I wrote this for another website with a mainly US-centric audience. They felt (quite rightly) that the following was a bit too ‘political’ to go on their site. Although there’s much in it I’ve said before about the riots and social justice, I didn’t want to let it go to waste…
For four nights between the 6th and the 10th of August this year riots broke out across England. Now that the dust has settled on the violence and looting which spread from London to other major English cities many have been asking the question why did rioting break out?
BBC News magazine ran an useful article on the various explanations that were given for the rioting. The ten they listed were:
- Welfare dependence
- Social exclusion
- Lack of fathers
- Spending cuts
- Weak policing
- Gangsta rap and culture
- Technology and social networking
The trouble with these explanations is that they place most of the burden of responsibility and blame upon the rioters rather than understanding people as being (at least partly) the product of their environment.
As a Philosophy graduate, a former History teacher and a researcher into Digital and New Literacies the riots interested me greatly. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind this article in the Economist, for example, that we should “avoid moral panic and a rush to historically-illiterate judgement” as concern about the ‘youth of today’ is far from a (post)modern phenomenon.
But there is something wrong with England. As a friend confided, “people who are happy tend not to riot”. He has a point and I’d like to explain why, from where I stand, the riots broke out. The ten explanations highlighted by the BBC are, of course, all factors but I believe there to be one, underlying, cause: systemic injustice. Let me explain.
England is part of the United Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy making the entire population subjects of the Royal Family. Executive power is exercised by the government on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen with politicians elected through the First Past the Post system. This means, historically-speaking, that governments are more likely to gain a clear majority but also means that they (for a variety of reasons) are more likely to be formed from centre or centre-right parties.
This background is important when it comes to understanding the systemic injustice engrained in the political system. As subjects of the Royal Family we have no US-style fourth amendment rights, although we do have recourse through the Human Rights Act to the European Court of Human Rights (apart from Protocol 12 on discrimination). Interestingly (and worryingly) Prime Minister David Cameron has blamed such human rights for the riots, claiming that they “fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.”
The problem with England is not too much democracy or Human Rights, it’s not enough. The implicit social contract between the government and its people has been broken: young people can be imprisoned for up to four years for starting a Facebook group, whilst bankers in state-owned, bailed-out banks who precipitated the financial mess we find ourselves in still receive bonuses.
To blame rioting on social networking, then, is to completely miss the point. In a country where we now have over 20% youth unemployment (some of whom are subsequently forced to work for large multinationals for no pay), increasingly high-stakes testing in schools, and a new (expensive) university fee regime, young people are, perhaps, wondering what stake they have in this elitist society?
So, do I condemn the rioters? I condemn their actions, certainly, but I would ask just how an increasingly marginalised populace, young people who have seen the failure of peaceful, intelligently-run protests against the rise in university fees, can and should respond. The government wouldn’t take notice of them before. They’re certainly taking notice now.
What we have to guard against, after the opportunism of some rioters, is the opportunism of a right-wing government intent on pushing through reforms likely to increase structural inequality of our country. Evicting marginalised people from their council houses who were embroiled in the rioting, for example, may exact retribution but it is not in the long-term interests of the individuals themselves (or of communities and taxpayers, for that matter).
This is not a broken country, but it is sick. The way towards a cure it is not through reactionary, top-down measures that increase structural inequality and prevent social cohesion. The cure is through investing in people, by reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest in society, and in encouraging grassroots, horizontal ownership of communities. Only by doing this will we prevent another outbreak of what we saw earlier this month.
Image CC BY-SA AndyArmstrong