“If the information I received before coming here is true, then they are preparing to hold a demonstration. What on earth do they hope to achieve by that? Demonstrations never achieve anything, if they did, we wouldn’t allow them.”
Jose Saramago, Seeing.
In 2003, more than a million people marched on the streets of Britain to reject the Iraq War. Last year, an official figure of 50,000, with rumours of many more, marched to protest the rise of university tuition fees to a ceiling of £9,000 a year. Earlier this year, half a million people joined the trade unions to demand a re-think of the Coalition government’s economic policies.
What did all these explosions of public consciousness have in common? They were all failures. None of them made one iota of difference to government policy.
Now, the streets of Britain have exploded once again, though this time in a very different manner. Inner cities in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester have been stunned by a wave of violence and disorder, leaving businesses and homes burning, shops looted and windows reduced to a heap of glass.
It is easy, and many have done so, to simply demonise the riots as the thuggish actions of hardened criminals who will never amount to anything and are a danger to society that requires controlling, by military force if necessary.
However, could it be possible that there really is some link between genuine political protests and a vaguer sense of unrest in Britain, and this outburst of criminal behaviour?
Firstly, we need to challenge a few of the myths that have sprung up over the last few days.
This is not, as one high-ranking officer in the Metropolitan Police attempted to convince the nation on BBC Breakfast yesterday, disorder on a scale unprecedented in the lifetimes of people watching.
That would be the Brixton riots of 1981, when pretty much an entire community joined in an all-out rebellion against the police and any and all authority they could find, 300 members of the police and at least 65 members of the public were injured, and disturbances continued to simmer on and off between April and July, with frequent arson attacks by the far-right and responses by the community.
Those riots sparked off further politicised upheaval across the country, with nine days of rioting in Toxteth in Liverpool and major outbreaks of violence in Manchester’s Moss Side.
In contrast, these riots are a bunch of bored and probably disaffected people, mostly teenagers with a smattering of twenty-somethings and older people to make up the numbers, running around street corners helping themselves to the contents of electrical and clothing stores and torching some buildings and cars.
No political point to make, no real aim beyond grabbing a bit of what they can get.
FORM OF PROTEST: A man lies down in Market Street in front of riot police
Without the kind of political steel and deep-seated grievances that drove the uprisings thirty years ago, they will be, to quote Macbeth: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”. Here today, gone tomorrow, though clearly the scars will remain a lot longer.
It is also hugely wrong, yet typical of modern politicans’ penchant for rewriting the inconveniences of history whenever it suits political dogma, to say that this is unprecedented. Periods of economic depression and hardship have created the conditions for violent riots since time immemorial.
There were the artisans’ uprisings in ancient Rome described by Plutarch, there were the riots throughout the English countryside whenever there was a bad harvest throughout the Renaissance period, so vividly dramatised by Shakespeare in his many crowd scenes of unruly mobs, there were the hayrick burnings of the 19th century, and too many other disturbances to mention.
When people struggle and times grow hard, some of them turn to crime. This has always been so and probably will always be so.
It was the case, though not on anything like this scale and granted comparative anonymity due to the lack of social media and 24-hour news, during one of the most notable recent periods of heightened unrest, during the Miners’ Strikes, as Conservative MP Matthew Parris noted during a week spent on the dole in the Scotswood district of Newcastle for ITV programme World In Action in 1984.
He wrote in The Times: “Fear not, Prime Minister. That famous British drive and ingenuity is alive and well in Scotswood, Tyneside – and emerging in ways which are not quite what you, or I, had in mind. Curiously, I find that rather encouraging, if reprehensible. Far worse would be to see people’s spirits broken…but one had better say no more, for fear of being thought to condone fraud or vandalism.”
On the other side of the political fence, there have also been some seemingly significant errors of judgement from commentators on the left, who have seen in these riots the beginnings of a new political consciousness that will somehow metamorphose from pointless window-smashing to a meaningful movement against the political status quo.
The leading international socialist writer and thinker Tariq Ali, for example, told an ABC interview: “What it reflects in my opinion is a growing demoralisation, bitterness on the part of kids who are without work — it’s mainly unemployed kids — and they see absolutely no hope in the future and do not believe anything that politicians say to them.”
Similarly, Socialist Resistance said, with a certain degree of triumphalism: “Neoliberalism’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
However, although there are some enticing parallels between elements of left-wing movements and these outbreaks of disorder, there have simply been far too many haphazard attacks on ordinary people and lack of a clearly politically-motivated selection of targets to see this as the beginning of any kind of new solidarity against the system.
If that was the aim, it couldn’t possibly have done much worse.
Furthermore, it’s simply too easy to see the looters as good consumers blindly following the siren song of Nike and other big corporations and stocking up on high-profile branded goods to sell down the pub or keep to enhance their sense of self-worth, for the left-wing analogies to hold much water here.
No, understanding some of what has gone on over the past few days across the country may well require a little deeper digging than repeating soundbites in favour of Left or Right politics. Perhaps a little exploration of social and political context may help.
FIRE: A bus burns during riots in London
One of the problems London and many other cities, including Manchester, face is that they are a 21st century city living with a 19th century population profile.
Huge numbers of low-paid, poorly-educated, lower-class workers live in the cities as a hangover from the days of the Industrial Revolution, when huge factories and manufacturing industries meant there was an enormous demand for low-paid, unskilled labour to drive the motor of the British economy.
However, today, with practically all the manufacturing outsourced to India, Japan, Korea and China, the situation has changed dramatically.
In many ways, the modern capitalist state is closer to the medieval city-state than the societies that directly preceded it. Most of the wealth generation is done by a tiny, highly-educated elite working for financial institutions, who require comparatively few staff in order to run the British economy by passing invisible money and IOUs from one bank and stock exchange to another and back again.
They require workers below them, to make and service their computers, to sweep and clean their offices and provide them with some food and drink at lunchtime, but that takes care of the vast majority of the economy’s needs.
In the medieval world, that was fine, because the population of cities was comparatively small and the vast majority of ordinary people still worked the land. But today, this creates a major issue. What are all the people left in poor parts of cities, anachronistic hangovers from an earlier age, supposed to do with their lives?
One solution is to artificially create public demand for things which then require making, hence the growth of the retail sector and consumerism. But when a handful of large corporations are increasingly controlling more and more of the market and introducing endless ‘efficiency drives’ (which basically boil down to outsourcing more production work overseas and sacking retail staff and closing branches, or ‘streamlining the service’, if you prefer), this is also proving insufficient to paper over the labour crisis.
There is another obvious problem with this model of wealth generation. Unelected, non-governmental financial institutions such as ratings agencies have developed a political power and degree of control over people’s lives wildly disproportionate to their size and employability power.
The best recent example of this is the issue of Standard and Poor’s downgrading the USA’s triple A credit rating to AA+ for the first time in American history, triggering a wave of panic that swept through the financial markets.
To put it rather flippantly and crudely, a group of Ivy Leaguers sitting around a boardroom in a single room, called an executive meeting of the agency’s Senior Credit Analysts, can, with a few strokes of their pens, alter the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
With the signature of their names on a few policy documents, a single room of Harvard boffins and economists can decide that thousands of people will lose their homes as credit downgrades make interest rates on mortgage repayment schemes increase and become untenable, cause them to lose their jobs as investors panic and pull out of the stock market, causing businesses to lose money and jettison staff to rebalance their books, and increase the mountains of personal debt in the UK through soaring interest rates on credit cards and loans.
This is not and never will be a recipe for democratic engagement.
DAMAGE & ANGER: Not an unfamiliar sight at numerous shops across Manchester
Although hordes of conservative commentators have descended on the Internet like a flock of vultures to discredit the fact, there is also overwhelming evidence that social inequality, which in Britain is some of the highest in the Western world, is a primary cause of disengagement and many other things besides.
In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett amass a huge amount of data in support of their hypothesis that countries with smaller gaps between rich and poor have fewer social problems.
Interestingly, the list of things they cite as issues more common in unequal countries is almost identical to the things that right-wing commentators despair in such a verbose manner about – teenage pregnancy, juvenile deliquency, anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, alcohol and drug addictions, and mindless violence.
London suffers particularly badly in this regard in that the naked inequality of British society is more obviously on show here than anywhere else. In Manchester and other areas, poor areas tend to congregate on the outskirts of towns, such as the city of Salford in the west and Wythenshawe and Moss Side in the east, while more well-to-do areas exist isolated from deprivation in the south and the city centre itself acts as a sort of buffer zone.
In London, where council estates often sit on the opposite side of the road from million-pound Georgian townhouses with Aston Martins on the drive, this sort of situation is much more difficult to conceal from people, who are blindingly aware that we are not all in this together.
This is not to use inequality as a justification for the acts of the past few days: that would be fatuous. Indeed, the looters and rioters have handed the right-wing a dangerous loaded gun and practically invited them to impose elements of martial law, bring back the worst excesses of ethnic profile policing and take yet another swingeing axe to civil liberties.
However, I have been forcibly reminded of Dr Pickett and Dr Wilkinson’s analysis so many times over the past few days that I cannot help revisit them here.
Dr Pickett and Dr Wilkinson suggest that there are two solutions to the problems caused by social inequality. The first is to deal with the problems that cause the inequality in the first place, i.e. the excesses and often flagrant inhumanity of the capitalist free-market system, too numerous to elucidate fully here.
The second solution is the one that most right-wing commentators in places like the Daily Mail are gleefully encouraging politicians to adopt, and many Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are all to keen to put into practice.
Dr Pickett and Dr Wilkinson write: “The initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces.
“The unstated hope is that people – particularly the poor – can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs.”
The authors of The Spirit Level are openly cynical about the possibility of this working. From what I have seen on the Internet comments boards, even from people who support the use of draconian force against rioters, not many other people believe it has a chance either.
That leaves us with only one real solution, which is to take the first steps to getting rid of the worst excesses of the free-market system, and to replace it with a system that regards people as more important than things.
A world that does not believe paying advertising agencies millions of pounds to prey on people’s emotional insecurities and tell them that consumption is the way to Shangri-La.
A world where people count for more than statistics on a government balance sheet, to be got into work or out of work or to be shunted hither and thither by the demands of the market, and are appreciated as unique human beings.