Tag: riots

Anarchy in the UK? The reasons behind the breakdown of social order.

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…

Shop Fire

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:

  1. Welfare dependence
  2. Social exclusion
  3. Lack of fathers
  4. Spending cuts
  5. Weak policing
  6. Racism
  7. Gangsta rap and culture
  8. Consumerism
  9. Opportunism
  10. 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

We need to open our eyes to systemic injustice.

Injustice

As a nation England is pretty good at raising money for things it deems worthwhile. So donating time and money in aid of people affected by the tsunami that hit islands in the Pacific ocean in 2004 or the earthquake and tidal wave that hit Japan earlier this year are OK. After all, goes the reasoning, that wasn’t their fault.

What we’re not so good at is rallying round when people are in need because of human agency. So fighting in Darfur or the Congo? Best avoid donating towards that. It could end up prolonging the conflict, couldn’t it? We struggle to separate the results of tragedies from their causes.

Last week’s riots in English cities were a wake-up call to middle England. There are people in this country who need our help. And not just on the level of donating a couple of pounds to homeless people, but on a systemic level. Don’t see it? Open your eyes:

I said elsewhere that I’d often wondered what happened to the 13 to 20% of kids who walk away from school with no qualifications and very limited numeracy and literacy skills. many of you assumed those are precisly the kids I used to teach, but I taught the ones who scraped through with low grades and went on to vocational courses, or who were resitting their GCSEs in the hope of doing better. Each year’s 13 to 20% largely end up on benefits or in jail or in the grey area between the two, claiming what benefits they can and supplementing that income with criminal activity. This is not a recent development; those kids at the bottom have always been there. I know the stats for the last thirteen years only because I’ve been a teacher for the last thirteen years. These kids often have virtually no social skills. By that I mean they literally cannot sit in a room and hold a conversation with someone other than those in their peer group. That doesn’t matter. They don’t have the skills to fill in a job application form, they have nothing to put on it if they did, so no one is going to sit them in a room and give them an interview, unless that someone is in a blue uniform, and they are recording the interview.

Pretty much every time I’ve been served a coffee or a sandwich or walked past someone cleaning the streets and noted they were a recent immigrant, I’ve wondered about the 13 to 20% leaving school each year and going straight onto the dole. The last government, with its bold claims of ‘an end to boom or bust’ boasted of our growing economy needing all these extra workers from abroad. Many were coming in to fill gaps in the UK labour market. We kick up to twenty percent of our kids out of school illiterate, innumerate and socially dysfunctional, then we import people to the lowgrade jobs those kids cannot do, so the immigrants can pay taxes to pay the benefits that just about keep that underclass quiet. The last government merely consolidated the neglect of the previous ones. All governments of all hues since the seventies have failed to address this problem; the only difference between them is the narrative they have fed their respective voters about it.

Rosamicula | most of the kids are alright

Unemployed people are being sent to work without pay in multinational corporations, including Tesco, Asda, Primark and Hilton Hotels, by Jobcentres and companies administering the government’s welfare reforms. Some are working for up to six months while receiving unemployment benefit of £67.50 a week or less.

The government says that unpaid work placements, which are also given in small businesses, voluntary organisations and public sector bodies, help people gain vital experience and prepare them for the workplace, but campaigners say they provide companies with free labour, undercut existing jobs and that people are “bullied” into them.

A spokesperson for the Boycott Workfare campaign said: “These placements are not designed to help people into full-time paid work but they serve to increase organisations’ profits. They provide a constant stream of free labour and suppress wages by replacing paid workers with unpaid workers. People are coerced, bullied and sanctioned into taking the placements. Placements in the public sector and charities are no better and are making volunteering compulsory. This is taking away the right of a person to sell their own labour and their free will to choose who they volunteer their time for.”

Corporate Watch | Unemployed people ‘bullied’ into unpaid work at Tesco, Primark and other multinationals

It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but it’s not too late to talk about, campaign for, and act on reasonable, sustainable approaches to the disaffection and marginalisation of our young people.

Let’s open our eyes so that we can see.

The answer isn’t to respond in a reactionary way and threaten to evict the families of those involved in the rioting. That cannot help but make people more desperate and the overall situation worse. What’s needed is restorative justice to put right the wrongs that have happened recently and then to re-establish the social contract that successive governments have managed to rip to shreds.

Image CC BY-SA Dustin and Jenae

Has England lost its rhythm?

"Still silence"

Amid all of the dogmatic and cocksure explanations following last week’s rioting in English cities was an excellent BBC News magazine article giving an overview of 10 explanations for the protests, violence and looting.* They are presented in the article as ‘competing arguments’ but, as ever with these things, it seems clear that each was a causal element in an bigger problem. Simplistic explanations may be alluring but, historically speaking, are seldom accurate.

What strikes me is that people are quick to blame some kind of decline in morality, discipline or community spirit when what they really mean is that (post)modern life lacks a rhythm. Let me explain. Without getting into whether the following things are objectively right or wrong we have had a complete breakdown of what many have seen as ‘traditional’ ways of life: nuclear families with 2.4 children, church attendance, strict discipline in schools, etc.** What these things did (again, for better or worse) was to provide a rhythm to the everyday life of people in the country. They often came at the price of quashing individuality and diversity but they did provide structure. What we need new non-repressive and inclusive societal rhythms instead of harking back to old ones.

You don’t have to be right-wing, reactionary and authoritarian to want society to have a rhythm. And you don’t have to be a hand-wringing wet liberal to want more toleration and social justice in society. Governments cannot impose morality on a population, nor can the police arrest their way to solving an an endemic problem. What the authorities can (and should) do is legislate in ways that encourage justice and cohesion in society: the answer to a crisis is not to try and turn back time but to look forward together.

Unsurprisingly, not all of the ways in which English society has lost its rhythm are to do with a decline in the moral fibre of young people. Take, as a seemingly-trivial (but actually quite important) example, the changing ways in which we watch television. Some young people watch barely any TV, whilst the rest of the population is able to view not only a multitude of channels and programmes but at a time which suits them. Conversations starting with “did you see X on the TV last night?” are increasingly rare and the chances of people from different generations having the same stimuli these days are few and far-between. What we need, therefore, are social objects, things to talk about that are provided by people other than advertisers. Discussing an advert does not count as positive citizenship.

Rhythm comes through consensus but also through respecting diversity of opinion. It doesn’t come through top-down imposition of ‘values’ or by marginalising and excluding people from society. We need to move away from a blame culture and combative politics towards more consensus-led policies. We need to find new ways of talking about important things. We need, above all, to find new ways of including people in a sustainable debate about identity and nationhood.

Image CC BY GollyGforce-crunch time at work…

* I’ve saved the article as a PDF at archive.org in case it goes missing at the BBC website.

** To a great extent this rose-tinted view of a ‘golden age’ is a myth as any social historian will tell you. Government propaganda and censorship during the Second World War, for example, prevented reports of opportunistic burglaries due to people keeping their doors unlocked. That’s not the story my grandmother will tell you though…

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