Wednesday, 10 August 2011

What do the riots mean?

Mindless yobs? Social unrest? A lack of morality? A need for more discipline? More hugging? Class war?

There has been rioting and looting in England for the past four nights. It began and has been most intense in London - sparked by the police shooting of a young black man, but has spread to other cities, notably Birmingham and Manchester.

The understandings of the unrest have been many from all directions and perspectives. Blame has been directed at the Tories for their draconian cuts, but also at Labour for somehow creating the conditions for this in the first place. People on the right blame a lack of discipline and morality in "those people" and blame the left for coddling "them." They want to see plastic bullets, water cannons, tear gas, and generally stronger law enforcement.  The left blames the right for insensitivity and destruction of the safety net that gives the poor opportunities and hope. They want to see more programmes and resources for the poor.

These differences echo George Lakoff's model of the difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives hold a world view that sees a need for government taking a "strong father" role; what's needed is greater discipline. Liberals go for a "nurturing parent" perspective where underlying motives are considered and actions are directed toward supporting and changing based on the understanding that we are all essentially good and need to be nurtured toward greater goodness.

I'd like to avoid that usual left-right dichotomy, although my thinking certainly leads to a liberal approach.  My take is this: Class Division + Materialism = Trouble

Modern Britain is a society with an enormous class divide. The disparity between rich and poor is said to be the greatest it has been since the second World War. The economic climate, the severe cuts to benefits, the increases in the cost of higher education, and the numbers of poor youth growing up in dysfunctional families leads to a sense of hopelessness and lack of ownership. In other words, they feel that they have very little to lose.

People who feel they have nothing to lose are dangerous indeed.

Now add to that picture the fact that everyone is bombarded in nearly every waking moment by the advertising message that "you are what you have." Our value as human beings and our happiness - we are told - depend on having the newest smart phone, the right trainers, the most stylish jeans, a big flat-screen TV and on and on. We begin to learn this message before we can speak. Everywhere we go and whatever we do, the adverts are there to keep that message firmly in place.

When people who have nothing to lose understand that material goods are the only thing worth striving for and have no hope that they can reach a place in life where they can obtain them legally, criminality seems certain to be the response.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one. Materialism is the very basis of our capitalist economy. Unless capitalism falls entirely and something takes its place that nurtures good values rather than materialistic ones, the materialism factor will remain unchanged.

The class divide has grown and continues to grow. The levers of power are preponderantly in the hands of the rich who find rather little motivation to seek greater equality. They can simply build higher walls, invest in more police and prisons and simply keep this untidy little problem under control.

We need change. We need to invest in programmes that will provide real hope and opportunity for those at the bottom. We have now begun to see - once again - the results of neglecting whole swaths of the population. It is time to break down the class oppression that is built-in to our culture.


  1. Well said Andy.

    I think there is an alternative to capitalism, namely the co-operative movement, but it needs to shed its socks-and-sandals image and raise its profile.

  2. Global Warming (which is aggravated by bad policy) causes more tornadoes. You still need to go in the basement.

    Civic unrest happens when the political left fails by limiting itself to proposals which do not really address the issues of the poor and the working class. It's happening here in America, too.

  3. Hear, hear,

    In case you haven't seen it, Darcus Howe has a similar perspective:

    He would make a great speaker at NU.

  4. Thanks for this viewpoint. So very true.

  5. What you said is true. Once the type of values change for people, the better life will be.

  6. i agree with you, andy. i definitely think materialism had more to do with this than most want to admit.....and of course, inequality.

  7. That's a very thought-provoking analysis. Love it. My view is that if everyone had a sense that they were cared for, important and of value to others in their community, they would feel less angry and resentful. Belonging, and feeling in control of your life are important. I think if you tell people they are no good and not worth anything, they will act like they are, because they have nothing to lose.

  8. we are writing on the same subject - materialism - but in different style. Misguided capitalism causes class gaps to widen. Felt initially in the Third World countries like the Philippines where i came from it's now being felt in the US and UK, I suppose.

  9. If you would allow me, I am posting my blog for my thoughts on materialism. Here it is Salt of Life at http;//

  10. It troubles me that I sound so conservative in saying this but, "those youngsters did this because they are un-churched". But in a way is that the point you are making?