Monday, 8 August 2011
Working class uprising or rampant consumerism?
Some on the Left are interpreting the riots in Tottenham and Enfield as a sort of awakening. After the student protests and anti-cuts marches, the underclass has entered the arena, bringing to the television screens of Middle England the realities of life in Britain’s inner cities they had up to now forgotten or ignored.
Indeed, until a few days ago, the only time those rioting would have made it onto television was as comedy material for the sketch writers of Little Britain or as fodder for patronising reality shows.
It is true of course that if governments refuse to distribute wealth it will be done using force. After all, the rich have been "looting" the country for years in the guise of clever accounting, only to be given knighthoods and lionised by the media in the process. When disenfranchised youth do the same, the mainstream predictably sound-off like a Telegraph editorial about “violent thugs” and “feral youth,” ignoring the underlying deprivation at the heart of the matter.
What seems to have passed some by, however, is that disenfranchised youth burning and looting sports gear has far more in common with the "greed is good” mantra than it does with the cooperative control of the means of production; and when the cameras are switched off, it is the lives of the poor which will be blighted by these riots, not the gated communities of Kensington and Chelsea.
What large-scale looting demonstrates is that it is the battle of ideas where the Left is playing catch-up in Britain’s poorest areas. While middle class universities are hotbeds of youth radicalism, for the poor it is often the language of neo-liberalism that motivates. Aspirational rhetoric sounds different on the council estates of Woolwich or Peckham, but it is widespread and accepted all the same. Popular hip-hop music promotes not solidarity, but a desire to escape “the ghetto” – often by any means necessary. “Get rich or die tryin” was how American rapper 50 cent put it; and while “Fiddy” is very much out of fashion these days, the narrative of getting rich at all costs is still conspicuous, to say the least.
If you live in one of the above mentioned areas, the only realistic way to achieve celebrity or get rich – what actually matters if you watch television or turn on the radio – is to “loot” in one way or another. If that means breaking into shops, burning houses or selling drugs then so be it. The difference between this and those who deny funds to services through tax evasion is that when young black men “loot” the BBC will call it "totally unacceptable"; in the case of the former it will be put down to an individual becoming "tax efficient".
What someone does in a business suit however does not become ok simply because it is repeated by a person wearing a tracksuit. Neither is to be celebrated; and unthinkingly doing so does little to help those living in Enfield and Tottenham who aren't rioting, such as the elderly, terrified and barricaded inside their homes. Forgetting such people is one of the luxuries of the academic left, who can at times cling on to trendy terms such as “uprising” and “revolt” in a desire to attach themselves to youth and their attractive and dangerous anger.
In this vein, the riots demonstrate not only the consequences of the rampant free market, but the retreat of the Left from the council estate to the ivory tower.