to go unaddressed.

The same therapeutic tendency is apparent in state intervention into ‘problem families’ and local communities. When the state seeks to provide for people’s every basic need, and to shape their parenting and morality practices, it undermines an organic community spirit and social bonds. As people become ever reliant on the state, they no longer turn to their neighbours for moral and social support. In turn, this dislocates alienated individuals from their community to the extent that they’d think nothing of burning it down.

Rather than learning from the devastating consequences of constantly intervening in poorer communities, and thus actually undermining them, the coalition government has rapidly expanded the state’s interventionist remit. In December 2011, for example, the government announced the ‘troubled family troubleshooters’ policy whereby ‘a family worker’ enters a home to devise a ‘whole plan of action, agreed with the family’. Nothing could further erode basic solidarities within a community than an army of state agencies organising people’s lives. Clearly, this is one lesson from the 2011 riots that still hasn’t been learned.

Critics argue that aspiration and ambition won’t magically evolve due to cutting back the crutch of the welfare state. True, fatalism and low horizons have often blighted some poorer communities. But the therapeutic state exacerbates this problem. That’s because, particularly for younger generations, it recasts the self as permanently incapable rather than temporarily poor or disadvantaged. It is not people’s meagre sources of income that’s necessarily the problem, but rather the ideological framework within which welfare now operates. It is not just about cutting back on welfare, but cutting out the culture of incapacity that therapeutic norms have encouraged.

There is also another source of state intervention that local communities could do without: the state’s war on pubs. In the blinkered obsession with the nation’s health (a clear example of the desire to ‘nationalise society’), young people have been priced out of public drinking. And as local pubs have closed down, youngsters have been deprived of an important inter-generational institution that helped socialise them into adult behavioural standards. Recent figures reveal that 16- to 24-year-olds drink less alcohol than at any time previously, but that only means they’re becoming privatised individuals rather than social beings capable of acting responsibly. An organic community spirit would be best served by thriving pubs and clubs rather than state-sponsored youth centres or social workers snooping on ‘problem’ families’ dietary intake.

Lammy should be commended for keeping the 2011 riots in the public mindset. The tendency towards political amnesia regarding those events means sidestepping some difficult questions and pressing problems around the socialisation of young people. Unfortunately, the recommendations of the cross-party panel, as well as the coalition’s social policies, look set to deepen rather than address the problems revealed by the riots.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. He will be speaking at the debate Blair’s Children: Did New Labour Change Britain? at the Cockpit Theatre in London on Wednesday 1 May.

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