Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Burning Issues: the UK Takes Leave of its Senses

I am a resident of Croydon, South London. My town was on fire on Monday night as public order broke down completely in many parts of London and other cities across the UK. The response from police, politicians and most media commentators was predictable, if not especially illuminating. They blamed 'mindless thugs' and 'pure criminality' for several nights of rioting and looting. Perhaps they are right, in part. The rioters and looters do not appear to be motivated by any clear sense of political grievance. This BBC interview with a young looter in Croydon is very depressing and tells a tale of both disaffection and ignorance. There can be no political justification for setting fire to small, local businesses, but that does not mean there are no causes, other than 'pure criminality'. On Twitter, anyone attempting to offer a deeper analysis of the situation was abused and accused of supporting the riots, but if anything is 'mindless' then surely it is the blind obeisance to authority which is engendered by fear and the breakdown of civil order. People become desperate for the restoration of order, at any price to their liberty, which hampers their ability to think beyond the moment.

Bystanders survey the aftermath of rioting near West Croydon station (9/8/11)

We must resist the temptation to reach for the easy explanations offered by those in authority. The right may blame bad parenting, inadequate discipline in schools, loss of traditional values and so on. If only we smacked our kids more and brought back hanging, everything would be just fine again. Like in the 18th Century. After all, no one rioted back then, did they? (Hint: the 1780 Gordon riots in London make the current disorder seem like a public school canteen food fight). Nor is it true to claim that 'mindless' disorder is the sole preserve of the ill-educated lower classes, as proved by the Countryside Alliance riots of 2002 and the infamous antics of the Oxford Bullingdon club, of which both our current Prime Minister and Mayor of London were members in their student days. The usual excuse for the Bullingdon's excesses is that their members had to pay for the damage they caused. This is surely the most fatuous excuse ever made for lawlessness, as if the possession of wealth can excuse any violation. Perhaps it does hint at one partial explanation for the current London riots, though:

Leaders lead by example. Everywhere we look in the world, we see examples of those in authority simply helping themselves to whatever they want, without any respect for the principles of hard work or justice. They just take it from the rest of us in a form of legitimised looting. We see bankers paying themselves £14 billion in bonuses in the City of London, whilst stoking up economic instability and refusing to lend to small businesses. We see multinational corporations like Boots, Vodafone, Barclays and many others refusing to pay tax on their profits whilst free-loading on the public services of the countries in which they make those profits. Wealthy individuals like Sir Philip Green also take from society without paying their fair share. On a global scale, we see multinational companies looting the resources of the developing world, again without paying taxes. We see our own governments bombing poor countries in order to control oil supplies or build pipelines. The consistent message from the powerful and wealthy is that violence and looting are the ways to get what you want. These methods work for them; maybe they can work for you too?

Politicians fiddle their expenses, accept gifts from lobbyists and kowtow to media moguls. Senior police officers take bribes from tabloid editors whilst wasting public money infiltrating peaceful environmental protest groups and failing to investigate their own corruption. Meanwhile, the Association of Chief Police Officers is an unaccountable private company which fills its coffers by selling official information to the public, who pay their wages. With so much corruption and officially sanctioned looting on display by our esteemed leaders, is it any wonder that we see a mirror image of this behaviour in the young, alienated and dispossessed? Perhaps there is an element of 'monkey see, monkey do' in all this rioting, at least at a subconscious level?

There are many other explanations, some of which may also contain some truth. The initial spark was insensitive policing following an incident in which a 29-year-old black man was shot dead in North London last Thursday. The details of that incident remain obscure and there is also a suggestion that police brutality during a subsequent protest may have been the final straw. It is clear, at the very least, that initial police reports were lies, which fits a pattern with which we are now depressingly familiar following other incidents like the unlawful killings of Ian Tomlinson and Jean-Charles de Menezes. Few poor people in London have any trust in or respect for the Metropolitan Police any more. Students and anti-cuts protesters have long known that the police cannot be trusted: it's not just teenagers from poor ethnic minority communities. The police have abused their power for too long, as in this shocking example of arbitrary arrest captured on video on the day of the royal wedding. No one should be surprised that such behaviour is likely to provoke a violent response, sooner or later. In view of this, I find it terrifying that some people seem to be calling for greater police powers or more armed police, in response to riots which armed police helped to spark. I cannot think of a better way to guarantee yet more trouble in future. Also, calls for the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon must be resisted: these methods do not work in other countries (or Northern Ireland). Coercion is the desperate last resort of tyrants. Leaders in democracies need to earn their authority by commanding respect.

I know that there are still many good officers in the Met, but they seem to be fighting a losing battle within an institution that is collectively corrupt, racist and overtly political. The phone-hacking scandal is just the best known in a litany of examples where the police have favoured powerful interests over any concept of justice for ordinary citizens. I've seen at first hand their willingness to defend big business against legitimate peaceful protesters, as they did in Croydon two weeks ago: the massive police presence in Croydon town centre for the visit of about 40 peaceful UK Uncut demonstrators contrasted strongly with their virtual absence on Monday night. Far from giving yet more powers to a police force which repeatedly abuses those powers, we should be taking their powers away and giving communities more power to police themselves.

So, the police are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, but they are not the whole problem. Their role is usually to light a spark to ignite a powder keg before trying, ineffectually, to deal with the explosion. The powder keg itself is created by a combination of social and economic factors, for which successive governments have to take some responsibility. Life in urban ghettos is blighted by fear of violence, crime and the daily humiliations of unemployment and benefit-dependency, fenced around with advertising which calls the faithful to the consumer temples of capitalism from which the poor are largely excluded. The hopes they are sold are not for education, a career and self-respect but for a part-time sales job in Primark (if they're lucky) and a credit card. They can definitely forget about owning their own home: at best they will subsist on housing benefit for the rest of their lives, as rents and mortgage costs soar into the stratosphere, even out of reach of young middle-class couples now, whilst social housing is almost non-existent.

If you kick a horse, you can surely expect it to kick back. Our current government seemed to think it could do the same to people without getting a response. The cuts in Housing Benefit were a direct slap to the urban poor, as was the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The latter was also an insult, as it effectively implied that the education of poor kids was of no value to society. Such insults did play a direct role in fuelling the riots, as this Reuters interview with a rioter makes clear. Cuts to other local services only add to the sense of embattlement. Libraries, schools, healthcare, social services, youth centres: nothing is spared in the ruthless assault on those who have nothing to live for. Meanwhile, cabinet members dispense their unmandated decrees from on high, behind the wrought iron gates of their country mansions, safe from both riots and the grey reality of austerity Britain. They are doing far more damage to the country and its social fabric than the rioters could ever dream of doing. Still, riots are not solely the government's fault.

Perhaps the most important factor in sustaining the widespread looting is a system which tells us repeatedly that greed is good. Neo-liberal economic theorists and right-wing politicians never miss a chance to hammer home the message that self-interest is the basic driver of wealth creation. The powerful and wealthy owe nothing to the societies in which they live. Their greed is always good. It is only the greed of the poor which is to be feared and reviled. Human values have no place in the dystopian pleasure-gardens of unbridled materialism, built in the images of multinational corporations. When David Cameron says 'there are things that are badly wrong in our society', he's right, but he's looking in the wrong place. The UK's brand of authoritarian government and brutal capitalism are the cancerous heart of the problem.