I left the UK for a family holiday in Greece in the middle of what were termed “the riots,” a four-day explosion of violence, looting and arson that didn’t really come as a surprise to me, as it was both a bitter response to an increasingly divided society, and a dreadful demonstration of how we define ourselves through our possessions.
However, I was glad to be away as far too many of my fellow citizens responded to the outbursts of violence around the country (which were generally directed at property and the police, but in some places involved assaults on other civilians and even murders) with their own unedifying calls for vengeance.
In analyzing what happened and why, I am bound to reflect on how we became so materialistic, and on how, through New Labour’s cleverly manufactured boom years (based largely on allowing house prices to rise in the most disproportionate manner, and to encourage those with mortgages to obsess about the spiralling value of their houses to the exclusion of almost everything else), those excluded from the miracle were nevertheless bombarded with messages about how material goods are the only barometer of success in life, so that, across society as a whole, it was difficult to find people who were not obsessed by material goods, their supposed value as status symbols, and their supposed worth.
The New Labour years were a depressing time to be alive for those of us interested in political awareness about the world and values of a less material sort, and it all came crashing down between 2007 and 2008, with a global financial crisis that showed what happens when society’s barometer is greed, and when those involved in creating fiendishly clever ways of making money (however immoral their behaviour is to ordinary people with consciences) are allowed to do whatever they want, and regulations are shredded to encourage further greed on a previously unthinkable scale.
Perhaps some people, bamboozled by the financial markets, have forgotten about what the crisis revealed — that the financial sector had been involved in wrongdoing, including profiting from selling mortgages to poor Americans who couldn’t afford them, but had hidden their toxic losses in carefully packaged deals that no one examined because everyone was too giddy at the amounts of money manufactured through their criminal activity and their irresponsibility. In addition, the crisis revealed that everyone, including politicians, seemed to believe that this was some sort of miracle without end.
Since the crash, the financial sector has been bailed out by governments, reforms have been virtually non-existent, and now the ordinary people are being called upon to pay for the bubble that burst. While the super-rich escape any kind of accountability, workers and the unemployed are being called upon to embrace a new age of austerity, in which the blame is pinned on profligate government spending, and not on the economic costs of the crisis, the bailout and its aftermath, and the other great scandal of modern life in the West — vast, systematic tax evasion by corporations and the wealthiest individuals.
The response to this should have been serious discussions about the failures of politicians and of the banking sector to run the world, a drastic rethink about how we do business, and a new model of politics and finance that, in the West, ought to have involved, for example, working out how to rein in financial pirates, and how to protect the people in our own countries, many of whom have been marginalized or made redundant by outsourcing to China, India and elsewhere over the last 20 to 30 years.
However, instead of these conversations, involving questions about why our economy is sustained by a housing market that is now unaffordable for first-time buyers, and questions about the need to produce our own food once more, and to engage in our own manufacturing, we got, instead, the return of the Conservative Party.
Despite failing to secure a majority of the votes cast in the general election, the Tories, led by the horribly arrogant but totally inexperienced Etonian double-act of David Cameron and George Osborne, formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and embarked on an austerity programme designed primarily to give fat men in suits an opportunity to continue milking the economy by privatizing everything that Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown hadn’t managed to privatize, while claiming that an unprecedented programme of cuts to the British state was imperative, and blaming the people of Britain and the previous government for the need to do so.
This was both a huge and dangerous lie (as we can almost certainly guarantee that the economy will grind to a halt if we cut too savagely), and a shamelessly exploited opportunity to shut down and/or sell off the British state for nakedly ideological reasons, but far too few people have so far noticed. Although there have been major protests against the privatization of university education and the planned sell-off of forests, rather less attention has been paid to the planned privatization of the NHS, and the government’s ruthless assault on the unemployed and on the welfare state has largely gone unchallenged.
However, while the government is largely getting away with savaging the British state for the benefit of almost nobody except its cronies, ministers — and especially George Osborne, the charmless Chancellor — have failed to realize that one of the responsibilities of government is to look after the people, whether or not they are genuinely regarded as peasants and serfs. To my mind, this is the most relentlessly negative government that I have ever had to endure, and the knock-on effect is apparent in the fear that stalks the land when it comes to the economy — a reluctance to spend, a lack of trust in the future, and, I believe, a belief not that “things can only get better,” as Tony Blair so cynically announced as he ushered in an age of bling in 1997, but that things can only get worse.
With the assault on the marginalized in society, through the government’s decision to lay waste to the welfare state, to create a situation in which the budgets for countless frontline services to the unemployed, the low-paid and the disadvantaged have been cut, to portray everyone unfortunate enough to be unemployed during a recession as a workshy scrounger, and to continue the previous government’s assault on the mentally and physically disabled, it was no surprise that the streets of Britain erupted in violence three weeks ago.
I don’t overlook the trigger — the death of a resident of Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate in circumstances that the police dealt with as badly as possible, lying about Mark Duggan’s non-existent engagement with the police, and refusing to talk to his family — and I note, as every other commentator should have done (but mostly didn’t), that this kind of violence and disdain for the people has been a trigger for riots for many decades in the UK, including Broadwater Farm in 1985.
This is a sad indictment of society as a whole, and of the government and the police, who have failed to maintain the reforming zeal that followed the riots 30 years ago in Toxteth and Brixton, but what particularly shocked and appalled me about the riots three weeks ago was the hysterical response to the events from across the political spectrum.
Personally, what I found particularly sad about most of the rioting was the focus on looting of those involved — and, specifically, on stealing trainers and electrical goods — as it partly showed the extent to which material possessions are a gauge of status or identity (from the richest to the poorest in society), and also showed a lack of political vision, confirming my long-standing fear that, without political engagement, society becomes essentially cannibalistic, consuming itself.
However, although I expected the usual chest-beating from commentators and politicians, and calls for a tough response to those responsible, I didn’t expect the Prime Minister to call for the right to shut down social networks in a time of emergency, and I particularly didn’t expect all manner of commentators to enthusiastically endorse the proposal to strip rioters of financial support, if they were unemployed, and to take away their council tenancies, if they lived in social housing, and for over 220,000 members of the public to sign an e-petition calling for any person “convicted of criminal acts during the current London riots” to “have all financial benefits removed.”
Common sense should have indicated that the former proposal — shutting down social networks — was draconian overreach of a kind that would have suited Internet-fearing authoritarians around the world, and also that it was mistaken (as the Guardian demonstrated), and that the latter — removing benefits from rioters, and kicking them out of tier homes — was not only disgracefully savage (as permanent homelessness is the only way in which society wouldn’t end up paying for them), but also a disgracefully harsh response to a problem that has existed since social housing was first introduced, and yet, until now, only the most right-wing commentators would genuinely have suggested that any convicted criminal — perhaps including armed robbers and murderers — should be denied benefits and access to housing after serving their sentence.
My other disappointment has been with the courts, which have handed down draconian sentences to people who, for example, did nothing except set up a Facebook page encouraging rioting that never even took place. This, however, was less surprising to me, as judges have been unforgiving about perceived public order offences throughout the recent past — as was demonstrated in the cases of the young Asian men imprisoned for throwing shoes at a Gaza protest in January 2009, despite being provoked and attacked by the police, and also because of the harsh sentences handed down recently to those involved in the student protests against the government’s plans to triple tuition fees for university students.
In conclusion, while I mourn this latest demonstration of the lack of empathy in my country — an absence that, across the political spectrum, unites people of engrossed self-interest with their barely suppressed violent thoughts towards others — I’d also like to cross-post one of the most perceptive analyses of the riots that I read, by the playwright and journalist Akkas al-Ali, which was published on The Platform on August 22.
There are memories in London that won’t go away. They span thirty years and each has a name: Cherry Groce, a Black woman whose shooting by police officers sparked the Brixton riots of 1985; Cynthia Jarrett, another Black woman whose death during a police raid on her home a few days later caused the Broadwater Farm riots; Joy Gardner, yet another Black woman who was killed by police officers in 1993; Wayne Douglas, a Black man whose murder by police officers resulted in the Brixton riots of 1995; and Roger Sylvester, a mentally ill Black man who died in police custody in 1999. Now we have another name for these memories: Mark Duggan, shot to death by police a fortnight ago in Tottenham. Just two days after his murder, the streets of north London erupted once again and spread like wildfire across the city, an anger whose tremors were picked up, remoulded and let loose as far away as the north of England.
And pretty quickly the most frightening aspects of ‘broken Britain’ were laid bare. It turned out that the IPCC lied to the public about the circumstances surrounding Duggan’s death. Our out-of-touch leaders continued to holiday even as towns and cities burned. And when they returned, calls were already being made to bring in the army or at least to equip the police with ‘better weapons’ such as tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Some took the opportunity to give racist tropes an air of respectability, whilst others took to the streets looking to beat up Black people or called on their followers to burn down mosques. A Facebook page supporting the Met against the rioters, set up by a man who revels in racist jokes, gained a million followers overnight. There were even demands for rioters to lose their benefits and their homes as well as a review of human rights legislation. But for the odd voice, it seemed that a consensus had been reached, that everyone had turned into the model citizen standing shoulder-to-shoulder against a vast section of society that had failed to ‘act white’ and turned into mindless thugs, the embodiment of ‘criminality pure and simple’.
If these voices are to be believed, then this ‘wolfpack of feral inner-city waifs and strays’ simply awoke one morning and decided to destroy their neighbourhoods. They were greedy teenagers looking for freebies, we were told. Melanie Phillips asked whether the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ (liberalism being a synonym for multiculturalism, itself a synonym for immigration) were to blame. Paul Routledge pointed his finger at rap music. What they were really asking was: ‘Is it because they’re Black?’
When you are this determined to ignore a much broader landscape of cause and effect, you will inevitably lead yourself into such myopic narratives. Looking to race, to social media, to bad parenting, to poor education, to music, to consumerism and so forth is too easy: it begins by ignoring the structural causes of the riots and ends by offering palliatives such as stricter policing, greater controls on technology and increased surveillance.
No. People do not wake up one morning hell-bent on trashing their neighbourhoods. These riots were sculpted from the spare rib of a country laid waste by years of neoliberal social and public policies. The events of the past two weeks took place in a country that has one of the highest levels of socio-economic inequality in Europe. Unlike the rest of the population, the poorest 10% are the only group to see a decrease in their average incomes over the last decade. (The richest tenth, on the other hand, saw an increase of nearly 40%.) In early 2011, the youth unemployment rate rose to 20.3% – that’s almost a million adults under 25 out of work – the highest level since records began in 1992. A tube journey from Westminster to Canning Town will take seven years off a man’s life expectancy and five off a woman’s. This is not God creating Eve from the rib of Adam, life generating life, but death generating death, structural violence on a scale unmatched in human history.
Last week, Oliver O’Brien combined a map of the London riots with another showing London-only deciles of the 2004 Index of Multiple Deprivation (published by the Department for Communities and Local Government), which is a method of identifying deprived areas across the UK. Superimposing the locations of the riots onto the IMD layer reveals that most of the trouble occurred in areas of high deprivation, leaving the more affluent parts of the city alone. Last December, The Guardian’s Datablog created a map of all the spending cuts made to local councils in the UK. The cities that were most affected by the riots – London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool – also experienced the severest reductions in local authority budgets. This is not mere coincidence. It is cause and effect.
As if these facts were not enough, the Centre for Economic Policy Research recently published a discussion paper looking at the relationship between budget cuts and civil unrest across Europe since the end of World War I. It concludes thus: ‘Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented.’ This important study disproves the government’s claim that there are no links between the cuts and the riots.
Mayhem and violence ruled our streets last week. But a greater violence has ruled our lives since the days of Margaret Thatcher (the rioters were, after all, her grandchildren). This violence is the fragmentation of people’s lives, their ‘communities’ and families. It is the poverty in which they live and from which they can find no escape. It is the wealth they see but cannot acquire. (Hackney, for example, is an Olympic borough but has this improved the lives of its residents?) This greater violence is a ‘big society’ that alienates, disenfranchises and criminalises whole sections of our society. Can we really be so surprised when the poor take to the streets?
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Aaron Ben Acer Quinn wrote:
fully agree Andy, the calling for benefits to be cut, tenancies revoked etc was a total knee jerk reaction… But hey, have Guanatanamo open, financial terrorism and illegal wars on the go etc and the masses all stay silent, grrrrrrr
Mark Stephens wrote:
Thanks for the article Andy. Too few voices out there questioning those riots. The scariest things for me was how the British public closed ranks with the politicians and many were asking to send the BOYS (Army) in….and MORE surveillance! When the police state comes it will be welcomed with open arms. The system really has got to the point where it protects itself – from within – by the very people who it is designed to keep down.
Theprisma Newspaper wrote:
Very interesting article. We very much agree with your approach.
Seani Fool wrote:
I think most UK people agree with you Andy – but media spin makes it appear otherwise….
Thanks, Aaron, Mark, Seani and the good folks at the Prisma. I’m very glad indeed that this is ringing the right bells!
William James Bickerton wrote:
Brilliant tirade against rampant status capitalism Andy cheers. It is refreshing to read you air these sentiments ..
Thanks, William. And it is refreshing to have the substance and context of my “tirade against rampant status capitalism” recognized. Much appreciated.
Yes I agree with this article; however I would add that amidst all this proposed austerity we have seen the clear falling standards of authorities. In the old days of PC George Dixon, all authorities where perceived as beyond reproach. Now we have stories of dodgy deals, expenses fiddles, people being shot, followed by ambiguous stories of why they were shot, tales of torture, imprisonment without trial and so on. The answers certainly are not draconian sentences, or cranking up the heavy weapons. Whilst the patterns of misbehavior were very fractious and too a great extent looting; they all gained dynamism from the failings of authorities. Yes there has always been a certain amount of racism, but now it’s being nurtured along by big business and those with surreptitious agendas. I would respectfully add that most ordinary people do not understand the way the world works, the politics and economics and so forth; so the riots were their way of making their mark. In my humble opinion we need more social cohesion and a fair policy that looks after all. We need more affordable housing and less crime; not just less crime from the common people, but from those in high places. We should not think of this article to be a separate issue from the rest of the intellectual content of this web site; but as part of the same narrative.
Thanks, Peace Activist, for your considered thoughts. I particularly like you comments at the end: “We should not think of this article to be a separate issue from the rest of the intellectual content of this web site; but as part of the same narrative.” Excellent! That’s the plan!
Zeke Smith wrote:
amazing article. i like the big picture aspects you present, like in paragraph three.
Jacob Freeze wrote:
“Out on the street with you, grandma! Your grandson is a yob!”
I got banned from commenting on the Guardian’s website for inflammatory (I hope!) comments about this story.
Richard Osbourne wrote:
Andy, what an excellent, thoughtful and powerful article. I’ll be sharing this far and wide. We’re in a very serious mess, no doubt, and I think at least some of us can see a huge wall coming up very fast (ie. within months). Something new must emerge – the will of the few cannot outweigh the will of the many any more. But the will of the many must become clear and focused. That’s the tricky bit. Hopefully your work can help this along.
Louise Gordon wrote:
Very eloquent article!
Abdullah Salem wrote:
brillint except i’d have used cuss words coz i iz margaret thatchers grndchild n from hackney and a little black innit blad
Louise Gordon wrote:
Rowan Atkinson’s comedy is realized:
Beverly Hendricks wrote:
Hi Andy, Thanks for your articulate and eloquent words and also for passing on those of al Ali. Your acknowledgment of the profound disappointment you felt at the looting, etc.. during the riots, was appreciated, but also your clarity as to the obvious causes by decades of increasing deprivation in the effected communities. The government response to the demonstrations and violence, it seems, can only create more damage and pain.
Ciudadano Kane Kane wrote:
I found your article very enlightning…it was difficult for us to understand it…everybody thought it was like here or in Greece,people protesting against austerity measures, but nobody understood such violence and such divided reactions…
Thank you, Zeke, Jacob, Richard, Lousie, Abdullah, Beverly and Ciudadano. I was out for about four hours — the BBC invited me to attend The Reith Lectures with Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller! — and I’m delighted to return and find that this has moved you, and that it’s being shared widely.
And Richard, increasingly it’s “the tricky bit,” as you say, of uniting those of us who see what’s happening that interests me — how to create the new political movement we so desperately need.
Jacob Freeze wrote:
FOUR YEARS IN JAIL FOR POSTING ON FACEBOOK!
“Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, of Latchford, Warrington, used his Facebook account in the early hours of 9 August to design a web page entitled The Warrington Riots.”
“When he woke up the following morning with a hangover, he removed the page and apologised, saying it had been a joke. His message was distributed to 400 Facebook contacts, but no rioting broke out as a result.”
Thanks, Jacob. I linked to that in the article, and I found out about it while I was still on holiday in Greece. It made me not want to come back. I dislike judges “making an example” of individuals, as it actually makes a mockery of justice as far as I can see, and no one should be allowed to pick out particular people — and ruin their lives — just to make a point, especially when they didn’t do anything apart from get drunk and be a little thoughtless.
Malcolm Bush wrote:
I think they got George W to organize these sentences. We must have law and order, but not the madness we are seeing now.
Yes indeed, Malcolm. Or perhaps Dick Cheney, walking free and publicizing his book, as though formalizing the use of torture, and using it to obtain a lie used to justify the invasion of Iraq was not criminal behavior. Dick = no time in jail, George W. = no time on jail, thieving bankers = no time in jail, Facebook drunkard = 4 years. Where’s the level playing field?
Jacob Freeze wrote:
I probably should have acknowledged that I only discovered the story about the Facebook “rioters” from your link, Andy, and it was a very good catch!
Excellent. I’m glad the time I spent feverishly looking up links before posting the article was useful!
Malcolm Bush wrote:
Dear Andy Worthington, did you read the Guardian today; there was a story about Rendition Flights. Two companies taking a case to court over payments for conducting Renditions, an argument over payment has uncovered secrecy. Did you see who the companies were, one has an horrific history going back many years.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
I’m digging and sharing this now, Andy. As soon as I can I shall let the University Library and/or the city library order The Guantanamo Files.
Thanks, Malcolm. I did see that, and hope to find the time to analyze it soon. For some time I’ve been meaning to write an update on the rendition and secret prison story, and this and Cheney’s book are the perfect opportunity if I can find the time, but I must admit that the WikiLeaks/Guantanamo work is very time-consuming!
And thanks also, George. I hope all is well with you.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
Thanks Andy. So far so good. This article is wonderful. You suppressed all but the essential politics, to get at how you felt about the overt materialism and the desire for overkill punishment by the authorities and, sadly, by too many ordinary people.
Malcolm Bush wrote:
Having looked around Facebook and read a few bits of news and so on, I think the Tory’s have gone mad. There having a crack down on everyone and everything; except their own of course.
Thanks again, George and Malcolm. Always delighted when you’re impressed, George, as I know you’re also looking for the essence of what’s going wrong, who we are, and who we’ve become.
And Malcolm, I agree. I only hope that the endless disdain for all but the top ten percent will backfire on them, and that people will see through their mean and narrow agenda.
this is good – thanks Andy
Hey, you’re welcome, Joe. Thanks. I thought it needed to be said, and it tied in with so many of the other things I’ve been writing about, talking about and thinking about — particularly in the last 16 months since the Tories got in.
Jules Gray wrote:
Thanks Andy, good article, sad subject matter. Scary how people can be so unthinking in their knee jerk solutions to a deep rooted problem, this wont go away just by “shooing” the “underclass” back out the door and bolting it, they need to look at, as you stated, why material goods have come to be the measure of people and that in my opinion is purely down to the media.
Thanks, Jules. Certainly the media’s partly to blame, if they’re considered part of the advertising and marketing world — as they can be to a large extent. I only say that because I was recently watching an excellent BIll Hicks documentary on the BBC in which, during a UK tour (we liked him here!) he asked the audience if anyone was in advertising or marketing, and then told them to kill themselves. While parts of the media still contain aspects of independent news reporting, I guess if Bill Hicks magically reappeared he’d be asking most of the media to join advertisers and those in marketing in killing themselves. What would particularly shock him, I suspect, is the extent to which we’re all now played by those selling us whatever it is — stuff, consent, “a way of life” — much more thoroughly than when he died in 1994. Having said that, if Bill reappeared magically, there are other things that would appal him as well, such as the entire two terms of the Bush administration, the two wars, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, secret CIA prisons, torture, and the failure of a Democratic government to close Guantanamo and to hold anyone accountable. I could go on and on an on. What miserable times we’ve been living through!
Eleanor McLintock wrote:
Well said Andy, ….”have failed to realize that one of the responsibilities of government is to look after the people, whether or not they are genuinely regarded as peasants and serfs.” This is just what is happening with the Travelers they are trying to evict at Basildon. Yet another example of the council, judges not considering the fact there are young children there who have lived no where else, older people with health issues; where do they expect these people to go to? Yes they’ve been offered council houses but families will be separated and their support networks and culture fragmented. This while everyone is so righteous and prejudiced about it all. Green belt land! it was a scrap yard prior to the Travelers buying it, and the homes on it are only temporary structures, not brick and mortar. I thought it was now protocol to respect diverse cultures, minority groups? Well that is the opposite of what the Council are doing. It is no wonder, as you say, that the people of this land are starting to say ‘No More’. It looks like they are going to use physical force to remove people in the eviction so it will be interesting to see what happens.
Thank, Eleanor, for mentioning Dale Farm, and the planned eviction of the traveller families there, who were pushed into buying the land they live on and are now facing the destruction of the homes they built. It’s a continuation of the war against those who refuse to embrace a settled life — the gypsies, travellers, nomads — that has been going on for centuries, that is a disgrace in so many mainland European countries, with the treatment of the Roma, and that has never gone away in the UK.
Before I became the guardian of the Guantanamo prisoners’ stories, I wrote about the government’s assault on the new travellers in the UK, which involved horrendous legislation that affected travellers, gypsies and the public’s right, in general, to gather freely (the Public Order Act of 1986 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1994) which many people don’t know about, or don’t remember, and the dreadful Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, when Thatcher “decommissioned” the new traveller movement with savagery.
The antipathy now towards those at Dale Farm is nothing new, but it remains sickening. I saw a man interviewed on the BBC, who, I swear, would have burnt Dale Farm down if he thought he could have got away with it.
The situation at Dale Farm, from an article last summer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/jul/27/dale-farm-essex-travellers-eviction
And today: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/02/dale-farm-early-ache-tightening-vice
Eleanor McLintock wrote:
Cheers Andy, I’ve fired an email off to firstname.lastname@example.org Would be good if they were inundated by emails from people complaining about their actions.
Good point, Eleanor. Thanks.
Christine Casner wrote:
I just saw this, Andy — Shared!!
Thanks, Chris. Good to hear from you. And did I thank you for the card you sent me? I think not. Great quote from Einstein on the front: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Perhaps we need a new political movement based on that. You can’t be part of it, or contribute to thinking about how we can mend our world and survive if you were part of any of the crap that’s come before!
[…] Barclays — a slipped wrist — and the punishment for those involved, however peripherally, in last August’s “riots” in the UK, when judges decided to “make an example” of the mostly unfortunate young people who […]
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: