The riots, David Cameron told Parliament this week, revealed a ‘deep moral failure’ in British society. It’s an argument echoed by many others, from Melanie Phillips to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The language of morality, and of moral failure, comes easily to the lips of rightwing politicians and pundits, being all too often a means of individualizing social issues, of pinning the blame on some of the weakest in society for the problems caused by public policy, social inequality and economic failure.
The fact that the right has appropriated the language of morality has led many on the left to ignore moral arguments, indeed often to see such arguments as reactionary. That is a fatal mistake. Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons. There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too. Moral arguments lie at the heart of our understanding of social solidarity, and of the distinction between notions of social solidarity and pious rightwing claims of ‘we’re all in it together’. And that is why it also has to be at the heart of our understanding of the riots.
My starting point in thinking about the riots is that, as I put it in my previous post,
The polarisation between the claim that ‘the riots are a response to unemployment and wasted lives’ and the insistence ‘the violence constitutes mere criminality’ makes little sense. There is clearly more to the riots than simple random hooliganism. But that does not mean that the riots, as many have claimed, are protests against disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives. In fact, it’s precisely because of disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives that these are not ‘protests’ in any way, but a mixture of incoherent rage, gang thuggery and teenage mayhem. Disengaged not just from the political process (largely because politicians, especially those on the left, have disengaged from them), but also from a sense of the community or the collective, there is a generation (in fact more than a generation) with no focus for their anger and resentment and no reason to fear or feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. That is very different from suggesting that the riots were caused by, a response to, a protest against, unemployment, austerity or the cuts.
There is little doubt that that poverty and joblessness scar large areas of Britain and that the vicious public spending cuts will vastly exacerbate the problem. Tottenham, for instance, is among London’s poorest boroughs, with 54 applicants chasing every registered job vacancy. Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time for a century. A map of the London riots matches almost exactly the map of the most deprived areas in London.
And yet, it is difficult to view the rioters simply as members of an ‘underclass’. ‘Many of the people involved’, the criminologist professor John Pitts suggested, ‘are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future’. In fact the rioters appear to be far more socially diverse. Among the first looters who appeared in the courts this week were a graphic designer, a youth social worker, an estate agent, a teaching assistant, a forklift operator, a lifeguard, a chef, a postman, a hairdresser and students. How representative these are of the rioters as a whole remains to be seen. The picture emerging, however, is one of riots in which it was not just the jobless and the poverty stricken who were causing the mayhem.
There was, moreover, little political sentiment behind the violence. A riot, of course, is not a political movement. It is a spontaneous outburst of violence and anger. No one expects rioters to articulate political demands or to carry a manifesto. What one does expect is that there is more to the violence than simply a desire to take to the streets, to loot, to set buildings on fire, to cause mayhem. And it is that ‘more’ that was what was missing from the English riots. We can see this if we compare this year’s riots to the inner city disturbances of the 1970s and 1980s. Then, the rioters were driven by a burning sense of social injustice and a desire for social change and, while they were part of no organized political movement, they nevertheless had a sense that they were taking collective action against an oppressive system. There was none of this in this year’s riots. True, there was a deep sense of hostility, particularly towards the police. But this was not, in any sense, a politicised hostility.
There was certainly looting in the riots of the 1970s and 1980s, as there is in every riot. But such looting was incidental to the confrontation with the police and the authorities. This time, smashing up stuff, and stealing it, was what defined the riots. In the 1980s, people living in Brixton, Tottenham, Handsworth and Toxteth, in the very places wrecked by the disorders, supported the rioters. They recognized that the violence and the destruction were not ends in themselves but part of a challenge to a racist society. Today, the fiercest opposition to the rioters came from those who lived in the areas that got trashed.
This year’s English riots were different, too, from those that, say, swept France in 2005, when banlieus from Paris to Marseilles were set alight. Those riots were more akin to the English inner city riots of three decades ago. The French youth, as much as the black youth in Brixton and Bristol and Toxteth, were driven by a sense of social injustice, by the experience of unremitting unemployment and of unforgiving police brutality, by a sense, inchoate and unreflective though it may have been, that they were taking collective action against an oppressive system. It was this sense of collective action that was absent in this year’s riots. These were riots driven by thousands of individuals, each seemingly taking part for his or her own private reasons, not by a collective or even a mob.
The have been a myriad explanations of the riots, from both right and left. What they all have in common is the attempt to fit the violence into a traditional pattern, the attempt to see these riots as if they were in the same mould as previous riots with which we are familiar. To understand what made the riots distinctive, why they don’t fit into these traditional patterns, why these were riots robbed of political sentiment, we have to understand what makes political engagement today so different. A key feature of our time is the overpowering sense of political disenchantment, a sense of the failure of politics and of the political process, and indeed of democracy and of the democratic process. As the broad ideological divides that characterized politics over the past two hundred years have been all but erased over the past two decades, so the political sphere has narrowed and politics has became less about competing visions of the kinds of society people than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system.
One way in which people have felt this change is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt. The collapse of the left, the erosion of working class institutions from trade unions to social democratic parties, the abandonment by social democratic parties of their working class constituencies – all have helped entrench that sense of disengagement. It finds expression in a variety of ways, from the rise of rightwing, populist movements, on the one hand, to the spread of the ‘Occupy’ movements, on the other.
The riots, too, grew out of this sense of disengagement. These were not political riots but a lack-of-politics riots. Disengagement from the political process has created anger and resentment with little focus. Detachment from a wider community has eroded the sense of responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. Or, to put it another way, what the riots revealed was a second kind of poverty that also now stalks Britain; that as well as economic poverty there exists moral poverty, too. Television pictures of a group of youths pretending to help a young man injured in the riots while casually, and callously, robbing him were flashed across the world this week, pictures that seemed to express the moral deficit of the rioters. It is striking how little the rioters seemed to care for their own communities and how self-destructive their actions appeared to be. That its why, unlike three decades ago, there was little support for the rioters from their communities; the rioters did not see themselves, nor were they seen, as part of a community, in the way that the 80s rioters did and were.
The question of moral failure is, therefore, central to any discussion of the riots. The trouble with the post-riot debate is that the very politicians who have helped create the moral deficit through their social and economic policies are now looking to blame everyone but themselves for the consequences. In that sense they are as self-regarding and nihilistic as the rioters themselves.
The relentless promotion of the market ideology over the past three decades has helped fragment society, tearing apart social bonds and creating a nation of isolated individuals. In many communities the authority of institutions, from families to trade unions, that once socialized young people and inculcated moral values have been broken. At the same time, the introduction of the market ethos into every area of life from education to health to the arts has helped institute an instrumental ethic in which all that has come to matter is value for money and in which wider social needs and moral issues have been ignored.
Having broken communities and eroded social bonds through the unremitting promotion of the market, politicians responded both by, ironically, expanding the scope of the state and by blaming the poor. Where once families and collective institutions helped define right and wrong, increasingly the state has stepped in to impose such social norms, through everything from citizenship classes for children to parenting courses for adults. As a result, morality has come to be seen not as difficult choices that one has to wrestle with, or as norms that one works through within a collective setting, but as a set of predetermined rules provided as a state hand-out. Morality has ceased to be ours.
At the same time, politicians have increasingly taken to blaming the poor themselves, rather than their social and economic policies, for the breakdown of family life, a lack of social values, a selfish disregard for the needs of others, and a rampant consumerism. The same values that many tolerate among bankers are condemned in the poor and the unemployed. And with condemnation has come repression, from increased CCTV surveillance to punitive workfare rules.
Because the right has appropriated the arguments about moral failure, many on the left have rejected moral arguments altogether. The left talks much about the social and economic impact of neo-liberal policies. But little about its moral impact. Such willful blindness is dangerous. The questions about economic and social poverty, about unemployment and the cuts, are closely related to the questions about moral poverty, about the breakdown of social solidarity and the rise of a nihilistic culture. There can be no challenge to mass unemployment and the imposition of austerity without the restoration of bonds of social solidarity. We cannot, in other words, cannot confront economic poverty if we do not also confront moral poverty. We need to remake our own language of morality, reforge our own moral norms.
Ironically, perhaps, the way forward has been shown by some of those who stood up to the rioters. In many communities, local people patrolled the streets, protected buildings and confronted rioters. They did so largely because the police were unable or unwilling to help. In one sense, such community action helps camouflage the government’s public expenditure cuts, making up for the services the state should be providing. But, in another sense, such action is much more than an ersatz form of Cameron’s Big Society. In taking matters into their own hands, and in accepting responsibility for their own communities, those who stood up to the rioters were taking the first steps towards restoring the moral deficit by recreating the bonds of social solidarity.